This is a story of a stack of money that could have disappeared, but didn’t. Granted, it might be more interesting to talk about that money if it did go bye-bye. Everyone can identify with that, right? There’s more value in the story that not everyone knows, the story of how losses can be avoided through strategy and careful study. If you’re tired of being broke, the first step is to avoid losing what you already have or getting into further debt. It can be done!
It’s IRA time. Before your eyes glaze over, let me quickly explain what that means and how it works.
Not too confusing, right?
I wish I had paid more attention to this sort of thing when I first started out, because I definitely would have found a way to come up with that money, and it would have turned into tens of thousands of dollars by now. I was saving $50 a week even when my take-home pay was $220. This is money I don’t have because I was too bored to read basic instructions or spend 20 minutes setting up an account. ANYWAY...
It’s close to tax time, and my husband reminded me that we needed to fund our IRAs so we can get the deduction. We are extremely serious about saving money, so much so that we live in a studio apartment and we don’t own a car. All we had to do was to transfer the money from our regular bank to E*TRADE, where we keep our retirement munneh. Takes like 10 minutes.
We’ve been talking about this pretty much for a year, so funding our IRAs was not a decision point. We didn’t need to discuss what we were going to do; we just did it. This is a massive, huge help. Taking action on something that you understand, when you feel confident that you know what to do, is just exactly as easy as ordering a pizza. Maybe even more so!
Our position is subjective. It’s a matter of personal opinion. It’s a policy decision that we’ve made independently, based on what we think about current events, the economy, future trends, planetary alignments, or whatever. Lots of other people can and do make different decisions based on their own personal opinions and positions. My husband and I both like pineapple on our pizza, while recognizing that lots of other people don’t, and that’s fine. The truth is that those people are wrong, pineapple on pizza is delectable, and it always will be. The truth about investments is that one position may pay off very well in one year, and not pay off in a different year, because conditions change all the time.
The main risk is in saving nothing. Living on 100% of what you make, or living off credit cards because you actually spend more than you earn. I’ve been there, I get it.
Back to the story. I now had $5500 in cash in my IRA account.
Nice, flat green American dollars.
Those dollars belong to Old Me. Future Me, playing with her Future Phone, riding around town in her flying car and wearing a metallic body stocking. You’re welcome, Future Me!
What I’m supposed to do is to then use my nice, carefully saved $5500 and buy shares of various stocks or funds or bonds (*snort*) with it. As that money sits in cash, it is not technically an investment. It won’t earn a single penny in interest, no matter how long I leave it there.
A lot of people do this on accident, not realizing that their IRA account is basically just an electronic envelope to hold their money. (Or collect dividends, which I think of as “money babies.”)
Okay, so. Here is where it starts to get good.
My hubby and I had both already decided to leave our 2017 IRA contributions in cash, because we anticipate a significant market drop. We have our own separate investment accounts, and we make our own decisions, because we earned that money from our own careers and we have our own strategies. This is a type of diversification. Cognitive diversification! We do our own research and our own analysis, and we trade notes. As it turns out, my investments outperformed his last year (heh heh heh) and sometimes he buys into some of the same stuff that I do. We high-fived after transferring the money.
THE VERY NEXT MORNING
The market tanked!
My 5500 nice flat green American dollars are still sitting in my cash account, untouched by the ravages of a 734-point market drop. (Followed by ANOTHER drop of 425 points the following day!)
If I had bought shares of anything off my shopping list, they would have been worth less later that same day. I would have lost a bunch of my IRA money within just HOURS of “investing” it.
Not sure if I would have cried or punched a hole in the wall, but...
Instead, I laughed. I laughed because this time I saw it coming. I didn’t know it would happen that fast, but I was stone-cold certain that in “the very near future” my shares would be worth less than they are now. In fact the value of my investment portfolio did drop over $1000 that day, but that’s okay because it’s still worth more than it was when I started. I also believe it will be worth more in three years than it is today. More importantly, I believe it will be worth more in 25 years, when Future Me comes to claim it.
I’m not good at math - if you don’t believe me, come out to lunch with me and watch how long it takes me to calculate the tip. If someone like me, someone who started out flat broke, with poor arithmetic skills, can learn how to invest, then probably anyone can. The main thing is that you have to take the needs of Old You as seriously as you take the needs of Today You. That tends to make you careful and attentive.
If you don’t have an IRA account set up, call someone at your bank, or if you hate making business calls as much as I do, you can probably do it on their website. If you want to get into investing for the first time, hang onto that money. Then start watching the headlines. When you start to see panic about record drops in the stock market, find a nice index fund and put your money into it. Pretend it isn’t there until this time next year. In the meantime, see if you can find a way to put aside $100 a week, or $20 a week, or $5 a week, or even $1 a week. Future You is going to thank you for it.
The rote sayings and adages that you hear as a broke person surrounded by broke people are completely different than the sayings that you hear uptown. For one thing, I’m finding that upper-middle-class people seem to talk about almost nothing but poor customer service, remodeling, and the bodily functions of their pets. As a kid, I often heard adults talk about being “a day late and a dollar short.” It’s an interesting exercise to think about the opposite of everything, and it intrigued me to start thinking about always being “a day early and a dollar up.” What would this mean?
The idea of being “a day late and a dollar short” is that even if I had managed to show up on time, to, say, the county fair, it wouldn’t have mattered. I couldn’t afford it anyway. Even if I had the money, something would have prevented me from getting there. I shouldn’t bother to get my hopes up or to set my heart on anything. This is the world of broke-ness. Your transportation is unreliable, you can’t depend on a predictable work schedule, the people you want to bring aren’t available for one of a thousand reasons, none of your stuff works, and every penny you manage to set aside is almost automatically burned up by pressing material needs. Fun is not for you. Resign yourself to deprivation and exclusion.
This is a self-perpetuating mindset.
The convenience store where I got my first real paystub job is still open at the same location. It’s still open all day, every day. There is still someone working there on the same schedule that I worked in 1993. It could be me. There are no practical reasons why I could not have spent the past 25 years standing in the same spot, wearing the same uniform, and presumably selling the exact same pot of coffee and the exact same four rotating hotdogs. Pumping orange nacho cheese out of the same plastic sack, selling the same blue-dyed frozen corn syrup drinks, peddling cigarettes, malt liquor, and scratch tickets to the same sketchy neighborhood dudes. I’d still have trouble making my rent, I still wouldn’t be able to afford a car, and I’d still wonder why toothpaste has to be so darn expensive. The simplest solution was always just to find a better-paying job somewhere else. Which I did.
Almost every problem I had in those days was a financial problem. The great thing about money problems is that they can be solved with money! A problem that can’t be solved with the application of cash dollars is a sad problem. Heartache, disappointment, grief, betrayal. Everything else is up for reconsideration. Having more money means being able to relocate, repair and replace things, hire lawyers or financial planners, get advanced education or professional credentials, take lessons, get medical care, make emergency travel plans, take time off work, help friends resolve their problems, and donate to various charitable causes.
Having money also means being able to plan ahead. One of the worst aspects of being broke is that your future timeline contracts. You start planning only a month ahead, or a paycheck ahead, or a week ahead, or a day ahead. You become unable to imagine what your life might be like in three years or ten years. Feeling like you have plenty of money and plenty of options helps to extend that figurative timeline.
I only worked at that convenience store for two months. I’m pretty sure I can still remember every minute of every shift. Purgatory looks a lot like a convenience store at 10 AM on a Sunday morning, with a never-ending line of people waiting to buy one cup of coffee and a newspaper. I had no idea what I would do with myself while I stood behind that counter. I had no idea how that job would ever lead to anything better. It never really crossed my mind to go back to school, which I eventually did, because I was so sure that college was out of my reach. My take-home pay exactly equaled my rent. I was living off microwaved baked potatoes with no butter; obviously I wasn’t saving money or planning for the future. When I got a full-time office job, I tripled my pay. SEVEN DOLLARS AN HOUR! I saved over 20% of my take-home pay every week. That’s when I started planning ahead and thinking that I could make goals.
One of the first things I did was to save money for my first international trip. I took three weeks off - insane for a nineteen-year-old - and went to New Zealand.
Last year, my husband and I went to Wyoming to see the solar eclipse in totality. We found out it was happening a year in advance and set a reminder for January to book tickets. I got the last available hotel room in Jackson and paid for it with reward points. We bought our plane tickets, still available and significantly cheaper eight months in advance. My husband put in his vacation request with plenty of time to spare. If we’d waited, we wouldn’t have been able to get there at any price. These are the kinds of things you can do when you save money and plan ahead. We did in fact get to town six days early.
The less FoMO we have, the less of a sense of scarcity, the easier it is to put money aside. We only take out our wallets for the can’t-miss stuff. There have been dozens of concerts we would have liked to see, sure, and nights we would have liked to go out and eat in a restaurant. Doing these things every time the urge arises means a strained schedule, burnout, debt, and weight gain. It’s not a relaxing way to live. We like to maintain our domestic contentment at home, inexpensively, and go out for the really great stuff. It’s a completely different experience to always feel like you’re a day early and a dollar up.
Nostalgia is a mystery to me. What’s so great about the past? I say this while waving my history degree over my head. There is no past era that I’d prefer to live in. There is no time, not even the 2000s, that I’d prefer to today. Throwback Thursday is wasted on me; I liked the music of the 1980s but not much else. From my perspective, every year that I’ve lived has involved more innovation, more books and music and movies, and better-quality food. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve benefited from getting my head straight and being less susceptible to emotional drama. I have more skills and I’m a better cook. These things are also true about my family and friends. Life is harder in most ways when you’re young. The future seems like an extremely exciting place to me and I can’t wait to see it unfold. This is a basic optimism that is the key to a happier life.
Optimism is a learned trait.
What is there to look forward to? Don’t you read the news? Oh, it’s awful, it’s awful.
I agree, there is all sorts of truly terrible stuff in the news every day. There always has been, because it’s much simpler to tell stories about terrible events day by day. The photographs are much more dramatic. How do you tell a story about the decline in extreme poverty with a photo? Take a picture of an ordinary, well-fed child who is studying in a classroom? How do you tell a story about the incredible decline in casualties from war? Take a picture of an ordinary town where people are working at their jobs?
That’s the thing about having a degree in history. I know too much. Our chances of dying from almost everything were much higher at any point in the past. Most people, statistically, would have died as infants. Epidemic disease, lack of sanitation, malnutrition, constant warfare, sieges, an extremely high murder rate, brigands, even attacks by various wild animals. We can only possibly feel glum about the present day if we try to compare our conditions with some imagined glory days from the twentieth century.
I grew up in a tenement apartment and I still had a lot of things that the Emperor Charlemagne did not have, that he could not buy at any price. Central heat. Ice cubes on demand. Legible penmanship. A public library and a fire department. Paved sidewalks. Electricity, including lightbulbs, a stove, and a refrigerator. Potable water flowing out of the faucet. A telephone and a television. My mattress and pillow undoubtedly kicked butt over his. Granted, I didn’t feel anywhere near as grateful for these modern comforts as Charlemagne would have. That’s because historical progress is driven by envy and dissatisfaction.
I say this is great. There’s no reason to envy someone if you can study what they’re doing and imitate it. This is obvious if you have a growth mindset! Assume that the envied person had to acquire that trait somehow. Also, you have to envy the complete package, not one thing in isolation. That means you can’t envy a celebrity without including the paparazzi and the haters. You can’t envy any individual person without including their entire personal history, their relationships, and their behaviors. Maybe their fitness level, financial success, or emotional intelligence would come easier to you than it did for them. Observing someone else means you can skip anything they tried that didn’t work. Let envy make you a better person.
We seem to be allergic to thinking about the future. Research shows that we think of our own future selves in the same way we think about total strangers. I think a lot of us are mean to Future Us. We set ourselves up in ways we wouldn’t treat our worst enemies. Hey, Future Me! Have fun trying to survive on the tiny fixed income I’m sending you. I hope you enjoy paying off our debts. Oh, and good luck burning off this slab of cake I’m eating. Maybe you can get rid of some of those calories while you clean out this garage I’m piling with stuff. And by the way, wash my dishes.
The most commonly procrastinated goals are planning for the future and dealing with health issues. In both cases, it would be easy for us if we realized that Future Me is the same person as Today Me.
Unfortunately, most of us are captivated by Past Self. We just see ourselves as cuter when we were younger. We think we had more fun and that life was better. We don’t like looking forward, because it seems depressing, but when we do, we’re oppressed by the idea that we “should” be planning, saving money, eating better, and being more active. Walking backward, facing the past, we’re going to bump into the future and feel it as a frustrating obstacle.
This is part of why people hang on to clutter. We haven’t spent any time thinking about what we’ll want or need just a few years into the future. We have this anxious sense of What If, while never spending any time gaming it out. Get specific about those What Ifs and plan around them! What If I turn into a bag lady? Well, what would need to happen to avoid that sad destiny? (Build relationships, build career skills, learn about financial planning, save money). What If my house burns down? (Get insurance, test your smoke detectors, make an emergency response plan). What If I need this later? Well, that decision is up to you. You’re creating your response to your stuff and your home. You’re creating your response to your money. You’re creating your response to food and to how it feels to live in your body. You’re creating your friendships and conversations. What your personal future looks like depends almost entirely on how you think and what you do about it, today.
The future is an opportunity. Even an hour from now: later today is the future! There’s always still time to call someone and say the things you haven’t said, like “I miss you” and “I’m sorry” and “I love you.” There’s always still time to learn new things, to travel, to try new foods and dance to new music. There’s always still time to try to be a better person, a better listener, more patient and forgiving. There’s even time to clean out the garage. Pick any single goal or any single square foot in your personal space, and do something today that will make it more awesome for Tomorrow You. The future can be whatever you wish it to be.
This book is a total trip. I follow Benjamin Hardy on Medium, so I knew that his book would be worth the read, but I have to confess that it blew my mind. Slipstream Time Hacking! I’m still processing it. I have the suspicion that it has permanently affected how I perceive the nature of reality. If this intrigues you, you should definitely read it even if I make a complete hash out of this review. It’s short but it has a lot going on.
Briefly, a slipstream is a way of rapidly jumping forward in time. Not on Star Trek but here, in our ordinary daily reality, we can time-travel. Time hacking means that we can change our results by looking at time differently and learning how slipstreams work.
Historian’s note: We ARE traveling through time. We’re just doing it at 1x speed.
Okay, now that I’m wearing my historian hat, I have to keep it on, because it always puts a dent in my hair. Let me give a bit of perspective here. Compare a kindergarten-age child of 2018 to a five-year-old child of 818 CE. Twelve hundred years ago, that typical little kid would be small and frail due to malnourishment and early fevers. He or she would have a household job, like knitting socks, fetching water, or searching for firewood. This child would never learn to read or write, and might struggle with basic arithmetic as an adult. Now, quick! Grab the little tyke and run for your slipstream! After the lice treatment, the vaccinations, a long, hot bath, and a couple of visits to the dentist, enroll the kid in a local school. A year later, this medieval child will be living twelve hundred years in the future, literally and physically, but also mentally. Open the slipstream and send the poor kid home to the thatched hut where you found him/her. The villagers of 819 CE would find this very confusing. Where did this kinda large, clean child with the sparkly teeth come from? Where did this child learn to read, write, and understand basic sanitation? Worse, what the heck is this kid saying about cars, electricity, airplanes, rocket ships, “other planets,” phones, microwaves, dinosaurs, and Hot Pockets? Somebody call a priest.
Now, forget that poor medieval child and turn your attention back to the kid who was born in 2013. This child is exactly like a medieval child that traveled twelve hundred years into the future: a little child that still needs naps and snacks, gets skinned knees, and plays with an imaginary friend. The human part of us is the same. The difference is the cultural context in which we live. This is the part of us that can time-travel.
Here is where it gets crazy, and where it’s helpful to read the book for yourself.
Everything you are trying to do with your life exists on a time continuum. For example, let’s say you want to pay off a $20,000 balance on your credit cards. At your current rate, you hope to be caught up in four years. If you win a contest and use the money to pay off your cards, you’ve effectively traveled to 2022! Monetarily at least, you’ve jumped ahead into the financially secure future.
Now, imagine something similar happening with all your other goals. What would you do if you suddenly woke up and you were already at your relationship, career, financial, fitness, and home improvement goals? What goals would you make then? Why not just make those goals today and skip the middle steps?
This is the reasoning behind working with a trainer or a coach. If you can move to a specific vision for the future more quickly with a little help, then it makes every kind of sense to seek out that help.
Hardy’s book goes beyond these basic, ordinary goals. How do people make groundbreaking leaps in business, sports, publishing, and other fields? What are the geniuses doing? How do they strategize and make their decisions? This is the part that’s messing with my mind. Now that I’ve read Slipstream Time Hacking, I have to ask myself: What would I be doing right now if I lived a hundred years into the future? What would my home look like and what would I be doing with my day? Is there any reason why I couldn’t be doing that right now?
If a goal doesn’t take at least four years to accomplish, is it worth doing?
This is the question I ask myself now when I choose my goals for the New Year. I’m on the challenge path. I keep my resolutions because the entire point of what I do is to feel like a failure, at least at the beginning. I know I’ve picked the right challenge for the year if I absolutely hate it for at least the first three weeks. There are all sorts of things I would hate doing, though, mostly because they’re bad ideas. Example: walk into the woods and eat the first mushroom you see! No, absolutely don’t do that.
Every day, do something that scares you, unless of course it’s scary for a good reason.
The premise here is to push yourself to do something that is challenging because it’s new to you, because the act of the challenge helps to make you smarter and more resilient and better at learning difficult new things. That’s valuable all by itself. In the sense of the challenge path as emotional training, as mindset development tool, it doesn’t matter what you pick. Challenge makes you better.
The next level of question is, if I did this thing for four years, where would I be?
Would learning about this alien new skill or activity for four years give me expanded options in life?
What kind of person would I be if I spent four years trying to get good at this?
What are the people like, the ones who have been doing this thing for at least four years?
Why four years and not forty years? Well, that’s relevant, too. Thinking about the challenge path in terms of novice to mastery, though, was too intimidating and off-putting. I could never think of anything specific that I wanted to dedicate my entire life to. My one and only life! Four years is a time span that helps me to feel curious. It makes everything accessible. Maybe I do it for four years and only then do I realize that I’m hooked for life. No beginner can genuinely know that, or at least that’s my opinion.
This is why I don’t really start a new goal in the month of January. I can’t “break” my resolution if January is the month when I do my initial research. I haven’t even started to build momentum until second quarter at the earliest. The first year barely counts at all. Learning to think in a longer-term perspective is how I take good care of Future Me.
Past Me worked really hard to get me a drivers license and a good credit score and visible ab definition. Past Self made me a marriage. I can’t throw all that away. I have to live up to Past Me’s standards and uphold our agreement to build a better life for Future Self. I make plans over a four-year event horizon because I believe in a future.
What kinds of things happen over a four-year timeframe?
Well, let’s see. I met and married my husband in that length of time! In four years, you can build a house, build a business, or get a university degree. You can build a boat. You can train a service animal or learn to dance. All sorts of stuff can happen in four years! It’s really a pretty long time, especially from the perspective of someone who routinely gives up on New Year’s Resolutions in four weeks.
The year I chose running, I only planned to run 2.25 miles by the end of the year. I visualized my progress literally in increments of a single sidewalk square. Imagine my surprise when I reached my goal three weeks later! “Now what?” I wasn’t into the whole four-year thing yet. That’s why it never occurred to me that I’d wind up running a marathon. Even more, it never crossed my mind that I’d become interested in the world of adventure races and ultra-marathons. I started as a hater and wound up as a true believer.
I chose cooking after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. This introduced the concept of the “10,000 hour rule.” The pursuit of mastery is more complicated than that, of course, but it did feel like an epiphany. What would I want to be good at if all it took was 10,000 hours? I couldn’t think of anything. How about 1,000 hours? Wait. How about one hundred hours, or ten hours?? As soon as the thought “ten hours” crossed my mind, it snapped into perfect clarity. Cooking! In reality, I was making much better dinners in under ten hours. It got better as soon as I started doing mise en place and working on how to sauté an onion properly.
In other words, I shifted from a fixed to a growth mindset. Almost instantaneously. I stopped thinking of, say, my cooking abilities as a fundamental part of my personality. Instead I started thinking of them as something I could (and should) improve with focus and attention. It was obvious that every hour I put toward learning such a basic skill would improve my life permanently. My skills would also improve the lives of other people around me.
That’s true of everything.
Learning new skills makes you useful to have around. Not only do you quit relying on other people to do these things for you, you can also contribute at a higher level. This is especially true when you work on mastering things like time management, getting organized, improving your communication skills, mood management, parallel parking, first aid, using a fire extinguisher... You get the drift.
Over the years, I’ve used my New Year’s planning process as a benchmark. What am I going to learn next? How do I assess how far I’ve come? What are my strongest and weakest areas? I’ve set out to learn so many things, from how to raise one eyebrow to how to read more complicated knitting patterns or make decent pancakes. I’ve learned how to balance the weight in my expedition backpack, how to plan a trip overseas, how to feed twenty people on a budget, and all sorts of useful skills. Everything builds on everything else. What started as something foreign and confusing and difficult turns into a basic skill I barely realize I’m using.
Why wouldn’t I want to learn this? That’s one question. Who wouldn’t want to be a good cook? Why wouldn’t I want to be good at distance running or three-day backpacking trips? Why wouldn’t I want to be good at public speaking?
I have a rough sense of some future challenges I may or may not take on one day. Right now it’s martial arts. In the future, it might be orienteering, or chess, or voice lessons, or welding. The basic rules are whether it will improve life for Future Me and whether studying it will force me to feel true humility, at least for the first year.
I can’t control the vagaries of fate. Things will happen in the world in general, and other things will happen specifically to me. That’s reality. What I can do is to continually push myself to face challenges, to learn new skills, and to be unafraid of being a beginner. Forever, forever and always a beginner. With every year that goes by, I’m better prepared to handle or even avoid the random accidents and crises of fate. This is how to create a destiny. Who do I want to be four years from now? Four years after that?
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.
I decided when I was nine years old that I was going to be an old lady one day. I just knew it. I was reading a book of fantasy short stories, and one of them had a character who got to choose whether he wanted to know how he would die. I thought about that a lot. I didn’t really want to know how I would die, exactly, although I understood by that point that there was no opting out of mortality. I did sort of want to know whether I would die young, old, or medium. OLD! It turns out that the very elderly among us do tend to operate on the assumption that they will/would live to be old. This is good because it helps us plan.
What will Old Me do with her time?
There are a bunch of things on my bucket list that I have no interest in doing, not quite yet. In a full lifetime, there were simply things that were less appropriate for a young woman in her twenties and thirties than for an older version of the same person. Put it this way. If I assumed at twenty that I would live to be 100, there would be, count them, eight decades to spend. The dancing, dating, staying up late partying decades ought to be at the front. If Future Me were going to study calculus, write her memoirs, or learn to paint, those could go toward the back.
This train of thought continued down the track. What if I planned my later decades in advance? Past Me is absolutely notorious for trying to schedule all my time. She likes to leave me dirty dishes and laundry, because she thinks I like doing that stuff for her, and she likes to leave receipts and unsorted papers for the same reason. Past Me! Knock it off! I do NOT enjoy washing your socks! She also wants to tell me what movies to watch, what books to read, and even what magazine articles - you wouldn’t believe the bookmarks. They’re like passive-aggressive little notes. Knowing this, I don’t want to do the same thing to Future Me. I don’t want to leave her bogus chores and I don’t want to micromanage her leisure time. I do, though, want to send her gifts and good ideas.
I used to talk to Future Me all the time on the Future Phone. I would call her up to see what she was doing. Immediately she would start shouting down the line at me. I can hear you just fine, Future Me, you know full well that phone reception is much better in your time than it is now! The first time I called her, when I was about 19, she knew it was me all right. She told me that if I didn’t start saving money she was going to have to eat cat food. She started telling me off about my spending habits, and darned if she didn’t know exactly where our money was going, to the penny. That was the most urgent thing on her mind. Not forgiving people or traveling more or going for promotions - all she could talk about was savings, savings, savings.
It took ten or twelve years before I quit being sullen about this and started seeing it as little gift envelopes I could send to Future Me. Like burying a jar of gold coins in the back yard. Come to think of it, Future Me would adore a gift like that. I started feeling very tender toward her, she of the creaky old bones. I wanted her to be a crazy rich lady, known for tipping extravagantly and having loads of young friends who loved her jaunty cackle. Auntie Me.
Sometimes I’m jealous of Future Me. She gets to watch the best movies and read the best books, some by authors who haven’t even been born yet. She knows every word to songs that haven’t been written. Her phone, O her phone… She knows the mysteries behind world events, major archaeological finds that are still in the ground, medical innovations and inventions that Present Me can scarcely imagine. If only she could ship me some of that stuff, or at least email me some drawings…
She can’t send me anything other than querulous phone calls, but I can send Future Me anything I want. I can send her boxes of stuff. I can send her a house. I could send her a tattoo or a pair of earrings or a long heartfelt letter. I can send her a million photographs. I could send her a Twinkie and she would get to find out whether it was still edible. There are four things she wants, though:
I’m doing what I can, Future Me. I’m trying.
Sixty is the birthday I’m looking forward to the most, followed by eighty. I feel like my life will really begin at sixty. That’s when I feel like I’ll finally have some gravitas. I’m hoping my hair will be completely silver by then, although it depends on which grandmother I take after. I’ll have a certain freedom through the social invisibility that is granted to old crones. (I’m 42; can I be a crone yet?). I’ll travel and I’ll be a great public speaker and my posture will speak for itself. I’ve never been an impressive athlete, especially since I didn’t start until age 35, but beginning at sixty I’ll start to close in on the front of the pack. Senior Olympics, here I come!
In my twenties, I used to think I had missed my chance to go to Europe, live overseas, or become fluent in a foreign language. I had a fantasy that I should have been a translator of books, and that I had somehow blown my opportunity. Now I realize that once I turn sixty, I’ll have FORTY YEARS before I turn 100. I could spend ten years becoming fluent in a language and then have vast leisure to translate to my heart’s content.
Future Me could learn to identify bird calls, do a hundred yoga poses, travel to every country in the world, photobomb so many people, crash weddings, read an encyclopedia, finally learn to draw, and perhaps even walk down the street wearing nothing but purple rain boots and a tutu.
When I’m 100, I’ll look back at all the amazing things that have happened as long ago as 2049, when I was a sprightly 74. I’ll mull over the thousands of books I’ve read. I’ll spend a few months looking through the hundreds of thousands of photos I’ve taken, plus all the others of my old friends and loved ones who have gone before. I’m sure I’ll have regrets over all the apologies I never made and the friendships I let lapse, the people I never held quite close enough. Hopefully I will have done some good in the world and made a difference in someone’s life. Most of all, I hope I will still be able to sit on the floor and get back up again.
It’s not accountability that we need. It’s consequences. We think we would reach our goals and adopt new habits if only someone else would come along and hold us accountable. The truth is, if we’re in a situation in which we can get away with breaking our commitments, then there are no consequences. At least, there aren’t any consequences that we believe in.
Certain things we do automatically. We do things because we know how, it’s not a big deal, we can do them without thinking about them, or we actively enjoy them. We take showers, brush our teeth, feed the cat, and buy snacks. Nobody has to hold us accountable, although some of the death glares from the cat might count.
Other things we do without accountability are to: put gas in the car, buy groceries, deposit our paychecks, pay attention when we drive, text our friends, follow celebrity gossip, squash bugs and spiders, play games, and really actually tons of other activities. These are things we would never procrastinate. We wouldn’t procrastinate even if they’re disgusting or scary, like spider detail, or time-consuming, like gaming or waiting in the checkout line. We understand that these actions lead immediately to results that we want. We also understand that not doing these things leads to results we do not want, like missing a must-see TV episode or not knowing whether the newest royal pregnancy will produce a boy or a girl. Well, okay, we won’t be able to avoid that last one even if we try.
The trouble is that there actually are consequences to everything, but they usually don’t make themselves known in the short term.
It’s not that we don’t believe in these consequences. We know full well that we should be “saving for retirement,” for example. The problem is that we don’t really truly believe that the day will come when we’ll personally feel these consequences because we don’t believe in a Future Me. Who is that crazy old coot to tell me how to spend my money? The Me who exists on this continuum in the time dimension, that Future Me who has white hair and sun spots, is not a real person! I’m much too smart to grow old! Oh, sure, I mean, I’m going to be rich and famous and have a maid and a butler and a chauffeur, but that version of me will be young and fit and sexy. We spend more time planning what we would do if we Won a Million Dollars in the Lottery than we do planning how much we should put aside for retirement and whether we should buy long-term care insurance.
We want accountability to help us keep the commitment to work out because we know that otherwise, we’ll never do it. We won’t do it because we don’t like it and we don’t want to. We won’t do it because we don’t believe in a time when our mobility will be limited. We don’t believe we’ll ever have a harder time climbing stairs or sitting down than we do today.
Is there any other habit that we even want as much as we claim to want the habit of exercise? Not that I’ve noticed. I don’t hear people asking for an accountability partner to help them pay off debt, save money, wear sunscreen, stop driving while distracted, or get more sleep. We don’t actually want to save money - we want to win it. We don’t actually want to get more sleep, at least not if it means going to bed any earlier. We don’t even think that distracted driving is a problem, at least not the way we do it, because we can totally text and drive, unlike that other guy weaving between lanes. The lack of sunscreen we immediately regret when our skin burns, not that that helps us remember the next time.
We think we want accountability because we think we can delegate a sense of responsibility. If we haven’t developed new habits, if we haven’t reached our goals, it’s because other people are too inconsiderate to nag us into living our values. Other people have let us down! How could it be our fault, if we can’t find any examples of people so inspiring that we Finally Feel Motivated?
The only way we can change is if we change our minds. If I want something different in my life, then it’s up to me to change my behavior. If I want to change my behavior in the short term or the long term, I have to tell myself a different story. I have to talk myself into it. I have to convince myself that the consequences are real. When I believe in the consequences, I don’t need accountability, because nothing can stop me. I’ll keep my commitments to myself and others because I understand what will happen if I don’t.
When it comes to stuff, most of us have more that we don’t use regularly than stuff that we do. Our vital, infrastructural stuff such as keys and forks tends to speak for itself. It’s obvious why we have it and how we use it. The other stuff tends to sit around, waiting for us to notice it and bodily protect it, acting as its defense lawyer. We keep it because we intend to use it. One day. When we change our lives in the way we fantasized we would when we bought the darn thing, that’s when we’ll use it. This is when it helps to ask ourselves whether that day will ever come. There it is, sitting there, staring beseechingly at you, because of course it has a soul and a personality. Ah, but... how long have you had it?
The stuff we don’t use can be readily divided into Past and Future. The Past stuff, we keep to represent memories, heritage, legacy, and what we think of as our identity. Without my stuff, who would I even be? I still have my Self-Manager badges from the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. If I throw them away, how will anyone know I was a self-manager?? (Nobody knows about them but me, or likely cares). The Future stuff is anything we’ve bought and carried around that we haven’t yet used. There’s no way to prove that we never will! Future Self just called and says we’re going to! Totally! One day!
Future stuff falls into categories.
Supplies. We are CONVINCED that we need to stock up on stuff, to keep certain levels of supplies on hand. I used to be, too, until I wound up downsizing from a house with a two-car garage to an apartment about a quarter of the size. Now we don’t even stock up on toilet paper! We live a quarter-mile from the grocery store, and there’s a pharmacy in the same strip mall. When we get down to the last roll of paper towels, last sliver of soap, or last serving of dishwasher detergent, et cetera, we just pick up a replacement later that day. We’re at the store three times a week anyway. It’s easier than figuring out what we could get rid of to make room for something. Most Americans have more than one closet and significantly more kitchen storage than we do, so they fail to recognize that we literally, actually, factually do not need to “stock up” on household supplies.
Craft supplies. Now this is different. It’s different because we crafty types are viscerally certain that our yarn, fabric, paint, scrapbooking, or whatever supplies are more vital than the cleansers, canned foods, and other pantry staples. Those supplies are optional. Craft supplies are NEEDS. They are! If I don’t have at least an entire closet filled with completely unused, untouched craft supplies, I might physically die. We’re never going to admit that our true hobbies are 1. Shopping for it and 2. Stroking it.
Reading material. Guilty as charged. There are nearly 1600 books and audio books currently on my library wish list. I have thirty-four unread physical books on my shelves, although I’ve been consciously trying to read through and cull my collection for the last eight years. I typically have at least two hundred news articles bookmarked, even though I am constantly reading through that queue. What does it mean when my “to be read” list represents more than a quarter of the amount of books I have read in my entire life? That I’ve marked out my next ten years’ reading already? Or that I think I can suddenly start reading 10x faster?
Aspirational. The category of aspirational items has no limits. We can decide that Future Self is totally going to want this particular item about absolutely anything. Future Self is going to want to read this! Future Self is going to want to cook this! Future Self is going to want to try this complicated recipe! Future Self is going to decorate in this way, dress that way, and behave in this way. Future Self will act differently than me, exercise differently, eat differently, and do all the cool stuff I’m not actually willing to do today. It’s like we think Future Self wants to do Present Me’s scutwork (washing dishes, creating a filing system, organizing photographs, etc) while also somehow finding time for the awesome stuff. Future Me is going to file those tax papers while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Future Me is going to clean out the pantry while learning to speak French. Future Me is going to lose the weight and be delighted to wear these ten-year-old unstylish jeans I’ve saved for so long.
The reason it’s relevant to ask how long you’ve had something is that it’s a check on those aspirations. Aspirations are great. They make life interesting. They pull us forward into being better people than we are today. Yet - if these aspirations are so meaningful to us, why don’t we start on them today? This very hour? Are the aspirations actually better than the way we’ve currently dedicated our time?
How long have I had this skein of yarn?
When did I buy this unread book?
What is the date on this unread magazine?
(UGH! If I have three pet peeves in this line of work, one of them is the stacks of unread magazines that people insist on saving). (The other two are anything with DNA, like old teeth or cat whiskers, and anything at all that a parent has hoarded in a child’s bedroom).
Picking up an item and really asking how long you’ve had it can be really enlightening. Sometimes the question answers itself; for instance, I often use bookstore receipts as bookmarks. Magazines have dates, and food packaging has dates, and unused purchases are often still in the original shopping bag, complete with receipt. It’s archaeological.
Another aspect of this sorting technique is to ask yourself how long the item takes to use. I can knit up a skein of yarn in two or three nights. A complicated cross stitch might take me three months of working for three hours a night. I read about 50 pages an hour, or I can read an issue of a particular magazine title in 40 minutes. A bag of flour is enough for X number of cakes, batches of muffins, or loaves of bread, which I might prepare X number of times per month. Other than decorative items, which I usually tire of after several years, I’ve found that everything in my home has a natural expiration date. Almost everything is consumable, in that it’s designed to be used. Clothes, linens, reading material, toothpaste, dog food... it’s all created to be here, to be used, and eventually to be gone.
When we keep things that were designed to be used up within a week or a month or a season, and they’re still in the closet or on the shelf ten years later, what does that say? Do we really prefer having our lives mapped out that far in advance? What’s our track record here? Have we actually done a good job of predicting what Future Self was going to want?
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.