It wasn’t until I nearly missed my flight home for Thanksgiving that I realized something important, something deep in my character. “You call yourself organized,” I lectured myself, looking at my textbook-sized day planner, “and you almost missed your flight.” My desire to feel “organized” often leads me to do things that actually CAUSE the problems that make me feel DISorganized. I was missing something fundamental and obvious, something that other people seemed to do effortlessly. This is when I had my bright idea.
The very next day, I pulled out my return tickets and my calendar, and I told myself a story.
The story itself doesn’t matter so much as the format. “You’re going to [DO THIS] because [OF THIS REASON] and then [THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN].”
I walked myself backward, step by step, through my upcoming Monday morning. Vivid in my mind was the major ramification of being late: MISSING MY FLIGHT! Pain! Sorrow! Long lines! Wasted money! I needed to estimate the time each segment of my trip would take: to the gate from security, through security from drop-off, to drop-off from my parents’ house. How long would it take me to get ready?
Hang on, this is relevant to tasks as well as event planning. Do you see why yet? Because you shouldn’t be doing tasks unless they are useful to you in some way. If something is useful for you to do for yourself, then you’ll want to do it by a specific time. If it isn’t time-bound, then you’ll want to do it in relation to some result that matters to you. This is why we work backward. We want the intended result to happen and we want to do the things that lead to that result. Often, when we start with an “organized” “to-do list,” we wind up doing things efficiently that have nothing to do with our intended results.
That’s why I was able to feel so “organized” even as I arrived at the airport forty minutes late and nearly missed my flight.
My careful one-bag packing, checking the weather report, coordinating my clothes and footwear, selecting books to read, menu-planning with four other people, doing laundry, clearing my desk, and cleaning house were all great things to do. They all tragically missed the real point, which was to GET ON THE PLANE ON TIME.
I caught my flight (read: made my cherished goal) by accident, unfairly and undeservedly. This was a negative result because it had the potential to teach incorrect lessons and reinforce destructive behaviors. Namely: being a derpy derp.
A flaw is a flaw everywhere. My tendency to space out and ignore important details, losing track of the main point, is a flaw in everything I do. That’s why this matters. It hurts me, myself. It also usually ripples out and annoys other people, damaging their trust and staining my reputation. Ultimately, though, why would I annoy my own self? Why would I keep doing things to myself that I hate?
This, then, is the bedrock, the foundation of the problem. Being “disorganized” means perpetually annoying myself. “Getting organized” means doing the relentless root cause analysis and taking the corrective action. Find the flaw and shake it until all its withered little poison fruits shake loose.
When I look at a clock time, say: 10:10, it means nothing to me. It’s just a series of numbers and punctuation marks. I can’t possibly care less. I’ve tried both analog and digital clocks with the same effects. I don’t work well in the time dimension. Those symbols are not real to me.
When I arrange it as a story problem, suddenly it clicks into place. “Once upon a time there was a charming young derpy derp who got to the airport late and missed her flight. Because it was a busy holiday weekend, she was not able to get another seat until Saturday. She missed Thanksgiving dinner. It was her only chance all year to see her nephew, and by the time she arrived, he had already gone home. Instead of the nine-person dinner party she’d anticipated for months, her favorite people in all the world, only three were still free to get together. And all the pie was gone.”
Now, when I do my planning, I see the face of my sweet nephew, surrounded by my family, arranged at the table one by one. This is my motivation. My reason for spending an extra ten minutes making my schedule is a human reason. I want to be with someone who is important to me, and I don’t want to let him down. Or any of the others. Or let myself down.
This is how to turn an ordinary to-do list into a story problem. Who will be affected by my inaction or procrastination? Who will be disappointed if I don’t follow through? Who will have to cover for me, even with everything else that’s going on in their life right now? Conversely, how will they feel if I pull through? How will everyone react if I do everything I said I would do, on time or early?
My next-level planning revolves around a more familiar face, derpy though it is, and that face is my own. What expression will I have when I realize that, despite my planning, I’m still so late that I won’t get any breakfast? That I’ll have to wait four hours to have anything to eat? SAD FACE! I estimate how long it will take me to order food and plug that into my story.
That’s the personal level of the story problem. How will I myself feel if I screw this up? What will I miss out on if I skate through with only the vaguest of intentions and no specifics? How embarrassed will I be if I put in a significant amount of effort on something, only to blow it at the last minute because I forgot a major detail?
I wrote a story to myself and put it in my reminders. First, I set an alarm with the label: “Order a Lyft by 8:00 or you won’t get any breakfast!” Bone-chilling. Then, I set an alert for my reminder story. It went like this: “This morning you’re going to go to PDX and get breakfast. You’ll land in Sacramento and have about an hour to get a burrito. Then you’ll fly to LAX and head home.” Following were two more sentences about what I had to do after I got home, reminding me of some preparations I could take during my flight and while I hung around at the airport.
It worked! I ordered the Lyft on time, I got to the airport on time, I had quite a nice breakfast, and three hours later I also had quite a nice lunch. I didn’t have to sprint, not even once. Not only that, I helped two different people by noticing something they had dropped and picking it up for them. My attention was where it needed to be.
There’s a productivity technique called “interstitial journaling.” It involves pausing between tasks and meetings to write notes about what you are thinking, what decisions you need to make, and why you are doing what you are doing. Something like “I need to eat dinner early tonight if I want to make it to class on time” or “I’m going to get a nagging email if I don’t submit this report by Tuesday.” This is similar to the narrative to-do list that I’m describing. If clock times and schedules don’t work well for you, as they don’t for me, then maybe this will help. If to-do lists never seem to get you anywhere, again, maybe this will work better for you.
“Once upon a time there was a faithful reader who saw a great blog post. A big lightbulb went on. Suddenly it was so obvious that a bunch of things on that musty, dusty old to-do list could just be removed and never thought of again! Suddenly it was so clear and simple: what to do next and why.”
Make two columns. On the right-hand side, write the things you enjoy the most. In my case, that would be sleeping in, hanging around in my pajamas reading and playing with my phone, playing board games with my family, and cooking and eating legendary meals. Now, in the left-hand column, write the things you find most annoying. In my case, again, those would be driving in traffic, looking for parking, waiting in line, being accosted by aggressive kiosk salespeople, going outside in cold and wet weather, having to smell a mix of strong perfumes, and leaf blowers. All but one of those are included in the typical Black Friday shopping trip. By a bizarre coincidence, I can avoid them AND indulge in my favorite things AT THE SAME TIME just by staying home!
That’s what I’m going to do, and I’m not going to stop there. I’ve already begun my annual shopping sabbatical, and it will continue until the New Year.
There are a lot of reasons for this, and I keep adding more to my list every year. My sabbatical keeps getting longer and longer as well.
One, I despise feeling pressured to shop or spend money or buy things. I find it rude. No, you’re not going to tell me how to spend my time. No, you’re not going to tell me what colors I’ll be wearing for the next few months. No, you’re not going to succeed by using peer pressure to make me act or dress or eat or spend in a certain way. Cretins.
Two, I loathe Christmas music with every fiber of my being. I can’t even begin to say how much it drives me up the wall. Every year, stores start playing it earlier and earlier, and every year, as soon as I notice, I shrug and write off that store until January. I always ask, and they always say the directive comes down from corporate. I’ve tweeted or emailed Starbucks and Barnes & Noble about this, and Whole Foods is next. SCHTAAAAAAAPPP!
WHY should a one-day holiday (or give it twelve per tradition) be “celebrated” for two months or more every year? Why? If you want to do it at home, go right on ahead. Festoon your entire house in tinsel, wear green and red stripes, play carols on your headphones every single day, knock yourself out. But do you really need every inch of public space to do it as well?
Ahem. Back to my list.
Three, I work with clutter and chronic disorganization, and it just breaks my heart that this time of year always sets my people back so much. On one hand, they have all the stress and anxiety of upending their finances to try to buy appropriate gifts for everyone on their list. Compulsive accumulators have a lot of trouble setting boundaries around this behavior, and this season pushes all their buttons like nothing else. Also, they find themselves paralyzed by the thought of letting go of gifts, even if they were totally anonymous and unsuitable. I always find unopened gift bags among the unopened shopping bags. Everything will still be in the wrapper with all the tags still on, often three or four years later. We passed what should have been Peak Holiday Madness at least a decade ago and it doesn’t get any easier for my crowd.
Four, my family usually eats Thanksgiving dinner on Friday instead of Thursday. Like many families, at least one person works on the holiday and we’ve done it this way since the Eighties. What, we’re going to skip one of our few chances to play Scrabble together just to fight traffic in the rain? Just to save a hundred bucks? My family Thanksgiving Friday is worth a lot more than a hundred dollars to me.
Five, my husband and I have financial goals, and for a variety of reasons, doing a bunch of shopping and exchanging a lot of gifts does not fit in with them. We live in a studio apartment, so where are we going to put a bunch of extra stuff? We’ve also done pretty well with saving 40% of our income and trying to get ahead on our retirement strategy. No amount of sales or coupons is going to take priority over our carefully agreed-upon plans.
Six, it’s just a good idea to build breaks into the schedule. That should be every day, every week, and of course every year. I like to take a couple of weeks and sort through our entire place to take inventory. Every drawer, every cupboard, every closet, every pocket. What do we have, and why? Do we need to fix or replace anything? Is there anything we actually do need? (Earlier this year, one of our sets of sheets basically disintegrated after five years of heavy use). We go through our account statements and compare our plans to our actuals, meaning we want to make sure the reality of our spending matches what we wanted it to be. This is how we get better at financial forecasting every year, how we’re able to save so much, and how we’re able to plan great vacations. An extra $25 a week translates to a nice chunk of change in the annual vacation envelope!
Seven, my position is that New Year’s Eve is the best holiday of the year. My favorite day is New Year’s Day, when my entire home is clean and organized, all my loops are closed from the previous year, and I have a fresh start for a fresh year. December is my precious planning period, the time I use to think and daydream and envision how I can make the biggest splash with my one and only lifetime.
Rather than finishing off the year in a frenzy of shopping, driving, parking, waiting in line, cooking, cleaning, gift-wrapping, hosting, eating, and spending, I prefer something else. Winter is traditionally a time to wind down, get more sleep, and prepare for the year ahead. Of course I’ll still visit people, and do some holiday cooking, and of course I’ll always do my annual cleaning rituals. But I refuse to have my holiday and family time dictated by advertisers and major corporate brands.
Times have changed, am I right? At some point twenty years into the future, everyone will have a precision individually calibrated dial-up 3D-printed custom food puck to accommodate every possible food intolerance. Either that, or the food itself will be genetically modified to eliminate allergies, and those who are afraid of GMOs will be reduced to foraging for acorns in the forest. (Acorns, because no strategy will ever stop squirrels from interfering with the propagation process. Except - GMO squirrels?). Today, though, we have the era we have. That’s an era when food isn’t food, it’s a symbol. When nutrition isn’t a science, it’s an ideology. When a menu isn’t a menu, it’s a minefield. Food is the new secular faith, and if you’re doing any kind of holiday meal, you’ve surely become aware of this trend. It’s time to feed your weirdos.
Cards on the table. I’ve been vegan for over twenty years and vegetarian for twenty-five. Back in the early Nineties, there weren’t really any other major dietary trends that reached pop culture awareness. At that time, the only people who had really ever heard the word ‘vegan’ tended to be waiters or cooks. I’d get stuff like, “Oh, you should have told me you were veggie, I would have made you a tuna fish sandwich.” I found myself on the front lines of food trends, because people would ask me if I [ate wheat, read X book, had heard of Dr. So-and-So, knew their auntie]. These days, I can barely keep track of it all, and I’m only one of many.
One year, I had to redo my entire menu because someone in my circle wasn’t eating potatoes.
POTATOES, I am a person of Irish heritage, so I ask of you...
I’ve worked around people who will not or cannot eat:
Gluten, of course
Fruit and sugar together
Naturally, dairy, eggs, fish, other meats
It’s funny when the lightbulb goes on over the head of an otherwise-omnivore who has a serious food allergy to a food that I avoid as a matter of course. Suddenly they realize that if I’m eating it, it’s safe for them. If I brought it, they can trust that it’s dairy-free. (My husband is one of these, someone who is just tired of being brought to his knees by conventional food that makes him ill). I try to build trust with my friends that I get it. I get what it’s like to have to scour every ingredient list, to check the ingredients OF the ingredients. I get what it’s like to feel embattled and alone, pressured by people who truly don’t care what I eat, but simply enjoy teasing and poking and prodding at anyone who stands out for any reason.
There are separate and distinct groups out there. I don’t just mean the Paleo crowd, the gluten-free crowd, that sort of thing. I mean there is a group of people who have been driven to the fringes by mysterious health issues. Then there’s a group of people who are natural optimizers, who like to experiment and collect data. Then there are ideologues like myself and some of the Paleo peeps. We do what we do for different reasons, different internal motivations. What we have in common is that we are done with the societal expectation that everyone should eat the same thing at group meals.
This is rough on everyone else.
It’s rough for a lot of reasons. One, every deviation from a standard group menu takes extra time and concentration. It is an imposition on the host, on the cook, on the resources of the kitchen. I say that with love because I AM that imposition and I am also that cook and that hostess. Two, these diets have complicated guidelines, to the point that it can feel like a graduate-level seminar just to understand the ground rules. Three, every single one of our beloved and cherished alternative diets is more expensive than the standard. Nobody says, “Oh, I’m on the ramen and spotty bananas diet.” Not everyone can afford to cover it! It’s very awkward to bring up. Four, the more of us there are, the more complex it gets.
Another thing that I hesitate to bring up is that we’re on the overlap between food taboos and lifestyle, between purity and preference.
What I mean by that is that all it takes is one individual who is still in the learning or experimental stage, who occasionally takes a bite of something off-plan, to spoil the image of that group’s requirements for everyone.
I’ve (more than once, I tell you I have) put together a complete gluten-free menu, from main course to dessert, for a single guest who has clinical dietary requirements. Off to the side, a separate main course and a loaf of conventional wheat bread for everyone else, because hey, GF is expensive and sometimes not thrilling for the rest of us. Then we sit there and watch as the GF person, who has just eaten a full four-course meal, goes in and starts eating the totally not-okay clearly labeled bread off the other counter. But that makes you sick! Don’t do it! “Oh, sometimes I give in.”
Look, I tried. I’ll continue to try. Because it’s not a matter of personal perfection or religious compliance or scientific consistency. It’s a matter of choice and taste. Even if the person does have a serious health issue, it still falls under the category of “my friend likes it this way.” Why would I not do what I can for someone I like, a guest at my table?
My niece complained that I put onions in the Mexican casserole. Normally I would tell the parent of a whiny six-year-old to make the kid a sandwich and we’ll try again when they’re a year older. That time, I considered her question and made the executive decision to quit putting the onions in that dish. The rest of us can just add chunky salsa. Less work for me.
A pair of squirrels live in the tree outside our front door. They’re habituated, chubby city squirrels and they come up and ask for handouts. They have let us know in no uncertain terms that they appreciate almonds, walnuts, and unsweetened dried cranberries, but they do not care for pumpkin seeds. The nerve of these chubsters, I tell ya. Guess what. I give them the walnuts. I do it because it’s more fun as a host to smile over a satisfied guest who plans to come back.
As a guest, I’m out to make friends. True, I’m not going to have a very strong friendship with someone who mocks my choices, tries to trick or pressure me into eating stuff, or questions my lifestyle. I’m like this every day, you know. I’m not pretending just to annoy you tonight. When I go to a social occasion with people I don’t already know, my goal is to be as low-maintenance as possible. I usually bring an emergency sandwich in my bag, and it’s my job not to be famished or fainting with hunger when I arrive. I will change the subject if it comes up, because a party is not the place to talk about my weird lifestyle. It’s not about me, or if it is, my diet is the very least part of me that I’d want to share with new friends. I hate being remembered as “that person.”
On the other hand, I want my guests to feel, when they come to my home, that they’ve been taken care of. That I paid attention and anticipated their needs. That I take them seriously. That if they want their name spelled out in pine nuts, I tried to use the right font. If someone ever got sick from eating at my table, I’d throw myself off a bridge. With this one lifetime that I have, I aspire to magnanimity as a host, to an elevated level of welcome that might transform a few hours of life for my guests and friends.
Feed your weirdos. If nothing else, it’s a chance to learn something new, an experience that makes for a good story. If I’m right, it’s also the wave of the future.
Dating a broke guy is a highly underrated strategy for romance. The state of broke-ness is usually temporary, part of a life transition that will be much improved when the situation is resolved. It’s an opportunity to find out a lot about someone’s character. If you like him when he’s broke and going through a rough time, you’ll probably like him even more when things are back to normal. There are numerous other advantages. Maybe you’re dating a broke guy right now, and you haven’t even realized what a lucky time this is.
Being broke is not in itself a desirable trait. It can be the result of some bad things, and sometimes the result of bad choices. Say, if someone embezzled money from work and got caught, or is deep in addiction to gambling or whatever. Then it depends completely on this person’s commitment to inner work. If someone is suffering as a result of harmful behavior, won’t admit it, won’t accept accountability, and refuses to change, well then... Money isn’t the problem.
Think of these types of problems whenever your crush is going through a tough time. It can help you both to keep your perspective.
Being broke might be the result of positive change, too. For instance, anyone in school is probably poor as heck. Starting a business, remodeling a house, or having small children are also positive changes that tend to impact the wallet. Maybe this guy is a big dreamer who plans ahead and works hard. Maybe he’s willing to make smart sacrifices in the short term for big gains later on. This is the ideal scenario. Meeting someone at this stage of life is like finding a major bargain on sale. Jump up and grab it while you can.
Sometimes someone is broke due to temporary difficulty, like divorce or short-term disability. This can involve a lot of stress and emotional pain. The hidden gift in this kind of situation is that you get the chance to see this man at his lowest ebb. If you still like him when he’s at his worst, then everything will be so much better when he gets his feet under him again. The added value here is that he can learn to trust your friendship and loyalty when he needs you the most. He’ll be more open with you in easier times.
Being broke can also be a mutual decision. I write about this quite a bit, as my hubby and I are midway through a temporary downsizing move into a studio apartment. We save 40% of our income, something it would be really hard to do in a typical suburban house with one or two vehicles. Two adults and two pets in a 612-square-foot apartment with one closet and no bedroom door! Acting broke when you are not in fact actually broke is very different. We know we have insurance and savings and investments and an income stream. We have paradoxically more options. We can knock ourselves out on vacation. Other luxuries become accessible. As an example, I just bought a set of thousand-thread-count sheets on closeout for $45. We’ve been wallowing in them in a way we never would, just by spending an extra $10,000 a year in rent on a more normal-sized residence.
In my twenties, I pretty much only dated broke guys because that is the natural state of people in their twenties. I was impressed if my date showed up in a car that he owned, even if he had to start it with a screwdriver. I was impressed if my date lived on his own, even if he had four roommates. My friends and I spent a lot of time in those days doing free and fun stuff that people in their thirties and older usually stop doing altogether. Sitting on the floor playing cards or board games for hours, lip-syncing and dancing to songs on the radio, peeling oranges and talking the day away, going on picnics, wandering the bookstore. All we had in those days was time. Now we all have money but we never have the time for those endless afternoons of leisure anymore.
A broke guy will do things to impress his new girlfriend that a financially prosperous guy might never think to try. An hour-long massage? Check. Breakfast in bed? Anything for you. Mix tapes? Mmhmm. If you like him and you’re good to him, a broke guy won’t believe his incredible luck in meeting someone like you. A guy with money and a career may be complacent, or simply too busy to give you much thought.
Single men often complain that women only care about money, that we’ll always go for the guy with the better job or the nicer car. I honestly think that is false. From my perspective, what’s important in an adult person is a feeling of drive, purpose, and engagement. In SOMETHING. Usually that happens to be a career. Ideally, our work is the biggest contribution we can make with our energy and focus. If that happens to generate cash flow, fantastic. Often the process of discovering that outlet and earning the appropriate credentials includes a brief period of financial strain. This is why it can be so much fun to date a student, someone who will eat a sandwich on a park bench with you while genuinely engaging in lengthy discussions about anything and everything. Interesting people don’t always have any money and having money in itself is usually not very interesting.
I happened to meet my husband at a time when we both were at a low financial ebb. It was a bonding experience, the exact thing that made us friends. We used to sit around on our lunch break at work talking about all our money problems. One day we looked up and realized that everyone we knew assumed we were dating. Why was that?? Hmm. Now that I think about it, it’s probably because MARRIED people spend a lot of time sitting around and talking about money problems! Becoming friends when we didn’t have any money helped us to trust each other and listen to each other’s advice. It also gave us plenty of free things to do for fun. That’s why we’re able to save so much money together without feeling dissatisfied and frustrated.
Something important I would really like to say about money is that it’s simply a form of energy, a metric for tracking how we are doing in certain areas of life. There’s absolutely no reason to rely on a man for prosperity or financial comforts. Go after them and get them for yourself. Maybe your broke guy is simply not an ambitious person. Maybe he’ll be delighted to cheer you on and give you emotional support while you chase your own dreams of success. Maybe you earn all the income and he meets you in other ways. Looking at financial partnership in this way would probably resolve a lot of quarrels and create a lot of dazzlingly successful marriages. Choose your romances based on how much you like each other and how well you get along, and let the money part be more or less irrelevant.
I’m vegan and my husband is not. More to the point, my parents are now also vegan and his are... not. As a passionate cook, I have planned menus around a million different food preferences, and it’s all the same to me. I want my friends to be happy and have a great meal. Unfortunately, most people don’t feel this way. They feel threatened or, at best, annoyed when anyone eats differently than they do. Let me share what I’ve learned over the past quarter-century.
First off, I often find that other people’s food preferences are dumb, gross, selfish, unscientific, or expensive. I’m sure other people feel much the same way about mine. Social occasions are about having a good time together and getting to know each other better, and maybe even practicing our skills of patience, compassion, and negotiation. It shouldn’t be about the food, unless we are all chanting YUMMMMMM in unison.
It’s none of my business how other people choose to eat, just as it is none of their business how I do.
Almost everyone has an EWW, YUCK food that they would not eat for a million dollars. That’s fine. I believe in free will. I also believe that people should tactfully avoid what they don’t want to eat without talking about it so much. Can we just avoid expressions of disgust altogether? The worst offenders here are parents who let their kids go on for pages, monologuing about the rancid, putrefying atrocity of an abomination that anyone would dare put in the same room as them. Please, at the bare minimum pay your children off to quit talking about what they think is gross. I. Do. Not. Care.
It always gets me, though, that it’s totally fine and socially acceptable, encouraged even, for people to talk about how much they hate Brussels sprouts, or sweet potatoes, or cauliflower, or if they ask for their dressing on the side. Yet if I don’t want cheese on my food, I’m evil and I have a militant political agenda. False. It is my right as a consumer to buy and eat what I want, and to not buy and not eat what I do not want. Forcing your guests to eat something is not being a host, it’s being a bully. Hospitality means putting your guests’ comfort first even when they piss you off.
I cook a lot of gluten-free food for my friends, even though I can and do eat wheat at every opportunity. Guess what? I can still eat GF and so can the other guests. (Soup, salad, vegetable and grain sides, maybe cornbread, many desserts). I often know a lot more about deciphering lists of ingredients and avoiding cross-contamination than my guests do, because I may well have been scouring labels since before they were born. Vegans and GF people are natural allies. About 2% of the population is likely gluten-sensitive. About ten times more than that seem to think they are, when really their issue is likely to be yeast or fructan, which they would only find out if they went in and got themselves clinically tested. That, again, is none of my business, but I can only help if I come across as an ally.
How do my husband and I handle our different diets? As it turns out, even though he occasionally eats meat, he is about 90% vegan. Unlike me, he has a serious allergy to dairy foods; he’s gotten violently ill from eating a chocolate chip cookie that had a little butter. It’s a relief to him to know that when he eats with my family, he won’t be sick later. When we eat with my family, my parents always ask around and try to round up some turkey for him, which he finds embarrassing and unnecessary, although believe me, every single house in that zip code would happily donate a plate of turkey for the hostage over there at the vegan house. When we eat with his family, we bring a “holiday roast” that I can sneak into the oven while he is making his justifiably famous mashed potatoes.
We both eat: mashed potatoes, rolls, cornbread, cranberry sauce, all vegetables, most beverages, pie (if it’s done right), and almost all snacks. The difference is that I like squash and he doesn’t.
There’s a really weird double standard around guesting and hosting as a vegan. As a guest, everyone expects me to EAT WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS EATING, because otherwise it would insult my host and I would be rude. YET, as a host, I’m expected to SERVE MY GUESTS WHAT THEY LIKE TO EAT, because as a host I am required to put my guests first. So which is it? If the host should give the guests what they prefer, then I would have to 1. Have meat catered to my guests while I 2. Sit back and enjoy the sumptuous vegan feasts that my hosts put out when I come over. If the guests should eat what is put in front of them, then I would have to 1. Politely hide my portion of carcass under a napkin and 2. Serve my own guests tempeh and kale while laughing maniacally. There can’t be a rule where only I am expected to conform in every situation, because that is a double standard.
Notice that everything I eat is included on the Venn diagram of what everyone else eats. That’s why my meat-eating husband has been able to survive sharing meals with me for thirteen years. I’m an excellent cook. I know how to choose crowd-pleasing dishes and I always laugh quietly when my potluck contribution vanishes. I do have friends who have brought bags of fast food to my table, people who utterly refuse to touch a single bite of what I make, and that’s fine. I expect those same friends to be equally tolerant when I show up at their place with a microwaveable enchilada or pot pie in my bag.
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t want to convert anyone. They’d just screw it up and then complain that there’s something wrong with the lifestyle, rather than their mediocre-to-poor application. About 80% of people who try being vegan eventually quit. Therefore, it’s backward to try to pull anyone over the line to my side. I say, “You eat what you eat, and I eat what I eat.” I hate when the topic comes up, because I loathe debates and I refuse to argue. I’ll tell people, “If you can come up with a vegan joke I’ve never heard, I’ll pay you a dollar.” My approach seems to work, because I have indeed converted a few people over the years, including my parents and two ex-boyfriends (years after we split up). It generally takes at least three years of exposure to a radical new idea before people start to feel genuinely curious about it.
My food is expensive and often of a higher culinary order, because I love cooking and I’ve tested hundreds of recipes. I don’t really want to share, especially when my dish (you know, the dinner I had to bring for myself) vanishes and there’s nothing left on the table that meets my guidelines. You’ll see this at every office pizza party, when the veggie pizza goes first and all that’s left is the congealed fright-pie of pepperoni. Thanks for nothing.
Ultimately, the one thing we know does not work is for one person to try to force another person to change their food preferences. We start developing our tastes before we’re even born, as, for example, babies from cultures that eat very spicy food start to build a tolerance before they are weaned. There is nothing harder to change than an eating habit. It’s also a tribal identifier, and that’s why people can be so belligerent and awful about hazing anyone who won’t eat from the communal table. They feel like it makes us untrustworthy, selfish, spoiled, and rude. (Just as I often feel bullied, pressured, ridiculed, or even tricked or lied to). Let’s do what we can to focus on the conversation and group fun, not the mechanical aspects of getting everyone fed.
Where did this year go? Holiday decorations are already out, my day planner is almost fully consumed, and suddenly it’s time to get ready for Thanksgiving. This is an ideal time to start preparing, whether you are traveling or hosting. By ‘preparing’ I mean emotionally as well as structurally. Do a little each day, and make it easier on yourself when the big day comes.
One of the first things to do is to clarify your expectations. This can be tough because the marketing is always about togetherness and terrific food, yet the reality can be more like bare-knuckle boxing in front of a turkey-shaped bonfire. My personal tendency is to want to spend a full month planning the menu, a week meticulously detailing my house with a toothbrush and cotton swabs, and three days of cooking. Then I wind up stressing myself out so much that I have to go sit in a closet for a while before I can finish making the dessert.
This is one of the surprising advantages of living in a studio apartment. Absolutely nobody expects or wants you to host the dinner.
Holidays are the time to practice your utmost negotiation and mediation skills. It’s the fakery that makes it difficult, both pretending that everything is going to be “perfect” this time when you know it can never be, and pretending to get along with people who insist on stomping on your last nerve. Be real, at least with yourself, and certainly with your partner. Set those boundaries well in advance.
Emotional boundaries, acceptable behavior, that’s what we’re talking about. It’s your job to collect your relatives when they misbehave, and it’s your partner’s job to collect theirs. If either one of you takes your family’s side over that of your partner, well, that’s wrong. You have to stand up for each other. Or, you shouldn’t have to, but if it must be done, do it quickly and do it clearly. You want to stamp that sort of thing out before it has a chance to spread to future years.
Now is the time to practice diversionary techniques. Changing the subject is a last-ditch response to problematic conversation topics. It’s possible to stop that kind of trouble before it starts by planning around it. Play games, fill the schedule with non-sensitive topics, and shamelessly exploit any children or pets for their inherent cute factor.
I’m extraordinarily lucky with my family. Not only can we all talk politics together, but it’s often a conversation that makes us feel closer. Better than that, we have compatible food preferences. We can trust each other not to try to sneak in any dishonest ingredients. This makes it that much less fun, though, when I wind up visiting with anyone else who 1. lives to quarrel and/or 2. thinks it’s funny to trick people into eating things that make them ill. Dude, don’t take other people’s food issues personally; it’s not about you.
Here are some techniques I use to avoid explosive conversations and food battles:
Nobody is entitled to my opinion and I don’t owe anyone a debate on any topic, whether that’s what phone I use, whether I should supposedly follow a sportsball team, or what route would be optimal for my journey home, much less broader current events or social issues. I am fully, fully prepared to stand up for myself and give anyone the tongue-lashing of a lifetime, but when I’m at someone else’s party, I will do anything to efface myself and preserve harmony. Say it with me: a holiday party is not a debate. A HOLIDAY PARTY IS NOT A DEBATE.
Of course, politics isn’t the only emotional minefield. The holidays are a great time for bringing up grievances and old war wounds. I just say, “I agree,” and “you’re right” and “I’m sorry, I wish I hadn’t done that.” In a pinch, offer to go to group therapy with them and ask if they want you to schedule it on Monday.
If you’re hosting and you’re freaking out about getting your house ready, take a breath and plan now.
If I were doing it again in a standard-sized suburban house, I would focus one day on the dining room, one day on the living room, one day on the bathroom, and one day on the kitchen. Then I’d make myself stop and switch my focus to the shopping and prep work. I always do as much as possible in the two days before, whether that’s making stock, measuring ingredients, or washing and chopping vegetables. Then I think about how I can coast for a few days on my nice clean place and my fridge full of yummy leftovers.
Ultimately, Thanksgiving is a predictable event. That’s what people like about it. You probably know who will be there, how they will behave, what sorts of conversations they’ll bring up, and what they will or will not eat. After the day, you can go back to normal life. Try to make the most of it, because in its ideal form, this really is the perfect day for taking group photos, eating pie, and of course putting olives on your fingertips.
Information is not motivation, and common knowledge is not common action. Basically this means that we know everything we need to know in order to get started, but it isn’t enough. No matter what it is that we’d like to do, for some reason, we aren’t doing it. Maybe we just aren’t juiced up enough about the benefits of change. Maybe we’re unsure about how getting the goal will change our relationships. Probably it’s different for every person and every situation. One thing that seems to be working for me is the contrary approach of imagining the worst version of something. How is what I’m doing as bad as it could be, and how could it be worse?
Let’s say I’m thinking about my car. I don’t actually own a car right now, so this is purely a figment of my imagination. The worst version of “my car” would be: unsafe, unreliable, smelly, dirty, filled with trash, and expensive. I’m picturing something that’s burning oil, with a black smoky cloud pouring out from behind me. The brakes are failing! The “check engine” light constantly flickers on and off. The body is rusting out, I have a broken tail light, one of the side windows is broken and replaced with cardboard and tape, and the passenger door lock doesn’t work. The interior smells like spoiled milk, the floors are covered with wrappers and food crumbs of every color, and there’s a suspicious stain on the seat. It gets 16 miles to the gallon and I’m still making payments. The glove compartment is so full of unpaid parking tickets that it won’t close.
Want me to swing by and pick you up?
Honestly, thinking about this “worst version” of a car makes me feel really smug about walking everywhere. I pulled that description from actual vehicles in which I have ridden. I could make this worst version slightly worse, although less realistic, by adding more broken windows or engine problems. At the point at which it is no longer operational, it stops being a “vehicle” and transitions to “junk.” Perhaps junk that is more valuable than other junk, like a broken and obsolete washing machine, but junk it still is.
This worst version method can be applied to other things.
Worst job: Underpaid, no benefits, unethical business practices, mean and domineering boss, unsafe working conditions, long commute, rude customers, no path to advancement, no social contribution
Worst relationship: Dishonest, dysfunctional; partner is contemptuous, hypercritical, and unpredictably disappears or cuts communication for no obvious reason. Can I say that if it’s violent then it isn’t a relationship, it’s a slow-motion crime?
Worst desk: Can’t work there, just looking at it stresses me out, covered with clutter, uncomfortable to sit there, poor lighting, not enough power outlets, other people dump their stuff on it
Worst shoes: Give me blisters, wearing them for more than an hour makes me walk with a limp, only match one outfit (or zero)
Worst lunch: Diet Coke and a bag of microwave popcorn
Worst cat: Actually an opossum
There are two benefits to using the worst version method. First, when things are bad, it can help to get at least a weak chuckle by imagining how they could be worse. Second, it can draw attention to ways we’ve been tolerating the intolerable. That perspective can be the jolt that we need to get moving, to take action and set limits.
Worst neighbor: Accidentally shot out our living room window, their dog got loose and attacked our dog
Worst landlord: Lived next door, had chronic domestic disputes
What do we do with this information? OKAY, TIME TO MOVE
Complaining is of very limited use. Its purpose should be to clarify our true desires. If not this, then what?
I had a silverware sorter in chrome. I thought it looked great. Then one day, one of the wires came loose and I managed to ram it under my fingernail. Bled everywhere. TIME TO GO! We shouldn’t be assaulted by our own stuff.
When we’re clear and certain about what we find unacceptable, we can rule it out. Nothing that makes us bleed, et cetera. It’s that response of OH HECK NO that abruptly puts a stop to ruts and habitual behavior that doesn’t serve us.
If not this, then what?
Ask that again and again.
If not this job, or one just like it, then what? How would we define a “good” boss or a “reasonable” commute?
If not this relationship, then what? Taking some time to be alone for a while, that might be good. What does “good communication” sound like? What does “functional” feel like?
If not this financial problem, then what? What will it take to reach a place of peace and clarity here?
If not this persistent physical annoyance, then what? What do we want for our bodies? Agility, symmetry, high energy, supple muscles, speed, power, strength, clear skin, a strong immune system? What specifically?
If not this room, then where? What would a dream office/bedroom/kitchen/living room look like? How would it feel to inhabit this space?
Most of all, what is the worst version of myself? When am I at my lowest? Selfish, inconsiderate, bored, envious, whiny, unproductive, not contributing or doing anything interesting, too much unstructured time, out of physical balance, no direction or purpose, making life difficult for other people, stuck and unhappy. What else?
Let’s not be our worst selves. Let’s not live the worst version of our lives, okay? If we’re ever going to make the world a better place, we’ll do it by always looking up to at least a slightly higher standard.
I’m not a housewife, because I married a man, not a building. Perhaps it’s also fair to admit that my heart was already taken. I gave myself over to books so long ago that I had to remind myself to save room for gentleman callers. Not so much as an entire shelf; that would be quite an ask. Ah, but a massive multi-volume epic can fit in just a few inches. Coziness is one of the many fine features of the bookwife as a mate.
A boyfriend asked me once: “You love books more than me, don’t you?” I gaped at him. What a foolish question. Did he really and truly believe that he, a mere mortal boy, could rise in importance above the sum total of human art and wisdom? That he could embody a personality more fascinating and engrossing than every novel combined? That one lifespan could be greater than millennia of accumulated knowledge?
The year: 1991.
An updated version of this question would have to go something like this:
“You love the internet more than me, don’t you?”
Um, don’t go there.
Fast forward a few years. My ex-husband said to me: “The amount that you read is unnatural.” I might have replied that the amount of time he spent playing video games was unnatural, but I didn’t bother. What is a natural amount of reading? Zero? Reading is a function of civilization, not nature, although I adore the thought of a squirrel or zebu curled up around a good book.
I had nothing suitable to say to a man who felt uncomfortable with my reading habits, a man who challenged my whereabouts because I stopped at the library on my way home from work a few times a week. A woman has needs.
Whatever there is to love about me, it’s come from books. There is no way to separate the person I am from the books that have shaped me. My vocabulary, my ability to empathize with people from different walks of life, my curiosity, my ability to attend to long, drawn-out stories with dubious payoff, all are bedrock features of my personality.
Personality isn’t as important in the long run as behavior. It’s what we do or don’t do, how easy it is to live with our habits, that makes us good mates. As a bookwife, what I need most is a certain amount of private time and a certain measurable amount of mental bandwidth. Well, that, and access to large independent bookstores, plenty of shelf space, the most comfortable chair... Think of all the things you can do while I’m reading. While I’m occupied with my book, you’re free to be yourself and give yourself over to your own interests.
I make no apologies for my habits. They’re mine, and they were well in place long before I met you. Surely you noticed that I never went anywhere without a book, that I never walked past a bookstore without pausing to scan the titles in the window, that my bag and car and apartment were full of books. You saw the red flags, the satin ribbons marking the pages. Did you think that love would change me? Did you think I’d turn over a new leaf?
Look at me. Look at the upside. You always know where I am. The only recreational shopping I do is for new titles. Go ahead and laugh as I hold a book in one hand and stir the risotto with the other; who else do you know who’s getting homemade risotto tonight? Whatever else you can say about us, a bookwife has many fine domestic qualities, and being predictably at home is not the least of them.
There’s a book-shaped place in my heart that will never be filled with anything else. Why have it any other way? I belong to books, and I belong to myself. Books are entitled, and I’m entitled, too, entitled to my own interests and pursuits.
I’m a bookwife, first and foremost. It’s what I have to give. Be proud that you’ve captured my attention and confident that no man will ever come before you.
Halloween is the best time to talk about our mortality. In the past, I’ve talked about becoming a whole-body donor and about the importance of the advance care directive. This year I’m going to talk about what happens if you die without a will. Two-thirds of people do. It’s very high on the list of most commonly procrastinated tasks. Who wants to think about dying? Who cares what happens afterward? Rather than let that type of passivity run your life, take a day and make the arrangements properly. Then you can move forward and never think about it again.
Most people probably don’t need a will, not really. If you don’t own a house and/or you don’t have any kids, go in peace. Both of those conditions apply to me. I have an adult stepdaughter, sure, but she’s responsible for herself. If I go before my husband does, then all of my money and property become his. That’s how I’d want it. I don’t have life insurance because there would be no need to replace my income. I also don’t really own anything, not a car, not real estate, not expensive jewelry or furs or whatever. The only things I care about after I go are who would take care of my little parrot Noelle, and what happens to my blog when my domain name expires.
People don’t think about that kind of thing often enough. Who takes your kitties? What if you’re just in the hospital for four days, does someone water your plants?
When you die, everything becomes someone else’s problem. What exactly happens, though?
Your mail continues to show up at your mailing address until someone notifies the post office and/or the senders that you are deceased.
Your bills continue to accrue in your name. Someone has to call all of your utility providers and banks, one by one, and let them know you have passed on. They will wait a certain amount of time and then start calling again, wanting the estate to pay off all the account balances. This process will be ongoing long before the courts have made things official on their end.
The hospital has to issue a death certificate. This can take weeks or months and is subject to mystifying delays.
Then, if there is no will, someone has to be appointed as executor or personal representative. This is another process that takes an unfathomable amount of time. None of the bills of the estate can be settled until this is done.
If there is a spouse, the estate goes to that person, even if you’ve separated and you hate each other, unless divorce papers were filed. EVEN THEN! If you had any insurance policies or old accounts with that person recorded as beneficiary, even from decades ago, that person gets your money.
If there is no spouse but there are kids, they stand equal as next of kin. This can be complicated, because most likely they will start squabbling over who gets to make which decisions, what you supposedly said you wanted, and who gets what goodies. Your procrastinating on writing a will may be the single reason that all your kids stop being on speaking terms for the rest of their lives.
If you have a house, and you also have unpaid bills, and not enough money in your accounts to pay them all, then the house must be sold. No matter who lives in it. In the meantime, if the mortgage doesn’t get paid, then the bank can move along toward foreclosure. Probate is not protective against foreclosure.
What happens to your stuff? Someone has to go through it all and throw it away, donate it, sort it out to make sure it’s given to the “correct” recipient, sell it, or, most likely, pay for a storage unit and keep it all in boxes forever and ever. Precisely zero of my clutter clients have ever gotten rid of any of their grief boxes. They’ll save your old potholders, your jigsaw puzzles missing a piece, your dentures, all of it. I’ve seen hairbrushes saved for several years with the hair still in them.
The more complicated your affairs, the more likely that at least one of your loved ones will never get past it. They’ll never move on. Your passing will be the wound that never heals.
The more I work with clutter, the more of it I expel from my life. Every time I do a home visit, I come home and get rid of another bag of stuff. I’ve sworn off home visits entirely, but it seems impossible to quit for my inner circle. For myself, I can’t have it. We are given neither the day nor the hour, and I might leave this world this very afternoon. That’s why I’ve already put most of my affairs in order. I burned my old diaries, I scanned my photos, I filled out an advance care directive and had it witnessed, I made arrangements to be a whole body donor and I am constantly showing the card to people. It’s the orange thing in my wallet in front of my driver’s license. The toll-free number is on the emergency alert section of my phone. I don’t even have any house plants.
One day, there will be the sad task of scraping away my few personal effects. I may pay someone to do it in advance. Throw away my toothpaste and my leftovers from the fridge and my socks and underwear. Hopefully the stuff I’ve left behind is the least of me.
What we’re called upon to do in this world and this lifetime is to love one another. Love each other, that’s all. Mostly we should do this in the present moment, today, and today, and today again, because today is all we really have. Another way to love our loved ones is to straighten out our affairs as well as possible. The legacy we leave behind should be one of love, of unforgettable words of kindness, of great stories, of friendships that stood the test of time. Let what we leave behind be impossible to ever put in a box.
Breakups are sad. It wasn’t until the first time I broke up with someone that I understood it can be more painful than being on the receiving end. Then I started doing my clutter work, and I found a new level of sadness, which is when one person constantly thinks about breaking up, doesn’t do it, and the other person has no idea. I get random letters at least once a year from someone or other (who I barely know) who wants advice on whether to get a divorce. As a divorced person who remarried, this eats me up. I feel like almost all of these marriages have nothing wrong with them except that someone isn’t telling the whole truth.
Other times, I think the person who wants to leave is setting up not just heartbreak, but a bit of a disaster.
Look, you loved each other once. Why was that? What were the qualities inside this person that originally attracted you? Are they still there?
Have you actually said, in plain words, what’s bothering you?
People tell me the truth about why they want a divorce. They can tell me because they see me as a sort of bartender. It’s far easier to say these things to an anonymous string of text than it is to say them face to face. It’s also easier to say to a stranger, or an acquaintance, than it is to a friend or family member. Or the actual person!
What do they say? What are their real reasons?
Once it was... a stack. A stack of clutter consisting of books, magazines, mail, music CDs, computer disks, binders, folders, and random papers, this stack had been in a corner for over a year. Rather than mention it directly, this spouse and parent was ready to go to a lawyer and ask for a divorce over it. “It’s over a foot high!” I got a photo of it, as though I don’t know what clutter looks like. This stack represented a character flaw, a fundamental aesthetic difference, or from the stacker’s perspective, nothing at all.
Once it was... a dish towel. A white decorative dish towel, it hung on the kitchen wall directly next to the garage door. “Somehow” it kept getting greasy black handprints on it. This dish towel, just like the stack of clutter in the previous example, became a symbol of supposedly irreconcilable differences.
There are more examples. Often they are more complicated. Lengthy unemployment, significant weight gain, excessive spending, refusal to do an equal share of parenting or cooking or housework, constant gaming, refusal to get treatment for snoring or some other health problem. What they have in common, though, is that they are situational or behavioral. They are not character flaws or personality traits. They’re just actions, actions that are therefore up for negotiation and boundary-setting.
At this point I should say that at least some of the time, the relationship is doomed to failure and maybe never should have been started. When this is the case, it’s better to break up sooner rather than later. You’re never doing anyone any favors by dragging it out. The only exception would be if you’re in danger of abdicating a responsibility and breaking a contract. You should probably break up if you have incompatible values or if you want fundamentally different things out of life.
Also if there’s violence of any kind. If someone is being violent, then it’s not a relationship, it’s an association.
Let’s imagine you’ve already said your say, clearly and unequivocally. “I’d like you to move this stack of stuff to your desk or your closet by the end of the week, please. It’s driving me crazy.” “Stop wiping axle grease on the kitchen towels. Get some shop rags.” The partner’s reply is contemptuous, defensive, hypercritical, belligerent, or otherwise a sign of being a bad roommate. You’ve tried and you’re done trying and you know it’s time to go.
I didn’t see this option for myself in my first marriage; I didn’t see the divorce coming at all. I was blindsided. Due to my lack of preparation, I spent the next few years in absolute penury. It’s fair to say that it ruined my life. Granted, that was temporary. We never would have made it anyway. Splitting up allowed me to go back to school, get my degree, meet someone new, and eventually find a much greater happiness. The first year was freaking horrible, though. Do not underestimate how hard it can be, especially if you haven’t been on your own in a long time.
Before you break up, get your ducks in a row.
Do you have an emergency backup plan if things get weird?
(My backup plan: a couple of secret stashes of cash, a large credit line, private accounts of hotel and airline points, a go bag, and martial arts training. I’d go out the window naked and run down the street barefoot if I had to, but I’d leave some marks first).
Where are you going to go? Do you want to start over in a new city? Do you have some roommate options? Can you afford your own place?
What are you going to do for money? Do you have ideas for a career upgrade? A lot of times, the one who is planning to leave is the higher earner anyway.
Having your own money and your own sense of power and agency is really important to being a full partner in a relationship. You can stay when you know you can go, if that makes sense. My husband knows I’m with him because I want to be, because I like him, and because I like how he treats me. Why would either of us want anything else?
There are some other things that need to be said about fantasy breakups. If there are things you want that you aren’t getting, do you need to leave the relationship to make them happen? Were you somehow hoping that a romantic partner would get them for you? (Domestic contentment, life satisfaction, feeling healed and loved and pretty, material comforts you could buy yourself?)
Are there problems you’ll carry with you, even if you “start over” with someone new? Jealousy, resentment, being passive-aggressive, carrying consumer debt, poor communication and negotiation skills?
The reason I generally advise people to stay and work it out is that you can’t just replace a long-term relationship. If you got where you are because you won’t speak up or advocate for yourself, then being with someone different won’t help. You might as well use this possibly-expiring partnership to test out some better communication skills. Pay down debt, sort out your clutter, and make some solid backup plans while you’re at it. Consolidate your position. Make sure that if you do choose to leave, you’re doing it from a considered place of power and using discernment before you make your move.
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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