If you have dreams that feel impossible because you’re just too busy, then this is the book for you. The authors of Make Time, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, found time to write this book in the midst of working demanding professional jobs and parenting small children. They focus on research-based and personally tested ways to gain energy and focus. A fun feature of the book is that the two writing partners sometimes have totally different approaches to a similar problem. It’s illustrated, so their cartoon heads debate back and forth.
Highlights are the most valuable and important things we should be doing, and according to Make Time, if we plan each day around a highlight, then everything starts to come together. Highlights should be prioritized by urgency, satisfaction, and joy.
Noticing highlights is a really excellent way to elevate simple things and make them into a bigger part of daily life. For instance, when my husband joined my kickboxing gym, we coincidentally started riding our bikes home together along the beach at sunset. Nothing in either of our schedules said “ROMANTIC SUNSET BIKE RIDE.” It just happened. That part of our route only lasts about ten minutes. Technically it’s a commute. Still a highlight, though, a part of our day that seems somehow much more significant than much of the rest of the day. Someone who was driving home at sunset might not think “saw beautiful sunset every day this week,” though, because driving sucks.
A technique from Make Time that I really liked was to write out a plan for the day, add a column for the “actual” or how it really turned out, and another column for the revised plan. This is a huge help in accounting for the reality of daily interruptions. As an example, I record a podcast five days a week, and I learned through experience when the building landscaper comes by with the weed whacker.
Make Time is such an excellent book. It could easily be shared with a partner or coworker, or maybe even a whole office. It’s full of the kinds of notions that appeal to everyone, yet still feel so productive and business-oriented that there aren’t really any arguments against them. Read it and ask yourself, what are the highlights that you wish you had the time to do, if only you weren’t so tired?
No matter the cultural tradition, this is a time of year when token gifts are exchanged. How fun is that? It’s great if your love language is giving gifts. For the rest of us, it can fall a little flat at best, or disrupt our entire year’s finances at worst. For my people, it’s another major funnel of extra clutter that they find emotionally befuddling. I’ll still be finding gifts in their original gift bags years later, still in their original tissue paper and their original plastic packaging. All this trading of material objects can maybe detract from the real reason we all get together, which is to greet the long, dark winter nights with hope and hospitality. That is why I say, open your unopened gifts, both material and immaterial.
Open the gift bags from last year and the year before. They might come in handy if you get invited to a white elephant exchange. You can reuse the gift wrap, too. They may also put this year’s gifts into context, a handy meter for what is realistic to expect out of a little glitter and plastic.
There is a certain paradox in the holidays, because the more anticipation and excitement there is, the more there can be an emotional letdown when it’s all over. I’ve always thought the big parties should be in midwinter, not near the solstice, because it’s hard knowing there are so many months of horrible weather and darkness still to come. Once all the parties are over and everyone has gone home, there’s nothing but a pile of wrapping paper and trinkets to get us through. Not a few kids will build a reputation for throwing tantrums or openly weeping because they didn’t get their heart’s desire.
A pony. A piano. A Pretty in Pink Barbie. A parrot.
A dirt bike. A rifle. Roller blades. An electric guitar.
Ask anyone of any age, and they’ll recall with perfect clarity the Gift That Got Away. Then ask if they have one now. It’s funny that most of us can afford anything in the range of the budget for a children’s toy, yet we don’t buy these things for ourselves. That’s because it’s not the material object that we really miss. It’s the feeling of innocent hope and fervent wishing, the sparkly feeling of infinite possibility that is continually dashed in the face of cold reality.
The things we did get that didn’t live up to the hype: sea monkeys, x-ray glasses, a supposed all-day lollipop, the triple-scoop ice cream cone that fell on the sidewalk directly outside the ice cream shop.
(As I wrote this, the squirrel that lives outside our front door came too close and my dog ALMOST got him).
How many times have we been fooled by prank gifts? White elephants, oversize boxes and trick packaging designed to hide the modest item inside.
Many of us have mixed feelings about going to holiday parties. Shyness and social anxiety, family dysfunction and trauma, tenuous recovery tested by ever-present intoxicants, the endless aggravation of forced cheer in traffic. Explain why you’re still single. Pretend you’re straight. Act perky about your job hunt. Struggle to cram in every social obligation around the few traditions that actually mean something to you. Stop your cat from eating all those ribbons.
What do we miss? What falls by the wayside because it’s so hard to put into material form?
Storytelling. For every argument or failure of simple tact, there’s an untold story that somebody could have, might have, maybe should have drawn out of someone else. A lot of grumpy people have fascinating stories buried somewhere under all the crankiness. With a little skill and attention, someone could have turned complaining into entertaining.
Connection. When we sit down to write out cards, it can come as a shock to realize that it’s been an entire year since we last reached out to dear friends who live far away. Are we really making the connections and staying engaged with the people we like the best? How long has it been since we even heard each other’s voices? How did those kids get so big? Where did the last five years go?
Neighborliness. In the past, people did a better job of getting to know their neighbors. Gatherings were probably more formal, but the rote phrases and stilted, scripted conversations gave people a framework for how to interact. I started making more of an effort to get to know my neighbors when I realized the man next door was 96. Was anyone looking after him?
The last time. The sad truth is that we never know when it will be the last time we see someone. Could be... could be tonight. There are few regrets as bitter as knowing you could have called someone or gone to see someone, but you let the opportunity pass and later find out it’s too late. One regret that’s worse is knowing that the last time you spoke, you exchanged harsh words and never made up.
Among the unopened gifts, the silly bric-a-brac and the trivial treats, there are others that can’t be shaken out of the wrapper. Those are the simple and timeless human gifts of attention, patience, forgiveness, advanced hospitality, and emotional engagement. Let’s put down our phones and our shiny sacks for a few moments and give a moment to opening our hearts to one another.
If I were ever single again, I think I’d stay that way. The standard that my husband has set has just raised my bar too high. I shudder to think of how much work I’d have to put in to house-train someone new! But he was already a proper grown-up when we met. I don’t think that’s necessarily true of everyone on the dating market. Failing to “adult” properly would certainly explain why at least a certain selection of people are available in the first place... Dating a grown-up is the minimum threshold for a long-term relationship.
It’s different when you’re a student. When you’re young, you expect that almost anyone you meet is going to be flat broke. They probably have at least one roommate, or maybe they’ve never lived on their own. They may not have a vehicle or even know how to drive, although that’s not really a problem now that we have ride-sharing. City people might not even know whether their partner has a license. It’s fairly common for people in their twenties to still be learning how to cook, manage money, and do basic home maintenance. You can focus more on your mutual passions for music, cinema, road trips, sleeping in, and pizza for breakfast.
As time goes by, though, your standards start to change. You start to notice that there’s a dividing line between “person” and “young person.”
This really started to become clear to me as a returning student living in a dorm at age twenty-six. I dated a few younger guys here and there, and there were certain things they all had in common. They all still thought it sounded fun to pull all-nighters just to binge-watch cartoons. They spent their money (when they had any) on collectibles and special-edition t-shirts. They would want to play video games while talking to me on the phone. And, sure, there’s no age limit on any of that stuff. Couple these habits with a general lack of awareness of current events, though, or questions such as When is Tax Time or What City Will I Live in Next Year, and it got complicated. Dating a young person is sort of like going to Brigadoon, a time warp where you never have to think about such future concerns as what’s for dinner or do we have a future together.
Dating a grown-up is a completely different situation. You’ve both accepted the necessity of managing the boring parts of life. You’ve been through the wringer, having roommates move out without paying their rent, getting laid off, being in car accidents, waking up with sick little kids, getting hit with extreme vet bills, ending long-term relationships, and all those other youth-crushers. The fantasy of endless summer is gone. You know that when you see the Bat Signal in the clouds, it’s for you. Time to suit up and go deal with another mess.
The main difference between a grown-up and a young person is accountability. A kid’s instinct is to cry out “NOT ME!” A grown-up grudgingly accepts that just because it’s not my fault doesn’t mean it’s not my problem. We’re not going to try to get out of it, we’re just going to get through it.
Dating a grown-up means someone who shows up when he says he will. Someone who understands what level of emotional availability he has and what commitment means. Someone who plans ahead and has agency over her career, her finances, and her overall life strategy. Someone who generally knows what to do. Someone who is willing to trade off and do a little extra sometimes.
Age doesn’t have as much to do with being a grown-up as it probably should. Certainly I’ve met women my age who have managed to avoid learning anything about personal finance and have never set aside a single nickel toward retirement. I’ve also met men my age who never learned to cook a meal. I had a friend who made it to thirty-six without learning how (or how often) to clean his own bathroom. Not a good look.
I asked my husband if he had anything to add about dating a grown-up. “Drama,” he said. Good point! Drama tends to come from a mix of poor boundaries and emotional volatility. It’s to be distinguished from difficulty; everyone has horrible things happen in life sometimes, but it doesn’t have to be dramatic. Drama can come out of thin air, from outsized emotional reactions to fairly predictable, commonplace events. For instance, dating a grown-up doesn’t tend to involve hours-long conversations about whether we’re breaking up, especially not on a work night. Sometimes you just... break up. Not everybody was destined to be together.
When I think in the abstract about dating a younger guy, I imagine someone who has few practical skills, no real direction in life, no awareness of current events, few opinions, and is ambivalent about commitment in general. A younger guy, in my mind, would have no money and wouldn’t know how to cook. He’d probably have embarrassing taste in music and would still be going through the rogue facial hair stage. Meh. What would we talk about? How would I explain him to my friends and family?
A man my age who was dating a younger woman would be... kind of a cliche. Same issues though! A young person with no established career who might have no idea what part of the country she wants to live in, whether she wants kids, or what she’ll be doing in ten years. You’re either on one side of the river or the other. It’s hard to think long-term with someone who cognitively has no long term yet.
Give me a grown-up. Give me a man who knows what to do in a crisis. Give me someone I can count on to hold his end up, to understand and accept his responsibilities. Give me a complex person with nuanced opinions and a developed career. Save me from ever having to deal with a young person’s drama and confusion, other than as a patient yet distanced role model. Give me a grown-up, someone who knows how to be a true partner.
He kicked me in the stomach. Then he did it again. It was part of the exercise, after all. I put on the belly pad, which I have to strap over my hips to keep it in place because it’s so big. Or, rather, because I’m so small, which is what most people would conclude after seeing my husband partnered with me to practice push kicks. Nowhere, in no martial art, would you see us paired off in a ring together, several rungs apart in weight class.
We’re paired off in rings together, but they call that one a “marital” art.
It was one thing when my lawfully wedded spouse joined my martial arts school. It was quite another when he leveled up and joined my advanced class, doing in six weeks what took me six months.
At first it was cute. I knew all the instructors and their training styles, I got to introduce him around to my friends, give him a tour, and teach him about the different equipment. For the first time in our thirteen-year friendship, I was the experienced one in the trainer role. I admit I was digging it.
Then he started catching up to me, as I expected he would. I just didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. In recovery from herniated disks, we both assumed he would proceed slowly, with perhaps some setbacks and a lot of ice. Much to both our surprise, the strenuous warmups seemed to speed his progress. He still avoids Krav Maga, due to the bending and twisting, but I anticipate he’ll be in there within the year.
Picture a sine wave. Now overlay a cosine. That would be our physical states. I spent the first half of the year getting stronger and stronger, only to get sick just after I joined advanced classes. I’ve been struggling to get back in action, since the class is about three times harder than the beginner class. Every time I would feel well enough to start training again, I would push too hard too soon and find myself coughing in bed again. Meanwhile my hubby, who had been out of commission for nearly a year with severe back pain, was regaining mobility and strength by the day and feeling very pleased about it.
He started doing double-ups. Morning and evening classes on Fridays followed by Saturday morning class. He’d ride his bike home and bring hot tea for me to drink in my nest of blankets.
The balance of power shifted.
“You have the baton,” I said. We have a joke about this. For whatever reason, we rarely seem to be in sync on our fitness goals. Recall the months I spent training for my marathon while he went on a diet, and I resorted to hiding Nutter Butters in my office closet. I’m half his size and that summer I was eating twice his daily calories. I had the token ring, and I passed it off after I developed a repetitive stress injury in my ankle.
If we waited for a time when neither of us was hobbling around, we might as well just give up, climb into a pair of recliners, and float out to sea.
By some miracle, we found ourselves synchronized, in the same class at the same time and doing the same thing.
I wasn’t feeling all that great. I really only showed up because I’d promised to bring my man a clean workout shirt. I’d also hurriedly scarfed my thousand-calorie dinner right before jumping on my bike. In my boxing gloves and belly pad, I felt like a potato volcano about to happen. Just my luck that we’d be taking turns kicking our partners in the navel tonight.
“Turn down the heat, would you,” I asked plaintively. Calibrating is a challenge. It’s like when you feed each other the wedding cake and half your family wants you to smear it all over each other’s faces the way they did back in the Seventies. (The Steve Martin/Gallagher wedding). We were both going to wind up covered in... um... potato if this kept up.
The teacher wandered over to see what we were doing. We had a substitute instructor that night, a visitor from the other school, and he didn’t know either of us. “We’re married,” I explained, and he nodded. Ahh, that explains it.
Two alphas, face to face and sparring. Again, in no other sport would we be paired off, a lightweight and a super heavyweight. Here we were, and I had to remind myself that this whole thing was my idea.
That’s right! This WAS my idea! This is MY school! This is MY sport! I OUTRANK YOU!
It was my turn to kick.
I had no compunctions, knowing that 1. My husband likes this sort of thing; 2. He is physically massive and fights like a locomotive; 3. Laws of physics apply; 4. I wasn’t exactly at my peak strength; and 5. He signed the waiver. I started putting my hip into it.
“THIS is for making me bring you your shirt! And THIS is because I had to do laundry today! And THIS is for making your dinner! And THIS is because there’s still a dirty pan on the stove!”
At this point he was laughing so hard he could barely stand upright.
I chased him around the mat room, kicking out a litany of minor and stupid grievances. He snickered and snorted, utterly unable to keep a straight face.
When in doubt, resort to comedy.
At the end of the session, all the students lined up. My husband and I faced each other and bowed. We rode our bikes home together, along the beach under the moonlight, our little bit of romance, two kickboxers in love.
It wasn’t until I nearly missed my flight home for Thanksgiving that I realized something important, something deep in my character. “You call yourself organized,” I lectured myself, looking at my textbook-sized day planner, “and you almost missed your flight.” My desire to feel “organized” often leads me to do things that actually CAUSE the problems that make me feel DISorganized. I was missing something fundamental and obvious, something that other people seemed to do effortlessly. This is when I had my bright idea.
The very next day, I pulled out my return tickets and my calendar, and I told myself a story.
The story itself doesn’t matter so much as the format. “You’re going to [DO THIS] because [OF THIS REASON] and then [THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN].”
I walked myself backward, step by step, through my upcoming Monday morning. Vivid in my mind was the major ramification of being late: MISSING MY FLIGHT! Pain! Sorrow! Long lines! Wasted money! I needed to estimate the time each segment of my trip would take: to the gate from security, through security from drop-off, to drop-off from my parents’ house. How long would it take me to get ready?
Hang on, this is relevant to tasks as well as event planning. Do you see why yet? Because you shouldn’t be doing tasks unless they are useful to you in some way. If something is useful for you to do for yourself, then you’ll want to do it by a specific time. If it isn’t time-bound, then you’ll want to do it in relation to some result that matters to you. This is why we work backward. We want the intended result to happen and we want to do the things that lead to that result. Often, when we start with an “organized” “to-do list,” we wind up doing things efficiently that have nothing to do with our intended results.
That’s why I was able to feel so “organized” even as I arrived at the airport forty minutes late and nearly missed my flight.
My careful one-bag packing, checking the weather report, coordinating my clothes and footwear, selecting books to read, menu-planning with four other people, doing laundry, clearing my desk, and cleaning house were all great things to do. They all tragically missed the real point, which was to GET ON THE PLANE ON TIME.
I caught my flight (read: made my cherished goal) by accident, unfairly and undeservedly. This was a negative result because it had the potential to teach incorrect lessons and reinforce destructive behaviors. Namely: being a derpy derp.
A flaw is a flaw everywhere. My tendency to space out and ignore important details, losing track of the main point, is a flaw in everything I do. That’s why this matters. It hurts me, myself. It also usually ripples out and annoys other people, damaging their trust and staining my reputation. Ultimately, though, why would I annoy my own self? Why would I keep doing things to myself that I hate?
This, then, is the bedrock, the foundation of the problem. Being “disorganized” means perpetually annoying myself. “Getting organized” means doing the relentless root cause analysis and taking the corrective action. Find the flaw and shake it until all its withered little poison fruits shake loose.
When I look at a clock time, say: 10:10, it means nothing to me. It’s just a series of numbers and punctuation marks. I can’t possibly care less. I’ve tried both analog and digital clocks with the same effects. I don’t work well in the time dimension. Those symbols are not real to me.
When I arrange it as a story problem, suddenly it clicks into place. “Once upon a time there was a charming young derpy derp who got to the airport late and missed her flight. Because it was a busy holiday weekend, she was not able to get another seat until Saturday. She missed Thanksgiving dinner. It was her only chance all year to see her nephew, and by the time she arrived, he had already gone home. Instead of the nine-person dinner party she’d anticipated for months, her favorite people in all the world, only three were still free to get together. And all the pie was gone.”
Now, when I do my planning, I see the face of my sweet nephew, surrounded by my family, arranged at the table one by one. This is my motivation. My reason for spending an extra ten minutes making my schedule is a human reason. I want to be with someone who is important to me, and I don’t want to let him down. Or any of the others. Or let myself down.
This is how to turn an ordinary to-do list into a story problem. Who will be affected by my inaction or procrastination? Who will be disappointed if I don’t follow through? Who will have to cover for me, even with everything else that’s going on in their life right now? Conversely, how will they feel if I pull through? How will everyone react if I do everything I said I would do, on time or early?
My next-level planning revolves around a more familiar face, derpy though it is, and that face is my own. What expression will I have when I realize that, despite my planning, I’m still so late that I won’t get any breakfast? That I’ll have to wait four hours to have anything to eat? SAD FACE! I estimate how long it will take me to order food and plug that into my story.
That’s the personal level of the story problem. How will I myself feel if I screw this up? What will I miss out on if I skate through with only the vaguest of intentions and no specifics? How embarrassed will I be if I put in a significant amount of effort on something, only to blow it at the last minute because I forgot a major detail?
I wrote a story to myself and put it in my reminders. First, I set an alarm with the label: “Order a Lyft by 8:00 or you won’t get any breakfast!” Bone-chilling. Then, I set an alert for my reminder story. It went like this: “This morning you’re going to go to PDX and get breakfast. You’ll land in Sacramento and have about an hour to get a burrito. Then you’ll fly to LAX and head home.” Following were two more sentences about what I had to do after I got home, reminding me of some preparations I could take during my flight and while I hung around at the airport.
It worked! I ordered the Lyft on time, I got to the airport on time, I had quite a nice breakfast, and three hours later I also had quite a nice lunch. I didn’t have to sprint, not even once. Not only that, I helped two different people by noticing something they had dropped and picking it up for them. My attention was where it needed to be.
There’s a productivity technique called “interstitial journaling.” It involves pausing between tasks and meetings to write notes about what you are thinking, what decisions you need to make, and why you are doing what you are doing. Something like “I need to eat dinner early tonight if I want to make it to class on time” or “I’m going to get a nagging email if I don’t submit this report by Tuesday.” This is similar to the narrative to-do list that I’m describing. If clock times and schedules don’t work well for you, as they don’t for me, then maybe this will help. If to-do lists never seem to get you anywhere, again, maybe this will work better for you.
“Once upon a time there was a faithful reader who saw a great blog post. A big lightbulb went on. Suddenly it was so obvious that a bunch of things on that musty, dusty old to-do list could just be removed and never thought of again! Suddenly it was so clear and simple: what to do next and why.”
Make two columns. On the right-hand side, write the things you enjoy the most. In my case, that would be sleeping in, hanging around in my pajamas reading and playing with my phone, playing board games with my family, and cooking and eating legendary meals. Now, in the left-hand column, write the things you find most annoying. In my case, again, those would be driving in traffic, looking for parking, waiting in line, being accosted by aggressive kiosk salespeople, going outside in cold and wet weather, having to smell a mix of strong perfumes, and leaf blowers. All but one of those are included in the typical Black Friday shopping trip. By a bizarre coincidence, I can avoid them AND indulge in my favorite things AT THE SAME TIME just by staying home!
That’s what I’m going to do, and I’m not going to stop there. I’ve already begun my annual shopping sabbatical, and it will continue until the New Year.
There are a lot of reasons for this, and I keep adding more to my list every year. My sabbatical keeps getting longer and longer as well.
One, I despise feeling pressured to shop or spend money or buy things. I find it rude. No, you’re not going to tell me how to spend my time. No, you’re not going to tell me what colors I’ll be wearing for the next few months. No, you’re not going to succeed by using peer pressure to make me act or dress or eat or spend in a certain way. Cretins.
Two, I loathe Christmas music with every fiber of my being. I can’t even begin to say how much it drives me up the wall. Every year, stores start playing it earlier and earlier, and every year, as soon as I notice, I shrug and write off that store until January. I always ask, and they always say the directive comes down from corporate. I’ve tweeted or emailed Starbucks and Barnes & Noble about this, and Whole Foods is next. SCHTAAAAAAAPPP!
WHY should a one-day holiday (or give it twelve per tradition) be “celebrated” for two months or more every year? Why? If you want to do it at home, go right on ahead. Festoon your entire house in tinsel, wear green and red stripes, play carols on your headphones every single day, knock yourself out. But do you really need every inch of public space to do it as well?
Ahem. Back to my list.
Three, I work with clutter and chronic disorganization, and it just breaks my heart that this time of year always sets my people back so much. On one hand, they have all the stress and anxiety of upending their finances to try to buy appropriate gifts for everyone on their list. Compulsive accumulators have a lot of trouble setting boundaries around this behavior, and this season pushes all their buttons like nothing else. Also, they find themselves paralyzed by the thought of letting go of gifts, even if they were totally anonymous and unsuitable. I always find unopened gift bags among the unopened shopping bags. Everything will still be in the wrapper with all the tags still on, often three or four years later. We passed what should have been Peak Holiday Madness at least a decade ago and it doesn’t get any easier for my crowd.
Four, my family usually eats Thanksgiving dinner on Friday instead of Thursday. Like many families, at least one person works on the holiday and we’ve done it this way since the Eighties. What, we’re going to skip one of our few chances to play Scrabble together just to fight traffic in the rain? Just to save a hundred bucks? My family Thanksgiving Friday is worth a lot more than a hundred dollars to me.
Five, my husband and I have financial goals, and for a variety of reasons, doing a bunch of shopping and exchanging a lot of gifts does not fit in with them. We live in a studio apartment, so where are we going to put a bunch of extra stuff? We’ve also done pretty well with saving 40% of our income and trying to get ahead on our retirement strategy. No amount of sales or coupons is going to take priority over our carefully agreed-upon plans.
Six, it’s just a good idea to build breaks into the schedule. That should be every day, every week, and of course every year. I like to take a couple of weeks and sort through our entire place to take inventory. Every drawer, every cupboard, every closet, every pocket. What do we have, and why? Do we need to fix or replace anything? Is there anything we actually do need? (Earlier this year, one of our sets of sheets basically disintegrated after five years of heavy use). We go through our account statements and compare our plans to our actuals, meaning we want to make sure the reality of our spending matches what we wanted it to be. This is how we get better at financial forecasting every year, how we’re able to save so much, and how we’re able to plan great vacations. An extra $25 a week translates to a nice chunk of change in the annual vacation envelope!
Seven, my position is that New Year’s Eve is the best holiday of the year. My favorite day is New Year’s Day, when my entire home is clean and organized, all my loops are closed from the previous year, and I have a fresh start for a fresh year. December is my precious planning period, the time I use to think and daydream and envision how I can make the biggest splash with my one and only lifetime.
Rather than finishing off the year in a frenzy of shopping, driving, parking, waiting in line, cooking, cleaning, gift-wrapping, hosting, eating, and spending, I prefer something else. Winter is traditionally a time to wind down, get more sleep, and prepare for the year ahead. Of course I’ll still visit people, and do some holiday cooking, and of course I’ll always do my annual cleaning rituals. But I refuse to have my holiday and family time dictated by advertisers and major corporate brands.
Times have changed, am I right? At some point twenty years into the future, everyone will have a precision individually calibrated dial-up 3D-printed custom food puck to accommodate every possible food intolerance. Either that, or the food itself will be genetically modified to eliminate allergies, and those who are afraid of GMOs will be reduced to foraging for acorns in the forest. (Acorns, because no strategy will ever stop squirrels from interfering with the propagation process. Except - GMO squirrels?). Today, though, we have the era we have. That’s an era when food isn’t food, it’s a symbol. When nutrition isn’t a science, it’s an ideology. When a menu isn’t a menu, it’s a minefield. Food is the new secular faith, and if you’re doing any kind of holiday meal, you’ve surely become aware of this trend. It’s time to feed your weirdos.
Cards on the table. I’ve been vegan for over twenty years and vegetarian for twenty-five. Back in the early Nineties, there weren’t really any other major dietary trends that reached pop culture awareness. At that time, the only people who had really ever heard the word ‘vegan’ tended to be waiters or cooks. I’d get stuff like, “Oh, you should have told me you were veggie, I would have made you a tuna fish sandwich.” I found myself on the front lines of food trends, because people would ask me if I [ate wheat, read X book, had heard of Dr. So-and-So, knew their auntie]. These days, I can barely keep track of it all, and I’m only one of many.
One year, I had to redo my entire menu because someone in my circle wasn’t eating potatoes.
POTATOES, I am a person of Irish heritage, so I ask of you...
I’ve worked around people who will not or cannot eat:
Gluten, of course
Fruit and sugar together
Naturally, dairy, eggs, fish, other meats
It’s funny when the lightbulb goes on over the head of an otherwise-omnivore who has a serious food allergy to a food that I avoid as a matter of course. Suddenly they realize that if I’m eating it, it’s safe for them. If I brought it, they can trust that it’s dairy-free. (My husband is one of these, someone who is just tired of being brought to his knees by conventional food that makes him ill). I try to build trust with my friends that I get it. I get what it’s like to have to scour every ingredient list, to check the ingredients OF the ingredients. I get what it’s like to feel embattled and alone, pressured by people who truly don’t care what I eat, but simply enjoy teasing and poking and prodding at anyone who stands out for any reason.
There are separate and distinct groups out there. I don’t just mean the Paleo crowd, the gluten-free crowd, that sort of thing. I mean there is a group of people who have been driven to the fringes by mysterious health issues. Then there’s a group of people who are natural optimizers, who like to experiment and collect data. Then there are ideologues like myself and some of the Paleo peeps. We do what we do for different reasons, different internal motivations. What we have in common is that we are done with the societal expectation that everyone should eat the same thing at group meals.
This is rough on everyone else.
It’s rough for a lot of reasons. One, every deviation from a standard group menu takes extra time and concentration. It is an imposition on the host, on the cook, on the resources of the kitchen. I say that with love because I AM that imposition and I am also that cook and that hostess. Two, these diets have complicated guidelines, to the point that it can feel like a graduate-level seminar just to understand the ground rules. Three, every single one of our beloved and cherished alternative diets is more expensive than the standard. Nobody says, “Oh, I’m on the ramen and spotty bananas diet.” Not everyone can afford to cover it! It’s very awkward to bring up. Four, the more of us there are, the more complex it gets.
Another thing that I hesitate to bring up is that we’re on the overlap between food taboos and lifestyle, between purity and preference.
What I mean by that is that all it takes is one individual who is still in the learning or experimental stage, who occasionally takes a bite of something off-plan, to spoil the image of that group’s requirements for everyone.
I’ve (more than once, I tell you I have) put together a complete gluten-free menu, from main course to dessert, for a single guest who has clinical dietary requirements. Off to the side, a separate main course and a loaf of conventional wheat bread for everyone else, because hey, GF is expensive and sometimes not thrilling for the rest of us. Then we sit there and watch as the GF person, who has just eaten a full four-course meal, goes in and starts eating the totally not-okay clearly labeled bread off the other counter. But that makes you sick! Don’t do it! “Oh, sometimes I give in.”
Look, I tried. I’ll continue to try. Because it’s not a matter of personal perfection or religious compliance or scientific consistency. It’s a matter of choice and taste. Even if the person does have a serious health issue, it still falls under the category of “my friend likes it this way.” Why would I not do what I can for someone I like, a guest at my table?
My niece complained that I put onions in the Mexican casserole. Normally I would tell the parent of a whiny six-year-old to make the kid a sandwich and we’ll try again when they’re a year older. That time, I considered her question and made the executive decision to quit putting the onions in that dish. The rest of us can just add chunky salsa. Less work for me.
A pair of squirrels live in the tree outside our front door. They’re habituated, chubby city squirrels and they come up and ask for handouts. They have let us know in no uncertain terms that they appreciate almonds, walnuts, and unsweetened dried cranberries, but they do not care for pumpkin seeds. The nerve of these chubsters, I tell ya. Guess what. I give them the walnuts. I do it because it’s more fun as a host to smile over a satisfied guest who plans to come back.
As a guest, I’m out to make friends. True, I’m not going to have a very strong friendship with someone who mocks my choices, tries to trick or pressure me into eating stuff, or questions my lifestyle. I’m like this every day, you know. I’m not pretending just to annoy you tonight. When I go to a social occasion with people I don’t already know, my goal is to be as low-maintenance as possible. I usually bring an emergency sandwich in my bag, and it’s my job not to be famished or fainting with hunger when I arrive. I will change the subject if it comes up, because a party is not the place to talk about my weird lifestyle. It’s not about me, or if it is, my diet is the very least part of me that I’d want to share with new friends. I hate being remembered as “that person.”
On the other hand, I want my guests to feel, when they come to my home, that they’ve been taken care of. That I paid attention and anticipated their needs. That I take them seriously. That if they want their name spelled out in pine nuts, I tried to use the right font. If someone ever got sick from eating at my table, I’d throw myself off a bridge. With this one lifetime that I have, I aspire to magnanimity as a host, to an elevated level of welcome that might transform a few hours of life for my guests and friends.
Feed your weirdos. If nothing else, it’s a chance to learn something new, an experience that makes for a good story. If I’m right, it’s also the wave of the future.
Dating a broke guy is a highly underrated strategy for romance. The state of broke-ness is usually temporary, part of a life transition that will be much improved when the situation is resolved. It’s an opportunity to find out a lot about someone’s character. If you like him when he’s broke and going through a rough time, you’ll probably like him even more when things are back to normal. There are numerous other advantages. Maybe you’re dating a broke guy right now, and you haven’t even realized what a lucky time this is.
Being broke is not in itself a desirable trait. It can be the result of some bad things, and sometimes the result of bad choices. Say, if someone embezzled money from work and got caught, or is deep in addiction to gambling or whatever. Then it depends completely on this person’s commitment to inner work. If someone is suffering as a result of harmful behavior, won’t admit it, won’t accept accountability, and refuses to change, well then... Money isn’t the problem.
Think of these types of problems whenever your crush is going through a tough time. It can help you both to keep your perspective.
Being broke might be the result of positive change, too. For instance, anyone in school is probably poor as heck. Starting a business, remodeling a house, or having small children are also positive changes that tend to impact the wallet. Maybe this guy is a big dreamer who plans ahead and works hard. Maybe he’s willing to make smart sacrifices in the short term for big gains later on. This is the ideal scenario. Meeting someone at this stage of life is like finding a major bargain on sale. Jump up and grab it while you can.
Sometimes someone is broke due to temporary difficulty, like divorce or short-term disability. This can involve a lot of stress and emotional pain. The hidden gift in this kind of situation is that you get the chance to see this man at his lowest ebb. If you still like him when he’s at his worst, then everything will be so much better when he gets his feet under him again. The added value here is that he can learn to trust your friendship and loyalty when he needs you the most. He’ll be more open with you in easier times.
Being broke can also be a mutual decision. I write about this quite a bit, as my hubby and I are midway through a temporary downsizing move into a studio apartment. We save 40% of our income, something it would be really hard to do in a typical suburban house with one or two vehicles. Two adults and two pets in a 612-square-foot apartment with one closet and no bedroom door! Acting broke when you are not in fact actually broke is very different. We know we have insurance and savings and investments and an income stream. We have paradoxically more options. We can knock ourselves out on vacation. Other luxuries become accessible. As an example, I just bought a set of thousand-thread-count sheets on closeout for $45. We’ve been wallowing in them in a way we never would, just by spending an extra $10,000 a year in rent on a more normal-sized residence.
In my twenties, I pretty much only dated broke guys because that is the natural state of people in their twenties. I was impressed if my date showed up in a car that he owned, even if he had to start it with a screwdriver. I was impressed if my date lived on his own, even if he had four roommates. My friends and I spent a lot of time in those days doing free and fun stuff that people in their thirties and older usually stop doing altogether. Sitting on the floor playing cards or board games for hours, lip-syncing and dancing to songs on the radio, peeling oranges and talking the day away, going on picnics, wandering the bookstore. All we had in those days was time. Now we all have money but we never have the time for those endless afternoons of leisure anymore.
A broke guy will do things to impress his new girlfriend that a financially prosperous guy might never think to try. An hour-long massage? Check. Breakfast in bed? Anything for you. Mix tapes? Mmhmm. If you like him and you’re good to him, a broke guy won’t believe his incredible luck in meeting someone like you. A guy with money and a career may be complacent, or simply too busy to give you much thought.
Single men often complain that women only care about money, that we’ll always go for the guy with the better job or the nicer car. I honestly think that is false. From my perspective, what’s important in an adult person is a feeling of drive, purpose, and engagement. In SOMETHING. Usually that happens to be a career. Ideally, our work is the biggest contribution we can make with our energy and focus. If that happens to generate cash flow, fantastic. Often the process of discovering that outlet and earning the appropriate credentials includes a brief period of financial strain. This is why it can be so much fun to date a student, someone who will eat a sandwich on a park bench with you while genuinely engaging in lengthy discussions about anything and everything. Interesting people don’t always have any money and having money in itself is usually not very interesting.
I happened to meet my husband at a time when we both were at a low financial ebb. It was a bonding experience, the exact thing that made us friends. We used to sit around on our lunch break at work talking about all our money problems. One day we looked up and realized that everyone we knew assumed we were dating. Why was that?? Hmm. Now that I think about it, it’s probably because MARRIED people spend a lot of time sitting around and talking about money problems! Becoming friends when we didn’t have any money helped us to trust each other and listen to each other’s advice. It also gave us plenty of free things to do for fun. That’s why we’re able to save so much money together without feeling dissatisfied and frustrated.
Something important I would really like to say about money is that it’s simply a form of energy, a metric for tracking how we are doing in certain areas of life. There’s absolutely no reason to rely on a man for prosperity or financial comforts. Go after them and get them for yourself. Maybe your broke guy is simply not an ambitious person. Maybe he’ll be delighted to cheer you on and give you emotional support while you chase your own dreams of success. Maybe you earn all the income and he meets you in other ways. Looking at financial partnership in this way would probably resolve a lot of quarrels and create a lot of dazzlingly successful marriages. Choose your romances based on how much you like each other and how well you get along, and let the money part be more or less irrelevant.
I’m vegan and my husband is not. More to the point, my parents are now also vegan and his are... not. As a passionate cook, I have planned menus around a million different food preferences, and it’s all the same to me. I want my friends to be happy and have a great meal. Unfortunately, most people don’t feel this way. They feel threatened or, at best, annoyed when anyone eats differently than they do. Let me share what I’ve learned over the past quarter-century.
First off, I often find that other people’s food preferences are dumb, gross, selfish, unscientific, or expensive. I’m sure other people feel much the same way about mine. Social occasions are about having a good time together and getting to know each other better, and maybe even practicing our skills of patience, compassion, and negotiation. It shouldn’t be about the food, unless we are all chanting YUMMMMMM in unison.
It’s none of my business how other people choose to eat, just as it is none of their business how I do.
Almost everyone has an EWW, YUCK food that they would not eat for a million dollars. That’s fine. I believe in free will. I also believe that people should tactfully avoid what they don’t want to eat without talking about it so much. Can we just avoid expressions of disgust altogether? The worst offenders here are parents who let their kids go on for pages, monologuing about the rancid, putrefying atrocity of an abomination that anyone would dare put in the same room as them. Please, at the bare minimum pay your children off to quit talking about what they think is gross. I. Do. Not. Care.
It always gets me, though, that it’s totally fine and socially acceptable, encouraged even, for people to talk about how much they hate Brussels sprouts, or sweet potatoes, or cauliflower, or if they ask for their dressing on the side. Yet if I don’t want cheese on my food, I’m evil and I have a militant political agenda. False. It is my right as a consumer to buy and eat what I want, and to not buy and not eat what I do not want. Forcing your guests to eat something is not being a host, it’s being a bully. Hospitality means putting your guests’ comfort first even when they piss you off.
I cook a lot of gluten-free food for my friends, even though I can and do eat wheat at every opportunity. Guess what? I can still eat GF and so can the other guests. (Soup, salad, vegetable and grain sides, maybe cornbread, many desserts). I often know a lot more about deciphering lists of ingredients and avoiding cross-contamination than my guests do, because I may well have been scouring labels since before they were born. Vegans and GF people are natural allies. About 2% of the population is likely gluten-sensitive. About ten times more than that seem to think they are, when really their issue is likely to be yeast or fructan, which they would only find out if they went in and got themselves clinically tested. That, again, is none of my business, but I can only help if I come across as an ally.
How do my husband and I handle our different diets? As it turns out, even though he occasionally eats meat, he is about 90% vegan. Unlike me, he has a serious allergy to dairy foods; he’s gotten violently ill from eating a chocolate chip cookie that had a little butter. It’s a relief to him to know that when he eats with my family, he won’t be sick later. When we eat with my family, my parents always ask around and try to round up some turkey for him, which he finds embarrassing and unnecessary, although believe me, every single house in that zip code would happily donate a plate of turkey for the hostage over there at the vegan house. When we eat with his family, we bring a “holiday roast” that I can sneak into the oven while he is making his justifiably famous mashed potatoes.
We both eat: mashed potatoes, rolls, cornbread, cranberry sauce, all vegetables, most beverages, pie (if it’s done right), and almost all snacks. The difference is that I like squash and he doesn’t.
There’s a really weird double standard around guesting and hosting as a vegan. As a guest, everyone expects me to EAT WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS EATING, because otherwise it would insult my host and I would be rude. YET, as a host, I’m expected to SERVE MY GUESTS WHAT THEY LIKE TO EAT, because as a host I am required to put my guests first. So which is it? If the host should give the guests what they prefer, then I would have to 1. Have meat catered to my guests while I 2. Sit back and enjoy the sumptuous vegan feasts that my hosts put out when I come over. If the guests should eat what is put in front of them, then I would have to 1. Politely hide my portion of carcass under a napkin and 2. Serve my own guests tempeh and kale while laughing maniacally. There can’t be a rule where only I am expected to conform in every situation, because that is a double standard.
Notice that everything I eat is included on the Venn diagram of what everyone else eats. That’s why my meat-eating husband has been able to survive sharing meals with me for thirteen years. I’m an excellent cook. I know how to choose crowd-pleasing dishes and I always laugh quietly when my potluck contribution vanishes. I do have friends who have brought bags of fast food to my table, people who utterly refuse to touch a single bite of what I make, and that’s fine. I expect those same friends to be equally tolerant when I show up at their place with a microwaveable enchilada or pot pie in my bag.
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t want to convert anyone. They’d just screw it up and then complain that there’s something wrong with the lifestyle, rather than their mediocre-to-poor application. About 80% of people who try being vegan eventually quit. Therefore, it’s backward to try to pull anyone over the line to my side. I say, “You eat what you eat, and I eat what I eat.” I hate when the topic comes up, because I loathe debates and I refuse to argue. I’ll tell people, “If you can come up with a vegan joke I’ve never heard, I’ll pay you a dollar.” My approach seems to work, because I have indeed converted a few people over the years, including my parents and two ex-boyfriends (years after we split up). It generally takes at least three years of exposure to a radical new idea before people start to feel genuinely curious about it.
My food is expensive and often of a higher culinary order, because I love cooking and I’ve tested hundreds of recipes. I don’t really want to share, especially when my dish (you know, the dinner I had to bring for myself) vanishes and there’s nothing left on the table that meets my guidelines. You’ll see this at every office pizza party, when the veggie pizza goes first and all that’s left is the congealed fright-pie of pepperoni. Thanks for nothing.
Ultimately, the one thing we know does not work is for one person to try to force another person to change their food preferences. We start developing our tastes before we’re even born, as, for example, babies from cultures that eat very spicy food start to build a tolerance before they are weaned. There is nothing harder to change than an eating habit. It’s also a tribal identifier, and that’s why people can be so belligerent and awful about hazing anyone who won’t eat from the communal table. They feel like it makes us untrustworthy, selfish, spoiled, and rude. (Just as I often feel bullied, pressured, ridiculed, or even tricked or lied to). Let’s do what we can to focus on the conversation and group fun, not the mechanical aspects of getting everyone fed.
Where did this year go? Holiday decorations are already out, my day planner is almost fully consumed, and suddenly it’s time to get ready for Thanksgiving. This is an ideal time to start preparing, whether you are traveling or hosting. By ‘preparing’ I mean emotionally as well as structurally. Do a little each day, and make it easier on yourself when the big day comes.
One of the first things to do is to clarify your expectations. This can be tough because the marketing is always about togetherness and terrific food, yet the reality can be more like bare-knuckle boxing in front of a turkey-shaped bonfire. My personal tendency is to want to spend a full month planning the menu, a week meticulously detailing my house with a toothbrush and cotton swabs, and three days of cooking. Then I wind up stressing myself out so much that I have to go sit in a closet for a while before I can finish making the dessert.
This is one of the surprising advantages of living in a studio apartment. Absolutely nobody expects or wants you to host the dinner.
Holidays are the time to practice your utmost negotiation and mediation skills. It’s the fakery that makes it difficult, both pretending that everything is going to be “perfect” this time when you know it can never be, and pretending to get along with people who insist on stomping on your last nerve. Be real, at least with yourself, and certainly with your partner. Set those boundaries well in advance.
Emotional boundaries, acceptable behavior, that’s what we’re talking about. It’s your job to collect your relatives when they misbehave, and it’s your partner’s job to collect theirs. If either one of you takes your family’s side over that of your partner, well, that’s wrong. You have to stand up for each other. Or, you shouldn’t have to, but if it must be done, do it quickly and do it clearly. You want to stamp that sort of thing out before it has a chance to spread to future years.
Now is the time to practice diversionary techniques. Changing the subject is a last-ditch response to problematic conversation topics. It’s possible to stop that kind of trouble before it starts by planning around it. Play games, fill the schedule with non-sensitive topics, and shamelessly exploit any children or pets for their inherent cute factor.
I’m extraordinarily lucky with my family. Not only can we all talk politics together, but it’s often a conversation that makes us feel closer. Better than that, we have compatible food preferences. We can trust each other not to try to sneak in any dishonest ingredients. This makes it that much less fun, though, when I wind up visiting with anyone else who 1. lives to quarrel and/or 2. thinks it’s funny to trick people into eating things that make them ill. Dude, don’t take other people’s food issues personally; it’s not about you.
Here are some techniques I use to avoid explosive conversations and food battles:
Nobody is entitled to my opinion and I don’t owe anyone a debate on any topic, whether that’s what phone I use, whether I should supposedly follow a sportsball team, or what route would be optimal for my journey home, much less broader current events or social issues. I am fully, fully prepared to stand up for myself and give anyone the tongue-lashing of a lifetime, but when I’m at someone else’s party, I will do anything to efface myself and preserve harmony. Say it with me: a holiday party is not a debate. A HOLIDAY PARTY IS NOT A DEBATE.
Of course, politics isn’t the only emotional minefield. The holidays are a great time for bringing up grievances and old war wounds. I just say, “I agree,” and “you’re right” and “I’m sorry, I wish I hadn’t done that.” In a pinch, offer to go to group therapy with them and ask if they want you to schedule it on Monday.
If you’re hosting and you’re freaking out about getting your house ready, take a breath and plan now.
If I were doing it again in a standard-sized suburban house, I would focus one day on the dining room, one day on the living room, one day on the bathroom, and one day on the kitchen. Then I’d make myself stop and switch my focus to the shopping and prep work. I always do as much as possible in the two days before, whether that’s making stock, measuring ingredients, or washing and chopping vegetables. Then I think about how I can coast for a few days on my nice clean place and my fridge full of yummy leftovers.
Ultimately, Thanksgiving is a predictable event. That’s what people like about it. You probably know who will be there, how they will behave, what sorts of conversations they’ll bring up, and what they will or will not eat. After the day, you can go back to normal life. Try to make the most of it, because in its ideal form, this really is the perfect day for taking group photos, eating pie, and of course putting olives on your fingertips.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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