There are a million myths about exercise. One of them is that it leads to weight loss, which is silly. Another is that you just go to the gym and "work out" and live happily ever after. The truth is far more complicated. Our bodies are very efficient in adapting to anything we ask them to do. That means that whatever workout we choose, within a few months, it will seem relatively easy. That's why it's called a routine. It's true what they say, that today's challenge is tomorrow's warmup. We want to periodically reevaluate our physical activities and make sure we're getting the most of our sweaty-fun-times.
The best time to start a new habit is right after you move or change jobs. That way, it just seems like starting a new chapter, or a new book. There was that time when I lived at 123 Main Street, lounged around on the couch watching Game of Thrones, and ate a lot of cereal for dinner. Then I moved to 1212 Shakethatbootay Street and suddenly I was in training.
'Training' is somewhat like working out, except for something very specific, in the same way that shopping for a wedding dress is somewhat like regular shopping.
Two and a half years ago, I ran a marathon. I over-trained and injured my ankle, and the road to recovery was long, significantly longer than 26.2 miles. This is one of the many reasons that we must periodically reevaluate our workouts, so that we don't hurt ourselves. I had heard of cross-training, but I didn't truly understand what it was. It means that no matter how often you dream you are wearing a unitard and a handlebar mustache while crossing a finish line at the Olympics, you do have to mix it up and not run every single day.
Cross-training means that some days of the week you do one activity, and other days of the week you do something very different. Ideally, this will be a mix of cardio, strength training, and flexibility. There is no end to the information out there on physical culture. What tends to happen is that you dabble a little and read an article here and there, and then you get sucked into the vortex. The more you read, the fitter you get, with the catch that you are also more aware of how slouchy and slow you really are. Well, I don't know about you. You might be able to deadlift a tractor tire. I myself look very much like the bookworm I have been since I was two years old.
If I were a man, I would probably be more embarrassed about my lack of upper body strength, although it's pretty typical for a runner. As a middle-aged lady, it just means I can pass for a schoolmarm. I would say 'librarian' but most of the librarians I know can kick my butt.
Here I am, finally unpacked in my new apartment. Despite the past few weeks of packing and hauling and unpacking boxes, I haven't been working out much lately. By 'lately' I mean two years. My daily workout has been walking three or four miles, punctuated by the occasional yoga class. I'm feeling tense, crooked, slouchy, sloppy, weak, and tired. Welcome to your forties, right? WRONG! I refuse to feel like an old lady until I'm at least eighty. I know how good it feels to be in great physical condition, and I want that back. Now it's time to reevaluate my workout.
It starts with the brutal truth. All the truly rewarding journeys in life do. If you want to be wealthy, it starts by confronting your financial balance sheet, including any and all debts. If you want to be organized, it starts by confronting all your disorder, including anything you've procrastinated or hidden from yourself, such as a cluttered storage unit. If you want to be strong, well, that starts by finding your weak points. In my case, that includes chronic neck and shoulder tension, a weak core, and a sadly flat marathoner butt. I know from working with a trainer that I need to strengthen my core, glutes, and quads, and I need to work on hip stability. The strength training exercises that I do will therefore be different than what another athlete would do, such as a swimmer or tennis player.
Check that 'need to.' Whenever we find ourselves saying 'need to' or 'have to' or 'should,' we're telling ourselves and others that we're trying to fulfill a duty or obligation or responsibility. It's helpful to reframe it as 'want to.' IF I want to run another marathon, THEN it will be helpful if I do high-knees to strengthen my hip flexors. IF I want to release my shoulder pain, THEN I ought to start running again, because the micro-movements of pumping my arms really help with that. I WANT TO cross-train effectively so I can do what I love (or used to) without hurting myself. Faster and farther than ever before.
If I scrape the barrel, I can remember how happy I was when I ran all the time. I felt like my mood was at a 9 out of 10 most days. Regular Me runs at more of a 7. Chronic Illness Me runs at more of a 4. I've fluctuated back and forth through health and illness, happiness and pain, enough times to confirm for myself that Workout Me is the version I prefer.
One of the most interesting questions is not "Why should I do this?" It is actually "What is the most I can do, and how do I find out?"
I used to feel defensive about my activity level, and I felt the need to painstakingly lecture people and train them all about my various health problems, so I could prove (to them? to myself?) that I not only didn't have to exercise, but that I could not. Ever. Then I gradually realized that my state of health involved variables that I could control. One day I woke up pain-free, and I finally understood. If I was careful, if I kept records and tracked data, if I paid attention - I could stay pain-free. When the novelty wore off, I started to wonder what else I could do, and so far I haven't found anything that I could not. Why be satisfied with 'good enough' or 'oh well'? Why not try for HECK YEAH?
My plan is to run on the beach at least one day a week, as soon as I can figure out the tide charts. I'm also looking for a pleasant hilly area for my other training days. Next is two days a week when my husband can strength-train with me in the apartment gym. We're getting our bikes fixed, so we'll play around with that, and maybe I'll drop in on some classes around town. Whatever I do over the next few weeks probably will not bear much resemblance to what I wind up doing a few months further down the road. The important part is to continue to reevaluate, making sure I'm making the most of this earthly body while I still can.
An elliptical trainer
A stair stepper
A ten-top dining table
Ten dining chairs
A ten-foot ladder
Five sets of garage shelving
A shop vac
A circular saw
A metal bandsaw
A hydraulic jack
A weed whacker
A set of sawhorses
A fire extinguisher (we kept one)
Various scrap lumber
An insulated lunch bag
A travel mug
A salad bowl
A box of plastic food storage containers
Three potholders, two made by me
A coffee mug
A gravy boat
Three muffin pans
A glass baking dish
A roasting pan
A metal breadbox
A cake rack
A butter dish
A pasta maker
Four drinking glasses
Eleven wine glasses
A bottle of wine
Two tea balls
Three kitchen knives
A pasta server
Two sets of tongs
Three sets of measuring cups
A kitchen timer
A bag of refrigerator magnets
Two kitchen aprons
A dust mop
A plastic dish tub
A shelf organizer
An old jacket
A travel pillow
A set of colored pencils
A box of crayons
Three packages of index cards
A package of Post-It notes
A roll of wrapping paper
A stack of blank books and sketch pads
A box of CDs and DVDs
A CD organizer
Five thumb drives
A box of photographs (digitized and stored in the cloud)
A bulletin board
Three picture frames
A set of flannel sheets
Two bedspreads with pillow shams
Two bed pillows
Four throw pillows
Five small moving boxes full of fabric
Two sewing machines
A rotary cutter and cutting mat
A set of pottery tools
Two embroidery hoops and an embroidery frame
A set of gouache paints
A bag of paintbrushes
Three folding tables
Three milk crates
An extension cord
A coil of rope
A set of closet rod hardware
A package of wall hooks
A set of gardening gloves
A bag of seed packets
A set of loppers
A 12-pound sledgehammer
A pick hoe
A weeding fork
Two toy crossbows
A box of sprinkler heads
A box of drip irrigation hoses and supplies
A box of PVC fittings
A dryer duct cleaning kit, still in the package
A box of wooden hangers
A pair of rubber boots
A set of camping mugs
A set of tomato cages
A hummingbird feeder
A computer keyboard
A wicker hamper
Five wicker baskets
A set of wooden drawers
A wooden trunk
A plastic drawer organizer
A small jewelry box
A ten-foot shelf
Four board games
A bag of old shoes
A bag of old clothes
A box of sequined fruit
No idea how many books
Three potted plants
A bag of paper grocery sacks
Everything in our fridge and freezer
Sixty-two moving boxes
I've been posting free stuff on Craigslist. We got rid of our car, and taking donations to a thrift store has become a bigger deal than it used to be. Also, there are certain things they won't accept that people are still eager to acquire. I realized one evening, though, that I am pretty wide open about interactions with strangers.
I told my husband.
"I just literally brought a coil of rope and a roll of construction-grade garbage bags out to a strange man in a van who has our home address and my cell phone number."
It was fine, of course. He was an average suburban dad who just wanted some free stuff for his garage.
What was he going to do, grab my cell phone out of my hand and stuff me in his van, in broad daylight, with bystanders watching? Okay, the thought did cross my mind. I've taken self-defense classes. Also I've read way too many true crime books. I probably know more about the biographies of the dozen most famous serial killers than I do about the dozen most famous pop singers right now.
People are trustworthy. In many ways, I think strangers are more trustworthy than the people we're closest to. For instance, if I told a complete stranger a secret, he or she might be mildly interested, but probably wouldn't tell anyone else. If they did, it probably wouldn't be anyone who could or would trace it to me. Whereas! If I told the same secret to any of fifty people in my inner circle, they most likely would tell everyone, assuming it was available as general knowledge. Another example would be eating my snacks. Chances are pretty high that a friend or family member would help themselves, while most strangers would be wary about eating strange food.
If you tell strangers your goals, they'll not only be encouraging and supportive, they'll most likely try to connect you with someone they know who could help you in some way. If you tell someone close to you, they'll most likely tell you all the reasons why it's a horrible idea.
Since we moved, we've been exploring the sharing economy in a big way. As we were waiting for our car buyback appointment, we started having our groceries delivered. It was great! We used GrubHub for the first time on moving day, and that was great too. We stayed at an Airbnb for the first time, and, hey, it was great. Then my husband tried Lyft for the first time, and that was great as well. It turns out that it's a fun way to have brief interactions with strangers, who probably have just as much reason to be afraid of us as we do of them. They probably share their own safety and self-defense tips. Their moms are probably really nervous about their whereabouts after dark every night.
The interesting thing about the sharing economy is that we haven't had any of the unpleasant transactions we've occasionally had at chain stores. Adding in that element of personal rating really does something. I rate you, you rate me. That's not happening at the pharmacy or the grocery store, or certainly not at the airport. My goal in every business transaction is to get a smile out of the other person, and extra points if I make them laugh. I'm easy to please. It always surprises me when someone is crabby, impatient, or rude after dealing with me, partly because it happens so rarely. Add in some tips and a star rating system and the dynamic changes, doesn't it?
We're not done yet. Living in a tiny apartment tends to bring attention to the background possessions we have just because we have them. Every time something goes out the door, everything else gets to scooch over a bit. Many things can go to Salvation Army or Goodwill, but not everything. We gave away a fire extinguisher, five sets of plastic storage shelving, a set of foam mattress pads, some extra cleaning supplies, and all our moving boxes, none of which Goodwill would take. They also wouldn't take a pop-up canvas closet or a set of glass shelves. Whether they'll take furniture or electronics depends on the store, and some won't take clothes hangers or other arbitrary things. I went this weekend and they sent me away, saying they weren't accepting any donations at all that day. That's where we are now. Our hyperconsumerist material culture is overloading even businesses that rely on donated goods to make their profit. You can't sell it and you can't give it away. That is, you can't give it away anonymously.
We're neighbors and we help each other out. That's how society was built. If we see a stranger in trouble, we rush to call for help. We buy and sell from each other. We hire each other. We live next door to each other, because it's so much more convenient than the alternative. The great thing about living in a city is that I can give away a coil of rope and a roll of industrial trash bags, and someone will show up, unafraid, to claim them.
The check just came. Not only did we get our deposit from our last house back in full, but we also got a discount of six days' rent. We moved out so fast and did such a thorough job of cleaning that the landlord was able to get a new tenant in almost immediately. You can't put a price on a sterling reference, but you can certainly put a price on rent per diem, and another price on your cleaning deposit. If you'd rather spend your money on cool stuff than fines and fees, read on.
I've been living on my own since 1993. Even at the tender age of 18, I always got my cleaning deposit back. I've moved... starting to lose track here... 28? times as an adult, so this represents literally thousands of dollars by this point. I don't know about you, but the only thing I like better than thousands of dollars is tens of thousands of dollars. Whether I like cleaning my house is a moot point. Frame the question like this: "Would I clean my house top to bottom for several hundred dollars?" Really, it's the one and only time you're likely to be paid for such an annoying task, so you might as well make the most of it.
The first consideration is: consideration. Think cheerful thoughts about the tenant who will come after you. This really helps to make the drudgery and scutwork feel like a gift. Having moved so many times, I can tell some pretty appalling stories about grotesque surprises that previous tenants have left for me. Drain-clogging wads of long soapy hair the size of an SOS pad. A piece of bubble gum soaked with kitchen grease. Soap scum on a shower door so thick I had to use a paint scraper. Shelves covered with grease, crumbs, sunflower seeds, and flour. Rusty toilet bowls. Window tracks filled with dead flies. Red splatters on the ceiling: blood? Ketchup? Salsa? BBQ sauce? If you lived here before me, and I had to gouge your filth off a floor or countertop, I am cursing your name.
No paid cleaning service will ever do as thorough a job as someone who actually lives there. That's because it's an act of love and it's hard to put a fair market value on it. In a tight housing market like most of the places I have lived, the owner, landlord, or property management company simply doesn't have to care.
Case in point. The place we rented in 2014 was really gross when we moved in. We wouldn't have taken it except that we were out of time and all the other places we had called on had been rented within a few hours of listing. It took two months to finish cleaning it up and doing minor repairs. When we moved out, I spent three days cleaning it from top to bottom. The property management company tried to charge us a cleaning fee of $150. I sent them an email detailing the work I had done and attaching half a dozen photos of the dirtiest areas left by the previous tenant. They cut me a check the very next day. They should BE so lucky as to have tenants as clean as me. One of my landlords told me, during our exit walk-through: "Jessica, you are a clean machine!"
Okay, so what's the secret? The secret is to have the interior design sensibility of what clean looks like. It's like having good dental hygiene - if anyone notices anything about your teeth, such as a piece of spinach, there's a problem. The cleaner a house, the more a single speck is going to stand out, especially when all the rooms are empty. This probably sounds terrifying, but it's really not difficult to clean a modestly sized, empty house. What makes cleaning so difficult is 1. Clutter 2. Excessive square footage and 3. Never having been taught how to clean quickly and efficiently.
Most people don't give a darn about housework. That's totally fine. Your house, your rules. Live however you want. Personally, I am extremely uptight about unpleasant smells, and due to my parasomnia disorder I need a clear pathway through the house, so I run a pretty tight ship. Routine housework definitely helps make the exit cleaning easier, but it's not necessary. Animal House could still have clean surfaces by the end of June. Remember, this isn't about social standards or impressing whomever, it's about COLD HARD CASH. We're getting paid for this.
Get a broom and knock down all cobwebs from the ceiling. A lot of people miss these because their vision isn't so great, and the lighting may have been dim. It's fair to ask for help, or pay a young person if you have trouble holding a broom over your head. I use a dust mop on an extendable rod. Should take 10 minutes to do the whole house. If you have blinds, dust them, too, while you're at it. I also do any vents in the ceiling and walls, and anything ornate on the doors.
Use a squeegee to clean windows, mirrors, mirrored closet doors, shower doors, and shower stalls. Vinegar does a magical job of removing soap scum. I can do a glass panel (mirror or window) in under a minute.
Get a Magic Sponge and go after any stains on the walls. Also, don't squish bugs and spiders on the wall. If you're good at finding spots, each should only take a few seconds.
Wipe down the shelves and the insides of cabinets. This can involve some climbing for the higher areas in the kitchen, so I label this a "tall person job," although usually I do it myself. Should only take a couple of swipes with a damp paper towel per surface.
Vacuum out the drawers. Our last house had 14 built-in drawers, and it took me about five minutes to clean them all with a hand vac.
Clean the bathrooms. For an exit cleaning, this will probably take 40-60 minutes per bathroom. It helps to quit using all but one in the days before the move so you don't have to do them all in one day. I use a $15 battery-powered scrubber.
Deep-clean the kitchen. This always takes more time and effort than the rest of the house put together. It means defrosting the freezer and wiping down every surface of the fridge, inside and out. Same with the microwave. Same with the oven, alas, and I've never managed to clean an oven in under an hour. Often I buy new burner pans because I can't get the old ones clean enough. Wipe down the cabinets and appliances. Scrub the sink and countertops until they're shiny. Notice how very much jam tends to drip down things, unless your dog is taller than mine.
Spot-check the floors. If you have carpet, I'm sorry. Some leases require that you have a professional service come and steam clean when you move out. If you have bare floors, there may be sticky spots that regular mopping didn't get up. I use the plastic tags off of bread bags for jobs like this. Of course, it helps if you have a dog whose main job is Backup Roomba. Then sweep and mop as thoroughly as necessary.
Deep-cleaning a house top to bottom takes at least a full day. It depends on how grody it is. When we moved out of our last house, we loaded the van and did the final cleaning on the same day, and it took us 13 hours from start to finish. That's for a 728-square-foot house and a 20-foot van. Our previous house was about 1400 square feet, and it took significantly longer. That's why we have podcasts.
Cleaning sucks. We don't do it for the process, we do it for the outcome. I believe it's good karma. Deep cleaning can help you find lost objects, such as earrings that flew into a back crevice of a closet. It burns calories. It's good self-discipline, making other hard and annoying things seem relatively easy. It allows us to claim an uninterrupted 24-year streak of always getting our cleaning deposit back. Most of all, it allows us to claim our nice fat deposit checks and spend them on things we want, rather than just paying an unnecessary fee.
We set a new record. From the day we got the moving van until the day we finished moving in, two weeks elapsed. The fastest I've ever done it before was three weeks. This is a great argument in favor of minimalism! Anyone who has ever lived amongst boxes for a prolonged period, unable to find important things like, say, the forks, knows how annoying it is. It's such a relief to be able to relax on your own couch, looking around and not seeing any boxes to unpack. Normal and boring can be so satisfying. It's quite common, though, for most people to have boxes that never get unpacked at all. In that case, living with boxes becomes the new normal.
Why can't we unpack any faster?
We probably could have pushed through and finished our place in four or five days. By 'finished,' I mean that all the pictures are hung on the walls and everything has its own designated spot. All the boxes have been given away or recycled. All the packing material is gone. The staging area of pens and tape dispensers and razor knives has been redistributed and put away. Anyone coming over for the first time wouldn't know that someone had just moved in.
Experience has shown that it's better to live in the new place for at least a week before installing hooks or extra towel rods or that sort of thing. It can take a bit of time to figure out the best placement for the furniture, and that means the pictures have to wait. There's a brief buffer period where the place shifts from "just moved in" to "living in a mess." That feeling of messiness is the feeling of settling in, developing a comfort level and an intuitive sense of where everything works the best.
Or, it can just stay messy forever...?
After the first big push of our move-in weekend, we elected not to do very much on weekdays. We needed a break. It also gave time for the parts that take more mental bandwidth. It's really obvious how to unpack certain things, but others take more creativity and System 2 planning. For instance, the area under our kitchen sink is configured in such a way that it was really challenging to find space for everything I wanted to put under there. That was the only thing I did about moving in on that particular day. It sounds dumb when I put it like that, but kitchen real estate is really valuable. Getting it right can make the difference between a functional kitchen or a dysfunctional kitchen. If people aren't comfortable cooking most nights of the week, if there are almost always dirty dishes in and around the sink, if the fridge almost always has spoiled food in it, then something is wrong. A system isn't working right and the house is the boss of the people. Living with a dysfunctional kitchen is expensive and it causes a lot of arguments. This is why I put in so much thoughtful planning when we first move in - so that we can get back to living and cooking and eating and enjoying life the way we prefer it.
The kitchen is the heart of the house, and that's what I always unpack first. It's a good sign that it's working well when I find myself cooking more elaborate meals. A tiny kitchen can be nice, because you can reach almost everything simply by turning back and forth! The secret is to get rid of absolutely anything in order to maintain clear countertops. I have a two-foot-square countertop in this kitchen that has nothing stored on it, and it's just big enough to cook anything I like. Two square feet isn't very much, but it's more than almost every cook manages to keep clear.
The next most important area is the bathroom. This is the second most likely area of the house to cause arguments, because it's the area that relates to getting places on time. It's also the second most difficult area to keep clean. A dank, moldy bathroom filled with funky towels and damp laundry all over the floor is just a sad, scary kind of a place to start your day. A countertop covered with bottles and stuff makes it hard for everyone to get ready. Inevitably something is going to get knocked into the toilet. I am obsessive about keeping my bathroom countertop clear, even more than in the kitchen. When you have the smallest possible bathroom, with basically no counter and a minuscule medicine cabinet, then choices have to be made. Almost everything gets stored in the linen closet or the bedroom instead. Otherwise, it just gets cut out of our lives. How many lotions and potions and bottles and jars does one household need?
I realized that I am giving the bedroom short shrift. That's because the bed is literally the first thing we set up in a new place, and then we're done. We figure out which direction the head will be; we set up the frame; we drop the box springs into place; we drag the mattress on top. We make the bed in five minutes, the same way we do every time. Then we realize we haven't made enough room to plug in the lamp, and the outlet is always blocked by the mattress, and we have to drag it askew and deal with that. The blanket chest goes at the foot of the bed, the extra blankets go in it, the two small dressers get walked into place, and we're done with the entire room in maybe half an hour. Unpacking all our clothes takes maybe another half an hour. It's really not a big deal, although it would be if we had more stuff, I guess.
That's what it all comes down to. The more stuff you have, the longer it takes to unpack. The greater the proportion of non-essentials, the easier it is to leave them taped inside boxes. When you don't have much, and almost all of it is necessary to a functional home, then it tends to get unpacked quickly. What are we going to do without for a month: towels? Kitchen knives? The dog bed? I know from experience that what most people have in those perennially packed boxes consists of extraneous stuff like books, old school papers, junk mail, ornaments, toys, memorabilia, and gift bags with the tags still on them. Some people will take the big step of just walking those boxes out to the trash and dumping them, without even bothering to look inside, because they finally realize that if they've lived without it for that long, then they really don't need it. I think a better rationale is that the house is functioning fine, we're surrounded by everything we need, and we're enjoying living so comfortably that anything else is just extra.
The thing about downsizing is that eventually you wind up with only one closet.
Why is this? Why can't all homes have the same amount of built-in cabinets and closets and cupboards, and just have fewer rooms and less floor space? It makes sense to me.
The thing about stuff is that everyone has far more small objects than we do large objects. This is especially true after we start doing serious space clearing. Maybe we start with a boat or an extra car or truck - the big ticket items. When we move to smaller living spaces, we understand that we'll have fewer rooms. The guest bedroom goes, and with it the guest bed, guest dresser, possibly guest desk and chair. I know of one person who downsized from five couches to two. Maybe we don't really need both a kitchen table and a formal dining table, or maybe it's time to let go of the grandfather clock, the china hutch, the sideboard, the chifforobe, the davenport, or any other furniture that might show up in the final round of the middle school spelling bee. We've finally realized that we're unlikely to have regular dinner parties for twelve or more, and we're okay with that. Still, we need somewhere to put the tools and housewares of daily life.
My husband and I have just moved into a small apartment. There are plenty of smaller places to live in the world; we saw some of them just a couple of weeks ago, before we found this place. Studio apartments. We considered a couple, but I can tell you from this experience that we are not ready for that level of downsizing yet! The reason for that is that we're already struggling to deal with having only one closet.
Fortunately, it's a decent-sized walk-in closet with a shelf, or I don't know what we'd do. Suspend everything from the ceiling in cargo nets?
Throughout our marriage, every time we've moved, we've downsized. The first two times, both our garage and kitchen storage were cut in half each time. We also dropped the dedicated laundry room, the pantry, the coat closet, our original walk-in closet, and the family room. Then we dropped the dining room and a bathroom. Then we dropped my office, and then his, and the closets that came with them. That's when the trouble started.
Neither of us are really all that into clothes or shoes. We haven't had any trouble sharing a clothes closet, even though we both have recreational pursuits that involve special gear. It's...everything else.
It starts with the kitchen, because we both like to cook and entertain, and we're also into canning. I dehydrate my own backpacking food, too, because it's so expensive. This has caused us to accumulate a great deal of equipment. In the past, the kitchen excess has spread into other areas like the pantry, garage, and coat closet. Now, if it doesn't all fit in the kitchen, there's nowhere else for it to go. But - one kitchen isn't enough! If we go any smaller, we'll have to give up on at least one thing that we actually use on a regular basis. It will be a lifestyle change, not just letting go of an aspirational "one day" item.
We have non-perishable pantry items stored in our fridge right now, because all but one shelf in the kitchen is full of dishes, pots, baking pans, mixing bowls, small appliances, and other cooking paraphernalia.
Then it goes to the office. Most people don't have such a luxury, but we're empty-nesters. It turns out there are far more two- and three-bedroom homes on the rental market than there are singles. We shrugged and made use of the space, when we had it, though most people will fit in these items wherever they can. A holding area for incoming mail and pending paperwork. Paper records. Electronic storage media, which at one point included floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, thumb drives, SD cards, a backup drive, and more. A desktop computer, printer, and other peripherals. Printer paper and cartridges. Extra cables, chargers, power strips, and backup batteries. Product and software boxes. (Why are these so hard to let go??). Envelopes of various sizes. Office supplies. A red stapler. A rubber band ball, though the attraction of such a satisfyingly fine object mystifies my husband. Canned air. Boxes of photographs. Art supplies. In my husband's case, a bunch of electronics doodads, circuit boards, a soldering iron, robotics and mad science contraptions galore. Two busy people who like to work at home tend to generate a lot of accessories.
Then there's the recreational stuff. Backpacking gear. Bicycling gear. Motorcycle gear and hockey equipment, in his case. Exercise mats. Luggage.
Then there's the cute stuff. Board games. Pet toys. Outdoor toys like Frisbees. Decorations and tchotchkes. Souvenirs. Small items that might have gone into various drawers or been displayed on various flat surfaces now have nowhere to be.
What has helped during our downsizing process has been to think of objects as part of a larger collection. Take each individual thing as a representative of a category. When I thought of "fitness equipment," for example, it was easier to let it all go at once when I thought, "How will I work out? I will go running and I will use the fitness center at our apartment complex." We were able to let go of everything filed under "gardening" and "automotive" as well.
What's happened is that we're successfully containerizing everything. The office stuff has gone into a set of aluminum storage boxes, which are now sitting on a shelf where a few dozen books used to be. The paper files are in another storage box, which has likewise displaced a shelf of books. Basically, the extra books and food stockpiles have had to make way for things we don't yet feel we can do without. As we continue to move toward fully paperless, and as we learn to make a life in a smaller space, we will find that we are crowded by all these bits and bobs. We'll jettison them in favor of breathing room, and we'll feel a sense of satisfaction as we do.
The core of downsizing is the inner directive to "make it all go away." Living surrounded by boxes and bins and tubs and stacks and piles is demoralizing, irritating, confusing, distracting, and just not super-pretty. It's not doing us any favors to keep things we can't even find, much less things we don't use and don't feel like dusting. We have to put more attention on the smaller items than we did on the larger pieces, because there are more of them. We're outnumbered, but we're winning the fight.
He sounded great on the phone: a courteous, practical man with a calm demeanor. I liked him right away. In person he was even better. It's fun to chat up cheerful people who like their jobs. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to ask, let's call him Bruce, just what it's like to manage a storage facility.
Is it all junk? Mostly. A few people use their unit for work, like contractors, painters, and landscapers. That makes perfect sense; not everyone is going to want to store paint cans and lawnmowers in their apartment. In that scenario a $200-$300/month storage unit pays for itself. Most people don't have a business case for maintaining a storage unit. We only do it to postpone making decisions or confronting difficult emotions.
One tenant has had a unit at the facility since 1974, the year before I was born. I offered my working hypothesis that most storage units contain grief boxes from a loved one who has passed on, usually a parent. Bruce said that actually, it was her husband who had died. Probably she will meet him on the other side and all of those boxes will still be in the unit.
What happens to the stuff that people leave behind? It does get auctioned off, only now it's done online. People can bid on specific items. Much of the stuff is worthless. I shared about one of my toughest jobs, a storage unit that included boxes of old phone books, rusted-out cans of expired food, stained mattresses, and damp paperbacks. Bruce nodded along, obviously unfazed by the description.
"We had a hoarder who lost his unit, and it was just like that. Actually he still has two units here." From the sound of it, the three-storage-unit hoarder was struggling to keep up on his payments and was about to lose the others as well.
Had Bruce heard about the reality TV shows about storage unit auctions? Indeed he had. "They keep calling me but I won't do it." Why is that? "They're rude." Also, the shows are staged and they won't let the public in to bid on the units, only their own people. "If you watch carefully, sometimes they show the same lot on more than one show, with a couple of different items." He said they also 'salt the mine' by supplying valuable items that were not stored in the unit. This met my hunch about the few episodes I've seen; I've never seen one single item of any value in any storage unit. Much of it includes stuff people would have to pay to have hauled away.
We saw a unit with a car parked halfway inside. There was a couch with a TV at the back. "It looks like someone's living there," I remarked. "That's my parking space," said Bruce. "I take breaks there when I can get away." I asked whether people ever tried to live in the units. "Yeah, sometimes."
Bruce is a real pro. He had us drive through the gate with our 20' foot moving van. "You have a twenty-foot van and a 10 by 15 storage unit?" He tactfully offered to show it to us and we all boarded his little golf cart. The unit had a man-door. We saw at a glance that the dimensions of the unit and lack of a roll-top door made it impractical, although the cubic footage was the same as the van. We accepted the professional expertise of the estimable Bruce and allowed him to up-sell us to the next larger unit.
It took us five hours to shift the contents of the van into the new unit, which is eleven feet wide by ten feet tall by twenty feet deep. Bruce drove by on the golf cart a couple of times, glancing over and grinning at our progress. "It's like Tetris, isn't it?" We had the van empty and broom-clean with ten minutes to spare before closing time. Bruce was right; we had some wiggle room in the bigger unit but would have been wailing and gnashing our teeth with the smaller one. We couldn't have finished on time. This was a man who could size up volumes of stuff on sight. I called him a "Pack-Fu Master" and he smiled.
Storage units are a subject of endless fascination to me. What do people keep in them? Why are they willing to pay so much money every month, for years on end, with no deadline, for stuff they can't even see? I've started to think of storage facilities as our era's tombs and monuments, the places where we pay tribute to our departed dead because we have no more enduring ceremonial way to mark their passing. A Taj Mahal of box towers. Folks like Bruce are our monks, living in attendance on the temple grounds.
We plan to have our unit for about a week and a half. We're living in an Airbnb because we had less than two weeks to prepare for my husband's new job, and the alternative was a two-hour commute each way. There just wasn't time for us to look for a new place while packing to move. Our unit holds our bed, our couch, our desktop computer, the dog crate...99% of our possessions are behind that rolling door. (The rest includes the suitcases out of which we are living for the week). We told Bruce we'd see him next week. He smiled and nodded. He's heard it all before.
[We moved in on a Saturday and had moved out by close of business the following Saturday].
You know how they say sometimes people look like their pets? It's hard to tell whether we choose companions who resemble us, or whether we come to resemble them as time goes by. I think the same thing happens to married people. Live together long enough and you start finishing each other's sentences, referring to yourselves in the first person plural, and wearing matching outfits. That part is a total accident. My husband and I were winding up in color-coordinated shirts before we even started dating. I mention it because yesterday we both wore lavender, and I didn't see what shirt he had on until he got home from work. It's uncanny. As much as we start to merge our tastes and behaviors in certain ways, as much as we pick up each other's turns of phrase, our personal possessions start to blend and merge, too.
An example of this is this particular ceramic travel mug that looks like a paper cup. It has a little silicon sleeve that looks like a cardboard sleeve, and a silicon lid that looks like a plastic lid. I bought it for myself before we got married. At some point along the way, I lent it to my husband, and he adopted it. He's convinced it's his, and at this point, it is. What's mine is yours, babe!
We don't share everything. Maintaining privacy is one of those things that many people let fall by the wayside, but I firmly believe that abandoning it undercuts romance. You start to become more like roommates, or, heaven forfend, siblings. Some doors should be kept closed, both figuratively and literally. It always strikes me as strange when couples share email or social media accounts, especially since they don't cost anything. We need to know which one of you is talking! It's weird! Make a Venn diagram of the two of you and make sure that it doesn't overlap completely.
We're in the end stages of moving to a new place, and this yours/mine/ours division has become more pronounced. There are still a few boxes left to unpack. This always happens; the last ten percent usually takes longer than the first fifty percent. It happens in our case because I'm a professional organizer and my husband is...not. I unpack all of my stuff, all of "our" stuff, and part of his stuff. I'll never do all of it, because he has a lot of high-test electronics equipment, and I don't want to be held responsible for banging it up. Also, if I organize it, he'll never be able to find anything again. It's a mark of respect.
What I've learned in working with chronically disorganized homes is that people often don't feel like they have permission to dispose of certain things - even when they live alone! The boundaries between yours/mine/ours can be quite blurred. 'Ours' might include family heirlooms, adult children's belongings, stuff left behind years ago by former roommates, or even random bits that "came with the house." Almost every time I have taken occupancy of a new house or apartment, there have been various amounts of things left behind, such as cleansers, hardware, plant pots, lamps, or even furniture. This happens when even the landlord is hesitant to make an executive decision and just get rid of stuff.
Someone needs to be the boss of the house. Preferably this is an adult human being. When there is no adult in the alpha role, the leadership position will quickly be filled by a child, a pet, an influx of vermin, or even a relative who drops by occasionally. When nobody is managing, no decisions are being made, and chaos will be the default.
Families generate a lot of random clutter. It just happens. The bigger the household, the more guests and visitors, and the more forgotten books/CDs/headphones/hoodies, etc. All it takes is for each household member to leave one stray item laying around per day, and by the end of the week it's total bedlam. Controlling this does not have to be the job of any one person, but it can certainly be the suggestion of any one person. The best person to catalyze an organizing spree is actually a small child. They love being "bad cop." Pick the bossiest kid. Tell them nobody can watch TV until everyone puts their stuff away. Tell them, whoever finishes first gets to pick the movie/choose the music in the car/sit in the best chair, or whatever is the juiciest prize in your household. Tell them that if everyone can get the job done while asking you zero questions, maybe there will be dessert afterward.
This method only works for items that belong to someone. Either it's yours or it's mine. When it's "ours," things get more complicated. It turns out that almost everything in most homes is "ours." The furniture and appliances. The towels. Everything in the kitchen, including the scary leftovers in the fridge. The carpets and cabinets and tiles and shelves. The lightbulbs, the windows, the blinds, the doorknobs, the light switches. The car. The mailbox. The junk mail. EVERYTHING. When you think about it, everywhere other than your house, there's a facilities manager, a landscaper, a custodian, or a janitorial staff. School, work, the store, the library, the gym, the post office, the park... everywhere else, someone is paid to make sense of it all. We just expect to walk down hallways and stairs that are free of clutter, to use countertops that someone eventually wipes up, to have ready access to chairs and tables put there by some interior designer at some point. At home, nobody manages the infrastructure.
Someone needs to pick up the wand. Someone needs to take charge and make some decisions. Do we even need this? Are we using it? Does it need to be stored right here? How often should this get cleaned? Once a year, or not until we move out? The boss/leader/manager does not by any means need to do all the scutwork. What needs to be done is to delegate. Someone needs to be putting away clean dishes. Someone needs to be cleaning floors. Someone needs to be making sure the washer and dryer are switched over. These don't all need to be the same person, unless of course you live alone.
What helps the most is to cut back on clutter. That's mostly going to be "our" stuff. A cluttered house takes 40% longer to clean. Who is going to decide what clutter can be removed, though? What's needed is for someone to take ownership of "our" stuff long enough to make those decisions. This can go, this can go, that can go. Do it as a group if necessary. Life will be easier - yours, mine, and ours.
We got a storage unit. I broke my own rule. If I keep this up, next I'll be getting cable TV and running up credit card debt on professional manicures and iced coffees. Then we'll never be able to afford a vacation again! Okay, who am I fooling? None of those things will ever happen. I like money way too much. We got a storage unit because there was actually a sound business case for it.
When we went to the storage facility, I interviewed the manager. I am helpless against my fascination with the curious American phenomenon of storage units. About ten percent of Americans rent a storage unit. To me, that is huge, especially because a lot of those units are shared by couples or families. It would be really interesting to know the number of individual adults who rely on storage outside their main living space. Go ahead and add in all the adults who store stuff at their parents' house, why don't you?
Some people use their storage units as part of their workday. The facility we used apparently had a few contractors, painters, and landscapers who stored their tools and materials. That makes a lot of sense for security reasons alone. Access for a truck is probably easier than at most homes. Someone could rent a cheap, small apartment and still run an equipment-intensive business. This all came as a surprise to me, because in my professional work, I had never before known of a storage unit that actually earned its keep. What a truly novel concept.
Our storage unit didn't pay for itself. At least, I assume it didn't. The purpose was to enable us to move as quickly as possible when my husband got a great job in a new city. We had only twelve days to make the move. We decided to store our stuff and stay in an Airbnb while we looked for a place. This was a matter of convenience that cost us about $300. The breakdown was two van rentals instead of one, and the price of a month's rent on the storage unit. It would be nice if we had gotten prorated rent, but there wasn't any margin in that for the storage facility. Why not rent out our nicely broom-swept unit twice in the same month?
Is it possible that we broke even on this deal? Maybe. It's hard to know, but maybe.
With our backs to the wall, desiring to move our stuff directly from our old home to a new home, we might have made an expensive choice. We might have grabbed the first option we saw. In our experience, the rental market in our region is very tight, and even calling within three hours of an ad posting is no guarantee that the place is still available. We got our last place because we were the first of 83 callers; I saw the listing within five minutes of posting, and my husband arranged to drive over to look at it moments later. We definitely would have made an offer on the very first place that remotely met our criteria and took parrots. There are three options in this scenario: pay the same, pay more, or pay less. This city being what it is, you get less for more money, like tapas or sushi.
Paying less is usually not paying less. There are plenty of run-down properties on the rental market here, many evidently in such bad shape that the ads don't even include photos. What you get in a shabby, older rental house is the worst of everything. Poorly weatherized with old, inefficient appliances, running up your utility bills, usually adding insult to injury by having slower internet, too.
The $300 we spent on double moving vans and a month of storage works out to $25 a month for a year. That could go up like a flash in the pan. In the context of rent or energy inefficiency, it's barely noticeable. There's no way to know, but it's entirely possible that this finagling of the storage unit actually did pay for itself. More likely I am just trying to make up a nice little story to assuage my guilt over "wasting" money.
We sold our car back to the dealership this month. This is salient. We knew when we planned this move that we had a large windfall check coming our way (two cheers for Volkswagen) and also that our monthly expenses would be dropping. We could afford to do something ridiculous like move all our worldly goods twice in eight days, knowing that this would be a one-time expense.
This story has a happy ending. We found a great apartment right on the waterfront. It's super tiny, even smaller than the tiny house we just vacated, but the location really can't be beat. We can walk to the library, grocery store, dry cleaner, hair salon, post office, pharmacy, and pet supply in less than half a mile. Having that buffer of time to look at rental listings and visit the neighborhood in person made all the difference. It was worth the extra two days of schlepping and hauling. It also gave us time to do another round of culling on our stuff after we had seen our tiny new space.
The sad ending with most storage units is that people get them without an exit strategy. Nobody ever chooses an end date. There are people in my life who have spent over $10,000 on storage units over the years, and people who have lost the contents to auction, and people who have done that multiple times. For such a unique part of our culture, we haven't yet figured out how to have storage units make sense in our lives. I'll never stop wondering why so many people make such an expensive choice, a very costly way to postpone decisions. Think of all the other ways that money could be spent!
As uncomfortable and scary as it can be, the Place of Uncertainty is where everything juicy and interesting happens. Certainty is the death of curiosity. Knowing exactly what you're doing all the time is a pitfall of the fixed mindset; it means you're not learning or growing or changing. Ah, but it's so nice and secure and comfortable to be certain! Why would anyone ever give that up, even for a moment?
The most fascinating thing about the Place of Uncertainty is that it can feel terrible at the time. Confusing! Stressful! Frustrating! Lonely! Expensive! Depressing! Not knowing what to do next can break people. We're talking total life derailment. In retrospect, though, these points in the timeline can barely register. We may forget we ever felt that uncertainty entirely. Usually we remember it as a mere speed bump. Just a little blip.
An example of this is when my husband and I went to Spain last year and decided to follow what I call the Wing-It Method. We landed in Barcelona with no plans. We didn't know a single person. Not socially, not professionally, not through a website... we just knew zero people. We had nowhere to stay, no way to get there, and no idea what we would be eating for dinner. There was a really intense ten-minute period in the airport terminal where we were having a bit of an argument. The wifi was slow and we were not getting information instantaneously, the way we might at home. We had to find a campsite, learn the bus system, and find places to buy food and propane canisters. It felt not just daunting, but nearly impossible. Ten minutes later, we had all that information and an action plan, and we were merrily walking out to the bus stop, which was only a few yards away the whole time. In retrospect, it's very hard to express adequately the sense of foreboding and misery that comes from standing in the Place of Uncertainty, even for those scant ten minutes.
The Place of Uncertainty demands full attention. Full System Two thinking. Total mental bandwidth. Standing in the Place of Uncertainty is no time to be distracted or futzing around with one's phone. This is precisely why it's such good discipline. We force ourselves into unnatural and uncomfortable situations, when we have no real idea what to do, because we need to stretch our concept of what we are able to handle. Eventually, what used to be impossible or intimidating becomes doable, maybe even routine.
If you don't believe that, recall your first driving lesson.
My husband and I ran full speed toward the Place of Uncertainty this month. He accepted a tantalizing new job offer in a new city, and we only had twelve days to somehow get ourselves and our menagerie over there. From my current vantage point, sitting on the couch in our new apartment, the timeline seems clear and obvious. Yes, of course: we boarded our animals; reserved an Airbnb, a moving van, and a storage unit; packed everything we own in three days; loaded the van and cleaned the house top to bottom in one day; stored our stuff for eight days and moved it twice; and found the perfect apartment within six hours. Looking backward, it seems to make sense that we are 90% moved in to our new place exactly one month after the initial job interview! While we were living it, though, it felt like that one month was equal to a thousand years.
Making decisions depletes willpower and mental bandwidth. A job change plus relocation involves thousands of decisions. What to wear to the interview? How to phrase the thank-you note for the interview? Where to live? Should we pack or get rid of each of the ten million trillion billion objects in our house? Where do we put everything in the new place? What do we eat, when our kitchen infrastructure has been shattered into multiple cardboard box towers? The natural coping mechanisms for this mental exhaustion include overeating, quarreling, and standing idly with one's hands hanging limply by one's sides, mouth hanging open, hopefully not making a noise that sounds too much like UHHHHHH.....
The last month has been exhausting for us. Our sleep schedule was all over the place. We are both gimped up from being middle-aged, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed for a week and a half, and moving all our worldly goods twice in eight days. I rolled over in bed the other night, twitched my foot, and was seized by a cramp in my calf so strong that I had to push my foot down with my other foot before it would release. I mean, we are SORE. This was hard. It was physically tiring, mentally draining, and emotionally challenging. We said goodbye to a city we had grown to love, our nice neighbors, our nice yard, and a very significant number of our personal possessions. On the front end of it, having roughly zero idea where we would eventually wind up, it could have been traumatizing. We really didn't know if there would be a happy ending, other than that we would have each other.
There was a happy ending. It didn't come down from Fairytale Land. We created it. We pushed through our feelings of confusion, exhaustion, and uncertainty and kept working until we got what we planned to get. We knew we wanted the job, we knew what city we wanted to live in, and we knew how much we were willing to pay. If we hadn't found what we needed the first week, we would have extended our Airbnb stay or changed to a different one and kept looking. The task itself wasn't complex. Usually nothing in the Place of Uncertainty is really complicated; it only feels like it. It's our willingness to endure these feelings that leads us to victory, to a sense of progress and hopeful optimism in our lives.
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.