If you haven't read anything by Brene' Brown yet, do yourself a favor and move any of her books to the top of your list. This book in particular should be mandatory assigned reading for everyone in the human race. The name says it all. I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't). This book explains so much about why even our most casual conversations can be so unsatisfying and irksome. We're all looking for connection, yet somehow deflecting it without realizing when and why. At the root is shame.
Feelings of shame, rejection, and self-loathing are so dark and awful that you'd think we could figure out how to quit inflicting them on ourselves and one another! In my work with hoarding and squalor, shame is a constant. My people are virtually crippled by shame in most areas of their lives, feeling totally inadequate in anything and everything, whether it's the appearance of their body, house, or car, their career and finances, punctuality, or really just their ability to create positive change for themselves. We are so good at shaming ourselves and internalizing messages that we are not good enough, that being rejected or shamed or criticized by other actual living people can create devastating psychic wounds.
One of the first concepts we learn in this book is the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy turns out to be a cheap and easy substitute for empathy, a simulacrum that is unpleasant both to give and to receive. Another common conversational ploy is when one person shares something emotionally important, and another person responds by trying to outdo that story. "You think you've got it bad... that's nothing." We wait until the other person is done talking so we can have our turn. There's a strain in our culture that shames any deep emotion at all with a great big GET OVER IT. We'll do just about anything to escape real empathetic connection.
The point of I Thought It Was Just Me is to learn to recognize that we are not alone, that the feelings of isolation and shame we carry are universal. Everyone feels this way sometimes. Brene' Brown's shame research has led to the purpose of teaching us how to reach out past our own dark, painful feelings and truly connect with one another. We can find the courage to practice this revolutionary kind of compassion.
'Husband' is a verb, meaning "to use resources economically." Strangely, the verb form of 'wive' means either "to marry" or "to supply with a wife." There has always been a double standard going on here, and there probably always will be, so we might as well run with it. I think of "wife" as a pretty specific job description. A wife is a useful person to have around the house. I think of this role in a positive way, and that's why I like the idea of being my own wife.
First of all, I made my first romantic commitment to myself. That is to remain true to myself until the end of time. No matter who else comes along, I'm going to be waking up to myself each morning. I could never give my heart to anyone who didn't match up with my values, anyone I didn't fully respect and admire. Why would I ever let myself down by settling for someone I had to make excuses for? It's my job to build my world, and I have to vouch for anyone I let in.
Second, I live with myself no matter whether I live alone or with several other people. No matter where I live, I am going to have to cook meals, wash dishes, scrub toilets, mop floors, wash windows, clean the lint trap, scour drains, clean the oven, knock down cobwebs, and ever so much more. Therefore, I accept that this is simply part of the fate of being human. If I were a badger, I'd be happy to dig a hole in the ground and live there and eat voles. If I were a puffin, I could live at sea. Alas, I have this human failing of wanting to live in a house with a roof and a floor, and I am sensitive to odors that might delight other creatures. Someone had better darn well be a wife around this joint, and I'm still waiting for the talking animals to show up, so it might as well be me. I lived alone for several years, and I really don't care that it takes 40 minutes a day to clean house.
I'm my own husband, too, if that means something as specific as 'wife' does. I have cleaned up dead vermin. I carry my own spiders outside. I can fix the toilet and unclog hairy drains. I have confronted scary unidentified sounds late at night. I've taken a few self-defense classes, and it's a good thing, because I have been attacked on the street more than once and had to get myself out of it. I have negotiated discounts on major purchases. I research my own investments for my retirement account. I have put on my own snow chains while nearly being blown off the road. When you live alone, you have to do all of the strenuous, dangerous, scary, and icky things yourself. It tends to lead to immense gratitude when someone else shows up and is willing to share some of that load.
My dad taught me how to pitch a tent, use a hatchet, identify and use every tool in the toolbox, troubleshoot technical problems, and avoid getting poison oak, all of which skills are useful to me today. My mom taught me how to clean house, make hospital bed corners, sew a button, iron shirt collars, write a resume, and bake a cake, all of which skills are useful to me today. I'm pretty sure both of my parents have all of the abilities listed, which were transferable across genders even then. I came from a practical, hands-on family and I grew up to have a lot of practical skills. I see no reason why I shouldn't be just as proud of my ability to can my own jam and pickles as I am proud of my ability to use shop tools and assemble furniture.
I draw the line at crocheting doilies, although I could do that, too.
There is a lot of resentment out there about traditional gender roles. I have a degree in history and I could teach a course on all the reasons why this makes sense. In my own personal life, I like to imagine what I think I would do if I were male, and then see if I want to do that thing, whatever it is. Often, the answer is that I would speak up more, take fewer things personally, or take up slightly more physical space. I don't think I would do less housework, probably because my husband, my dad, and my brothers all cook and clean house. Who wouldn't? When it comes down to it, almost all of our scutwork is done by labor-saving appliances. All we really have to do is to put away the clean dishes and laundry, and start the robots.
I like the romantic, starry-eyed vision of a "wife." I see this as a person whose job it is to create a sense of warm hospitality, to make an empty building into a home. When people do it in the workforce, they are known as restaurateurs, hoteliers, interior designers, caterers, event planners, and more. We see that this work can either be treated as drudgery or as a high art. It's my choice to see my kitchen as a playground that I share with my husband, and sometimes with family and friends who like to cook together. It's my choice to see my home as a place of refuge and pleasure, rather than a battleground of power struggles, resentment, and bickering. It's my choice to treat my home as a gift that I can offer to my friends. I felt this way when I was single, and it helped me to attract a mate who also appreciates a comfortable home. I am my own wife, and I'm his wife, too.
The highest-order compliment I give is to designate someone as Useful. This means that the person is a worthy candidate for my zombie squad. It's a simple shorthand for a complex set of attributes. It's entirely possible that I don't meet my own standard for Usefulness.
The first component of being Useful is to be a strategic thinker. The Useful person sees problems before they become problems. This is why the Useful person tends to know when to open doors or grab the other end of a heavy object. A full-on Useless person, on the other hand, tends to spend a lot of time in exactly the wrong place. Useless people cause accidents and spills, and stuff tends to get broken around them due to their inattentiveness.
My dog is both Useful and Useless, which is allowed because he's an animal. He is Useful in that he's vigilant, he eliminates vermin, and he always lets me know if a package has been delivered. I have watched him crush a spider with his paw, note that it was still moving, and crush it some more until the job was done. He also has a habit of trying to walk between my feet, especially when I'm carrying groceries or a laundry basket. He has knocked me over. He likes to dig up fresh seedlings from the garden. When he was a puppy, he destroyed nearly a dozen pillows. All of these things are pretty darn Useless. He likes to sleep on my feet in the winter, though, and that's so Useful that it balances the accounts.
A Useful person tends to have interesting skills that I don't have. I am a gleaner of skills, and I will try to absorb these abilities as quickly as I can. Often, though, I'm weak in an area and will have little hope of mastering it in this lifetime. Orienteering is one example. I have trouble telling left from right and I have no innate sense of direction. It's Useful to me to have someone around who is good at these things. I can offer a skill that seems like it would be closely related, but isn't: I have an eerily photographic recall of where objects are stored. I can remember the location of every object in my house and most of the visible objects in every house where I have spent significant time. I have helped people find their keys and other possessions over the phone from 3000 miles away. This is Useful for my work as a professional organizer - I can still recall the positions of visible objects from a Level 3 hoard. I can't navigate but I can find all the stuff, and my husband is the opposite.
A Useful person is solution-oriented. This means the focus is always going to be on solving a problem and moving forward. A Useless person prefers to vent about problems, cultivate allies who have an opinion about problems, and create drama about problems, while the problem continues to fester. The two groups tend to have mutual antipathy. Sometimes solving a problem looks a lot like "judging" anyone who didn't contribute to the solution. Why, I don't know. In my roster of Useful people are a few people who are abrasive, occasionally annoying, yet I can appreciate that they will reliably solve problems and get things done.
A Useful person lets the results speak for themselves. Useful people are often very surprising. You might know them for years and never know that they have a bunch of Useful traits. I was rocked back on my heels one day when I was walking with a friend and he ran into someone he knew from an old job. Suddenly they started signing to each other in ASL. Never thought to mention it, huh? Having a set of skills builds confidence. You can go through your day having interesting conversations or kicking back and relaxing. It may not occur to you to mention the skill to people. Maybe years will go by and you won't need to demonstrate the skill. Suddenly, bam, Useful!
Useful people are altruistic. This is part of why I fell in love with my husband. He took night classes and became an Emergency Medical Responder, just because. Since then he's been first on the scene at a couple of traffic accidents. I've been with him on a couple of occasions when someone collapsed, at the coffee shop and on the bus, and it's awe-inspiring to see that shift into superhero mode. We are fortunate enough to have several friends who have been Useful when someone else was in trouble. It makes you love them all the more for the way they unselfishly come to someone's aid, and also because they've just demonstrated that they deserve a spot on the zombie squad.
My most Useful moment was probably late one evening, when my friend's car had broken down in a small town where everything had already closed for the day. He was trying to replace the fuel filter, and the single tiny nut that held it in place fell into the gravel. We were parked at an abandoned gas station. There were about forty million bits of stray hardware in that gravel: springs, washers, screws, paperclips, bottle caps, bits of alien spacecraft, you name it. Somehow, with the sun going down, I FOUND that nut. My freakishly keen eyesight and ability to pick objects out of undifferentiated piles became my superpower that night.
Sometimes we're Useful without realizing it. I was waiting at a crosswalk one day with about a dozen other people. Almost everyone jaywalked. I always wait for the light, because I don't trust automobile drivers at all, and I would hate to be blamed for being pasted by a car. When I crossed the street, the last remaining pedestrian spoke to me. He was an elderly man and his eye was running with fluid. He told me that he was partially blind and that he counted on people like me to help him know when it was safe to cross the street. I hadn't even noticed him until then. I can't take credit for it; all I can do is to proceed with others in mind. Try to be the person that Future Self will need in times of frailty.
I hope I'm Useful at least some of the time. I don't want to be a "consumer." I don't want to be a complainer or a whiner. I don't want to get in the way. I don't want to annoy people unintentionally. (If I do it, hopefully it's on purpose!). At least I can try to be neutral, offsetting the irritation of my very existence by the occasional helpful act. At best, I'd like to be the one people count on when they think, "Who would I want with me during the apocalypse?"
Coming from a minimalist nomad, it may sound strange to advocate for domestic contentment. Aren't you all about getting rid of your stuff in favor of traveling the world? Well, yes and no. Minimalism is about focusing on whatever is most important to you and jettisoning anything that gets in the way of that. Not everyone likes traveling. Most people do, however, have a taste for mundane delights that is not being fully realized in their day-to-day. Domestic contentment is within reach of anyone at any budget.
When I was a kid in grade school, I read the story of the Greek philosopher Diogenes. He was known for living in a barrel in the marketplace, aside from his reputation as a wise man. Alexander the Great came to visit him and wanted to give him a gift, as much to demonstrate his own largesse as because this guy obviously could have used a pillow or blanket or something. He asked Diogenes if he wanted anything. Diogenes replied, basically, "Yeah, move over, you're blocking my sun." This made a huge impression on me as a child, and I spent a lot of time wondering about the drawing of the philosopher in the barrel, wondering what he ate and that sort of thing. These days, we would call Diogenes "homeless."
Whether someone can feel happiness and contentment while living on the margins of society probably depends as much on the society as on that particular individual.
It's not about the possessions or the dwelling, though. What makes the difference between absolute penury and contentment is access to a support network. Health care, physical safety, money, secure banking, food, bathing and laundry facilities, a soft warm bed, entertainment, and a social network of friends and family. Someone with access to all of that could probably live pretty cheerfully in a hotel with wi-fi, and be content with little more than a shower kit, a week's worth of clothes, and a smartphone.
Some of us only really wear a week's worth of clothes, anyway, because none of our other stuff fits right now, or the rest is waiting in front of the washing machine.
This is where we start to touch on the LACK of domestic contentment.
What I see in my work is that most people have a perpetual backlog of chores. There are dirty dishes in and around the sink at least 80% of the time. Likewise, there is almost always spoiled food in the fridge. There is always at least one load of laundry waiting to be washed or folded or put away, and often as many as ten. The bathroom is almost always grimy, the carpet is almost never vacuumed, the floors are almost always sticky, and there is almost always a full bag of trash waiting to be taken out. What the household feels about this state of affairs can most likely not be described as 'contentment.' Words that come to mind might be: frustration, resentment, despair, anger, depression, guilt, shame, blame, annoyance, or confusion.
This total lack of domestic contentment can and does lead to divorce. It's tough on kids. It can consume years that could otherwise have been pretty nice. Who wants to waste years or decades being chronically irritated almost every day?
My contention is that it's not housework in itself that causes this constant level of background annoyance. Rather, there is no vision of how good things could be and what domestic contentment actually feels like.
There's also the matter of... the stuff. Clutter causes housework to take 40% longer. Everything has to be moved out of the way to clean around it, under it, or behind it. Every single item in the house gathers dust or needs to be washed at some point. The more stuff there is, the harder it is to clean up, even if it's cute or valuable or it gets used every day. Crowded equals high maintenance.
What tends to happen is a gradual feeling of defeat. The more crowded and cluttered the house, the harder it is to keep it clean and stay on top of everything, the less often it gets done, the worse it gets, and the harder it is to get it to look clean at all. We resign ourselves to it. After a while, olfactory fatigue sets in, and we can't even smell it. Somewhere along that continuum, it's far easier and more pleasant to stay away, and any excuse to be out shopping or running errands starts to look attractive. Contentment can only be found elsewhere.
There's a close link between this pattern and a reliance on takeout food, pizza delivery, restaurants, convenience foods, or eating cereal for dinner. Who wants to cook in this kitchen??
A well-run kitchen is central to domestic contentment. After I finally learned to cook, I wondered what I had been thinking. Why would anyone not want to know how to cook? You can cook all your favorite stuff exactly the way you like it, anytime you want. I make a lot of stuff I would never be able to get in a restaurant - anywhere, not just in my neighborhood. I'd rather eat my own cooking than what I could get in about 3/4 of restaurants. If you've ever had a greasy or disappointing meal out, you know what I mean. A functional kitchen makes it possible to experiment and constantly improve your culinary skills, and that pays off in better and better meals. It's also cheaper and healthier.
I take notes on various recipes, quoting the compliments my husband or family members or guests make about the food. It's encouraging.
As much as we love travel, my husband and I would really rather be home than just about anywhere else. It's where our pets are. Our bed is more comfortable than any other bed. We have everything we need, we know where it is, and we have the space to use it. Thanks to our practice of minimalism, cleaning house takes very little effort. Laundry and dishes aren't that big a deal when they get dealt with every day: about five minutes per meal for dishwashing, five minutes per day to put away clean dishes, five minutes to run the washer and dryer, and ten or fifteen minutes to fold and put away laundry. It's hardly worth thinking about. The rest of the time, we're working on projects, playing with our pets, walking around the neighborhood, or lounging around talking. Our apartment is tiny, but it's big enough to do all of that.
Start by thinking of your default emotional state and whether you like it that way. Imagine how you'd prefer to feel. Contentment is not the same as elation, bliss, ecstasy, or hysterical laughter; it's sustainable and lower-maintenance. It's a feeling of "yeah, I dig this." Gaining a base level of contentment is often as simple as removing any obstacles between you and it. Remove any irritants and annoyances, resolve any backlog of tasks that lead to power struggles or a drain on mental bandwidth. Then sit back, smile, and sigh. How much more do you need?
This is my second tax nightmare in 18 years. Why they choose me, I don't know.
The first time, someone else's income was reported under my social security number, and I got a tax bill representing about half my annual income. I only found out about it after my ex-husband intercepted and opened the letter and withheld it from me until after the deadline for dispute had passed. The IRS agent who helped me was warm and friendly. Although this was someone else's mistake, it fell upon me to do the research and resolve the problem. File under: NOT MY FAULT, STILL MY PROBLEM. This involved tracking down the other person, a coworker, and convincing her to give me a copy of her W-2. It seems obvious that someone involved in the payroll process at my office had made the mistake; otherwise, we would be looking at one of the most outrageous coincidences of all time. Could someone somewhere just vaguely, passively say that A Mistake Had Been Made and apologize to me for my inconvenience? Heavens no.
There are two things we can never expect in this life: gratitude for the good we've done, and apologies for the mistakes that other people have made.
Now I'm sitting in the City of Los Angeles Office of Finance. They've summoned me to a hearing for supposedly not paying municipal business taxes. This despite the fact that I have not lived within a City of Los Angeles zip code since 2015. The summons was even addressed to me at my previous non-LA address.
This is the fourth calendar year that we have been having this dispute. I tried everything. I sent letters. I spoke to an agent on the phone. I sent copies of our tax return. I have told them over and over again that 1. The income they were after is actually my husband's salary, not business income and 2. We don't live in LA.
Their response was to send a tax bill for slightly over $8000. Weirdly, it's almost the exact same amount I was mistakenly assessed by the federal government back in 1999. I got that cleared up, or so I thought, and then several months later I get this summons.
I guess it's my karma that maybe I robbed someone of $8000 in a past life? Or maybe I was a cruel tax collector? Who knows.
What I WANT from this transaction is:
For someone to take accountability and say, "This was our fault, not yours."
Compensation for my time
A letter absolving me from further bureaucratic transactions with this department
Some kind of goodie like a free bus pass
What I NEED from this transaction is:
Resolution of the issue
Some kind of notation in my account or in whatever database or mailing list
Knowledge of what to do if anything like this happens again
My INSTINCT is to:
Yell at someone
Tell the entire saga from start to finish
Call my mayor
Alert the media
Cry (actually I did that the day after I got the letter)
What I actually do is to use my carefully honed skills in navigating bureaucratic red tape. I use tact and civility. Guess what? My case is resolved half an hour after I walk in the door. I didn't get an apology or compensation or any of those feeble fantasies. What I did get was the most genial, easy-going guy on the staff, who listened carefully, closed my account, and gave me photocopies of his stamped paperwork for my file.
How is this done?
There's an art to doing these things smoothly, and as far as I can tell, not everyone is aware of it. I have seen people shouting so loudly that they could clearly be heard through the entire building, or pounding their fist on the counter. The only thing you get when you act that way is a conversation with a security guard. Threats, intimidation, swearing, scowling, glaring, sarcasm, rudeness, cutting in line, interrupting, and gesticulating are tools for fools. They're only going to make things harder. You never know when you'll find yourself in the same office again, or facing the exact same person in a different job.
The person I'm talking to is almost certainly not the person who made the mistake on my account. This person is my ally. We want the same thing. We both want a simple transaction in which I go away quickly with a smile on my face. His goal is to do his job and make it to the end of the day without someone shouting at him. My goal is to be the friendliest transaction of his week. This person, whoever it is, is much more likely to listen to me and believe me if I am rational, respectful, and deferential. I walk up smiling, dressed professionally, and I make sure to wait my turn before speaking.
Always start with the assumption that the miscommunication has been on your end. Maybe I walked in the wrong door, didn't read a sign, or unknowingly shuffled a vital piece of correspondence into a wad of coupons that I then recycled. I start from the position of empathy, imagining that I am on the other side of the desk, forced to deal with this uptight, nervous wreck of a middle-aged crazy birdwatcher lady before lunch. I've been a civil servant and I've worked in customer service, so this trick of empathy is easy. I want to be my own ideal customer or client, the person I wouldn't mind helping.
The truth is that there is nothing complicated about my situation. It's routine on both sides. Any weeping or gnashing of teeth I have done has arisen from 1. My own anxiety 2. Projecting 3. Mind-reading (which doesn't work) and 4. Predicting the future (badly). I got all wound around the axle. I felt like THIS ALWAYS HAPPENS TO ME and WHAT WILL I DO NOW? and WHYYYYY MEEEEEE? I also felt that IT'S NOT FAIR and I WANT CAAAAAAAKE. It actually crossed my mind that I would have to see a judge or that someone would demand some kind of payment from me. I thought I would have to camp out in the office the entire day and come back again the following day, possibly through the entire week. Not a single thing that worried me came true. If I really want compensation, it should be for the time I spent flagellating myself and the sleep I lost tormenting myself with weird imaginary scenarios that never happened.
Gracious behavior always helps. When I listen courteously, I hear more details and everything makes more sense. When I wait patiently, I get better treatment. Everything goes faster when people wait their turn, including me. Most importantly, the self-discipline of controlling my irrational responses and NOT doing what comes naturally helps me to realize how rarely I ever need to escalate. Life is easier than we think it is, especially when we're not having a conniption.
PS On the way home, I found a dollar coin. So that's something.
I'm still totally not over United Flight #3411 yet. I wasn't even there and I can't get over it! I've been flying alone since I was 7 years old, and I've been a frequent air traveler ever since. So many changes have happened in the industry since that time that it's barely recognizable. I remember when there wasn't even a gate around the metal detector, just a person with a chair who sat next to it and waved you through. There was never even a line. I remember in-flight meals, magazine racks, free decks of playing cards, and many occasions when I had nearly an entire plane to myself. You could basically bring infinite checked bags and carry-ons of any size. I wear business casual when I fly, but back in those days everyone wore their Sunday-go-to-meetin' best. Now there's no dress code, everything but everything has an added fee, and it appears we're not even guaranteed a seat if we've paid for our tickets and boarded the plane. Times have changed. When times change, strategize. Make a policy decision for what you'll do when and if you get bumped.
A policy decision means no further decisions without game-changing new information. For instance, as a policy decision, I like walnuts in my cookies even though not everyone does. Most frequent travelers have policies. I am a one-bag traveler, by policy, and it would take very special circumstances for me to check a bag. I have a couple of weather-tested travel "uniforms" that I wear. Other policies might have to do with how early you plan to arrive before each flight, or whether you use your flight time to work, sleep, or catch up on reading. Making a policy about getting bumped is just one more aspect of this overall strategic plan.
I decided some time ago that I would volunteer to give up my seat if a volunteer were needed. This is partly because I am naturally altruistic, partly because I usually travel alone, partly because my schedule is flexible, and mostly because I freaking love money. A cash prize would be the best, of course, but I would actually use flight vouchers. Just don't try to buy me off with drinks coupons, because I don't drink. Last year, I had a layover at McCarran, and the ticket agent announced that they needed a volunteer. Woohoo! Four hundred dollars and possibly a night in Vegas? I'm in! Unfortunately, before I could finish standing up to claim my prize, a bearded guy in a tie-dyed t-shirt had bounded over to the counter. Clearly I am not the only person lying in wait for the golden ticket.
The scenario changes when I am flying with my husband. Unlike me, he has a normal office schedule, or more so, because he works 9/80s. It's a big deal for him to get time off. We would be unlikely to volunteer as a unit unless the conditions were optimal. Maybe we'd be on the last leg of a flight with no connections to make and the payout sounded attractive enough. This is somewhat of a moot point, though. The salient feature of a getting-bumped scenario is that we may not have a choice. What if one of us got bumped and the other didn't? We talked it out and decided that we stay together, so if one of us gets bumped, we both disembark. Other couples might go the other way, figuring that it's better for one person to arrive on schedule. One of you might volunteer as tribute. Some couples might have a multi-faceted policy that factored in multiple inputs. It's much easier to do these calculations in advance than to try to figure it out in a crisis moment, when you're both exhausted.
Consider Flight #3411 again. Here is this poor elderly doctor, traveling with his wife. He says in one video that he's been traveling around 24 hours. These are hardly optimal conditions for making difficult decisions. Then she agrees to depart, changing the nature of the stakes for his own decision and adding to his stress level. Quite frankly, most travelers would not have found vouchers for $800 and a night in a mediocre hotel to be enough enticement to get off a plane, fearing the loss of their bags, and cancel their plans. Cold hard cash, hand-carried valet service for the luggage, and a suite at a high-end luxury hotel, plus limo to the runway and Michelin-starred restaurant vouchers? Then we're starting to talk. Then we're getting to the stampede-to-the-counter level of incentives. All of that still would have been significantly cheaper than an international public relations disaster. Don't hold your breath waiting.
Until we're collectively willing to pay higher ticket prices, seat availability is going to get tighter and conditions are going to deteriorate. We might as well accept that one of these days, we're going to wind up in an unfortunate scenario. I've sat out five-hour weather delays more than once, usually when all food service in the terminal has closed for the day. Stuff happens. While advance planning can't make these problems go away, it does help to have some idea of what we would choose to do if they happen to us.
News flash: Not everyone has to eat the same thing. It helps to understand this before anyone in the household sets out to make dietary changes of any kind. Changing what you eat is hard enough. Adding power struggles between household members can only make it harder. When you decide that you want to take ownership of your body and make positive changes, this will immediately change the power dynamic. Others around you will get nervous and try to restore equilibrium by pushing back and trying to making you quit. It is known. Plan around them. This is also true if you're the one who wants snacks and someone else is trying to change. The only rules are the rules that work for everyone concerned.
Power struggles come in every variety. You can have a power struggle about who goes to bed when, who gets to use which bathroom for how long at what time of day, who unloads the dishwasher, who cleans up cat barf, who gets to spend how much money on what, and on and on. You can make every single thing a power struggle every day if you like. If you have children, you can have power struggles with them about whether the left shoe goes on the left or right foot, whether you can wear the same outfit after it technically no longer fits, or how many times to reread the same storybook. A popular child-oriented power struggle is whether one needs to eat any foods that contain insoluble dietary fiber or micronutrients, or whether one can simply get rickets or pellagra instead. Look at the snacks/diet plan spectrum as a non-binary, non-zero-sum choice in the context of power struggles in general.
Non-binary means there are more than two options. Non-zero-sum means there can be multiple winners. For example, if I wear a t-shirt, everyone else can also wear a t-shirt, or a sweater, or a T-Rex costume, or whatever. It only becomes an issue if I'm trying to enforce a dorky dress code on a family photo.
That's the thing about food intake. In our culture, apparently anything other than 24/7 cheese-covered deep-fried super-sized buffet is preachy and body-shaming.
There is food everywhere. If you haven't noticed yet, you're going to. Vending machines! Candy bowls! Free breadsticks and chips and salsa! Ice cream trucks! Restaurant delivery! All-night drive-thru! You can get pizza delivery by drone on two continents already. I anticipate 3D-printed food on demand, just like Star Trek, in only a few years. Before we know it, we're going to be accosted by little R2-D2-type robots trying to give us free samples and take our orders for third breakfast, second lunch, and eighthsnack. Drones can fly through our windows and drop food bundles straight down our funnels, directly into the esophagus. It'll be great.
Things changed for me when I realized how deep my scarcity mindset went around food. I had spent at least four minutes chasing a single pumpkin seed around my plate, trying to get it on my fork. I froze. I asked my husband, "How long have I been doing this?" He said, "As long as I've known you." I had this rule somewhere in my psyche that I had to absorb every single molecule of food that had been served to me. I sat with this feeling. I taught myself that because I have 24-hour access to all foods known, I can relax. I will not starve. In fact, if I got anywhere within 40 pounds of starving, a committee would chase me down, wearing matching hats that read GIRL, EAT A SANDWICH, and would in fact force-feed me sandwiches until I reached the new zaftig ideal. I don't have to have food in my mouth during every waking moment, and it turns out my dentist agrees.
I lost 35 pounds, and I haven't had a migraine in over three years. I'm never going back.
My husband has struggled with his weight all his life. His top weight was 305. He taught me everything I know about weight loss, and the irony of this is that we're never trying to lose weight at the same time. I've learned that to support him when he's on a mission, I simply can't eat certain things in front of him, or store them where he will see them. When I was training for my marathon and he was cutting calories, I had: first and second breakfast, first and second lunch, afternoon snack, Frappy Hour, and of course my fanny pack o' fig bars and trail mix for the run itself. I had a secret container of Birthday Cake Oreos hidden in my office. I bought Nutter Butters because he doesn't like them. (Neither do I, but COOKIES). We ate a sensible dinner together after he got home, and if I wanted late-night snacks, I would just stuff them in my pocket when he wasn't looking and "go for a walk." I do everything I can to be courteous and supportive around his eating plans, just as I would for any of his other plans.
A strategy that was helpful for me, when I was untraining myself from EATING ALL THE THINGS, was to remember the grossness of some former coworkers. People be touching the snacks. There was this one guy my husband referred to as "Mister Poopy Hands" because he had seen him walk out of the restroom many times without ever going near the sinks. I never ate out of communal office bowls ever again. If there's something I want to not eat, I just picture that particular dude scrabbling around in the bowl or working in the kitchen. Bleah.
The truth is that nobody is responsible for what goes into my mouth but me. I just make a decision and then the decision is made. If I'm going to eat cake for breakfast, so be it, the Word has been spoken. If I decide to trim the four pounds I gained over Thanksgiving weekend, so be it, the Word has been spoken. If I struggle and resist Past Self's policy choices, I can give myself R. Lee Ermey-style coaching or I can wear a thick rubber band around my wrist and snap myself. I can remind myself that I'll be at my goal in a few more days. What I can do for anyone other than myself is significantly more limited.
Good luck ever trying to change anyone else's eating habits. Good luck ever trying to change anything about anyone. The very fact that your intention has become obvious sabotages any chance of a positive result. Assuming the mantle of Nutritional Gatekeeper is nuanced and complicated. It does tend to work on children, though, because they don't have money, they can't drive, and they generally can't cook, either. What your kids eat, if you have children, IS entirely up to you. Just because they demand nutrient-free foods does not mean you have to provide them.
Scarcity mindset will poison your best attempts, whether for yourself or others. Put joy back into your life, there and in other areas. More good stuff. More music, more color, more nature, more laughing, more making of things rather than consuming of things, more hugging, more fascination. If food is the highlight of your day, then you have a devastatingly boring life. Find a way to make your life more interesting and pleasure-filled overall. This may have a ripple effect on the people closest to you, changing the power dynamic, or it may not. What you eat can't really be about what everyone else eats. Do what works for you, and it will work for you.
I'm bossy and I have a big mouth. Another way to say this is that I am an assertive woman, or, if I were a man, ordinary. It's an extremely helpful and important trait in dating. When people meet each other for the first time, they want to know: Who are you? What are you like? What would it be like to hang out with you and talk to you? Be who you are, all the time. That way people know what to expect. It's reassuring. It can also quickly weed out anyone who won't be a good match anyway. This is important when first meeting, and it's even more important when it's time to consider whether to take things to the next level. There is no rule book for this stuff. There are only the "rules" that you and your potential new partner make up together.
This is roughly the boundary speech that I would give to contestants:
"I'm a one-man woman. I don't cheat and I also don't share. If you have any questions in your mind about whether long-term monogamy works for you, go in peace. If you want to be involved with me, then it needs to be exclusive. If you want out, just be honest, and we can do it without drama.
If you cheat on me, I will break up with you and tell your mom.
If you ever use physical violence on me, I will break up with you, press charges, and tell your mom and your boss. Not that you would ever do that, of course - just saying.
I don't do raised voices. It's unprofessional. In my opinion, there is no need for yelling at any time unless someone's life is in danger. I have completely cut off contact with more than one person for yelling at me. Let's just be nice to each other.
I have brothers, male cousins, uncles, and a lot of close male friends. I hang out with them, text them, email them, and talk to them on the phone. So I totally get it if you want to hang out with your female friends. It would be a little weird if you didn't socialize with women, actually.
What are your deal breakers?"
This probably sounds painfully awkward and horrible. It might be, if it were sprung on someone you'd just met, rather than a friend you've known for a while. Oddly enough, it is a conversation that has led to a couple of long-term relationships, one of which is my current marriage. It turns out that many men appreciate the direct approach. Many men have been befuddled by the game of "if you don't know, then I'm not going to tell you." Most people do not like guessing games or "tests" or hidden rules.
Some guidelines: First, be a good listener. It's about a thousand times more important to LISTEN and pay attention to this new person in your life, because you already know what YOU think, and you really, really need to know what HE thinks. The better a listener you are, the more he will relax and open up, and the more you will know about him. If he starts talking about jealousy or evil exes, listen even more closely. Ask yourself what version of this story the other party would tell.
Second, set your boundaries firmly in your own mind, and stick to them. It's always when we start rationalizing bad behavior to ourselves that we reel ourselves in. We set ourselves up for trouble, sometimes for danger. We should never have to talk ourselves into being with someone. It's not our job to make excuses for anyone.
I dated a guy who cheated. I forgave him and he did it again. I forgave him and he did it again. I broke up with him and he cried. Aww.
I dated a guy who was extremely jealous. He flipped out when I told him my uncle was staying at my apartment for a few days and he accused me of lying and cheating on him. He hacked into my email and read everything in my inbox and even my sent folder. I broke up with him.
My first husband spent our entire house savings behind my back and lied about it. I forgave him, and a few months later he asked for a divorce. I moved out, and six months later he managed to damage my credit by trashing our rental house and not paying the power bill that still had both our names on it.
These are things that happen when you trust someone who breaks your trust, and then continue to trust them after they have demonstrated that they are not trustworthy. What else would have happened if I'd stayed with them longer? I'm glad to say that I have no idea.
These are the reasons that I became so mean and suspicious. Actually, I am not mean or suspicious at all - I simply decided to reserve myself for an honest gentleman. I wanted someone who was capable both of trusting and of being trusted. Once he made it through the gauntlet, I could let my guard down. I've been married nearly eight years now, together for eleven.
In a world of seven billion people, almost everyone who exists is going to remain a stranger. We have to reserve our energy for the relatively small group of friends, family, and lovers who will reciprocate our affection. We can't make room in our lives for people who will mistreat us or lie to us. Letting someone in is exposing our family and friends to them, too. Everyone in our circle becomes vulnerable. It's our job to check new people out first before introducing them around and vouching for them.
Vulnerability is hard. It's at least as hard for men as it is for women. The goal when setting boundaries is to protect all hearts concerned. We don't want any 'meh' relationships and we don't want anyone to feel like we're "settling" for them or "putting up with them for now." We want to avoid spending long periods of time with people we could never love deeply and fully. That's why we should be grateful for the end of weak relationships and the freedom to begin strong ones. Strong relationships require strong boundaries, an agreement on how to love one another properly.
Whenever I use the term 'man,' I use it in the original sense of 'person.' I am a 'man' as opposed to a pine cone or a lizard. In this sense, I am a Tool Man just as much as many of the males in my life. Mysteriously, tool use seems to be less about what distinguishes hominids from other mammals than about traditional gender roles. Let's talk about this.
Being a Tool Man is extremely useful. It comes in two parts, fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence includes the ability to solve problems and learn from experience. Crystallized intelligence includes training and the lore of how things are done. The difference between the two can be illustrated by the frustration of novice cooks when they hear that someone "doesn't use a recipe."
Someone who has been taught to be a Tool Man knows the names of all the common tools and what they do. He (I'm just going to say 'he' as a shortcut) can pick up a screwdriver and turn it in the correct direction without thinking about it. He knows that certain types of hardware exist, he knows where to buy them, and he has brand preferences. He can do basic repair tasks quickly, because he's probably done them before, or at least stood by and watched. He can tell at a glance when other people don't know what they are doing. He has knowledge and experience. Not everyone who has been taught how to use tools is all that good at troubleshooting or solving problems in novel ways, though. That is a separate cognitive skill entirely.
Interestingly, everyone who is skilled with tool use thinks of it as 'common sense' when it's really more of a guild specialty. It's also a reliable indicator of demographics and social class.
I have a blue collar background, which is why I know how to use tools. For me, tool use is closely bound to the concept of masculinity, even though I don't think of myself as masculine. In my world, people know how to do things. It feels weird to me when someone doesn't have practical skills, such as cooking a meal or pitching a tent. One of the light switches in our house was wired upside down, and this offends my sensibilities in a moral way. When I meet a man who has no ability to use tools and no interest in learning how, it's hard for me to respect him as a completely mature adult. If I can do it, why can't you?
I probably read too much Robert Heinlein when I was a kid. He wrote about the concept of being a representative of the entire human race to space aliens, and it really caught my attention. People should be good at as many things as possible. I learned how to use a sewing machine, change a fuel filter, build furniture, knit socks, tie up a bear bag, care for a baby, do first aid, use a water filter, make pickles, fix a running toilet, and all sorts of other things. The more practical skills I learned, the more obvious it seemed that acquiring practical skills is useful, convenient, and interesting for its own sake. It also felt empowering. Tool use is girl power!
My husband and I are both Tool Men. We respect each other for this. We can both cook and sew and clean house and change diapers, and we can both light the camp stove and chop firewood and assemble furniture and carry heavy loads. We have a joke where I say, "You're the man, fix this!" It acknowledges the burden that is placed on men by traditional gender roles when anything difficult, scary, or strenuous comes up, like removing a wasp nest. We try to meet each other in the middle and not act out negative stereotypes.
That being said, traditional gender roles got that way because they are efficient. Sometimes, when you are both equally good at something, it's more challenging to figure out whose job it is. Sometimes it can lead to a tendency to keeping score. (Actually, more score-keeping would probably be a good idea in some relationships, because it helps us to respect how much our partners are contributing).
If you're not a Tool Man, but you want one, because you think it's the "man's job," then you have to accept the package deal. If you want a man to be a traditional man, then you have to step up and act like a traditional woman. Quid pro quo, baby.
If you expect him to be the one to do all the heavy lifting and strenuous physical labor, then you should be offsetting that in some way. Respect it as a gift. Shoulder massage? Cookies? Find out what he likes, because he's not a caricature. If you take this labor for granted, you'll start seeing less of it. Reward what you want to encourage.
If you expect him to be the one to take on the strain of mental bandwidth whenever there is a complicated technical problem to solve, it had better be worth his while in some way. What are you offering in exchange? If he's the one who has to diagnose engine problems at the side of the road, or troubleshoot leaky plumbing, where is the tradeoff on your end? Also, you are shortchanging yourself if you stand idly by during these episodes. Who will do this stuff for you if he quits one day?
If you rely on him to pay more than half on dates, do all the retirement planning, or earn the majority of your household income, then you'd better have something to bring to the table to make up those discrepancies. Personal charm? Beauty? Good luck with that. The traditional model means that he carries more of the financial load and the female carries more of the domestic load. Financial dependence is vulnerability in a bad way.
My mother taught me traditional housewifery. I have the full complement of June Cleaver-style abilities. I know how to darn socks, sew buttons, iron shirt collars, turn hospital bed corners, clean an oven, and all that kind of thing. I call it "geisha stuff." I can't bear a dirty, messy house. I know how to clean quickly and efficiently, so to me there's no reason to let things get out of hand. I would clean all of the same rooms whether I lived alone or with half a dozen housemates, and it only takes about 10% more work to do it for two than for one. I don't feel oppressed by this labor because I don't see it as "women's work" and I also don't feel degraded by it. I feel that it demonstrates my mastery of my own home. It's a way of marking my territory. Professional chefs clean their own counters.
Also, my husband does his share. We negotiated.
The more you do, the easier it is to ask someone else to do something. A clean house is its own supporting argument. The tidier it is, the easier it is to keep it that way. It explains itself, making it obvious where most things are stored and what 'clean' looks like. It also makes necessary home repairs stand out as urgent problems rather than chronic annoyances.
Nagging doesn't work. In my opinion, one of the reasons that it doesn't work is that it leaves out all the thousand things that the other party is doing right. It fails to acknowledge other types of contribution. It's accusatory and critical, rather than appreciative and welcoming. We often fall into sloppy habits of treating our partners like bad roommates or annoying coworkers, rather than lovers and mates. Another reason that nagging doesn't work is that we put the burden of something we want on someone else. "Fix that toilet!" rather than "Hey, I'm trying to figure out how to fix the toilet," or, "Hmm, why don't I think this is my job?"
A hazard of being in a relationship is that it can lead to arrested development. We get together and we quit learning new skills. We get together and we fall into bad communication habits that a new love (or total stranger) would never accept. We get together and forget what it's like to live alone and depend on ourselves alone. We give up our independence and get little in return except entropy.
I use tools for the same reason that I clean my house: it's what humans do. I master my surroundings. I am the boss of my life. I want to live the way I want to live, and I rely on myself to make that happen. It's great when I have someone else to pitch in, but ultimately, I'm my own responsibility. Knowing that I don't need anyone else makes more room for me to want someone else, to want him for who he is and not just for the practical roles he can fulfill in my life. A Tool Man, not a man I use as a tool.
This book is now going on my list of top three book recommendations of all time. It can change your life. Stuart Diamond is going to teach you all about Getting More, only not quite in the way that you might think. While the title may have been designed to attract readers for somewhat selfish reasons, the hidden secret is that using negotiation techniques allows everyone involved to get more.
Getting More is full of hundreds of stories from Diamond's students who had varying rates of success in negotiating anything from kids' bedtimes to apartment repair to discounts on high-end jewelry. It is eye-popping. Reading through all of these anecdotes from other people's daily lives is like discovering an entire new universe. It explains so much about why some people are "lucky" or get everything, while "this always happens" to others.
Most people who have worked in customer service or retail for even a single day will have vivid recollections of how pointlessly nasty and unreasonable customers can be. This will either make us unusually patient and cheerful in business transactions, or more critical. I would present the position that being friendly and kind to people gets more. In fact, it wasn't really until I read Getting More that I started to understand why I get freebies so often.
I have had planes held for me. I have gotten free drinks and appetizers. I have had double room upgrades. I have had charges waived. I have gotten free merchandise. I have gotten major discounts. None of this stuff did I ever think to ask for! As I read this book, I started to see that I had done the right thing over and over again, just by being easy to please and complimenting people on their work. There really is something to be said for possibly being the only pleasant customer interaction of someone's hour, day, week, or career.
If only everyone would read Getting More. Then more people would begin interactions from a place of mutual regard, rather than defensiveness, hostility, belligerence, or rudeness. Negotiating from a place of respect and trust will get better results from everyone, for everyone.
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.