In honor of Halloween, I’m going to talk about morbid stuff. It’s as good a time as any to bring up the topic of preparing for the end of life. You know. Mine. Yours. Everyone’s. Nobody gets off this ride alive, and I hate thinking about it as much as anyone else. Once a year, though, we can probably spend a few minutes on the topic, maybe while deciding between the sexy pizza or sexy anteater costumes. (Always go with the anteater).
The majority of people die intestate, meaning they never wrote a will. My grandmother was asked about this, and she said, “Well, I just never have needed one.” Personally, my estate can be summed up fairly well by this quote from Rabelais: “I have nothing, I owe much, and the rest I leave to the poor.” Money and material goods are not the big deal here; frankly, I’m sick and tired of seeing families ruined over a fight about some stupid jewelry or “heirlooms.” What I want to talk about is last wishes. What do you want your loved ones to do when you go? Anyone who has ever lost a close family member probably knows that it is no time to be forced to make tons of decisions. My feeling is that it’s unfair to leave a bunch of question marks hanging if you have the power to settle those matters in advance. Do you want to be buried or cremated? How about a living will? Do you want to be an organ donor?
I looked up the forms for an advance health care directive, which vary by state, and dragged my husband through this discussion several years ago. He does not have a morbid bone in his body (see what I did there?) and it was very uncomfortable for him. I reminded him that if we spent about an hour talking it out, filling out the forms, and having them witnessed, we would never have to discuss it again. I pleaded for him to do it for me, because the duties would fall to me if he went first, and I needed to know I would make the right decision. I told him I needed to know whether he would fight for my wishes if ever I wound up in a persistent vegetative state; otherwise, I’d ask someone else. He agreed and we got it over with. We both have a folding orange card for our wallets with our wishes spelled out.
I took it further and planned to become a whole body donor. I had read about the Body Farm, and it piqued my interest. [To clarify: I am registered through Science Care, not the Body Farm; the Body Farm simply happened to be the starting point for my inquiries]. I’ve been reading true crime and murder mysteries almost since I could read, and I wanted to know there was a chance that my mortal remains could contribute to science, or maybe even help to solve a murder. I sent away for the forms, returned them, and got a card with an 800-number for anyone to contact in case of my sudden demise. They handle all the arrangements and expenses of retrieving… me… which could be pretty complicated if I suffer an unfortunate event in the back country somewhere. Many years ago, I decided that one of my financial goals was to die debt-free, with enough put aside to pay for my own funeral expenses. I’m still paying on my student loan, which unfortunately does not have the power to grant me immortality, but at least I know nobody else will be stuck with the bill for my cremation. Donating the only thing I truly own seems like a fair trade.
If this post hasn’t creeped you out yet, ask anyone who has accompanied me on a hike or foot race. I have this macabre tendency to pull out my “in case I die today” wallet cards and explain the process. I used to keep them in my phone case, along with my driver’s license, so I had them even on training runs. As I write this, it occurs to me that I can enter the information on the emergency screen on my phone. [tinkering] That took about five minutes; I added my husband as an emergency contact and created a “medical note” with the number to contact Science Care. I also had to change the profile photo, which showed a picture of my parrot for some reason.
As a futurist, I can share that I think a lot of this planning will be unnecessary. I believe we’ll start to see more medical breakthroughs that will lead to the ability to grow functional human replacement organs. I’m already 40, and chances are that by the time I go, my organs will be too old and used-up for anyone else to want them, though I’m offering anyway. I think it’s completely within the realm of possibility that all the information we currently have on wallet cards will soon be tracked by biometrics: fingerprints, DNA signature, or other things of which I am unaware. We could be microchipping ourselves the way we do our pets, but that, too, I think is going to see a limited window of application due to continuing innovation. There’s also a solid chance that various court cases (and medical innovations) will come up that will influence how the standard of care is defined by hospitals for coma patients. We’ll have better information about brain activity, and a lot of questions will be settled. I’m optimistic about the future.
We’re still all going to die, though.
Immortality would suck. It would suck the most to be the only person who lived a preternaturally long life. First, everyone you ever loved, or even knew, would predecease you. Then you’d cease to appreciate or understand pop culture. Then the language would change so much that you’d struggle to understand anyone. It would get harder and harder to make new friends, who would keep dying before you anyway. Unless you had an artistic or spiritual practice that utterly consumed your attention, you would get colossally bored. Medieval people put constant attention on memento mori – “remember you must die” – because it reminds us that we must live. Time is short. Time is short in this dumb old world, and there’s never enough time to do everything we wanted to do or to tell enough people we love them. We have to try to make the most of the time we have. Make those calls and fill out those forms, and then get back to the sexy anteater costume.
“Live each day like it will be your last.” This advice is a bit suspicious. As a medievalist, I’m all in favor of the occasional memento mori, and it’s Halloween season, but, well… MORBID! If I really started thinking about dying tomorrow, I would spend the rest of the day sobbing my goodbyes into the phone. It would be like drunk-dialing “I LOVE YOU, MAN! NO, I REALLY REALLY LOVE YOU!” except nobody’s later memories of that day would be at all amusing. Also, I would focus much too much on eating multiple flavors of Oreos, on top of my other favorite foods, such as sauerkraut and pickles, to the point that if I did live another day, I might wish I hadn’t. On second thought, let’s not go to Memento Mori. Tis a silly place.
What I’d really like to talk about is what would be different if we knew we were going to live forever. What would you do every day if you knew you never would die?
The first thing I’m thinking is that I would be very worried about taking care of my gums. I’m 40, and I already know my body is capable of aging. There is no reason to assume that immortality would come with eternal youth. Better start being more careful with the sunblock.
Money is a question. There are two ways of tackling the fiscal aspects of living forever. Either you assume the law of compounding will work in your favor, or you look around at the elders in your acquaintance and guess which ones feel they have adequate wherewithal for their golden years. Yikes, right? Taking care of Future Self becomes a much bigger deal when thinking in centuries rather than decades.
In some ways, we are rather like immortals. My chances of living to 40 as a woman would have been fairly low in most cultures throughout human history. My chances of living to 70 would have been considered low through most of the 20th century, even in the wealthiest, most advanced nations. Now, I have to assume I will live to be at least 85 as a matter of pure common sense. If I accidentally live to be 120, that’s an additional 35 years of inflation and savings I need to calculate. Prudent financial planning demands that I be as optimistic as possible about my potential lifespan.
Money is only one aspect of planning to live a long life. There is this whole concept of “retirement.” I am just as skeptical of this as I am of the idea that we should live each day as though it is our last. This is partly because I used to sit at the desk of a man who had retired, only to find out that he had cancer a couple months later. I’m not sure he made it six months. (He was a sweet person; may he rest in peace). It’s fairly common for people to die shortly after their retirement. I’m young yet, but in some ways I “retired” at 35, and I can tell you something: IT IS BORING. After spending the first year taking two or three naps a day, and mastering all the crops in Farmville, you just need something more. That something turns out to be this little thing they call WORK.
This is the most interesting part of the idea of living as though we will live forever. What would we do with the time? What sort of project would be stimulating and challenging enough to keep us going? Ice sculpture? (Channeling Bill Murray here). Mastering chess? Writing a series of fantasy novels? Painting an epic ceiling? Ridding the world of extreme poverty? Developing a new variety of fruit? I mean, TV would have to be significantly better than it is now for me to want to sit there and watch it for a few million years.
On an epochal time scale, we can dream of accomplishing amazing things. Imagine building something like the Great Wall of China in one lifetime. Of course, the entire point of this exercise is that we should be imagining building anything in one lifetime. Do we really know how much we can bring into the world in even as little as three years? What is the longest we have spent focused on one endeavor? The truth is that most people’s outrageous dreams are completely feasible with existing resources and technology. It’s a mystery why we don’t go after them and make them happen. We most likely don’t have endless eons to bring our wishes into existence – although so far, I’m 100% successful at immortality – and it only makes sense to make the best possible use of the time we have available.
They say the crisper is where good intentions go to die, because everyone buys fresh fruits and vegetables and leaves them there until they turn into compost. Well, I used to hide dirty dishes in my crisper. It seemed like a good plan, since it would only hold a couple of small plates and bowls. If my boyfriend was headed to my apartment, and I only had enough time to do a couple of things to get ready, that was the easiest way to preserve the illusion that I was the terrific housekeeper I am today. Now I understand that it would have been faster to just wash them. I also understand that a crisper is an “attractive nuisance” that is the worst possible design for encouraging healthy eating.
The empty fridge you see at the beginning of this post is ours. Don’t worry, we’re fine. It’s just the day before the CSA box was due. (That’s Community Supported Agriculture, as I will explain). It’s taken a few years to arrive at this point, but we’re finally in a position where we eat all the food we bring home. No more zucchini pudding or brown lettuce soup. No more limp carrots or yellow broccoli. I’m no longer afraid to take the lid off any plastic storage containers. It’s not just our desire to avoid food waste, although one of the most pressing issues of our time is throwing away a billion tons of food every year while infants starve to death. It’s my desire not to clean up moldy, blue-green stuff with spores on it, which, honestly, is a concern most of us find easier to relate to.
Back to the CSA. We have a standing order with a network of local farms. A box of fresh produce is delivered to our front door sometime between Thursday night and Friday morning. We were able to set up a profile excluding certain foods such as rosemary, which we grow in our yard. We can add extra things we want that week, like potatoes or onions, and we can increase quantities when we eat a lot of something, like apples. We cancel the order when we’re going out of town. What we pay for this organic produce, including delivery, is equal to or cheaper than conventional produce from a mainstream supermarket. That’s because the money goes straight to the farmer, not a middleman. It’s also at our door within a day of being picked, so it lasts longer. Generally, we find that the food is fresher, prettier, and of better quality. They’ve recently added a page of other locavore products, like pasta and apple sauce and yarn, and if they keep expanding the selection, I may never have to leave the house for groceries again! It sounds like a la-di-dah bit of frippery, but our neighborhood is on the sketchy side, and there are zero other services that will deliver groceries to our zip code. The CSA van is a subtly subversive force. We know our farmer by name; he knows his workers by name; drivers go places no major corporation will venture; the money stays in the community. What if everyone did this?
The trouble with this old-fashioned dream, where everyone who grows our food can make a decent living and everyone can have access to healthy food regardless of neighborhood… the trouble with this dream is that EVERYONE HATES VEGETABLES. Seriously. I think there is a significant demographic of people who would sincerely, literally rather die ten years sooner than eat the majority of vegetables. When we’re throwing away food, what are we throwing away? Soda? Cookies, pies, cake, brownies? Chips or crackers? Booze? We can’t even bring ourselves to throw away year-old Halloween candy. Sugar is precious to us; food with actual nutrients is expendable.
This picture is a lie. It looks good, though, am I right? Well, it’s a half-lie, which is still a lie, but the only dishonest part is that a minute later I took everything out and put it in my green produce bags. They sound like voodoo, but I’ve been using them for nearly 20 years and they work. See how I’ve arranged the shelves? This method of organization is the product of a research project, in which I looked at dozens of pictures of refrigerators and read several articles about fridge shelves. The middle shelf is for Power Vegetables. We plan our meals around these: chard, kale, bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, beets, etc. They’re big – too big for the crisper, anyway – and they’re the centerpiece of our meals. We want to keep them visible. The top shelf is for Things That Need to Get Eaten, a concept some of you will recognize from frugality lore. The top shelf includes lunches, leftovers, and delicate, smaller items such as tomatoes, strawberries, or fancy mushrooms. The bottom shelf usually holds a massive watermelon, and sometimes a cantaloupe or honeydew next to it. The left crisper drawer is for apples and pears, my husband’s favorite fruits, which he eats every day. The right crisper drawer has a few carrots, but usually it’s just empty. Lurking in the back of the middle shelf is a bottle of sparkling cider that has been there since last November. If you’re wondering, our freezer is full, and the door is likewise full of condiments, pickles, jam, etc.
Our fridge is upside-down. The treats that will get eaten first are on the lowest levels. (I don’t think a ripe melon has ever made it a day in our kitchen without being completely consumed). The stuff that tends to spoil, like leftovers, is on the top, closest to eye level. Our goal is to keep the fridge as close to empty as possible, making it easier to adjust our shopping list and avoid extra trips to the store, because we can see what we have. Often, we only go to a grocery store because we’re running out of dishwasher detergent. We start in the produce section, followed by trips up specific aisles. We simply skip the cookie and chip aisles, the bakery, the beer and wine, the meat, fish, and dairy, and most of the freezer section. Now that I think about it, we really only leave the produce section for oatmeal, tea, cleansers, and a few frozen things.
I didn’t grow up eating this way. In fact, many of the vegetables I cook every week, I had never even heard of until I was well into adulthood. I had no idea how to identify them, much less cook them! One week, the farm box had collard greens, kale, and chard, and I had to Google them to figure out which was which. I decided to change my habits when I got married and became an insta-mom of a 14-year-old. I figured, if illiterate peasants throughout history could figure out how to cook, then so could I, because I had literacy and Internet access. First came the decision to eat healthier, then came the decision to get the vegetables into the house, then came the recipes, and gradually, over months, came the desire to eat the vegetables. There were some misfires and some recipes that got X’ed out of the cookbook. Now, I can walk into any produce section and know how to prepare every item I see, and I don’t even need a recipe to do it. It took approximately three years of dedicated effort, and occasionally eating things even though they didn’t taste good. (The UNMITIGATED HORROR!)
What I’ve found is that the taste for various foods exists along a spectrum, with the healthiest vegetables at one end and sugar at the other. The further along one end of the spectrum you eat, the nastier the stuff at the other end tastes. Eating enough of the right vegetables over a long enough span of time has the power to simply shut off cravings for unhealthy food. My husband and I have lost 100 pounds between us, and the reason we are able to keep it off is that we’ve changed our taste preferences from Coke, cookies, and chimichangas to kale, chard, and collard greens. We alternate between cooking or cleaning the kitchen every day because our system makes it seamless and low-maintenance. We used to be fat people with a scary fridge; now we’re fit people with a fridge that looks like a farmer’s market.
Summing up, a gross fridge is a symptom of a complex network of problems. It can indicate a lack of meal planning, a lack of an effective nutritional plan, a power struggle across at least one relationship (more if you have kids or roommates), budget issues, and some time management problems. A gross fridge tells me that someone is probably skipping breakfast or lunch, someone is snacking, and there are probably fights about taking out the trash, cleaning out the fridge, washing dishes, and cleaning in general. A fridge full of fresh produce that is actually getting eaten is not an accident. More meal planning has the power to automatically, effortlessly resolve several other problems in one swoop. Not least of them is chipping away at our societal shame of wasted food.
This is one of the great questions that divides my people from ordinary folk. Believe it or not, there are people who go through life utterly unconcerned about their physical possessions. They have what they need, they can find it when they want it, and they get rid of things that have outlived their usefulness without a second glance. The general belief of such folk is that if it’s in a box, it’s not getting used; therefore, you can just… throw it away. I know, right? Crazy.
Boxes, according to this theory, are for very specific uses. They are required for shipping most things by most methods. They make it easier to carry stuff. They can be used to group like things together, making them easier to find. They are essential when moving to a new home. They can be used to store things that are used infrequently, such as holiday decorations. They occasionally add marginal resale value to collectibles or electronics. Cats like them. Other than that, why put something in a box?
What is most interesting about this is that my people always have boxes, but somehow manage not to use them for many of the purposes that an ordinary person would. My people are not ordinary; they are extraordinary. They are creative, sensitive, divergent thinkers, better suited to coming up with 1000 uses for a brick than to following a numbered list of instructions. Amalgamations of loose items intrigue and inspire them. That’s why their cars tend to be full of random stuff, and their dining tables tend to be covered by random stuff, and their countertops tend to be buried in random stuff, and their closets tend to be full to bursting with random stuff… It’s basically an allotment of art supplies.
When my people get ahold of a box, it quickly gets filled, as it’s the most expedient way to clear space to fill up with more awesome (read: more recent) things. As often as not, the box has been filled by someone else, probably during a hurried, disorganized move. This box probably has lots of friends. None of them are labeled, because what are we, fascists? In fact, my people are notorious for referring to organized people as Nazis, which is heartless and rude and also a cliché, but it does tell you something about their level of frustration with life’s many convergent, left-brain rules. One of those rules is the universal law that disorganized things in unlabeled boxes are hard to find later.
Another reason my people keep things in boxes is that the very thought of opening the box and sorting its contents fills them with waves of nameless dread. They can’t bear the tension and stress and anxiety of being faced with all those decisions. Do I need it? Do I already have another one? Am I violating a moral precept by throwing it in the landfill? (We forget that we turn our own dwellings into de facto landfills…) Is it moldy or broken or disintegrating, and can I stand the pain of knowing it’s wasted and ruined now? So much better to close the box again and put it back. As long as that box is sitting there in its familiar, unopened state, its contents revert to the Platonic ideal, extremely valuable, easily convertible to piles of hard cash, perfect and stylish and gleaming. That box holds POTENTIAL.
Boxes of misc (pronounced ‘misk’) are like the Sphinx’s last riddle. You could earn a doctorate by analyzing the contents of a box of misc and figuring out what to do with it. It never fails. When I come in to work in a client’s home, there will be a box that is 80% one type of object, which should be fairly straightforward. Ah, but it will also contain: a coin, an office supply, a piece of hardware, a button, some dry pens, and some junk mail. These have been random loose items that were tossed into the nearest open box during a cleaning spree or moving extravaganza. The presence of these miscellaneous items can turn a box of clothes, books, or kitchen supplies into THE DREADED MISC. Panic-inducing, mind-boggling, willpower-depleting MISC. It’s a form of invisible packing material that is made by Dementors in a dreary factory in Northumberland. Then I come along and wave my magic wand. Put the pennies in a jar, throw the rusty paperclips in the recycle bin, open the six-year-old junk mail and dispose of it. Hey presto! The box of misc (THE DREADED MISC) has transmogrified into common, everyday objects! Astounding.
Another type of box that confounds my people is the box of dead relatives’ personal belongings. That stuff has a half-life. It’s absolutely standard to see hair brushes with hair still in them several years after their owners pass away from this world. Opening what is most likely a box of old pots and pans or mass-market paperbacks from the 80s is like defusing a bomb. An aura of grief pours out twelve feet in every direction. I’ve never been called on to help go through grief boxes. Generally I assume at least a decade has to go by before anyone is prepared to deal with the sadness of them. It’s yet another example of how we always isolate ourselves just when we need help the most. Don’t face it alone!
Why is it in a box? Because someone else put it there. Because there’s nowhere for me to spread out the contents for sorting. Because I might be moving again soon. Because I’m actually a neat freak and it’s tidier to keep it all in my storage unit. Because I know exactly what’s in there, and I’m extremely emotionally attached to it, even though I don’t use it or look at it. Because I’m afraid it will get wrecked if I take it out to display it. Because I’m waiting for it to be worth something so I can recoup what I spent on it. Because it stacks better. Because I spend my money on things other than end tables and nightstands. Because I don’t want to set aside the time to deal with it. Because I’m afraid there might be a spider in there. Because it’s dusty and moving it will aggravate my respiratory issues. (As if the dust isn’t already doing that). Because it’s heavy and I’m physically unable to move it. (A great reason not to have it). Because the thought of getting rid of anything in the box is heartbreaking. Because I can’t think straight right now. Because I’m tired. Because I’m waiting for the motivation. Because I’m used to it. Because I don’t know how to proceed. Because I believe I can stop the passage of time by living in a static environment.
Going through boxes is a way of getting caught up to the present moment. At some point, Past Self made a little time capsule, preserving things that Future Self may find cool or interesting or useful. Present Self probably has a better idea of what Future Self is going to want; after all, Present Self may be living further down the timeline than Past Self imagined in the first place. I still have books that Past Self 2007 thought Past Self 2008 would have read by now. It’s nice to think of Past Self sending us gifts. Charitable, anyway. What is more likely is that Past Self had a warped view of how we spend our time, what we think is truly important, and how much we enjoy cleaning up Past Self’s messes and paying Past Self’s debts. We can pause to reevaluate. It’s no trickier than readjusting your seat and mirrors after someone else drives your car. Stop and look in those boxes. Exorcise your misc (THE DREADED MISC). If it’s stuff you love, take it out and display it. Otherwise, feel free to let it go and look to the future instead of the past.
I was two years old the first time my dad took me camping. I have very clear memories of that day. There was a duck pond, and I was so gobsmacked by all the geese and ducks and coots and other birds that I lost my tenuous hold on reality and… peed my pants. We wound up having to go home early because, although my dad had packed me four changes of clothes for one night, I managed to, um, forget myself in all of them. Fortunately, he didn’t give up on me; my brothers and I went on to spend many weekends in the woods with him, and my nephews and niece have continued the tradition. I’m comfortable in the wilderness in a way that many women are not. Grateful as I am for this gift, I can say that all-female expeditions are very different than mixed groups.
This year, I went on two backpacking trips. The first was in a group of three women and two men. The second was in a group of three women. I’ve also been on various trips with my husband, family, and other friends. Men have a tendency toward chivalry that often leads them to insist on doing ALL THE FUN STUFF: reading maps, pitching tents, lighting the stove, carrying all the heavy things. You probably wouldn’t guess it by looking at me, because I weigh 122 pounds, but I can merrily carry a 45-pound pack uphill for hours without a break. That’s equivalent to a 74-pound pack on a 200-pound man. (When the choice is between carrying a heavy pack or wearing the same shirt on more than one day, that choice is obvious, my friend). I don’t need a man to be my Sherpa. I spent three weeks in a tent in Iceland with my husband, and he refused to let me cook a single meal. He says it’s so I would have time to write, but secretly I think he just wanted to have all the propane-oriented fun to himself. I had to resort to a weekend with a girlfriend so I could have a chance to learn to operate the stove confidently.
The nice thing about male chivalry is that it’s quite reliable in the backwoods. Every time I have ever encountered a man on the trail while I was alone and wearing my pack, he has regarded me with obvious delight. Not because I’m such a vision of loveliness, but simply because the immense size of my pack indicates I’m there for business. Many men go to the woods alone because… they need to be alone. They love nature, they starve without it, and they recognize that feeling in others. Others go alone because they love nature, and their wives don’t. The sport being what it is, a large proportion of the men I meet are around my father’s age, so there is also that element of paternal pride in a (not so) young lady’s independence. A friend of mine reported two men asking to take her picture, because seeing her camping with just her preschooler might be enough to convince their wives to venture onto the trail with them. Outdoorsy men are welcoming of female participation in a way that isn’t necessarily true for all sports.
I grew up in a time when boys taunted girls for being stupid and incompetent on a daily basis. This was before Title IX, and I remember being deliberately hounded out of after-school intramural sports because the boys didn’t want to play with girls. (Teachers, thanks so much for doing zero about this). I lasted two sessions longer than the other two girls who wanted to play. Anyone would have agreed that girls just don’t belong when it comes to activities like using tools, getting muddy, or driving a 4WD vehicle. There are few things that get my Irish up quite so much as this. I have a hidden chamber of molten lava ready to erupt on anyone who tries to interfere with my learning a new skill. Get out of my way, I’m a Questioner on the loose and I am on a quest for KNOWLEDGE!
I can pitch my tent in the dark in minutes. I can dehydrate my own chow. I can assemble, use, and clean my water filter. I’m fully capable of balancing the load in my pack and putting it on without help. As of this weekend, I can tie a rock to a rope, toss it over a tree limb, hoist food bags, and secure the rope around a tree trunk, and everything will still be hanging there the next morning. I’m good at troubleshooting and repairing things like a dripping tent vent or a leaky water bag. I can do 15 miles a day and I can gain 4000 feet of altitude without even getting all that tired. I can cross a thigh-deep stream of glacier runoff with my pack still on. I can climb a 20-foot rope. I’ve crawled under barbed wire, waded waist-deep through mud, and jumped over three-foot open flames. What is really interesting here is that these abilities do not necessarily qualify me to hang out with my toughest girlfriends.
Alpha women tend to organize differently than alpha males. We seem to adapt better to making consensus decisions, and we’re more patient when not everyone in the adventure party is at the same level. An activity like backpacking weeds out anyone who does not have a minimum amount of intestinal fortitude. Everyone on the trip is united by a common purpose; otherwise, we could just stay home, eat brownie batter, and watch costume dramas. By the time we’ve put our boots and packs on and reached the trailhead, we’ve already passed an unwritten certification, which is the desire to get from here to there while carrying heavy stuff. Almost all of the decisions that need to be made in real time could (and should) have already been anticipated in advance. Experienced people will have encountered most issues on some earlier trip, or known someone who did. Winning is getting everyone home with morale intact. Even when it’s 11 PM, you’re looking for a campsite that turns out to have been mapped on the wrong side of a not insignificant body of water, and you’ve been stepping over bear scat all night.
One darkless night in Iceland, my husband and I were getting ready to cross a stream. We were about 10 miles in and had climbed and begun to descend a 3700-foot peak. “Give me your pack,” he said. I looked at him. “I came to Iceland to kick ass. I did not come to Iceland for you to carry my pack.” I crossed the stream under my own power, carrying my own pack, and there were no incidents. The next day, he told me, “I take back everything I ever said about your physical courage.” Okay, the reason I do what I do (marathon, backpacking expeditions, adventure races, etc.) is because I know for a fact that I am a physical coward. My first inclination, under the least amount of scariness, is to stand there screaming and flapping my hands. I have a low pain threshold. I also don’t have much in the way of natural physical stamina. What I do have is the maximum legal quantity of stubbornness, persistence, determination, and grit. I have worked a hip flexor to failure, meaning my leg would no longer move when I ordered it to, and my response was to sort of drag it a few more miles until I got to the finish line. I have tripped and hit my face on a rock, and then gotten back up and walked home a mile and a half with a bloody, swollen knee. What do you do, lie there crying until Magnum PI shows up? “Get there without anyone calling emergency responders” is Plan A through G. Every morning that I’ve gotten up knowing I had a serious athletic challenge to undergo, I have started out terrified and finished feeling ready to tackle the next level. It’s true what they say, that today’s impossible challenge is next year’s warm-up.
From what I’ve been told, women have the innate constitutional ability to handle labor pains and to risk our lives to protect our children. We’re built to handle off-the-charts physical stress. Endurance is baked into our bones. We’re statistically more likely to be physically fit than men our age. We’re generally also trained to organize provisions and carry supplies for various worst-case scenarios, such as frizzy hair or torn pantyhose. Most of us would never dream of leaving the house without a rather large bag of necessities, including snacks. There is really no reason why more women can’t venture into the wilderness if we feel so inclined. It’s just a matter of deciding to do it, learning how, and of course accessorizing.
I’m reviewing Janice Kaplan’s terrific book now, so that everyone has time to pick up a copy in time for November. The practice of sharing gratitude every day for a month is one I hope spreads much farther. It always cheers me up to see lists of things that make other people feel grateful. Either I think, “Me too!” or “Aww, good for you.” I’m grateful you’re grateful! Of course, not everyone is naturally optimistic, positive, or grateful, and this book is aimed at those who tend to be more skeptical.
Kaplan commits to spend a year writing down three things that make her feel grateful/glad/lucky every day. Along the way, she interviews various people about gratitude, and explores how it affects our health, careers, romantic lives, relationships with our kids and other family members, and more. I wasn’t aware of much of the research that is discussed, and it impressed me. I often want to stop conversations with pessimists and direct them to come back after they have read a few key studies from the field of positive psychology. “It’s SCIENCE! Science, I say!”
Burning old journals is something that comes up early in the book. I sat up in my chair as I read this scene, because I did the same thing several years ago. We had the same reasons. We both used our journals to vent negativity. It wasn’t so much that I believed in venting back then; it just seemed to happen and I didn’t have any better ideas. I felt that my life was negative. What on earth did I have to be grateful for? Oh, Past Self. You didn’t realize. In the past twenty years, so many people have passed from this earth, and instead of “venting” you could have been on the phone with each of them, enjoying their presence while they were still here. Even when there doesn’t seem to be a single other thing to appreciate, at least we can appreciate that people we love are alive and doing well. Kaplan’s gratitude practice is something I can vouch truly works, because I’ve done it, too. Looking for excuses to be grateful causes us to be more aware and mindful, and to notice more and more.
Another interesting section of The Gratitude Diaries has to do with Kaplan’s desire to lose ten pounds. She meets with a trainer who teaches her to be grateful to her body, and to be grateful while she eats. I really like this approach, which I think comes more naturally to people like myself who have overcome illness. How can I not be grateful every morning when I wake up and I’m not in pain? Every now and then I stop and look at my fingers, and I imagine missing just a section of just one, and suddenly my fingers seem like the most amazing, beautiful things in creation. I feel like it’s my duty to go out of my way to appreciate them, because anyone who doesn’t have nice fingers like mine would think what an ingrate I was to take them for granted. It’s the same with other gifts, really. Sometimes I think of all the people in prison who would give anything to change places with me for a day, just so they could choose what to eat for lunch. All the people in the hospital who would be delighted to be able to do my workout for the day. All the hungry people of the world who would do any amount of cooking and dishwashing to be able to eat what I’m eating. Usually, though, I just do the obvious. I sit at the table to eat my meals, I take the time to plan and cook my favorite things, and I pause to think, “That was good.”
I’m talking about myself so that I don’t give too many spoilers to The Gratitude Diaries. It’s structured around the calendar year that Kaplan does her project, so it’s the sort of book you can dip into a chapter at a time. That’s probably the best way to read it. It helps to keep focus on the topic, and take plenty of time to absorb the material and reflect on it. Gratitude is like a magic spell that can transform an unsatisfying life into a terrific one. It’s like that scene in The Wizard of Oz when everything switches from sepia to Technicolor. It does take practice, though. I can attest to the fact that it’s worth it.
Hating cooking is a vital part of one’s identity. It is important always to make sure one broadcasts one’s hates, irritations, and pet peeves. It’s a quick way to bond with others and surround oneself with others who hate the same things. This is likely to have more immediate results, in the form of increased social connections, than learning to cook, which would be yucky, boring, and messy. It is known.
Hate to cook. This is the best way to limit the quality of one’s meals. Relying completely on others to prepare meals is a way to learn the boundaries of disappointment and unsustainably high expectations. Nobody else will ever be able to cook perfectly to one’s particular tastes – except oneself, and that ain’t happening – so each meal is a fresh chance to confront reality and develop stoicism. Perhaps it may also provide an opportunity to show one’s natural analytical faculties or leadership skills by critiquing others’ cooking until they get it right. They should appreciate this service and see it as a favor.
Ready to get started? The first step to hating cooking is to always wait until hungry before deciding to cook something. Then wait at least another 20 minutes, or better, two hours. This will only work in the absence of a meal plan or sensibly stocked kitchen. The only convenience foods should be unhealthy light snacks. There should not be any convenience foods that look like proper meals, whether canned soup or a frozen dinner. Absolutely no leftovers are allowed; heating up leftovers is much too close to cooking for our purposes. Meal planning is imbecilic. What kind of unimaginative cretin would think someone might want to eat meals at the same time intervals, each and every day? How could someone possibly predict when hunger is going to strike?
After waiting to be hungry before preparing food, the next step is to treat the kitchen with the contempt it deserves. Anyone can heat a can of soup in the absence of a kitchen, whether with a backpacker’s stove, solar oven, hot plate, or microwave. Hating to cook in a well-equipped kitchen is not for amateurs. Making a modern kitchen impossible to cook in takes at least intermediate abilities. With faith and focus, it can be done. Pile it with dirty dishes. A real pro will be able to fill the kitchen with ALL THE DISHES. This is hard for households that don’t cook, but it is ultimately manageable. Keep the countertops and stovetop sticky. If they are still usable despite dirty dishes and grime, it is a simple matter to blockade the counters with canisters, appliances, cookbooks, decorations, papers, or, if necessary, objects from other rooms. Make sure the microwave is liberally coated with burnt-on, congealed cheese. If there is dish soap, a clean sponge, and a pair of dish gloves available in the kitchen, someone is sabotaging this effort. The kitchen is usually the main arena for household power struggles; trust no one. If there is a dishwasher, it should always have at least one clean dish in it, and no signage, so it can’t be loaded with dishes as they are used. Hating to put away clean dishes is a natural sign that one may have been born to hate cooking.
A single person who lives alone will almost certainly hate to cook. It’s challenging to buy ingredients in small enough portions that they don’t spoil. There is nobody with whom to trade cooking or cleaning. There is nobody to impress with the intensity of one’s hatred for cooking. There is nobody to blame or criticize. If one were foolishly to start cooking meals that one actually liked, for oneself, it would set the bar unsustainably high if one ever chose to share a meal with someone else. Fortunately, this circumstance is unlikely.
Hating to cook for others is the main subject of our master class. Cooking for one’s mate has the dangerous aura of quid pro quo. It’s as though one is currying favor and expecting reciprocation. How much more honest to start out with low expectations and keep them there. Otherwise, one’s mate may take an interest and start cooking, too, and that just opens doors to changing the power dynamics around cleaning, finances, and other areas that may currently be stuck in a comfortable détente. Laissez faire. As long as nobody spends too much time in the kitchen, all is not lost.
Cooking for children or roommates? Pfft. One doesn’t even need to hate cooking to know that these are terrible ideas, right from the get-go. Next, some wag in the back row is going to suggest cooking for guests, holding dinner parties or potlucks, or hosting a holiday gathering. As though this could serve as some sort of interesting hobby or love offering! Moving right along.
If one is determined to hate cooking, one must never look at new recipes or food photography, browse cookbooks, or watch cooking shows. The inevitable result of this is that one will meet people who… *cough*… love cooking. The moment one meets a passionate foodie who loves cooking, one is in mortal danger. Only minutes will elapse before recipes are exchanged. After that, the floodgates are opened. It is harder to avoid recipes on the Internet than it is to avoid pornography; they are closely related, after all, and some poor victims even refer to food porn. Both are available by phone, computer, book, magazine, or at specialized bookstores. Use filters and stay strong.
Summing up, it is easy to hate cooking, as long as one perseveres. Keep the kitchen cluttered and greasy. Don’t have a meal schedule, meal plan, or grocery list. Don’t go to the store on a predictable basis. Don’t try new things, whether new products, new recipes, new cookbooks, or new restaurants. By all means, stay away from books or articles about physiology, nutrition, or dietetics. Restrict the palate. Have the highest of expectations for others to cook perfect meals that are delicious and perfectly nutritionally balanced, while always meeting the most exacting individual standards. Refuse half-measures or transitional techniques such as adding fresh produce to packaged meals. INSTANT PERFECTION OR NOTHING!
Graduates of the Hate to Cook course may wish to continue their education. The next class in this series is called Stay Sedentary and Develop Chronic Health Problems. Maintaining a low energy level, chronic pain, fatigue, poor posture, erratic sleep habits, dehydration, headaches, susceptibility to swings in mood and blood sugar, mysterious health conditions, and reliance on pharmaceuticals is highly complex. Prerequisites must be met before attempting to enroll in this course. Hating to cook is vital for success in this course. Don’t let a nutrition upgrade happen to you or anyone in your family!
Today is October 21, 2015, the date Marty McFly visits in Back to the Future II. I’m sure most of you were already aware of this. I spend a lot of time living in the future, so I wanted to make the most of this opportunity to write about it. One of the few nostalgic feelings I have toward the 1980s is that science fiction was cuter and more optimistic in those days. At some point, probably right around 9/11, our attitude took a distinctly darker turn, and we’re hopefully nearly through the doldrums of endless dystopias. Dystopian visions are lazy. Imagining different ways to ruin the world is about as difficult as stomping through a sand castle. Imagining a compellingly optimistic future is one of the few truly worthy challenges, particularly because it doesn’t take long before that future becomes the present day.
I’m not going to write a point by point comparison of the technological innovations from BTTFII, because it’s already been done, but also because the stuff we actually have in our current reality is much cooler and more impressive. We’ve eradicated guinea worm, for one thing. I mean, that’s such a big deal that we can basically take a year off and just stand in a line waiting to group-hug Jimmy Carter, because do you know about guinea worm?? Nearly as impressive is the fact that the rate of extreme poverty has dropped, even as the world population has increased by a couple billion since the 80s. In our lifetimes, we’re going to continue to see the standard of living raised for the world’s poorest, and that will include eradication of other parasites and endemic diseases. We’re also starting to see extremely rapid progress with medical innovations, making improvements in treatment for blindness, deafness, paralysis, missing limbs, and even color blindness. Next I’m hoping for something for tinnitus. Whenever I hear people complaining about the news, I know for a fact that they haven’t chosen to follow medical or tech news in their aggregators.
There was no internet in BTTFII. No smartphones, either. Just fax machines everywhere, which, of all the silly things… Complain all you want about how smartphones are turning people into zombies. I talk more to my friends and extended family now than I ever did at any earlier part of my life. Do you remember how expensive long distance phone calls used to be? Remember setting a timer to avoid running the bill too high? Do you remember how we used to drop off rolls of 12 (or 24 if you were lucky) photographs at a time, and pay through the nose for double prints? Now I can look at pictures of the people I love doing the daily whenever I want. If we knew this was coming back in the 80s, we would have cried. I live hundreds of miles away from almost everyone in my life, and it’s social networking, smartphones, Skype, and photo sharing that make this even remotely tolerable. Other people have used social media to reunite with family years after being adopted, and that’s remarkable, isn’t it? We’ve adjusted and learned to take these things for granted very quickly.
Another thing I’ve seen in my lifetime is an astounding drop in the price of airfare. I’ve hopped on a plane three times this year, for my parents’ wedding anniversary, my nephew’s high school graduation ceremony, and a hiking trip with friends 1100 miles away. Flying is so cheap now that people treat it like a bus ride, wearing tank tops, shorts, and flip flops. (Cover your feet and armpits, people, at least… ) As a brief aside, one of the other weird things about our future compared to the fictional future is how extremely casually we dress. We were supposed to be in all this tinfoil couture by now. Back to my main thread, not only can we fly cheaply and easily (and SAFELY), but we can take commercial flights into space, and we’re seriously planning a manned mission to Mars. We put clutter on Mars, yo! Take that, McFly.
Probably one of the best perks of living in the future is the quality and variety of food that is available. Do you remember the orange, flavorless tomatoes we used to get? My pantry is currently full of more things I never knew existed in the 80s than things I did. I routinely cook with curry, pesto, Japanese pickles, seaweed, chard, kale, edamame, quinoa, and all sorts of things I couldn’t pronounce back in the day. Coconut water! Pomegranate everything! Every now and then, I go into a small-town grocery store, and it feels exactly like traveling back in time. The paucity of awesome things I would actually want to cook makes 1980s nostalgia a little mildewed and musty for me.
Another thing we may not be thinking about much is the astounding improvements in the arena of athletic performance. New world records are being set, and almost instantly broken, all the time. Pick a sport, and high school kids are routinely busting what would have been world records in the 80s. This is due to a confluence of training lore, big data, more knowledge about recovery and nutrition, gear, and probably other stuff, such as relative absence of childhood illness. Something that is a big deal in my awareness is how common it is for middle-aged and senior people to compete seriously in sports like ultramarathon. You don’t have to look far to find people in their 80s kicking major butt. Marathons and other distances of foot race tend to sell out, sometimes within hours, and it’s hard to find enough venues for all the people who want to race. In my time, I’ve seen the advent or dissemination of cool fitness trends like adventure racing, CrossFit, Pilates, Zumba, Ultimate Frisbee, and even Quidditch. The future is going to hold a great deal more interesting options for team sports and solo training.
The future is a really excellent place. I could go on and on. Like how nobody smokes indoors anymore. Or how I have a Roomba, a Braava, a laptop, a smart TV, an iPhone 6, an Apple Watch, a 2.5x capacity washer and dryer, a solar powered backup battery and lantern, and a bunch of other things that would have boggled my 1989 mind. I often look at the world around me in 1987 terms (my year of choice, when I was 12) and take it all in for a moment. CGI! YouTube! Wikipedia! Google! Cloud storage! Panorama photos! Any single one of these things would have amazed me for an entire summer. Now I use them all on a daily basis. It’s up to you whether you let yourself take things for granted, or pause and feel true awe and astonishment. Personally, I’m stuck in the middle, between being thrilled by the impossibly fantastic future in which we live, or poleaxed by the possibilities of the unimaginably rad future we’ll be living in another 26 years.
Research in positive psychology indicates that we are happier when we spend our money on experiences, rather than things. It just occurred to me that clothes should be regarded as experiences instead of objects. Looking at garments this way may help as we contemplate uncluttering our closets.
There are a lot of neglected, unwearable clothes hanging in the back of a lot of closets. How many, you ask? Enough to sink a battle cruiser. Enough to fill the Grand Canyon on laundry day. Enough to stitch together and make a raggedy patchwork sweater that covers all of North America. Enough to roll into a ball and create Earth’s second moon, Unworna. In other words, a lot.
What’s in there?
Stuff that was expensive
Stuff in a pretty color
Stuff in a neat fabric
Stuff with cool buttons
Stuff that looks good on a hanger
Stuff that fit back when I sorta liked my body
Stuff that reminds me of special occasions
Stuff I forgot I had
Stuff I “borrowed”
Stuff that was a gift
Stuff I’m hoping to wear to a (costume) party
Stuff I wish would fit differently
Stuff I would wear if I had one single thing to wear with it, but I don’t
Stuff that is too long, too short, too loose, too tight, designed for a different skeleton than mine
In my closet right now, there is a pale blue business suit from 2006. It cost $80 at Ross and I went back to look at it twice before buying it. I got the job, though, so it paid for itself. Now it’s two sizes too big and the lapels look weird. Every time I pull it out and look at it, I convince myself that it would somehow be doing a favor for myself to keep it and wear it to an occasion when I need to “dress to impress.” Because that always entails wearing a decade-old suit that is two sizes too big. Maybe if I wait long enough, it will look awesome again. The trouble is that looking at my old business suit is not the same as wearing that same suit during the hypothetical situation for which I am keeping it.
Let’s talk about experiencing the clothes we never wear:
Cuts into my belly and leaves a giant red welt
Keeps falling off my butt, causing me to spend half my day yanking it back up
Makes me itch
Gives me blisters
Buttons won’t stay closed over my bra, causing me to draw my own blood while placing tactical safety pins
Doesn’t match a dang thing
Looked great in 1997
Looked great in 1987
Still has price tags on it, indicating I only experienced it in a changing room
Would look great at an occasion (such as winter) that never happens in my life, I assume, since I don’t even pretend to put it on
Looks and acts exactly like 47 other items I wear regularly
There is another item in my closet that I haven’t worn in a while. It’s the dramatic rhinestone-bedizened cocktail dress from my anniversary dinner. I can’t be comfortable with it until I have worn it at least twice more, because otherwise the cost per wear would make me break out in hives. I have never felt as compelling in anything else I have ever worn. I know it fits. I have plans for it on New Year’s Eve. Just wearing this dress makes me feel like I have super powers. Okay, I’m unlikely to find myself in a situation where this dress is my go-to on a weekly basis. It earns its keep, though.
For many years, I had this goal weight. It was 18 pounds heavier than my current weight. I could never seem to get there. I hung on to basically every garment I liked from this special weight, in hopes I would get back there one day. Imagine my surprise when that stuff got too big! I was actually disappointed. I was finally feeling healthy and strong, freeing myself of the shackles of chronic illness, and yet I was wishing I could fit in a too-big thrift store dress with life-size tulips on it, because it had a designer label. The weird thing about getting fit is that body composition changes everything. At the same weight, I was leaner and smaller; my posture was different; even my bra size changed. It’s a good idea to hang on to smaller clothes if you are actively becoming leaner, because you can blast through a size a month, but don’t expect to spend much time in them. “Skinny clothes” are like motel rooms. With the right filters and camera angles, they can look okay, but once you get in them, you can’t wait to check out.
At one point, I had six different sizes of clothes in my closet, and all of them fit. One of the dirty little secrets about clothing sizes is that they are not assigned in uniform increments. In other words, the difference in size between a 0 and a 2 is completely different than the size difference between a 10 and a 12, and even more so for a 14 and a 16. If you think you are going to be able to predict how smaller sizes will fit you, you probably have an advanced degree in mathematics. Clothes for small women may be designed exclusively by tailors on psychoactive medication; it certainly would explain some things. I say this as a person who can often fit in a 00, if there is one available, which generally there is not.
It happened to me. I had to start over from scratch with an entirely new wardrobe. I was obese and ill, until one day, I was a marathon runner with a flat little butt. I tried on every stitch I owned, and found that 80% of it was too big. (What was left consisted of 1. Sweaters, 2. Socks, and 3. Things I wear to bed). I sat down and made a checklist of which garments I needed, and then I went to the Hollywood Goodwill and bought them. The movie version of this involves me going to fancy boutiques for that scene, but fortunately, I am a tightwad, because I went on to lose another 8 pounds and almost all that stuff got replaced.
I never cared much for clothes, as you may have surmised by the frequent cameos from my Best Supporting Actress, Thrift Store. I find myself in the unprecedented situation of going to actual retail establishments and buying new things from the current season. My husband has even talked me into trying on and buying a couple of things off the mannequin in a store window, which I thought only happened in cartoons. His pleasure in dressing me has changed how I feel about my clothes. He walked in the door one day and stopped in his tracks, staring at me. “What?” I asked. “Why do you look so good?” he asked. I was wearing a sundress and tinted lip balm. And shoes. Maybe that was it.
The main experience I want from my clothing is that it doesn’t annoy me. I will only buy stuff that fits without me having to tug it back into place, whether up, down, or sideways. I won’t tolerate a high-maintenance clothing experience, even from formal evening gowns. The next qualification is that it has to be easy to care for. I’ll hang-dry something if I really love it, but no way am I taking anything to the dry cleaners. Ironing boards are for job interviews. Finally, it’s nice to wear clothes that reflect how I feel about myself. In my case, that is no-nonsense; you won’t find me in a print or pattern very often, much less any kind of embellishment, other than my rhinestone flip flops, because I’m waiting to be discovered by a Hollywood scout who may stray into my Starbucks. Within the sphere of no-nonsense, comfortable, low-maintenance clothing, there is actually room for a few things that are flattering enough to make my hubby want to look at me twice. I don’t dislike any of my clothes anymore. I’d go so far as to say that I like them. Getting dressed has started to be a more interesting part of my life. That’s because I’ve started to see the things I wear as experiences, rather than simply objects.
I slept in a different place every night for the last seven nights. This may or may not be a record for me. It seems this sort of thing is becoming fairly common in my life; I had a similar five-day streak just four weeks ago. I’ve been bouncing between home to hotel to tent to friend’s couch and home again like a little brunette pinball.
I was born on a Thursday, and, as the nursery rhyme says, Thursday’s child has far to go. I entered this world via a naval hospital, where my dad was stationed for boot camp, and two weeks later, we drove from Tennessee to California. My first bed was a laundry basket, where I slept on the floor of our old pickup as we traversed the country. For my third birthday, I got a shiny red tricycle. I have a very vivid memory of riding it on the sidewalk outside our apartment, and being called back inside after a few minutes, because my birthday party was still in progress. I thought, “Wait, I have places to go on this thing!” Twenty years later, I was thinking the same thing on a shiny red hybrid commuter bicycle.
Fortunately for me, my husband was also born on a Thursday. He gets it. We went on a road trip for our honeymoon. He circumnavigated the globe last year on a business trip. By volume, we have as much luggage in our house as we do books. A tally would probably indicate that we travel separately more often than we do together. Many of our best conversations are conducted through emoticon.
The next time I move, which will likely be in the near future, will be my… 28th? time relocating as an adult. That’s since 1993. Sometimes people ask me why I’ve moved so much. I wasn’t a military brat, my family didn’t move a lot when I was a kid, and I don’t particularly have a reason. I get restless. I’ve never lived in a house or apartment I liked well enough to stay put. Some people have a dream house, in the same way they have a dream wedding, but I never have. My one house dream is to live in a place that doesn’t have carpets.
Moving and traveling a great deal has fed my interest in minimalism. It’s much easier to pack up and go when you aren’t burdened by thousands of pounds of material possessions. Living in a tent for part of each year reminds me that the best parts of home are the infrastructural parts: plumbing, central heat, and a roof and walls that don’t blow around while you’re trying to sleep. There is nothing in my home that is nearly as beautiful as unspoiled wilderness, or anywhere near as interesting as a foreign country. Except for myself, of course. *fluttering eyelashes*
Home is where I keep my pets. Home is where I do laundry and pack up for the next trip. Home is the place that’s cheaper per night than most hotels, at least in my part of the world. Home is the most convenient place to collect my mail. Home, unfortunately, does not have free wi-fi. Home doesn’t have a concierge either. Home generally has my husband, though, and it’s guaranteed to have the second-most comfortable bed and pillows of my experience. Being a human pinball has its ways of making us appreciate the comforts of home all the more.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.