Time is the only thing we all have in common. I didn’t make this up. Of course I didn’t! Anything to do with the time dimension always has me running up last, late, to the end of the line. It’s given me a lot of pause lately. Think it out.
We all have different personalities, different families, different incomes and tastes and habits. Even people who work at the same job, keep the same shift, live in the same building, or come from the same family tree are not alike in every way. We do, though, have the same 24 hours a day in common.
That’ll be a bit different after we establish a colony on Mars, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Here we are at the change of another calendar year. It’s arbitrary. Why so many of us are following the Julian calendar instead of some other system is an accident of fate. That doesn’t matter, though, because it’s a scaffold around all our days. We might as well accept that time is a standard that applies to everyone equally, since nothing else does.
Time passes by the hour and minute, and I don’t feel it. It’s like being color-blind. Direction is another sense I seem to lack, and I struggle with maps in the same way that I struggle with clocks. That’s part of why I take my yearly and seasonal planning so seriously. I like having some kind of metric to measure my progress. What am I doing with my time on Earth?
A year is also a useful benchmark for comparing one physical state to another. Haircuts are the easiest to spot in a timeline of photos. Fashion trends, puppies, kittens, small children. I’m more interested in my personal condition: my health, home, finances, and relationships.
Am I still in touch with the people who matter to me? When’s the last time I talked to them or saw them in person?
How do I feel when I’m at home? Can I relax there? Can I have people over? Does my home feel warm, comfortable, and welcoming? Am I proud? Does it look intentional?
How are my finances? Am I busy spending money I don’t have living a lifestyle I can’t afford? Am I being fair to Future Me? Are Big Banks sucking my marrow?
How is my health? Am I sleeping well? Am I drinking enough water? Can I get down on the ground and get back up again without holding on to anything? Can I run up a flight of stairs? Is my energy level more like “kick down a fence” or “fell down a hole”?
Compared to last year, compared to two years ago, compared to three years ago, how am I doing?
It would be nice if we could see some pictures of the future from time to time. How am I doing today compared to Future Me? If I knew more, would I change my behaviors? Would I save more money? Would I strut my stuff, realizing I’ll never look quite so fly ever again? We can’t know the future.
We can, though. We can know the future by creating it. Things we do today can affect our setup for tomorrow. We can send ourselves stuff in the future, like journals and money and muscle and real estate and specific effort.
If I want Future Me to get a PhD, I have to apply to school and do all the homework in the now-today.
If I want Future Me to be married, then Today Me can’t go around verbally abusing Today-Husband.
If I want a lunch to eat on Tuesday, then I have to go grocery shopping today.
It seems so dumb and insignificant on the day or week scale, but on the year or decade scale it makes all the difference. Can I play a musical instrument, can I touch my toes, can I speak another language, am I up for promotion? Am I giving as much love and kindness as I wish to receive?
Other people do such impressive things with their 24 hours. Other people out there are playing the cello or going to the culinary institute. I’m sitting here trying to figure out why I have bookmarks in thirteen different books.
Most of what we do doesn’t matter. Most of what I do doesn’t, anyway! A hundred years from now nobody is going to care if I left dishes in the sink or made a scene at a party or won the lottery. A hundred years from now, even my own descendants won’t know my name or give a lick about me. They probably won’t have seen my photo or heard a recording of my voice.
In some ways, that’s liberating, ever so freeing. It gives a certain license to behavior of all sorts. We’re judged only in the moment and only by how we made other people feel. The metric is whether we take responsibility for the effects of our words and facial expressions.
In other ways, it’s a tall order, trying to think of something that matters enough to be significant on a longer time scale. Am I capable of more? Am I capable of leaving a legacy of some kind? Have I been working on it? How can I tell if I’m making progress?
In time, in time, certain names stand out for their work and the impact they made. They participated in the great conversation and played a bigger role on the world stage, for good or ill. Could we be among them, you and I? Are we making as much use of the same 365-day year as they did?
Time is the only thing we all have in common, the queens and the killers, the poets and the pop singers. Let’s just pause at least once a year to check in and see if we’re using our time as well as we’d like.
Panic over routine events such as Thanksgiving is something that Future You can avoid, but only if Today You is willing to help. Do you think you can do that? It’s really pretty simple. Every time you find yourself feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, make a note. Figure out a way to send some kind of reminder to Future You so you don’t find yourself in the same situation next year.
The last time I did this, it was summertime. There’s a weeklong event that my husband and I go to every year, and I notoriously always get myself wound up by overcommitting. I set a reminder on my phone for about a week before I will be packing for that trip. In the notes section, I wrote myself a little letter reminding Future Me of all the entirely predictable things I will inevitably try to do. Some of those things include: trying to do housework on the day we leave for the airport, trying to pack more books than I can read, and getting dehydrated. When I see the note, I’ll be surprised, because every time I do this I’ve forgotten all about it.
Sometimes I leave myself a voicemail, even though Today Me hates voicemail exactly as much as Past Me always has, and presumably Future Us does too. I’ll say, “Hi me, it’s me.” Blah blah blah. For some reason this never fails to crack me up, both while I record it and while I listen to it as a future iteration of myself.
Here’s the thing. Thanksgiving is basically here. The next six weeks are going to be holiday madness. Nothing goes at the same speed, whether that’s traffic, shipping times, travel delays, or any line at any store or facility. Our stress levels go up at the same time that everything takes longer and gets more complicated. It’s the perfect recipe for a total emotional meltdown. That’s before adding in family visits, bad weather, a packed social calendar, and cold and flu season. The only things that can help are patience, better planning, or perhaps chocolate.
I am a bah humbug of the first water. I’ll just say that right now. The only things I enjoy about the winter holidays are eating a fabulous meal with my family, and knowing it’s time to start my New Year’s goal-setting extravaganza. Because I don’t like the color combination of green and red, because Christmas music makes me break out in hives, and because I object to the concept of a one-day holiday being stretched out over a minimum of two months, I tend to see the shady side of the season. My skepticism and many petty annoyances help me to plan like I would plan any other chore, say, a remodel or bathing my dog. Ugh, let’s just get through this the best way we can.
As a result, sometimes my cynicism is brightened by a genuine moment of kindness, friendship, or family togetherness. Aww.
For holiday junkies, though, all the anticipation of the sparkling lights and tinsel streudel or whatever the heck makes people live for December, well, it can lead to unrealistic expectations of perfection. Being stuck in a slow line or getting a tired sales clerk seems not just ordinary but positively unholy. How dare you ruin my snow globe image! This is MY MONTH!
As the song says, The weather outside is frightful... let it go, let it go, let it go.
Anyway. Family are coming, people are going to start putting us on the spot by springing non-reciprocal gifts, materialistic pressures are going to start building, and things are going to get tense. Let that be the expectation. Let that reality sink in. Accept it, and plan around it, and maybe smooth out the rough parts.
Every time I have a less-than-ideal time, it tends to be a result of a poorly planned transition. It’s almost always me who is responsible, because my husband likes to be everywhere half an hour early (at least) and he has never bought into many of my weird guidelines and expectations. Whenever we go on a trip or have anyone come over, and I include the plumber who is here to fix the garbage disposal on this list, I feel this inner need to deep-clean our entire home from top to bottom. A maintenance person was here the other day to test our smoke detector, and I even cleaned out the fridge just in case. I have all these high hopes about entirely handmade dishes and vast, complicated menus. If I extended my food fantasies to interior design, floral arrangements, or gift wrap, I’d go around the bend. You know what isn’t festive? A hostess with bags under her eyes and a flour-coated shirt, trudging down the hall with a migraine, making the guests feel bad they ever came.
If you’re anything like me, or if you spend a lot of time looking at Pinterest, which I don’t because I pressure myself enough already as it is, you can have it one way or the other, but not both. Either lower your expectations and take some pressure off yourself, or extend your planning session further back in time next year. Add at least a day, preferably three, to what you consider “the season.” It might seem that adding time allows for raised standards as well, but it doesn’t, due to the planning fallacy. It’s simply human nature to be poor at guessing how long it takes to do things. Adding one more item multiplies the complexity.
I got rid of most of my holiday jitters by downsizing into a studio apartment. True, I have to travel a significant distance if I want to party with anybody. The advantage to that, though, is that the travel itself counts as a contribution, so anything I do to help cook or set up is a bonus. Because I’m in someone else’s home, I don’t feel responsible for the overall level of cleanliness, planning the menu, or staging the view of every room from every angle. It’s almost like... it’s almost like other people don’t really care that much about whether every single thing gets done?
The metric is joy. Almost all of joy consists of stepping out of the moment and forgetting all the background troubles and worries of daily life. The more of those concerns we can drop or discard, the closer we can get. Whenever we think about whether to take on a holiday project or chore or special dish, we can pause and ask, Is this going to give joy a chance, or is it going to make it less likely? There isn’t a complicated joy. Simple joy is the goal.
What’ll I do with my time if I live to be one hundred and eleven? Maybe it won’t happen, but then again, maybe it will. It always made sense to me to plan ahead just in case. I can’t tolerate forty seconds of boredom now, so what makes me think I’ll like it better when I’m ancient? How exciting is it to make a really long bucket list, realizing that there might actually be enough time to do it all, taste it all, try it all, live it all?
I’m making a bucket list by the decade and setting aside certain things for the age when I think they’ll make the most sense.
I’ve learned that I can only really focus on a couple of things at a time if I want to give them enough attention to make any progress. Basically I have enough brainpower to work on one artistic or intellectual goal and one physical goal at a time. That’s why it makes sense to save certain things “for later,” because trying to do everything all at once ensures that none of it is done well. At my current level, I tend to think of goals on a three-year time horizon.
I spent most of my twenties in poor health, and as a consequence (or a cause) I was totally inactive. Realizing in my thirties that I could regain and rebuild my strength, and then that I could surpass anything I ever thought possible, I started to feel more hopeful. Also, it was immediately obvious that I’d better weight my physical goals toward my younger years. I’d have more stamina and agility, and it would also help to extend my active years further into the future.
Prioritizing those physical goals naturally calls for shifting other sorts of goals toward the other end. Artistic and educational goals? Travel goals? Relationship goals? Philosophical goals? I start to wonder, what kinds of things might Future Me: Eighties Edition be into?
There are some overall epic goals that call to me, and if I haven’t gotten around to them any sooner, then I’ll make a point of tackling them in my eighties. One of these cherished goals is to teach someone to read. I just feel like that would be one of the coolest, most incredible feelings, to give someone the gift of literacy. This is something I could do no matter how much money I had or how mobile I was.
I also like the ideas of becoming a chess master or finally getting somewhere with mathematics. Both of these seem like big enough, deep enough projects to hold my attention for several years. I can save them for later, knowing that Old Me will have plenty of time.
In my twenties, I flailed around. In comparison, my life was so filled with struggle and drama, and I felt that I was barely making it. I was unhappy, confused, ill, and scared a lot of the time. Somehow I got it together, and by the time I was twenty-nine I had finally graduated from university, learned to drive, and gotten onto a career path, in that order. I also learned to knit, crochet, and use shop tools and a sewing machine, read hundreds of books, and got fairly good at ballroom dancing.
In my thirties, I started feeling competent. I learned to cook, eliminated my consumer debt, paid off one of my student loans early, got promotions and raises, adopted a parrot, moved into my own little house, got married, helped raise a teenager, ran a marathon, traveled to eight countries, and finally reached my goal weight. I became a minimalist, got into backpacking, self-published a book, started a blog, had basic A1-level conversations in a couple of foreign languages, and learned to play the ukulele.
Now I’m in my forties. I finally realized that when something interests me, I can choose it, focus on it, plan around it, study it, and maximize my experience of it. I also realized that it’s worth my time to do so. When something interests me even a little bit, I find that it’s even more interesting when I learn more. When I set a goal, it’s my own goal, a goal of my own selection. Because of that, I’ll give it everything I have.
Knowing I have the focus to carry out my goals, and assuming I have the time for them, what shall I do?
Forties Me: Become a competent public speaker and Distinguished Toastmaster. Start a podcast. Get a black belt in a martial art. Learn to swim and get over my fear of the ocean. Do a triathlon. Take gymnastics classes. Do a cartwheel, handstand, and the splits. Be completely debt-free. Make younger friends.
Fifties Me: Run a fifty-mile ultramarathon. Get serious about yoga and weight training. Do a major through-hike like the Appalachian Trail, maybe the Triple Crown. Make younger friends.
Sixties Me: Open my own gym. Compete in the Senior Olympics. Buy a house. Be financially independent. Make younger friends.
Seventies Me: Study chess. Have snow-white hair like my Nana. Make younger friends.
Eighties Me: Teach someone to read. Wear a tiara. Make younger friends.
The only one of these goals that I couldn’t potentially cram into a single decade, this current decade, would be entering the Senior Olympics, because I’m still too young.
Multi-decade goals: Travel to every country in the world (five a year for the next forty years). Write books and become a thought leader. Become a world-class listener. Learn to love my friends properly.
I hesitate to post many far-out goals, because there’s one thing I’ve learned about goal-setting. That is that once you’ve achieved a goal, it changes your vantage point. The goals you set from that point are different than goals you had set before, both grander and more specific. For instance, after traveling in Spain and using rudimentary Spanish to communicate, I understood ever so much more about how to focus my studies and where I would benefit the most, which was about 3:1 in favor of listening comprehension and memorizing nouns. This also enabled me to see that intensive study over just a couple of months could rocket me forward in my skills.
I look at my goals and feel that maybe they are too ambitious, and yet again, maybe they aren’t nearly ambitious enough. I look at my goals and think of some of my senior friends, and how they’re routinely doing a lot of this stuff. I’ve met and befriended people who’ve been to every country in the world, started businesses, adopted children, trained service animals, served in public office, become fluent in multiple languages, run foundations, and indeed, medaled in the Senior Olympics. What legacy will I leave with my life?
How about you?
Halloween is the best time to talk about our mortality. In the past, I’ve talked about becoming a whole-body donor and about the importance of the advance care directive. This year I’m going to talk about what happens if you die without a will. Two-thirds of people do. It’s very high on the list of most commonly procrastinated tasks. Who wants to think about dying? Who cares what happens afterward? Rather than let that type of passivity run your life, take a day and make the arrangements properly. Then you can move forward and never think about it again.
Most people probably don’t need a will, not really. If you don’t own a house and/or you don’t have any kids, go in peace. Both of those conditions apply to me. I have an adult stepdaughter, sure, but she’s responsible for herself. If I go before my husband does, then all of my money and property become his. That’s how I’d want it. I don’t have life insurance because there would be no need to replace my income. I also don’t really own anything, not a car, not real estate, not expensive jewelry or furs or whatever. The only things I care about after I go are who would take care of my little parrot Noelle, and what happens to my blog when my domain name expires.
People don’t think about that kind of thing often enough. Who takes your kitties? What if you’re just in the hospital for four days, does someone water your plants?
When you die, everything becomes someone else’s problem. What exactly happens, though?
Your mail continues to show up at your mailing address until someone notifies the post office and/or the senders that you are deceased.
Your bills continue to accrue in your name. Someone has to call all of your utility providers and banks, one by one, and let them know you have passed on. They will wait a certain amount of time and then start calling again, wanting the estate to pay off all the account balances. This process will be ongoing long before the courts have made things official on their end.
The hospital has to issue a death certificate. This can take weeks or months and is subject to mystifying delays.
Then, if there is no will, someone has to be appointed as executor or personal representative. This is another process that takes an unfathomable amount of time. None of the bills of the estate can be settled until this is done.
If there is a spouse, the estate goes to that person, even if you’ve separated and you hate each other, unless divorce papers were filed. EVEN THEN! If you had any insurance policies or old accounts with that person recorded as beneficiary, even from decades ago, that person gets your money.
If there is no spouse but there are kids, they stand equal as next of kin. This can be complicated, because most likely they will start squabbling over who gets to make which decisions, what you supposedly said you wanted, and who gets what goodies. Your procrastinating on writing a will may be the single reason that all your kids stop being on speaking terms for the rest of their lives.
If you have a house, and you also have unpaid bills, and not enough money in your accounts to pay them all, then the house must be sold. No matter who lives in it. In the meantime, if the mortgage doesn’t get paid, then the bank can move along toward foreclosure. Probate is not protective against foreclosure.
What happens to your stuff? Someone has to go through it all and throw it away, donate it, sort it out to make sure it’s given to the “correct” recipient, sell it, or, most likely, pay for a storage unit and keep it all in boxes forever and ever. Precisely zero of my clutter clients have ever gotten rid of any of their grief boxes. They’ll save your old potholders, your jigsaw puzzles missing a piece, your dentures, all of it. I’ve seen hairbrushes saved for several years with the hair still in them.
The more complicated your affairs, the more likely that at least one of your loved ones will never get past it. They’ll never move on. Your passing will be the wound that never heals.
The more I work with clutter, the more of it I expel from my life. Every time I do a home visit, I come home and get rid of another bag of stuff. I’ve sworn off home visits entirely, but it seems impossible to quit for my inner circle. For myself, I can’t have it. We are given neither the day nor the hour, and I might leave this world this very afternoon. That’s why I’ve already put most of my affairs in order. I burned my old diaries, I scanned my photos, I filled out an advance care directive and had it witnessed, I made arrangements to be a whole body donor and I am constantly showing the card to people. It’s the orange thing in my wallet in front of my driver’s license. The toll-free number is on the emergency alert section of my phone. I don’t even have any house plants.
One day, there will be the sad task of scraping away my few personal effects. I may pay someone to do it in advance. Throw away my toothpaste and my leftovers from the fridge and my socks and underwear. Hopefully the stuff I’ve left behind is the least of me.
What we’re called upon to do in this world and this lifetime is to love one another. Love each other, that’s all. Mostly we should do this in the present moment, today, and today, and today again, because today is all we really have. Another way to love our loved ones is to straighten out our affairs as well as possible. The legacy we leave behind should be one of love, of unforgettable words of kindness, of great stories, of friendships that stood the test of time. Let what we leave behind be impossible to ever put in a box.
I don’t invest in gold. This seems like such an obvious stance that it doesn’t bear mentioning, at least to me. I’ve started to realize, though, that it’s pretty heavily marketed, and that the marketing actually works on people. Might as well toss my opinion out there. All I wonder is whether it makes me contrarian or not.
Now, I don’t dislike gold as an element or anything. I’ve been wearing a(n ethically sourced) gold wedding ring on my hand for nine years and I’ve never taken it off. In that sense, I have more of a personal relationship with gold than with any other metal. I can also see the point of having my own personal gold brick, keeping it in my safe and occasionally opening the door to simply look at it. I mean, I wouldn’t turn one down. It’s more that I wouldn’t regard it as an “investment,” in that form or any other.
I think there are smart, rich people out there making fat wads of cash off convincing other people to invest in gold. The same can be said about other things, like penny stocks or real estate, but those are targeted to, I think, different demographics.
What’s the rationale behind this? There’s more than one, but let’s just go straight to the EOTWAWKI argument, shall we? (End Of The World As We Know It, which, one day maybe we’ll go deeper on this but technically it could indicate... an improvement!).
It’s the Walking Dead future as opposed to the Star Trek future. “The grid” goes down, permanently, and we’re quickly plunged into an apocalyptic nightmare of anarchy and chaos, kind of like Black Friday but with more cannibalism.
In this grim, nihilistic vision, people quit trusting currency, and suddenly gold becomes a more viable means of trade.
Okay, so here is where I flag the operator and climb out of the roller coaster. I know too much about history and material culture to buy into this.
I don’t disbelieve in the premise of a failed state, with anarchy, bread lines, and riots. That’s a fairly constant thesis topic in my field, after all. My posture is based on the idea that gold ain’t going to help in that scenario.
What’s really going to be valuable in a state of total technological collapse? Trade, of course, will continue on forever, because it’s an innate part of how we understand the world. Even animals like crows and apes understand concepts of trade and fairness to an extent. The deal is that we want what is scarce, and in this dark version of the world, gold wouldn’t be all that scarce. It isn’t now, so why would it be in a world of fewer people and less or no law enforcement?
What people would actually want: Coffee. Chocolate. Insulin. Tylenol. Antibiotics. Birth control. Batteries. Nicotine. Any other mind-altering drug that can’t be grown locally or produced in a camp kitchen.
What’s gold going to do in a scenario where everyone has a pounding caffeine-withdrawal headache and there’s no coffee to be had?
Gold is for trade, right? Why use anything at all for trade, unless there’s a trade good that you want but don’t have and can’t get unless you trade for it?
Does that sound dumb? Hold on.
We’re at Peak Stuff as a society, or at least we are here in the great old U. S. of A. Name me an article of clothing, camping gear, construction materials, medical supplies, or anything else you can’t find by the container-shipload. We have more of these material goods right now than we know what to do with, and that would be even more the case if there were some massive apocalyptic die-off. There’s an idea that comes up all the time in post-apocalyptic novels that people would quickly run out of clothes, and that has always seemed comical to me, because I’ve been in a lot of Goodwills. I don’t think we’d even really have to worry about food supplies for quite a long time, barring climate change effects, which only ever seem to bother us in our scary fiction.
Anyway, let’s say we survive TEOTWAWKI and we need... a thing. A necessary object. Are we going to trade for it, are we going to loot it, do we probably already have five of them out in the garage, or do we understand that we need to learn a sustainable, long-term means of manufacture? Where does gold factor into this? Why would I use gold to buy something like, say, a pair of boots or a first aid kit, when I know where to find and scavenge them on my own?
I don’t scoff at preparedness, not in the slightest. It seems to me that any pragmatic person would dedicate serious time and effort to building health and physical stamina, prioritizing dentistry, staying off medication, and learning first aid skills, tool skills, leadership and communication and negotiation skills, and of course self-defense skills. I was practicing guard escapes all last week. “All we’re missing is gravel!” Gold isn’t going to buy me the ability to get out of a chokehold, not in today’s society nor in one with zombies in it.
Gold as a... market investment? Like, buying it and keeping it in your portfolio? Don’t make me laugh. If this vision of the world ever came to pass, how on earth would I mobilize and get anything out of my accounts? The preparedness mindset that imagines life-or-death fisticuffs with one’s next door neighbor surely has to adjust to the concept that one’s portfolio, home, job, status, and worldly goods have just become expendable or irrelevant.
“If you would have bought gold in the Seventies, it would have barely kept up with inflation.” - My husband.
The world is changing, and changing quickly. It’s changing in atrocious ways in some areas, and in fantastic, exciting ways in others. Undeniably, at least parts of it will be barely recognizable twenty years from now. In what way, though? Is total transformation always scary? Or how much of it is fiction, like most marketing materials? Let me get back to you after I finish gazing at my nice gold brick.
I was on the Future Phone just now, talking to Future Me. We want to get some clarity on how we should be allocating our time. Future Self informs me that it’s solid common sense to assume we’re going to live a long life, and plan accordingly.
Let’s spend a minute going over the gamble here. Where are the risks? Future Self’s Wager is like Pascal’s Wager, except not religious. There are two bets.
One, you assume you’ll die at X age and you actually die sooner. Two, you assume you’ll die at X age and you live longer.
If you die sooner than you expected, you potentially miss out on opportunities and leave things unsaid.
If you live longer than you expected, on the other hand, things get complicated. You run out of money. You don’t carry the appropriate long-term disability insurance or long-term care insurance. Your house, appliances, and vehicle start to depreciate, and you can’t afford to repair or replace them. Inflation comes for your assets. The last sixty years of your exercise and nutrition habits catch up with you. You live out the effects of all your strained and broken relationships. You feel the pangs of regret for all the opportunities you never pursued, all the things you never learned, all the places you never went, all the apologies you never made, and the legacy you never created. You realize that you always had plenty of time for everything you ever wanted to do, yet you squandered it.
To me, it’s quite obvious that assuming you’ll die sooner is a much worse gamble than assuming you’ll live longer. If you’re wrong and you DO live much longer, you won’t have the relationships, the mindset, the physical stamina, the skills, or the material assets that you’ll need.
Also, we might be talking a very, very long amount of time. Say you assume you’re going to be gone by, um, sixty-seven? But you actually live to be eighty-six. That’s NINETEEN YEARS of “Oops, I never thought this would happen.” What if you then live even longer than that? What if you live past the point when YOUR KIDS are eighty-six?
Most people will instinctively reject this idea. Seriously, though! The average lifespan has roughly DOUBLED in the last century. Advances in sanitation, epidemiology, nutrition, surgery, pharmaceuticals, gerontology, and just general medical knowledge are going to continue to accelerate. Financial planners are telling people to plan to live to be ninety-six right now, just to be on the safe side.
Again, the risk of planning to be ninety-six and then dying sooner is that you have enough resources, and you wind up not needing them after all. You can then leave it all to your kids, your mate, your capybara, and/or your favorite charity.
You think it’s pessimistic to assume you’ll die young. Think again. It’s much more pessimistic to assume you’ll outlive your money, your health, and your relationships by thirty years or more.
It’s basically fortune cookie wisdom to ask, “What would you do if you found out you’d die tomorrow?” Or six months from now, or a year from now? I’ve found it much more interesting to ask, “What would you do if you knew you’d live past one hundred?”
The other day, I was taking a class in situational combatives, part of my martial arts training. It occurred to me that if fortune favors me, I could train hard for another twenty-five years. That would put me at age sixty-eight. My partner in that class happened to be seventy-eight and he’s still going strong, so it’s not an unreasonable gamble. What could I do in twenty-five years? I could be a sixth-degree black belt, that’s what!
That gave me pause. I could probably attain a black belt in a shorter span than that, maybe even less than half that time. Wait. Waiiiit a minute. What ELSE could I do in twenty-five active years besides getting a black belt in a martial art?
Get several black belts?
Suddenly it felt as though I had such a long time to fill, so many long decades that could instead be filled with boredom and dissatisfaction. I’d look back on my young, dumb forty-three-year-old self and wonder why I hadn’t made better use of my time.
Past Me! Why u so lazy??
Not only physical pursuits, but other kinds of disciplines caught my attention. What could I study in twenty-five years? Music? Painting? Small engine repair? Esperanto?
One of the benefits of middle age is that you start to understand how to shape longer-term goals and projects. Another is that you have the time and resources to pursue them. Among the best is that you have the patience and self-discipline you never could find as a teenager or young adult. You have to start to wonder how much your focus and dedication could improve, given decades of additional practice.
Already I’ve done something. I’ve put this thought out there in the world. What if we have more time than we think? Much, much more time? What scale of project would you consider if you knew you had thirty years to work on it? Now, if I’ve gambled poorly and I’m wrong about Future Self’s wager, I’ll still have done something worthwhile. If I’ve gambled well, only time will tell what sort of amazing things I might still have in me.
“There are plenty of good things to look forward to as you grow older. So accept the aging process, and don’t waste years in the gym.” - Barbara Ehrenreich
“Who says going to the gym is a waste?” - Me
Buckle up, because I’ve got a rant coming out of me and it’s going to move pretty fast.
There’s this sick myth out there that the only reason a woman goes to the gym is vanity, that she cares about her external physical appearance, and that this is wrong and should be stopped. Personally, I think that if vain people want to make changes to their appearance, that’s their right, but it’s a moot point! We don’t begrudge people wearing the clothes they prefer, teetering in impractical shoes, dyeing their hair literally every color of the rainbow, getting professional mani/pedis, bleaching their teeth, spending thousands on orthodontia, removing moles, having full-body tattoos or piercings or henna treatments. Why, then, would bodybuilding be excluded from this catalog of personal expression?
Back to what I said about it being a moot point.
I don’t know anyone who works out for appearance reasons, and that includes men. Which, are we judging men and women by the same standards here? Because we should be, or at least we should if we believe that all humans have full bodily autonomy.
Why do people work out?
I work out because I want to avoid or delay getting Alzheimer’s disease, and also because a cancer scare and a fibromyalgia diagnosis at age 23 were, shall we say, inspirational. I work out because I’m physically frail and I see it as my only option to stay mobile. If that isn’t true for you, I’m so, so happy for you, but do not DARE to come at me for prioritizing my health and independence.
Why do other people besides me work out?
My friend is training to be an FBI special agent fighting human trafficking. She wants to pass the physical.
My friend is training to get into the Air Force because she wants to become a pilot.
My friend is training to get into the Navy, like the previous four generations of her family.
My friend is training because he’s 78 and he wants to keep active. He can still get on the floor and do pushups.
My friend is training because he was choked against a wall and he wants to be able to defend himself.
My friend is training to set an example for her little daughter. So is her best friend, who has a daughter about the same age.
My friends are training because they’re married and it’s something they enjoy doing as a couple.
My friend is training because she’s been fascinated with martial arts all her life, and she eventually wants to master every form.
My friend is training because she was a college athlete, and she craved something else when she could no longer play soccer.
My friend is training because she and her sister run marathons together.
My friend is training because he wants to apply to the police academy.
My friend is training because it helps manage her depression.
My friend is training because she lost 100 pounds, and now she can.
My friend is training because she does roller derby with her daughter.
My brother is training because he fractured his spine in three places in a construction accident, and being able to run is a celebration of life.
Can someone explain to me why “accepting the aging process” somehow implies being completely sedentary? Why sitting elegantly in a chair is somehow proof of deep wisdom, and anyone who has the temerity to join a gym is foolish?
I have a gym membership BECAUSE I accept the aging process. I believe I am very likely to live to be ninety, and I have a significant chance of living past one hundred, because I stay current in gerontology and because my relatives tend to be very long-lived. This is not an optimistic viewpoint. On the contrary! Outliving my meager savings by decades is scary, deeply scary. I’ve watched several of the women in my extended family retire into poverty, frailty, and economic catastrophe. Being forced to quit working due to health issues and then running out of money well before I die is a near certainty, unless I plan carefully to avoid it. Being poor, ill, and dependent on others is pretty much the opposite of aging gracefully. Agreed?
I wasn’t able to have children. There won’t be anyone who is somehow obligated to care for me. That means financially and also physically. What will happen if I let my health decline to the point that I can’t get out of a chair on my own? Who will come over if I fall or if I’m bedridden, too weak to phone for help? I’m forty-three and it’s by no means too early to make contingency plans. High on that list is the physical training to fall properly.
I love working out with my senior friend, and I hope I’ll celebrate his eightieth birthday with him at our gym. He’s a lovely person, and he’s also an excellent reminder of what I want for myself, just thirty-five years into my own future. We do “sprawls” (falling forward) and “breakfalls” (falling backward) several times per class, and each and every time, I think, “I’m doing this for Future Me.” Today is my last opportunity to build muscle and bone density for Old Me, and I’ll tell myself the same thing tomorrow morning.
Yes, aging is a natural process of accruing wisdom, valuing friends and family, and celebrating one’s legacy. All of that is ever so much easier to do with vitality, high energy, and physical stamina. I didn’t have those assets in my teens or twenties, but I do now, and that’s because I’ve “wasted” so many years in the gym. Not only do I intend to waste many more, but I also plan to open my own gym when I’m sixty. I’d like to set the example for younger people that it’s never too late, and also demonstrate that there are forms of wisdom that can only be accessed through action and physicality.
“My body” is not one single unchanging entity. If it were, the day I was born would have been a lot tougher for my mom, considering I’m taller than she is. It continually astonishes me how deeply rooted our beliefs about the body can be. Our bodies change every day, every minute! All our cells are continually in a process of renewal, down to and including our bone tissue and our brain cells. This is why I’ve been thinking lately of this thing I call “body polymorphia,” or the perception that the body has the potential to shift between many possible forms.
We believe this when we contemplate hairstyles or piercings or tattoos, sure. Tanning, yeah, why not. Corrective eye surgery. In fact, I cut my eyeball on a bird-of-paradise plant last year, temporarily damaging my vision, and it healed perfectly. The idea that a cut can heal without leaving a scar is really stunning, yet somehow we’re able to make it through the day without giving it much thought. We believe that broken bones can knit, that people can wake up from comas, that it’s possible to survive a stroke or a heart attack or a broken neck.
In spite of all this, somehow, some of us believe that there’s nothing within our power or control that we can do about body composition.
Why would we cling to the demonstrably false superstition that Nothing Can Be Done about adipose tissue?
It’s a simple fixed-mindset belief. Even though I grew almost visibly from infancy through adolescence, my body stalled out and I became like unto a tree, adding rings around my trunk each year. That’s what happened, right?
They say having kids causes weight gain, but I never had kids, so why did I gain weight?
They say aging causes weight gain, but I weigh less at forty-three than I did at twenty-two, so why was I overweight then but not now?
What we really want is to be let off the hook when we feel judged by external forces. Personally, I feel more judged by gravity! Why would I care what other people think about my physical appearance when they can’t park straight or drive in their own lane? What should be most important is whether we feel like we have enough energy to do everything we want to do.
This is what I’ve taken upon myself.
First, I decided that I wanted to be fitter each year than I was the year before. I want to take good care of Old Me. I want to open my own gym when I’m sixty, and impress younger people with all the stuff that a progressively aging person can do. This is already starting to happen. I enjoy wowing kids in their teens and twenties when I tell them my age.
I thought about it and realized that what I really want to give to Old Me is a set of tangible, physically measurable gifts. She’s getting more muscle, more bone density, healthy blood pressure, and a lower resting heart rate. She’s going to have better posture, more visible muscle definition, greater agility, and better balance.
There are seventeen years between now and my sixtieth birthday. With seventeen years of daily practice, how many yoga poses can I master? Could I work to do the splits, a handstand, a cartwheel, a muscle-up? The only way to find out is to find out.
Right now I’m working on my headstand. It took two weeks of trying every night, and I finally got it the night before my birthday. I couldn’t do it as an eight-year-old or a fifteen-year-old. Why quit, though? Why buy into this madness that the body thickens up, stiffens, solidifies, and quits working quite right? IT IS B.S.! A year ago it hadn’t occurred to me to find out, “Am I too old for this?” Now I ritually stand on my head in front of the bathroom door every night while I get ready for bed. I’m getting faster and I’m able to hold the pose longer.
I can feel it activating my midriff.
This is what I’m feeling these days. I’m feeling that the long, sleek, supple muscles of my torso are desiring to be flexed and stretched. Temporarily I’m also feeling that I have a bit of a muffin top, but hey. Underneath the variable, ever-morphing top coat that is my external layer, there is this sinewy level. I know it’s there because 1. I can feel it and 2. I believe in an empirical reality that can be observed, tested, and verified by SCIENCE. Scientifically I know that I can build muscle tissue, grow thicker, denser bones, change my blood sugar and blood pressure, and even *drumroll* burn off excess reserves of adipose tissue, commonly referred to as body fat.
My body composition has changed over the years, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. My ring size has changed, my bra size has changed, and weirdly, even my shoe size has changed! My feet got a half-size bigger after my marathon, which I thought was permanent, until I went in for a new pair of Birkenstocks after six months of kickboxing. Now my feet are a full European size smaller than they were *before* the marathon. If my feet can change size, what else can? I’ve worn eight different clothing sizes in my adult life. Now I’m calling forth the fascinating, mysterious, even adorable specialty muscles that lay hidden in my arms, shoulders, and back. What are you like, my dears? Where ya been? Do you have friends over there in the abdominal area?
I believe that every part of my body is capable of change and growth. I know it to be true. I believe that I have the power and the emotional strength to learn more, to do more, and to ask myself why I struggle when I struggle. Why shouldn’t I go through each day in a body that can turn cartwheels? The joy in my heart is a transmogrification ray. As I play and experiment, I change my body, this amazingly polymorphic body that I have the pleasure to call my own.
Is there really such a thing as a “midlife crisis”? Jonathan Rauch explores this cultural concept in The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. Encore adulthood is a better name for this stage of life. Understanding that the midlife happiness slump is nearly universal and that it eventually gets better is a vision that we need for the reality of vastly increased longevity.
I’m forty-three, and my husband just turned fifty, so this is a timely perspective for us. Something really seemed to change for him around his milestone birthday. He fell in love with his career in a way I don’t think he ever had before. He seems lit up. His forties were more like I’m experiencing mine so far. Preoccupation with financial security, realization that the body is changing, wondering whether one’s life’s work will make an impact of any kind, and of course, constant depressing news that one’s friends and contemporaries are ill or dying. Add to that the bittersweet position of watching one’s child grow into adulthood and independence, leaving an empty chair at the table. These are the kinds of reasons why it can be hard to find gratitude and satisfaction, even when objectively life is pretty great.
It helps to know that people on average report feeling happier at seventy than they do at thirty, and happier at eighty-five than they do at twenty.
What provides life satisfaction, according to research? Social support, generosity, trust, freedom, income per capita, and healthy life expectancy account for three-fourths of reported wellbeing. Almost none of that has to do with material comfort or career success.
The Happiness Curve is absorbing, backed by research, and full of insights that would be valuable to readers of any age over maybe, say, twenty-five. I feel lucky that it was published in time for me to read it in my early forties.
We are in the process of adding perhaps two decades to the most satisfying and pro-social period of life.
I did not have a mood disorder. I had a contentment disorder.
“Happiness and mental health rise in an approximately dose-response way with the number of daily portions of fruit and vegetables”—all the way up to seven daily portions, which is about as much fruit and vegetable matter as anyone can ingest.
What better topic to read about, the week one turns forty-three, than the collected wisdom of people who are at least twice that old? I celebrated my birthday this year by reading Happiness is a Choice You Make, and I’m glad I did. I loved it, and I’ll probably read it again, although maybe ten years from now.
The book begins with a New York Times series that John Leland writes about people “85 and Up,” also known as the “oldest old.” He befriends these six elders, visits them at home, and meets their family and friends. It’s his way of reconciling his own mother’s aging. As he follows them through time, he learns their perspective, the way they deal with the unique problems and gifts of advanced years.
People in their nineties report greater well-being and fewer negative emotions than people in their twenties! This was one of the surprises of a delightful, moving, and provocative book. Leland’s affectionate gaze brings out some really excellent one-liners and wisecracks, yet also some moments of greater profundity.
Happiness is a Choice You Make, according to Leland and his elderly friends, and the book offers practical, philosophical advice about how to make that choice. Think about the type of old age you would want to have. If that includes strong relationships, build them now. If that includes living a life of purpose and meaning, start figuring out what that means to you now. It also wouldn’t hurt to think about what you can do now to give your older self more physical and financial strength to help you stay independent as long as possible. When Leland discusses finding a purpose in life, he says, “Kickboxing may not be a great choice,” but in fact I train with a man who is seventy-eight and can still get on the floor and do pushups. He punches like a freight train. Certainly I hope he’ll still be in class with us ten years from now.
I’ve always enjoyed the company of old folks, even when I was a little girl, and this is fortunate because soon I’ll join their ranks! What I’ve noticed is that most people seem to have no idea how much longevity has increased, and are therefore unprepared for the concept that they may well live fifteen or twenty years longer than they ever imagined. We often discuss the question, “What would you do if you had only one day (six months, whatever) left to live?” It’s a much more interesting question to wonder what we’ll do if we all live past one hundred. Better start contemplating that now. You’ve got plenty of time, so pick up Happiness is a Choice You Make and start reading.
“If you want to be happy, learn to think like an old person.”
“I know my time is limited, so the only thing I have to do is enjoy myself.”
“Work is happiness, to make you live longer.”
“...[g]enes account for only about one-quarter of our differences in longevity.”
“Did we really have to wait for word from our oncologist to live as fully as we were capable?”
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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