Anticipation, right? Suspense? Excitement? These are all part of the reasons we enjoy buying and wrapping gifts for people, true? Draw on these feelings and you can make it even more fun for next year. Set a reminder for yourself at some point during 2018, so you can save a little bit extra in advance. Maybe thinking about gift-giving in October, or July, or May will give you the nudge you need to put aside more of a slush fund. However much you splurge this year, you could be extravagant next year.
Future Self always seems so greedy and demanding. Dang it, Future Me, what do you want from me? Always judging and finger-wagging and tsk-tsking. I’m just over here trying to live my life. Now you want me to *switches to nasal voice* PLAN AHEAD and BE RESPONSIBLE and ngngngngng. I prefer to switch this around and think of myself as giving gifts to Future Me.
Oh, Meeeeee! I gootttttt something for youuuuuu! You’re going to liiiiiiiike it! But you can’t open it until next year!
Past Me! You shouldn’t have! *gasp* Oh my gosh, an extra $500 for gift shopping? It’s so me. I love it!
($500 between now and next year is less than $10 a week).
Of course, the other secret behind this idea of saving in advance is that it’s purely unselfish. We’re planning to use it all to buy lovely things for other people.
For some reason, most people can’t bring themselves to save money. Well, yeah, because we’re all broke! Ahh, but buying stuff with credit cards and paying interest on it makes us even more broke, even faster. The kind of savings I’m talking about, over the time span I’m talking about, can be achieved with really small tweaks or a very modest extra income source. Or both.
As a broke college student, I had several mini-side hustles that brought in a few dollars here and there. Added up together, it wasn’t nothing. Pet-sitting, babysitting. I used to charge $10 to clean someone’s bathroom. $1 to sew a button, $5 to hem a pair of pants. I made a little extra buying books and clothes at thrift stores and reselling them to used bookstores and consignment shops. I made significantly more taking notes for a disabled student and doing transcriptions for grad students. I actually had two official job-jobs, both part time. Even for a full-time Dean’s List student with no car and a lot of all-nighters to pull, it’s not really that hard to find ways to earn extra cash on the side.
(I’d charge more now; those were 2002 prices).
(Also, if I were a college student today, I’d learn how to repair smartphone screens. I’d charge $50 each and, as a bonus, I wouldn’t have to pay anyone else whenever I smashed my own phone).
It’s far easier to earn more than it is to cut spending. You can only cut back to zero, but you can earn until they run out of numbers. There’s no maximum wage.
That being said, there are tons of ways to cut expenses in small ways. If you have a very specific dollar amount with a very specific deadline, such as a scheduled holiday, you have the advantage of thinking of this as a game or a contest rather than...
We keep reminding ourselves that this is not deprivation, that we are voluntarily choosing to do something nice for someone else. We can go on to remind ourselves that we’d much rather spend our money buying sweet gifts for our favorite people than giving it to the banks that issued our credit cards.
How do you come up with $500 in a year?
Occasionally check out a library book rather than buying a new book
Pack a lunch or cook at home occasionally when you would have gone out
Quit buying soda
Bulk-buy snack food at Costco instead of stopping at a convenience store
Continue to go out, but cut back on appetizers, drinks, OR dessert
Get rid of your storage unit, or downsize and move into a smaller, cheaper unit
Clutter-clear your house and sell off extra stuff
Cancel cable TV
Do your own mani-pedi instead of going to a salon
Ask a friend to help you color your hair instead of going to a salon
See how long you can go by eating what’s in your kitchen right now before you buy more groceries
Weatherize your windows with shrink wrap and see if you can get your heat bill down
I don’t make these suggestions idly. My husband and I live in a 680-square-foot apartment and we don’t own a car. We also save 35% of our income and we have no credit card debt. In fact, as soon as I finish paying off my student loan, we’ll be completely debt-free.
Being debt-free changes your attitude toward buying gifts. We’ve been able to make family visits almost twice as often, and most of that extra money has come from the interest payments we no longer have to make. Sometimes I ask a friend for their address and send them a present, like a book we were just talking about or a random gift that just makes me laugh really hard. One year, a friend posted a picture on Facebook of a sign she’d found, from some little girls in another town who attached their letter to Santa to a bunch of helium balloons. It had their first names and their home address, along with their entire wish list. I looked up one of the items, a big pink foo-foo dollhouse, and I ordered it and sent it to them anonymously. Every time I look at the list of shipping addresses I have stored on Amazon, it cracks me up all over again. THEY SHALL NEVER KNOW IT WAS ME, MUWAHAHAHAHA!
Money is just a number. It’s a weird way we have of recording and transferring energy. We convert our life energy into work, and that work causes numbers to be tallied somewhere, which we then use for objects and services and our baseline lifestyle. That being said, money can also be a magical way to grant wishes and spark spontaneous smiles and laughter. (There is nothing I could have done in my physical form to delight two little girls I’ve never met; someone would probably call the police! But with money I could cast a spell of awe and wonder). Thinking of money in terms of bills and fees and fines and obligations is depressing and frustrating. Thinking of money as a sort of wand of power, a creative force that turns thin air into gifts, is an entirely different form of discipline. I wish you joy of it.
The New Superpower for Women, as Steve Kardian would have us know, is intuition. This is a self-defense book, and it’s a particularly good one. The central message is that we are empowered when we can anticipate and avoid crime before it happens. According to the book, one in four women will be assaulted in her lifetime, and I am one of that group. I can vouch for the information in The New Superpower for Women. We need to know this stuff.
Thinking about being assaulted seems like it would be depressing and scary. In reality, it’s a lot like defensive driving. You hope you never need it, and then one night you find yourself skidding sideways in the ice. Time seems to come to a standstill as you pump your brakes and steer into the skid. All the information you ever took in about what to do in that situation suddenly just springs up. Your body takes over. Looking back, you aren’t even sure how you did what you just did, but clearly, you did. Same thing if you’re ever attacked.
It’s not strength or speed, or at least it hasn’t been for me. It’s emotional intelligence. What we’re able to do so well is to read other people’s facial expressions, body language, speech patterns, and behavior. We read these cues and anticipate their mood and intentions. Then, usually, we talk ourselves out of our intuitive sense that something is off, something is wrong. Only later do we remind ourselves that there were several signs, clear signals, if only we had been paying attention. If only we had trusted our own judgment. That’s what Kardian is here to remind us to do.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the copious illustrations. We learn that criminals target victims by their stride, of all things, and there are illustrations demonstrating the types of gait that catch the wrong sort of attention. (Confident and aware is good, trudging and distracted is bad). The New Superpower covers scenarios from walking up to your car to running from an active shooter. This is the kind of thing that gives you an entirely new strategic mindset.
When I took my first self-defense class at age eighteen, the first exercise we all did was to shout “NO!” Would you believe it? None of us did it! Even in the safety of the classroom, even when we were all in A-student mode, not one of the women in the group actually dared to shout the word ‘no.’ Next it turned out that none of us knew how to make a proper fist, much less throw a punch. Those classes may have saved my life, not so much from the moves but because I learned how to evaluate scenarios and anticipate problems before they happened. Most importantly, I learned that it is my duty to incapacitate an attacker, because if he comes after me, he’s probably done it before and he’ll probably do it again to someone else.
What I liked best about this book was the way it addressed mindset. Kardian explains what happens when we put self-defense techniques into practice. He spends a chapter on the physiological responses that we feel in different levels of stressful situation, which basically means that certain moves work more or less well when we’re extremely freaked out. With imagination, we can visualize ourselves in these situations and mentally adjust. Hopefully, we never need any of this information, but when we start driving into that sideways skid on the ice...
We don’t have to be scared. Crime is pretty predictable, really. Walk confidently with your head up, make eye contact with people, and pay attention to your surroundings. (And read The New Superpower for Women, obviously). Even though I’ve been physically attacked, I still travel, even alone, even at night. With a phone and a camera in your hand, you’re more intimidating than you realize. The more of us who are out and about, the more witnesses there are and the safer this world is for everyone.
Books are my life. Actually what I typed there was ‘books ate my life,’ which was a typo but may be more accurate. I have fallen up a flight of stairs because I was reading a book while walking. I read while I brush my teeth. I’m not going to apologize for my reading habits. On the contrary! Reading so much has helped me bridge my way into other positive habits. If you love to read, you can use it as a tool to reward yourself and keep yourself company while getting other things done.
Audio books were the big revolution for me. Well, not exactly. Back in the bad old days, when they came on cassette tapes or CDs, they were pretty annoying and high maintenance. Library audio CDs especially would tend to skip and stall due to their many scratches. Digital audio solved those problems. Digital audio plus headphones! No longer would I draw curious stares and commentary when reading while walking; nobody would have to know. I haven’t fallen up a flight of stairs in years now.
There are three major things I do while listening to audio books:
Basically every aversive task can be improved with the addition of a book.
Let’s face it. The real reason most people don’t reach goals is that they involve boring, tedious, repetitious tasks, self-discipline, and time robbed from leisure pursuits. The most boring thing I can think of is running on a treadmill with no entertainment or distractions. On the other hand, I’ll run for miles in the rain and snow if I can do it outdoors while listening to a good book. It’s the same with housework. Ten minutes of folding and putting away laundry is, to me, like forty minutes getting my teeth drilled (except without the comfy reclining dental chair). With audio, folding laundry is just one ten-minute activity I do while blasting through a new chapter on 2x speed.
There are other mindless tasks I do while listening to a book. I skim through email, remove my name from mailing lists, categorize receipts, save news articles to Pocket, format my website, make illustrations, maybe fill out web forms or window-shop online.
The one thing I don’t generally do is to sit still and just listen to a book at natural speed. I’m so conditioned to be up and moving around while the book plays that my dog even jumps off the couch when he hears a narrator start talking.
It’s not all about the audio, either. I still read text books, as opposed to textbooks. That’s my husband over there reading another robotics textbook. I read hardcover library books and ebooks. Don’t care much for the paperback format. I’m still reading my way through the backlog of books I had bought and stuffed into my bookcase “for later.” I like library hardcovers for reading on the elliptical, because they have a plastic jacket and because they stay open. The pages don’t have to be turned as often as an ebook, due to the form factor of my tablet. I’ll also grab a hardcover if I see it sitting on the shelf at the library and the waiting list is too long for the ebook.
These are things you can do with a serious reading habit:
Clean your house
Cook healthy meals
Mend and iron your clothes
Sort and shred piles of junk mail
Give yourself a manicure
Experiment with cosmetics or hairstyles
Finish all your craft projects
Wash your windows
Clean your oven
Distract yourself from pain or illness
Clean out your fridge
Wipe down your cabinets
Groom your pets
Weed the yard
Dust chair rails and other fussy details
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My husband and I sold our car last spring, so we walk or take the bus almost everywhere. My daily mileage has gone from three to over seven miles on average. I walk to the grocery store, the library, the coffee shop where I sometimes write, and of course all the bus stops. My shoes are my car. Naturally a book accompanies me with every step.
Most audio books are under eleven hours. On 2x speed, that’s 5.5 hours. Spend forty minutes a day doing housework, half an hour cooking dinner, and an hour exercising, and that’s over two hours of reading time. Add in another hour of miscellaneous activities like getting dressed and fixing lunch, and you can blast through a book in two days.
When I was young, I could thank my obsessive reading habit for a lot of negativity. I always had a book in my lap or my hand. It reinforced my tendency to procrastinate. I was almost completely sedentary, which exacerbated my problems with chronic pain and fatigue. I felt chilly all the time. My apartment was a cluttered mess and I was a terrible cook. Sure, I’d read everything, which makes me fascinating (mmhmm) and gives me an ever-expanding vocabulary. I didn’t have much else to show for my vast erudition, though.
Now that I’m almost constantly listening to a book, I can look around and see the magical effects of literature. My apartment is clean and tidy. I’m fit. I’m always on the move instead of huddled in a blanket. I don’t have a backlog of unfinished craft projects. I enjoy cooking, partly because it means I can sneak in another chapter even when my husband is home. “It’s not you, darling, it’s Chapter Five.” All the stuff I never wanted to do before is now done, and it feels like nothing more than a way to pass the time while listening to talented voice actors.
If you love to read, you can use it to improve your life in additional ways. Whether you want to transform your house, your paper piles, your craft basket, your kitchen, or your body, you can read your way to it. What are you going to read first?
The lid comes off. Cookies! Each kind has its own specially shaped compartment. Chocolate covered cookies! Butter cookies! Rectangles! Tubes! Circles! I haven’t had lunch yet and they are just right there, a few inches from my hand. Free, chocolate, cookies. It’s not just that I could eat them, I’m supposed to eat them. Someone brought them in as a gift. They’re for sharing. Who would I be to reject such a thoughtful, chocolate-covered gesture?
I don’t eat any of the cookies.
Clearly I am a grinch. Guilty as charged. What kind of joyless, belligerent, terrible excuse for a human being would refuse free holiday cookies? I must hate having fun. Or maybe I hate watching other people have fun. Also, I must hate my body. Right?
The truth is, I don’t really care for chocolate all that much. Plain and simple. It doesn’t do much for me. Inexpensive chocolate is just gross. The last time I ate a grocery-store candy bar, it tasted like candles. Crayons, maybe.
There’s a lot more to my mutant ability to pass by a free box of cookies. I’m sharing because it was key to my total physical transformation. The reason for that is that cookies were one of my top trigger foods.
A trigger food is something that gives you a total case of swirly eyes. You don’t even make a decision whether or not to eat it; basically you take one look at it and it’s inside your mouth before you even realize your hand was in motion. You’ll eat it even if it’s low-quality or it’s been sitting around for a while, just as people in research studies will snarf down three-day-old stale popcorn while complaining about how stale it is.
My trigger foods were cookies, breakfast cereal, and rainbow-colored candies. My husband’s are white bread, pie, corn chips, and any kind of homemade baked goods. We were both serious cola drinkers, and we agreed to quit together, and fell off the wagon together, several times when we were dating.
The funny thing about trigger foods is that one person’s trigger is uninteresting to someone else. For instance, my hubby likes pita chips and I think they are gross. I used to date a guy who was obsessed with black licorice. I would eat cookies or cake for breakfast, a habit most people are much too smart to engage in. Now it gives me a headache just thinking about it.
Once upon a time, I worked for a bank in a big skyscraper downtown. In the lobby was a well-stocked convenience store. I would glance at it as I came and went, and I couldn’t help but notice the large, well-lit display of Pepperidge Farm Cookies. Oh dear. Ineluctably, I felt myself drawn inside, where I slowly took in each individual label. Gosh, there are so many different kinds of Pepperidge Farm Cookies. So many delicious flavors and all of them look absolutely awesome. We never got these when I was a kid. I bought a package and took them upstairs to my desk. No roommates or boyfriends would ask to share my nice expensive cookies!
I opened the package and carefully ate every crumb of one of these fine cookies, Milanos if you’re interested. Then I closed the package and put it in my desk drawer.
About a minute later, I opened the drawer, opened the package, and got out another cookie.
In the back of my mind was an intention that these cookies would last me a week or two. I thought of them as very expensive luxury items.
Needless to say, even after I moved the Milanos to the back of the drawer and locked it with a key, I got the mechanics of retrieving and opening the bag down to about two seconds. They were gone in two days.
The next fifteen years would demonstrate a conclusive link between my cookie consumption and my thirty-five pound weight gain.
There were other food habits I had to learn and unlearn before I finally figured out how to eat like an athlete. Pretty much mostly cookies, though.
I lost my taste for cookies, breakfast cereal, and other trigger foods at some point during my marathon training. I had assumed that cookies would fuel me past the finish line, and I definitely ate a lot of Nutter Butters and vanilla fig bars in the early days. Somehow, though, I lost my taste for sweets. Even sweetened dried fruit started tasting too sticky and treacly. Cereal tastes like baby food to me now. I just don’t want that stuff any more.
I still have strong associations between foods and celebrations. I still love to eat just as much as I ever did. My tastes have changed, that’s all. Sometimes I eat a cookie, and I look at it, feeling betrayed. “Cookie! Why u taste so boring!” I have to remind myself that my excitement over a particular food is not always matched by my actual experience. Usually it takes like three hundred attempts.
Now, the way I connect food to celebrations is to plan and cook a fine meal. I know I’ve won when I see someone pop up to get thirds. I know I’ve done well when someone insists on the recipe, and then cooks it next time I’m in town. I know I’ve done well when I can sit down, enjoy what’s on my plate, and not feel a sense of FoMO. I’m not missing out; there is always going to be a box of cookies within my reach, round the clock, twenty-four hours a day. I can if I want to, and most of the time, I choose something else.
Plastic bags breed in the dark. They do! That’s the only possible explanation. Plastic bags, paper sacks, wire hangers, and junk mail are running a breeding farm and they’re using stray socks for food. Clutter attracts more clutter. On the path toward minimalism, we can turn this around, recognizing and removing entire categories of clutter all at once.
My husband and I made a radical lifestyle change in spring of 2017. We sold our car and downsized into a tiny seaside apartment. Not only that: we did it all in eleven days! An unbelievably cool job offer and the chance to live at the beach made the transition irresistible. At the same time, dropping half our living space (again) in such a short time period made for some tough choices.
No garage = no garage stuff, no extra storage, no “indecision zone”
No car = nothing that requires a car to carry it around
No yard = no gardening tools, mower, etc.
We didn’t have to decide on individual items like, say, an empty plastic herb pot from planting basil starts. Everything from Category: Gardening went to a charity rummage sale.
Policies, not decisions!
One way to start a clutter chain reaction is to look at categories of items, like we did. Here are some examples:
All clothes that require dry cleaning
All plastic kitchen items
All kitchen items that are not dishwasher-safe
Anything stored in a cardboard box
All magazines older than three months
All clothes that don’t fit today
Anything that is cracked, stained, or broken
All expired foods and pharmaceuticals
Anything being stored on a countertop due to lack of space
Another way to start a clutter chain reaction is to work in the time dimension. WHEN are you using this stuff? If it isn’t an item of daily use, like your keys, it’s up for legitimate scrutiny.
Anything you used in the past but haven’t touched in a year
Anything you have never used but are convinced you might, possibly, one day, maybe
Anything linked to a past event that is only saved as memorabilia
Anything that only gets used in rare circumstances, such as holidays
Yet another way to start a clutter chain reaction is to evaluate based on storage. Where are these things being stored? Would the space be used more effectively to store something else? Could the space be used for an activity that can’t be done while it’s currently full of clutter? Would the space look more attractive and satisfying if it was simply kept clear?
Tops of appliances
The front of the refrigerator
A clutter chain reaction based on storage can continue on and on for quite a while. For instance, when I gave away all my crafting stuff, it freed up the giant plastic tubs I had been storing it in. Those tubs were then available for other stuff. I bought two plastic tubs sometime around 1995, and I can’t remember how many times I reused them over twenty years. I don’t have them anymore; they were too big to fit anywhere in our one closet, and there’s nothing left that I would have stored in them anyway.
The clutter chain reaction I’m working on right now involves an old bookcase. I’ve been annoyed with it since the day I bought it home from IKEA, because apparently the outer surfaces rubbed together during transport and abraded away the finish. It was clearly my fault, so I kept it, but that bookcase is a clutter magnet and it clashes with every other piece of furniture we own.
I can hear the anguished cries now: “Wait. HOW can you get rid of a BOOKCASE? Can I have it???”
I’ve been working on releasing hard copies of books, and I’ve downsized about 80% of my collection over the past five years. We move quite a lot, and I’m tired of packing, hauling, and unpacking so many heavy boxes. Also, I have a dumb tendency to buy books and then not read them because I’m busy reading library books I checked out for free. Once I read a book, I’m done with it. The exception is reference books such as cookbooks, and I’ve been digitizing those, scanning the few relevant pages or replacing them with e-books. I’m not obligated to keep a two-pound book that I bought just because I like three recipes in it. The author already has my money. Obviously, when I finish downsizing all of my books, I will no longer need the bookcase.
What happens when the bookcase goes out the door? I have a free space in the room. There is no longer a misfit, different in style and color from our other stuff. The other furniture looks more coordinated. There’s one less thing to dust, or, rather, one less large thing that contained a hundred smaller things. Most importantly, there’s no longer a clutter magnet in the form of shelf space, a series of flat surfaces that tends to magnetically attract mail, receipts, and random objects.
Thinking of clutter in terms of categories is an almost mystical secret tool for getting rid of it. Clutter doesn’t even have to be evaluated in terms of dozens of small categories. We can ask ourselves much simpler questions. The best question of all is, In the category of Items That Improve My Life Experience Every Single Day, does this thing fit?
Is it all getting a little too much? Do you find yourself caught up in a gift exchange that seems to escalate every year? Are you sometimes startled when someone buys you a gift that you weren’t expecting?
I can’t reciprocate
Because I didn’t anticipate
The way that you celebrate
Now I feel like a reprobate
Little ditty for ya there.
A sizable chunk of the population is still paying off credit card debt incurred from buying last year’s Christmas presents. (Do other winter holiday traditions have this same intense social expectation around gifts?) No matter how much you love someone, do you love that person enough to pay an additional 16% interest on top of the cost of their gift? (One of the benefits of being debt-free is that you can give more to your friends instead of your bank). Another relevant question: is this a Gift-of-the-Magi situation? Are we all sitting in the room, sweating our credit card payments, hoping our gifts are elaborate enough to meet the standard, to the point that we hope the gifts we receive aren’t... a little TOO nice?
This is sort of what happened with my own family, and finally I became a wet blanket and bowed out. We talked it out and decided that for the adults at least, we’d rather spend the money spending time together than on gifts. Plane tickets, group dinners out, the occasional family vacation. When you get to a certain age, you pretty much have everything you need. We were at the point where we were deliberately holding back on buying things during the year just so that we’d have something, anything, to add to our written wish lists.
There are a bunch of different ways to restructure gift-giving so that it doesn’t... heh... snowball out of control.
The “white elephant” party. My ex-in-laws did this with their extended family every year. It was a laugh riot! Most people brought joke gifts, although there would always be a few generic items like a scented candle or a box of chocolates. One year, I got a potted amaryllis bulb, which I loved, and evidently so did our neighbors, because a couple of months later they stole it off the porch when they moved.
Drawing names from a hat. This was the first stage of our Christmas gift exchange slowdown. We decided that we would all continue to buy presents for the children in the family as usual. The adults would all put our names in the hat, so that each person would only buy a gift for one other person, and receive a gift from some other person. We enlisted one of the nephews to assign names. Then everyone, kids and adults included, passed around wish lists. The adults had a $100 spending limit, so you could buy either one more expensive gift or a few smaller items. (Equivalent to spending $14.29 apiece on seven people).
Wish lists. This is a time-honored tradition in my family. Several people have told me they wish their own families would do this. Your job is to compile a long list of stuff you would like, covering all different price ranges. This solves several problems. One! Everyone can get you a gift without having to rack their brain figuring out what you might like. Two! They are guaranteed that you will love your present - no disappointed micro-expressions. Three! You yourself are guaranteed to get something you want. Four! You also don’t know exactly what you’re getting, because you made your list too long to be receiving all of it in one year. Five! Nobody has to worry about cost, because there should be a few $1-5 items as well as bigger stuff. Sometimes, several family members will band together to buy someone a larger item off the list, like when we all pooled resources to replace my grandma’s fridge.
Cookie exchange. This is another idea I’ve seen done for friend groups, like book clubs. Personally I am a big fan of the cinnamon roll flavor of Oreo.
Book exchange. I am given to understand that this is a tradition in Iceland. Everyone gives books as gifts and then spends the rest of the day reading them. COZY! I love choosing books for people I know well, and it feels like mega-points when they really like the book.
Gifts of experiences. This is another idea for family discussion. There are so many lovely holiday traditions that can be done with little or no money. One year we took the kids downtown to look at the animated store window displays. We’ve driven around to lighted-up neighborhoods to look at the decorations. My mom sat at the table with my brothers and me for about two hours one legendary night, and we rewrote “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to be all about food. FIIIIIVE ONION RIIIIIIINGS! Now that I live a thousand miles away, and there are often serious weather issues, we have to get together over Skype. We’ve done several games, such as team gift-wrapping using only one hand, or trying to copy a holiday-themed drawing while blindfolded and then comparing results. Still works even when some of us aren’t in the same room.
Charity. Another year, while I was jamming my foot on the gift-giving brake, I suggested that we all exchange charitable donations. Well, I did it anyway... I tried to choose something that would be meaningful to each recipient, and I looked on Charity Navigator to make sure I was picking a good one. We also discussed adopting a family for the holiday, and I did the research on this. Bring food and gifts and meet the family in person. It sounded amazing. Then it occurred to us that there were people already in our acquaintance for whom we could do this, so we do.
(Incidentally, I wish there was a way to connect with people in my neighborhood and share leftovers with them. Like a young couple with kids. “Hey guys, here’s half a lasagna, see you next week.” Right?).
Gift giving should be about love, joy, and delight. Choosing something for someone and watching their face while they open it is one of the best feelings. On the other hand, watching someone open a gift that obviously wasn’t quite what they wanted is a real bummer. Oh, well, it’s the thought that counts. Yeah? If that’s true, what if we just decide to put more value on the thought and less on the trinkets?
One year, my future husband and I agreed not to get each other anything. Then we both broke the promise. I got him a li’l something and he got me rainbow striped knee socks. That gift said that he understood me, that he saw me the way I see myself. Also that he knew I “had cold feet.” If he’d bought me diamond earrings, I would have been alarmed and put off, especially if they were on credit.
What we love about people usually can’t be summed up with a material object in the way that retailers wish it could.
If you love these people and they love you, whoever they are, then everyone will probably welcome an honest conversation about What This Holiday Means to Us. The traditions and the foods and the photo ops that we care about the most probably have little or nothing to do with opening gifts. Who is going to be brave enough to... break the ice?
IT’S DECEMBER! And you know what that means! Two entire months of... NEW YEAR’S PLANNING!!! Oh, gosh, there’s nothing quite as magical and special as spending two months celebrating a one-day holiday. They won’t let me do full-on Valentine’s Mania for two months, so I’m going with the New Year. Obviously everyone is going to dedicate the month before the New Year to the big day. I’m just doing all of January because I can, because I never want the glitter to end.
Look at my shiny new day planner! LOOK AT IT!
I got this 13-month planner so I could get a head start on 2018. Holy smoke. I can’t think of a year I’ve wanted to get here quite as much as I’ve wanted 2018. An entire year loaded with potential. So. Much. Potential.
Seriously, this is a big freaking deal. They say only 8% of people who make New Year’s Resolutions actually keep them, and I’m definitely in that 8%. I’ve been doing this every year since I was 9. Take all your feelings about freshly sharpened pencils, crunchy leaves, rainbows, puppies, cereal for dinner, and new socks, wrap them into one feeling, and that’s getting close to how I feel about my strategic planning process for my annual goals and resolutions.
How does it work???
Start with optimism. Whatever sucks in your life, you can get rid of it. No matter how much you are annoying yourself, you can stop. Anything you want to learn, you can learn, because this is the internet, yo.
Identify your open loops. There are 31 whole, complete days left of 2017. That’s actually a huge amount of time for year-end closure.
For the last few years, I have been doing quarterly check-ins on my goals and resolutions. This is not just for public accountability; it’s also to keep myself focused. I want to at least REMEMBER the fabulous plans I made for myself. For 2017 I tried an experiment, breaking my annual plans down by the month. That was a pathetic failure. Granted, our personal life blew up in the first week of the New Year, but saying that is like blaming your tiles for losing at Scrabble.
The big thing in my year is that I committed to two major fitness goals, and I have yet to complete either one. I’m supposed to be able to run five miles again, and I’m supposed to do P90X, since I bought it for myself a few years ago and it’s still in the shrink wrap. Either I’m going to fail or I’m going to spend most of December hopping around and sweating.
I have a large piece of furniture that I want to get rid of, and now is as good a time as any. I also have a few things to sell on eBay, and the timing will be particularly good if I do it within the next two weeks.
Every year, I clean my home top to bottom. I open every drawer, every cabinet, every cupboard, every closet, and I look at the contents of every shelf. This is partly a time to tighten screws and spot-clean walls and carpets. Mostly, it’s time to throw away worn-out socks, check expiration dates, and consider what needs upgrading or replacing. On New Year’s Day, I like to wake up to a gleaming house with some free storage space, with nothing to do but lounge around reading all day in my pajamas.
Every year, I also like to go through all my papers and digital files. Above all, I want to start the New Year with the feeling of a truly fresh start. That means no loose ends in the form of incomplete applications, unpaid fines, unsorted papers, unanswered email, unsent letters or packages, or otherwise incomplete bureaucratic work. DONE is what I want. I don’t even want to be in the middle of reading a book!
I’m doing Fridge Zero (more to come on this topic), and since I know I’ll be throwing out any leftovers, I’m also planning meals around what we currently have in the fridge, freezer, and pantry.
Coincidentally, December First is a Friday this year, and it’s one of my husband’s alternating three-day weekends. He’s cheerfully agreed to do a strat session with me. He has this vile habit of making his goals and then crushing them within the first three weeks. Upholders! What can you do with them? It’s up to you whether goal-planning with your friendly local Upholder is motivating or demotivating for you. As for us, we’re going to spend part of the weekend getting a head start on the delectable, once-in-a-lifetime 2018 that is coming our way.
Oh, and someone’s gotta say it, so I will. It has been exactly one year since December 1, 2016, so... HAPPY NEW YEAR!
A writer asks his best friend to burn all his unpublished papers after he dies young of a lingering illness. The friend refuses. Was he right or wrong?
This is the kernel of a discussion I had with my husband last night, long past when we both should have been asleep. Was Max Brod right to publish Franz Kafka’s works, even though he was the executor of Kafka’s will, and the will said IN-CIN-ER-ATE?
As an historian, I’m on Brod’s side. As a writer, the question gives me the screaming fantods. At what point does a creative work become an independent entity with rights of its own? Am I right or wrong when I decide to destroy my own work, burn my notebooks, delete my drafts?
My husband is an engineer, more or less innocent of the world of literary history. As such, it seems easier for him to take a hard-line policy position on these matters. For instance, I argued that publishing Anne Frank’s diary was worse than publishing Kafka’s papers, because she had no say in the matter, and her work was both personal and private, while Kafka’s work was fictional. Hubby says that when Anne Frank died, her work became a relic and entered the public domain.
But if Anne Frank’s secret diary deserves to join the canon, does that not imply that The Metamorphosis did, too? Well, no, because Kafka stated his intentions toward posterity, but Anne Frank never did.
At this point, the conversation shifted to material objects, and whether different rules apply to our possessions than to our intellectual property. Do we owe stuff the same considerations as IP?
Okay, say that a hypothetical billionaire buys a da Vinci sketch. He stipulates in his will that he has loved this sketch so much that he doesn’t want anyone else to ever see it again. After his death, it is to be burned. Is he right or is he wrong?
Wrong, says my hubby, because that sketch has intrinsic merit and provenance.
At what point, though, does something become art? (Age, he says! Which at that point touches on archaeology and anthropology). Is art anything that was not mass-produced? Even a cruddy painting from a yard sale? Yes, he says, because it’s not always up to contemporary people to recognize the true merit of the work.
Okay, then, if a yard sale painting has intrinsic merit because it was an artistic work, Max Brod was right to save The Castle.
He still says no, while agreeing that this story has an operatic level of dramatic tension. It also feels highly relevant for my people, the accumulators. I want to do a documentary asking these questions of twenty hoarders and listening to them riff on what makes a thing work keeping.
If Kafka wrote today, he might have remained undiscovered, a lonely producer of fanfic or a followerless blogger. So many people are publishing so much, so often, that it would be impossible to know how many unrecognized geniuses are out there. Contrariwise, the vast majority is probably mediocre. The question of whether our output is worth keeping is now somewhat of a moot point, because it’s little more than a few kilobytes of data added to the global bucket o’ terabytes.
Our stuff, though? Where is the line between ‘heirloom’ and ‘junk’?
I have two dreads related to my own mortality. One is that I would somehow be remembered with a roadside memorial made of stuffed animals and helium balloons. (I recognize that this might be incredibly touching to the majority). My other dread is that someone would want to save all my random clutter, paying a storage fee rather than throwing out a bunch of completely useless boxes. The worst thing I can think of is having my earthly existence reduced to a box of books or old clothes. Dude, I’m not a ring or a teacup. Throw that stuff AWAY.
Am I right or wrong, though? What if I put in my will that I had paid a service to come in and donate or throw away all of my personal items? If someone in my life wanted to take one of my old t-shirts in order to feel close to me, who wins? (What if it was... a weird neighbor or stalker??)
When my grandmother passed away, I hoped to choose a piece of her costume jewelry for myself. I was the only granddaughter, and I figured she would probably have an inexpensive trinket from her youth, a little vintage piece or something that my mom and aunties wouldn’t care about. Nana was always very stylish and she loved brooches and rings. I was therefore stunned to discover that everything she had left was modern. I knew she had contemporary stuff prior to the 1980s because it appears in photos. At some point, she must have weeded it all out of her collection. As a minimalist, I respected this, but as a descendant, I was a little disappointed.
Do we make these decisions based on the financial value of the objects?
Do we make them based on their usefulness?
Can the ancestor require that the descendants keep specific things?
Can the descendants demand to receive specific things?
Which descendant? Who gets precedence, the child or the grandchild?
I made a policy decision quite a long time ago that I would not be a reliable caretaker of family memorabilia. This from a person with a history degree! I would be the logical choice as curator of photographs, letters, documents, and anything else that qualifies as an archival legacy. At the same time, I would be the worst possible choice; I don’t have children of my own and my lifestyle is far too nomadic. Who would make that commitment when I’m gone?
What tends to happen is that we are so poleaxed by grief that we are unable to make decisions, usually for many years. It’s really common for people to have multiple generations’ worth of unsorted grief boxes. One generation loses their parents, and, paralyzed by mourning, leaves the boxes for the next generation, whose sorrow then becomes exponential. Meanwhile, the boxes are full of totally mundane, insignificant items. Please don’t cry over my alarm clock or my baking pans, okay? They’re not me.
Pass the buck. That’s the default reaction. We treat our tea towels like some kind of priceless inheritance, even though almost every human being who was ever born has had the fantastic blessing of being ordinary. (Ordinary, better than infamous). What we really should be doing is loving each other harder while we are here in the earthly plane. We should be more present for one another, listening, sharing stories, forgiving, appreciating, caring, trying a little harder. It’s when we realize we have missed our opportunities to love each other extravagantly that we cling to the kettles and casserole pans. Always, always, always, people before things.
Unless those things are the unpublished works of an artistic genius, at which point the ethical dilemmas commence all over again.
It’s not that I like running in the rain and mud. It’s not that I particularly enjoy pondering whether that is hail, or just needle-sharp icy cold raindrops in the wind. It’s not even that I have some kind of willpower or motivation, which I don’t, because nobody does. What is it? It’s the result of a decision. At some point, I decided that I would do difficult things for the sake of doing difficult things. A workout is just a physical symbol of an internal commitment. My commitment is to condition the whiner out of myself.
Okay, granted, I run in general because it feels good. Not every run does, though. When you haven’t been out there for a while, in fact, it feels terrible. Running bounces your joints, makes your muscles tired, gives you a stitch in your side. Plus, you’re reminded of how easy it used to be, and you have the added layer of humiliation that your body won’t do what your ego thinks it should.
In my mind, I’m exactly as fit as Hollywood stunt people, back-flipping off of moving trains and doing parkour all over the joint. I also have clearly defined, lean, shadowed muscles and I can punch through a wall. Can’t you?
My actual body, unlike my mental model, gets wheezy and tired. It also looks a lot different in profile than it does from the front.
I want both my body and my mind to live in the real world. Spatial awareness, proprioception, these are ways my brain learns to keep my body from walking into poles, stumbling off of curbs, and getting banged up on physical objects. My mind would always rather be thinking about something more interesting or receiving passive entertainment than navigating this world of concrete, wood, and steel. Or especially the world of mud and gravel that I traverse when I train.
Where I live, I can choose between running in the heat or in the not-heat. It turns out to be much easier to run in a jacket and tights on a rainy, cold day than it is to run in shorts on a blazing hot day. I have to remind myself, though. It’s not like my body is going to remember what it was doing six months ago. Body lives in the now.
That’s something else my mind can do for my body. I can remind myself that I’ll be done in mere moments. An hour from now, half an hour from now, ten minutes from now, I’ll be standing in a hot shower. The time will be over before I know it.
Working out in bad weather has done a lot for me. It’s made me unflappable. Standing in line, being put on hold, dealing with bureaucratic problems, are as nothing compared to running uphill with mud splattering to my knees. Soggy socks, there’s a problem. Anything I do indoors in clean, dry clothing is a non-issue.
Training in bad weather is almost completely predictable. I run the same routes, so unless a tree blows down, I know what to expect. I’ve figured out which layers I need to wear at which temperatures. I have a hat with a brim for rainy days. I check the weather report first thing in the morning, and often I can schedule a block when the clouds will have broken up a bit. Still, this training helps me to deal with the unpredictable. Rain or snow that I didn’t expect acts just like the rain or snow that I did expect. The sky is on my mind a lot more than it was when I was a sedentary, indoor person.
Grit, that’s the goal. Grit is extremely useful as a characteristic. I’m persistent and tenacious. When I want something, if I’m convinced that it’s a good idea, I’ll just keep going and going for it until I get it. It’s helped me to handle criticism, since almost anyone will mock a person for spending an hour running up a muddy hill in the rain. Your mockery means nothing to me, not unless you have a valid point you were trying to make? Valid by my standards, that is? Most of our obstacles in life are emotional and social, not physical. We’re stopped by anxiety, inertia, and commentary, and almost all of the commentary comes from imaginary scenarios we developed entirely alone. Pushing yourself in the physical world of weather and natural terrain tends to shift your consciousness and develop a bias toward action.
Is this person’s sneering critique as intimidating as a fifteen-mile run? Pshaw, sir, you are as a mere pebble in my shoe. Madam, I remove your attempted influence just as I shake out a bit of gravel.
Why do I work out in bad weather? I do it because I know how, first of all. More importantly, I do it because the weather is almost never, virtually never, going to be the way I want it. If I wait for the perfect conditions, I’ll never do anything at all. If I rely on being in the mood, when I “feel like it” and everything is perfect, I’ll live my life as a lump in a chair. I push myself to get out there in rough conditions because LIFE is a rough condition. I’ll want what I want and get after what I want to get, and I’m not going to let a little rain or mud stop me.
I can be in a bad mood with a dirty tub or I can be in a bad mood with a clean tub. That’s how I see it. When I get into a snit for some reason, I need something physical to do or I’m going to start volcanically spewing hot lava and unprintable verbiage all over the nearest innocent bystander. I have two choices: clean my house, or exercise. One night I took a hammer out into the back yard and hammered a hole in the dirt, but when I saw it in broad daylight I realized that I had beaten a foot-wide bald patch into the lawn. That’s why I try to keep it constructive. Angry cleaning is great because it’s a harmless way of burning up angry energy, and it’s also a fantastic source of psychic fuel for the grodiest, worst scutwork and most boring chores.
Learning to harness various feelings is a key part of emotional homework. We tend to say that we’ll do things when we feel like it and when we’re in the mood. That’s for amateurs! Personally I have never been in the mood to scrub a toilet, and I hope I never will be. This is my one and only life, and the day I “feel like” kneeling on the floor with a toilet brush in my hand would be so out of character that I’d have to wonder if someone had been gaslighting me. I get these things done by following a schedule, distracting myself with audio books, and pretending I’m doing something else. If I’m lucky enough to be wound up and angry about something, then I can use that to get the gross stuff done. I’m certainly not going to waste a happy feeling or a good mood on cleaning my apartment.
Happiness is for enjoying. A happy feeling should go toward making art, talking to people, dancing, making meals, and doing fun stuff. When the happy feelings come, use them wisely and remind yourself of all the nice things you like to do.
Sadness? Sadness is no good for cleaning. Cleaning when we’re sad tends to make us feel sorry for ourselves. Woe is me! I wore these socks and now I have to wash them AND put them in the dryer AND fold them AND put them away! It never ends. Sigghhhhhh. Doing chores when we’re sad can add to feelings of resentment, futility, or hopelessness. The human condition of having everyday, quotidian practical needs suddenly seems like a requirement that we build pyramids or dig trenches in the rain. Sadness is a time to ask for a hug.
The difference between anger and sadness has to do with feelings of control. We tend to get angry when we feel that someone else has intruded in our territory, broken the rules, failed to keep an agreement, violated a contract (written or unwritten), or otherwise messed with us. We tend to feel sad when something has happened that we think we can’t do anything about. We’ve lost something, we regret something we can’t change, we’re stuck or trapped, we’ve failed, everything bad is permanent and pervasive. This is why angry cleaning is helpful. It’s a statement that THIS PLACE IS UNACCEPTABLE! I WON’T HAVE IT! Whatever else is going on in this dumb old world, at least I can control my own personal environment.
Talk about spheres of influence always riles people up. If there is one thing that people love to explain in painstaking, minuscule detail, it’s the precise, annotated list of reasons why they in fact do not have control, power, or free will over some specific situation. Oh, I see. You’ve fallen under a curse and that’s why the rules of life are different for you than for every other person. Astrological influences prevent you from having power in the ways that other people accept that you should. By all means, please, tell me more about why you personally can’t... have a clean house?
Wherever you live, you have the power to clean up your personal space.
Even prisoners have that power!
Clean for revenge. Clean up as a way of saying that other people can’t mess up your life, no matter how epically bad they have been at being your roommates.
Clean in hostility. Clean as a sarcastic way of proving that you are a person of refinement and that other guy is a barbarian.
Clean in white-hot rage. Stomp around, move furniture away from the walls, get behind stuff, and scrub until the paint starts coming off.
Clean in resentment. Clean because you want your cleaning deposit back, because who does that landlord think he is? Clean because you’re tired of your family taking you for granted. Clean because you’re sick and tired of junk mail and excess packaging and the million toys and prizes that have somehow infiltrated your nice home.
Clean to prove a point. You’re the one with standards. You’re the one who knows how it’s done. You’re the one who takes action while other people just sit around complaining.
Think of everything that anyone has ever done to you, get so fired up that your nostrils flare, and grab a sponge.
Use that furious energy to haul and toss donation bags into your trunk.
The truth is that our living environments affect us more than we think. I believe it’s impossible to feel a sense of domestic contentment in a messy, dirty, disorganized space. I believe that there is a direct link between disorder and dissatisfaction. The more crowded and cluttered the room, the higher the background level of stress. It’s certainly still possible to be angry in a streamlined, clean home, but at least domestic disasters aren’t adding to the list of things to be angry about. We deserve better. We deserve to live in homes where we can feel serene and supported, places where we can retreat until we’re ready to face the world again. When we have everything the way we like it, if we feel overwhelmed again by anger, we can then turn that into the process of building muscle. Or remodeling.
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.