I got pitched again. “Will... you be my mentor?” This is sweet, and flattering, and problematic for a bunch of reasons. For one, I have four current protégés, four slices and only one pie. I’ve also lost two in the past year or two. Mentoring is something I take very seriously, and that’s why I feel it incumbent upon me to share how easy it is to mess up.
For starters, maybe have more than two conversations with me before asking me to commit to a long-term relationship with you?
You’re right to pick me. I started doing this years ago, and it’s a formal couples project for my husband and me. Our young ones (now grown) have gotten dream jobs and internships, won grants, traveled the world, relocated, gotten fit, won promotions, and we’ve even married a few of them off. Personally I’m proudest of the happy marriages, because those are the hardest to do properly. We’re proud of all of them, though, because the important thing isn’t the dream, it’s having the dream.
Now that I’m working more with adults than with young people, the dreams tend to be different, but they’re still dreams and thus they operate within a standard framework. Win a competition, become a professional public speaker, get a promotion, get a raise and a bonus, pay off a bunch of debt, those are the easy ones. Weight loss and chronic pain management are intermediate and ‘stop hoarding’ is advanced.
See that it’s not the nature of the project under discussion. It’s how you approach it. Choosing a mentor is the tiniest piece, just a faster way to get to where you want to be.
What I’m looking for is a kind-hearted and honest person who is willing to get to work, eager to listen, and suitable to introduce to other people. I have one strict rule, and that is that anyone in my circle has to get along with everyone else in my circle. Cause problems with my friends, colleagues, or guests, and you are automatically disqualified.
I dropped a prospect for sending angry emails in ALL CAPS. That might seem extreme, but I later witnessed her having an altercation in a business setting. She doesn’t know she got dropped, and she may never figure out why things are so comparatively difficult for her.
Using the word ‘idiot’ or ‘moron’ also immediately moves someone to my probation list. It’s not quite an auto-fail, but I do see it as a major red flag.
Swearing is fine; in fact it’s encouraged, as long as we’re in a casual setting.
Naysaying is probably the most important thing that one of my protégés needs to understand. Most people do it reflexively and they’ll never stop. My people need to be receptive to working on this habit, because the entire point of working with me is to learn possibility thinking.
“That’ll never work!” “Prove it.”
I have a prospect who is burning through chances right now. She needs a job, and she happens to have a lot of experience in a field with which I am well acquainted. I set up a lunch with her and she canceled while we were already waiting for her at the table. I invited her to a meeting with the director of a company that would probably hire her on the spot. She didn’t come.
From my perspective and that of my friends with hiring authority, new acquaintances are assets. If I can offer them a qualified candidate, I’ve done them a solid and they’ll remember it. I’m not asking them for a favor, I’m giving them a gift. The door is wide open and there’s a little gift bag on the other side with your name on it. Smile and walk through the door. You’re welcome.
That’s why it’s so frustrating and puzzling when people inevitably stand around outside the door, like a cat that can’t make up its mind. Do I really want to go in there? Am I sure? Maybe I’d rather be a giraffe farmer.
This person who keeps blowing her shots always has some reason. One time it was an audition, and she actually got the job, but it was a one-day gig. The rest of the time it turns out to be childcare. I’m sympathetic, but what are you going to do for childcare after you get the job? What did you do while you were working at your last job? This is not a problem I can solve for you, but it is a problem that you have to figure out if you’re going to make your life easier. Find a sitter for two hours, go to the interview, get the job, collect paychecks, problem solved.
If you have a problem that can be solved with money, go after that money!
“I can’t make it.” Okay, then suggest to me another time or another format that would work for you. Do you want to try a video conference? Type an interview over Skype? Send over your portfolio or your resume? What, nothing?
If you’re going to stop at the first obstacle, you’re going to be standing in a tennis court surrounded by little green balls that you never lobbed back.
I made something absolutely crazy happen a few months back. I was riding in a Lyft with a chatty driver, and because I love storytelling, I got him going. It turned out that his sister ran a big charity event, a bulldog race. I immediately texted my friend who has Frenchies to tell her about it, and she said she wanted to go but she thought the deadline passed. I got the driver to give me his sister’s personal phone number! (Of course I told him why I wanted it).
Did my friend text or call to ask to get her dog into the race? NO SHE DID NOT.
They could have made friends. My friend could have networked herself into the charity. Think of all the dog friends her dog could have made!
She might also have won $15,000, but who’s counting.
Passing along opportunities is like a game of Hot Potato. You bounce it back and forth and get it off your hands as soon as possible. This comes from a deep recognition of what an opportunity looks like, even if it’s one that you yourself would never want.
Naturally I’ll continue to pass along opportunities to my bulldog-loving friend, if they come my way. I won’t extend myself quite as far to make them happen, though.
The truth is that almost every time, a person presented with an opportunity will pass. That’s because we like the feeling of having lots of options, but we’re violently allergic to actually deciding and choosing them. That would require change, and change is what we can’t stand. We hate uncertainty, and that unwillingness to be in the Place of Uncertainty is the exact thing that keeps us from our supposed dreams.
That’s the main reason that I lose protégés and drop prospects. They change their minds and decide that they didn’t really want what they originally said they wanted. You mean I got you an interview with a paleontologist with a PhD, and you didn’t make the connection because only just this moment you lost interest in the field??
This is why there are so many gates in the business world. We start feeling burned after extending so many opportunities to people who lost interest or changed their minds. There has to be a way to filter out the tire-kickers and the looky-loos. Show us you’re serious.
Okay, so here’s how to annoy your mentor.
Flake out, fail to show up, fail to follow through.
Ignore suggestions, even easy ones such as checking out a website, reading an article, or applying for a gig.
Keep asking the same question.
Give lengthy explanations as to why you can’t do something.
Try to get the highest-level possible mentor in the room when you aren’t ready, and even the most junior person could easily answer 90% of your questions.
Make major decisions that change your circumstances without mentioning it. You don’t report to me or answer to me, but wouldn’t you want to know if I could save you some hassle or help you avoid a costly mistake?
Allow persistent problems to hold you back, such as bad wi-fi or lack of transportation. Unless you want that to be your condition for the rest of your life, figure it out. If you can’t figure it out, ask everyone you know for advice and follow that advice.
Balk at trivial amounts of money. I used to clean my friends’ bathrooms when I needed $20 or $50 or $100 for something. If you don’t have $65 for a conference, find seven people who will pay you $10 for something, or four people who will pay you $20. Or ask me and I’ll shake down some odd jobs for you.
Ask for my free time on evenings or weekends (1) and then flake out or cancel (2).
I don’t care if you doubt me or disagree with me. I don’t care if you work with additional mentors - the more the merrier! Although do consider introducing us. What I do care about is whether you understand what you’re asking when you ask me to be your mentor, and that you commit to your dream and to living up to your own standards for yourself.
Neighborhood gossip time!
I have a neighbor, an intriguing figure who is rarely around. My hubby and I talked about her and immediately decided, She’s single on purpose. She’s a professional model, a sweet-natured young single mom. Her kid is nice - our parrot loves her. We sometimes walk dogs together and chat casually.
This is Southern California. Naturally we have neighbors who are personal trainers, former professional athletes, and models. Thank goodness we’re middle-aged and have the good sense not to take this personally.
So we’re all hanging out in the hot tub, and a group of men gets in. A couple of them are senior guys, friendly and interesting but not in our age range. One of them is ludicrously good-looking. I mean, shut up and get out of here, that’s a hologram, right?
They leave after a while, and the gossip goes on.
I mention him and refer to him as “the hot guy.”
“That’s what we call him!” she cries. “The Hot Guy!”
What’s the story here?
Okay, we have two extremely attractive, smart, funny, and kind-hearted single parents. They like each other.
Their kids like each other.
Each kid likes the other adult.
They hang out.
Why aren’t they dating?
“Oh, we’re just friends.”
THIS, this is exactly what keeps happening and why none of the single women I meet are in a happy relationship.
I talked to two single gals, one an old friend and the other her road-trip buddy. How did you do it, they want to know. How can we have a marriage like yours?
You don’t want what I have, I said. Yes we do, they said.
No, you don’t. You both travel around the world for your jobs. How are you going to date someone? Either you’d have to give up traveling to be with him, or you’d have to find him work in the same city as you every time you change contracts, or you would both travel and you’d always be on different continents. BY DEFINITION you don’t want and can’t have what I have.
What all these women have in common is that they’re emotionally hooked on the pursuer/distancer dynamic.
That’s fine, except that it is the relationship style most likely to lead to divorce.
I don’t think people recognize this when they’re in it.
The trouble with the friend-marriage is that it starts by dating someone you see as “just a friend.”
This is not the same as the supposed “friend zone” phenomenon, in which one person is interested exclusively in a sexual relationship and fakes a friendship while waiting for a chance. Built into that model is inherent disrespect. I know you don’t feel that way about me, but. I know what’s best for you and I will change your mind, I’ll wear you down. This “relationship” is goal-oriented and you are my target.
This is not that.
Your romance should be like your other relationships in most respects. If you’re friends with a wide range of people, from your work buddies to your neighbors to your dental hygienist to your high school friend’s mom, then you’ll understand this. You like each other, you enjoy talking to each other, you find each other’s stories interesting, and you make each other laugh.
Why would you want a love match that was any different?
What I told my model friend is to picture yourself on your most boring day. Your default. That’s marriage. Almost all the time, you’re just hanging around, messing with your phones, doing chores and running errands. If your romance doesn’t fit into your ordinary life, then it won’t last.
Your marriage has to be a friendship or it can’t possibly survive, because you’ll annoy each other too much.
For whatever reason, most women and many men seem only to be attracted to the sort of person they can’t be friends with. We want someone sexy, and that means mysterious.
Look, I get it, I’ve done it too. When I was young I dashed my hopes against the rocks many times. Filled my poetry notebook with sad verses about musicians, poets, and boys who dumped me. It wasn’t until I was nearly thirty that I finally figured out why the other party always broke up with me first:
I wanted to extract emotions from the other person, even though he didn’t feel them
I thought of “the relationship” as a separate entity
I assumed the boy wanted the same things that I wanted, or that he would if only I could convince him
I fell for his “potential” - not his behavior today
I read between the lines, convincing myself that even though he said one thing, he really meant something else
I spent a lot of time guessing what he might be thinking or what he might do, incorrectly
I focused on superficial things about him, such as his taste in music, clothing style, or hair
I assumed that if he was into something that bored me, he would stop in favor of hanging out with me, effectively trading his main interests and hobbies for... talking to me
Ditto with friends I thought he would cancel if I didn’t hit it off with them
Finally I quit all of that, and I started vetting my relationships differently. I started to realize that what I needed was someone I liked and respected, someone who was fun to talk to, not some mystery poet. That’s why I decided to give my current husband a chance. I realized that if we could have fun together going to the grocery store and making dinner, then this thing could work.
Thirteen years later, it still seems to be working!
I explained to my friends, including the single mom/model, the difference between the five styles of marriage. I talked about the friendship marriage, which is the most successful, and how it feels. No more of this “wait until I meet some random mysterious stranger” nonsense. Turn to your left, turn to your right, and notice the friend who really gets you and likes you for who you are.
Then I heard that my model friend, the Hot Guy, and their kids are having dinner together, on a weeknight.
The Lone Matchmaker strikes again.
Heh heh heh.
I’ve been having some oral surgery lately, so that’s fun. You can sort of expect it as part of your standard midlife crisis package. A little fear of mortality, some financial dread, and a happy little root canal to round it all out.
Actually, it wasn’t all that bad.
I wish I’d known that going in. ‘Root canal’ is right up there with ‘audit’ and ‘summons’ on the list of Things to Avoid, definitely above ‘going to the DMV.’ Legendary. I can tell you right now, root canals are overrated.
Based on my experience, it was much like getting any other filling. You open your mouth, and then they put in a tennis racket, a toaster oven, and a monkey wrench, it smells like burning, and then you’re pretty much done.
All joking aside, I have some strategies about dentistry that I think really helped me get through a potentially rough situation with comparative ease.
My mom taught me to never annoy anyone who puts sharp things in your mouth. She believes that if you’re late to your appointments or otherwise high-maintenance, medical professionals will take it out on you during your visit. I think she has a point. My whole family went to the same dentist starting when he first graduated from dental school, with his wife as his receptionist. He’s retired now! In our world, dentist = family.
My current dentist grew up in the same small town as my husband, and they’re both hundreds of miles from home. We were quick to capitalize on that sentimental attachment. We always talk about hometown news, the scenery, the weather, etc. Therefore when he’s looking into our mouths it gives him waves of nostalgia.
If it weren’t that, it would be something else. If you’re going to spend hours with someone during your lifetime, especially if they’re wrist-deep in your face, might as well make friends.
I trade book recommendations with one of the dental hygienists and give investment advice to another, who wants to become financially independent. When I show up, at least three people pop their heads out to say hello.
A few years back, I had a different dentist in a different region, and he of course had a different staff. There, we all talked about bicycling. One of that crew regularly destroys me at Words With Friends several years later.
Okay, wait, what does all this have to do with getting a root canal again?
The point is that someone who has warm and friendly feelings toward you is going to give that extra 5% of care. ‘Care’ is their profession, but carING comes from the heart. The only way to make someone genuinely care about you is to show caring toward them first. Give what you wish to receive.
Thus, I walk into the endodontist’s office with feelings of curiosity, awe, respect, and gratitude.
Do you know much about traditional, premodern dentistry?
For that matter, do you know much about 1960’s dentistry??
I made a few observations and jokes during my exam, with the theme of “wow, this is such a fascinating and cutting-edge field.” It really was a remarkably shiny, new office full of cool tech, and as someone who hangs out with a lot of engineers, I was impressed. I follow the corollary of ‘if you don't have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” which is:
IF YOU HAVE SOMETHING NICE TO SAY, SAY IT!
I commented that most people throughout history didn’t have access to dentistry, and how lucky I feel that I get to keep my beautiful precious tooth.
“In the past, you would have been standing on my chest with a pair of pliers!” (Probably true)
“Hand me that drill and let’s see what happens.”
The endodontist paused and looked at me. Then he said:
And we were friends.
During the exam, it looked like I would need a root canal in one tooth plus surgery for the resorption on that one AND a second tooth. Worst case scenario, the tooth couldn’t be fixed and I would need either an implant or a bridge.
I came back for the root canal. It turned out he was able to save the tooth AND do such a tidy job that I wouldn’t need the additional surgery.
Let’s pause on that.
This is going to save me significant pain and also a lot of money. We’re already a thousand dollars into this process, and that’s just copays. I’d rather spend that money on vacation, but when I compare it to the cost of an implant, I feel like throwing a block party with a live band.
When I compare any of that to the very vivid image of walking around with a big hole where my molar used to be, I want to kiss this man’s feet.
A 44-year-old woman at most points in the past would look and feel elderly. A big part of that would be her failing teeth. Imagine the shocking pain of gradually having your teeth rot out of your head throughout your adult life. Wild animals starve when they grow old because they lose teeth and aren’t able to chew their food. Horrors!
I feel such tenderness and adoration toward my tooth, I want it to stay with me always and be my tooth forever and ever. Also all the other ones.
Can I say this? I got a root canal, and it didn’t really hurt, not even the shots. After the Novocain wore off, it didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t even take the Advil that was recommended. They warned me it would be sore, but it isn’t really.
There are always multiple ways to look at a situation. (They often say “two” but that is very lazy accounting). One way is to ask, Why does all this stuff always happen to me? Boring. Another way is to be scared and anxious, and that’s relatable. There are undoubtedly other ways. I chose my own way.
I chose to go into a scary situation, something I’d heard a lot about, and bring curiosity and a positive attitude. It worked the same way it did when I had a tax dispute with the IRS. It was totally fine and interesting, and everyone involved was nice, friendly, professional, and efficient.
I went to the endodontist and got a root canal. My positive feelings helped me relax and build mutual trust and respect with the staff. I was treated well. The experience was relatively quick and painless and had great results. I went home on time and cooked dinner for some friends, who were amused at how challenging it is to drink water when half your mouth is numb. It was fine.
Doesn’t it just make you want your own happy little root canal?
Would anything have been different if I had known sooner?
I went to a destination wedding with my family. I was about to turn thirty. I was painfully single, at least as broke as I had ever been, and recovering from an illness in which I temporarily lost half my lung capacity. As I sat in a rental car with five relatives, it felt like I had nothing going for me.
Little did I know, in exactly three months I would meet the man who would become my second husband.
I had no way to know that not only would I get my breathing back, I would eventually go on to run a marathon.
I couldn’t really imagine it at the time, but I would also pay off my student loans one day. My credit limit on one card would be higher than my loans ever were.
I didn’t even know that I would one day live with my little love, my gray parrot Noelle.
I couldn’t see three months into the future. It just felt like one day after another, the same the same the same, with this little blip of the family vacation. I felt like I would always be broke and single and ill.
This is why I wonder what would be different, if I had known what was coming.
If I’d known I would eventually be debt-free, would it have helped me sleep better at night?
If I’d known I would get my health back, and fairly soon, would I have started working out sooner? Would I have started losing weight sooner? Today I understand that having an extra thirty-five pounds on my chest wasn’t doing my lungs any favors, but I didn’t then. I would have been shocked and angry if anyone had suggested it. If I had seen the future, would I have taken action?
If I’d known I would meet a future husband in only three months, would I have felt less lonely? Would I have skipped the handful of painful blind dates? Would I have avoided dating the couple of guys I dated in between?
What would I have done? What would I have done with the time that I spent crying at night? The time that I spent writing hundreds of pages in my journal, trying to wring something out of my existential pain?
There were a few things I did that worked very well. These were things I did for myself, comforting actions born of optimism. These things helped set me up when I did embark on the relationship that became my second marriage.
The first of these optimistic actions, the one that mattered the most, was to pay down my debt. My frugality and focus on building financial security helped me to feel stronger and more confident. It also turned out to be the single factor that my hubby found most attractive! For anyone over 35, every decade that goes by makes this even more important.
Any marriage-minded person has to take into account the question: Did I save enough for TWO retirements and can I afford to pay off someone else’s debt as well?
(Hint: probably not)
The second thing I did for myself that paid off in my future relationship was to fight for my health. When my hubby and I met, we were both... well, to put it bluntly, we were both fat, broke, and angry at our exes. In other words, we were on the same emotional wavelength. Getting fit together helped to build our friendship. I was trying to get both lungs back and he was recovering from herniated disks in his spine. Two wildly different problems both helped by increasing mobility and cardio endurance, and dropping body fat.
Now we spend our vacations walking 8-10 miles a day, climbing multiple staircases, and backpacking into wild areas. Old Us couldn’t have had this kind of fun, either alone or together.
The third thing I did for myself when I was single and lonely was to prioritize domestic contentment. This is by no means the only type of love and romance in the world, but it’s a pretty darn good one. I had my own apartment again for the first time since I was 19, and I definitely made the most of it! When I signed the lease and got the keys, I showed my landlords the door, shut it behind them, and started doing the Sound of Music twirl through all the (four) rooms. I believe I even rolled around on the carpet and kicked my feet.
What attracts a friendly kind of romance is that confidence and domestic contentment. If you don’t like your life, why would anyone else? If you aren’t happy by yourself, how could you be happy with anyone else? Domestic contentment is the radical act of taking responsibility for your own happiness. Guess what? Having a partner means that your happiness is still just as much your own personal obligation and responsibility as it was when you were alone. You can’t outsource it, you can’t delegate it, and you can’t abdicate either.
Three months from the click, the main emotional commitment I had made was a solemn belief in poverty, illness, loneliness, and misery. All I thought I had was myself and I didn’t even want me.
Three months from the click, I had a travel disaster. I wound up spending the night in a downtown hotel that I couldn’t afford. A kindly desk clerk shifted a few things and got me a half-price room. In the room that night, at the end of my trip, I soaked in the bathtub for two hours. I made myself the internal commitment that I would do whatever it took to improve my situation. I couldn’t know just how much better things would be in three months. As a matter of fact, everything got at least ten times worse shortly afterward! It wasn’t certainty in a brighter future that brought me that future. It was nothing more or less than a blind commitment to work at it. To keep my head up and to keep trying.
The question that arises out of all this is, if I could see three months into the future (or three years, or thirty), what would I do differently today? Am I doing everything that I know I can to move me in that direction?
Understanding love languages is wonderful. It’s especially wonderful when it leads us to reach out to others in ways that truly mean something to them. It’s possible, though, that even love languages have a dark side.
For the record, I’m a Quality Time person. The obvious dark side to this is that I don’t see the point of perfunctory daily check-ins. People whom I consider to be close friends may not hear from me for a year. If they’re also Quality Time people, they may be fine with that. I’m pretty sure I’ve lost friends who had expected more from me.
Really, though, does anybody really want to see someone else every single day??
“What’s new with you?” “Nothing, absolutely nothing.”
I happen to be really, really good at Words of Praise. For me it’s effortless to give out a glow-up and only slightly more work to write a letter of reference. One of our protégés just got his dream job after eleven years of preparation, and I’m sure my recommendation letter helped seal the deal. These are great things. On the other hand, I personally dislike words of praise aimed at myself. It makes me uncomfortable at best and feels slimy at worst.
This is what made me start to think that there are certain problems with love languages.
There seems to be a vulnerability to people whose prime love language is Words of Praise. A skilled manipulator can take advantage of this trait. Out of all the love languages, this one seems to come from the deepest hunger. Young people seem to be more susceptible to the desire for praise and validation.
Talk is cheap, though! I keep hearing from young people who genuinely believed an interviewer or landlord’s promise to “get in touch” or whatever formulaic “please leave now” phrase they used. Weeks later, this poor person will still be hanging on to a thread of hope. No amount of circumstantial evidence will convince this person that what they really heard was a brush-off. It’s worse in the dating world, although there’s nothing more like dating than a job hunt.
What are this person’s actions saying? Does the reality of their behavior match the words that have come out of their mouth?
Gifts are, in my opinion, even worse. Anyone can give someone something. In my work with clutter and organizing, I’ve seen several “gift closets.” These are common features of upper-middle-class homes. Someone will buy a bunch of generic items like candles, wine, lotion, and trinkets, then wrap them and attach a temporary label with the contents. It’s the opposite of personal. Also in my work with clutter, I find homes filled with gifts still in their original bags. An emotional attachment is created around the gift-giving occasion, even though the recipient doesn’t like the item and even though their main issue in life is having 10x too much stuff.
It’s more common than not that the same family that constantly criticizes my client for hoarding will be the same family that constantly brings over generic or inappropriate gifts. The next step is to suss out whether the gift is being used and ask after it. I WANT YOU TO WANT THIS. Grateful or else!
As far as gift clutter, in my professional opinion it is often a method of emotional control. It can also be a sort of pressure valve. A compulsive accumulator who has already filled (her) own house can then use gift purchases as an excuse to continue a recreational shopping habit. Not only that. Hoarders tend to see other people’s homes as part of their own territory. (Family, tenants, maybe friends, possibly neighbors). They believe that they have a perfect right to pack other people’s rooms with their personal belongings, and once they get one item in the door, they’ll keep going until they’re forced to stop. It’s not that they want to give someone a gift so much as that they became attached to some item they saw, and they want it around where they can admire it for their own personal reasons.
One day, maybe there will be a program for AR goggles that allows my compulsive accumulators to wander among hologram versions of every cool item they ever saw. They can virtually wander tight aisles and goat paths between giant haystacks of clutter bags, when in reality their rooms are safe and clean.
Touch is another potentially problematic love language. I’m a hugger, I’ll just put that out there in case you haven’t seen me in my FREE HUGS t-shirt, and I’ve misinterpreted signals and given inappropriate hugs before. Once in dance class, my partner meant to swing me out in the waltz, and when he threw his arm out, I read it as “BIG HUG” and rushed in for an embrace. That was a quarter-century ago, so hopefully he’s over the awkwardness by now. Not sure I am! Out of all the love languages, touch is the one with the worst consequences when mishandled.
There could be rings for this. That’s what I think. Like a wedding ring. Huggers could wear a special ring, and anyone who isn’t wearing the hugging ring would be automatically hands-off.
Acts of Service would seem to be the hardest to mess up, but that’s the whole problem with the dark side of love languages. We can’t assume that we know what other people will appreciate. We have to communicate and we have to be willing to take NO or NOT RIGHT NOW or NOT LIKE THAT for an answer.
I’m a big Acts of Service person, and I’ve been told off for doing something small like wiping down someone’s countertop. Left to my own devices, if I stayed over at someone’s place, I would probably wind up cleaning their entire house top to bottom while on the phone or finishing a chapter in my audio book. Nothing personal; I probably wouldn’t fully realize I was doing it. Note: people do not like this! I finally understood what it was like when my in-laws came to stay, and pruned our roses and replaced the air filter in our furnace. Without asking. Thanks guys!
Another issue with Acts of Service is that people who are not on that wavelength will accept the effort without reciprocating. No amount of chore-doing can buy someone’s gratitude or affection, any more than any other misapplied love language.
I’ve found that I prefer to be the giver, and that I’m happier focusing on my own loving gestures than on wishing and hoping for the perfect form of affection to meet my standards. It’s nobody else’s job to read our minds or get our preferences exactly right. The best we can do is to communicate clearly and treat others the way they say they wish to be treated.
The concept of an inheritance is, I think, becoming dated and antiquated. It’s something of a Baby Boomer thing. Those of us who are younger probably understand that the world works differently now. Still, it’s worth talking about. There is a vague dream of a someday inheritance, a financial windfall, that will somehow eliminate all our problems. This is not just a dangerous illusion, but an illusion that can poison ambition and domestic contentment. Kill your inheritance, and kill it in self-defense.
Now, it’s a good thing to think of a legacy in non-material terms. We can be proud of what we’ve inherited from our family when it comes to values and character traits. Hospitality, sense of humor, frugality, ingenuity, a gift for storytelling, grit and fortitude, these are the sort of gifts we should be proud to carry on. This kind of gift is non-zero-sum, meaning it never runs out. The more you share, the larger it grows. You can roll it out and make enough room for spouses, kids, and friends.
All of that goes completely out of the window when we start talking about money, real estate, and material goods.
In my work with clutter, I have seen it over and over again. People will quit talking to each other over a photo album, a single ring, some old furniture, or a stupid teacup. Unbelievable. You’re saying you’d TRADE your blood relation for a piece of scrap that wouldn’t sell for fifty dollars in a pawn shop? A lot of this stuff couldn’t be sold for a bent nickel.
The problem is that grief makes people temporarily insane. It’s understandable. With time and some healing, we’re sometimes able to get enough emotional distance that we can recognize our own irrationality from our own mourning periods. Not likely in the heat of the moment, though. Whatever it is about the old, I dunno, the old 8-track player or the blurry slides from 1958, it seems to activate everyone’s feelings of thwarted power and desire from earliest childhood. GIMME! It’s MINE! Like fighting over the last popsicle.
Then we get to the house and the money. That sweet, sweet munnah.
Back in the bad old days, the land was almost the only thing a family owned. Material goods were expensive and hard to make, and people had very little in terms of clothes, furniture, and housewares. Property went to the oldest son, and the rest of the family had to make do or beg for a place at the table. Imagine being an unmarried adult daughter and having to wheedle your big brother for a chance to stay on and do all the cooking and laundry, because it was that or panhandle in the road.
Then property started to be divided between descendants. Probably more fair, but fast-forward a couple of generations. The first block is divided between four kids. Then they each divide their share between their five or six kids. Then each of those grandchildren has eleven or twelve grandchildren. It doesn’t take long before the tiny slivers that are left are too small to support a family. Or the global economy changes in response to technological advancement, and the world moves on. But somewhere inside all of us is a glimmer of ancestral memory, when our family several generations back were higher in the societal pecking order.
Those photo albums and rings and teacups and old furnishings remind us of a vanished time, a time that we partly believe is our true place.
I have copies of old family pictures from the Civil War through the Victorian era. Look, they’re wearing suits, and fancy hats, and dresses with bustles! Never mind that they probably owned only one or two changes of clothes. I DESERVE.
Some of that genteel feeling, we could easily get back. We could get it by hand-tailoring our clothes in our own living rooms, the way earlier generations did. We could get it by speaking more formally, using appropriate terms of address and ritual politeness formulas. “Good day to you, sir.” It’s not money that they had, so much as stricter rules for social decorum. We’d probably find it unbearably stuffy and restrictive. Personally, I prefer modernity with its electronics, egalitarianism, and endless options.
One of the most dramatic changes of our era is our incredible longevity. Human lifespan has basically doubled in the last century, certainly within the last two hundred years. I’m forty-three and it wouldn’t have been at all uncommon for a woman my age to be gone already. Now it’s not uncommon for a woman to still be up and doing at eighty-six, double the age I am today.
What this means is that our old structure of “inheritance” is going to have to change, the same way the way we think of “retirement” has to change. It was different when the retirement age was sixty-five and most people died by sixty-three. Now a lifetime’s savings and investments will be needed for the next twenty or thirty years of life. A house that would have lasted thirty years, enough time for a young family to grow up and for the owners to age properly, will now be worn out and needing major repairs just in time for that retirement. Buy a house at 35, and at 65, guess what? It’s going to need a new roof, all the appliances are going to wear out, maybe even the foundation, plumbing, wiring, windows, and floors will need to be redone.
How will there be any money left for the adult children after funding the retirement needs of advancing longevity? How can someone fund such a long retirement, working 30 or 35 years to pay to retire for 20 or 30 years or more? How could it be done at all, much less debt-free? How could it be done in perfect health, much less after funding decades of ill health, medications, medical appliances, and surgeries?
If anything, these trends are going to be even more pronounced over the next few decades. At some point, the finance industry will figure out a way to rig new mortgages and consumer debt loads. Individuals will adjust their expectations for their personal longevity, how old they want to be when they give up on their physical health, and how they intend to pay for their retirement. Family arrangements will start to look markedly different. We’ll probably move back to having multiple generations under one roof, and in that case, an “inheritance” might just look like redecorating a bedroom so the sixties-aged kids can move back in to assume caretaking responsibilities, for their eighties-aged parents and their grandparents who are still here as centenarians.
Expecting an inheritance, according to research, tends to lead to more debt and less career success. Today’s reality is that whatever investment money and home equity are there, will most likely be consumed by the daily living expenses of unprecedented old age. This is fantastic, if you actually love your relatives and cherish having more time with them. It’s a bummer, if you’ve always had this lingering hope that they’d shuffle off this mortal coil and leave you enough to pay off your credit cards.
I’m very fortunate to have young parents. They’re still working, and I’m middle-aged, well aware that I need to plan for my own old age. When I “retire,” they may still be spry enough that we can go on vacation together. All I want for them is that they have enough saved to take care of themselves and preserve their independence as long as possible. The inheritance that I desire is a legacy of strength and savvy, and perhaps the secret to a seventy-year marriage.
Life Admin is a wonderfully clarifying book about where the heck all our time goes. In my case, it’s blocking spam phone calls and unsubscribing from email to which I never subscribed in the first place. Elizabeth Emens gives us a new framework for discussing how we divide work in our personal, business, social, and academic lives. Reading this book should cause a lot of heads to pop up amid a chorus of voices calling, “Same!”
What is life admin? Some people call it ‘administrivia.’ Emens provides a Venn diagram showing how it overlaps with chores and childcare. We’re talking about things like managing schedules, making appointments, filling out forms, handling finances and insurance paperwork, planning parties and travel, and knowing where everything is. For some reason, almost all of this work seems to be invisible, and thus people task each other with it all the time.
I don’t think I’ve gone a single day in the last fifteen years without at least one person emailing, texting, calling, DMing, or asking me in person to research something they could have Googled all by themselves. (In less time!) Send me a link, plan my trip, give me a recommendation, be my uncompensated accountability coach. They don’t even realize that just asking me these questions impacts my mental bandwidth as a writer, nor could they have any idea that they rank among dozens who see me as their private unpaid secretary in this sense. To the endless list of life admin I might add ‘making decisions.’ Almost everyone on Earth wants to outsource this to someone, anyone else.
Life Admin is the armor we need to start fending off these demands, to start making this work more visible and valued. I’m considering making a keyboard shortcut for my phone that says “I will do this for you if you first donate $5 to charity:water” and see how many people (probably 100%) snippily write back “never mind.”
Most people probably have a bigger issue with negotiating life admin at home than they do between friends. Emens gives reasons for this, for instance that a landlord might only contact one roommate about repairs even if there are four adults living in the house. A lot of the division of life admin is accidental and arbitrary. It can also be hard to categorize, or to tally up the work when it consists of a variety of dozens of recurring tasks that might take one minute or might take all week.
The fact that life admin involves a lot more than the distribution of household chores has always been clear in my marriage, because I was an administrative assistant when I met my husband. We talk about it in terms of ‘mental bandwidth’ and we formally negotiate it during our weekly status meeting. He books airline tickets and hotel rooms while I plan our activities on the trip. He pays most of the bills, sorts the mail, and does the taxes, while I’m the one who deals with maintenance people. He does most of the repair jobs while I handle most of the mending and weird stains. He does the grocery shopping, I do the laundry. Over our decade of marriage, we’ve passed some of these jobs back and forth. The responsibilities seem to morph and fluctuate as we relocate or change schedules. The pressure valve is for one of us to say, “Will you do X while I’m doing Y, or would you rather switch?” (Cook dinner while I do laundry, etc). It’s entirely possible to negotiate life admin respectfully without it turning into a huge deal.
This is one of the great strengths of Life Admin. Emens offers categories of “admin personalities” and ways that each might have a useful strategy for reducing life admin. For instance, rebelling might benefit others in the workplace by restructuring or eliminating bogus tasks. The book also offers ways of reframing life admin by making it pleasurable or seeing it as a way to, say, choose a mate, give better gifts, or get better service. One of the best and coolest of these ideas is to have an “Admin Study Hall” and sit in a group with other people for company while getting some of this stuff done.
Life Admin is the kind of book, like Gemma Hartley’s Fed Up, that has the potential to really stir the pot. It’s so important to be clean and clear in our negotiations and power dynamics, though. Bringing these issues to light is the first step in fairness and happier relationships, whether personal or business.
Having a hundred admin tasks that each take one minute feels heavier than having a single admin task that takes a hundred minutes.
Who has time for admin-redistribution admin?
...many people seem to assume that the topic of life admin is of interest mainly, or only, to women.
What I would do to figure it out is the same thing you would do to figure it out yourself.
There was a baby shower. I had nothing to do with it. My husband chose the gifts, ordered them, and picked up a package of diapers on the way. He went to the baby shower and he played shower games. By all accounts, he had fun.
This story might be shocking to some, which is why I share it. The way I was brought up, doing everything related to this baby shower would absolutely be my responsibility. I’M THE WOMAN. Right?
Not only would I have done all the shower gift stuff, but I might have hosted it, probably would have helped plan it, and most likely would have baked cupcakes or a pound cake. I also might have been on the hook for making a handmade gift, cooking for the new mommy, visiting her in the hospital, and offering free babysitting on demand.
I used to do that stuff. I’ve crocheted blankets and baby booties and knit caps and poseable toys for various babies. I’ve visited plenty of new babies in the hospital.
This time was different, and I’ll tell you why.
My only contribution in the preparation for this baby shower was to answer my husband’s question about what to wear. He was planning to go in a t-shirt, which probably would have been fine. I pointed out that this would be a major photo opportunity for the family baby album, and he changed into a polo shirt.
When he came home, he told me that the family all dressed up, and the work colleagues all wore casual clothes. He would have been fine either way.
It was fine, either way.
If I’d gone, if I hadn’t been sick, I would have known how to behave myself. I would have congratulated the mother-to-be and learned everyone’s names. I would have put myself to work helping arrange the food table and I would have stayed at the end to help clean up. The women of the family probably would have felt obligated to try to shoo me off and do it all themselves. There’s always that tension between “hosts do it all for the guest” and “guests shouldn’t wear out their welcome” that makes me want to be in the kitchen both as hostess and as guest. A dumb double-standard, isn’t it?
One day robots will do it all and we can kick back and have another cupcake.
I’m a little bummed that I missed the party. The weather was nice and it certainly sounded more fun than passing out sweatily in bed with my mouth open.
There’ll be another party, though. The baby will have a first birthday, or a baptism, or something. There will be a company picnic in the summer. I’ll meet the baby and hold the baby and smooch the baby. I’ll hand the baby back to New Mommy, a woman I like just fine and whom I also respect as both a shy person and an introvert.
There’s no pressure here, not unless I look for it.
I’ve gone to so many baby showers, and they’re bittersweet for me. Time and again, when I place my carefully wrapped gift and card on the table, it’s a goodbye gift. The baby shower is the last time I ever see the new mom. Even though we were friends before, her entry into motherhood is the last time she’ll call me, or return my calls, or write back to my emails. She won’t come to parties.
One of these friends? The next time I saw her, the incoming baby had a baby of her own on the way. There were five additional kids I’d never met, didn’t even know their names. I hadn’t seen a photo and I hadn’t been invited to any of their baby showers. I would have gone, I would have brought gifts. I would have sent graduation gifts, too, as the little ones grew up.
There’s no pressure here, not on my end. Just a willingness to have been there.
I’ve tried taking my mom friends out. I hear a lot about how desperate new parents are to get a break, to have an adult conversation, to remember that they have interests beyond Pat the Bunny. (Not that I have any issues with Pat the Bunny, personally). I’ll pick up the check and say, Here is your opportunity to talk about anything you like. Your thesis, the book you’d like to write, new research in your field... I’ll even read up on it if you want. Somehow the conversation keeps reverting to diaper rash. I don’t mind. It just feels like an opportunity lost.
Parenthood is like going through a security checkpoint or an airlock. You go through, and you’re on the other side, and everyone else is still over there were you used to be. Only the people on your side of the airlock understand what it’s like.
The same is true of other transitions, of course. Students talk the same way about finals week and ex-convicts talk the same way about prison. It’s not that other people haven’t literally been there or cognitively can’t imagine what it’s like. They simply are *not* currently there. Their emotional reality is different.
That’s why I’m perfectly content to let my husband manage the shower gifts for his work colleagues. It isn’t the first time. I’m not a part of the inner circle, and I don’t need to put social pressure or emotional labor on this particular lady. I’m a plus-one, if that, and I’m sure that suits everyone just fine.
If there’s one thing I don’t understand, it’s why people keep eating something even after they realize that it always makes them ill. Total. Mystery.
I was talking to someone earlier who claims that she receives Tums as gifts and keeps backup supplies at the homes of friends and family. Why? Because she keeps eating pizza with red wine and it always makes her sick.
Never in my life have I eaten that as a meal???
Why would you eat something over and over again if you knew it made you feel horrible?
It’s a luxury, in a way, but we’ll get to that.
I used to have this thing with salt-water taffy. Every time I would go to the beach, I would get super excited about the presence of salt-water taffy. I would go into a candy store and spend twenty minutes picking out a bunch of flavors to try. Then I would eat a bunch of it and make myself completely ill.
It took about twenty years to realize that I actually don’t even like salt-water taffy!
I realized that I have a major weakness for things that come in varieties, or especially in rainbow colors. It’s like it sends my brain into freak mode and all I can think is ONE OF EACH. Doesn’t matter what it is, beads, socks, fishing lures, things I don’t even want. Whoa there, I think now, look out, rainbow alert!
I used to get a tub of something like gumdrops or jelly beans that came in multiple colors. I would sort them by color. If I ate one, I “had” to then eat one of each color, which was a real problem if there were disproportionate amounts.
Total productivity killer right there.
Now I only do that on Halloween. Just go on a major candy bender and watch horror films all day. That tends to get it out of my system. I always wake up the next day with the horrible feeling of “Halloween mouth” and vow not to do it again for 364 days.
I have no self-control around certain things, rainbow-colored objects being just one of those categories. I recognize this. Because of this known tendency, I find it easier to simply not buy certain things rather than try to monitor myself or rein myself in.
Anything I want is available 24/7 and I can probably get it delivered. I can always change my mind later.
I have to take the urgency out of the decision. I don’t like the idea that an inanimate object can just push my buttons and make me behave contrary to my best interests.
This is much easier to do once I make the connection between a certain thing and a certain negative result. For instance, lanolin makes me break out in huge itchy welts. It’s not that common an ingredient and it’s pretty easy to avoid. There’s nothing about it that makes me weep with longing. Lanolin = BYE FOREVER. No hearts broken.
It would be a lot harder if I found out I had a sensitivity to, say, onions and garlic. A couple of friends of mine have gotten that as a diagnosis, and, I confess, I would struggle mightily with it. I’d be like, is there a surgery for this? If onions and garlic made me sick, though, I’m sure I’d just be glad I finally knew the answer and had constructive action I could take.
Apparently not everyone feels this way.
I heard the story of a woman who suffered from migraine about twenty days a month. My lifetime record for a migraine is four days, and that was bad enough! If I were in that woman’s situation, I would sign up for every study under the sun and I’d see as many doctors from as many disciplines as I could find. Whatever it takes.
In this woman’s case, she wound up quitting alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. She hasn’t had a migraine in three years.
The way it was expressed to me, “she had to give up alcohol, caffeine, and sugar.”
I said, “It sounds like what she really gave up was headaches!”
Myself, I don’t drink alcohol at all and I hate coffee. I would struggle for a while with the sugar thing, although it would tend to save me from my rainbow candy problem. But the first time I ate dessert followed by a migraine, I would draw a big skull and crossbones on that day in my calendar. NO MORE.
I know so, so many people who suffer from their favorite foods but continue to torture themselves with them. A man with a diagnosed dairy allergy who eats a large bowl of vanilla ice cream every night. A woman diagnosed with celiac disease who keeps eating wheat bread. Funny, you don’t hear about this behavior pattern in people with a true food allergy to, say, shellfish or peanuts. We won’t do it if it will kill us or make our throats swell closed, but we will if “all it does” is give us severe nausea or incapacitating headaches.
I have some guesses about why people persist in eating food that makes them ill.
I was pretty happy the day I realized I didn’t have to drink alcohol unless I wanted to, which I don’t. It’s gross to me and I suspect I don’t react to it the way other people do. Other people are often frustrated by this and will persist in offering me drinks, I think because they’re embarrassed to draw attention to how much they consume in a day. They also tend to get very distressed when they realize there won’t be wine at dinner, because waiting a couple hours is too hard? Because carrying mini bottles in your purse is a step too far? This is an example of how something that is an issue for one person won’t be for someone else. This is why we have to make our own rules and decide for ourselves whether eating or drinking something is a good plan.
If you feel like you need permission, I hereby grant you permission by the power vested in me. You have the power, the right, and the privilege to refuse to eat anything that makes you ill. If someone tries to pressure you into eating something that you really don’t want, either it’s all in your head or that person is not your friend. Why would they care? More for them, right?
We’re lucky to be able to pick and choose what we do or don’t eat. We’re lucky that we have the natural intelligence and discernment to know the difference between what is good for us and what is basically poison for us. We’re lucky that we can still be friends with people even if we eat or drink different things. We’re lucky to be able to reject food that is really a frenemy, not a friend. Because it’s the people around us that matter, not their opinion on what we do or don’t eat.
I met an interesting character the other day. We struck up a conversation while waiting at a stoplight. By the time we had crossed the street and walked through the park, we had managed to interview each other and exchange some interesting ideas.
Living on the pier is a crossroads of humanity. There’s a constant flow of families, dog walkers, transients, drunks and drug users, tourists, musicians, joggers, skateboarders, cyclists, young couples, barefoot surfers in wetsuits, students on field trips, retirees, and also a few neighbors. It’s busy here. It’s also not unusual to bump into someone who is at leisure at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon.
Wealthy people look different. It’s basically impossible to fake that posture, haircut, skincare regimen, wardrobe, and aura of prosperity, just like it would be pretty challenging to fake the hard-worn look of someone who has spent years sleeping rough.
I’ve learned this through having lived in many different neighborhoods over the years. I don’t particularly prefer to live among the wealthy. They spend a lot of time talking about things that bore me senseless, like where they bought stuff, what their yapper dog is up to these days, and how “good help is so hard to find.”
They also can’t usually relate to why my husband and I live in a studio apartment and don’t have a car.
That’s what made this conversation so interesting. We discovered we were both strangers in a strange land.
It basically went like this:
“What a gorgeous place”
“Another day in paradise”
“I’m new in town”
“Were you here for the butterfly migration?”
Blah blah blah
“I live on a sailboat”
“Oh, are you a nomad?”
“I don’t know what I am, what’s that?”
“There are a lot of people who are financially independent, who travel around the world, it’s a thing”
“Are you one of them?”
That’s when we started comparing strategies and a few numbers. “What’s your efficiency?” he asked. By that I understood that he meant what we call “the nut” or monthly overhead.
“You should live on a sailboat,” he said. It costs him $1600 a month to stay at the marina (right next to our apartment complex) and apparently it comes with access to a gym and a steam room and stuff.
He went over what it took to manage such a feat, how he learned to sail various types of boats, starting with the very smallest size and working his way up in complexity.
I asked how old he was when he learned to sail, and he said he started about ten years ago, which both did and didn’t answer my question. I gather that he was at least in his thirties when he suddenly decided, Hey, I should learn to sail. That somehow turned into, Hey, I should live on a boat, sail from Canada to San Diego, and figure out where I want to settle down. Or not.
I have my own opinions about all this, of course. I’m not a strong swimmer and I can only really manage myself in a canoe or a kayak. I have read quite a lot of nautical adventures, though, and that’s why I asked a few more questions.
“What do you do in the winter? What about when it storms?”
“I haven’t done this over the winter yet,” he admitted. Ugh.
I told him I wanted to go to sea as a child, that my fantasy was to become a “cabin boy” and that I was very disappointed to learn that wasn’t a job anymore. At least, I was disappointed when I was nine. As a middle-aged woman, going through a tropical storm in a sailboat of any size sounds pretty darn dreadful.
There are other factors, too. I don’t know this man’s story, or why he’s suddenly free to sail down the length of North America alone. Was he married before? Does he have kids? Is he retired? Is he actually F.I. or is he burning through cash reserves while he bounces back from divorce, getting fired, or losing a lawsuit? Who knows?
Me, I live with a man, a dog, and a parrot. Noelle would probably love being on a sailboat and smooching kids at the marina, shaking out her nice red tail feathers. Our frail, ill, elderly dog would not enjoy himself at all. Could my husband and I deal with sharing a tiny ship cabin, a tiny ship stove, a tiny ship heater, and of course the tiny ship’s head, with the shower spraying on the toilet? Eh, maybe, maybe not.
We actually are the type of married couple who could probably do well while living on a sailboat. We’re already minimalists. We’re good at what we call Pack-Fu, or the art of fitting objects carefully into a tight space. We’ve spent weeks backpacking and sharing a tent together. We’re both handy with tools and we have the kind of discipline that is needed to stay on top of leaks and mildew. We do, of course, also love money and the saving thereof. Paying an “efficiency” of $1600 a month sounds pretty great!
It sounds great until we factor in the part about buying a small, used seafaring vessel. “It’s like an RV,” I say to this sailor/retiree I’ve just met, and he agrees. In my mind, that means it’s high maintenance, hungry for repairs, expensive to fuel, and hard to park. You’re stuck with it, like it or not, and it can be hard to find a buyer when you realize it isn’t your dream of an easy, relaxing retirement after all.
What a great fantasy, though! If you don’t like your neighbors, you can simply sail away. Sail away from thoughts of trouble, sail south when storm clouds gather at the horizon. Sail away toward... toward what, exactly?
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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