Today is a major anniversary for me, and I'm stepping out of my normal schedule of blog topics to share about it. Don't worry, I rarely mention my lifestyle and I'm not planning to make a habit out of it. It turns out that other people generally think it's a bigger deal than I do. After 20 years as a vegan and 24 years as a vegetarian, it's just a part of my life, like a stack of t-shirts or a music playlist.
I eat the same way as everyone else. I eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. I've traveled to nine countries on four continents, and I ate meals there, too. I go to grocery stores and buy groceries. I put them in my fridge, freezer, and pantry. For some extremely weird reason, I have this pet omnivore who's willing to live with me and eat my cooking every day. (Not my dog, not my parrot, but my big ol' hairy ol' hockey-playing ex-logger of a husband). From my perspective, I'm a very ordinary suburban housewife who likes cooking. I made an extreme choice when I was 17, and now that I'm in my forties, it feels pretty conventional.
I look at it as a basic consumer choice. It's my right under capitalism to buy what I want, consume what I want, and not buy or consume what I don't want. Just like everyone else. Other people don't like kale or tofu, and they don't buy or eat those things. Good for you. Do what you want. I believe that the more groups there are with distinct preferences, the more markets are created for entrepreneurs to create their own brands, restaurants, clothing lines, shoes, hair dyes, tattoo ink, and all the rest. I don't smoke or vape, so that range of products is irrelevant to me, and I imagine vegan specialty products can be that way for non-vegans. Just ignore us and get back to your day.
Since I made the change at age 17, it's gotten easier. The range of clearly labeled plant-based products has expanded far beyond what I could have dreamed two decades ago. There are hundreds of vegan cookbooks, and they get better every year. I can now order food at most restaurants, many menus are marked with symbols, and most waiters are familiar with the ingredients of the dishes they are serving. If not, they're willing to check. The concept of alternative diets (including food sensitivities, Paleo, or whatever) has disrupted the food industry, to the irritation of some and the delight of others. That genie isn't going back in the bottle. Consumers deserve to know what it is that we're buying, and we want what we want. We're going to go where our desires are honored. Nobody is required to adapt to this; I'm perfectly willing to take my business elsewhere - and the party of 16 who are going out with me.
I don't expect people to accommodate me. I expect my friends and acquaintances to skirt the issue. I always bring emergency rations for myself when I go to a gathering. If I'm going to something like a book club where everyone else is eating together, I'll bring a microwave dinner and try to heat and eat it discreetly. Despite this, I am frequently met by a hostess at the door, announcing, "Sorry, I didn't make anything vegan for you." Um, thanks, I didn't expect you to? Whatsoever? Sorry to have completely ruined your evening by forcing you to make a spectacle of me at your doorstep.
On the other hand, I have several friends who have cooked incredible meals for me, bent over backwards to make sure I had something to eat, or even invented new recipes for baked goods and brought them to me. I will do anything for these people, because that, to me, is the most astounding and touching gift. You know who you are.
My husband still eats meat, as he has for his entire life. Now it's maybe once or twice a month instead of once or twice a meal. He doesn't eat dairy, because it makes him violently ill. It's funny that he and I have the same dietary arrangement - do not eat things with dairy in them - but his reason is accepted, while mine is considered annoying, even though accommodating one of us is just as much an imposition as accommodating the other. People have this firmly entrenched idea that having a nutrition-based or ideology-based diet is selfish, unfair to others, unrealistic, unhealthy, holier-than-thou, vapid, trendy, or whatever. You can demand your dressing on the side, no onions, extra ketchup, only this brand of cola but not that one, or any picky-pickle fussy requirements you may have, and you're fine. It's only allowed if you do it because It's The Texture or you just vehemently dislike the taste of something. Do it for health or ideology, and everyone hates you.
Do I lecture people? Yeah, I did when I was a teenager. I know people think I do now because I get that type of feedback from time to time. My husband is puzzled by this. We've known each other for a dozen years and are more or less inseparable in person and on social media. He's my reality check. What often happens is that someone will lecture me, while I stand there listening in bemusement, and then remember it as me hounding everyone else. A vegan is a symbol of something. What, exactly, I don't fully understand. The truth is that I don't give a flying fudge factory what other people eat. I don't want people jumping in and trying to go vegan for three weeks, with no idea whatsoever about nutrition or cooking or meal planning, and then blame the concept for their unsatisfying experience, rather than their poor execution of it. Don't do it; you'll just mess it up.
There are health aspects to this. An older roommate told me, when I was 18: "You'll find out what you're doing to your body." Mmhmm. I just had a full panel of lab work done a couple of weeks ago. I'll be 42 in July. What the heck, I'll list it off at the end of this post, because perhaps it will seem relevant to any readers in their forties or better.
It cracks me up a bit when a severely obese diabetic takes it upon themselves to lecture me about my health, or query Where Do I Get My Protein. Hey, do you want to compare blood work? Do you want to race for a mile? How about 15 miles? Do you want to make a list of random health complaints and see whose is longer? How many prescriptions are you on? Look at me. I've been taking this massive risk of eating a plant-based diet for 20-24 years (depending on whether you count four years as a lacto-ovo vegetarian or not). Anything it was going to "do to my body" it presumably will have done by now.
I look forward to my old age. I come from a long-lived family, where everyone seems to reach at least age 75. It will start getting fun as I enter my sixties. At that point, I predict that my health and fitness level will speak for themselves. Right now, I'm only beginning to reach a level of implicit credibility, where my age and experience on this path have diverged from the Standard American Lifestyle and the accompanying Standard American Results. In another twenty years, it will be pretty obvious "what I've done to my body."
Here are my latest lab test results, as of 5/2/2017. I'm not on any pharmaceuticals other than birth control.
Fasting glucose: 86 mg/dL
Cholesterol: 134 mg/dL
Triglyceride: 83 mg/dL
HDL: 50 mg/dL
LDL calculated: 67 mg/dL
Cholesterol/high density lipoprotein: 2.7
Cholesterol, non-HDL: 84 mg/dL
Sodium: 141 mEq/L
Potassium: 4.3 mEq/L
Chloride: 106 mEq/L
CO2: 27 mEq/L
Anion gap (NA - (CL + CO2)): 8 mEq/L
Creatinine: 0.80 mg/dL
Alanine Aminotransferase (ALT): 10 U/L
Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH): 1.16 mcIU/mL
Free thyroxine (T4): 1.1 ng/dL
Blood pressure: 94/58 mmHg (a bit low, but that's my norm)
Resting pulse: 64
By this time of year, almost nobody is talking about New Year's Resolutions anymore. We still have more than half the year left, but usually we've already given up on ourselves. Caroline Arnold has a better idea in Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. We can make the changes we really want to make by focusing on tinier, faster, easier steps.
It isn't always obvious how to go about breaking a big project or life change into smaller, more manageable pieces. If we had the idea, we'd be doing it, right? Small Move, Big Change has countless examples of microresolutions that real people have used. Simply reading them has a tendency to spark connections and clicks that make these changes seem easy and manageable. Because they are personal, they're memorable in a way that boilerplate advice often is not. The book covers such a huge range of topics that there is bound to be at least something transformative for everyone.
Arnold starts with sleep as the best area to start making microresolutions. I couldn't agree more. Most of our failure to have perfect "willpower" (a fantasy creature that only exists in storybooks) is due to tiredness. Too tired to even get ready for bed! As she picks apart her own issue with sleep procrastination, we can't help but compare her routine with our own. A busy, married working mom with a young child, Arnold's struggles are totally relatable.
Small Move, Big Change can help us get more sleep, save money, be on time, get organized, get fit, lose weight, and get better performance reviews at work. Best of all, there are ideas for how to transform relationships with our romantic partners, family, friends, bosses, and colleagues. We start to feel like maybe we can handle this pesky old Resolution thing after all. Small Move, Big Change is definitely a path in the direction of greater happiness.
The highest-order compliment I give is to designate someone as Useful. This means that the person is a worthy candidate for my zombie squad. It's a simple shorthand for a complex set of attributes. It's entirely possible that I don't meet my own standard for Usefulness.
The first component of being Useful is to be a strategic thinker. The Useful person sees problems before they become problems. This is why the Useful person tends to know when to open doors or grab the other end of a heavy object. A full-on Useless person, on the other hand, tends to spend a lot of time in exactly the wrong place. Useless people cause accidents and spills, and stuff tends to get broken around them due to their inattentiveness.
My dog is both Useful and Useless, which is allowed because he's an animal. He is Useful in that he's vigilant, he eliminates vermin, and he always lets me know if a package has been delivered. I have watched him crush a spider with his paw, note that it was still moving, and crush it some more until the job was done. He also has a habit of trying to walk between my feet, especially when I'm carrying groceries or a laundry basket. He has knocked me over. He likes to dig up fresh seedlings from the garden. When he was a puppy, he destroyed nearly a dozen pillows. All of these things are pretty darn Useless. He likes to sleep on my feet in the winter, though, and that's so Useful that it balances the accounts.
A Useful person tends to have interesting skills that I don't have. I am a gleaner of skills, and I will try to absorb these abilities as quickly as I can. Often, though, I'm weak in an area and will have little hope of mastering it in this lifetime. Orienteering is one example. I have trouble telling left from right and I have no innate sense of direction. It's Useful to me to have someone around who is good at these things. I can offer a skill that seems like it would be closely related, but isn't: I have an eerily photographic recall of where objects are stored. I can remember the location of every object in my house and most of the visible objects in every house where I have spent significant time. I have helped people find their keys and other possessions over the phone from 3000 miles away. This is Useful for my work as a professional organizer - I can still recall the positions of visible objects from a Level 3 hoard. I can't navigate but I can find all the stuff, and my husband is the opposite.
A Useful person is solution-oriented. This means the focus is always going to be on solving a problem and moving forward. A Useless person prefers to vent about problems, cultivate allies who have an opinion about problems, and create drama about problems, while the problem continues to fester. The two groups tend to have mutual antipathy. Sometimes solving a problem looks a lot like "judging" anyone who didn't contribute to the solution. Why, I don't know. In my roster of Useful people are a few people who are abrasive, occasionally annoying, yet I can appreciate that they will reliably solve problems and get things done.
A Useful person lets the results speak for themselves. Useful people are often very surprising. You might know them for years and never know that they have a bunch of Useful traits. I was rocked back on my heels one day when I was walking with a friend and he ran into someone he knew from an old job. Suddenly they started signing to each other in ASL. Never thought to mention it, huh? Having a set of skills builds confidence. You can go through your day having interesting conversations or kicking back and relaxing. It may not occur to you to mention the skill to people. Maybe years will go by and you won't need to demonstrate the skill. Suddenly, bam, Useful!
Useful people are altruistic. This is part of why I fell in love with my husband. He took night classes and became an Emergency Medical Responder, just because. Since then he's been first on the scene at a couple of traffic accidents. I've been with him on a couple of occasions when someone collapsed, at the coffee shop and on the bus, and it's awe-inspiring to see that shift into superhero mode. We are fortunate enough to have several friends who have been Useful when someone else was in trouble. It makes you love them all the more for the way they unselfishly come to someone's aid, and also because they've just demonstrated that they deserve a spot on the zombie squad.
My most Useful moment was probably late one evening, when my friend's car had broken down in a small town where everything had already closed for the day. He was trying to replace the fuel filter, and the single tiny nut that held it in place fell into the gravel. We were parked at an abandoned gas station. There were about forty million bits of stray hardware in that gravel: springs, washers, screws, paperclips, bottle caps, bits of alien spacecraft, you name it. Somehow, with the sun going down, I FOUND that nut. My freakishly keen eyesight and ability to pick objects out of undifferentiated piles became my superpower that night.
Sometimes we're Useful without realizing it. I was waiting at a crosswalk one day with about a dozen other people. Almost everyone jaywalked. I always wait for the light, because I don't trust automobile drivers at all, and I would hate to be blamed for being pasted by a car. When I crossed the street, the last remaining pedestrian spoke to me. He was an elderly man and his eye was running with fluid. He told me that he was partially blind and that he counted on people like me to help him know when it was safe to cross the street. I hadn't even noticed him until then. I can't take credit for it; all I can do is to proceed with others in mind. Try to be the person that Future Self will need in times of frailty.
I hope I'm Useful at least some of the time. I don't want to be a "consumer." I don't want to be a complainer or a whiner. I don't want to get in the way. I don't want to annoy people unintentionally. (If I do it, hopefully it's on purpose!). At least I can try to be neutral, offsetting the irritation of my very existence by the occasional helpful act. At best, I'd like to be the one people count on when they think, "Who would I want with me during the apocalypse?"
Glory days, they'll pass you by. My husband and I are middle-aged empty nesters now. He used to play football. Like the majority of former football players, he is not in the physical condition of a professional athlete, and neither are any of the other guys from his team. Even though my husband hasn't played football in many years, he still identifies as A Football Player in some ways, and A Hockey Player as well. I haven't ridden a bicycle so much as one wheel length in several years, yet I still identify as A Bicycle Commuter. It gets into you. The only trouble is when the image no longer matches the reality. The biggest pitfall of the athletic identity is when it masks the truth, convincing us that we still have something even as it is slipping away.
I ran a marathon. I ran a marathon in October 2014, which you probably already know, because I talk about it all the time. It was a defining moment in my life. Since then, I have barely run a cumulative four miles, although you'd never know it to hear me talk. I still plan to run "fifty for fifty," completing a fifty-mile ultra-marathon for my fiftieth birthday. That birthday is getting closer every day. I don't have a training plan. Right now, my plan looks like it will work out about as well as my 1997 plan to fit in my grandmother's wedding dress for my first wedding. I decided I would fit in the dress and made no further plans. Result: hire tailor to add five inches of panels to expand waistline of gown. I could very well have a waistline five inches wider by my fiftieth birthday. Perhaps much wider still. These things "happen" when there is no plan to avoid them.
Attempts at athletic prowess are worth it, if for no other reason than their ability to humble us and put our fragile egos in place. Learning the limitations of the body and enduring pain to expand those limits is an excellent spiritual battleground. Lo, we are but mortal. Almost any athletic discipline can burn the arrogance out of a person if it is strenuous enough. (An exception might be posing strenuously in front of a mirror). If you have ever worked a muscle to the point of failure, you know what I mean. You say, "Leg, I command thee, move forward." Leg replies, "Nuh-uh." You say, "Attend me now, lowly limb, move ye thence!" Leg says, "I ain't doing it." You realize that if you are going to step over this shower threshold, you are physically going to have to grasp your own thigh and lift your foot the extra inch needed. Experiencing muscle mutiny is a little taste of how things could be if we just start to slack off and quit trying. Use it or lose it.
What I've learned is that I'm only as good as the workout I've done within the last 24 hours. Not tomorrow's workout or last week's workout, and certainly not the workout I did three years ago. I'm guaranteed to think of myself as weighing my lowest weight (before breakfast, stark naked), eating my healthiest day of food choices ever, and having the most strength, speed, and visible muscle definition I ever had. I'm also likely to think of myself as having the best grasp of punctuation and the best potato salad recipe, although that last thought is simply objective fact. It's testable. It's testable in the same exact way that my strength, speed, agility, and body composition are testable. What I'm probably going to find when I test them will be hard for my conscious mind and my poor little ego to accept.
I tried to do a pull-up the other day in the gym. I compromised by doing lat pulls, because guess what? I couldn't pull up an inch, much less clear the bar. Any more. This is something I was good at when I was training for my first (and so far, only) adventure race. I'll probably also find that I can only run a mile without getting a stitch in my side and that I'm about 30% slower now. Of course, if I continue to do what I've been doing, and avoid testing my abilities, I can retain my athletic identity and continue to believe that I am in peak training condition.
Why do I even care? Can't I just continue to think of myself as intellectually superior and have total contempt and disdain for the athletes of the world, as I used to do? Well, no, not really, not any more. Now that I know how much discipline and sacrifice are involved, now that I know a little about everything that Spartan rigor has to offer, I can't help but respect the effort. Also, I have a firm personal conviction that my food intake, body composition, and physical conditioning are directly related to my past issues with thyroid disease, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, migraine, and night terrors. Why on EARTH would I want any of that back? Better the pain that I can control, better the pain that benefits me in greater strength, than the unpredictable pain that lays me flat and breaks my spirit.
I prefer my life when I can do functional things with less effort. Strength training makes it easier for me to carry laundry and groceries, to open jars and windows, to put my own luggage in the overhead bin. Running makes me mellow and cheerful. Overall physical fitness makes it easier to do the things I love to do, like travel to places with tons of stairs or high-elevation viewpoints. Fit Me is Fun Me.
My identity now is aligned more with self-honesty. Nobody cares but me. Not even my doctor cares all that much whether I suffer or overcome. Nobody else wakes up in my body or lives my life but me myself. Present Me and Future Me. I try to see myself less as "Athletic Person" than as "Person who recognizes weakness, strategizes, and works hard to make tomorrow better than today." Also, Person Who Eats Hills for Breakfast.
Coming from a minimalist nomad, it may sound strange to advocate for domestic contentment. Aren't you all about getting rid of your stuff in favor of traveling the world? Well, yes and no. Minimalism is about focusing on whatever is most important to you and jettisoning anything that gets in the way of that. Not everyone likes traveling. Most people do, however, have a taste for mundane delights that is not being fully realized in their day-to-day. Domestic contentment is within reach of anyone at any budget.
When I was a kid in grade school, I read the story of the Greek philosopher Diogenes. He was known for living in a barrel in the marketplace, aside from his reputation as a wise man. Alexander the Great came to visit him and wanted to give him a gift, as much to demonstrate his own largesse as because this guy obviously could have used a pillow or blanket or something. He asked Diogenes if he wanted anything. Diogenes replied, basically, "Yeah, move over, you're blocking my sun." This made a huge impression on me as a child, and I spent a lot of time wondering about the drawing of the philosopher in the barrel, wondering what he ate and that sort of thing. These days, we would call Diogenes "homeless."
Whether someone can feel happiness and contentment while living on the margins of society probably depends as much on the society as on that particular individual.
It's not about the possessions or the dwelling, though. What makes the difference between absolute penury and contentment is access to a support network. Health care, physical safety, money, secure banking, food, bathing and laundry facilities, a soft warm bed, entertainment, and a social network of friends and family. Someone with access to all of that could probably live pretty cheerfully in a hotel with wi-fi, and be content with little more than a shower kit, a week's worth of clothes, and a smartphone.
Some of us only really wear a week's worth of clothes, anyway, because none of our other stuff fits right now, or the rest is waiting in front of the washing machine.
This is where we start to touch on the LACK of domestic contentment.
What I see in my work is that most people have a perpetual backlog of chores. There are dirty dishes in and around the sink at least 80% of the time. Likewise, there is almost always spoiled food in the fridge. There is always at least one load of laundry waiting to be washed or folded or put away, and often as many as ten. The bathroom is almost always grimy, the carpet is almost never vacuumed, the floors are almost always sticky, and there is almost always a full bag of trash waiting to be taken out. What the household feels about this state of affairs can most likely not be described as 'contentment.' Words that come to mind might be: frustration, resentment, despair, anger, depression, guilt, shame, blame, annoyance, or confusion.
This total lack of domestic contentment can and does lead to divorce. It's tough on kids. It can consume years that could otherwise have been pretty nice. Who wants to waste years or decades being chronically irritated almost every day?
My contention is that it's not housework in itself that causes this constant level of background annoyance. Rather, there is no vision of how good things could be and what domestic contentment actually feels like.
There's also the matter of... the stuff. Clutter causes housework to take 40% longer. Everything has to be moved out of the way to clean around it, under it, or behind it. Every single item in the house gathers dust or needs to be washed at some point. The more stuff there is, the harder it is to clean up, even if it's cute or valuable or it gets used every day. Crowded equals high maintenance.
What tends to happen is a gradual feeling of defeat. The more crowded and cluttered the house, the harder it is to keep it clean and stay on top of everything, the less often it gets done, the worse it gets, and the harder it is to get it to look clean at all. We resign ourselves to it. After a while, olfactory fatigue sets in, and we can't even smell it. Somewhere along that continuum, it's far easier and more pleasant to stay away, and any excuse to be out shopping or running errands starts to look attractive. Contentment can only be found elsewhere.
There's a close link between this pattern and a reliance on takeout food, pizza delivery, restaurants, convenience foods, or eating cereal for dinner. Who wants to cook in this kitchen??
A well-run kitchen is central to domestic contentment. After I finally learned to cook, I wondered what I had been thinking. Why would anyone not want to know how to cook? You can cook all your favorite stuff exactly the way you like it, anytime you want. I make a lot of stuff I would never be able to get in a restaurant - anywhere, not just in my neighborhood. I'd rather eat my own cooking than what I could get in about 3/4 of restaurants. If you've ever had a greasy or disappointing meal out, you know what I mean. A functional kitchen makes it possible to experiment and constantly improve your culinary skills, and that pays off in better and better meals. It's also cheaper and healthier.
I take notes on various recipes, quoting the compliments my husband or family members or guests make about the food. It's encouraging.
As much as we love travel, my husband and I would really rather be home than just about anywhere else. It's where our pets are. Our bed is more comfortable than any other bed. We have everything we need, we know where it is, and we have the space to use it. Thanks to our practice of minimalism, cleaning house takes very little effort. Laundry and dishes aren't that big a deal when they get dealt with every day: about five minutes per meal for dishwashing, five minutes per day to put away clean dishes, five minutes to run the washer and dryer, and ten or fifteen minutes to fold and put away laundry. It's hardly worth thinking about. The rest of the time, we're working on projects, playing with our pets, walking around the neighborhood, or lounging around talking. Our apartment is tiny, but it's big enough to do all of that.
Start by thinking of your default emotional state and whether you like it that way. Imagine how you'd prefer to feel. Contentment is not the same as elation, bliss, ecstasy, or hysterical laughter; it's sustainable and lower-maintenance. It's a feeling of "yeah, I dig this." Gaining a base level of contentment is often as simple as removing any obstacles between you and it. Remove any irritants and annoyances, resolve any backlog of tasks that lead to power struggles or a drain on mental bandwidth. Then sit back, smile, and sigh. How much more do you need?
Airline incidents are the trend du jour. Now that almost everyone has a cell phone camera, all of this stuff is going to be documented and posted online almost instantaneously. Just as soon as it's started, the backlash will begin. Disputes will be disputed. These incidents are part of our larger cultural conversation (debate? battle?) over the boundaries around customer service and appropriate public behavior. This latest debacle over a birthday cake in the overhead bin is simply one example.
The story as it stood at time of writing was that a family brought a birthday cake on board their flight. Then they had an altercation with the flight crew, details under argument. The entire planeload of passengers was forced to disembark and reboard, and the family with the cake was rebooked on a different flight.
Right here is where I step in. I started flying alone when I was seven years old, and I've lost count of how many times I've flown in the 35 years since. Many of those flights have involved a box or zip-lock bag full of Voodoo Donuts. Have you ever tried to bring a frosted or glazed pastry onto a plane? Do you know what happens? The frosting melts all over the darn place. I don't know whether it's the heat, the humidity, the pressure, the oxygen mix, the altitude, or what. Now, when we're talking donuts, I don't particularly care how cosmetic they are when I land. They're going into my freezer, where I will eat them in little half-teaspoon smears if I have to. I haven't had much luck with sandwiches or other foods I've packed for myself, either. Airplane cabins are not great places for the culinary arts.
A birthday cake, though? I mean... they're so... fragile. Special occasion and all. I'm having trouble even imagining how an intact cake made it to the airport in the first place, much less down the gangplank, much less into an overhead bin. File under: ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN. I don't recall a cake-smashing scene in the movie Airplane, but if they do a remake, there should be. It writes itself. Plane hits turbulence, luggage starts smashing into the locks of the overhead bins, suitcases fly out, cake lands on someone. Someone stands up to get their medication out of their carry-on, accidentally shoves their entire hand into the cake instead. Flight attendant tired of someone's attitude grabs cake and smears it all over them.
Now I totally want to see this movie: Cakes on a Plane. Starring Samuel L. Jackson as an FBI agent and Melissa McCarthy as the cake.
Let's dive a little deeper. What happened? I watched the video provided by the family of the disputed cake. Telegenic as they are, I have questions. Anyone who has worked in customer service would have questions.
Supposedly there wasn't an issue with bringing a cake on the flight; the passengers put it in a bin reserved for safety equipment. The problems began when anything other than "Yes, sir or madam, I will certainly remove this cake and put it under my seat immediately, my mistake, so sorry for the inconvenience" came out of anyone's mouth. It's completely, totally implausible that rapid compliance would lead to the expensive and extreme choice by the flight crew to summon police and reboard the entire flight. How does this make any sense? What employee would arbitrarily bring that amount of paperwork on themselves? Why would other crew members back them up, rather than trying to mediate? Something just doesn't add up.
Flying is cheap and easy now, despite the trauma of TSA screening. Nobody has died on an American-certified flight since 2009, with the exception of a pilot who died during landing back in March. Did you catch that? Flying is so routine now that a plane landed safely even when one of the pilots became deathly ill during the landing. Flying has started to feel a lot like riding a bus - a bus with waiters. As a result, we tend to forget that flight attendants are highly trained safety professionals. A flight attendant bringing you a drink is roughly equivalent to Steven Seagal as the chef in Under Siege.
We have to listen to them.
We have to listen to flight attendants, not just because it's the law, but because it's their job to maintain the safety of every person on the flight, including themselves. They have training that we don't. Their training includes what is safe to stow where, and what kind of racket distracts the pilots, and other technical reasons why certain behaviors and activities are a bad idea in flight. We're supposed to put our tray tables up so we don't get impaled, and also so access isn't blocked if the plane has to be evacuated. We're supposed to stow all our extra junk so it doesn't go airborne during an emergency. Imagine 150 books, laptops, and briefcases flying through the air and then smacking everyone in the face at high speed. This stuff is serious. Flying is so safe today because the aviation industry has recorded, analyzed, and learned from previous disasters and fatalities.
They have their reasons.
The other reason we have to listen to flight attendants is that they have the power. When any kind of significant altercation or fight happens, the flight is likely to be delayed or canceled. That means that any disruptive passenger, right or wrong, now holds the power to ruin the travel arrangements of every single other passenger. YOU want to stow your cake in a choice spot, which may seem perfectly reasonable, until the result is that ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-FIVE PEOPLE on the plane with you now have to rearrange their whole life. It better be worth it, is all I'm saying.
What kind of situation merits the disruption of 185 fellow passengers? I'm going to go with: true emergencies. Nothing less. I'm never going to blame someone for having a major health crisis on a flight, unless of course they knew full well that they suffered a health condition likely to go into crisis mode while airborne. As an example, I was on a flight once that was delayed because a passenger had a condition that resulted in uncontrollable bursts of screaming. So, so not kidding. She was in the middle of the plane, while I was sitting near the front, and I was able to overhear the conversation of the flight crew (as well as the occasional shrieks from the passenger). There is no way this would not have been distracting to the pilots. One of the flight attendants said she was unwilling to enter a situation in which the flight would have to be diverted and grounded at an alternate airport, like a previous flight she had crewed. They agreed together that the screaming woman would have to disembark before takeoff. The woman apologetically cooperated, and the rest of us went on our merry way, half an hour behind schedule. I wish her well.
If someone with an 'uncontrollable screaming' problem can be that cooperative, why can't the rest of us?
Not everyone should travel via airplane. This excludes the category of medevac, obviously. Flying is stressful in every way: physically, mentally, emotionally, pastry-ly. Not everyone is up to it. Not every situation is appropriate for a flight. A German flight attendant once made me put away the nice red cabbage I was eating because it was "stinky." (Blush) Just because an airline employee embarrasses us, annoys us, hurts our feelings, or disappoints our expectations does not mean we are in the right. We should probably try to think of air travel as more like space travel than like ordering drinks at Starbucks.
I wish I wrote this book.
Rachel Hoffman is for real. She's going to say what she means, plainly, as we can tell straight from the title. Unf*ck Your Habitat: You're Better Than Your Mess. It's the uncensored speech that lets us know this is not a pretentious book about impressing people or following rules. You want to clean up your house for yourself, because it feels like time and because you deserve more from your life. This is a very approachable, comforting, and motivating book with enough actual instructional details for the novice.
I work with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization. It turns out that most people are never formally taught how to clean house or cook, just like most of us aren't taught much about personal finance, automotive maintenance, or animal husbandry. Arcane rituals! While we probably wouldn't judge ourselves for not knowing how to rebuild a transmission or adjust our own brakes, we do judge ourselves for our domestic skills (or lack thereof). It's when we moralize on ourselves that we bring in guilt and shame, which not only doesn't solve our problems, but makes them worse. This is why we need Rachel Hoffman.
I have taught many of the techniques and attitudes in Unf*ck Your Habitat and I know they work. Take 'before' photos. Work with a timer and take frequent breaks. Figure out a place for everything. My people have gotten rid of countless truckloads of excess stuff with these methods, and learned to keep clean homes for the first time. There is real pride and satisfaction to be found in doing this for yourself, your own way, on your own time.
One of the best parts of Unf*ck Your Habitat concerns negotiating with housemates. Whether you're the clean one or the messy one, whether cleaning up was your idea or not, these ideas obviously come from hard-won experience. There is also a section on Emergency Unf*cking that will stand the test of time.
Unf*ck Your Habitat should be taught in school. Maybe not elementary school, but certainly by freshman year of college. What a great, smart, and truly enjoyable read, a book whose time has come.
This is my second tax nightmare in 18 years. Why they choose me, I don't know.
The first time, someone else's income was reported under my social security number, and I got a tax bill representing about half my annual income. I only found out about it after my ex-husband intercepted and opened the letter and withheld it from me until after the deadline for dispute had passed. The IRS agent who helped me was warm and friendly. Although this was someone else's mistake, it fell upon me to do the research and resolve the problem. File under: NOT MY FAULT, STILL MY PROBLEM. This involved tracking down the other person, a coworker, and convincing her to give me a copy of her W-2. It seems obvious that someone involved in the payroll process at my office had made the mistake; otherwise, we would be looking at one of the most outrageous coincidences of all time. Could someone somewhere just vaguely, passively say that A Mistake Had Been Made and apologize to me for my inconvenience? Heavens no.
There are two things we can never expect in this life: gratitude for the good we've done, and apologies for the mistakes that other people have made.
Now I'm sitting in the City of Los Angeles Office of Finance. They've summoned me to a hearing for supposedly not paying municipal business taxes. This despite the fact that I have not lived within a City of Los Angeles zip code since 2015. The summons was even addressed to me at my previous non-LA address.
This is the fourth calendar year that we have been having this dispute. I tried everything. I sent letters. I spoke to an agent on the phone. I sent copies of our tax return. I have told them over and over again that 1. The income they were after is actually my husband's salary, not business income and 2. We don't live in LA.
Their response was to send a tax bill for slightly over $8000. Weirdly, it's almost the exact same amount I was mistakenly assessed by the federal government back in 1999. I got that cleared up, or so I thought, and then several months later I get this summons.
I guess it's my karma that maybe I robbed someone of $8000 in a past life? Or maybe I was a cruel tax collector? Who knows.
What I WANT from this transaction is:
For someone to take accountability and say, "This was our fault, not yours."
Compensation for my time
A letter absolving me from further bureaucratic transactions with this department
Some kind of goodie like a free bus pass
What I NEED from this transaction is:
Resolution of the issue
Some kind of notation in my account or in whatever database or mailing list
Knowledge of what to do if anything like this happens again
My INSTINCT is to:
Yell at someone
Tell the entire saga from start to finish
Call my mayor
Alert the media
Cry (actually I did that the day after I got the letter)
What I actually do is to use my carefully honed skills in navigating bureaucratic red tape. I use tact and civility. Guess what? My case is resolved half an hour after I walk in the door. I didn't get an apology or compensation or any of those feeble fantasies. What I did get was the most genial, easy-going guy on the staff, who listened carefully, closed my account, and gave me photocopies of his stamped paperwork for my file.
How is this done?
There's an art to doing these things smoothly, and as far as I can tell, not everyone is aware of it. I have seen people shouting so loudly that they could clearly be heard through the entire building, or pounding their fist on the counter. The only thing you get when you act that way is a conversation with a security guard. Threats, intimidation, swearing, scowling, glaring, sarcasm, rudeness, cutting in line, interrupting, and gesticulating are tools for fools. They're only going to make things harder. You never know when you'll find yourself in the same office again, or facing the exact same person in a different job.
The person I'm talking to is almost certainly not the person who made the mistake on my account. This person is my ally. We want the same thing. We both want a simple transaction in which I go away quickly with a smile on my face. His goal is to do his job and make it to the end of the day without someone shouting at him. My goal is to be the friendliest transaction of his week. This person, whoever it is, is much more likely to listen to me and believe me if I am rational, respectful, and deferential. I walk up smiling, dressed professionally, and I make sure to wait my turn before speaking.
Always start with the assumption that the miscommunication has been on your end. Maybe I walked in the wrong door, didn't read a sign, or unknowingly shuffled a vital piece of correspondence into a wad of coupons that I then recycled. I start from the position of empathy, imagining that I am on the other side of the desk, forced to deal with this uptight, nervous wreck of a middle-aged crazy birdwatcher lady before lunch. I've been a civil servant and I've worked in customer service, so this trick of empathy is easy. I want to be my own ideal customer or client, the person I wouldn't mind helping.
The truth is that there is nothing complicated about my situation. It's routine on both sides. Any weeping or gnashing of teeth I have done has arisen from 1. My own anxiety 2. Projecting 3. Mind-reading (which doesn't work) and 4. Predicting the future (badly). I got all wound around the axle. I felt like THIS ALWAYS HAPPENS TO ME and WHAT WILL I DO NOW? and WHYYYYY MEEEEEE? I also felt that IT'S NOT FAIR and I WANT CAAAAAAAKE. It actually crossed my mind that I would have to see a judge or that someone would demand some kind of payment from me. I thought I would have to camp out in the office the entire day and come back again the following day, possibly through the entire week. Not a single thing that worried me came true. If I really want compensation, it should be for the time I spent flagellating myself and the sleep I lost tormenting myself with weird imaginary scenarios that never happened.
Gracious behavior always helps. When I listen courteously, I hear more details and everything makes more sense. When I wait patiently, I get better treatment. Everything goes faster when people wait their turn, including me. Most importantly, the self-discipline of controlling my irrational responses and NOT doing what comes naturally helps me to realize how rarely I ever need to escalate. Life is easier than we think it is, especially when we're not having a conniption.
PS On the way home, I found a dollar coin. So that's something.
If there's a report card, I want to get an A on it. My ego needs this. The teacher's pet inside me can't accept anything less. I really want the approval of my dental hygienist, for example. Maybe I'm not good at anything else, but "my home care is excellent!" Yay! I feel the same way about getting lab work done. When my blood work results come in, I rush to compare them to the normal range and congratulate myself when everything is on target. This is what it's like to open those results and feel relieved and proud.
I realize fully and well that having good health is a luxury and a privilege. My mom couldn't bring me home from the hospital for three days after I was born because I had infant jaundice. I had a thyroid nodule at age 23 that was so big, I couldn't speak while lying on my back. They thought it was cancer. I had a respiratory infection for my college graduation, age 28, and it took my lung capacity down to 52%. Have you ever coughed up blood? I have. This is by no means a complete list of every scary or mysterious health problem I have ever had. My laundry list of health issues is the primary reason why I am so obsessed with being as healthy as possible.
Also, for the majority of my life between 18 and 30, I had no health insurance. That includes the coughing up blood, and the time I had to go to the emergency room and wound up being sent to collections for an amount under forty dollars. Health is cheaper.
Everyone thinks everything is genetic these days. By 'genetic,' we mean that "it was my fate to be born into a cursed family and nothing I ever do will ever affect anything in any way." We decide that we have no power or control. Thus, anything that goes wrong with our health is the will of the gods. Saying otherwise is a deep and dire insult, judging and criticizing others for things they can't help. Okay. Who comes from a pure and perfect genetic heritage in which nobody has any health issues thought to be hereditary? Not me!
Diabetes. Heart disease. Alzheimer's. Arthritis. Glaucoma. Cancer. Good times, yay. Let's throw in 'died of brain aneurysm' just to keep things interesting. I can wave the family banner of genetic tendencies just as hard and just as high as anyone else. This is the second reason why I pay so much attention to my health.
The third reason is that it pays off. Being healthy is its own reward. It is seriously awesome in every way.
Why not gloat a bit about it? I'm doing what very few people of my age (42 in July) have managed to do. I'm maintaining satisfactory health metrics without the use of pharmaceuticals. This is the result of tons of research on my part. This includes reading hundreds of articles and dozens of books on health, nutrition, and fitness; wearing health devices like a pedometer or a sports watch; tracking my health metrics with a food log, exercise log, and sleep log; learning to identify, cook, and eat dozens of vegetables I never tasted as a child; and pushing my physical abilities to the limit for years on end. I WORKED for this. My nice lovely lab results come from figuring out how to do it, and then doing it, meal after meal after meal and day after day.
I have had bone fractures and severe muscle strain and sprains and a dislocated hip and a dislocated rib and impacted wisdom teeth and nerve damage and chronic pain and fatigue and migraine and some wacky medical mysteries, including pavor nocturnus. Sometimes unfortunate stuff really does happen, and much of the time, doctors have no real idea of what went wrong or how to fix it. The bulk of my positive health results have come from my own persistent experimentation on myself, refusing to accept "just deal with it" as a valid medical response. I've learned that physical therapy, sleep, and nutritional inputs can do more than most people realize.
I haven't met my new doctor yet; I chose her out of a directory based on location, availability, and her photo and credentials. I don't know anything about her personal style or academic focus in medical school. What I do know is that the kind of health advice I get from a doctor depends a great deal on how I present myself at my visits. I want to walk in demonstrating that I am that teacher's pet, A+ student who will take vigorous notes and follow advice scrupulously. I want my doctor, whoever she may be, to feel that I am committed to taking care of myself and learning as much as I can. When I'm a "good patient" and "cooperative" it makes me seem more worth the time to give a doctor's full focus and attention. I say, "I really try to take care of myself, and whenever I learn about something positive I can do for my health, I add it in to my routine."
The last physician I had for a long period of time started taking health advice from me. She took up triathlon and made a point of telling me that I had inspired her to do it.
I have, in the past, felt helpless and confused and deeply sad about my health. I have had incredible frustration with dismissive doctors, and white-knuckled rage when I later learned something that helped me when a doctor said it wouldn't. (For instance, saying there was nothing I could do about my thyroid disease, which cost me years of ill health. Thanks for nothing, Dr. C). I have cried tears into my ears from the grief and powerlessness of having no idea what to do about a health problem. I feel younger and more energetic in my forties than I did in my twenties, almost entirely because of health issues I didn't understand at the time. I can say with certitude that my fixation with my physical health has paid off over the years. To me, if I had to choose between feeling healthy and fit or being a millionaire, well, naturally I'd choose all three, but having a strong body feels like a million dollars. Maybe ten million.
I don't let my A+ lab work get too much to my head. I look forward and ask my Future Self what I will want for myself ten years from now. The answer is more muscle and more bone density. I'd like to be a little stronger in ten years than I am today. That will come from giving myself the gift of more physical activity and more nutritional support. I do these things so that I can feel better today and tomorrow, and also so that Old Me will maintain mobility and independence as long as possible. We're in this for the long haul and until they make a full body transplant, I'm stuck doing it in the body I have.
When it starts cascading onto the floor, it's only a matter of time. Sometimes it's a slow trickle; other times it pours. Gradually it forms pools and puddles. Then it's wall to wall. Then the level rises, sometimes to the ceiling. It's not water; it's clutter. Clutter gets backed up and starts filling the house when it flows in faster than it flows out. Draining the house is what we do when we finally realize we're in too deep.
In the normal state of affairs, stuff comes in and stuff goes out. Buy a bunch of bananas, eat them, and compost the peels. Buy a bag of new socks, wear them until they're threadbare, and throw them out. One in, one out. If stuff goes out at the same rate that it comes in, then there's never any buildup. The only need to drain the house is the periodic carrying out of garbage and recycling and donations to charity.
The outflow is faster than the inflow under certain conditions. Moving away. Hopefully the truck is getting loaded faster than anyone is carrying in new shopping bags! Having a yard sale, many of the contents of which may originally have come from someone else's yard sale. Declaring laundry bankruptcy and spending an afternoon at the laundromat. Major space clearing, when we realize that the house needs to be fully drained.
Usually, stuff flows into a house at a faster rate than it flows out. This is the nature of the vast material wealth of our society. Paper that would have been precious to the ancients is foisted upon us in endless drifts of junk mail and coupon circulars. Entire stores specialize in selling goods for one dollar. Others sell recycled/donated items they collected for free. Others are known for handing out free samples. Things are so upside down in our time that poor people can wind up having more stuff in their houses than wealthy people do.
What I tend to find in my work is:
Laundry carpet - so many clothes that they are strewn across the floor, and the flooring itself is invisible. Carpet? Tile? Hardwood? Who knows?
"Why is there a pot on the floor?" - so many dirty dishes piled in the sink and on the counter that there isn't enough room, so some have to go elsewhere. On the floor? On the dining table? In the oven?
Mail blizzard - so many papers that they cover every flat surface, sometimes to be moved into bags and boxes so the surfaces can be covered again, like bailing out a boat
Cupboard explosion - so many plastic food storage containers/coffee mugs that the cupboards are too full even when the majority of items are waiting to be washed. So many food packages that cases of food are stacked on the floor for lack of storage space.
Bags in a box in a stack on a pile - so many items of every description that they can't even be stacked anymore. This is when the level starts to climb past three feet or higher.
No free space, either vertical or horizontal - everything flat has a pile on it, unless it's vertical, in which case it's covered by a bookcase or a stack of bins or a bunch of refrigerator magnets. Not so much as a single square foot of blank space to rest the eyes.
The worse it gets, the worse it gets. The deeper the accumulation of dirty dishes, the more dishes are "needed" so that there will still be a clean one, somewhere. The wider the stream of dirty clothes on the path toward the washing machine, the more clothes are "needed" so there will be something somewhat clean to wear, somewhere. The more papers there are, the more magazines with articles on Getting Organized are "needed" to add to the stack. The less comfortable it is to live amongst the rising floodwaters of clutter, the stronger the need to be out somewhere, away from it all, which usually means a manufactured need for a shopping trip. Every trip outward, escaping the mess, tends to result in at least one shopping bag that comes in. Nothing is going out. The floodwaters continue to rise.
A house won't drain itself. Usually it is only initiated by unfortunate external events, like an eviction or a natural disaster. Once I saw a photo some acquaintances had posted of their kitchen after a major earthquake. Quite honestly, it took me a minute to realize that anything had happened, because it looked like any other messy kitchen with greasy cobwebs. "This place looks like a tornado hit it." Mean, but sometimes true. When the piles of clutter get too high and too deep, it becomes impossible to tell if real disaster is going on underneath, whether that's a hidden water leak, toxic black mold, or an infestation of vermin. Then the clutter becomes the least of the problems.
Draining the house voluntarily is a very brave decision. It's hard work. The accumulation of years won't disappear overnight. Usually it starts to look worse for a while even after a lot of strenuous work has been done, exactly like rebuilding after a flood. The detritus has to be cleared away. Usually it reveals stained carpet and damaged flooring, marks on the walls, and damage to various fixtures. Years of deferred maintenance start to reveal themselves. That's why we remind ourselves that we don't have to do it alone. Rebuilding is done in groups. Drain the floodwaters, and ask for help so you don't get in over your head.
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.