Is a double-edged sword
On the campaign toward
A financial hoard.
I'm fortunate that both of my parents are very frugal. My mom always took us grocery shopping, and she painstakingly taught us how to buy bulk and calculate price per unit. My dad is the kind of person who can repair things with a twig, some duct tape, and a piece of rubber hose. When my brothers and I would whine or beg for stuff, we would first hear "we can't afford it." If we kept up the pressure, the next we would hear was "Ask me again!" (Translation: don't ask me again). I feel sorry for people who never learned the value of a dollar, whose financial transactions are a cloud of confusion and unease.
On the other hand, it can be hard to learn that you can still hold onto a penny without squeezing it until your fingers start turning colors. When my parents found their dream house, after over thirty years of marriage, they were really hesitant to make an offer on it. It was hard for all of us to believe they had really saved enough to buy a place like that. They had, though, and the numbers said Can Afford even though a part of them still said Can't inside. I think they still feel that way sometimes, even after living there for several years. This? Us? HERE?
I know I identify with that. It was only a few years ago that I was able to go to the grocery check stand and pay for my bags without holding my breath, worrying that my card wouldn't go through. I still remember how excited I was the day my retirement account balance was finally higher than the balance on my student loan. Paradoxically, I don't really have to worry about money because I'll never really stop worrying about money.
Here's the thing about thinking you Can't Afford something. It limits you in one way, and it gives you license in another. Can't Afford shuts down the option of earning more to pay for it, bartering for it, finding out a way to get it cheaper, or simply realizing you aren't really interested in it. In most cases, it turns out that most people don't really know exactly how much something costs. We assume we Can't Afford things without doing the research, and therefore never realize: CAN!
I don't want an ice sculpture - what the heck would I do with it? It doesn't matter to me what they cost. I just think of them as expensive and Not for the Likes of Me. It never crosses my mind that I could learn to *make* an ice sculpture, have as many as I want whenever I want, and then start selling them to rich people who like that sort of thing.
I can buy a round-trip airline ticket to almost anywhere in the world for $1200. That's a hundred dollars a month for a year, or $25 a week, or $5 a business day. Can I come up with something to do that would earn me $5 a day? Oh snap. Now I have to figure out where I would go.
Can't Afford is a fallacy. Maybe I don't have enough purchasing power to pay for this specific thing at this very moment. There is no way to confirm, however, that I never will. I can't rule it out. I can't rule out getting more education, working harder and getting promoted, meeting generous new friends, winning a contest, or coming up with an idea for a lucrative side hustle. I'm precluding the entire discipline of paying for things with reward points. When I tell myself I Can't Afford something, I am permanently shutting it down. I am canceling it as an option.
It's fine to say "I'm not interested in that" or "I'm more than satisfied with everything I have right now." What's the point of rejecting it over price, though?
The other problem about thinking in terms of what we Can't Afford is that our focus is redirected to things we think we Can Afford. What this means in practice is that we fritter away small amounts of money on a regular basis, when they could have added up to something nice. As an example, I used to buy a bag of Fritos and a can of Pepsi out of the vending machine at work every afternoon. At the time it cost $1.35. Assuming I worked fifty weeks that year, that would have added up to $337.50. Sometimes, though, I also got a bag of trail mix. I deeply felt at the time that I Couldn't Afford much of anything. In reality, there are all kinds of things I could have bought with three hundred dollars that I would have enjoyed more than my daily snack habit. My household income is now more than triple what it was then, but I no longer feel attracted to vending machine snacks. I no longer feel a sense of scarcity around "depriving myself."
The more my household income has gone up, the less stuff I have and the less I weigh.
I'm often surprised by what people who Can't Afford things actually buy. Most people would evidently feel deprived by living the way my husband and I do. Our house is smaller than the apartments of our twenty-something friends. We only have one vehicle. We don't have cable. I've never had a professional manicure. We don't drink alcohol or coffee. We walk right by the snack aisle at the grocery store.
I realized the other day that we've never ordered takeout during our entire ten-year relationship. Not even pizza delivery.
A lot of people would freak out if they felt that they "had" to live the way we do. Yet they also feel a chronic sense of scarcity. They feel that they Can't Afford things that we feel we can. They perceive a certain bandwidth of acceptable, affordable expenses, and that we're ruling out many of those options. Since they never look above their affordability ceiling, they don't see that a far broader set of options are available to them than they ever realized.
Think of it this way. What was your true heart's desire when you were ten years old? When I was ten, I wanted: candy, stickers, ice cream cones, tickets for arcade games or amusement park rides, the occasional stuffed animal, and...a PARROT. Happily, I have the parrot, and she came to me as a gift. She's a poofy little kissyface. I can easily afford literally everything else I ever wanted as a ten-year-old. How often do I stop and feel impressed by that fact? Basically never. The Can Afford stratum of a ten-year-old child is now beneath my notice. Yet I never, in my wildest dreams, imagined at age ten the kinds of things I could afford as an adult. Even a poor adult.
If Present Me could reach back in time, I would give Past Self: Age 10 a $20 bill and tell me to knock myself out. "Don't spend it all in one place, honey." Past Me would literally drop my jaw. Then I would show me that I finally learned to spin a hula hoop, and it would be the most awesome day ever.
Why is it that we have so much more money now, and yet we're so bad at having fun with it?
When we keep telling ourselves and others that we Can't Afford things, we're focusing on scarcity. We're not talking about all the wondrous things we Can Afford, like a walk in the park, a visit to the public library, an afternoon of listening to music and drawing pictures, or The Entire Internet. I mean really. Saying "I can't spend money" is exactly the same as saying "I can't earn money." It's much more productive, and fun, to start thinking, "How much can I do with what I have right now?
Note: After writing this, I looked up the cost of an ice sculpture. I learned that I could get one for as little as $45. For the $300 I spent on Fritos and Pepsi, I could have had an ice sculpture of a swan or a pair of lovebirds, or in 1990s money, maybe something even fancier. I can look at pictures of them for free. Or I can have a glass of ice water and think of all the kings and queens throughout history who could not.
The book includes a lot of racer profiles, and about half are women. It surprised me, when I started running, to find how open the sport is to women, and adventure racing is even more so. Beyond this, the profiles involve people with serious obstacles to overcome, including spina bifida, paraplegia, and cancer. We don't find out until late in the book that De Sena himself nearly lost his leg in an auto collision before founding the Spartan Race. There should be a concordance listing every known health condition, tabulated by Spartan who has it and ran anyway.
De Sena's thesis is that voluntarily putting ourselves through extreme conditions toughens us up, so that we can handle the inevitable challenges of daily life. He calls it obstacle immunity. "If you can handle a Spartan Race, you can handle anything else life sends your way, and that's true whether you're going blind, battling cancer, homeless, morbidly obese, or simply struggling to get through each day." He offers historical references to rugged people of the past, such as Lewis and Clark, who essentially did a marathon a day for twenty-eight months. Good point. I grew up in Oregon, and I often think of the women and children who walked the entire route, up to thirty miles a day, while the men sat in the wagons driving the oxen. Our soft industrial lifestyles would fill most humans throughout history with total disbelief.
The Spartan way makes a lot of sense to me. Social bonds, gratitude, delayed gratification, eating unprocessed food, living a value system that includes honor, generosity, and valor. De Sena talks about how to develop grit, set priorities, and become more decisive. This he refers to as the Rule of Upside Downside. Quickly assess the potential upside and downside of a decision, prioritizing health, family, business, and then fun. For instance, the upside of sitting on my couch and reading a book is self-evident. The downside? If that was all I ever did, I'd quickly go back to where I was with chronic pain and fatigue. I suspect that most of the world's willpower evaporates due to indecisiveness. Not until Spartan Up!, however, did I realize that there is such a strong connection between decisiveness, self-discipline, and positive results.
This is the kind of book that you will either love, or you wouldn't even be interested in picking it up. A life of voluntary difficulty is a contrarian life. The easy route is easy partly because it's well-trodden and clearly marked. People like it that way. Others, though, take one look at the steep and muddy alternate trail and want to run up it. I leaned that way already, but this book has gotten under my skin.
My favorite quote: "Everyone has to suffer to put things in perspective, and bitching burns between zero and zero calories a minute, so there's no use in complaining about your hardships."
Anecdote: A woman is getting dressed for a date. He cancels on her at the last minute, saying that he would date her if she were thinner.
Granted, this is abominably rude behavior. That goes without saying. The lady had great good fortune in learning that this is a person of low character before she got seriously involved with him. Imagine if that scenario had played out while she held a bouquet, standing at the altar. None of that is much consolation, though, considering the crushing blow to her self-image. Rejection hurts.
The real pain seems to come from the idea that body weight might be on someone's list of deal breakers.
I have two diverging takes on this idea. One is validating and the other is somewhat more provocative.
I dated a younger guy when I went back to school to finish my degree. He broke up with me with these words: "You're just not attractive enough for me." I've never cried so hard in my life. Um, I look exactly the same as I did the day we met? Um, and you're not so hot yourself? I went sobbing to my friend's dorm room and told her what happened. Why should I be judged by my appearance? It was so unfair! She consoled me, but then she gave me the great game changer of my life: GAMES HAVE RULES. Friendship is beyond such matters, but romance includes appearance.
My friends rallied around me over the next couple of weeks, giving me makeup and fashion tips, accompanying me to the gym. I was out for blood-sucking revenge and nothing but the guy's total annihilation would do. I avoided and ignored him for weeks. Two totally surprising things happened. I noticed that random strangers were far nicer to me now that I had done the makeover. I hadn't lost any weight yet; just changed my hair and clothing style and started wearing makeup. This made my blood boil. O, this dumb old world! How dare people treat me like a lesser person just because I didn't meet their beauty or grooming standards?? The other thing that happened was that I got a 20% raise at work. This made it worse, briefly, as I dealt with the realization that my appearance had probably cost me tens of thousands of dollars in my career already. Then it sank in that I was essentially being paid thousands of dollars to shave my legs and underarms.
Oooh, did that last detail make you jump? Yes, I still think it's unfair that people would dare to judge me for having natural body hair. But I like money more than that, so I got over it.
The third thing that happened was that the guy, Mr. You're Just Not Attractive Enough For Me, pursued me again. "You've been looking really good these days," he told me. We started dating again. That lasted for about three weeks. Then he broke up with me again, because he was attracted to someone else in one of his classes and he wanted to be available just in case. Well, gee, thanks for the honesty at least... I got the boy, only to be humiliated twice. I learned to be on the lookout for signs of narcissism, which was very helpful. I heard through the rumor mill that his next girlfriend criticized him relentlessly, and that was also very helpful. Heh.
The moral of the story is: don't bother trying to change (anything) for an ambivalent romantic interest. Do it for your career. When you have a better job, you'll meet more interesting people anyway.
Romance is a mix of the pragmatic and the mystical, and what blend of attributes might turn into sexual attraction is purely subjective. (Or is it?). What eludes most people is that romantic success is about a click with one specific person. What works with one person will not work with someone else. Ideally, there's a spark between you that neither of you will feel elsewhere. The lack of this click might be attributed correctly, but it probably won't be. It's something ineffable, usually outside our awareness.
I've turned down romantic advances from men over the years due to all sorts of reasons, including facial hair, gum-chewing, and habitual wearing of roller blades. Many years later I realized that my big deal breaker is Obligers. I've been rejected because I don't drink coffee, because I can't have kids, and because I happened to own the Throwing Copper CD by Live. Probably the fact that I've been vegan since 1997 played some part in these rejections, even though the gentlemen didn't say so. When the click isn't there, it isn't there, and it's probably a confluence of factors.
We rule people out unfairly all the time. I used to say I would only marry a man who could beat me at Scrabble, until 1) I fell in love with an aerospace engineer and 2) I pictured marriage to a competitive Scrabble player. Many of us would rule out a partner who couldn't spell or had bad grammar. Would you date someone who didn't finish high school? How about middle school? How about grade school?
Isn't that classist?
Would you date someone older? 25 years older? How about 40?
What's your track record for dating people of a different racial background?
Imagine the band you hate the most. Now imagine that the new love interest rolls up, blaring their most annoying song out his windows.
What if he's also wearing a campaign t-shirt for the wrong candidate?
Whether someone is "datable" consists of a mix of situational, behavioral, and personal factors. A plus in one area can level out a minus in another. For instance, it would take a whole lot of sex appeal to make up for ongoing unemployment or a felony record. Someone with a fascinating job or great sense of humor will be more compelling, while a picky eater or bad tipper will be less so. Mostly, we'll stick with people roughly within in our own bracket of education, age, race, social class, religion, and of course body weight. 74% of American men and over 60% of American women are overweight or obese, so while this is on the list of dating issues, there will still be plenty of matches for everyone at every size.
I promised a provocative story, and here it is. The day I met my current husband, we liked each other right away. We quickly became daily lunch buddies, and then we started talking on the phone all the time. However. There was no romantic spark. Over a year of constant conversation, but no spark. Where was the spark?
We started dating after I got a promotion and a raise, got my own apartment, and dropped four dress sizes.
We got married after I got two more promotions, learned to cook, finished paying off $8000 of debt, and moved into a house.
In both cases, he initiated the subject and talked me into giving him a chance.
After we got married, I dropped another three dress sizes, grew out my hair, ran a marathon, and started my own business. I do these things for myself, but they do unavoidably impact how I am perceived by my true love. We've been together over ten years now and we're arguably more attracted to each other today than the day we met.
I was "the same person." We had the same friendship. We did the same things and talked about the same things. When we met, though, I was near my top weight, working as a temp, renting a room, sleeping on an air mattress, in debt up to my eyeballs, and basically in crisis mode all the time. The difference between Friend Zone Me and Marriageable Me involved several level-ups. One of those happened to involve obesity. If I'd been the same size but was debt-free, knew how to cook, and had my own house instead of a roommate, maybe we would have started dating sooner. It's impossible to say. If I'd lost the weight and grown out my hair first, not having made the other changes yet, would he have been wrong to start being attracted to me?
For people who are single and hating it, there is usually at least one reason that is obvious to everyone else but them. Constant complaining is one of them. Aggrieved entitlement - where is the [whatever] that was promised to me?? Being snarky and sarcastic. Never going anywhere to meet new people. Doing nothing interesting. Underemployment. Too many cats. High drama quotient. Undisciplined, bratty kids. Passively coasting through life. Messy house/car. Being a taker more than a giver. Fixating on the "missing partner" rather than existing friendships. Envy. Low self-awareness and lack of insight. Bad temper. General dislike or suspicion of people of the chosen gender. What your car, clothes, hair, personal space, and body look like are on the list, but they're just multipliers.
I'm an achiever by nature. I look at marriage in the same way I looked at dating, which is that if a man is worthy of my love and devotion, I will do my utmost to make him the happiest man on earth. I will study his likes and dislikes, and spoil him utterly. In return, I expect a man who will meet my standards. He has to rate a position on my zombie squad, and he has to carry me around on a little satin pillow. Marriage should be with someone whom you respect and admire, who is your funniest friend, and with whom you also have off-the-charts physical chemistry. Nothing less will do. If you knew that person is out there waiting for you, and there was only one thing standing in your way, would you take care of it?
We started going to the gym together before we even started dating. We were work buddies, and the company offered a discount on memberships to the gym next door. One day, I was so tired from working overtime in heels that I could barely stand up straight. I was sitting on the lawn and he somehow talked me into working out anyway. I felt so much better after the workout, one I never would have done on my own. That's when we became accountibilibuddies. The official name for it is "accountability partner" but we like our version better.
There's a popular delusion that self-care is selfish. If you get enough sleep, you're lazy, because you have to work around the clock until you're completely burned out if you want to be taken seriously. If you stay home when you're sick, you're lazy and you're letting the team down - far better to come in and make sure the rest of the office has a chance to become martyrs of contagion, too. If you eat right, you're an insufferable bore and nag. If you work out and keep your body fit, you're a narcissist and your very physical presence is fat-shaming. Nowhere in this picture is there anything about self-care as a necessary component of caring for others.
I work out with my husband because he needs the moral support. When he works out, he enjoys life more. It helps with some chronic shoulder issues that he has. But it's hard for him to get out the door at the end of the day. He'll work twelve hours without thinking twice. Being his accountabilibuddy is a service that I can do for him, a nice favor. I'm his wife. I can't help him professionally, but I can do this. He might reschedule if he had an appointment with a trainer, but when he's meeting me, he shows up. None of this has anything to do with me and my needs, other than that I get an extra half hour with him.
When I was twelve, my mom was midway through earning her two college degrees. She had a mandatory P.E. class, and part of the grade was to develop a personal fitness plan. Mom picked walking. First, she drove a one-mile route. Then we walked it together, and she timed it. We would walk together a few times a week, trying to beat the clock. We worked up to a mile and a half. We would talk and laugh and walk as fast as we could. I never saw it as a workout. To me, it was just mommy-daughter time. I loved it. We kept going for a while after the class ended, but winter came, and that was the end of that. I wish I'd spoken up more and asked if we could start again in the spring. Those are days we'll never get back, and now I live a thousand miles away.
A number of my friends have become runners and adventure racers after I started. Several of them asked me for informal coaching. I haven't run a single step of their mileage, but I'm still so proud of their progress that I sometimes cry. There's a knowing look in their eyes in those race photos. I DID THIS. It's a transformation that affects far more than just the physical. If I can run this far, what else can I do? That feeling of accomplishment and pride is one I wish I could bottle and pass around to anyone who wanted a taste. I write about my passage into endurance sports, not for attention, which I get from many honking cars, but in hope that it will ignite curiosity in others. I'm going on a fact-finding mission, drawing maps and writing notes about the terrain for anyone who comes after. Every mile I run, I think about a familiar yet skeptical face, pondering, "Can this really be done or are you faking it?"
When I ran my first 5k, an old school friend volunteered to run it with me. I probably wouldn't have started working out at all, except that we had gotten together and I saw that since last time, she had lost a hundred pounds, while I'd gained at least thirty. Oh man. She helped me find a race that wasn't already sold out, met me, let me sleep on her couch, drove me to the site, and helped me sign in and get my bib. If it weren't for her, I would never have gone to so much bother or spent that $38. We set out at what was a really fast pace for me. I couldn't keep up, and she dropped me after the first mile. I was really beating myself up for not training hard enough, when I reached the finish line and saw that I had cut more than ten minutes off my fastest time! I was so surprised I thought there must be a mistake. It was her support, plus my feeling of competitiveness, that drove me to run faster than I ever had before. That broke the ice, and I signed up for several more races after that on my own. My friend wasn't in that race for herself. She could already run farther and faster than that level. She took me under her wing and made sure I felt like I knew what I was doing. The next time we ran a race together it was nearly twice the distance.
Working out is a metaphor. I mean, yes, it's physical, and it can be grueling. The sweat, the skinned knees, the bruises, the blisters, the heat rash, the sunburns, the laundry so scary you could use it to rob a bank. Really, though, it's just one way among many to demonstrate things to yourself, and to others. Persistence. Dedication. Grit. Devotion. Uncountable millions of dollars have been raised for various charities through all these foot races, and that's something, too. One of the many things that exercise can do is to show a friend: this is how far I will go for you. I will show up for you. You can count on me. I'll be by your side. I'm there when you need me. I'd do more if I could, but for today, I'll show it by doing this.
This is how bad it is. I was working on my tablet while doing something else on my phone. I picked up a hard copy of a book, and a slip of paper fell out. There was a handwritten note on it, from me to me. I went to set it down next to me on the table, thinking, "I'll record this later," only there was already another slip of paper with handwritten notes on it. Apparently this is a really hard habit for me to break.
Papers are thoughts, and mine are all over the place.
I've been working on digitizing all the remaining paper in my life. It's incredibly tedious. Yet I am finding greater clarity through the process; the more the stack is whittled down, the more I feel able to trust that I'm not forgetting something or missing something vital somewhere. The majority of my artistic output from 1990 to the present is stored electronically in a couple of folders. For every page I decide to scan, there are five I decide I don't need at all. Out of all the pages I've decided I should type up, about half of them had already been done. Why I thought I needed both paper and digital backups, I can't recall. It must have seemed important at the time.
This is the root cause of the desire to hang on to paper notes. (And notebooks, and books, and digital files, for that matter). We're convinced that these older thoughts are significant and important. Perhaps more so than our current thoughts, or our future thoughts. Nowhere is this more true than in the insistence on keeping old academic papers. I'm in my forties now, yet I'm still convinced that papers I wrote in my twenties have some kind of special wisdom. The fallacy inherent here is that I also have poetry I wrote when I was fourteen. Doesn't it make sense that I'll be writing better, more interesting things at age sixty than I did at age twenty?
With age, supposedly, comes wisdom. We can hope that time will make us more competent at our careers, more decisive, highly skilled. We can hope that our educations will pay off, that we'll be reading more deeply with time. The more we read, the more we think, the more we write, the better we'll get at it. If any of this is true, then nothing of our past output would be as valuable as our future production. As often as not, when we read stuff we wrote years ago, we're embarrassed.
Why did I save this? Someone might see it!
Academic papers come in two categories: what we've written and what we read, or intended to read. Papers can be like a buffet restaurant. We want to have as many options as possible, and the last thing we want to think about is our actual capacity to consume. In grade school, I conceived the childish wish to go to the Library of Congress and read every book there. I thought I could do it, and that I'd still be able to read other stuff when I was done. I have trouble believing I can't eat a slice of cake the size of a skateboard ramp, and I have even more trouble believing that I will die one day without having read Every Book in the World. Surely my to-be-read pile is as nothing in the face of this grand wish!
In this sense, the papers I have written or read are thoughts. What, though, are the papers I've brought in without knowing the contents? I think they exert an unconscious pressure on our mental bandwidth in the same way that unused art and craft supplies put pressure on our creative drives. We think we're giving ourselves options, when we're really giving ourselves unnecessary constraints.
Papers can be categorized in another way: sorted and unsorted. Academic papers tend to be well-behaved, staying neatly in their three-ring binders, files, and spiral notebooks. It's everything else that tends to form a free-flowing vortex of paper chaos. Notes to self! Junk mail! Important mail! Recipes! Invitations! Takeout menus! Coupons! Shopping lists! Sticky notes! Index cards! Each and every piece has a thought attached to it. Usually, that thought is: LATER.
I'll deal with this later.
The trouble with these unsorted, unexamined papers is that we keep seeing them. We set them down and they refuse to vanish. If only the papers I didn't need disappeared as regularly as things I wanted to remember. "Why did I walk into this room just now?" The answer to that is dissipating like mist, while yet another new phonebook has materialized in my living room. The paper I need, urgently, is buried under a drift of papers I never needed and didn't ask for, most of them addressed to 'resident.' Resident doesn't live here!
When we clear the papers, we clear our thoughts. It's automatic. We can't get rid of things without making decisions, and nothing clears brain fog as well as making decisions does. More importantly and more interestingly, clearing our thoughts clears the papers as well. When we make firm decisions first, sorting papers can be quick and easy.
The first step is to decide how to handle incoming papers from today onward. I made a decision to take electronic notes, and I do that over 90% of the time. We've also made the decision to handle our bills and finances electronically, so it's rare for our transactions to ever appear on paper. We both loathe junk mail, so it's sorted and disposed of as soon as it comes in the door. We don't subscribe to any magazines. The result of these decisions is that we can handle our incoming mail in under five minutes. The papers in our house are, therefore, older.
When confronted with old junk, like my old notebooks, we can make a quick guess that is likely to be accurate. If I haven't needed it so far, I probably never will. Maybe I'll get audited by the IRS, in which case, I have a file folder of old tax returns. What would I need any of my other household papers for, though? We don't run a business, so we don't need old phone or utility bills. Medical records, maybe? Neither of us has any chronic health conditions. Any files a doctor would need would come from a previous doctor, though. It seems that I can only make an argument in favor of my own writing. The difference between the two categories is that I would save household papers out of concern for external requests on my attention. I save my own papers out of an internal concern: if I get rid of anything, Future Self will want it.
Saving academic papers is silly, in a way. Most of what we learn is eventually superseded by new findings, new research, new theories, deeper knowledge in the same subject area. The point of going to school is to learn how to learn, and to meet others who are better versed in the material. Oh, and to have access to the libraries, of course. Saving our own writing is silly in an even sillier way. If we're taking it at all seriously, then we're continually improving at the craft. Anything we wrote in the past will become progressively more painful to read due to its awkwardness. Probably we're saving it all as a physical manifestation of the wish to go back to school or to have more time for writing. It's not the paper we need, it's the wherewithal to redirect ourselves and get back into something we loved so much.
The goal is always to reclaim and expand our mental bandwidth. A major part of that is collecting our awareness, focusing our attention into a narrow beam. This means removing all the scattered bits that keep trying to float away, like leaves in a swimming pool. Filtering, filtering. Sorting through even a small stack of papers is a way of making decisions and creating greater order. The fact that this order is visible externally is a mere side benefit. Just because papers are thoughts does not have to mean that all thoughts become papers.
I have a jar of money. I started keeping it at some point about ten years ago. Everything in the jar consists of money I have found on the ground, with the exception of a few dollars from gifted scratch-off lottery tickets. Most of it came from pennies. When the jar gets too full, I cash in a dollar's worth of pennies, or trade singles for larger bills.
How many pennies can a person who walks a lot find over the course of ten years?
Five thousand, five hundred and ten.
There's also a wad of bills consisting of $84 that my husband found, but I feel superstitious about including that for some reason.
I call it "fairy money" because I like the idea that fairies reward people by leaving them coins. It pleases me. I mean it in the same way that some people refer to "Santa presents" as a special subset of Christmas gifts. Do they really think there's a Santa Claus? Mostly no. Do I really think there are fairies? Let's say it's a moot point. The point is that fairy money represents abundance.
I don't spend the fairy money because I don't need to. In my mind, though, it's a resource of last resort. When I started picking up coins, I used to deposit them in my savings account when I cashed my paycheck every week. I'd literally be like, "And six cents to Savings, please." After I got out of debt, I started putting them in the jar. At one point, there was enough for a city bus ticket. Then it was enough for a loaf of bread. It grew over time, until eventually it started to become substantial.
What can $55 buy in 2016?
A shiatsu massage
A bag of groceries
Costco membership for one year
Parrot chow for ten weeks
Set of new bath towels for four
Roughly 20 gallons of gasoline
A night in a cheap motel
Cab fare somewhere
A crock pot with $15 left over for soup ingredients
Entry fee to a 5k race with money left over for carb-loading
Who knows? $55 is right at the threshold of "enough to make a difference." In fact, as I skimmed through our expenses looking for things in that price range, I saw that most of our purchases are below that amount. $55 is more than our monthly internet bill or our gym membership. It's more than we spend dining out, on the rare occasions that we do. It's at the point where it could cover any of several necessities, and it's also enough to splurge on a true luxury or something really fun.
The story of my jar of fairy money is the story of my arduous climb out of poverty. I still pick up pennies off the ground, because I'm attuned to notice them. I still feel that a penny is valuable, just as I still feel that a dollar is worth a dollar no matter where you spend it. I'm still routinely gobsmacked by bizarrely useless yet expensive consumer items I never knew existed. I still remember how excited I was when my retirement savings finally reached three digits. I'll always be a frugalite at heart, even as I cast aside my former scarcity mentality.
I LOVED this book! This is a keeper. The Desire Map is a perfect book for goal setting, one that I will use when I do my planning at the New Year. What I like so much about Danielle LaPorte's book is her twist on the usual visioning process. How do we want to feel when we've reached this goal?
The Desire Map is divided into two sections: The Theory and The Workbook. The theory section is all about the difference between external and internal goals and how to make more empowered choices. Anyone who has trouble figuring out such questions as "what do I actually want?" or "what is my purpose?" or "do I even have any goals?" can find some clarity here.
The question of desire itself is addressed. LaPorte goes so far as to write a letter to a Tibetan Buddhist lama, asking, "What is the "right" energy of desiring enlightenment?" Can we desire anything without attachment or clinging? Should we try? Basically, are we allowed to want things? It's a nuanced, thought-provoking discussion. The section on feelings and emotions is also intriguing and clarifying.
What I've learned from coaching is that many people are very poor at making wishes or allowing themselves to want things. Even wishing for something like restful sleep, more energy, or better communication feels like too much. It's impossible to have a better life without feeling like such a thing is possible. It's impossible to reach a goal if you have none. If you don't know what you want, how would you recognize it when you had it? LaPorte's insight about aiming for particular emotional states rather than specific achievements is a powerful one. One person might want contentment, another might want vigor, and these will turn into different approaches toward life. The Desire Map includes lists of random answers from various workshop participants, which include a dazzling array of possibilities. At least some of them may trigger a desire for the same for ourselves. "Free spiders"? "Get just the right font spacing"? Why not?
"You can make your life better. Daily. Practically." This is a slogan I can get behind.
I'm working through the workbook section of The Desire Map meticulously. It feels significant. I'm enjoying the process; it makes me feel like I'm getting an extra New Year! I can't get enough out of this book right now.
There are really only two kinds of problems: the one you're having right now, and the one you're not. For instance, I don't have a problem with my cat clawing my couch because I don't have a cat. When I do have a problem, such as my neighbor backing over my mailbox with a moving van, I tend to forget all about the problems I don't have and focus on the one that I do. The worst problems are the perpetual kind, the problems that won't go away for years on end, if they ever do.
Some problems go away on their own. Teeth, for example. Ignore them and eventually they go away.
Other problems are situational and of brief duration. Aggressive drivers, neighbors setting off fireworks during all of July, that person whose fragrance has just filled the elevator - these are temporary. Better to wait them out and not let them disrupt your equilibrium. When I feel stuck in a frustrating scenario, I think about... sand. Just sand, nothing but sand all the way to the horizon. By the time I'm done picturing the sand, the situation has usually resolved itself.
Perpetual problems are worth study. If nothing changes, then nothing changes, and then nothing changes. Right? The pattern has to be disrupted. Somehow, something about the problem has to change. What is it? As soon as the perpetual problem is recognized for what it is, the pattern tends to reveal itself. That is the secret behind how to kill off the problem.
Relationships. I used to have a cheating boyfriend. I tortured myself about it. It was nauseous. I mean I would feel physically ill when I thought about him with another woman. I couldn't stop asking myself what I could do differently to keep his attention and get him to stop. Then one day, I had finally had enough, and I broke up with him. He cried. I realized that his behavior had nothing to do with me; he would have acted the same way no matter whom he was with. After that, I started communicating my expectations about fidelity at the very beginning of new relationships. That is reassuring to people who feel the same way.
Money. I used to be in debt. Right after graduation, I had so many payments on various debts that I had exactly $30 in spending money at the end of each month. That debt was all I could think about. I had a spreadsheet. I checked all my account balances each and every day. I worked really hard, scrimped and saved, and paid everything off. Now, I don't have to think about debt anymore.
Health. I used to get migraines. It runs in the family, and I always figured I was stuck with them. I had a long list of triggers, a list that kept getting longer, as the migraines got longer in duration. Four days of not fun. Somehow, I stumbled across variables that affected my migraines, none of which were what I thought they were. (1. Body weight and 2. Micronutrients). Suddenly, I can eat spicy food, go to high altitudes, and even be dehydrated or sleep deprived without getting one. It's been almost three years now. I still carry Aleve in my purse everywhere I go, as insurance, only now I offer them to other people.
I don't believe in problems anymore. That is because I believe in challenge, not difficulty. There is always a way to reframe a situation, communicate differently, change my behavior, or get out of the situation. Usually there are ten thousand ways. It starts with the belief that I DON'T HAVE TO PUT UP WITH THIS. I don't have to have a perpetual problem in my life.
I have to wait in line sometimes, but I don't care. I don't care at all. I just play with my phone or think about sand.
I have to listen to one half of someone else's cell phone conversation sometimes, and that's distracting, but I don't really care. I'm learning to tune it out. I can't in fairness judge anyone for doing something that I myself have done.
I don't mind being polite or tolerating other people's foibles, because I like it when others return the favor to me. These are very, very minor problems in the grand scheme of things.
What I don't have to do is to engage in relationships that are exploitive, fake, emotionally damaging, or otherwise not to my liking. There are seven billion people in the outermost circle, and the few who get through the next five layers are a statical anomaly. Everyone may have my benign regard and occasional altruistic acts. Almost nobody may have my trust or my confidences. This includes lovers, obviously, but also friends and family. If you don't want people in your business, stop keeping them informed.
I also don't have to stay in an unfulfilling job. I never did. In my twenties, I was a temp, and I changed jobs whenever I felt like it. If nothing else in my life works out, I can always fall back on my trade, which is administrative support. When you're a secretary, one job is as good as another. Live beneath your means, save like mad, have a cushion, and feel free. It's much easier to contribute at your highest level when you feel that you are participating voluntarily.
I don't have to have money problems because I can always earn more money and/or renegotiate terms.
I don't have to have health problems. By that I mean chronic health problems. The more I research, the more I read medical journal articles, the more I work on optimizing my own behaviors, the less I have any health issues at all. Common cold, food poisoning, migraines? Nah, not really problems for me. In the last few years, my biggest problems have been stinging nettle, fire ants, mosquitos, skinning my knee, and tendinitis. My cancer scare at age 23 set me on the path to REFUSING TO ACCEPT a "diagnosis." Diagnose me with whatever you want, doc, I'm hitting the books and I'm beating this thing. There is no reason to believe that everything possible is known about a particular condition. That is unscientific. It is a wrong thought. I'll die one day, but I'll pass knowing that I always did whatever I could to take care of myself.
It's amazing how much the background noise of PROBLEMS fades when the focus turns to prevention. Being organized, being kind to people, saving money, getting plenty of sleep, eating well, being personally accountable, and avoiding bogus situations will eliminate the vast majority of perpetual problems.
What's left? The problems we can't seem to step away from. WHY does this person act this way?? (Doesn't matter. Once you know that this is the way the person acts, you have all the information you need to make a decision). I'VE TRIED EVERYTHING. No, no you haven't. Unless it's a problem for literally everyone, such as gravity or the loss of loved ones, then there is something different about what you're doing compared to those who do not have the problem. WHY CAN'T...? Because. That's why. As a general rule, get out of the situation first, and examine what used to be a perpetual problem at leisure.
Paradoxically, refusal to accept that a situation IS WHAT IT IS tends to perpetuate the situation. We can't stop thinking about it and obsessing over it, we can't detach emotionally, we can't let it go, and therefore we are stuck with it. As soon as we have a clear vision of something better, it's much easier to realize that the perpetual problem is really an illusion. I don't have to go out with this guy. I don't have to work here anymore. I won't be in debt forever. I can change my body. I can learn new things. I can socialize with people who share my value system. I can improve my communication and my behavior. I expect better from myself, and I also expect better FOR myself.
Every so often, it happens. I find myself stuck in a negative habit pattern, and, despite the fact that I know I am annoying myself, I can't seem to turn it around. This is when I do a "reset." I make a firm decision that enough is enough. Then I go through a brief, concerted period of focus until I'm back where I want to be. This particular time, I needed to reset my sleep habits.
I identify as a night owl. I started having insomnia problems at age seven. It's always been a struggle for me to wake up early, and I'm slow and dopey for the first couple of hours after I wake up. Still, sleeping during the day is not a viable lifestyle for me, even though I set my own schedule. It's hotter and brighter, and the leaf blowers and lawn mowers start up early. At my current house, I live across the street from a school. When my natural tendency to stay up late starts creeping up on me again, I wind up sleeping about three fewer hours per night. Enough to get by, but not enough to make me sleepy enough to go to bed earlier. Hence, the need for the reset.
I had been up until 4 AM and hadn't been able to fall asleep easily. My husband wakes up at 5, so clearly it was high time for me to do the reset. I set the alarm for 8:30 AM and made myself get up. The priority at this point is to STAY AWAKE until at least 8 PM. Taking even a brief nap spoils the reset, meaning I have to try it again.
Note that a reset for any habit will only work when you are fully convinced that you are DONE with the self-annoying habit. This is not a willpower thing. It's a decision thing. Gradual transitions don't work well for me; I get too impatient. I'd much rather push myself hard and get something over with quickly, like ripping off a bandage.
When my alarm went off, I was so tired I felt nauseated. This seems to be a blood sugar thing for me; I started having it when I was maybe six years old. I know it goes away, though, so I got up and had some tea. I was fine for a few hours.
There are two methods to fight drowsiness: physical activity and natural sunlight. I have been known to walk as much as seven miles on a reset day, just to keep moving and be out in daylight. For a sleep pattern reset, outdoor natural lighting is a major factor in regulating sleep and wake hormones. Given adequate nutrition and hydration, hormones will get the job done, unless, like me, you are a Type A workaholic who has trouble deciding to shut down at the end of the day.
As far as physical activity, I always use a reset day to do low-level tasks. This includes regular housework, but also nitpicky details like wiping down baseboards, dusting the tops of door frames, and wiping down cabinets. The common reaction is to believe (not just say, but believe) that I Am Too Tired For That. I look at it from the contrarian perspective that I Will Not Waste a High Energy Day on Scutwork. I do at least minimal housework even when I have the flu. No matter how sick or tired I am, I can still drop clothes in the hamper, I can still put a dish in the dishwasher, and I can still put things in the recycling bin or trash can. On days when I'm feeling great and bursting with creativity, I can put all my focus on that and have fun, because nothing else needs to get done. Why on earth would I spoil a day when I'm feeling good with a backlog of chores?
Part of this involves differentiating between System One and System Two types of tasks. My work is almost entirely System Two, needing to concentrate hard and not being able to work with distractions. I need to beat back the System One tasks so they don't drain my mental bandwidth. System One includes all housework, most mending and repair work, almost all mail, most filing, some phone calls, and a surprising amount of computer work. In my case that means skimming email, updating spreadsheets, organizing photos, formatting images, loading stuff on my blog, bookmarking news articles, and several other routine tasks. If I can listen to a podcast and do the task effectively at the same time, it's System One.
The great thing about a reset is the day after. I wake up well rested at a reasonable hour. That's reason enough to do the reset. Ah, but then there are the bonus externalities. My house is gleaming. The weird little tasks on my 101 List are caught up. I've even blasted through my podcast queue. I've chosen one of two possibilities.
What comes naturally. Fall into a rut and get stuck there. Feel a very, very low level of energy. Be distracted by things I wish didn't annoy me, but they do. Feel like every day is like yesterday and that tomorrow will be more of the same. Start to doubt my ability to do anything in life. Feel sorry for myself. Wish I hadn't been "born this way" or that this hadn't "happened to me." Ah, me, what am I to do?? This is the fixed mindset trying to hypnotize me into a lesser life.
Bias toward action. Know that nobody but me can do anything about this situation. Probably nobody other than me cares, either. Get up and move my body. Take even the tiniest actions that will improve mine or anyone else's life in even the smallest way. Feel convinced that I have the power to control my attitude, my behavior, and my personal environment. Feel proud of my stamina and drive, both of which I am strengthening by facing challenges. Give thanks to my mentors for all the memoirs and biographies from which I have drawn examples. Look for the "level-up." I didn't "feel like it" and I wasn't "in the mood" - but I DID IT. I got through it. I've done it before, in fact I've been through worse, and I can do it again if I need to.
Resets can be useful in many situations. Another sleep-related one is taking NyQuil during a cold; I have trouble sleeping for two or three days after using NyQuil for even one night. Other reset opportunities include overeating (skip breakfast, drink water, eat vegetables); stomach bug (take probiotics for ten days); jet lag; messy house (turn on radio, clean all day); clearing out a storage unit; or breaking a dependency on a pharmaceutical (nasal spray, maybe?). Not all resets can be done in one day, but many can. A short reset can be good psychological preparation for a longer reset. (Weight loss, demolishing debt, remodeling a room).
The point of a reset is that I feel like I need one. A secondary benefit is that a reset reminds me that I don't need perpetual problems in my life. Almost all problems can be dealt with cleanly and quickly. Tolerating a lower quality of life means that I GET a lower quality of life. I won't settle for annoying myself or disappointing myself. Let's get started and get this over with quickly.
Every clutter story is different, just like almost all organized homes are alike. One thing my people tend to have in common is that they box up their favorite, most valuable possessions and leave them hidden away. This includes family heirlooms, artwork, and sometimes tools or art supplies. There is a tendency not to wear one's nicest clothes, use one's nicest dishes, or display one's finest belongings. We save "the good stuff" for later. We don't want it to get ruined. Meanwhile, we surround ourselves with cheap or free stuff that often feels like it just showed up somehow.
For our entire marriage, we've had two boxes of my husband's grandmother's gorgeous glass dishes. I love them. I've only been allowed to look at them a couple of times, to check that they didn't get damaged in one of our many moves. The rest of the time, they remain stowed in cardboard boxes in the back of a deep kitchen cabinet. They survived the 1996 Northridge Earthquake. My grandmother-in-law was by no means a fussy person. I doubt she would have been fazed if these dishes had gotten damaged at some point. They're heirlooms now, though, and they'll probably still be in their boxes ten years from now. The insight here is that they represent family connection and the aesthetics of a vanished world. Our futuristic daily life, where we routinely use robots and artificial intelligence, doesn't really match these pre-television artifacts. We're so nomadic that these boxes of glassware are the only roots we really have to the old family farm.
What other insights can be gleaned from boxes?
A rushed move. The majority of the time, unpacked boxes come from a move in which someone outside the household helped pack. Items were just thrown in at random. This happens for a mix of reasons. The home was disorderly before the move, and 'KITCHEN' or 'LIVING ROOM' are not fully accurate labels. There weren't enough boxes because it was too hard to estimate how many would be needed. (I know from experience that we need one hundred, but most people don't move as often as we do). There are many small-to-tiny objects that get tossed into any box that still has space. There are a lot of possessions that are not necessary to daily life, so they can be left in a box for years or decades without being missed. There isn't enough storage space in the new home to put everything away, because there's no 'away' to put them. There's a lot of MISC. These types of boxes show that the household can call upon friends for help as needed, but also that they tend to be chronically disorganized and indecisive.
"Yard sale." Another thing my people have in common is the belief that all this stuff is "worth something." Even when they got it for free or bought it at someone else's yard sale, they can't let go until someone has agreed to pay for it what they think it's worth. This signifies an inexpert relationship with frugality. If you can "earn" hundreds of dollars holding a yard sale, this generally means you've been overspending on things you didn't need for many years. The last time we had a yard sale was the last time we had a yard sale. We gave up an entire summer Saturday and earned significantly less than minimum wage for our time. We might have earned more by setting up a lemonade stand. The real problem with "yard sale" items, though, is that once they're set aside in a box they can be forgotten. It's a way of pretending to get rid of things we are really still emotionally attached to. The perpetual yard sale box tends to signify a person who hangs onto objects for their perceived cash value rather than their usefulness to the household.
Scoop and Stuff. When people come over and the disorder might be seen, the household goes into panic mode. Anyone who can be enlisted to sweep up clutter will run around trying to hide it. This may happen at different speeds, from shuffle to full-blown freak-out. The Scoop and Stuff habit tends to result in boxes full of bags full of stuff. Usually, the contents are about 80% junk mail, 15% pocket litter (receipts, napkins, gooey breath mints or oozing pill blister packs), and 5% truly important things. Scoop and Stuff boxes tend to include coins, gift cards, and uncashed checks, because that's how much of a hurry was going on. This kind of box reveals that the owner cares deeply about reputation and public perception, worries about approval from others, is a people pleaser, is also chronically disorganized, and has issues with time management.
Unsorted papers. Papers are thoughts. Even people who don't have any other kind of clutter often have paper clutter. Paper is the hardest to process because almost all of it is visually identical to every other piece: 8.5" x 11" white paper with black print, or notebook paper with handwriting, or unopened envelopes, or receipts. There's no way to process it without using System Two thinking to analyze and assess the contents. Boxes of paper clutter offer the insight that this person is overwhelmed, anxious, at least somewhat disorganized, does not have much mental bandwidth to spare, and is probably worried about money.
Grief clutter. The boxes were inherited after someone passed away. I like to think I'm pretty good at what I do, but I've never once managed to get anyone to touch grief clutter. As likely as not, it will be passed down intact to yet another generation. Grief clutter has a half-life. Opening the lid of one of these boxes is to let out a howling hurricane of sobs. We believe that material objects carry memories and that they retain the spirits of the departed. Donating or throwing away something that belonged to a loved one is erasing their mortal existence. If I throw away your dear hairbrush or your old pajamas, it's like you never lived at all. Our culture sorely needs a ritual for letting go of emotionally radioactive grief clutter. It's like these objects have souls of their own, trapped and wandering the earth like hungry ghosts.
My belief is that if something is stored in a box, it isn't necessary. Almost anything important can be replaced, including passports, social security cards, bank cards, and of course every common household object. The stuff we tend to keep is either unsorted or loaded with memories. If we truly hate sorting stuff, we can just take each box, flip it upside down, and shake it into the curbside garbage can. It's when we believe that Stuff Is Memories that we get into trouble. When that's the case, every bottle cap and candy wrapper can potentially masquerade as valuable, irreplaceable, and priceless. It's not the stuff we need to sort, so much as our thoughts and feelings.
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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