Once a year I write about something morbid, and that day is Halloween. Every spiritual tradition has beliefs about acknowledging our mortality in order to appreciate the life that we have today. I have always found this to be both comforting and inspirational, so I am making the most of the opportunity. Previously I have written about being a full-body donor and writing your advance care directive.
This year I’d like to ask you to consider making an escape plan.
Several of my friends in different parts of California have had to evacuate their homes due to wildfire, both within the last month and over the last few years. To us this is a daily reality, and much more so in October. One of my close friends is currently changing AirBnB’s every ten days because her house burned up, and that was an ordinary house fire, not even a natural disaster. They had to put her little kitties on oxygen and they barely made it.
A football field every three seconds. That’s how fast these fires move.
To make matters worse, a lot of people wind up with no power before the fire reaches their area. There have been situations when they did not receive evacuation alerts, because:
Nobody has a landline
No electricity = no wifi
No wifi = no cell service (for a lot of us)
No cell service = no calls
The first they know that they need to run for their actual lives, it’s when police cruise down their street yelling out of a bullhorn, even though they assume that sector has already been cleared. A mere formality, but a smart one born of experience.
Have you ever had a firefighter beat his fist on your front door because your apartment complex is on fire? I have.
I was sleeping on an air mattress only ten feet from the door, and I didn’t hear it. I have sleep issues, and even as a kid in grade school I couldn’t guarantee to you that anything will wake me up. This includes having popcorn dropped into my slack sleeping mouth. Fortunately my entire family was home and someone was able to physically drag me out of bed and haul me to my feet. WAKE UP!
Wake up. It’s time to get ready.
We know neither the day nor the hour. That means our time could come tonight.
We’re not really sure yet what we would do if a fire comes to our new place. There are a lot of factors in play.
1/3 chance it would happen while we are sleeping (8 hours out of 24)
5/7 chance that if it happens during the day, my husband will be at work several miles away
Non-zero chance he will be on business travel or airborne in a plane
It’s statistically unlikely that we would be in the same building when the snit hits the fan. Therefore we have to have a plan for how to find each other, and that plan has to assume that phones and internet are down across our region.
There are two other confounding factors for our household. They may or may not apply to yours.
We have two pets
We live on the top floor of a pretty big apartment building.
I’ve practiced putting on my go bag, getting my animals out of their crates, and getting them out of the door. My husband says “you could get out of here in one minute” but I know better. Even without smoke, it’s a bit complicated. Get a flapping, panicking parrot into a box and then clip a leash onto a struggling, wriggling dog.
Next step. I have to choose between either the elevator (BAD IDEA), three flights of stairs with three doors, or trying to lower everyone out of a fourth-floor window. Um...?
There are other natural disasters that might come for us besides fire. Tsunami? This is the only one where living on the top floor is actually an advantage. Earthquake? You feel it more on the top floor, but we will probably be fine unless it’s well above a 6.0. Our building is old enough to have been through a few rumbles. Fire is the one that demands quick thinking and preparedness.
Plan A is just to stay put. Chances are that we’ll be fine and so will our neighborhood. We don’t need to be blocking the roads or getting in the way of emergency services if it isn’t necessary.
Plan B, I stay put and my husband tries to get home to me. In a rough scenario, if he had to walk in bad conditions, it could take three hours, assuming a walking speed of one mile per hour. He is a certified emergency medical responder, so if he was late I would assume he was helping other people.
Plan C, I take our animals to the nearest Red Cross shelter and he has to figure out where that is.
If we can’t get through to each other by phone, we can call each other’s parents. If we can’t do that, we can find internet somehow and send each other email. If we can’t do that, I have index cards, pens, and masking tape in my go bag. If I have to leave, hopefully I have an extra 60 seconds to tape a note on the door before we go.
Everything we own can burn. It’s okay. We can always replace our passports and those are the only really important physical possessions we have. I would walk without a second thought. I need the time to be able to help my neighbors, not save my... what? Leftovers out of my fridge? Socks?
To be able to keep our heads clear in a crisis, we have to practice. We have to understand on a gut level that “losing everything” is just stuff. We have to get ourselves out because if we dawdle and try to lug a bunch of suitcases, an emergency responder might die trying to come after us.
We have to GET OUT and we have to do it on our own.
Please, after all the costumes and decorations have been put away and all the candy has been eaten, please extend your role-playing just a bit longer. Take a few moments to visualize how you are going to get yourself and your household OUT OF THE HOUSE in case of emergency. Especially if you have kids. Draw pictures. Set a timer and practice. Make sure all your doorways and hallways are clear. Make sure you and yours can get out if you need to.
Every single time I tell anyone that I got a flu shot, they tell me that they don’t.
This has always struck me as a weird reaction. If I tell someone I watched a movie or read a book, I’m not saying “Now your turn.” If I say I like cauliflower, nobody is in danger that I’m going to load some florets into a slingshot and try to snap them into their mouth. Yet they’ll be sure to let me know: I hate cauliflower! It’s like some protective instinct.
Personally, if I were anti-vaxx, I wouldn’t tell anyone. To me it would be like admitting that I was deathly afraid of moths or something. Embarrassing, clearly something I should work on, not something I would expect to serve as a bonding conversational topic with other people.
My mom got us all vaccinated and got our booster shots on schedule every year. Our school district required it, for one thing. For another, her little cousin died of chicken pox when they were kids, and my mom never really got over it. The chicken pox vaccine wasn’t available in those days. In fact, it didn’t hit the market until a couple of years after I graduated from high school, about forty years too late for the girl who would have been my first cousin once removed.
My mom also lost a puppy to parvovirus, several years before the parvo vaccine was released.
These incidents are part of our family lore. In our family, epidemic disease kills, and vaccines are our best chance to protect ourselves.
Actually it’s not just our family, it’s this pesky thing called “reality.” The important thing, though, is that people are more convinced by anecdotes and emotionally rich personal stories than we are by anything else.
I used to avoid the flu shot, too, because I’m a big chicken-flavored coward and I would get needle reaction. (Scared, dizzy, and entirely psychosomatic). I might have gotten the flu shot for a $250 cash prize, but then again I probably wouldn’t have. For $1000, yeah. That would have gotten me in line. Then again, I might have made up an excuse and hustled back to my car.
One year, it all changed.
My husband got the flu shot at work. I “never got around to it.” (Bawk bawk bawk) Several weeks later, I got the flu and he did not. I was flat on my back for eight days while he whistled a happy tune and carried on with his regular schedule.
Luckily I am able to admit when I’ve been wrong. It’s because I get a lot of practice, because I’m wrong a lot. I had countless feverish hours to consider why I felt like a warmed-over kettle of bubonic plague and my husband was obviously fine. We slept in the same bed, ate the same meals, touched most of the same doorknobs. He was out and about, meeting and mixing with more people in public than I did, since I work at home. Statistically it would make sense that he might get sick and I might not. Yet there we were, one of us sweating and coughing and the other doing just fine.
I was decided. GET ME THAT FLU SHOT!
Several years later, we both get the flu shot every year. I have never had a reaction, just like I never did after any of my infant shots or childhood boosters, and neither has anyone else I have ever met. Not even our dog, who is legally required to get a rabies vaccine and wear a necklace at all times to prove it.
(Others might call it a “collar” with “tags” but he is a fashion-forward dog and he likes to wear clothes. Let him live).
In a sense, getting the flu shot is our privilege and our secret. We have access to high-quality First World health care. We can get flu shots within walking distance of our apartment, or at work, or stack them with routine errands. Not only do we not have to pay, we don’t even have to wait five minutes.
Meanwhile, infants and immune-compromised people can’t, and neither can millions of people in the developing world. There’s also the case of my dearly departed mother-in-law. She finally lost the battle with lymphoma after five remissions and sixteen years.
During chemo, cancer patients can’t get the flu shot. They’re also highly vulnerable to such things as the common cold.
If you ask me, anyone who refuses to get the flu shot should not be allowed to wear or display any cancer awareness swag. No pink ribbons, no nothing. “I’ll wear this cheap ribbon, and it won’t help you get better, but under no circumstances will I get a flu shot. Why would I actually do a literal physical thing that might protect you or help your chances? Empty symbolic gestures only.”
(I’m still mad that she’s gone. I miss her).
“Congratulations on your new baby. [cough cough]. Here’s a stuffed giraffe and an easily preventable yet highly contagious virus. Welcome to the world, little one [cough cough].”
I get the flu shot, and I’m proud of it, and I’d push my way to the front of the line if I had to. I’ll go after it with at least as much energy and effort as I would a first-class upgrade. That’s because it IS a first-class upgrade. The flu is not some kind of fast track to superior wisdom. It kills productivity and it also kills people, the helpless like elderly people, cancer patients, and little infants.
Little secret here? I’d rather I died from some kind of hypothetical tainted bad batch of vaccines than that someone else died, because they couldn’t get vaccinated and I simply refused. I’m a middle-aged person who never had kids. There are others with more potential, more responsibilities, more to contribute than I have. I’ll die someday, maybe not for another sixty years, but I’d rather go generously than go knowing I always gave into my anxieties and what I recognize as my boundless inner cowardice.
False choice, though. Millions of people get their shots, dutifully, like a good citizen should. And it’s fine. Certainly better than losing two weeks to the stupid flu and then staggering around trying to catch up on laundry.
I get the flu shot to prove a point. That point is that I’m a privileged elitist and I intend to stay that way. I’m willing to put my body on the line and walk my talk. I believe in herd immunity and I believe that the strong must protect the weak. I do it for myself, but I also do it for children, the elderly, and cancer patients. I’ll keep doing it, because it works, and I hope the rest of you join me.
I can’t explain my sudden attraction to knife fighting, not really. The fixation came upon me, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought about it. Knives! For Halloween, I figured I’d be a little scary and go into what it’s like to face down a deeply rooted fear.
Something I’ve learned from training in self-defense is that men, women, teenagers, and children are all there for slightly different reasons. Teenagers are usually just fascinated with something they think is cool. Children are usually wherever they are because their parents put them there. Many of my adult friends are studying Krav Maga because they’ve been physically attacked, sometimes several times.
When a man has been attacked, his decision to study self-defense may seem self-explanatory. For instance, several of our students are ride-share drivers. I just talked to a guy who was mad-dogged by a drunk passenger who started punching him from the front seat. “What did you do, did you use an elbow strike?” I asked, naturally, and he nodded. Imagine fighting sideways from behind your steering wheel! The fight ended when he connected a palm strike to the attacker’s nose, sending him out the open door, and then drove to the nearest police station. The police found the guy trying to hide and arrested him. Nod, nod. Note: do not attack someone who is driving you; how dumb.
In the world of men, there are many such dumb, drunk, violent mad dogs out there. They basically look for reasons to start fights as a sort of hobby. Casual, random violence and fist fights are a part of the male world, and it starts in early childhood, and it never really stops, even when you’re a middle-aged guy just trying to get through your workday.
It’s different for women. Part of the reason it’s different for us is sheer size. I remind my male classmates that they probably don’t meet many dudes who are ten inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier, but for me it happens everywhere I go. In spite of this differential, martial arts is not a common practice for women; it seems... dangerous. For us.
The other reason it’s different for us is pop culture. So many shows, whether drama, thriller, or cartoon, have someone attacking a woman who can’t fight back. Our job is to stand stock-still and scream. There have been more murders in fiction, television, and film than there ever were in the entire history of humankind. For some reason, pop culture seems to run on women’s terror. The ultimate terrifying image? To me, it’s the killer in a ski mask, holding a knife.
That’s something true, by the way, if you’ve read about the Golden State Killer. Eff that guy.
The truth about knives is that just because you get stabbed, does not mean you die.
Another important truth about knives is that because they are considered to be objects of power, the person wielding it and waving it around probably has no real idea of how to fight with knives. My husband saw one at the end of a bar fight once. The guy whipped it out and showed it to everyone, right before running out the door and leaving. Like: “BOO!”
If you haven’t listened to the podcast Dirty John yet, go off and do that. It’s good for the soul. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s relevant to this talk of knives.
Where does serious knife-fighting happen? In prison, mostly. According to lore, someone can get shanked a couple dozen times and live through it. It’s actually fairly complicated to kill someone with a knife. I was riding the bus with a friend one day in high school, and a bare-chested man got on the bus with a knife wound in his sternum that was over an inch long. The red sides gaped open. Blood was running down his stomach. He looked madder than hell. He sat there, his shoulders heaving from rage, and rode through several stops until the hospital, which is where I had assumed his destination lay. He walked himself in, where I suppose that deep, long knife-wound to the torso was disinfected and stitched closed.
I also saw a woman at the hospital one night, who had sliced her calf to the bone on a broken vase at her mom’s house. That cut was at least eight inches long, and it wasn’t even bleeding. She wasn’t considered an emergency, obviously, because we waited together for nearly an hour.
See? Just because some sick individual with a ski mask and a knife might show up and menace you, does not automatically mean that he wins. He’s surely built up some highly detailed fantasy where he has all the power and you just stand there, screaming, until he does whatever he wants.
We practice knife-fighting in our advanced class. I haven’t even learned all the knife disarms, but already I feel like a knife is just a weapon, not a magical artifact. You can bat the knife hand away. You can trigger-kick the knife out of someone’s hand. You can block the knife with your own knife, or any other instrument, such as a mop handle. You can press the knife hand against someone’s body, just as you can with a gun. If you learn the techniques and practice them, why, it’s not really more complicated than a dance move. It’s a thing that can be done.
The important thing is to remove the mystique from what is an ordinary household object. Think of how many knives there are in your kitchen. Think of how many times you’ve used a knife to butter your toast or dice some onions. You have an instinctual familiarity with a knife as a household object. You understand its weight, its edges and points. You may in fact have a deeper familiarity with a knife as a tool than a sicko would. You think these mental cases spend a lot of time cooking for themselves?
Fighting has taught me to value my natural physical advantages. I am small and lithe and agile. I excel at footwork. I’m very patient (and humble) about my limitations, meaning I have the focus for precision that larger people often lack. Where they can rely on power and strength, I am technical and disciplined. It also helps to know that no matter how big and strong someone is, his knees and elbows are not strong. No matter how large his frame, his blood vessels are similar to mine, and I know where they are.
If someone attacks me, I am the one with the element of surprise. He thinks he’ll win. He thinks I’m an easy target. He thinks all that I will do is stand there and scream like a ninny.
I have a right to defend myself. I don’t go around attacking people and I don’t deserve to be attacked by anyone else. More, I have a duty and responsibility to protect and defend others if I can. If someone attacks me, he’s probably attacked other people, and he’ll probably try to do it again after me. I must try my level best to incapacitate him, to get justice for his previous victims, to stop him from repeating himself, and also to save him from himself. Maybe he’s just damaged and he needs help, too. Or, at least he will if he tries to come after me.
Breakups are sad. It wasn’t until the first time I broke up with someone that I understood it can be more painful than being on the receiving end. Then I started doing my clutter work, and I found a new level of sadness, which is when one person constantly thinks about breaking up, doesn’t do it, and the other person has no idea. I get random letters at least once a year from someone or other (who I barely know) who wants advice on whether to get a divorce. As a divorced person who remarried, this eats me up. I feel like almost all of these marriages have nothing wrong with them except that someone isn’t telling the whole truth.
Other times, I think the person who wants to leave is setting up not just heartbreak, but a bit of a disaster.
Look, you loved each other once. Why was that? What were the qualities inside this person that originally attracted you? Are they still there?
Have you actually said, in plain words, what’s bothering you?
People tell me the truth about why they want a divorce. They can tell me because they see me as a sort of bartender. It’s far easier to say these things to an anonymous string of text than it is to say them face to face. It’s also easier to say to a stranger, or an acquaintance, than it is to a friend or family member. Or the actual person!
What do they say? What are their real reasons?
Once it was... a stack. A stack of clutter consisting of books, magazines, mail, music CDs, computer disks, binders, folders, and random papers, this stack had been in a corner for over a year. Rather than mention it directly, this spouse and parent was ready to go to a lawyer and ask for a divorce over it. “It’s over a foot high!” I got a photo of it, as though I don’t know what clutter looks like. This stack represented a character flaw, a fundamental aesthetic difference, or from the stacker’s perspective, nothing at all.
Once it was... a dish towel. A white decorative dish towel, it hung on the kitchen wall directly next to the garage door. “Somehow” it kept getting greasy black handprints on it. This dish towel, just like the stack of clutter in the previous example, became a symbol of supposedly irreconcilable differences.
There are more examples. Often they are more complicated. Lengthy unemployment, significant weight gain, excessive spending, refusal to do an equal share of parenting or cooking or housework, constant gaming, refusal to get treatment for snoring or some other health problem. What they have in common, though, is that they are situational or behavioral. They are not character flaws or personality traits. They’re just actions, actions that are therefore up for negotiation and boundary-setting.
At this point I should say that at least some of the time, the relationship is doomed to failure and maybe never should have been started. When this is the case, it’s better to break up sooner rather than later. You’re never doing anyone any favors by dragging it out. The only exception would be if you’re in danger of abdicating a responsibility and breaking a contract. You should probably break up if you have incompatible values or if you want fundamentally different things out of life.
Also if there’s violence of any kind. If someone is being violent, then it’s not a relationship, it’s an association.
Let’s imagine you’ve already said your say, clearly and unequivocally. “I’d like you to move this stack of stuff to your desk or your closet by the end of the week, please. It’s driving me crazy.” “Stop wiping axle grease on the kitchen towels. Get some shop rags.” The partner’s reply is contemptuous, defensive, hypercritical, belligerent, or otherwise a sign of being a bad roommate. You’ve tried and you’re done trying and you know it’s time to go.
I didn’t see this option for myself in my first marriage; I didn’t see the divorce coming at all. I was blindsided. Due to my lack of preparation, I spent the next few years in absolute penury. It’s fair to say that it ruined my life. Granted, that was temporary. We never would have made it anyway. Splitting up allowed me to go back to school, get my degree, meet someone new, and eventually find a much greater happiness. The first year was freaking horrible, though. Do not underestimate how hard it can be, especially if you haven’t been on your own in a long time.
Before you break up, get your ducks in a row.
Do you have an emergency backup plan if things get weird?
(My backup plan: a couple of secret stashes of cash, a large credit line, private accounts of hotel and airline points, a go bag, and martial arts training. I’d go out the window naked and run down the street barefoot if I had to, but I’d leave some marks first).
Where are you going to go? Do you want to start over in a new city? Do you have some roommate options? Can you afford your own place?
What are you going to do for money? Do you have ideas for a career upgrade? A lot of times, the one who is planning to leave is the higher earner anyway.
Having your own money and your own sense of power and agency is really important to being a full partner in a relationship. You can stay when you know you can go, if that makes sense. My husband knows I’m with him because I want to be, because I like him, and because I like how he treats me. Why would either of us want anything else?
There are some other things that need to be said about fantasy breakups. If there are things you want that you aren’t getting, do you need to leave the relationship to make them happen? Were you somehow hoping that a romantic partner would get them for you? (Domestic contentment, life satisfaction, feeling healed and loved and pretty, material comforts you could buy yourself?)
Are there problems you’ll carry with you, even if you “start over” with someone new? Jealousy, resentment, being passive-aggressive, carrying consumer debt, poor communication and negotiation skills?
The reason I generally advise people to stay and work it out is that you can’t just replace a long-term relationship. If you got where you are because you won’t speak up or advocate for yourself, then being with someone different won’t help. You might as well use this possibly-expiring partnership to test out some better communication skills. Pay down debt, sort out your clutter, and make some solid backup plans while you’re at it. Consolidate your position. Make sure that if you do choose to leave, you’re doing it from a considered place of power and using discernment before you make your move.
I don’t invest in gold. This seems like such an obvious stance that it doesn’t bear mentioning, at least to me. I’ve started to realize, though, that it’s pretty heavily marketed, and that the marketing actually works on people. Might as well toss my opinion out there. All I wonder is whether it makes me contrarian or not.
Now, I don’t dislike gold as an element or anything. I’ve been wearing a(n ethically sourced) gold wedding ring on my hand for nine years and I’ve never taken it off. In that sense, I have more of a personal relationship with gold than with any other metal. I can also see the point of having my own personal gold brick, keeping it in my safe and occasionally opening the door to simply look at it. I mean, I wouldn’t turn one down. It’s more that I wouldn’t regard it as an “investment,” in that form or any other.
I think there are smart, rich people out there making fat wads of cash off convincing other people to invest in gold. The same can be said about other things, like penny stocks or real estate, but those are targeted to, I think, different demographics.
What’s the rationale behind this? There’s more than one, but let’s just go straight to the EOTWAWKI argument, shall we? (End Of The World As We Know It, which, one day maybe we’ll go deeper on this but technically it could indicate... an improvement!).
It’s the Walking Dead future as opposed to the Star Trek future. “The grid” goes down, permanently, and we’re quickly plunged into an apocalyptic nightmare of anarchy and chaos, kind of like Black Friday but with more cannibalism.
In this grim, nihilistic vision, people quit trusting currency, and suddenly gold becomes a more viable means of trade.
Okay, so here is where I flag the operator and climb out of the roller coaster. I know too much about history and material culture to buy into this.
I don’t disbelieve in the premise of a failed state, with anarchy, bread lines, and riots. That’s a fairly constant thesis topic in my field, after all. My posture is based on the idea that gold ain’t going to help in that scenario.
What’s really going to be valuable in a state of total technological collapse? Trade, of course, will continue on forever, because it’s an innate part of how we understand the world. Even animals like crows and apes understand concepts of trade and fairness to an extent. The deal is that we want what is scarce, and in this dark version of the world, gold wouldn’t be all that scarce. It isn’t now, so why would it be in a world of fewer people and less or no law enforcement?
What people would actually want: Coffee. Chocolate. Insulin. Tylenol. Antibiotics. Birth control. Batteries. Nicotine. Any other mind-altering drug that can’t be grown locally or produced in a camp kitchen.
What’s gold going to do in a scenario where everyone has a pounding caffeine-withdrawal headache and there’s no coffee to be had?
Gold is for trade, right? Why use anything at all for trade, unless there’s a trade good that you want but don’t have and can’t get unless you trade for it?
Does that sound dumb? Hold on.
We’re at Peak Stuff as a society, or at least we are here in the great old U. S. of A. Name me an article of clothing, camping gear, construction materials, medical supplies, or anything else you can’t find by the container-shipload. We have more of these material goods right now than we know what to do with, and that would be even more the case if there were some massive apocalyptic die-off. There’s an idea that comes up all the time in post-apocalyptic novels that people would quickly run out of clothes, and that has always seemed comical to me, because I’ve been in a lot of Goodwills. I don’t think we’d even really have to worry about food supplies for quite a long time, barring climate change effects, which only ever seem to bother us in our scary fiction.
Anyway, let’s say we survive TEOTWAWKI and we need... a thing. A necessary object. Are we going to trade for it, are we going to loot it, do we probably already have five of them out in the garage, or do we understand that we need to learn a sustainable, long-term means of manufacture? Where does gold factor into this? Why would I use gold to buy something like, say, a pair of boots or a first aid kit, when I know where to find and scavenge them on my own?
I don’t scoff at preparedness, not in the slightest. It seems to me that any pragmatic person would dedicate serious time and effort to building health and physical stamina, prioritizing dentistry, staying off medication, and learning first aid skills, tool skills, leadership and communication and negotiation skills, and of course self-defense skills. I was practicing guard escapes all last week. “All we’re missing is gravel!” Gold isn’t going to buy me the ability to get out of a chokehold, not in today’s society nor in one with zombies in it.
Gold as a... market investment? Like, buying it and keeping it in your portfolio? Don’t make me laugh. If this vision of the world ever came to pass, how on earth would I mobilize and get anything out of my accounts? The preparedness mindset that imagines life-or-death fisticuffs with one’s next door neighbor surely has to adjust to the concept that one’s portfolio, home, job, status, and worldly goods have just become expendable or irrelevant.
“If you would have bought gold in the Seventies, it would have barely kept up with inflation.” - My husband.
The world is changing, and changing quickly. It’s changing in atrocious ways in some areas, and in fantastic, exciting ways in others. Undeniably, at least parts of it will be barely recognizable twenty years from now. In what way, though? Is total transformation always scary? Or how much of it is fiction, like most marketing materials? Let me get back to you after I finish gazing at my nice gold brick.
I used to live in Santa Rosa. Areas where I lived, worked, rode my bike, ate lunch, and visited friends burned flat last year, and the same region recently came under threat again. The photos and videos of devastation are heart-wrenching and chilling. Whenever something like this happens, there are two things we can do. We can try to help, and we can review our emergency preparedness. Every person who gets out quickly is one less person for emergency responders to rescue, and one more person who can volunteer. Channeling our feelings of helplessness and sorrow into a plan of action may never be truly necessary - but it might.
One way of doing this is to make our emotional decisions now, while everything is fine, so that if a crisis does happen, we’re not distracted into foolish or deadly attempts to save our stuff.
People, then animals, then things.
Not everyone made it out of the Sonoma County fire alive. That’s because the fires sprang up so quickly and spread so far and fast that not everyone could outrun them. If you’ve ever spoken with someone who fled a wildfire, there is no time. THERE IS NO TIME. There is no time to wander around flapping one’s hands and trying to load up a bunch of bags and boxes of memorabilia. Every single time there is a natural disaster or catastrophe of some kind, people panic and start trying to bring all their favorite stuff. Just assume that if you do this, a firefighter will die. Let it go.
Most of us are in a good enough headspace that we can accept that yes, we might lose our homes and appliances and all our worldly goods. Some of us have already lived through such an event. A trauma like that is often a moment of crux, when we realize that we really are lucky to be alive and that if our loved ones are okay, then we’re okay. We realize that stuff is just stuff, and that we’re fine without it. Others go through a trauma and “lose everything” (read: material goods) and become ultra-attached to their belongings from that point forward.
What does it mean to “lose everything”? This expression makes me think of Alzheimer’s disease. You lose your memories, you lose your ability to recognize even your closest friends and relatives, you lose all your skills. You lose your vocabulary and your ability to read. You lose your ability to care for yourself or be safely alone even for brief periods. You lose your ability to understand what’s going on, so that even a routine doctor visit becomes confusing and terrifying. This is my definition of “losing everything.” I think about it a lot because it runs in my family and I worry it will happen to me.
This is when I start thinking about photographs. When my Nana was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, old photographs were one of the few things she still understood. Pictures can have meaning.
Not just photos, really, but other memorabilia, too. Anything that exists as only one copy, anything that is richly saturated with memory and legacy, anything that rightfully “belongs” to an entire family. These are items that can be preserved and stored in multiple copies in case anything happens.
Anything: anything at all. Fire, flood, mold, theft, termites, anything.
Not every photo is deeply meaningful. I tend to keep a dozen nearly identical versions of family photos, deleting only the ones in which someone’s eyes are closed. I must have thousands of family photos from the advent of the digital camera. No, I know I do! I have thousands per vacation or wedding! Many of these are landscape shots. Back in the days when we bought film by the roll, a dozen photos might cover a period of two or three years. Preserving photos takes some curation and editorial decisions, especially because we probably have more photographs than the rest of our possessions combined.
The best way to do this is to send digital copies of important family photos to every family member. Then it’s a simple matter of sending copies back if someone’s hard drive crashes or a hotel sprinkler goes off.
Older, print photos can be scanned too. My husband’s photo albums from the Seventies have started to deteriorate; the glue on the pages has become brittle and the photos have started to fall out. Others have stuck to the pages or to the glass of picture frames, causing them to tear if we try to remove them. In my organizing work I’ve seen entire bags of photographs pancaked and stuck together by moisture, moldy and ruined. Photographs do not last forever. The work of redundancy may do more to protect photos against ordinary entropy than against catastrophic loss.
Many people find that taking a picture of a sentimental item creates enough of a record to allow the original item to be released. Children’s artwork, trophies, worn-out concert t-shirts, lucky running shoes, old quilts or afghans, all of this stuff could potentially be digitized. The memory is preserved and the relic can be let go for recycling.
As an historian, the idea of families recording the artifacts of their daily lives is really interesting. I’d love to see decades’ worth of family albums recording the layout of furniture in each room, pictures of favorite family meals, pet beds, and all the other stuff that usually fades into the background. What I would not want to see would be family genealogies recording the deaths of people who ran back into a burning house in a foolhardy attempt to drag out a paper photo album.
Fall and winter are good times of year to sort and scan photos. At least in the Northern Hemisphere, the weather is cold and wet and the days are shorter. We can bundle up, drink cocoa, and look through old prints. As the various holidays come up, we can share albums with friends and family. We can do the emotional homework of detaching from material objects and making stronger connections to our beloved people and pets. Let us be grateful that we have these bright spots in our lives. Let us be grateful that we have the comfort and leisure to preserve our memories today.
I was on the Future Phone just now, talking to Future Me. We want to get some clarity on how we should be allocating our time. Future Self informs me that it’s solid common sense to assume we’re going to live a long life, and plan accordingly.
Let’s spend a minute going over the gamble here. Where are the risks? Future Self’s Wager is like Pascal’s Wager, except not religious. There are two bets.
One, you assume you’ll die at X age and you actually die sooner. Two, you assume you’ll die at X age and you live longer.
If you die sooner than you expected, you potentially miss out on opportunities and leave things unsaid.
If you live longer than you expected, on the other hand, things get complicated. You run out of money. You don’t carry the appropriate long-term disability insurance or long-term care insurance. Your house, appliances, and vehicle start to depreciate, and you can’t afford to repair or replace them. Inflation comes for your assets. The last sixty years of your exercise and nutrition habits catch up with you. You live out the effects of all your strained and broken relationships. You feel the pangs of regret for all the opportunities you never pursued, all the things you never learned, all the places you never went, all the apologies you never made, and the legacy you never created. You realize that you always had plenty of time for everything you ever wanted to do, yet you squandered it.
To me, it’s quite obvious that assuming you’ll die sooner is a much worse gamble than assuming you’ll live longer. If you’re wrong and you DO live much longer, you won’t have the relationships, the mindset, the physical stamina, the skills, or the material assets that you’ll need.
Also, we might be talking a very, very long amount of time. Say you assume you’re going to be gone by, um, sixty-seven? But you actually live to be eighty-six. That’s NINETEEN YEARS of “Oops, I never thought this would happen.” What if you then live even longer than that? What if you live past the point when YOUR KIDS are eighty-six?
Most people will instinctively reject this idea. Seriously, though! The average lifespan has roughly DOUBLED in the last century. Advances in sanitation, epidemiology, nutrition, surgery, pharmaceuticals, gerontology, and just general medical knowledge are going to continue to accelerate. Financial planners are telling people to plan to live to be ninety-six right now, just to be on the safe side.
Again, the risk of planning to be ninety-six and then dying sooner is that you have enough resources, and you wind up not needing them after all. You can then leave it all to your kids, your mate, your capybara, and/or your favorite charity.
You think it’s pessimistic to assume you’ll die young. Think again. It’s much more pessimistic to assume you’ll outlive your money, your health, and your relationships by thirty years or more.
It’s basically fortune cookie wisdom to ask, “What would you do if you found out you’d die tomorrow?” Or six months from now, or a year from now? I’ve found it much more interesting to ask, “What would you do if you knew you’d live past one hundred?”
The other day, I was taking a class in situational combatives, part of my martial arts training. It occurred to me that if fortune favors me, I could train hard for another twenty-five years. That would put me at age sixty-eight. My partner in that class happened to be seventy-eight and he’s still going strong, so it’s not an unreasonable gamble. What could I do in twenty-five years? I could be a sixth-degree black belt, that’s what!
That gave me pause. I could probably attain a black belt in a shorter span than that, maybe even less than half that time. Wait. Waiiiit a minute. What ELSE could I do in twenty-five active years besides getting a black belt in a martial art?
Get several black belts?
Suddenly it felt as though I had such a long time to fill, so many long decades that could instead be filled with boredom and dissatisfaction. I’d look back on my young, dumb forty-three-year-old self and wonder why I hadn’t made better use of my time.
Past Me! Why u so lazy??
Not only physical pursuits, but other kinds of disciplines caught my attention. What could I study in twenty-five years? Music? Painting? Small engine repair? Esperanto?
One of the benefits of middle age is that you start to understand how to shape longer-term goals and projects. Another is that you have the time and resources to pursue them. Among the best is that you have the patience and self-discipline you never could find as a teenager or young adult. You have to start to wonder how much your focus and dedication could improve, given decades of additional practice.
Already I’ve done something. I’ve put this thought out there in the world. What if we have more time than we think? Much, much more time? What scale of project would you consider if you knew you had thirty years to work on it? Now, if I’ve gambled poorly and I’m wrong about Future Self’s wager, I’ll still have done something worthwhile. If I’ve gambled well, only time will tell what sort of amazing things I might still have in me.
“There are plenty of good things to look forward to as you grow older. So accept the aging process, and don’t waste years in the gym.” - Barbara Ehrenreich
“Who says going to the gym is a waste?” - Me
Buckle up, because I’ve got a rant coming out of me and it’s going to move pretty fast.
There’s this sick myth out there that the only reason a woman goes to the gym is vanity, that she cares about her external physical appearance, and that this is wrong and should be stopped. Personally, I think that if vain people want to make changes to their appearance, that’s their right, but it’s a moot point! We don’t begrudge people wearing the clothes they prefer, teetering in impractical shoes, dyeing their hair literally every color of the rainbow, getting professional mani/pedis, bleaching their teeth, spending thousands on orthodontia, removing moles, having full-body tattoos or piercings or henna treatments. Why, then, would bodybuilding be excluded from this catalog of personal expression?
Back to what I said about it being a moot point.
I don’t know anyone who works out for appearance reasons, and that includes men. Which, are we judging men and women by the same standards here? Because we should be, or at least we should if we believe that all humans have full bodily autonomy.
Why do people work out?
I work out because I want to avoid or delay getting Alzheimer’s disease, and also because a cancer scare and a fibromyalgia diagnosis at age 23 were, shall we say, inspirational. I work out because I’m physically frail and I see it as my only option to stay mobile. If that isn’t true for you, I’m so, so happy for you, but do not DARE to come at me for prioritizing my health and independence.
Why do other people besides me work out?
My friend is training to be an FBI special agent fighting human trafficking. She wants to pass the physical.
My friend is training to get into the Air Force because she wants to become a pilot.
My friend is training to get into the Navy, like the previous four generations of her family.
My friend is training because he’s 78 and he wants to keep active. He can still get on the floor and do pushups.
My friend is training because he was choked against a wall and he wants to be able to defend himself.
My friend is training to set an example for her little daughter. So is her best friend, who has a daughter about the same age.
My friends are training because they’re married and it’s something they enjoy doing as a couple.
My friend is training because she’s been fascinated with martial arts all her life, and she eventually wants to master every form.
My friend is training because she was a college athlete, and she craved something else when she could no longer play soccer.
My friend is training because she and her sister run marathons together.
My friend is training because he wants to apply to the police academy.
My friend is training because it helps manage her depression.
My friend is training because she lost 100 pounds, and now she can.
My friend is training because she does roller derby with her daughter.
My brother is training because he fractured his spine in three places in a construction accident, and being able to run is a celebration of life.
Can someone explain to me why “accepting the aging process” somehow implies being completely sedentary? Why sitting elegantly in a chair is somehow proof of deep wisdom, and anyone who has the temerity to join a gym is foolish?
I have a gym membership BECAUSE I accept the aging process. I believe I am very likely to live to be ninety, and I have a significant chance of living past one hundred, because I stay current in gerontology and because my relatives tend to be very long-lived. This is not an optimistic viewpoint. On the contrary! Outliving my meager savings by decades is scary, deeply scary. I’ve watched several of the women in my extended family retire into poverty, frailty, and economic catastrophe. Being forced to quit working due to health issues and then running out of money well before I die is a near certainty, unless I plan carefully to avoid it. Being poor, ill, and dependent on others is pretty much the opposite of aging gracefully. Agreed?
I wasn’t able to have children. There won’t be anyone who is somehow obligated to care for me. That means financially and also physically. What will happen if I let my health decline to the point that I can’t get out of a chair on my own? Who will come over if I fall or if I’m bedridden, too weak to phone for help? I’m forty-three and it’s by no means too early to make contingency plans. High on that list is the physical training to fall properly.
I love working out with my senior friend, and I hope I’ll celebrate his eightieth birthday with him at our gym. He’s a lovely person, and he’s also an excellent reminder of what I want for myself, just thirty-five years into my own future. We do “sprawls” (falling forward) and “breakfalls” (falling backward) several times per class, and each and every time, I think, “I’m doing this for Future Me.” Today is my last opportunity to build muscle and bone density for Old Me, and I’ll tell myself the same thing tomorrow morning.
Yes, aging is a natural process of accruing wisdom, valuing friends and family, and celebrating one’s legacy. All of that is ever so much easier to do with vitality, high energy, and physical stamina. I didn’t have those assets in my teens or twenties, but I do now, and that’s because I’ve “wasted” so many years in the gym. Not only do I intend to waste many more, but I also plan to open my own gym when I’m sixty. I’d like to set the example for younger people that it’s never too late, and also demonstrate that there are forms of wisdom that can only be accessed through action and physicality.
I don’t drink coffee, but I am sitting in a legendary coffeehouse wasting time and money. At least that’s what they’d have you think. Of course it’s nonsense to think that a $5 daily habit can make or break whether someone buys a house or funds a retirement portfolio. Easy to say, when someone making six figures wants to chastise someone living on a third of that. Easy to say, coming from someone with a predictable schedule, benefits, paid holidays and sick time, who wants to lecture someone with none of those perquisites. Let me set down my steaming cup of tea long enough to share my thoughts on that whole latte budget thing.
I don’t own a house. It’s not because I can’t, but because for a lot of people in a lot of cities, home ownership is a very poor, even nonsensical use of money. Whether we spend a bunch of money in coffee shops is a moot point. There is no one-size-fits-all financial advice, and that applies to real estate more than to most investments.
Nah. If we’re going to talk about lattes or beverage equivalent, we should be comparing that to other options that represent roughly the same cash flow. So, if I’m spending maybe $25-30 a week at Starbase, what else could I get with the same money, and would it be more or less valuable to me?
$25 a week is ROUGHLY $100 a month, and that’s roughly $1200 a year. That’s about enough to buy a round-trip plane ticket to almost anywhere in the world. Therefore, if you have the vacation time and the ability and desire to travel, it could be said that you’re weighing a latte habit against an international plane ticket.
This is complicated by externalities, such as the fact that you’d also need lodging, ground transport, food, money for museum admissions and tours, an emergency savings cushion, travel insurance, and anything else that makes the difference between a ‘trip’ and a ‘vacation.’ You’re also factoring in expenses at home, such as pet boarding or childcare. Are you bringing someone else? Then this extra person would also need to trade off a $25/week habit for a year in order to come with you.
Maybe this latte IS my vacation. 30 minutes per beverage, five days a week, is a lot of mini-breaks.
I should state for the record that my husband and I save 40% of our income. We’re maxing out our retirement contributions. Because we pay ourselves first, and because we save so much money on our largest expense categories, we feel perfectly justified in wasting our disposable income however we see fit. If we’re gonna spend it on tea, we’re gonna spend it on tea.
We choose to live in a studio apartment, paying about 20% of our income toward rent, because we like the location. We’re minimalists, so we can fit. We’re strategically using the time to get a year ahead on our retirement plan. We also decided to quit owning a car. We don’t drink alcohol, we don’t pay for cable, and we can’t shop recreationally because there’s nowhere to put anything. We don’t really spend money in the ways that most people do. The way we live is radical, but it works for us. At this point we’re used to it.
We DO spend a lot of money on travel, our pets, my gym, the movie theater, and our cafe habit. When we go to the local Starbase, all we have to do is set down our Thermos cups. Everyone knows us by name, and they even know that the chai goes in the blue cup and the green tea goes in the orange cup. It’s a foolish indulgence, but a pleasurable one, unlike commuting in a car and making the associated payments.
That’s what this whole latte budget thing is all about. Leisure and pleasure! We’re *supposed* to be putting our noses to the grindstone, working long hours, stressing ourselves out, denying ourselves sleep, and demonstrating our 24/7 dedication to being Productive Economic Units around the clock. The way we actually live, it’s... it’s cheating!
We’re not supposed to live in an apartment cheaper than we can afford. What would happen to the economy if everyone did??
We’re not supposed to be debt-free. That means we have no shackles to saw off, and that’s almost like we’re economic free agents. Oh dear, that sounds like trouble.
We’re not supposed to have F.U. money. THAT would put us in the position of being able to turn down sub-optimal job offers or negotiate for a better compensation package, and, what??
We’re not supposed to be uninterested in passive entertainment or recreational eating and shopping. That makes us basically immune to advertisements or social comparison, which strongly implies that we’ll still be free birds ten years from now. Where is our hook?
We’re certainly not supposed to sleep 8 hours a night, hang out in the hot tub, take naps, or lounge around the coffee shop. Where is our appropriate sense of urgency?
The funny thing about all of this is that my husband and I do both work long hours. He’s just submitted the paperwork for his second patent this year, and I’ve got my own stuff going on. We work because we’re interested in things, and because most of the other options are boring. We’re just not going to do it out of a sense of financial instability or existential dread. We happen to share the opinion that it’s better for employers and clients when we work out of passion and fascination, rather than obligation or anxiety.
There are a few things that are smarter than a latte budget, for those who are still in struggle. If the wiggle room can’t come from rent or transportation or utilities or entertainment, here are a few ideas:
Enough for cab fare or a ride share to a place of safety
Enough for a week’s groceries
Enough for the top-end cold medicine
Enough for a first aid kit and a fire extinguisher
Enough for an extra month’s rent
Enough for a moving van and 100 boxes
Enough to replace an appliance or a set of tires
Enough for a new mattress and bedding
Enough for an entire month’s expenses
A thousand dollars can make a huge difference in someone’s life, if it’s carefully nurtured and tended. What can make a bigger difference is a feeling of empowerment, confidence, and self-efficacy. I HAVE THE POWER. Earning more, changing careers, advancing one’s education, running a profitable side hustle, or starting a business can certainly create more additional income than someone could save in nickels and dimes. That whole latte budget thing could be an insignificant line item at a higher earning level. Maybe that life-changing resume or application or admissions essay or business plan happens over a happy cup of caffeine in an overpriced cafe near you. Cheers to you, and may your endeavors be successful.
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.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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