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.
A cocktail dress makes a certain impression, and never so much as when you wear it in the mat room at the gym. We’re having a special training week at my martial arts academy, when we’re encouraged to wear street clothes and practice fighting in real-world conditions. I take this seriously. It’s when I’m wearing evening clothes that I feel the most vulnerable. Exposed skin, tight skirts, and truly stupid shoes: this is stuff I only really feel safe wearing in the company of a group. I figure it will be good for me to train in something a little less comfortable.
Glamor is silly. It’s never ceased to amaze me that people fall for the trick where the plain girl takes off her glasses, shakes out her hair, and suddenly looks gorgeous. Can’t you see her? This is just a costume change. She’s still the same person under all that. Do people really only see cosmetics, clothes, and coiffures? Apparently so. I train with these particular people every day, barefoot, in yoga pants and a t-shirt. I walk in wearing a Lycra dress and a bib necklace, having spent five minutes flat-ironing my hair, and suddenly everyone is flustered. Rather than feeling nervous and constrained by this get-up, I start to feel more confident and stronger.
I’m new at Krav Maga, see. I’m used to being the slowest, clumsiest, and least experienced. Standing in the mat room in my workout clothes, I’m below average. Standing there in my Vegas clothes, I’m elevated into some kind of sultry Bond villain.
We train. Our warmup is twice as long as usual. I do pushups, my necklace clattering on the floor. I do sit-ups, my bike shorts doing exactly what they’d do if I wore them with a shirt instead of a dress. I jog around the room. I jump rope. A large rhinestone flies off. I stuff it down my top, to the consternation of the instructor.
“Or that’ll work,” he says.
What I realize, as I look around the room, is that I’m having an easier time than the students who wore jeans. Men and women both are constantly yanking at their waistlines. Jeans tend to be tight in some places and loose in others, yet not in any ways that are compatible with much jogging, kicking, or rolling around on the floor.
I get a male partner. I feel privileged by this, because we usually self-sort by gender. I’m in the room to learn not to be flustered or triggered by full-body contact, specifically from males. My partner shows his respect by treating me exactly like any other opponent. We straddle each other in full mount and take turns throwing each other around. “Now if you get attacked by anyone who weighs a buck and a quarter, you’ll be prepared.”
Training with men is great, actually. I’ve found it the same in the weight room, on the trail, and now in martial arts. The vast majority of male athletes are delighted to train with women.
I wish my mom
I wish my sister
I hope my daughter
Many men carry a ‘white knight’ image deep inside themselves. They’ve been waiting their entire lives to come to the rescue of a woman in peril. The idea of another man inflicting physical violence on a female is one of the worst things they can think of, something that fills them with intense loathing and disgust. This is why they’re so pleased when we train to defend ourselves. (I’m just as interested in defending myself against an attack from a wild animal, but). When we train together it’s a mutual triumph.
This is part of why I wasn’t surprised when I talked to my husband about my training. I asked him how he felt about me studying martial arts. “Relieved,” he said. RELIEVED. He travels on business, and every time, he worries about me sleeping alone. We practiced together a little, and it was funny to see how he lit up when he realized how quickly I’m improving, especially when I almost kicked him in the forehead. “That was a good one.” I’m just barely good enough that I aimed to miss, and missed. If he’d caught me a week earlier it might not have gone so well.
It’s already working. I’m learning that I can skin my knuckles and not feel it all that much. I’m learning that I can be tossed on the ground and jump back up, giggling and ready for more. I’m learning to stand still and hold the foam targets and brace myself against dozens of kicks and punches. I’m learning to boil away the part of me that freezes in fear. I’m learning to walk tall, knowing that the element of surprise is on my side. Already, if someone comes for me, I’ll have at least a few seconds to create a different destiny for myself. Not today, buddy, not today.
The next time I walk down the street in this particular cocktail dress, I’ll remember how I wore it today. Fifty snap kicks, a hundred palm strikes. Inside the dress I’ll know I still have full range of motion. Now all I have to do is reattach a few rhinestones.
I used to have a bookcase that covered an entire wall of my bedroom. It was made out of wooden crates, boards, and concrete blocks. In earthquake country, it wouldn’t do at all. Most of that bookcase contained books I hadn’t read; I just accumulated them. I bought sacks of books at library book sales. I bought books for a nickel at Goodwill. I brought them home and put them on my rickety shelves, feeling somehow safer and more satisfied to have them there. I would tell people that I felt like something was going to happen, and I was saving these books in case of some unspecified calamity. I never realized that these books wouldn’t save me.
Stuff won’t save you in general.
My people are chronically disorganized. They are almost always compulsive accumulators, bringing stuff home, feeling the impulse first and conjuring a justification afterward. Not all of my people feel a serious emotional attachment to particular objects; there’s just something they get out of the selection process and they prefer the aesthetics of jumble. Getting rid of stuff, any stuff, is a problem because the thought of loss makes them profoundly anxious.
What if I need it? WHAT IF? WHAT IF I NEED IT?
One of the greatest delights for a hoarder is to prove other people wrong about the uselessness of their hoard. If they can, even one time, pull out the perfect object and solve even the most minor problem with it, then the entire collection is vital and necessary. Justification!
There are so many arguments against this, arguments that will fall on deaf ears. The goal and purpose is to be surrounded by stuff. Interacting with stuff fills the hours that would just be stressful if instead one were interacting with people. Churn it, shuffle it, sort it, stroke it, stare at it, tell stories about it, collect it, get more of it. Never let it go.
The thing about my looming sense of approaching catastrophe was that having a bunch of used books couldn’t possibly help. I had this image of myself contentedly reading my way through an apocalypse. Yeah, but... How was this going to help? I couldn’t eat books. I couldn’t use books for transportation. I couldn’t trade books for tools, food, a water filter, or anything else I might need. If there really were some kind of apocalypse, presumably I could loot books on demand. Maybe reading books on disaster preparedness might help, but only if I knew the information cold. Knowledge might help me, but thrift store novels would not.
In most crises, what really helps is money. My people are so deep in scarcity mindset that they tend to believe stuff is more valuable than money. Nobody can take your stuff from you (nor would they want to!) but money seems to go out faster than it comes in. Money goes to your landlord, the auto mechanic, the heat bill, the emergency vet clinic, anywhere other than into an emergency fund. This is part of why broke people sometimes spend money on silly stuff.
The saddest thing is when anxiety plus compulsive accumulation turns into a dangerous firetrap of a home. It’s so common for people to be trapped in their hoarded homes that emergency responders have names for it. People get seriously injured when trying to climb through mountains of stuff to get someone onto a stretcher and into an ambulance. The guilt and shame that this image inspires will tend to cause someone to dig further in, rather than to decide to clear a wider path. The stuff they feel is so integral to their lives, so much a part of their identity, sometimes simply kills them. Crushed, suffocated, burned. Logically, the stuff has to go. Emotionally, the stuff has to stay.
My people tend to be the most deeply attached to clothes, books, holiday decorations, and fabric and craft supplies. Explain to me how a single one of these items could help someone in an emergency? Oh, sure, maybe a raincoat or some thermal underwear. More than fifty shirts, though? A tub of yarn?
Food hoarding is another common problem, a cultural issue that affects even mainstream homes. Food is so cheap and plentiful that most Americans can afford to stack up cases of it. Unfortunately, the cheapest food is also the most useless in a crisis. Cases of soda, chips and snacks, pastry, cookies, candy, breakfast cereal, crackers... We often feel a sense of security from being surrounded by food, not realizing that what would really get us through a crisis would be hot, hearty meals. Dinners. Not snacks. Entire pantries and freezers might be filled with only a few hundred calories of foods like cans of green beans or jars of salsa. We can harness the inner drive to have a burgeoning, full pantry by planning and rotating our food stores more practically.
There are a few material objects that might, in fact, actually save someone. My people almost never own these things, or if they do, they won’t be able to find them. They may never have taken the time to learn to use them or make sure they are still usable, because shopping and churning are always the main goals. Buy it, pet it, stack it. The useful things we can never find are first aid kits, fire extinguishers, and go bags. Whenever I talk about go bags, someone always asks, Tell me what to buy. This isn’t a good enough response. Buying something is never the safest response. It’s information that will save you. It’s running scenarios and teaching yourself how to troubleshoot in an emergency. It’s having a plan and understanding how to adjust it when Plan A fails.
Sometimes, what saves you is no more complicated than a clear path through a room.
The New Superpower for Women, as Steve Kardian would have us know, is intuition. This is a self-defense book, and it’s a particularly good one. The central message is that we are empowered when we can anticipate and avoid crime before it happens. According to the book, one in four women will be assaulted in her lifetime, and I am one of that group. I can vouch for the information in The New Superpower for Women. We need to know this stuff.
Thinking about being assaulted seems like it would be depressing and scary. In reality, it’s a lot like defensive driving. You hope you never need it, and then one night you find yourself skidding sideways in the ice. Time seems to come to a standstill as you pump your brakes and steer into the skid. All the information you ever took in about what to do in that situation suddenly just springs up. Your body takes over. Looking back, you aren’t even sure how you did what you just did, but clearly, you did. Same thing if you’re ever attacked.
It’s not strength or speed, or at least it hasn’t been for me. It’s emotional intelligence. What we’re able to do so well is to read other people’s facial expressions, body language, speech patterns, and behavior. We read these cues and anticipate their mood and intentions. Then, usually, we talk ourselves out of our intuitive sense that something is off, something is wrong. Only later do we remind ourselves that there were several signs, clear signals, if only we had been paying attention. If only we had trusted our own judgment. That’s what Kardian is here to remind us to do.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the copious illustrations. We learn that criminals target victims by their stride, of all things, and there are illustrations demonstrating the types of gait that catch the wrong sort of attention. (Confident and aware is good, trudging and distracted is bad). The New Superpower covers scenarios from walking up to your car to running from an active shooter. This is the kind of thing that gives you an entirely new strategic mindset.
When I took my first self-defense class at age eighteen, the first exercise we all did was to shout “NO!” Would you believe it? None of us did it! Even in the safety of the classroom, even when we were all in A-student mode, not one of the women in the group actually dared to shout the word ‘no.’ Next it turned out that none of us knew how to make a proper fist, much less throw a punch. Those classes may have saved my life, not so much from the moves but because I learned how to evaluate scenarios and anticipate problems before they happened. Most importantly, I learned that it is my duty to incapacitate an attacker, because if he comes after me, he’s probably done it before and he’ll probably do it again to someone else.
What I liked best about this book was the way it addressed mindset. Kardian explains what happens when we put self-defense techniques into practice. He spends a chapter on the physiological responses that we feel in different levels of stressful situation, which basically means that certain moves work more or less well when we’re extremely freaked out. With imagination, we can visualize ourselves in these situations and mentally adjust. Hopefully, we never need any of this information, but when we start driving into that sideways skid on the ice...
We don’t have to be scared. Crime is pretty predictable, really. Walk confidently with your head up, make eye contact with people, and pay attention to your surroundings. (And read The New Superpower for Women, obviously). Even though I’ve been physically attacked, I still travel, even alone, even at night. With a phone and a camera in your hand, you’re more intimidating than you realize. The more of us who are out and about, the more witnesses there are and the safer this world is for everyone.
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.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.