A writer asks his best friend to burn all his unpublished papers after he dies young of a lingering illness. The friend refuses. Was he right or wrong?
This is the kernel of a discussion I had with my husband last night, long past when we both should have been asleep. Was Max Brod right to publish Franz Kafka’s works, even though he was the executor of Kafka’s will, and the will said IN-CIN-ER-ATE?
As an historian, I’m on Brod’s side. As a writer, the question gives me the screaming fantods. At what point does a creative work become an independent entity with rights of its own? Am I right or wrong when I decide to destroy my own work, burn my notebooks, delete my drafts?
My husband is an engineer, more or less innocent of the world of literary history. As such, it seems easier for him to take a hard-line policy position on these matters. For instance, I argued that publishing Anne Frank’s diary was worse than publishing Kafka’s papers, because she had no say in the matter, and her work was both personal and private, while Kafka’s work was fictional. Hubby says that when Anne Frank died, her work became a relic and entered the public domain.
But if Anne Frank’s secret diary deserves to join the canon, does that not imply that The Metamorphosis did, too? Well, no, because Kafka stated his intentions toward posterity, but Anne Frank never did.
At this point, the conversation shifted to material objects, and whether different rules apply to our possessions than to our intellectual property. Do we owe stuff the same considerations as IP?
Okay, say that a hypothetical billionaire buys a da Vinci sketch. He stipulates in his will that he has loved this sketch so much that he doesn’t want anyone else to ever see it again. After his death, it is to be burned. Is he right or is he wrong?
Wrong, says my hubby, because that sketch has intrinsic merit and provenance.
At what point, though, does something become art? (Age, he says! Which at that point touches on archaeology and anthropology). Is art anything that was not mass-produced? Even a cruddy painting from a yard sale? Yes, he says, because it’s not always up to contemporary people to recognize the true merit of the work.
Okay, then, if a yard sale painting has intrinsic merit because it was an artistic work, Max Brod was right to save The Castle.
He still says no, while agreeing that this story has an operatic level of dramatic tension. It also feels highly relevant for my people, the accumulators. I want to do a documentary asking these questions of twenty hoarders and listening to them riff on what makes a thing work keeping.
If Kafka wrote today, he might have remained undiscovered, a lonely producer of fanfic or a followerless blogger. So many people are publishing so much, so often, that it would be impossible to know how many unrecognized geniuses are out there. Contrariwise, the vast majority is probably mediocre. The question of whether our output is worth keeping is now somewhat of a moot point, because it’s little more than a few kilobytes of data added to the global bucket o’ terabytes.
Our stuff, though? Where is the line between ‘heirloom’ and ‘junk’?
I have two dreads related to my own mortality. One is that I would somehow be remembered with a roadside memorial made of stuffed animals and helium balloons. (I recognize that this might be incredibly touching to the majority). My other dread is that someone would want to save all my random clutter, paying a storage fee rather than throwing out a bunch of completely useless boxes. The worst thing I can think of is having my earthly existence reduced to a box of books or old clothes. Dude, I’m not a ring or a teacup. Throw that stuff AWAY.
Am I right or wrong, though? What if I put in my will that I had paid a service to come in and donate or throw away all of my personal items? If someone in my life wanted to take one of my old t-shirts in order to feel close to me, who wins? (What if it was... a weird neighbor or stalker??)
When my grandmother passed away, I hoped to choose a piece of her costume jewelry for myself. I was the only granddaughter, and I figured she would probably have an inexpensive trinket from her youth, a little vintage piece or something that my mom and aunties wouldn’t care about. Nana was always very stylish and she loved brooches and rings. I was therefore stunned to discover that everything she had left was modern. I knew she had contemporary stuff prior to the 1980s because it appears in photos. At some point, she must have weeded it all out of her collection. As a minimalist, I respected this, but as a descendant, I was a little disappointed.
Do we make these decisions based on the financial value of the objects?
Do we make them based on their usefulness?
Can the ancestor require that the descendants keep specific things?
Can the descendants demand to receive specific things?
Which descendant? Who gets precedence, the child or the grandchild?
I made a policy decision quite a long time ago that I would not be a reliable caretaker of family memorabilia. This from a person with a history degree! I would be the logical choice as curator of photographs, letters, documents, and anything else that qualifies as an archival legacy. At the same time, I would be the worst possible choice; I don’t have children of my own and my lifestyle is far too nomadic. Who would make that commitment when I’m gone?
What tends to happen is that we are so poleaxed by grief that we are unable to make decisions, usually for many years. It’s really common for people to have multiple generations’ worth of unsorted grief boxes. One generation loses their parents, and, paralyzed by mourning, leaves the boxes for the next generation, whose sorrow then becomes exponential. Meanwhile, the boxes are full of totally mundane, insignificant items. Please don’t cry over my alarm clock or my baking pans, okay? They’re not me.
Pass the buck. That’s the default reaction. We treat our tea towels like some kind of priceless inheritance, even though almost every human being who was ever born has had the fantastic blessing of being ordinary. (Ordinary, better than infamous). What we really should be doing is loving each other harder while we are here in the earthly plane. We should be more present for one another, listening, sharing stories, forgiving, appreciating, caring, trying a little harder. It’s when we realize we have missed our opportunities to love each other extravagantly that we cling to the kettles and casserole pans. Always, always, always, people before things.
Unless those things are the unpublished works of an artistic genius, at which point the ethical dilemmas commence all over again.
It’s not that I like running in the rain and mud. It’s not that I particularly enjoy pondering whether that is hail, or just needle-sharp icy cold raindrops in the wind. It’s not even that I have some kind of willpower or motivation, which I don’t, because nobody does. What is it? It’s the result of a decision. At some point, I decided that I would do difficult things for the sake of doing difficult things. A workout is just a physical symbol of an internal commitment. My commitment is to condition the whiner out of myself.
Okay, granted, I run in general because it feels good. Not every run does, though. When you haven’t been out there for a while, in fact, it feels terrible. Running bounces your joints, makes your muscles tired, gives you a stitch in your side. Plus, you’re reminded of how easy it used to be, and you have the added layer of humiliation that your body won’t do what your ego thinks it should.
In my mind, I’m exactly as fit as Hollywood stunt people, back-flipping off of moving trains and doing parkour all over the joint. I also have clearly defined, lean, shadowed muscles and I can punch through a wall. Can’t you?
My actual body, unlike my mental model, gets wheezy and tired. It also looks a lot different in profile than it does from the front.
I want both my body and my mind to live in the real world. Spatial awareness, proprioception, these are ways my brain learns to keep my body from walking into poles, stumbling off of curbs, and getting banged up on physical objects. My mind would always rather be thinking about something more interesting or receiving passive entertainment than navigating this world of concrete, wood, and steel. Or especially the world of mud and gravel that I traverse when I train.
Where I live, I can choose between running in the heat or in the not-heat. It turns out to be much easier to run in a jacket and tights on a rainy, cold day than it is to run in shorts on a blazing hot day. I have to remind myself, though. It’s not like my body is going to remember what it was doing six months ago. Body lives in the now.
That’s something else my mind can do for my body. I can remind myself that I’ll be done in mere moments. An hour from now, half an hour from now, ten minutes from now, I’ll be standing in a hot shower. The time will be over before I know it.
Working out in bad weather has done a lot for me. It’s made me unflappable. Standing in line, being put on hold, dealing with bureaucratic problems, are as nothing compared to running uphill with mud splattering to my knees. Soggy socks, there’s a problem. Anything I do indoors in clean, dry clothing is a non-issue.
Training in bad weather is almost completely predictable. I run the same routes, so unless a tree blows down, I know what to expect. I’ve figured out which layers I need to wear at which temperatures. I have a hat with a brim for rainy days. I check the weather report first thing in the morning, and often I can schedule a block when the clouds will have broken up a bit. Still, this training helps me to deal with the unpredictable. Rain or snow that I didn’t expect acts just like the rain or snow that I did expect. The sky is on my mind a lot more than it was when I was a sedentary, indoor person.
Grit, that’s the goal. Grit is extremely useful as a characteristic. I’m persistent and tenacious. When I want something, if I’m convinced that it’s a good idea, I’ll just keep going and going for it until I get it. It’s helped me to handle criticism, since almost anyone will mock a person for spending an hour running up a muddy hill in the rain. Your mockery means nothing to me, not unless you have a valid point you were trying to make? Valid by my standards, that is? Most of our obstacles in life are emotional and social, not physical. We’re stopped by anxiety, inertia, and commentary, and almost all of the commentary comes from imaginary scenarios we developed entirely alone. Pushing yourself in the physical world of weather and natural terrain tends to shift your consciousness and develop a bias toward action.
Is this person’s sneering critique as intimidating as a fifteen-mile run? Pshaw, sir, you are as a mere pebble in my shoe. Madam, I remove your attempted influence just as I shake out a bit of gravel.
Why do I work out in bad weather? I do it because I know how, first of all. More importantly, I do it because the weather is almost never, virtually never, going to be the way I want it. If I wait for the perfect conditions, I’ll never do anything at all. If I rely on being in the mood, when I “feel like it” and everything is perfect, I’ll live my life as a lump in a chair. I push myself to get out there in rough conditions because LIFE is a rough condition. I’ll want what I want and get after what I want to get, and I’m not going to let a little rain or mud stop me.
I can be in a bad mood with a dirty tub or I can be in a bad mood with a clean tub. That’s how I see it. When I get into a snit for some reason, I need something physical to do or I’m going to start volcanically spewing hot lava and unprintable verbiage all over the nearest innocent bystander. I have two choices: clean my house, or exercise. One night I took a hammer out into the back yard and hammered a hole in the dirt, but when I saw it in broad daylight I realized that I had beaten a foot-wide bald patch into the lawn. That’s why I try to keep it constructive. Angry cleaning is great because it’s a harmless way of burning up angry energy, and it’s also a fantastic source of psychic fuel for the grodiest, worst scutwork and most boring chores.
Learning to harness various feelings is a key part of emotional homework. We tend to say that we’ll do things when we feel like it and when we’re in the mood. That’s for amateurs! Personally I have never been in the mood to scrub a toilet, and I hope I never will be. This is my one and only life, and the day I “feel like” kneeling on the floor with a toilet brush in my hand would be so out of character that I’d have to wonder if someone had been gaslighting me. I get these things done by following a schedule, distracting myself with audio books, and pretending I’m doing something else. If I’m lucky enough to be wound up and angry about something, then I can use that to get the gross stuff done. I’m certainly not going to waste a happy feeling or a good mood on cleaning my apartment.
Happiness is for enjoying. A happy feeling should go toward making art, talking to people, dancing, making meals, and doing fun stuff. When the happy feelings come, use them wisely and remind yourself of all the nice things you like to do.
Sadness? Sadness is no good for cleaning. Cleaning when we’re sad tends to make us feel sorry for ourselves. Woe is me! I wore these socks and now I have to wash them AND put them in the dryer AND fold them AND put them away! It never ends. Sigghhhhhh. Doing chores when we’re sad can add to feelings of resentment, futility, or hopelessness. The human condition of having everyday, quotidian practical needs suddenly seems like a requirement that we build pyramids or dig trenches in the rain. Sadness is a time to ask for a hug.
The difference between anger and sadness has to do with feelings of control. We tend to get angry when we feel that someone else has intruded in our territory, broken the rules, failed to keep an agreement, violated a contract (written or unwritten), or otherwise messed with us. We tend to feel sad when something has happened that we think we can’t do anything about. We’ve lost something, we regret something we can’t change, we’re stuck or trapped, we’ve failed, everything bad is permanent and pervasive. This is why angry cleaning is helpful. It’s a statement that THIS PLACE IS UNACCEPTABLE! I WON’T HAVE IT! Whatever else is going on in this dumb old world, at least I can control my own personal environment.
Talk about spheres of influence always riles people up. If there is one thing that people love to explain in painstaking, minuscule detail, it’s the precise, annotated list of reasons why they in fact do not have control, power, or free will over some specific situation. Oh, I see. You’ve fallen under a curse and that’s why the rules of life are different for you than for every other person. Astrological influences prevent you from having power in the ways that other people accept that you should. By all means, please, tell me more about why you personally can’t... have a clean house?
Wherever you live, you have the power to clean up your personal space.
Even prisoners have that power!
Clean for revenge. Clean up as a way of saying that other people can’t mess up your life, no matter how epically bad they have been at being your roommates.
Clean in hostility. Clean as a sarcastic way of proving that you are a person of refinement and that other guy is a barbarian.
Clean in white-hot rage. Stomp around, move furniture away from the walls, get behind stuff, and scrub until the paint starts coming off.
Clean in resentment. Clean because you want your cleaning deposit back, because who does that landlord think he is? Clean because you’re tired of your family taking you for granted. Clean because you’re sick and tired of junk mail and excess packaging and the million toys and prizes that have somehow infiltrated your nice home.
Clean to prove a point. You’re the one with standards. You’re the one who knows how it’s done. You’re the one who takes action while other people just sit around complaining.
Think of everything that anyone has ever done to you, get so fired up that your nostrils flare, and grab a sponge.
Use that furious energy to haul and toss donation bags into your trunk.
The truth is that our living environments affect us more than we think. I believe it’s impossible to feel a sense of domestic contentment in a messy, dirty, disorganized space. I believe that there is a direct link between disorder and dissatisfaction. The more crowded and cluttered the room, the higher the background level of stress. It’s certainly still possible to be angry in a streamlined, clean home, but at least domestic disasters aren’t adding to the list of things to be angry about. We deserve better. We deserve to live in homes where we can feel serene and supported, places where we can retreat until we’re ready to face the world again. When we have everything the way we like it, if we feel overwhelmed again by anger, we can then turn that into the process of building muscle. Or remodeling.
Giving lavishly is a major part of abundance mentality. Not necessarily the giving of cash or material goods, of course not; just giving. We give our time, our hugs, our patience, our compassion, our service, our ability to listen attentively. There is plenty and there will always be plenty more. A lot of the time, though, it’s more efficient to give material items than hugs. Being able to write a check or drop off a donation for something important feels amazing. Charity can light us up and affirm our sense of financial okayness like nothing else.
I’ve been lectured about discussing charity before. Apparently, if you admit in public that you gave to a cause, it’s... bragging? But then how does the charity get advertised? If it’s something you truly care about, wouldn’t your first goal be to advertise it as well as you could? My purpose wouldn’t be “hey, look at me, I gave five dollars,” because who cares really. My purpose would be in saying, “GUYS! Did you know that someone is doing this?” Someone is dealing with this issue! They’re letting us participate! Why didn’t we think of this ourselves?
I’ll try not to brag about myself, but can I brag about my mom? A little? She has always been the model of altruism to me. She used to be concerned about a homeless man who hung out in an alley near her work. One year, when she was making her annual batch of holiday breads, she put together a gift bag for him: Homemade bread, some fruit and nuts, new socks and gloves, and, I think, a handful of candies. He accepted the bag. She cried as she was telling the story, and it made a big impression on little grade-schooler me. So of course I went out with her this weekend to fill gift stockings.
There’s a charity here called “Fill a Stocking, Fill a Heart.” Volunteers make the stockings from quilt fabric, and donors can pick them up, fill them with little gifts for The Less Fortunate, and drop them off for distribution. Naturally, my mom couldn’t take just one of these stockings. She had to tell everyone she knew about them. And get a head count, and pick up enough stockings for everyone, and coordinate distribution. We dropped off fifteen on Sunday night, and there are a couple more still in circulation. Since there’s still over a week left, I’d be astonished if she doesn’t sneak over there and fill a few more.
I went along on the first “we need more stockings” run. A fun little outing with my mom, a little girl time. I wondered if she might start sewing the stockings herself next year, and I could easily see my niece getting swept into this. That’s the thing about charity; it spreads and starts setting roots down everywhere.
Then I went on a shopping trip to fill my stocking. At this time of year, this involves Christmas music, so you have to understand that I did my maximum that day. I elected to fill a stocking for a homeless person, and I meandered through the aisles looking for things on the checklist. I have a pretty strong visual of what homeless in winter looks like. Honestly, I can’t bear the thought of one person sleeping in the snow, much less thousands, and when I know there are homeless veterans out there it really starts to mess with my own sleep. This was a task I could do with a sense of purpose.
Do I get “credit” for this? I don’t think so. I spent about an hour with my mom, all told, helping out with this little errand. I would have gone with her if she’d dropped off her dry cleaning or gotten a haircut. I spent a total of $43. That’s about what I might have spent if I’d treated her for an afternoon, or bought her a present. I won’t miss it, and I probably won’t even remember it a month from now. Things are busy, you know? I guess I only feel like I “earn points” if I do something truly challenging or demanding, like adopting a foster child or rescuing someone from a fire.
(If you’ve done either of those things, I raise my glass to you).
Hugging the full (and rather large) gift stocking was a nice feeling. I have the genuine desire that my bundle of little gifts will make a difference for someone. I’d like the recipient to feel that someone cares. I’d like to hope that whoever it is, he or she feels at least a minor thrill of excitement in pulling out each item and realizing what it is. I would have felt better, though, if I’d had a specific profile to work with, if I’d had an “ask” of something specifically frivolous and a name, a bit of personality. I would have written a note. Dear Someone. Hang in there.
Winter is coming. There will be some moments when things might get a little rough. This can be a time of disappointment, envy, and resentment as materialism and consumer culture start to overtake our real values: Love, generosity, delight, wonder, and the thrill of setting up little surprises for others. Taking a moment to give a little something to someone can be like a pressure valve. It can be a way to release some of the workaday negativity and get back to where we want to be, feeling warm and cheerful.
Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism is a beautiful and thought-provoking book. Fumio Sasaki writes from his 215-square-foot Tokyo apartment, where he has a bed, a desk, and a wooden box. I, on the other hand, write from my 680-square-foot apartment, which I share with my husband, a parrot, a dog, and a moving van full of furniture and housewares. My place seems like a veritable carnival of excess in comparison. Sasaki presents a vision of minimalism that is redolent of potential. What does one do in such a spare interior?
Sasaki isn’t alone. The book begins with five photo case studies of other Japanese minimalists. It has before-and-after photos. Stop right there. Can we do this? Can we just have a look at series of photos like this? So peaceful, so idiosyncratic. What does one do in a minimalist room? Play Carcassonne with friends or make an illustrated journal, among other things. The fifth person is a full nomad, and his photo spread shows a simple array of possessions that fit in a backpack. I think I have more items than this in my kitchen drawer.
Goodbye, Things has an approachable, casual style. Sasaki writes about his previous maximalist lifestyle (including photos, of course) and how it was ultimately unfulfilling. He explains how materialistic he used to be, caught up in envy and fixated on money, and how minimalism changed him as a person.
There’s a list of “The things I threw away.” Aren’t these always the most fun to read? I’ve made similar lists of stuff I don’t have, some of which I did own at one point and many of which I never have. (I’ve never worn Crocs or owned a Beanie Baby, for instance). The author makes wry comments about the aspirations he had when he bought various items and how much money he had frittered away. He’s kind of a hoot.
Goodbye, Things explores minimalism as a movement. It carries on with a discussion on the roots of materialism and consumer culture. About a quarter of the book is a practical how-to guide to getting rid of stuff. The book closes with ways the author has changed as a result of his minimalist practice.
My household has changed as a result of this book. Sasaki mentions that he has one towel he uses for everything. Just like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy! My husband and I started using hand towels after our showers instead of full-size bath sheets. Works perfectly well, no more musky towels, and at least one load less of laundry every week. We still have the bath sheets in case anyone comes to visit, because sometimes minimalism can just be our little secret.
I found Goodbye, Things compulsively readable - in fact, I finished it in one sitting on a plane. Its clean prose speaks to true art on the part of the translator. This is a really lovely book, perhaps one worth keeping, even in a 210-square-foot room with just two pieces of furniture.
“...saying goodbye to your things is more than an exercise in tidying up. I think it’s an exercise in thinking about true happiness.”
“I believed that my bookshelves were a showcase of who I was”
Over the lips and through the gums, look out, Stomach, here it comes! It’s the biggest eating marathon of the year. If you’re like me and you completely lack willpower (because it’s a total fairy tale), you’re likely to wind up sprawled on the floor, moaning, “I swear I’ll never eat this much ever again!” Let’s get real about it and plan the debauchery.
There are two pieces of information that really helped me on the path to losing 35 pounds. (That was 23% of my body weight).
These two things were far more helpful to me than anything else I learned about nutrition, keeping a food log, exercise, or weight loss. They’re also why I’m comfortable following the One Plate Rule.
The Hunger Scale is a subjective measurement of how hungry or full you are, on a scale of 1 to 10. A five is ‘just right.’ A one would be fainting from lack of food, while a ten would be like the infamous Mr. Creosote scene in the Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life. Ideally, we would spend almost all our time between a 4 and a 6.
Me? I would routinely eat to a 7, an 8 at restaurants, a 9 on holidays, and definitely a 10 on Thanksgiving.
Since it takes about twenty minutes for the brain to receive a signal from the stomach, it’s easy to snarf down a huge amount of food before you even realize you’re full. Or too full. Or WAY too full.
Or, in my case, still too full to eat at noon the following day!
I’ve learned that a 7 on the Hunger Scale is physically uncomfortable. That’s already the level where I want to loosen my waistband. That’s the level where I might actually get a headache from overeating.
It’s also the level that Past Me would have taken as a signal to get seconds, and then a slice of pie.
This is where the knowledge about the volume capacity of the stomach comes in.
Thirty-two ounces is like a large drink cup. It’s possible to put more food than that on a single plate, sure. You can game it. The idea here is to do a favor to yourself, to make your own life easier, to enjoy yourself to the max without paying a price later.
The thing is, when there’s a huge amount of food available, there are also going to be leftovers. When I go to a restaurant, I can eat a fantastic dinner AND save half for lunch the next day. That more than doubles my pleasure. Two great meals, AND I don’t have to feel short of breath or leave big red welts around my waist from my tight pants. On Thanksgiving, my family is easily still eating leftovers on the third, maybe the fourth day.
I AM NOT MISSING OUT ON ANYTHING!
My dinner isn’t going to run away. Nobody is going to put all the food into a catapult and launch it over the neighbor’s roof. It’s not going to vanish into the 23rd dimension. It will still be there! Also, I have access to 1. All the recipes and 2. A 24-hour grocery store. If I really want to eat more of this stuff after the leftovers run out, I can make it whenever I want. I eat cranberry sauce all the time.
This is my deal. I can eat whatever I want, in whatever quantity, as long as it all fits on one plate. Then I can push my physical limits by eating a slice of pie about two hours later.
The more dishes there are, the more emotional this can be. Buffets are the worst. There are 47 dishes here and I want to try all of them! But if I only use one plate, I can only have a teaspoon of each one!!! I try to lean toward the vegetables and salads, being more selective about the denser stuff. I’m not fussy about various foods blending and touching each other, but I do think about whether the flavors sort of match. For instance, I probably wouldn’t choose both curry and pizza for the same plate, although I love them both.
First, I fill my plate. If I’m getting any kind of roll or bread, I choose one and stick it on the side. It has to fit on the plate without falling off the edge! In my experience, if I mix starches, it makes me really sleepy after the meal. It messes with my sleep all night, gives me cottonmouth, and tends to add a full pound to my weigh-in the next day. If there are breads, rice, pasta, and potatoes available, I choose just one of them.
Back to how rules work. These rules are my rules. I choose them. I choose them because when I break them, I experience negative side effects. Every time I wake up in the middle of the night because I overate, every time I give myself a headache or a bellyache from overeating, I am reminded of why I structure my eating behaviors.
I’m totally going to go crazy this weekend. I’m going on an epic food bender. I’m going to eat all sorts of stuff that I only eat once a year. I’m also going to plan around it, enjoying myself without making myself ill.
This is my eating-marathon schedule:
For the last several years, I’ve tended to LOSE WEIGHT over Thanksgiving weekend. That’s partly because I deep-clean my house a week in advance and spend three solid days cooking. I don’t eat while I cook because I’m hustling too fast. I also tend to lose weight over the holiday because I’m eating more vegetables and because I’m too full to snack like normal.
I’ve maintained my weight loss for nearly four years now. There’s no reason to scrimp and scrape on holidays or special occasions. There are no rules other than What Works For Me. I enjoy myself more now that I know how to eat everything I want, and I can do it without acting like a human garbage disposal.
Let’s savor the moment, taste at least a bite of everything, and have a great holiday without groaning afterward.
I’ll tell you how it’s done. I’ll tell you what to do when you’ve invited people over and you’re afraid... AFRAID THEY’LL SEE YOUR HOUSE!
The House of the Black Lagoon
Revenge of the House
The Evil House
Et cetera. Just say it looks haunted and leave it at that.
All that’s happening is anxiety. Anxiety over anticipated conversations that haven’t actually happened (yet?). Anxiety over feared criticism and contempt. Anxiety about spending time with people you don’t really want to spend time with, people you don’t realize you’re allowed to uninvite. Maybe there’s also some shame, for whatever reason, and guilt that you haven’t lived up to some standard you think you’re supposed to care about more than you do. You don’t have to do this - you can just throw your hands in the air and say, “[***] it!” (Insert interjection of choice).
If the rigors of hosting a major holiday are too much stress for you, a simple way to get out of it is just to revolt. Answer the door in your jim-jams, hair unbrushed, and offer to order pizza. If everyone wants to come back next year, that’s good information. If they don’t, hey, freedom!
You’re doing it, though. You’re going to run around, feeling the delightful terror of the looming deadline, and you’re going to commit to the FRANTIC CLEANING!
Where do you start?
What I’ve just described is the genesis of squalor and chronic disorganization. A traumatic experience, such as relocating to a new home, results in a frantic round of “scoop and stuff.” (Grab everything within view and stuff it into plastic grocery bags). Often there’s a physical rebound, like a headache or a cold. The aftermath of the frantic cleaning becomes the new background, invisible to the occupants. Nobody ever goes back and sorts out the papers or “catches up” on the laundry. Each traumatic event, injury, illness, visit, or whatever creates a new layer. It’s hard. It’s hard to force yourself to start digging out. Anyone would think so! The home environment becomes a visible manifestation of psychic pain. Just looking at it makes everything feel worse.
Wherever you live, it’s your home. If you were a wild beast, it would be your nest, your burrow, your warren, or your den. You’re entitled to feel comfortable and safe there. Your home isn’t a social display, not unless you want it to be. You don’t have to arrange it for status or prestige. You should, though, feel that sense of comfort and safety. If you don’t like the feeling of being in your home, do what needs to be done, and do it for yourself. Imagine the gift of looking around and liking everything you see.
Just... imagine it while you’re cleaning! Now, hop to it! Best of luck to you.
There’s certainly some frustration out there among people who don’t want to be told to be grateful on command. It’s a sort of privilege shaming. “You shouldn’t feel X because you have Y.” Nobody has to be grateful for anything. You don’t even have to be grateful for having an audience to listen to you complain and reject the pressure to be grateful. Pessimism and cynicism are there for the taking, free, in unlimited quantities, and you don’t have to be grateful for them, either. I say that gratitude is mandatory for two reasons. One, it’s a cultural trend, and if you can’t do it with genuine fervor, then you should at least know how to fake it. Two, gratitude is generally the logical choice. It makes more sense, and life is easier when it makes sense.
The case for gratitude.
Say you’re traveling to visit a group of people and you’re, at best, ambivalent about the trip. You have the option of being grateful for your mode of transportation. As bad as it is, presumably it isn’t an open-air horse cart. Presumably you aren’t being splattered with wet mud as you go along.
You also have the option of being grateful that all of the people at your shindig are currently alive. None of them have died of cancer and none of them have committed suicide. Maybe you know several people who fit that description. Given that truly sad set of circumstances, a person with that history would have even more cause to appreciate the continuing aliveness of those around the table.
You have the option of being grateful for the food. Oh, you don’t have to. There are plenty of terrible cooks out there, plenty of dried-out turkeys and boats of lumpy gravy and other horrors. I’m going to insist on this one, though, because I’ve gone hungry. If you can’t be grateful for a plate of hot food, get over it. Get over yourself and thank the cook.
You have the option of being ungrateful for anything I’ve mentioned so far. Of course! Nobody wants to be bludgeoned with the logical need to be impressed with the status quo. Can you be genuinely ungrateful for your literacy, though? For your ability to access the internet, use modern electronic equipment, and read these words?
I often use contrarian methods to remind myself to be grateful. I’m grateful I’m not in a coma. I’m grateful I can breathe without equipment. I’m grateful I can walk unaided. I’m grateful I have all of my fingers and toes. I’m grateful I don’t need a root canal. I’m grateful we aren’t having a power failure. I’m grateful the water in my building is turned on. I’m grateful my neighbors aren’t playing loud music (right now). I’m grateful my dog doesn’t need emergency veterinary surgery. I’m grateful we aren’t being audited by the IRS. I’m grateful not to be caught up in an addiction. I’m grateful I don’t have a misspelled tattoo.
There are better reasons. I’m grateful that my favorite authors have written my favorite books. I’m grateful that my favorite musicians made recordings of my favorite songs. I’m grateful for 24-hour grocery stores and pharmacies. I’m grateful for Wikipedia. I’m grateful for the public library and the fact that there’s a branch within walking distance of my apartment. I’m grateful we have a garbage disposal.
I’m grateful that spiders can’t fly. (Spiders are on my mind today, because one was crawling in my sheets this morning, and it was the first thing I saw when I woke up, and I have to be grateful that it didn’t bite me).
Gratitude comes easily to me, because my life was much tougher ten years ago than it is today. Gratitude is also easy after someone close to you has passed away, or at least I think so. I do a mental head count every day. Even when someone is annoying me, I’m still glad I’m not at their funeral. Gratitude is, in my case, born of great sadness and past disappointment. I’ve come to believe that anything I am not sufficiently grateful for will be taken from me, and quickly. I’d better appreciate it to the fullest while I still have it, while it still exists to be appreciated.
Gratitude also comes easily to me because I’m an optimist. I’ve found that allowing myself to give way to awe and wonder and curiosity makes for the most interesting possible life. It often seems to me that a lack of gratitude comes from a distinct lack of imagination and creativity. Maybe, when we aren’t able to force ourselves to feel gratitude for anything, maybe we should try to create something for which it is worth feeling grateful?
You might not be, but I am grateful for your continued existence and well-being, for the fellowship of your friends and family, for the blessings in your life. I wish you, dear reader, the happiest of seasons, and more bounty tomorrow than you have today.
Change Your Day, Not Your Life. That's a tricksy kind of a claim. How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives, as Annie Dillard reminds us. Thinking about this too hard can be really intimidating and discouraging - unless, that is, you start reading Andy Core. He has a way of making change seem easy and worth doing.
Part of how Core approaches the problem of change is by identifying why we don't do what we know we should do. He has a master's degree in the science of human performance, and he spends his days coaching the reluctant, the burned-out, and the frustrated. He's heard it all. We recognize ourselves on the very first page, when he presents the idea of "Motivational Amnesia," which is when our motivation seems to appear and disappear of its own accord. I know I often ask myself why I chose to go on this run or this hike, usually when my last meal starts wearing off.
Change Your Day, Not Your Life has a lot to say about managing your energy level. Anyone who feels too tired and stressed out to make any positive changes should really spend some time with this book. There are lists of things all of us could be doing to feel better and have more energy every day. I liked the idea of calling your workout "appointment with Jim" instead of "go to gym." Then nobody has to know. We don't do these things to impress other people, anyway; we do it for ourselves.
There are some very simple, embraceable ideas here. For instance, split your lunch in half and save half of it for late afternoon. Quit hitting the snooze button, because snoozing just makes you more tired and groggy. Lay out your morning stuff the night before. Dance with your kids right when you get home. These are EASY ideas, people! We have to ask ourselves why it's so hard to implement changes that take five minutes or less - or we can just read Change Your Day, Not Your Life.
One of the most useful concepts I took from this book was the idea of the "junk hour." Oh no. I will never be able to shake that phrase out of my mind. The next time I find myself scrolling through icons from my various bookmarks, queues, and playlists, not realizing how much time is passing, the words "junk hour" are going to go floating through my mind. The ways we spend our junk hours are infinite, but the hours themselves... are finite. Alas.
The freakiest thing I learned was that only one percent of people surveyed actually love their jobs. ONE PERCENT! Maybe we torture ourselves, doing things that lower our energy level, because we feel trapped by work? Or maybe we wouldn't mind our jobs so much if we did better at managing our energy level.
Andy Core has written a funny, surprising book about how things can be a little easier than we think. He emphasizes that we focus less on self-criticism than on action, that we forgive ourselves, that we remind ourselves to stay in today. This is how you can Change Your Day, Not Your Life.
Favorite quote: "Make a quality decision to change."
Perfectionists think that perfectionism is a positive trait. It’s the kind of fake flaw that we’ll mention in job interviews. “What is your worst flaw?” Okay, first of all, come on. Nobody is going to be honest about this question, particularly because we usually don’t even know our worst flaws. That’s what’s so bad about them. I’m not going to cop to having no sense of the passage of time, hating to be told what to do, taking everything personally, or thinking my bosses are never as smart as me. I’m going to say that I focus too hard and forget to take breaks. Someone else is going to claim to be excessively punctual. Anyone who is a perfectionist is going to take this opportunity to brag about it. In business as in life, perfectionism is a serious obstacle to success and happiness.
Copy-editing people on the internet is still a thing. Look, adults are basically already at the level of linguistic competence that they’re going to reach. They’re never going to remember how to use apostrophes or that ‘defiantly’ is not the same word as ‘definitely.’ It’s a lost cause. Correcting someone else’s spelling, grammar, or punctuation is mean, rude, and classist. More importantly, it’s a waste of time. Don’t you have anything better to do?
I used to say that I would only remarry if I met a man who could beat me at Scrabble. Then I fell for a rocket scientist who can’t spell. He can do calculus in his head but he has trouble doing web searches because Google is like, “I got nothing.” Helpless in my affections, I adjusted my expectations. Perfectionism has no place in love. Or friendship. Or parenting. Or business. Or anything really.
I’d love a world where we replace perfectionism with kindness. Hey, it’s an ideal. Barring that, let’s focus more on two other things: performance and process.
Performance is a result. Process is a routine. For instance, when I’m looking at fitness, I’m completely discarding the concept of a “perfect body.” I want performance, my actual physical ability to do things, and I want process, my observable adherence to my training plan. I want to aim at specific metrics and I want to tailor my training in such a way that I can eventually reach those metrics. If I want to run five miles, I need to schedule regular running sessions and focus on increasing my distance. If I want to run a ten-minute mile pace, then I need to schedule regular running sessions and do speed work. I’m grading myself on how well I adhere to my schedule and how hard I push myself. I’m grading my performance and my process, checking that my plan is working, that the work I’m doing is helping me to reach my end goals. The moment I reach my goals, I set new goals. There can be no perfectionism for an athlete because there can never be a moment of complacency. Either you’re striving for a new challenge, or you’re retiring.
Let’s carry this over to career success. The athletic mindset is very similar to the business mindset, and there’s a huge amount of crossover. You seek out a challenge. You have an internal drive to work hard. Obstacles are part of the course. You show up even when you’re tired and you push yourself even when you’re not in the mood. You actively seek out tough coaches. Trash talk from your opponents merely inspires you to show off what you can do. Effort is your default mode. You’re a finisher. Your dream is to set a new record. You want the best. You’re showing up (process) and delivering results (performance), and you’re always refining both because that’s what interests you the most.
Perfection is not the best. Perfection is static. Perfection thinks it can stand around sunning itself. Perfection is a snapshot, while process is a film. Perfection thinks it’s done, while performance knows there’s always more to do. Perfection thinks it’s the best, while performance increases itself, getting better all the time.
Perfectionism in romance means looking for the perfect partner, someone who ticks off every box on your checklist. A performance-oriented romance means looking for a connection with someone, exploring how it feels to spend time with that person. A process-oriented romance means finding out what this person likes, how this person likes to communicate, and how to help this person to have a better life. A perfectionist will describe how the ideal person is supposed to look and what traits he or she is supposed to have, possibly including what car they drive or what music they like. It’s a lot easier to pick someone you like, who likes you, when it’s fun to be together. Then dote on this person and go out of your way to do the nice things they like the most. Who cares how tall someone is or what color hair they have? Focus on whether you like talking to each other. Focus on being nice to each other.
Perfectionism is not strategic. Perfectionism generally comes from a desire to feel superior in some way. What’s the point? Why correct people’s grammar when you could be volunteering in a literacy program? Why line up objects at precise 90-degree angles when you could be... ugh, anything else! Channel that conscientious energy toward community emergency preparedness or something constructive. Take some of that restlessness and use it to evaluate your life overall.
How is your daily life working for you? Are you happy? Do you feel content, loving, satisfied? Have you learned everything you could ever want to know? Are you good at everything you’d like to be good at? Are you progressing in a career that fascinates you? Are you in a happy and friendly relationship with someone, anyone, whether it’s your sibling, a favorite coworker, or a romantic partner? Do you like your personal surroundings? Are you financially independent? Do you have all the challenges you need to feel engaged? If your life is full and you feel like you’re thriving, is there some way you could share with others? Pause and look around and make adjustments, before someone who is more of a perfectionist than you comes along with that beady eye and makes some suggestions.
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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.