I didn’t get the flu shot, but my husband did. That year, I got the flu and he didn’t. It was that simple. That was four years ago, and now I get the flu shot every year.
It wasn’t fun. Getting the flu never is. Of course, that’s why so many people are too afraid to go get the shot. Like me, we’re afraid that the shot itself will make us sick. That winter I didn’t have to imagine it. I got to spend a week and a half flat on my back, feeling like I was dissolving into the couch, while my husband whistled a merry tune and went about his business. I felt like I might die and he obviously felt totally fine. It only took me about an hour of feeling genuinely ill before the free flu shot clinic at his work crossed my mind. Every day that went by I thought about it some more.
I get the tetanus shot. I’ve been immunized against everything, including hepatitis A and B from my social services days. I really never had a problem signing up for other vaccinations, so why was I dragging my feet over the flu vaccine?
Needle reaction. I’m a big baby about getting shots or having my blood drawn. I always have to cover my eyes and put my head down, and I get dizzy afterward. I know it’s pure, 100% anxiety. It’s still not fun having my amygdala hijacked, when I strongly prefer having my neocortex in charge. Anxiety always drives terrible decisions.
I’ve learned to deal with anxiety in these types of situations by planning my actions and responses ahead of time, when I can think straight and use my rational mind. I Get the Flu Shot Every Year. I Will Plan to Go As Soon As the Flu Shot Clinic Opens. I Will Not Run Screaming Out the Door Like That Little Boy Just Did.
On the way to the clinic, I told the Lyft driver where we were going. She replied that she didn’t get the flu shot. On the course of the drive, it was clear that this driver was a highly intelligent, educated intellectual; in fact, I would have liked to make friends and invite her out for tea. The trouble is that educated women of our age group are exactly the type of people who are so skeptical about vaccination that we resist it. I shared my story about getting sick the year that my hubby got inoculated and I didn’t. He was sitting right there, so look. See? It didn’t kill him!
The process only took a couple of minutes. We barely had time to sign the form before we were called up, one after the other. I warned the nurses that I get needle reaction, because it’s only fair to tell them. They suggested I think about something else, and chuckled while I described what I was thinking about: pot pie with peas and carrots and potatoes and ALL DONE! I hadn’t even gotten to the crust yet.
I’d like to say that I get the flu shot as a tribute to my beautiful mother-in-law, who was taken after her fifth bout with lymphoma. People going through cancer treatments have compromised immune systems, and they rely on healthy people to provide herd immunity. I’d also like to say that I get the flu shot because of all the little newborn babies who are too young to get their shots, babies who also rely on herd immunity. I probably wouldn’t have a seizure from the flu, but a baby might. The truth is that I’m a coward, a physical coward, and I know it. When it’s my amygdala talking, I don’t care about any darn cancer patients or newborn infants, I care about ME. What convinced me was those ten days of flu. He got the shot, I didn’t; I got sick, he didn’t. I’m sold.
In my typical week, I ride 8-10 buses. I go to the grocery store at least twice and the public library at least once. I go to two meetings with 30-40 other people. I go to a movie theater with 500 seats, usually full, and I go to a coffee shop and possibly three restaurants. Probably I go to a bookstore or other retail establishment. At the end of the day, I come home to my apartment complex, where I have 1500 neighbors, 80 of whom live in my building and share my front door. I use our gym seven days a week, sometimes the business center. I touch a lot of door handles, is what I’m saying. My decision whether to get the flu shot, like a good citizen, or procrastinate on it, like the big chicken I usually am, affects literally thousands of individual people in my community. One year, I was at an international airport when I realized I was coming down with the flu, and I rode on two planes and passed through two additional international airports before I made it home. It makes me cry to think of all the other people who must have picked up what I had that day.
Thousands of people die of influenza every year, vulnerable people who wouldn’t necessarily have been able to get the shot beforehand. It doesn’t have to be that way. Vaccination is a modern miracle, one that we’re quite lucky to have. Every time I do it, I try to think about how it’s proof that we’re living in the future. One of these years, they’ll find a way to vaccinate us against the common cold, and when they do, I’ll be first in line. Well, maybe second. I might need a minute to think about pot pie.
We knew it was going to happen, but that didn’t stop it from being annoying. The power company would be turning off our electricity from 6 PM to 6 AM on a weeknight. No electricity, no wi-fi, no internet - which, in our building, means no phone. No lights. My husband wouldn’t be home from work until after 6, and we wouldn’t even be able to cook dinner. No stove, no microwave, no dishwasher. No washing machine, no clothes dryer. In other words, we’d be doing a dry run of what hundreds of thousands of people are doing in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose. We might not have internet for a night, but at least we wouldn’t have to evacuate.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of emergency planning. If you have a plan and a few contingency plans, all you have to do is rehearse them occasionally and look for blind spots. If you have no plan, then you’re relying on the plans of others. Whenever there’s a natural disaster or a crisis, there will always be bright spots, incredible acts of heroism and generosity. There will also be devastating tragedies, many of which might have been avoided (who knows?) with some contingency plans and more resources. I like to think that we’re making our emergency plans as strong as possible so that we can find a place on the rescue squad and help those who can’t do it on their own.
If you have no phone and no internet, how will you know what to do and where to go?
If you live with others, and a natural disaster happens while you’re separated, how will you find each other if the phones don’t work?
If you have to evacuate your home and you’re separated from your family, how will you send each other messages?
If you have pets, what will you do with them? Can you get them out?
What information will you need if you lose your phone and wallet and your house is gone? How are you going to access that information?
I don’t have answers for you, by the way. How would I? The answers to those questions are personal to you and your situation.
These are horrible things to think about. Granted. So is death. How much more horrible if the disaster actually happens and you never bothered to spend five minutes thinking about it? Problem-solving is learned by solving problems. In crunch time, there won’t be any review sessions or time to go to the disaster survival textbook.
My husband and I live in a disaster-prone area. Earthquakes! Landslides! Wildfires! Flash floods! Riots! Our last house put us within walking distance of the territory of a real live (radio-collared) mountain lion. Our current apartment is on a marina, downhill a quarter mile from the typhoon warning signs. Things to think about.
Our Plan A is to hunker down at home and stay out of the way. A couple of weeks ago, there were wildfires very near our old house, close enough that a friend messaged me to ask if we were okay. Thirty miles, hon, we’re fine, thanks for asking. There were wildfires thirty miles from us and we didn’t even know! I have disaster alerts set up on my Watch and my phone, assuming they work. At least in an urban area, usually the best thing you can do is to stay home and give the emergency responders room to do their work.
Plan B, we know we need to evacuate and we have at least a few hours’ notice. Acquire transportation and depart for our planned destination. We’ve chosen somewhere a few hours away, in a different geographical area, assuming that if they also have a natural disaster, it won’t be the same one going on in our town. This is how my husband and his young family dealt with the aftereffects of the Northridge Earthquake. They drove out of the area for a few days until the water, power, and sewer were functional again.
Plan C, worst case scenario, something happens while my husband is at work and I’m at home with our pets. The phones don’t work, there’s no internet, and we don’t get a chance to touch base. Ugh, it gives me the chills just thinking about it! Plan B is for me to stay put and for him to get to us. His work is five miles away. Assuming he had to walk the whole way on technical terrain with weather complications, he could get home in 2 to 5 hours. (He thinks faster, but I know from technical terrain, and one mile an hour is plausible).
We plan around not having access to a vehicle because that’s what planning means. You have to assume that the weather is setting historical records, that you and someone else in your party are injured, that your supplies have been lost, that all the obvious routes home are blocked, that your vehicle has been destroyed, and that the roads are impassable anyway. THEN you get to start contingency planning.
Plan D: We’re separated, we have no means of communication, and I have to evacuate with our pets. There are index cards, markers, and masking tape in my go bag so I can try to leave him a note saying where we’ve gone. He’s going to have to assume we’re heading to higher ground, followed by the nearest Red Cross disaster shelter.
What if there isn’t one?
My husband and I both have years of experience in the outdoors. This is recreational, but it’s also practical. How far can we walk? How much can we carry? What do we do if we get blisters or minor injuries? How long can we exert very strenuous effort without food? What kind of climbing can we do? If we’re separated, well, he’s an emergency medical responder and an Eagle Scout, so he can take care of himself. For myself, I have to count on my inner reserves of grit and the physical strength I’ve built as a marathon runner and adventure racer. We spent three days off-grid in Iceland and got each other across a few thigh-deep river crossings. We’ve tested our ability to work together under arduous conditions, keeping our heads clear and solving problems together.
Like, for instance, the problem of having NO INTERNET FOR TWELVE HOURS! We couldn’t charge our devices or anything! *swoon* I know, I know. How did we survive??
I made sure the day’s laundry was out of the dryer well before the shutoff. We met for dinner at the burrito bar, where I had already checked to make sure they were out of the shutoff zone. That meant we wouldn’t have to open the fridge or freezer and our food could stay fresh. I had fresh batteries for the battery-powered lantern, plus candles and a headlamp, and the solar lantern was charged. The fire extinguisher was ready under the sink just in case. All our devices were charged to 100%. I even got us fresh new library books. We lounged around reading, went to bed early, and when we woke up in the morning, the power was back on.
If we’re lucky, this will be the toughest crisis of our year. There’s enough to do in trying to help with hurricane recovery efforts in any way we can.
What would you do if you knew you only had twenty-four hours to live? This question is right up there with “What would you do if you won the lottery?” and “If you could only bring one thing to a deserted island, what would it be?” What we should probably be asking are the opposites: “What would you do if you knew you would never have any money you didn’t earn at work?” and “If you could be happy with only one thing on a deserted island, why do you have so much stuff?” And, of course, “What would you do if you realized you were going to live to be at least 95-100 years old?” Suddenly the questions about money and possessions start to look less frivolous and more literally relevant. The 100-Year Life makes the extremely provocative case that human longevity has been stealthily increasing on us, and that we need to reckon on it in our future plans.
People do not want to believe that they will live to be very elderly. This seems surprising. We always complain that we don’t have enough time to do what we want. Yet my clients are all convinced that they’ll die young. They resist any suggestion to the contrary, refuting it by proclaiming the ages their various relatives were when they died. As The 100-Year Life makes abundantly clear, this is irrelevant. Lifespans are increasing across the board. An example of this is that in only the past decade, the number of UK citizens living to their 100th birthday increased 70%.
Oh, no no no. Surely this doesn’t apply to me. Why should I care? I am absolutely stone-cold certain that I’m not going to live past… Um… past… ?
We have to care about our extended lifespans because we have to plan on how we’re going to take care of ourselves when we’re too old to work. Generally people roll their eyes in resignation and “joke” that they’ll just have to keep working, but in reality, 55% of Americans quit working sooner than planned. Either our health collapses, or we aren’t able to find work. We pin our mental “retirement” age at 65, but if we actually live to be 95, that’s THIRTY YEARS of retirement we’ll need to fund. Surely we don’t think we’ll still have jobs at 90? If we hate what we do for income now, how much more are we going to like it after being in the workforce for seventy years or more?
The picture of advanced aging presented in The 100-Year Life is only bleak for those who have zero intention of either preserving their health and fitness or of saving money. (That’s what procrastination is for; the two most commonly procrastinated goals are saving money and getting healthier). A cool feature of the book is that it offers three separate models of aging, one for Boomers, one for GenXers, and one for Millennials. These models show a few pitfalls, yes; mostly, they envision lives with more time. Time for education, time for leisure, time for more interesting career arcs, time for more involved intergenerational family models.
The average 40-year-old has a 50/50 chance of living to be 95. I just turned 42 this summer, and I believe it would be foolhardy to assume I’m in the bottom half of that distribution. Sure, maybe I die later today, and that’s why I do my best to tell people I love them and avoid leaving loose ends in my life. The bigger risk is to outlive my expectations, my teeth, my health, and my money. Assuming we’ll live to be 100 isn’t optimistic (if anything, it might be pessimistic!). It’s simply an objective part of our baseline reality now.
This book is an incredible, fascinating, even mind-bending read. I really kind of want everyone I know to drop everything and read it as fast as possible, so we can start having a prolonged conversation about it.
As we were going through the TWENTY-SIX PAGE LEASE for our new apartment, we discovered that we were required to show proof of renters insurance before we could have the keys. We already had renters insurance, but figured we'd change to their suggested provider, since we were radically downsizing as well as relocating. The main purpose was to insure against potential damage that we might cause to the apartment, since we are such party animals. Secondary was a worksheet estimating the value of our possessions, and this is where it gets interesting. We had until the end of the week to put a price on everything we owned.
We did it in twelve minutes.
We've had numerous conversations over the years about what we would keep and what we would downsize in various situations. We've also had the conversation about how much insurance to get on our stuff. In the world of insurance, there is a lot of fine print, such as whether the policy includes earthquake coverage. (Assume that whatever is the most likely threat of natural disaster in your area, your insurance specifically excludes it, whether that's tornados, UFOs, giant ants, or what-have-you). Our concern was the concept of "replacement value." If our place really was completely destroyed by one of the many hazards of our fair state, not limited to flash floods, landslides, wildfire, typhoon, or earthquake, what would it cost to start from scratch? What would we actually replace and what would we shrug off?
Obviously we would replace our bed, couch, dining table, computers and desks. We would need replacement sheets and towels - but would we buy as many as we currently had? We would need to completely outfit a new kitchen - but again, would we buy as much kitchen gear as we had in our real kitchen? How do you insure food? We would need to replace our clothes and bathroom stuff. Predictably, if we started from zero, with nothing but a blank spot for a house and a big insurance payout, would we really buy the hundreds of items we had in our bedroom and bathroom again?
The shock and horror of losing everything you own must be truly devastating. It wouldn't do to be flippant about such a thought. However. My husband rode out the Northridge Earthquake, a topic that I find endlessly fascinating. We know that disaster is real. For us, a little black comedy helps when contemplating serious crisis. As long as nobody dies, if one of the many temporary homes we've rented were to be destroyed, well, we're insured and so are our landlords. The idea of starting over again, with nothing but a check, can be a cute little fantasy. If we went on a mandatory shopping spree, with hardly a sock to our name, what would we buy?
Lids without matching containers! Junk mail! Dried-up pens! Rusty paperclips! Sheets that don't match any of the mattresses in the house! Shopping extravaganza!
The sad yet liberating truth is that most of our stuff is relatively worthless. We can't calculate a replacement cost for photographs, because we can't go out and buy them again. We can't put a price on souvenirs, mementos, or memorabilia for the same reason. We can't assess the market value of his engineering drawings or software, or my manuscripts, because money wouldn't reproduce them. The only stuff we can buy with money is generic housewares.
That's exactly what insurance money would cover: generic housewares. It's not like we would suddenly be able to level up and hire an interior designer. Also note that when we pay for insurance, the more we buy, the higher the premiums. Insurance is like a fire extinguisher or a first aid kit: you hope you never need them. If we're lucky, we'll have paid hundreds or thousands of dollars over the years for insurance we never need. That would be awesome; let's pick that one.
When we learned that we would need to estimate the replacement value of everything we owned, we were undaunted. Most of what we had, we'd bought together during the past eight years of our marriage. We both attend to the value of a dollar. We had a solid memory of how much the bigger-ticket items cost, and if we didn't, we could check our digital financial records. We were ready.
There was a "Property Worksheet." It had a field for each room, and as I entered numbers, it kept a running total at the bottom. Bedroom 1. Bedroom 2. Office. Den. Kitchen. Bathroom. Living Room. Dining Room. Other/Misc. Additional living expenses.
Well, let's see. We only have one bedroom. We no longer have an office. We've never had a "den" and I have no idea what would go in one. We no longer have a separate dining room, but what the heck, let's put the price of the table and chairs there. We were chatting back and forth over text message, a conversation that included a couple of 'crying laughing' emojis. We did our own independent estimates, and got within $400 of the same amount. Then my husband recalled that none of the rooms listed included the garage, and had to come up with an estimate for his tools. Wow, that's a pretty big number, we thought. I input it in the insurance company's website.
The total price we had estimated for all our worldly goods was barely over half the lowest amount offered.
We fell about laughing, and laughed even harder when I tried changing the optional jewelry coverage. I could replace most of my wardrobe with the default option! Never spend a lot of money on anything that will fit down a drain, that's my advice.
We wound up with the lowest coverage and the highest deductible we could get. After tacking on earthquake coverage, it's still less than a dollar a day. I'd have to check, but it's almost identical to what we were paying before. Now, if our upstairs neighbor leaves the bathtub running or the sprinkler system malfunctions, we'll be financially fine.
The most important consideration, whenever our attention wanders to crisis and disaster, is to think of the living. We plan escape routes. We check our go bags. We rehearse what we'll do if we need to evacuate and get our animals to safety. We bolster our finances, maybe tuck a few more small bills in our go bags just in case. We insist on discussing emergency preparedness with our friends, who usually don't even have a jug of water set aside. We do what we can to try to make sure we'll be on the emergency response team, helping our neighbors.
It also helps to think about the priceless things. Are our work products and tools backed up? If even a single irreplaceable file exists only on one computer or one storage medium, that's asking for trouble. BACK UP YOUR DATA! If we have legacy or heirloom items, have we recorded them in some way in case the original is damaged? Photographs, letters, documents, vital records, family trees, and anything else flat can be scanned. I like to see these things distributed across a family, so everyone has a copy. Pictures can also be taken of the 3D stuff, like furniture or textiles, so that at least some visual record will survive.
Ultimately, it's all just stuff. What's important has a heartbeat. What really makes a legacy is the rich tapestry of stories, relationships, recipes, shared experiences, inside jokes and alternative song lyrics, and little mannerisms that make us family. No physical object of any description is worth a plug nickel in comparison to a strong bond of affection. Maybe we'd do better to make worksheets of our love and loyalty.
As I write this, over 180,000 people have been evacuated from the path of the crumbling Orville Dam. We lived near there just a few years ago. Whenever something like this happens, I pause and reevaluate how well prepared my household is in case of disaster. It's a civic duty. At minimum, we should avoid adding to the workload of first responders. Stay out of their way and don't create extra problems. Ideally, we should be self-sufficient and able to take care of ourselves. Under the right circumstances it would be good to be able to pitch in and help others. There are a lot of homebound people out there who could use an extra hand. Nobody left behind. A thirty-foot wall of water is a clear villain against which we can all unite.
This is the purpose of being organized. It means you have your head on straight and you can survive an emergency. It truly doesn't matter how color-coordinated your spices are and whether you've alphabetized your socks yet. When crisis strikes you need to be able to get out the door.
My people are fantastic about worrying. They have a comprehensive anxiety plan, a worry and concern and stress for every situation. What they're not so fantastic about is forming realistic strategies. I have read run-on paragraphs about all the material objects a person genuinely believes she can rescue in the event of disaster. Like, you really think you can save forty photo albums when your house is on fire? Emergency responders die due to harebrained ideas like this. Take this moment to pause, breathe in, and accept that only living beings can and should be evacuated.
Not a bunch of bric-a-brac.
Stuff is just stuff. No object should ever be rated above a human being, and probably not above an animal either. Get yourself out, get your children out, get your pets out, and check on your neighbors. Then you're done.
I talked to a woman once who had to negotiate to bypass a police barricade to get to her house during a wildfire. She could see the flames from her driveway. She was trying to talk to her husband on her cellphone while loading her frantic, terrified dogs into the Jeep. Trying to decide which papers to go after. It took only about a minute to realize that she had barely enough time to flee for their lives. Papers can be replaced, people can't. She was in and out in five minutes, no papers, but at least she had the dogs. That is the appropriate response. Ellen Ripley took the cat when she was fleeing the Alien, but she didn't try to bring a photo album or her childhood teddy bear. Be like Ripley.
All that being said, a dam is a metaphor. A dam is a physical structure, a bulwark against certain types of disaster. It controls floods. You can use physical objects to protect against certain types of disaster, also. What I have in mind is a Go Bag. This is something you can set up in twenty minutes and inspect for five minutes every month. When the time comes, you can grab your Go Bag and... GO.
You need to have an emergency plan for everyone in your household. Where do you meet? Where do you meet if that place is flooded or on fire? What's your fallback plan if cell phones aren't getting through and you can't communicate? If you've ever been separated in a casino or at the mall, you have a tiny taste of what this could be like. TALK IT OUT. Do not procrastinate on an emergency plan. You can procrastinate on alphabetizing your socks or going to the gym, but don't [censored] around with your disaster planning.
My Go Bag includes a Sharpie marker, some index cards, and masking tape. This is so I can leave messages at and near the house if need be. One of the things I check when I get my monthly 'emergency kit inspection' reminder is that this Sharpie has fresh ink.
I have a sheaf of backup documents in case my ID gets lost. Page of emergency contact phone numbers, because I haven't memorized one since the early Nineties. Color copies of my passport, driver's license, health insurance, AAA card, advance health care directive, and the 800-number to call in case it's time to donate my body to science. Copy of our marriage license. It took me 15 minutes to figure out what I needed, and about 60 cents to make photocopies of it at the public library.
What else is in there? Old, faded casual clothes that I don't care if I lose. (Two t-shirts, a pair of shorts, a pair of jeans, a zippered sweatshirt, old sneakers, socks, bras, and underwear). My travel shower kit. Sun block. Hand sanitizer. First aid kit on top. A little cash in small bills. Spare ATM card. Solar charger and adapter for my phone. Three water bottles, one with a built-in filter, two that I keep filled and freshen up every couple of weeks. It would be super annoying and disappointing if someone took this bag, but there's nothing in there I couldn't live without. Or... Hmm.
My husband's Go Bag is his work backpack. Change of shoes, some cash in small bills, a snack. Photocopies of the same relevant documents that I have. His actual wallet, phone, and glasses.
There's a third bag that we call the Pet Bag. It has some styptic gel with a topical anesthetic in case one of them gets hurt. (Works on people too). It has their nail trimmers. It has at least four days' worth of kibble for each of them. They can both eat what we eat, but it seems expedient to have food for them that humans wouldn't really want. Extra water bottle. The Pet Bag has small food and water bowls, and poo bags. This bag goes with us on road trips and we are in and out of it all the time. They wear their ID; he has a rabies tag on his collar and she has a closed ring leg band.
This is the scenario: I'm on foot, with my Go Bag on my back, the Pet Bag slung over one shoulder, a leash in one hand and a parrot carrier in the other. The bags weigh in at 19 pounds, nearly half my full expedition pack weight. I'm walking about one mile an hour. WHERE would I put a photo album or any other sentimental objects? Balanced on my head? Floating in the air in my thought bubble?
(Answer: I've already scanned them and saved them in cloud storage).
The main goal of the Go Bag is to get us to an emergency shelter. Hopefully we will never be in that situation; hopefully, if we do have to evacuate, we can use passable roads and go to our Plan A backup destination, which is not in our geographical region. Evacuations happen, though. My husband had to leave town after the Northridge Earthquake. We've known other people who had to evacuate due to wildfire, flood, and landslide. In my family tree are people who had to live in Golden Gate Park after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. It happens. We want to be around afterward and live to tell the tale.
I feel it would be unfair not to mention this topic, so: Cardio. If someone screams RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! I pray that you can. A mudslide does not care about body shaming. A thirty-foot wall of floodwater does not care about body shaming. A wildfire coming up your street does not care about body shaming. Reality is judging you. Disaster is not a respecter of persons. Know how fast you can run and how much you can carry. If you can't do it for yourself, do it for your kids, and if you don't have kids, do it for your pets. If you can't do it for any of those reasons, do it for the exhausted emergency responders.
Don't say nobody told you. You've been told.
We do our best to cope when the world gets weird. We try to keep disaster at bay, just as we try to dam the floodwaters. It's unfair and inconvenient, but it happens. Stuff goes wrong. Usually it does it in the middle of the night, when we're barefoot and disoriented. Preparing for the worst is morbid and depressing, but not nearly as much as the alternatives. Let it serve as a memento mori, the purpose of which is to remind us to make the most of today. Say "I love you" while we can. Appreciate what we have while we still have it. If we're fortunate, we'll never need our emergency preparations, and we can wink at ourselves and laugh a little at how silly we've been.
JUST IN CASE. That's a solid reason to keep every single molecule you've ever touched or breathed in your entire life. YOU NEVER KNOW. It's true. YOU MIGHT NEED IT LATER. Most of us spend time sitting in this feeling, this sense that keeping things provides security in life. Some of us eventually realize that this emotion is a phase. It can go away. As for me, the dominant feeling in my life is curiosity. I can't stop at BECAUSE as an answer to anything. Why exactly am I supposed to keep certain papers "indefinitely"? Can't I just scan them and keep digital copies?
The obvious question raised by this imprimatur to keep particular papers is, what if I can't? What if:
Burst water main
I'm an historian. It's a sad fact of the field that priceless relics and invaluable archival material are often lost to the sands of time. All sorts of buildings containing public records burned down in the 19th century because everything was made of wood and the available technology for light and heat was dangerous. There's no viable way to demand that anyone keep a piece of paper unto eternity, because there's no physical way to guarantee its continued existence on the material plane.
The real questions for me are twofold: 1. Do I need to keep it at all? 2. Do I need to keep a hard copy?
I have a fireproof safe. It cost about $120 and I got it at Harbor Freight. "Fireproof" means the papers inside won't spontaneously combust for an hour in a burning building. That's 60 minutes. The safe is more of a sunblock for documents.
What papers need to remain as paper? (As opposed to vellum, papyrus, stone tablet, or other medium of codex?) The stuff we use most often, such as a passport, is more convenient to keep on paper. Never irk a border control agent. Most of our important "papers" are really plastic now. Drivers license, debit and credit cards, various forms of identification. I really want to access these accounts with my fingerprint, or an intense stare, but for now they're plastic. I get why it makes life easier to keep these things, but I'm awaiting the day when they'll become obsolete.
We each have a sheaf of photocopies in our go bag. These are documents suggested by various preparedness websites, including ready.gov. The purpose is to prove who we are in the event that we lose our wallets and there's no phone or grid up for a few days. Plan B, if we have to evacuate our house, is to have basic supplies if we need to go to an emergency shelter. Passport, drivers license, medical and dental insurance cards, AAA card, marriage certificate, and a list of emergency contacts since I stopped memorizing phone numbers around 1993. I sincerely hope we never need these papers. This is the only scenario I can think of when actual, bona fide compressed tree parts would be truly necessary.
Our wedding certificate is in the safe. It makes me feel all gooey when I look at it. We've needed photocopies of it at various times over the years, mostly for health insurance and HR stuff.
The reason I started to delve into the reasoning behind keeping certain papers 'indefinitely' is that I want to get rid of my divorce paperwork. I kept seeing a line item putting these papers in the 'permanent storage' category. I don't want that to be the answer. So I did some research. It turns out that the main reason to hang onto divorce papers is that it can be inconvenient to get copies from the courthouse. If you were married at least ten years before the divorce, you can apply for social security benefits under your former spouse, and you'd need those papers then. That doesn't apply to me. You also might need a copy of your divorce decree if you want to legally change your name. I remarried and changed my name, so that also doesn't apply to me. The only other circumstances would be if you had children or property together, and there were ongoing legal issues affecting them. That doesn't apply to me either. I was divorced 16 years ago, and I haven't heard a peep out of my ex in over a decade. I've started to realize that that part of my life is over-over. Further, I'm pretty sure that what I have on hand is not an official copy of the divorce decree anyway, but merely a photocopy. First I'm going to burn these papers, and then I'm going to rip the tags off my mattress. Go big or go home!
Tax returns - keep them, but you don't need the backup papers after 7 years. Be nice to the IRS because they can pursue you into the afterlife.
Deeds, titles, bonds, other super-official stuff. Keep them too, and if you have a lot of this kind of thing, consider a safe deposit box and/or fireproof safe.
Everything else is optional.
How much are you keeping out of fear?
How much are you keeping out of confusion and lack of information?
How much are you keeping because sorting your stuff would be time-consuming and boring?
How much are you keeping because paper is the least of your worries, and you're clearing other categories of stuff first?
How much are you keeping because you believe memories are solid?
How much are you keeping because it symbolizes a part of your identity?
How much paper is in your home, covering surfaces, because you just don't want to deal with it? How much of that is junk mail, catalogues, expired coupons, and obsolete invitations?
'Getting organized' is about making sure your life runs smoothly. You're trying to take care of problems in the present and not pass the buck to Future Self. Part of the work of getting organized involves physical objects, but almost all of it is about mental bandwidth. It's much more important to be on top of your financial, legal, and career world than it is to have a clean desk. That being said, PAPERS ARE THOUGHTS and releasing them can be a very effective way of liberating your powers of focus and awareness.
Out of ten days, I spent eight traveling and backpacking. Apparently this is a thing I do now. I just got back on Sunday. It is still really weird to me that I have gone from needing help to get out of bed in the morning, to hiking into mountain goat zone with a backpack. Both felt natural at the time. When did I turn into this bushwhacking, rock-clambering person?
On the first trip, I was the eldest of six in our group. This is both strange and not-strange. Almost every single one of the dozens of people we saw on the trail was under 30. Usually, though, backpackers tend to skew a bit older. On weekdays you get retirees. Most endurance sports include more older than younger people due to the cash flow issues. Mature people can afford the equipment, the gas, and the permit fees. We also tend to be better organized, mostly because we have more control over our schedules. Getting a group of half a dozen people to arrive at the same place at the same time can be pretty complicated, especially if most or all of them work unpredictable shifts.
We were fortunate enough to win the permit lottery and hike into the Enchantments, the same route that we did back in September. This proved to be an interesting experiment. We were able to add mileage and camp at a higher elevation, and then do a day hike yet further up the mountain. 5500 feet! It made me want to repeat the Portland Marathon (knowing I would be virtually guaranteed to run a PR). All told, we hiked fourteen miles round-trip, and ten of that while wearing packs. I’m not sure exactly how much my pack weighed, because I crammed more stuff into it after the “official” weigh-in, not wanting my husband to know just how much I was planning to carry. It was at least 40 pounds though.
Why would a 122-pound, small-framed person such as myself want to carry a 40-pound backpack 5000 feet up a mountain? This is the crossroads of minimalism and endurance training. On the one hand, I want to carry as little as possible just to prove to myself that I can do it. On the other hand, I want to carry as much as possible just to prove to myself that I can do it. Here lies a real conundrum. The truth is that I don’t really feel the weight, and I feel like I will wind up carrying more than that if/when I graduate to longer trips. I’d really like to hike the Triple Crown one day, and it seems like being able to carry seven days’ worth of supplies would make that more likely.
Minimalism can often involve quite a lot of stuff. For a backpacker, I’m on the middling-to-absurd end. For a suburbanite, I’m on the extreme end. What have I got in there? I don’t tolerate cold at all well, so most of the heavy gear consists of bedding and clothing. There’s the sleeping bag, air mattress, space blanket, and inflatable pillow. There are the three jackets, the base layer, the hat and gloves and buff and package of hand warmers. I put them on at night and I still sit there shivering; I go to bed at 9 PM more because I’m cold than because I’m tired. There’s the water and the first aid kit, because really. There’s the inflatable solar lantern and the folding chair for luxury. Then there’s the cookpot, the stove, the fuel, and the food. Here is where I can cut weight easily: I tend to bring boil-in-a-bag meals rather than dehydrated food. I’m perfectly capable of dehydrating my own backpacking meals, and I have done so, but it’s so much more work that it seems worth it to just haul a heavy pack. If I cut five pounds of food or gear, I’d almost certainly add back five pounds of gear I don’t usually carry, such as a machete or another base layer. If only I had a 3D printer that could make things out of squashed mosquitos.
The second trip was less physically taxing, but I’ll include it for comedic purposes. A raccoon tore my tent. I got some mosquito bites, and I finally had my beloved Therapik with me, but as soon as I pushed the button I found that the 9V battery had died. The batteries in my head lamp had also gone flat. I packed for cold weather again, only to find that it was over 80 degrees every day, and I hadn’t brought any shorts, swimsuit, or sunblock. I still have never used the sunhat I bought at Goodwill years ago for this purpose, and I have the sunburned ears to prove it. I didn’t bring quarters for the shower. We went to this park specifically in hope of seeing a condor, hiked five miles to the preferred viewing area, and saw nary a one. Just as I was taking down the tent on the way home, a fire ant crawled up my pants and bit my knee. Like it couldn’t wait ten more minutes for me to leave.
It turns out that the outdoor life has toughened me up considerably. I can now state that stinging nettle and fire ant bites rate about the same, as the pain is worse from the fire ant but it only lasts about half as long. I’m (almost) grateful that these things happened, because I was able to endure without setting off a migraine or a fibromyalgia flare-up. I used to be a frail little flower indeed. Now, I’m tougher than just about anyone. Maybe one day I’ll feel that I’ve proved my point and I can convince myself to pack a lighter bag.
I slipped in the shower. Is this not one of the worst nightmares? Naked and incapacitated, waiting to be found by whoever gets home first. A coworker of mine fell off a ladder in her bathroom, broke her leg, and was trapped on the floor by the ladder itself. It took her hours to get past it and crawl to a phone. Having an accident at home is no joke. I was lucky today.
I slipped, but I didn’t fall. Our tub has a (very dated) tile surround, and it’s built up a couple of inches higher than the bathtub. It’s nearly knee-high, and you have to step over it to climb out. I had one foot out, reaching for my towel, when my other foot slipped. I started falling backward, as though someone had shouted FUS RO DAH! I was frightened.
I will take this moment to share that a relative of mine died by slipping in the shower when I was in middle school. She was kind, generous, beautiful, and unlucky.
She wasn’t much older than I am now.
I flailed. I grabbed the shower curtain with my left hand and somehow caught myself on the wall with my right.
Not only did I not fall – I didn’t even tear the shower curtain. I got my sliding foot back under me. I remained upright, startled, a bit shaken, with this odd little scrape on my calf here from the tiles.
What happened? My super powers activated, otherwise known as muscles. I have a strong core from all these years of running and backpacking. The muscles in my back and midriff held me upright and helped me catch my balance. I’m no longer obese, and my scrawny girl arms were strong enough to support my weight where I reached out. If this same accident had happened to me 15 or 20 years ago, the outcome might have been different. In fact, I slipped on the stairs and broke my tailbone when I was heavy, aged 24. Now I wonder if I could have avoided it.
One of my resolutions this year is to quit beating myself up on walls and furniture. I have some attention deficit issues, and I tend to move quickly while distracted, resulting in a continuous stream of scrapes and bruises. A few weeks ago, I tripped and fell on our fire pit, which was fortunately no longer hot. I’m trying to build my situational awareness and tune in more to my surroundings, and it’s not something that comes naturally to me. The world inside my head is much more interesting. The physical world outside is like an obstacle course, only with less mud and open flame.
The year I started running, I slipped in the mud on my favorite trail. I skated about a foot and a half, caught my balance, and went on running. I thought what a paradox it was, that I wouldn’t have caught my balance if I hadn’t built this new fitness level, yet I wouldn’t have fallen at all if I had stayed home on the couch. I can hear the clicking of Past Self rolling her eyes right now. Any form of exercise sounded so repugnant to me back then. I wouldn’t have seen any potential benefits to being fit that might be useful during my ordinary routine.
The truth is that I’m probably at about the halfway point of my life. I turned 40 last summer. It’s a watershed. Either I can continue to push myself and see how strong I can get for how many years, or I can diminish and go into my couch. Not everyone has a burning desire to complete an ultramarathon or do a Spartan Race like I do. The thing is, though, that there’s no such thing as maintenance. At this point, I’m fighting entropy. I have to keep moving just to maintain my ability to do things like carry grocery bags or change lightbulbs. Now that lightbulbs last so much longer than they did in my childhood, changing a lightbulb may turn out to be a once-a-decade fitness challenge.
I participated in Ride Your Bike to Work Day for a couple of years in my early 30s. One of those mornings, I stopped at a refreshment booth, and there was a lovely silver fox. She had to be at least 60. She had visible muscle in her thighs and calves, and her posture was much better than mine. I never spoke to her or learned her name, but her image burned into my memory. YES, I thought. THAT’S FOR ME. I had no way to know what she looked like at my age, but that didn’t matter. I figured that if I kept riding my bike (which I didn’t), then eventually I’d stand as straight as this lady. Years later, when I started participating in foot races, I saw many older men and women who were also fitter, stronger, and faster than me. It is humbling to be passed going up a hill by someone who is older than your own grandmother, and wearing a t-shirt to document it.
What falling in the shower has to teach is that we can’t insulate ourselves. Staying home and making a nest on the couch will not protect us from bumps and bruises. In the decade between 2000 and 2009, 28 people died running marathons. In comparison, 20,000 a year die in accidents in the home. Just like I’m safer in an airplane than I am in an automobile, I feel safer during a mud run than I am in my own neighborhood, or my own house. In a race, trained emergency responders and hundreds of witnesses are standing by. At home, in my own bathroom, I have to hope I’m conscious and able to reach my phone.
I was lucky this morning. The bad kind of luck. I happened to stand in just the wrong position with just the right amount of soap and water in the tub. The part about how I arrested my fall using muscle strength? That had nothing whatsoever to do with luck. That had to do with years of activity, focus, planning, determination, and strenuous activity. I’ve come away with a negligible mark on my skin and a renewed commitment to work on my balance, agility, and strength. Probably I should also work on mindfulness, such as reminding myself to buy a bath mat.
Airports are some of the best places to observe all the different ways that people handle crunch times and stress points. Every emotion will be exhibited, from excited laughter to cries of reunion to full-blown temper tantrums. Every mode, from utter boredom to casual routine to scattered panic, will appear somewhere. Airports are really where the benefits of minimalism, time management, and organization pay off.
I like to sit with my husband and people-watch. My outlook changed after I sprained my back and dislocated my hip and one rib around 20 years ago. I went to an osteopath and a chiropractor. I started becoming aware of the posture and gait of everyone I saw. Suddenly it was like cartoon arrows appeared in the air above people’s bodies, pointing directly to the places where they carried the most tension and pain. Weariness, limps, uneven shoulders, shifting from foot to foot, pinched expressions, all spoke to me. It wasn’t difficult to see the way that different weights of bags or styles of footwear contributed to these coping mechanisms. If there is one place where people carry heavy bags while wearing uncomfortable shoes, the airport is that place. Why do we do this to ourselves? Of all the challenges to take on in life, why choose neck or back pain?
We don’t choose it, of course. We usually don’t make all the connections we could be making between our behaviors and our results. What we’re doing when we drag huge heavy bags around is simply trying to bring what we think we need. We don’t just do it when we travel; we do it every day, or at least some of us do. Women are trained to carry purses (and groceries, and diaper bags, and gym bags, and…) Many men carry laptop bags, backpacks, or toolboxes. One man in my acquaintance was carrying around all his important daily items in a paper lunch sack, rather than risk looking effeminate, although I would venture that a man with a beard can probably carry something with hot pink sequins and still be identifiable as a male human. (And if he can’t, who cares? Do what you want, that’s what I say). We spend so much time hunched over our desks and steering wheels, huddled over our electronics, and pinning our tiny flat phones to our shoulders, that it’s tragic when we drag heavy straps around on our shoulders, too. We just stop noticing. We don’t notice how we’re sitting or standing, and we stop noticing what-all we’re carrying.
What’s in my laptop bag today? My laptop, my phone, my Bluetooth earpiece, a spare pair of earbuds in a candy tin, sunglasses, my wallet, a nylon shopping bag, a packet of tissues, a wet wipe, four keys and a whistle, two pads of sticky notes in different sizes and colors, a screen wiper, a packet of brown sugar (oh lord), a backup battery, a connector cable, a penny, a thumb drive, a hair tie, an empty zip-lock baggie, an eraser, two different kinds of paperclip, spot remover, a mechanical pencil, a container of extra leads, three ink pens, a highlighter pen, two business cards, five postage stamps, receipts for sushi and Thai food, a gift card, two lip balms, a tube of hand lotion, a packet of blank index cards shuffled with some writing notes, my Toastmasters books, two bookmarks, a wadded paper napkin, and two separate doodads for holding books open. Oh, and this loose film from the index cards. Ye gads, what a mess. This is why I work out: so I can walk around town dragging my own mini garbage dump. Hawt.
There’s a trick to it, though. I never go anywhere alone unless I can run up a flight of stairs with what I’m carrying and the shoes I have on. I’ve been physically attacked on the street more than once. Being able to flee to safety was… well, it was the kind of reinforcement that will give a permanent habit to anyone. In my experience, screaming and running away are highly effective ways to end a confrontation. Yeah, I carry a lot of junk that I don’t necessarily need on a daily basis. It’s contained, though. When I’m navigating around town, I keep my head up and my eyes scanning around. If it’s dark, I watch my shadow in the streetlights. I. NEVER. MESS. WITH. MY. STUFF. That thing they tell you, about carrying your keys in your hand to use as a weapon? That’s not why we carry our keys. We carry our keys so we’re ready to get inside. We need to open and shut our car doors or front doors as efficiently as possible. Walk up to door, unlock door, open door, go through door, lock door behind you. Click, click, click, click. We can’t afford to have our eyes down while we rummage in our bags. Having hands free can be a matter of life or death.
One night I dropped my keys down an elevator shaft. My phone was locked in my car. That was a rough few hours! Ever since then, I’ve been hyper-aware of where my keys are. I’ve also smashed my phone screen at least six times now, including once when a bicyclist crashed into me and rode off as fast as he could go, looking over his shoulder at me. Anything we habitually carry in our hands IS going to get dropped, smashed, splashed, lost, grabbed, or otherwise impacted by entropy. Look around one day and notice how many people are encumbered by, oh, here’s one: a woman holding her purse, an iced coffee, and a shopping bag, while clenching a wrapped straw between her teeth. We’re juggling sunglasses, keys, drinks, and bags, while texting at the same time. We’re constantly one second away from a spill, an etiquette incident, and a wardrobe malfunction.
Back to the security line at the airport. Part of why those lines are so long is that so few of us are well organized. I like to point out the most obviously experienced travelers, as they lope confidently along, carrying one slack tote bag or deflated backpack. See the flight attendants and pilots as they bustle along at a 3 MPH pace, towing their sleek small wheelie bags. Watch the rest of us, dragging the overstuffed suitcases we had to sit on to zip closed. We’re trying to walk while hunched sideways, the weight of the world on one shoulder, rolling a juggernaut on the other side, dragging our jackets and sweaters unnoticed along the carpet. The time I flew to New Zealand, I had to walk up to my suitcase where it was circling alone on the conveyor belt, with a missing handle, half a bra hanging out, and a bumper sticker on the side reading ‘OVERWEIGHT.’ Yep, that’s me, the girl with the loser luggage. I had to kick it down the concourse until I could find a cart, because it was too big and heavy for me to lift. I had practice from doing the same at LAX, because the missing handle was my own fault. I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you.
I’m a one-bag traveler now. I carry less luggage than my husband, who is twice my size and whose shoes are, too. I’m the one who zips through the pre-check line. I skip the escalators and trot up the stairs, alone, because those stairs are always empty, with my trusty under-seat bag in one hand. What do I need, really? What can I truly not live without during those vanishing moments when I’m away from home? What can I really not substitute, borrow, or buy at my destination? I’ve learned to quit worrying so much about my STUFF and keep my hands free, ready to grapple with whatever life brings me.
Sam Sheridan’s book, The Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse, is the real thing. This is a guy who wants real answers to important questions, and is willing to go to great lengths to get those answers. What do I actually need to know how to do in case of a serious crisis? Will I be able to handle it? Or am I going to vapor-lock at the time I most need to act? Sheridan is not content with idle speculation or ivory tower thought exercises. He goes out and finds experts to train him in various types of combat and survival skills.
People love to talk about what they will do during the “zombie apocalypse.” The Disaster Diaries is full of such scenarios. They are very vivid and surprisingly moving. For instance, Sheridan imagines his wife and child trapped in a car, crying for help. The protector role is motivating for him, and perhaps for many of us who won’t necessarily bother with emergency preparedness for ourselves alone. If we’re not prepared, we become burdens to others. We may find ourselves waiting a long, long time for public services that never arrive. If we are prepared, we can be useful to others. My neighbor is 96, and the guy three doors down from him is 90. It seems legit to me that they might need an extra hand. Planning around vulnerable neighbors helps spur me to plan enough for my own household.
There are three parts to emergency preparedness: the supplies, the skills, and the mindset. Most of us stop before acquiring any of those things. I know from experience that my first reaction under surprise is to stand rooted to the spot and scream uncontrollably. I can’t pretend to myself that I am very good at keeping a cool head during a crisis. I can make up for this ridiculous (yet common) foible by overcompensating in other areas. I have a solid level of confidence in my gear and my fitness level. I know how many hours I can walk and how much I can carry. I know how much food and water I consume under exertion in a given time span. I know I can climb a fence. I know how much I can lift and how fast I can sprint. (Not very). I doubt I would do well in hand-to-hand combat, but I have escaped physical attack a few times when it mattered. Reading a book like The Disaster Diaries helps me fill in a broader schema of the kinds of things it would be helpful to know.
We love to talk about that ol’ zombie apocalypse. I’ve heard people talk about how they would get a flamethrower or a tank. Oh, would you now? From where? Your garage? I like to ask these same people whether they have three days of water stored. Not only do my friends always answer No, they aren’t even sure how much they should have. (A gallon a day per person). They don’t have food, they don’t have first aid kits. They don’t even have extra pet food. Sheridan would probably agree with me that if we like fantasizing so much, we would do well to visualize something both more specific and more practical.
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.