It’s that time again. I went to the grocery store, walking in behind an employee with a massive display arch of helium balloons, because I live in a musical and that kind of thing is happening around us all the time. Out front the hay bales had already been set up. Technically it’s still summer, but the winds have changed and autumn is coming.
School is back in session and the pumpkins are out.
The winds are changing, blowing through, sweeping old dust out of the corners wherever they can.
What’s different this year compared to last year?
I’m a summer person, and in a lot of ways, fall makes me antsy. I know the days are getting shorter and the cold, wet weather is coming. I also start to count off the weeks that are left until the New Year. That’s my ultimate watershed moment, the way I measure whether I’m doing as well as I want and whether my plans are working out.
I also feel the glimmer of possibility, that what felt like an endless summer on an 80-degree day is now about to run out. Any warm and sunny day seems more valuable, perhaps the last chance to run around and enjoy it until next year. Have I had a picnic, have I sat under a beach umbrella, have I sauntered along in the park?
Those in the Southern Hemisphere can use my wistful feelings of summer passing toward planning fun things to do in the coming months. Please do!
There are other ways besides seasonal change to take notice when a fresh wind blows in. What’s changing around us? Is this indicative of a trend?
Your boss or a former colleague gets a promotion
Someone you know is getting divorced
One of your friend’s kids suddenly becomes a teenager, and how did that happen??
Someone is moving
The neighbors are cleaning up their yard
We bumped into one of our young ones at the coffee shop. She’s excited because she just started taking a class on American Sign Language. I showed her the few pathetic signs I learned in childhood, when my mom’s best friend happened to be Deaf. Cookie, I’m sorry, bathroom, parachute. Useful signs for a four-year-old! A wind blew in with her, a breezy possibility of learning new things and making new friends.
Why didn’t I take the opportunity to learn to sign more from my mom, my ex-husband, or any of my other friends or boyfriends who know how to sign? My dusty old brain needs sweeping out.
Like everyone, I’m surrounded by fresh opportunities all the time. Some of them I notice, some of them I don’t, and some of them I don’t even recognize or understand. Whenever a breeze kicks up it’s my job to perk up and pay attention.
This is something we feel in our new apartment, in our new neighborhood. The microclimate is ever so subtly different than it was in our old place, two miles away. On the top floor instead of the ground floor, we’re now able to get a great cross-breeze day and night. We actually have more than one window. This makes our daily life feel wildly different, even though we’re in a similarly sized place, quite nearby, with the same job and the same friends as before.
It’s always surprising how many people never open their windows. One of the indicators of hoarding that I notice in my ambit is when drapes are never opened, but are visibly pressed against a window by the stacks of clutter behind them. A dim and dusty room should never deprive a person of fresh air and sunlight, no matter what the neighbors might think.
We’ve just moved, into a place that feels breezy and bright, and it’s changing everything. We’ve rearranged our furniture four times in a month, constantly reconfiguring as we cull our stuff and adapt to the new conditions. We invited our friends over and the room filled with laughter, wall to wall. The best kind of breeze of all.
What if a wind blew in and it changed everything? What would that be like?
What if everything around us was arbitrary and subject to change? What if our petty annoyances simply blew away? What if we realized that our biggest problems were secretly only problems of perspective? What if the wind changed, and then our minds changed too?
I’ve felt this in my life, as I’ve relocated, traveled, changed jobs, transformed my body. Body transformation is probably the weirdest one, wandering back and forth over eight clothing sizes, but it tends to show that anything is possible. Paying off debt is possible, training for a new career is possible, finding love is possible, forgiveness is possible. Certainly unloading clutter and redesigning a room is possible, and it can be done in a day with a little hustle. Bustle and bustle, hear the leaves rustle.
If you’re big into the holiday season, now is the time to start getting ready. There is still plenty of time to make space, to design a Halloween costume, to plan a Thanksgiving menu, to finish off some New Year’s Resolutions. All the stuff you will wish you had done the week before, you can start doing now, as a cute and fun gift for Future You.
Social deadlines are the best deadlines, as long as we’re doing something appealing and we’re genuinely looking forward to it. Decorating, hosting a party, and breaking out the special holiday treats are all excellent motivation for getting stuff done. As the wind blows in, telling me that fall is here, I’m looking forward to a full month of Halloween. I’m clearing the decks and making sure I have no reason not to indulge myself.
Open the window. Do you feel the wind blowing in?
Work is that place you go where everything drives you nuts and you can’t tell the truth about it. Right?
It’s a truism that most people are going to work because they have to, for the money, in spite of every possible discouragement: Being simultaneously overworked without challenge, bored but unable to take time off, wasting time at pointless meetings, having no creative input, with a micromanaging boss who is an obstacle to productivity, all with a long commute. Yay hooray.
Does it have to be that way, though?
When I got my first office temp job, I was so excited I didn’t know what to do. My previous job had been at a convenience store, so go figure. Literally anything is better than wiping up day-glo nacho cheese while listening to a hyperactive child play with the doorbell. This was a purely entry-level job, standing in front of a photocopier. Other temps had walked off the job on their first day. One of them quit after two hours, remarking, “I don’t have to do this.”
Faced with one of the most boring possible things, the human mind will wander, looking for some way to add excitement. I saw it as a great big video game that generated money. Try to beat the copier and keep it going so you don’t have to wait while it warms up for a new cycle. Count how many copies you make and try for a new high score.
My positive, upbeat attitude attracted the attention of the staff. They taught me things. I caught on quickly, and more people taught me more things. Their backlog disappeared. I started supporting two dozen people with basic administrative tasks.
Obviously other people would look at this as servitude, which it was - doing other people’s scutwork for low pay and no benefits. Seven dollars an hour was better than minimum wage, but it didn’t go very far. Ah, but almost everyone I knew in those days worked in either retail or food service. I had what almost none of my friends or acquaintances had. I had evenings and weekends off! I could predict my schedule months in advance! I didn’t have to hustle for tips, wear a uniform, or get pulled in to cover other people’s shifts.
Also, the basic skills I learned are skills I use every day, in my personal as well as professional life, skills that neither my family, high school, nor college had to offer.
The fact-finding mission of my first office job ever was to find out, What is it like to work in an office in a professional setting?
I liked it. I always have. I love the business world for so many reasons, the predictability and structure most of all. It is hilarious and surreal in many ways, a self-parodying comedy machine in which we’re never supposed to break character or peek through the fourth wall. Yet overall it’s a clean and well-mannered place to spend time.
Right now I’m on a bit of a true crime kick, and it has struck me that it might be very interesting to work in a law office. That’s one of the few fields where I have never worked. Suddenly it clicked that I could easily get a job as a paralegal, where I would learn everything I want to know...
And unlike school...
THEY would pay ME!
There may well be someone reading this who has a job as a paralegal. “You can HAVE it!” this person is thinking. Scoff scoff. This hypothetical person already knows everything that I do not know, and is thus no longer approaching the job with curiosity. I understand that as many people leave the legal profession every year as those who enter it, that it’s draining in the long term. It doesn’t bother me because I don’t want or need an administrative support role in the long term, and I would openly state as much in an interview.
“I will work for you with great curiosity and interest, and you will throw everything you can at me as my incentive. If and when it quits working out, no harm no foul.” Or something along those lines. I can speak business jargon at least as well as anyone else.
Literally every employed person has the option to replace one job with another. We’re all free to bring in whatever attitude we choose. We just don’t realize it.
So you replace one boring, unfulfilling, low-paid job with another. What have you lost? If you already know your current position or field depletes your energy, why stay?
I think what gets most people is interpersonal dynamics. We start feeling crushed by management, by bureaucracy, by colleagues, by clients or patients or customers. What makes the day difficult isn’t the work itself, it’s the social atmosphere. Mood, in other words. The thought of revising a resume, going after new credentials, or interviewing fills us with dread.
I’ve never had a client who was willing to do a job search - the very thought makes them quake with terror, even if their job is the worst part of their life.
It’s the key to freedom, though!
You can’t go on a trip without booking the tickets. You can’t move to your dream home without packing and changing your address. You can’t find romance without introducing yourself to your future sweetheart. You can’t get your dream job without that pesky old interview.
Every improvement comes from change.
It’s possible that someone who has been languishing in a soul-crushing job could transform it by turning it into a fact-finding mission. Possible? Trying to figure that out is a fact-finding mission all on its own. It’s worth a try.
The ultimate fact-finding mission is to figure out what it is that makes other people fulfilled and satisfied, even invigorated, by their work. Are we doing what they’re doing? It’s when we’re most engaged that we’re offering the most, and getting the most in return.
Passion is overrated. This is the message of The Passion Paradox. This research-based book helps to distinguish between different types of passion, positive and negative, which is something that pop culture could really use right now. We can thank Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness for offering a message that is much more nuanced and interesting than a million memes and fridge magnets.
The term ‘passion’ originally had dark and religious meanings. It wasn’t a feeling that people would associate with a dream job, say, or interior design. Passion was (and probably still is) a form of suffering, just as nostalgia was considered an illness. I can tell you, as a person afflicted with a lifelong passion for birdwatching, that I do sometimes question why I am bushwhacking through brambles and waist-high weeds just to look at a bird for a few minutes.
Dopamine, that’s why. There are biological reasons why some people are ‘passionate’ and others less so. There are also psychological roots, and passion can lead to obsession and addiction. Whatever else it does, passion does not guarantee a path to happiness; it’s not comfortable.
Two ways that the search for passion can mess us up are the destiny belief of love and the fit mind-set of passion. The first is the belief in “soulmates” rather than that relationships take work, and the second is a sense that there is a “dream job” out there for everyone. These beliefs convince us that any difficulty, awkwardness, or less-than-perfect feelings mean a job or relationship aren’t right for us. This in turn can lead us to quit rather than putting in any effort, meaning we destroy our own chances at happiness before they have a chance to get anywhere.
The Passion Paradox does more than identify problems with our pop culture perception of passion. This book teaches ways to deal with hedonic adaptation and fear of failure. Unexpectedly, it suggests that we seek out ways to experience awe and develop a greater perspective. It also encourages enhancing our self-awareness. Ultimately, we can incorporate a health and balanced passion into our very identity.
Everyone tells us to find our passion but no one tells us how to find it, let alone how to live with it.
After a massive achievement or a devastating failure, getting back to work serves as an embodied reminder that external results aren’t why you are in this.
Be most intent not on winning or losing, but on becoming better—stronger, kinder, and wiser—than your past self.
You simply cannot be deeply passionate and balanced in combination.
Boredom is one way to avoid the fear of missing out. Simply don’t care about anything and have no interests. Problem solved! For those of us who aren’t really capable of feeling bored, FoMO can be a real problem. No matter what we’re doing, there is always something else going on that sounds amazing, there are always tons of choices and alternate paths, and always the potential sense of loss for the roads not taken. It can eat a hole into any experience.
Fortunately all it takes is an attitude adjustment.
There are a bunch of ways to do it:
First and most boring, we can try to remember how lucky we are that we’re doing this right now instead of, say, lying in bed with the flu, getting a root canal, or loading a moving van. Oh yeah! Suddenly I am remembering what a great day this is!
Funny how we only feel like we’re missing out on the variety of appealing options, not the depressing or scary options...
We can try to remember that no matter what we’re doing, someone somewhere else in the world is doing something equally interesting. That person might happily trade places with us. Desire for novelty is built into the human system, and in that way we have much in common with crows. Just because we can see the attraction of something else does not mean that the other thing is superior to what we have in front of us.
I had occasion to think about this while walking in London. My husband and I passed a pair of Brits. He wore a Los Angeles sweatshirt and she wore a Disneyland t-shirt. They’d gone all the way to our neighborhood at some point, because it is so great, and we had packed up and met them all the way in their neighborhood for the same reason. Hook arms and do-si-do, swing your partner round and round.
We can try to remind ourselves that we can always make plans and come back again another time. Travel is simply a question of priorities. There are tons of ways to make it happen, from relocating or working in a travel-related field to house swapping to saving money, and lots and lots more. People are doing it every day.
One way of looking at vacation FoMO is to regard it as a sign that we are enjoying ourselves and we’ve discovered something that we like. Not everyone has a passion, not everyone is very much in touch with their sense of fun or their heart’s desire. Longing to stay somewhere or to go back again is a bright blinking arrow pointing in a clear direction.
What I’m working on right now is the sense that, rather than missing out on something or anything, I’m really just constantly surrounded by almost infinite possibilities. Every time I read a book, I’m not missing out on a hundred million other books, I just happen to be into that one at that moment. Every time I have a conversation with a friend, I’m not missing out on conversations with other people, I’m just fortunate to be catching up with this particular friend at this moment. When I’m somewhere on vacation, likewise, I’m not missing out on anything.
Even though it feels that way sometimes!
This FoMO feeling, it’s insidious. It’s like a leak in the ceiling.
Everyone told us, when we asked where we should go in London, “Oh, you should definitely see the Sky Garden.” Never mind that it turned out to be booked solid for the entire window of availability. Same thing with the Buckingham Palace garden tour. If we were to shed a tear every time something like that happened on a trip, we’d never have any fun at all.
Instead we realize that a place like London is absolutely full of magnificent parks and gardens, most of which are free to visit, have no lines, and include plenty of places to sit.
We find ourselves in Kensington Gardens, with ringneck parrots landing on us and eating out of our hands, something we had no idea would be a possibility on our trip, or in this lifetime.
FoMO is a denial of serendipity. Ultimately it’s a way of trying to control that which should not always be controlled. The point of travel is to see the world the way it is, not the way we’ve imagined it from our sofa cushions at home. It works so much better when we leave room for a bit of magic. In that sense we’re only really missing out when we stay at home and refuse to disrupt our boring old routine.
Naysayers are going to tell you that the pursuit of happiness has something wrong with it. It’s deluded, it’s selfish, it’s impossible with the world in the state it’s in. They think they’re being contrarian. On the contrary, that is the default view. It’s contrarian to stand up for happiness as a worthy, even necessary, moral goal and ethical - well, I won’t say ‘duty’ - ...option. Ethical option. Part of this is because of all the negative things that happy people don’t do.
Happy people don’t act up.
Let’s catalogue this.
Happy people are not belligerent.
Happy people don’t vandalize things.
Happy people don’t abuse their kids or hurt animals.
Happy people don’t spread negative gossip.
Happy people don’t sabotage others’ happiness.
Happy people are not motivated to cause harm.
See what I’m saying here? A person who did engage in these negative activities would, ipso facto, not be a happy person. Someone who is content, grateful, even cheerful, would not be inclined to do these things. Probably the thought would never cross their mind.
This is a good measure of whether something is a wise course of action or not. Is this something happy people do? Or is it something a happy person would not do?
‘Happy’ does not necessarily mean ‘carefree.’ A counterargument could be made that a ‘happy’ person is a hedonist, a sloppy and irresponsible person who leaves a trail of mess and debt. Really, though? Such a person would eventually start to receive increasing amounts of criticism and disrespect, and that is not consistent with longterm happiness.
An inconsiderate person is missing out on the happiness of doing nice things for others. There is also a missed opportunity for earning respect and gaining an excellent reputation.
Not that striving for reputation is all that good an idea. Depending on the opinions of others is not the path toward happiness, it’s rather a narrow and muddy track into the brambles. Happy people are happy because they have found something inside themselves that makes them that way.
Probably a lot of widely different things make happy people happy. Speaking for myself, I find that things that make me happy aren’t always on other people’s radar. They aren’t noticing things that are, for me, a constant wellspring of delight.
Delight is certainly one ingredient of happiness!
There’s a corollary to the idea that happy people don’t do certain things, and that is that unhappy people also don’t do certain things. Seeing a quadrant diagram here... Happy people do things that unhappy people don’t do, etc.
Unhappy people don’t delight in small things.
Unhappy people do not seek out awe-inspiring experiences.
Unhappy people do not create their own atmosphere of domestic contentment.
Unhappy people are not consoled by nature.
Unhappy people do not spread good cheer to others.
You never know when a single comment or facial expression can make the difference in someone else’s day. Anyone who has ever worked in customer service can testify to this. People have their reasons for being rude or throwing tantrums, and maybe they’re good ones, but probably they’re not.
A single kind remark or empathetic gaze can make someone feel connected and cared for. Far more often, all sorts of sniping cruddy little bits of sarcasm or dirty looks are going to be fired throughout the day. It tends to spill over onto innocent bystanders.
You never know when the person on the receiving end just got fired, got a bad diagnosis, or had a death in the family. You never know when someone overheard something snappy at a low moment, and it contributed to their overall outlook on life. Unhappiness spreads like mold spores, and unhappy people like it that way.
On the other hand, you never know when a simple smile or word of courtesy is going to make the difference. It may be the first time someone has made eye contact with that person and smiled at them all day. It may be the first time someone has spoken directly to them or treated them kindly all week. It may be the first compliment they’ve ever received in their life.
Unhappy people don’t think about these things. Unhappy people think about themselves.
It’s possible to shake out of a mental spiral. Disrupt it. The quickest way to do that is to do something nice for someone. Thinking about someone else is a minute you didn’t spend thinking about your own problems. Maybe you still have the same problems you did a minute ago, but something positive has come from it, and nobody can take that away.
Happy people have this built into their worldview. Most of the nice things that happy people do are instinctual and don’t require a moment’s hesitation. Happy people don’t wait to be kind.
Because happy people believe in happiness, they are much quicker to fix small problems before they become bigger problems. Unhappy people believe in unhappiness, and problematic situations fit well in that worldview. Happy people don’t tolerate persistent problems.
It’s possible to stay unhappy while fixing persistent problems, if you want it that way. When I was young and poor, I would come home and scrub the bathtub whenever I’d had a rotten day. I figured I could be sad with a clean bathtub or a dirty bathtub, and at least I could have a nice soak in the clean bathtub. On the worst days, at least a depressing mess isn’t contributing to everything.
I believed in my ability to affect my own circumstances. Therefore, I did.
Happy people don’t quit trying. Happy people know there’s a better way, and they’re not going to give up until they’ve made it back. This is why happy people are the ones changing the world.
I like a good euphemism, especially for self-talk. When I tried to come up with a better way to think about oral surgery, the term “dental reset” came to mind. Works for me. There’s a lot going on, and I wish it was already over (and paid for), and grouping several procedures into one batch is helping me deal with it.
Dentistry is amazing from an historical perspective. I remind myself of this. Not very long in the past, the best available option for even the wealthiest person would be to have a tooth removed without anesthesia of any kind, that or let it decay in place over a few years. Poor dentistry was probably a factor in decreased longevity because of infection and the difficulty of eating while mostly toothless.
That’s why I can still smile while signing off on a copay of over a thousand dollars just to not be awake for all this.
I’m straightedge, I won’t drink a beer, but go on ahead with that IV and the oxygen!
My image of a root canal, before I had my first one last month, was a vague and nameless horror. People speak reverently of root canals in the same way they do of automotive collisions. All I knew to expect was misery. IT WASN’T THAT BAD THOUGH!
Resorption repair: not that bad either.
In neither of these procedures in my dental reset have I been offered painkillers, which is great because I wouldn’t want them anyway. I was prescribed Vicodin for the extraction of my wisdom teeth, and I quit taking it on the second day because it made me feel so ill. That, and my mom found me passed out on the bathroom floor... In my opinion, painkillers don’t treat pain, they just make a person too incoherent to complain about it.
Sometimes you have a problem. Then you get a prescription and you have two things: the original problem plus a pill problem.
I woke up in the same dental chair where I started, which was an improvement over my wisdom tooth experience. Then I had been taken to another room and laid out on a cot, which was disorienting and upsetting. Waking up alone in a strange room without being told this would happen! This is why I think one of two things. Either anesthesia has improved as a practice over the past 25 years, or I’m better at tolerating it.
Or my endodontist is a genius, which is likely in either case.
Okay, so the anxiety. We got home from the airport after 11 PM, knowing I would have to be in the dental chair at 8 AM the next day. The first thing they told me was that they might not be able to save the tooth and we’d have to deal with that later.
Hitting all my buttons:
Large bills, due in full
Dying under anesthesia
Being moved around while unconscious
Going around toothless, even for a day
Wondering how much more of this I will confront in the next 40-50 years
Teeth are the sine qua non of the middle class. I really didn’t want to be losing three teeth, especially not on the same row, and I didn’t feel all that impressed with the alternatives. Isn’t 43 a little young for a bridge?
Basically what happens with resorption is that the tooth starts to sort of dissolve. It doesn’t hurt and you can’t see it with the naked eye, so the only way to find out it’s going on is with an x-ray and a smart dentist. I love horror movies but come on. The procedure involves cutting into the gum tissue to fix the damaged root and then voila, sutures in your gums.
The biggest struggle with willpower that I have ever had in my life has been to keep my tongue away from those sutures.
I sat in the dental chair and, I kid you not, the song playing was “Band on the Run.” Paul McCartney singing:
IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE
I woke up and they helped me into a wheelchair, where I immediately started shivering, an aftereffect of sedation.
I felt basically fine, though I think my appearance alarmed the rideshare driver.
My husband had to take the day off work to be with me, which was actually good because he was able to catch up on work email accrued during our trip. It turns out it was also helpful because he paid attention and remembered all the specific details about flossing and brushing and anti-inflammatories and the prescription medicated mouthwash.
I didn’t realize until about twelve hours later, after sleeping off the residual anesthetic and reading all my brochures, that there are a lot of reasons why someone can’t be alone right after this stuff. Apparently anesthesia makes a lot of people violently ill and it can even make you stop breathing. Yikes!
In actual fact, I had some of the best sleep I’ve had all year and woke up feeling refreshed. I went to check myself out in the mirror, expecting bruising and puffiness and circles under my eyes. Since all I did all day was drink fluids and nap on and off, I looked... rather dewy. If anything, if there is any swelling, it seems to be making me look younger.
If you’ve been contemplating this kind of endodontic magic, obviously your experience might not be the same as mine, but don’t be scared. I haven’t really been sore, or dizzy, or nauseated. I’m hungry and not loving the soft foods diet, and the suture is mildly distracting, but I’m sleeping fine. I can get the stitches out next week.
It seems fair to mention that, especially for my age, I’m in pretty great shape. I didn’t have any of the health problems listed on the intake form, such as diabetes or heart disease. I’m at a healthy weight. I work out. Circulation and respiration matter here. I also suspect that I’m having a relatively easy time because I’ve been a vegan for 22 years. I may not be experiencing the standard amount of inflammation as someone who regularly takes in a lot of sugar, coffee, alcohol, salt, and saturated fat. No idea.
They were able to save my tooth! Sweeter words were never heard. This is probably the best and smartest thing I’ve spent money on all year.
Root canal: Fine
Resorption surgery: No big deal
Crown: To be scheduled
It was certain doom when we realized we were both marching band geeks. My husband and I still sometimes go around whistling Sousa marches together. He played tuba and I played (but you knew this) clarinet. Therefore we can do a reasonable rendition of Fairest of the Fair.
Our musical training also helped when I taught him various ballroom dances. He knew what I meant when I taught him to swing dance and suggested we try double time.
Then, triple time!
I kinda do everything triple time now.
I just discovered that one of the library smartphone apps I use offers a higher playback speed than the other one. For the enthusiasts, that’s Hoopla vs. OverDrive. Although I was in public at the time, I bounced in my seat and let out a little ‘woohoo!’
Earlier this year, I finally figured out the secret of how to input ebooks into my speed-reading app, Outread. Depending on what it is, I can read at triple or quadruple speed.
This is probably why I have little patience for TV or movies. Sometimes I want to watch something terrible purely for pop culture reasons, and I feel stuck at regular playback. It creates a weird paradox, where it takes me longer to absorb something that doesn’t really interest me than it does to indulge in something I enjoy.
Note: I have seen some unbelievably, staggeringly bad horror films...
...a genre which, at high speed, might quickly morph into screwball comedy.
It often does at my house, because my little parrot likes to walk behind me on the couch, making smooching sounds and imitating games of ping-pong.
Doing things faster is funny. Sometimes, when I bust through my chores, I think of Lucille Ball stuffing chocolates into her mouth.
The way we look at our daily routine is entirely our own choice. It’s equally as possible to take great pride in drudgery as it is to resent even the lightest duties. That’s because we don’t necessarily care about the nature of work; we care about whether we feel like it’s our choice or someone else’s.
Example: I find nail art mystifying. I utterly cannot understand it. I once had to wear a coat of clear nail polish for a gig, and I was counting the hours until I could remove it, because I couldn’t escape the smell. If I had some job where I was forced to sit still and have nail polish applied on a regular basis, and then wear it all day, I’d be climbing the walls. Yet a lot of people wear it for fun. Go figure.
We should all be more aware of what we enjoy for its own sake and what we’d rather trade off for something else.
I like hustling and bustling around, getting things done. It doesn’t even really matter what I’m doing, because I’m listening to a book. Might as well keep busy.
Often, I play Beat the Clock, trying to get a set number of tasks done before a timer goes off. That’s because I no longer have a washer and dryer.
Don’t get me wrong - there’s little that annoys me more than folding laundry. Carrying fifteen pounds of sweaty workout clothes across the apartment complex, and back again when it’s clean, is not my idea of a fun time. Sixteen washers and dryers are shared by 332 units, which is probably 400-500 tenants. This creates some interesting constraints, and constraints are all you need to make up an interesting game.
Can I find a block of time when two or three machines are available? How much can I get done in 28 minutes while waiting to put the wash into the dryer? How much can I get done in 44 minutes while waiting for the dryer to finish?
Part of my game is refusing to do housework on the weekend, and that includes Fridays. I try to avoid Mondays as well, because several holidays include a Monday. And I’m busy on Wednesdays.
Okay, to tell the truth, I only really do housework on Tuesday and Thursday.
Most of it on Thursday.
My game of doing things on triple time means that five or six days a week, I don’t have to do anything but walk the dog. No laundry, no errands, nothing!
Imagine that. Five or six days a week, I have zero stress about cleaning my apartment.
Oh, but you don’t have kids, I hear. Yeah, I’m about to turn 44. Most people don’t have little kids around at my age. Also, both of my parents saw children as little mini chore machines. My mom would tape a chore list for each of us on the front door every morning. We weren’t allowed to go out and play until our chores were done, and this started at kindergarten age. We were gradually considered competent to do every single household task except cleaning the bathroom, and I took that over in high school. I won’t claim that my brothers and I looked forward to doing chores more than any other kid, but I will certainly say that we did our share.
If you live in a home, and your chores stress you out, well, it’s your own home. You’re in charge of creating the rules there. If you insist on burnout, resentment, and annoyance, that is your seigneurial right. Far be it from me to tell anyone to quit being irritated or exhausted if they want to be.
There are lots of games that can be played with task lists. Chores can be regarded as claiming or expanding territory. There can be a race between players or against a timer. There can be bonus points for one thing versus another. Something like a list of business calls can be regarded as a treasure hunt or Mission: Accomplished. Kids are great for this as well, because their ability to continually generate new games is more or less infinite.
Triple time is irresistible to me. It puts a spring in my step. It adds a bit of interest and excitement to what could easily be a boring, routine day. It’s not for everyone, obviously, but... why not one and a quarter time?
As a news junkie, I’ve noticed that news consumption increases to fill the time available. I would find myself reading the news over breakfast, over lunch, or even while brushing my teeth. The more I read, the more important it felt to read yet more. No matter how many sources I followed or how many versions of a story I read, I never felt like I knew enough about whatever it was. It never stopped, it never even slowed down. It took a week of vacation to step back and realize that this wasn’t a positive habit. What I needed was a news upgrade.
There are lots of approaches to upgrading a news habit. One is to replace it with something entirely different, like a cooking class or an extra hour of sleep. Another is to switch to books. Often reading a non-fiction book about a topic can bring clarity to a subject in a way that a dozen news articles never could. (A biography, the history of a particular country or region, an explanation of the stock market or self-driving cars, any number of topics could be an improvement over a news habit). One of the easiest ways is to upgrade the news itself.
What I did was to rearrange my news sources. I did this in several ways.
I have a side project, a tech newsletter that I put out on weekdays. This requires me to stay current in a few fields that are outside my area of expertise. The advantage of my layman’s perspective is that I bring in a broader range of material in adjacent subjects. I’m stronger in trend analysis than I am in STEM. Working in this field reminds me that ‘trend analysis’ is valuable and interesting in its own right, and it helps me to reinterpret what is meant by ‘current events.’
What do I cover? Robotics, astronomy, biomimicry, technology, and science news are my working categories. All of these fields are booming. Usually it feels like I can barely keep up, that there’s too much happening to fit within my remit. As with everything else, the more I know, the more I want to know, and the more I get out of what I read. Often, I’m reading about things that were pure science fiction in my childhood. I’ll think, “Wasn’t this a movie back in the Eighties, but now it’s real?”
Admittedly, science news is often over my head. That’s why I married an aerospace engineer, so he can interpret this stuff for me. (Joke). I can only handle so much in a day. That’s where the news aggregators come in.
A news aggregator pulls news on various topics from multiple sources. I simply made sure that mine included more non-current-events, non-political topics and more neutral sources.
Some of my topics? Dinosaurs, archaeology, ornithology, longevity, tiny houses, and Alzheimer’s research, among other things, fill out my news feed. For some reason, I also get quite a lot of articles about snakes and alligators.
Pulling news from international sources can be intriguing, especially when it’s health news. I’ve found that the British or Australian take on health research can be really punchy compared to the mainstream American perspective.
I read plenty of political news, and I certainly follow the headlines, but I’ve found that it isn’t productive to let this dominate my news consumption. I utterly refuse to discuss modern US politics. The reason is that it tends to destroy friendships. We have this absurd idea in our culture that “a debate” is the only appropriate format for a political conversation, and I can’t seem to dispel this notion. I don’t owe anyone a debate on any topic, from whether I have the right type of phone to whether tights qualify as pants. If I talk about politics with people who agree with me, it reinforces what I (and they) already think. If I talk about politics with people on “the other side” (as if there were only two sides, which is too silly for words), they always want to argue. I say, fine, I’ll talk pre-Industrial politics with you. Which do you prefer, antiquity, the Dark Ages, the Reformation? When someone asks which way I’m voting, I say I’m voting for myself as a write-in candidate. When in doubt, go with theater of the absurd.
What we do well to remember is that passive news consumption isn’t actually doing anything about anything. Arguing with our friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues doesn’t move the needle. Getting worked up about a topic and ranting about it all around the house doesn’t even qualify as a good workout. Staying informed is only useful if we do something with that information.
It also helps to remember that everything humans are doing, in every sphere of activity, qualifies as ‘current events.’ An invention that helps people with paralysis to walk, or congenitally deaf children to hear, is relevant. These advances are more likely to change the course of history than most election results. Every day I see news about archaeology or paleontology that claims to be one of the most important finds of the last hundred years, and that’s relevant too. I see news about space exploration and technological innovations that about blasts me out of my chair. The world is going to be nearly unrecognizable in twenty years once all these trends combine along their current arc. It’s relevant, it’s newsworthy, but are we noticing it? Or are the settings on our news feed causing us so much stress and distraction that we develop a misleading picture of the world? Upgrade your news habit and find out.
I grant wishes. It’s a fun way to think about life. This is partly because people are generally bad at knowing how to make a proper wish, and partly because almost every wish is easy to grant.
Here’s an example.
I was at a business event, working with a stressed out and chronically disorganized person who was ready to have a fit because she couldn’t find her business cards.
What do they look like? I asked.
Like, I know what a business card looks like. What I was asking was, are they still in their box from the printer, do they come in a plastic holder of a certain color, are they laid out on perforated printer pages in a folder? What shape of object are we trying to find?
The flustered stress case described a stack of cards held together with a rubber band.
I held up one finger - Wait a moment - and walked ten feet away. I pulled up a tote bag from where it sat between a table and a pillar. I reached into the bag and pulled out - the missing business cards!
My colleague’s jaw fell open. She gasped. “You’re magic!”
She started to turn away. “Don’t be dumb,” I said, “make another wish!”
“Five million dollars!” she blurted.
First off, five million dollars isn’t what you think it is. Shave off about half for taxes and you’ve got two and a half. Invest that conservatively and live off the interest at four percent per annum. You’ve got an income of a little over eighty k. Enough that you don’t have to work again, at least for the next twenty years until inflation starts to erode it, but in our region not really enough to support a partner and children. Just you. And you don’t get a house, a car, or a vacation. Or you could take the house, car, and vacation, and then keep working like normal. That’s... sort of a boring wish.
What I had to offer was something a little juicier.
Due to the nature of our business relationship and my precise skill set, I could grant a number of other wishes. Finding other lost objects? Handling tricky conversations or negotiations with other people on site? Executive coaching? Setting up a filing system? Taking inventory and labeling things before they get crammed back into storage? Running filters on your email?
All of those things?
Say the word and an hour from now, I could permanently lower your stress level. You could Get Organized, one of the great conspicuous luxuries of our era. Maybe you could go on to leverage that into a five-million-dollar business income.
Wishing for money or a lottery win is an indicator of a lack of imagination. Okay, and then what?
Note that many lottery winners wind up worse off than when they started. Bankruptcy, divorce, a parade of con artists, ruined relationships, and the inability to trust most of your friends, neighbors, and relatives. No thank you! Money out of context can be a really destructive force.
Not that I wouldn’t be perfectly delighted with five million dollars. I know exactly what we’d do with it. My hubby and I would start our own engineering firm. How fun would that be?
The trouble with wishing for money is that it isn’t specific enough. It can also be a distraction.
When I was young and poor and crying myself to sleep at night over my student loans, money would have solved most or all of my problems. I wouldn’t have known what to do with five million dollars, though. Not then, not at that stage of my life.
I would have paid off my credit cards and my student loan, and I would have gone out to lunch, and then I probably would have gone straight to the bookstore. I would have assumed that I should probably buy a house, but... Where? What kind of house? How many rooms? I wouldn’t have had the first clue what kind of furniture or window treatments to get, and I know for sure that it really would have stressed me out. I know that because I have more money now, and the idea of buying and furnishing a house still stresses me out!
There are a lot of things that I think are more valuable than money, mostly because they can’t be bought at any price.
Good relationships with your family
A strong marriage
Peace of mind
A high energy level
Education can’t be bought - just access to it. Plenty of people pay for that access and then squander it.
I’ve tried to figure out ways to buy sleep, and as far as I can tell it can’t be done.
Physical fitness can be bought, in a roundabout manner, but it’s easier to do for free. Quit paying for extras like snacks and junk food, then get down on the floor and do a bodyweight HIIT workout, saving yourself both a gym membership and the commute. Boom, done. If you can’t start there, then start by walking and staying on your feet an extra five minutes a day. Surely you’ll agree that you can’t simply hand over a wad of cash and receive defined abdominal muscles in exchange.
I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want out of life. For instance, if I want to “give to charity,” then which one? If I want to volunteer somewhere, then where, and what do I want to do? The way to get clear on wishes is to imagine what emotional state you want to be in on your ideal day.
‘Excitement’ is different from ‘contentment’ which is distinct from ‘sense of purpose.’ Right?
We like to think that something like winning five million dollars would provide a transcendent emotional experience. We like to think that it would solve all our problems and we could be carefree forevermore.
Really, we could be carefree today if we chose to, if we knew how.
We can solve all our problems with our own ingenuity and dedication, which are the same qualities we would need with or without a giant seven-figure cardboard check.
I’ve been having some oral surgery lately, so that’s fun. You can sort of expect it as part of your standard midlife crisis package. A little fear of mortality, some financial dread, and a happy little root canal to round it all out.
Actually, it wasn’t all that bad.
I wish I’d known that going in. ‘Root canal’ is right up there with ‘audit’ and ‘summons’ on the list of Things to Avoid, definitely above ‘going to the DMV.’ Legendary. I can tell you right now, root canals are overrated.
Based on my experience, it was much like getting any other filling. You open your mouth, and then they put in a tennis racket, a toaster oven, and a monkey wrench, it smells like burning, and then you’re pretty much done.
All joking aside, I have some strategies about dentistry that I think really helped me get through a potentially rough situation with comparative ease.
My mom taught me to never annoy anyone who puts sharp things in your mouth. She believes that if you’re late to your appointments or otherwise high-maintenance, medical professionals will take it out on you during your visit. I think she has a point. My whole family went to the same dentist starting when he first graduated from dental school, with his wife as his receptionist. He’s retired now! In our world, dentist = family.
My current dentist grew up in the same small town as my husband, and they’re both hundreds of miles from home. We were quick to capitalize on that sentimental attachment. We always talk about hometown news, the scenery, the weather, etc. Therefore when he’s looking into our mouths it gives him waves of nostalgia.
If it weren’t that, it would be something else. If you’re going to spend hours with someone during your lifetime, especially if they’re wrist-deep in your face, might as well make friends.
I trade book recommendations with one of the dental hygienists and give investment advice to another, who wants to become financially independent. When I show up, at least three people pop their heads out to say hello.
A few years back, I had a different dentist in a different region, and he of course had a different staff. There, we all talked about bicycling. One of that crew regularly destroys me at Words With Friends several years later.
Okay, wait, what does all this have to do with getting a root canal again?
The point is that someone who has warm and friendly feelings toward you is going to give that extra 5% of care. ‘Care’ is their profession, but carING comes from the heart. The only way to make someone genuinely care about you is to show caring toward them first. Give what you wish to receive.
Thus, I walk into the endodontist’s office with feelings of curiosity, awe, respect, and gratitude.
Do you know much about traditional, premodern dentistry?
For that matter, do you know much about 1960’s dentistry??
I made a few observations and jokes during my exam, with the theme of “wow, this is such a fascinating and cutting-edge field.” It really was a remarkably shiny, new office full of cool tech, and as someone who hangs out with a lot of engineers, I was impressed. I follow the corollary of ‘if you don't have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” which is:
IF YOU HAVE SOMETHING NICE TO SAY, SAY IT!
I commented that most people throughout history didn’t have access to dentistry, and how lucky I feel that I get to keep my beautiful precious tooth.
“In the past, you would have been standing on my chest with a pair of pliers!” (Probably true)
“Hand me that drill and let’s see what happens.”
The endodontist paused and looked at me. Then he said:
And we were friends.
During the exam, it looked like I would need a root canal in one tooth plus surgery for the resorption on that one AND a second tooth. Worst case scenario, the tooth couldn’t be fixed and I would need either an implant or a bridge.
I came back for the root canal. It turned out he was able to save the tooth AND do such a tidy job that I wouldn’t need the additional surgery.
Let’s pause on that.
This is going to save me significant pain and also a lot of money. We’re already a thousand dollars into this process, and that’s just copays. I’d rather spend that money on vacation, but when I compare it to the cost of an implant, I feel like throwing a block party with a live band.
When I compare any of that to the very vivid image of walking around with a big hole where my molar used to be, I want to kiss this man’s feet.
A 44-year-old woman at most points in the past would look and feel elderly. A big part of that would be her failing teeth. Imagine the shocking pain of gradually having your teeth rot out of your head throughout your adult life. Wild animals starve when they grow old because they lose teeth and aren’t able to chew their food. Horrors!
I feel such tenderness and adoration toward my tooth, I want it to stay with me always and be my tooth forever and ever. Also all the other ones.
Can I say this? I got a root canal, and it didn’t really hurt, not even the shots. After the Novocain wore off, it didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t even take the Advil that was recommended. They warned me it would be sore, but it isn’t really.
There are always multiple ways to look at a situation. (They often say “two” but that is very lazy accounting). One way is to ask, Why does all this stuff always happen to me? Boring. Another way is to be scared and anxious, and that’s relatable. There are undoubtedly other ways. I chose my own way.
I chose to go into a scary situation, something I’d heard a lot about, and bring curiosity and a positive attitude. It worked the same way it did when I had a tax dispute with the IRS. It was totally fine and interesting, and everyone involved was nice, friendly, professional, and efficient.
I went to the endodontist and got a root canal. My positive feelings helped me relax and build mutual trust and respect with the staff. I was treated well. The experience was relatively quick and painless and had great results. I went home on time and cooked dinner for some friends, who were amused at how challenging it is to drink water when half your mouth is numb. It was fine.
Doesn’t it just make you want your own happy little root canal?
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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