As uncomfortable and scary as it can be, the Place of Uncertainty is where everything juicy and interesting happens. Certainty is the death of curiosity. Knowing exactly what you're doing all the time is a pitfall of the fixed mindset; it means you're not learning or growing or changing. Ah, but it's so nice and secure and comfortable to be certain! Why would anyone ever give that up, even for a moment?
The most fascinating thing about the Place of Uncertainty is that it can feel terrible at the time. Confusing! Stressful! Frustrating! Lonely! Expensive! Depressing! Not knowing what to do next can break people. We're talking total life derailment. In retrospect, though, these points in the timeline can barely register. We may forget we ever felt that uncertainty entirely. Usually we remember it as a mere speed bump. Just a little blip.
An example of this is when my husband and I went to Spain last year and decided to follow what I call the Wing-It Method. We landed in Barcelona with no plans. We didn't know a single person. Not socially, not professionally, not through a website... we just knew zero people. We had nowhere to stay, no way to get there, and no idea what we would be eating for dinner. There was a really intense ten-minute period in the airport terminal where we were having a bit of an argument. The wifi was slow and we were not getting information instantaneously, the way we might at home. We had to find a campsite, learn the bus system, and find places to buy food and propane canisters. It felt not just daunting, but nearly impossible. Ten minutes later, we had all that information and an action plan, and we were merrily walking out to the bus stop, which was only a few yards away the whole time. In retrospect, it's very hard to express adequately the sense of foreboding and misery that comes from standing in the Place of Uncertainty, even for those scant ten minutes.
The Place of Uncertainty demands full attention. Full System Two thinking. Total mental bandwidth. Standing in the Place of Uncertainty is no time to be distracted or futzing around with one's phone. This is precisely why it's such good discipline. We force ourselves into unnatural and uncomfortable situations, when we have no real idea what to do, because we need to stretch our concept of what we are able to handle. Eventually, what used to be impossible or intimidating becomes doable, maybe even routine.
If you don't believe that, recall your first driving lesson.
My husband and I ran full speed toward the Place of Uncertainty this month. He accepted a tantalizing new job offer in a new city, and we only had twelve days to somehow get ourselves and our menagerie over there. From my current vantage point, sitting on the couch in our new apartment, the timeline seems clear and obvious. Yes, of course: we boarded our animals; reserved an Airbnb, a moving van, and a storage unit; packed everything we own in three days; loaded the van and cleaned the house top to bottom in one day; stored our stuff for eight days and moved it twice; and found the perfect apartment within six hours. Looking backward, it seems to make sense that we are 90% moved in to our new place exactly one month after the initial job interview! While we were living it, though, it felt like that one month was equal to a thousand years.
Making decisions depletes willpower and mental bandwidth. A job change plus relocation involves thousands of decisions. What to wear to the interview? How to phrase the thank-you note for the interview? Where to live? Should we pack or get rid of each of the ten million trillion billion objects in our house? Where do we put everything in the new place? What do we eat, when our kitchen infrastructure has been shattered into multiple cardboard box towers? The natural coping mechanisms for this mental exhaustion include overeating, quarreling, and standing idly with one's hands hanging limply by one's sides, mouth hanging open, hopefully not making a noise that sounds too much like UHHHHHH.....
The last month has been exhausting for us. Our sleep schedule was all over the place. We are both gimped up from being middle-aged, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed for a week and a half, and moving all our worldly goods twice in eight days. I rolled over in bed the other night, twitched my foot, and was seized by a cramp in my calf so strong that I had to push my foot down with my other foot before it would release. I mean, we are SORE. This was hard. It was physically tiring, mentally draining, and emotionally challenging. We said goodbye to a city we had grown to love, our nice neighbors, our nice yard, and a very significant number of our personal possessions. On the front end of it, having roughly zero idea where we would eventually wind up, it could have been traumatizing. We really didn't know if there would be a happy ending, other than that we would have each other.
There was a happy ending. It didn't come down from Fairytale Land. We created it. We pushed through our feelings of confusion, exhaustion, and uncertainty and kept working until we got what we planned to get. We knew we wanted the job, we knew what city we wanted to live in, and we knew how much we were willing to pay. If we hadn't found what we needed the first week, we would have extended our Airbnb stay or changed to a different one and kept looking. The task itself wasn't complex. Usually nothing in the Place of Uncertainty is really complicated; it only feels like it. It's our willingness to endure these feelings that leads us to victory, to a sense of progress and hopeful optimism in our lives.
As we finish our first week of the nomad life, I think it's fair to say that we've passed novice level. The difference between 'nomad' and 'vacationer' is that you're trying to do your regular workweek without your regular home environment as a support system. That infrastructure tends to fade into the background until it is disrupted. What have we learned?
Power outlets are far more important to our marriage than we had realized. We're staying in a room with only one wall outlet, two phones, three tablets, a laptop, and a Bluetooth. Plus it took my husband until the fifth day to remember where he put his backup battery. Thank goodness for the travel splitter. Electricity is the new coffee.
No matter how carefully you try to prepare and bring all the important stuff with you, there will always be something in storage that you had no idea you would need. This time it was our marriage license. If you can't tell we're married by looking at us, wait twenty minutes. Nobody can fake a long marriage.
Sleeping in a bed two sizes smaller than your customary mattress = challenge. Welcome to the game of blanket tug-of-war!
Cooking in someone else's kitchen is almost as weird as sharing a bathroom with total strangers.
Cooking without access to a fridge takes some imagination. Planning not to have leftovers is a totally different chapter of home economics than our usual methods. We never realized how much we rely on condiments that require refrigeration until now.
The only truly hard part is missing our pets, wondering what they are doing, hoping they are sleeping okay. We could probably never be "real," full-time nomads because there's no way we could bring our critters on the road without living in an RV. Our goal in life is less driving, not more, so that isn't going to happen.
What do we truly need during an average workweek? Not as much as one would suppose.
Work clothes with matching shoes
Phones and chargers
Something fast and easy for breakfast, like protein bars
Warm pajamas, at least when you're used to a million blankets at home
Our own pillows, because SPOILED
As it turns out, the biggest challenge we've had has been access to important documents. They're the only things you can't just replace at the store. Our desktop computer is boxed up in our storage unit, so we've been fortunate that various information we have needed has been available in our cloud storage. We're getting better at this. I had a copy of my previous marriage license, but not the current one. Revision control fail! The desktop is 9 years old now, and we're getting ready to upgrade to a laptop, especially since the hard drive crashed right before the move and we had to pay to get our data backed up. (Then it magically started to work again, go figure). It's weird how much more important our virtual, intangible, non-physical stuff is than our actual stuff-stuff.
What about all our stuff???
Living with almost every single thing we own in a storage unit for a week and a half has been an eye-opener. We're supplied with furniture and appliances and housewares, as we're in someone else's home, and it turns out that it doesn't matter so much which bathtub or vacuum cleaner or microwave you have. As long as they're functional, they're basically interchangeable.
What about entertainment? Sure, we have some books, DVDs, board games, and sports equipment in storage. It turns out, though, that we haven't missed them at all. Almost everything we do for casual weeknight entertainment involves the internet. As long as we have wifi, we can get almost any book, movie, TV show, or lizard video we could ever want.
What the heck is in the rest of the boxes? Take away the furniture, sheets and towels, dishes and pots and pans, cleansers, power strips and extension cords, and all the things that make a house impersonally functional, and it really depends on the person. What makes our home into our home is:
Our taste in art and music
In a lot of households, those core elements are represented by hundreds or thousands of individual items. A lot of them are decorations, a lot of them are books, a lot of them are clothes, a lot of them are souvenirs and photos. It's not so much the types or categories of things as the quantity of them. How much do we feel we need in the pantry to truly feel nourished and supported at home? How much do we feel we need in the clothes closet (and on the floor) to feel that we truly have options in self-expression? How many books, magazines, etc do we feel we need to truly feel content that we will never be bored? How many of our memories do we feel need to be represented in a physical format? How many projects do we feel we need to have in progress to truly feel that we will never die? How much of our stuff insulates us from uncomfortable emotions?
Here are some uncomfortable emotions that come up during the nomad life:
Anxiety about misplaced objects
Awkwardness around strangers
Nervousness about one's habits, noises, and smells bothering others
Annoyance when others' habits, noises, and smells bother us
Jealousy over scarce space, power outlets, countertops, blankets, etc.
Strong desire for more privacy
Desire to cook soup and sleep in one's own bed as new ultimate fantasy
Mysterious realization that there is nothing to do "around the house" but relax and read
When we get the keys and drive the moving van up to our new home, we'll be doing it with a new perspective. We had a yard sale and gave away three carloads of stuff afterward. Already we have a list of more things that won't fit or that we won't need. We're learning with every trip that we really need very little to feel like ourselves, to feel at home in this world. Very little but a larger mattress and more power outlets.
This story might sound familiar. A broken-hearted Australian man puts his entire life up for sale on eBay. Do you remember? I saw it in the news when it was going on. What an amazing idea! I knew as soon as I saw it that I had to read A Life Sold: What Ever Happened to That Guy Who Sold His Whole Life... on eBay?. Spoiler alert: Ian Usher went out and did what most of us don't even dare to dream, which was to make a "bucket list" and then go out and try to accomplish all his goals.
One of the most interesting things about this book is that Usher shares the whole picture, not just the cute-selfie parts. He can't stop thinking about his ex. He's sad and lonely sometimes, even as he makes tons of new friends. Some of his goals don't work out. He gets lost, swindled, injured, stuck in bad weather, and disappointed in various ways. Somehow, it all serves to make his achievements more remarkable. Almost everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and yet, he still pulls off some truly amazing goals. At the outset, he's in his mid-forties, and it is instructive to compare his plans with other people we might know in that age group.
It's also very interesting that Usher made the money to fund his travels and outrageous goals by working a dangerous, physically demanding job with specialized training, selling his house, and spending years saving money at an unusually high rate. Three out of three of those actions are actions that average people are not willing to take.
What I can't stop thinking about is the highly personal nature of the 100 goals. I read through the list, and I had done ten of them myself, including riding on a dog sled. Pretty good goals! But most of the others I would not be brave enough to do. It's a very Australian list, full of derring-do and physical challenges. This makes the book rather special. It's impossible not to start wondering what 100 items you would put on your own list, while clearly seeing that someone else's list is too idiosyncratic and personal to just... copy. It also raises questions of why certain goals that might seem obvious to someone else weren't on Usher's list. Why go to six continents when you could also go to Antarctica, for instance? Why isn't that goal on the list? Well, because it just wasn't, that's why. We're all fully entitled to have our own crazy quests and wild dreams.
A lesson from the book is that goals aren't fun when they feel like checking something off a list. They must be personally meaningful, or what's the point? The magic comes with the feeling that "I can't believe I'm finally getting a chance to do this!" The world could certainly use more of this. What would happen if more people realized that the only things holding them back from living their wildest dreams were their personal possessions and uninspiring jobs?
Possibility thinking works for any age or situation in life, and Lynne Martin proves it. She and her husband decided, at age 70, to become senior nomads. Home Sweet Anywhere is the story of how they got rid of all their stuff, sold their house, and used the money to travel the world. Anyone who is thinking of serious travel will get a lot out of this book.
A 2,000-square-foot house full of a lifetime's accumulation of antiques, family heirlooms, books, and photo albums. Just at the point when most people decide they are old and nestle into their recliners, the Martins realized they wanted to travel more and got rid of it all. Their house sold within a day of putting it on the market, and inspiration turned into action at a much faster pace than they had anticipated. BOOM! Nomads!
The rest of the book describes their travels to various countries in replicable detail. How did they decide where to go? How did they get there? Where did they sleep? How did they figure out what to pack? Where did they buy groceries? Was it dangerous? Any avid traveler will take notes on the meticulous details about air conditioning, locks, light switches, and all that stuff they never tell you in the brochures. Come "home" for a month or so every year and batch all your medical appointments, swap things out of storage, and visit family all at once. I learned a lot from Home Sweet Anywhere, and it's changed the way I think about our travel strategies.
One decision follows another, and it can lead to some interesting circumstances. Immediately after the Martins decided to sell their house and travel the world, they found a buyer, and they were off. They hadn't been on the road all that long before an opportunity came to pitch an article about this alternative retirement plan. That turned into a book proposal, which obviously turned into a book. If you commit to living the bigger life, anything can happen.
Martin has a saying to "postpone nothing." This is sage advice, and it's emphasized in shocking manner right at the end. No spoilers! If I were ever to get a tattoo, the one thing I will postpone, this saying is a good candidate.
I am so intrigued with this book that I had to find out more. Where are they now? According to their blog, the Martins traveled for about five years, then came back to California to build a house that they will rent out when they're on the road. Right now they are RVing. I'm a generation younger, and their life is a lot more interesting than mine! I am looking forward to the sequel.
I’m married, married for the second time. The first one didn’t go so well. I’ve spent a quarter of my life with a wedding ring on my hand. Most of my years were single, and in many ways, most of my hours are, too. I like being married, but I also enjoyed living alone, and I’ve hung on to everything that was good about that time. What we trade when we merge lives with someone else is completely negotiable.
There aren’t really any rules about marriage. Oh, sure, there are certain legal strictures and definitions. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a reason to acknowledge the distinction between marriage and any other type of relationship. My husband and I got married precisely because of what it symbolizes. In many ways, we are a unit. We refer to ourselves in the first person plural. “We” have a dog. “We” like Ethiopian food. “We” like Delta blues and flamenco music. “We” are getting the flu shot. “We” have an exclusively monogamous relationship. When other people see our wedding rings, they can guess certain things, such as the fact that we live in the same house and file our taxes jointly. It’s convenient.
The Venn diagram of us still would show two distinct circles with an overlap. We are individuals. While we share many likes and dislikes, what we do have in common is probably less than what we don’t. I love eggplant, he hates it. He eats meat, I don’t. The only items we can both agree belong on a Thanksgiving menu are mashed potatoes and olives. We’re sitting in our living room right now, and he’s wearing shorts and a t-shirt while I’m dressed in a long-sleeved shirt, cardigan, pants, and knee boots. (It’s 61 F outside). I’m a night owl, he’s an early bird. He’s an Upholder, I’m a Questioner. I like poetry, he likes hockey. He wants to build another battle bot, I want to learn to light a fire without matches. (He probably knows how to do that already). In many ways, we’re an improbable match. If we were both on a dating site, we wouldn’t have met. No way.
Being together doesn’t have to mean anything more than we say it does. We got married basically because cell phone service was too unreliable at my new house. We wanted to talk to each other for at least an hour a day, and living together makes that so much easier! Funny how that works. We do share values about managing finances, planning for the future, working on our flaws, enjoying simple pleasures, having pets, maximizing our contribution to the world, learning new things and pushing our abilities, traveling the world, and being accountability mirrors to each other. We both get a lot out of being married. We’re true believers. An intimate romantic relationship can be the fastest path to emotional and spiritual growth. Mental growth is on that list, too, as we bring our completely different academic packages to the table. Our friendship has been intellectually rigorous from the start. We’re married because it’s a value-add.
I like to say that I’m “extremely married.” That’s true. I feel like a lot of people forget there are other options besides squabbling all the time. That’s probably because they let themselves start to dissolve around the edges. If you don’t protect your need for a certain basic level of privacy and independence, everything gets that much more difficult. What “marriage” seems to mean, from some of the public arguments we’ve heard, is a depressing trap in which freedom is traded for financial security and the ability to let oneself go in every respect. Let’s stay together and try to ignore one another’s flaws so we can both relax. Why would marriage have to mean giving up privacy, independence, or freedom? What if marriage was more like a nice restaurant that you both went to most nights?
When I was single, I listened to whatever music I liked. I still do, I just use headphones more often. I used to go to horror movies alone, and sometimes I got candy. That’s still true, and if I do eat candy, that’s probably where I’m eating it. I used to hang out at the library a few days a week. Still do. I got a parrot, and she’s still here. I still eat eggplant as often as I ever did, just at restaurants, when my hubby is ordering something (anything) else. Everything I did when I was single, I still do, with the exception of eating cereal for dinner.
I asked my husband whether there was anything he did when he was single that he didn’t do now. I mentioned having cereal for dinner, and he said he used to do the same thing! I said it was funny that we both used to eat cereal for dinner, so we could do it now, if we wanted. We both paused, then looked at each other and shook our heads. Cooking “real” dinners is one of those marital choices that turns into a lifestyle upgrade. I mean, breakfast for dinner was nice, but not compared to a pot pie or a curry. Or a curry pot pie. Or a curry pot pie with sweet potato tots on top.
Part of the deal with marriage is that it represents a watershed in the timeline. There was ‘before’ and now there’s ‘after.’ The ‘after’ tends to represent what is popularly known as ‘adulting.’ It can be scary, until it becomes apparent that adulting leads to more options in life. It’s precisely like getting a driver’s license. Learning to drive is really hard and potentially dangerous, but then you have the societally sanctioned ability to go wherever you want. Adulting means that one day you have actual money in the bank, instead of a stack of bills. Adulting means there are delightful aromas coming from your kitchen, instead of nothing. Adulting means you sit on comfortable furniture and go to bed on clean sheets. This process of becoming a competent, grown-ass mature person should not be confused with the process of making an abiding marriage, because they are separate, though related. Being married is easier when you’re a competent adult, but neither requires the other.
Neither requires the other. That’s true about us. We don’t need each other, we just rely on each other sometimes. We share the load. Many things in life are easier with a second set of hands. We help each other to do things we would have to do alone otherwise. Together, we only have to cook one dinner and mop one floor. We can take turns and give each other a break. We’ve removed each other’s splinters, massaged each other’s shoulders, replaced each other’s bandages. We’ve gone to the store to get each other cold medicine and saltine crackers. We’ve lectured each other about doing our physical therapy exercises. We’re inseparable. Our lives wrap around each other in so many ways – by choice.
We’re independent. In some ways, we’re both more independent now that we’re married than we were when we were single. We travel separately more often than we travel together. That’s partly because one of us can stay home and pet-sit while the other takes off. The year before we got married, I went to Cancun with my brothers, and my then-boyfriend stayed behind and did my taxes for me. (See why I married him?) After we got married, he went on several road trips in which I packed him a sack of pasties, snacks, and still-warm cookies. Our home is a sort of resupply station. Taking off and doing our own thing keeps it fresh. We’re gone just often enough to miss each other and remember how cold the bed is when we sleep alone.
We check with each other before we make plans. I’ve been criticized by single girlfriends who think that means my husband owns me or something. Like I can’t think for myself or make my own decisions anymore. I do what I want. I do what I want much more often than I did before, because I have this logistical support system and personal cheering section. I do, however, check in and keep him informed, just as he does for me. It’s polite. If I had a roommate to whom I wasn’t married, I’d tell her (or him) that I was leaving town. Simple as that. We don’t have to do more than check in with one another, because we already worked out the guidelines under which our marriage would operate. We have a system for how to keep house, manage money, and share a calendar. We haven’t had to have repeated arguments about any of that stuff because we talked out something we could both agree on. Fidelity is the same. Asked and answered.
He wants to do a solo multi-week motorcycle expedition when he turns 50. He started planning it before we met, and I see no reason why he shouldn’t be able to do it. I went on two backpacking trips this year, and he was only invited to one of them, because the other was women-only. He’s talking about a couple of intensive business courses that would have him in a different time zone for a couple weeks. Sounds cool. I might very well do something similar, in the nature of a language immersion school. We’ve both flirted with the idea of grad school (though he already has one master’s degree). The undercurrent here is that we both see the role of a husband or a wife as a coach and sounding board for the other partner. We don’t “allow” each other to do things, we encourage each other to do things.
You should, babe. That sounds great. When does it start? Is it in the calendar?
Marriage is associated with a lot of FoMO. Fear of Missing Out on opportunities, on freedom, on new love interests, on steamy hot fantasies. Well, we were both over 30 when we got married for the second time. It turns out that the same people you’ll meet at 2 AM were there at 10 PM. It’s not like we don’t know about partying. We just lost interest in it. My hubby went to bed at 9:40 the other night because it sounded decadent. That’s something he’s more likely to do as a married man, because he can count on me to put the dog in his crate, lock up, check the stove, and turn the lights out. Married is cozy.
I’m a part-time bachelorette. I sleep alone at home when he’s out of town. I sleep alone in my backpacking tent. I’m free to play with my hula hoop, wear rainbow-striped socks, and try to teach my bird to whistle movie themes, just as I always was. It turns out that my independence is a big part of what my husband likes about me. I do what I want, and that keeps me interesting. Same for him. The part of the time that I spend putting away laundry or making soup stock is just part of the job description. The chores are just like any boring task I would do at work in order to collect the paycheck that funds my “real” life. We put the time in cleaning gutters and balancing the checkbook and getting the oil changed because those things need to get done. The only part of that that’s different from single life is that I always put out two towels and put pillowcases on two pillows.
Marriage can make us into better humans. He’s made me more confident and I’ve made him more sensitive. We help each other to work through awkward social situations. We interpret each other’s dreams and remind each other of our visions. We see each other’s inner superhero just as we see the villain that lurks there, too. We remind each other that we have missions to accomplish in this world. Our superhero personas may be single, but our secret identities wear matching rings.
We're in Vegas again, and I've been thinking about my fixation on luxury hotels. We live pretty modestly at home. Just what is it that's so special about hotels? Oddly, I think there are some lessons about minimalism here.
Our room is about the size of my first apartment. I've lived in larger houses, but there's something about the dimensions of this space that feels appropriate and comfortable to me. My husband and I always set up our bedroom in the smallest room of whatever house we're living in. At home, the bed takes up almost the entire room. Given the opportunity, we'd always take a smaller house over a larger house. Less to clean. Cheaper to heat and cool. Mostly, we just like having the coziness of a human-scale room, where everything is in proportion to our form.
The only personal stuff we have is the stuff we brought. We have exactly the right amount of clothing. We planned what to wear, so everything coordinates and we know we look good. There's all kinds of space in the closet for triple what we actually have in there. We have linens, toiletries, pens, paper, a hair dryer, and an ironing board. We have our electronics, and that means access to all the work tools and entertainment we could ever hope to need. What else "should" we have that isn't here? Boxes of memorabilia and sentimental keepsakes? Tubs of fabric, yarn, and craft supplies? Holiday decorations? A few dozen extra pairs of shoes and a hundred articles of clothing we won't wear? What are we missing?
Our pets. We're missing our pets, but we'll see them again soon.
There are things in the room that we aren't using and don't need. A large-screen TV and its small companion in the bathroom. Seriously? Why is there always a TV in a hotel bathroom? Do people really watch TV while they're brushing their teeth or shaving? There's a mini-bar, and we don't drink. There is a tray of snacks, none of which are the kind of thing we eat at home. As it is, we're only eating two meals a day and we're still feeling saturated with excess calories, even though we're walking an average of five miles a day and we always take the stairs. You can't work off a bad diet. There's a respectable gym at the hotel, but what makes this place unsustainable for us is that we have to rely on restaurants for our meals.
The one issue I have with hotels is that I'm not emotionally comfortable having other people clean up after me. If they left a supply closet unlocked, I'd totally squeegee the bathroom, run the vacuum, and make the bed myself. I always have to talk myself down and remember that this is someone's livelihood. A sucky one, but a livelihood all the same. I've cleaned houses for money, so why should I begrudge someone else that opportunity? Still torn about it, and probably always will be. Either way, in the end, it's nice to have gleaming clean surfaces, windows, and mirrors. Whether someone else cleans them or whether I do it, I'm never going to settle for dusty, grimy, or greasy. Even on vacation.
What we have in a hotel room is potential. It's a stylish, attractive, comfortable room. It has plenty of sunlight and it also has blackout curtains. There's a desk, a table with chairs, a couch, a bed, and a bathroom. There are plenty of lamps and electrical outlets. What else do we really need in a room? We don't need piles of papers and mail. We don't need stacks of catalogs, old magazines, and books we've already read. We don't need collections of clothes that don't fit. We don't need souvenirs.There is very little that we truly do need.
What we have at home is security. In spite of downsizing three times, in spite of our interest in minimalism, we still have plenty of stuff. The majority of our belongings are not used on a daily, or even a weekly, basis. We keep various tools because they may come in handy or because we think we might need them. Years might go by, and we might not need them, but the potential is there. I'm sure I could come up with a use for a deflated soccer ball or a candy wrapper if I waited long enough and thought hard enough. More than the random possessions, what we have at home is that sense of territory. This is our place to mess up however we like. Nobody tells us what to do here. Well, actually our landlord lives next door, and he does tell us what to do sometimes. Neighbors are always going to have a certain amount of input. In that sense, the security of home can be somewhat restrictive. In a hotel, almost anything goes. At home, people notice, and they remember. Security isn't everything.
The more time we spend in hotels, the more we realize that what makes our home environment feel personal is our personal presence. It's our conversation, the clothing we're actually wearing at this moment, and our musical preferences. It's our choice of reading material. It's our involvement in our work and our projects. There's nothing in particular about a room or a collection of stuff that speaks about our shared life. What makes a place home for us is being together, usually with our critters in our laps. Why do we carry so much stuff when all we really need is each other?
I never post on weekends or holidays, but World Domination Summit is a special circumstance. One day feels like a week. There's so much going on, so much to think about, so much "homework," and mostly, so many fascinating new people to meet, that I have an intense desire to record it all in some way. Oh, and to share it, of course!
We've been riding the bus downtown from my parents' place, which is just under an hour each way, so we've been having early mornings and late evenings. We left our schedule open this morning, as it was the only opportunity we would have to go to Powell's Books. Everywhere we went downtown, we saw WDS attendees dressed in costumes. One guy was dressed like a shark, which is real commitment on a 95 degree day. That event made all of downtown feel like part of a festival, which is true right now. I arranged a small, informal lunch meet-up, and we all sat in the shady park and ate from the food carts while listening to live music. Since I work at home in a city where we haven't lived long, I don't have any lunch buddies yet. Eating lunch with someone other than my dog is a red letter day.
My husband and I were scheduled for diverging events all afternoon. We walked part of the way to our respective academies together. I took Stephanie Zito's class, Launchpad to the World: Travel Hack Your Way Around the Globe in 90 Days or Less. We've taken the CreativeLive class she did with Chris Guillebeau, Make Your Dream Trip a Reality. Travel hacking is like drinking from the fire hose. There are so many different ways to do it, and so many details to manage. After this class, I realized that we're only doing maybe 20% of what we could be doing. This is part of where "homework" originates, when we realize we want to sign up for a bunch of different services or websites or programs, and it's going to take the rest of next week to do it all. So much awesome. The big question is where we'll go next.
My husband took the academy on How to Create & Build a Hyper-Engaged Community, which is relevant to his interests. His brain is full, too. Now he's trying to nudge me a little about opening comments on my blog. Just leaving this here. I always figured if anyone took the trouble to email me and ask about it, I might do it, but until then, I prefer not having to manage or moderate commenters.
We each had an afternoon meet-up. I was torn, because I wanted to do both of them, but they were cross-scheduled. Lo and behold, both of our academies ran late, and we were both late to the opening of our meet-ups. Unfortunately, mine must have met in the designated spot and then gone elsewhere, because I wasn't able to find anyone. (It was an event on non-fiction book proposals, and it felt very consequential and important to me, but oh well). Another woman found herself in the same situation, and she suggested we go to the other event, which was two blocks away. Even though we weren't signed up, we were able to sit in, and they had just started.
This meet-up was about how to get clarity when you can't decide between multiple projects. One of the exercises involved touching base with how you would feel if you completed the project, and comparing that to how you would feel if you never completed the project. For some people and some projects, there's undoubtedly a rush of relief at the prospect of quitting and letting it go. The exercise I found most valuable was to work with a partner, share projects, and talk about how to break them into smaller pieces and schedule them. I realized that I could easily think of several ways to get through the block on mine.
My partner shared concerns about negativity from people in her life about changing her career direction. What I told her was that the closer people are to your inner circle, the more they will naysay you, because they will want to protect you from failing and getting hurt. That's if they're loving. If they're dysfunctional, they'll just actively sabotage you, but we didn't really need to go there. The key is: DON'T TELL ANYONE CLOSE TO YOU UNTIL YOU'RE DONE. Strangers on the street will tell you that your idea is awesome and offer to connect you with people in their acquaintance who could assist you. People who love you will look you in the eye and ask you what the heck you are thinking. You're not obligated to tell every single person in advance about your new book idea or business plan. If you write a business plan and show it to a loan officer at a bank, and that career professional deems it worthy of investment, then it is. If someone in your inner circle who has no credentials or relevant experience has an opinion about your project, smile, thank them, and tell them you'll "take that under advisement." The only thing you owe them is love.
In conversations throughout the event so far, I've noticed something interesting. When women share their ideas, they tend to preface them with an explanation of why they're ambivalent, or why it's a silly, dumb, or crazy idea. (More silly, dumb, and crazy ideas like these, please!) Then they'll come out with something that is obviously going to make money immediately. I'll ask, why on earth would you think that wouldn't succeed? You have to do this thing. If only I had an idea that good... Then another lady turned the tables on me. She asked me what project I was ambivalent about, and I told her, hemming and hawing just like all the other women have done so far. She told me the same thing I've been telling everyone else! "Of course that will sell, you have to do it!" It's a confidence gap, pure and simple. We can see it in others, but it's harder to see in ourselves.
We wended our way over to the opening party, which took over most of the South Park Blocks. Live music, magicians, food, and hundreds of like-minded people waiting for a surprise. We got gift boxes full of all sorts of cool swag. We have assignments. Mine was to express gratitude to one of the volunteers, as though anything could ever have stopped me, and I was more than happy to do that again. My volunteer came around the table and hugged me when I was done. My husband's is to write an inspirational message and leave it somewhere downtown for someone to find it. Again, why stop at one? I invited my parents to contribute messages when we got home, and we'll have fun doing that.
Some inspirational messages can be really confusing to people, such as, "There is plenty for everyone in this world," or, "It's okay to have lots of money," or, "Strangers are trustworthy." I'm going to try to curate what we put out there and make sure it's broadly comprehensible.
Yesterday, we left the event bubbling over with ideas on how to revamp our spending. Today, we had to add to that yet more ideas on how to earn points for free travel, or rather, many many many more points than we have already been earning and using. That's how we got to the event this year; we paid $22.40 in tax on our combined trip. We'll have spent more than that on city bus tickets before we leave! What we'll do with our thoughts on the projects to cut or continue, and what we can do with a community-building mindset, remains to be seen. Somehow sharing ideas with all our new friends makes them start to feel like projects that are destined to come forth.
On the bus ride home, a young gentleman chatted with us, and then asked if he could please use my phone to make a couple of calls. Of course. Why not? I lend my phone out all the time. What are they going to do? Drop it? Run off with it? Pfft. People are probably more careful with a stranger's electronics than they would be with a live actual baby. In five years I'll be laughing at the comical obsolescence of this exact model. He made the calls, finishing both with "I love you." (Girlfriend and dad, I presume). Then the dad called back and I handed the phone over again. Twenty minutes later, the lad told another passenger that he had just got out of jail. I laughed inwardly. There is nothing to fear. There is nothing to be afraid of. The fact of this person's event timeline has nothing to do with his manners or general harmlessness, which anyone could see. Welcome back to civilization, my fine fellow, and I hope someone gives you a hot dinner and a nice dessert afterward. I felt that the spirit of WDS is by no means limited to the couple thousand people who knew of the event and could afford tickets. There are kind-hearted, friendly, bright, fascinating people everywhere you look, provided that you do look.
(In fact, after the "jailbird" got off the bus, another young man who had been in the conversation taught us how to make a smartphone projector out of a cardboard box and a magnifying glass. He was carrying materials with him and he played us an instructional video. He suggested we follow the Futurism group on Facebook. Talk to people, I'm just saying).
Two days of main-stage events and a few more meet-ups mean that this is going to be one busy weekend!
I caught them in the very act. I didn’t realize what was going on at first. I had walked over to my tent, and there was a weird pile of jackets or something nearby. As I brought the lantern closer, I saw that it was a backpack. MY backpack. Oh, and there were two fuzzy little forest denizens, complete with masks and striped prison uniforms. Bushy-tailed, bubble-butt raccoons. They had dragged my pack out from under the rain fly of my tent. It was twelve feet away when I found it. Were they taking it somewhere, or were they just ransacking my rucksack right there? How did they move it? Did they work together, walking on their hind legs, and dragging it with their paws? I laughed and shook my head as I picked it up and zipped it inside my tent.
The first time I was taken on a camping trip, I was two years old. I know it is the nature of wild creatures to spend every waking moment looking for food. I know a single peanut is enough to inspire an animal as tiny as a shrew to nibble through hundreds of dollars of tents, packs, or clothes. Who can blame them? They aren’t exactly going to find primate-style snack food growing on a tree. It’s basic food discipline to consolidate anything edible and lock it carefully away from questing teeth. Especially in bear country. The only things in my backpack that night were: clothespins, a freshly washed stocking cap and gloves, a roll of Tenacious Tape, and the stuff bags for my gear, none of which had ever contained food. Either some food residue had dripped somewhere onto my pack or the scent of the packaged food I had carried had somehow permeated it. Otherwise, it was simply a crime of opportunity, and the raccoons knew an unattended pack was worth a peek.
The second night, my friend looked out the window of her tent and happened to interrupt another crime in progress. “There’s a raccoon scratching at your tent!” She shouted at it and it slunk away. We went back to our board game. When I went to bed, I saw that I had left my door unzipped. Actually I hadn’t. There was an eight-inch tear across and a four-inch tear down, creating a hole big enough to pop my head through. I had exactly enough Tenacious Tape on the roll to tape it shut. This was annoying, but interesting; never before had I ever heard of a raccoon ripping open a tent. This tent was five years old and had paid for itself on our first trip. If the hole couldn’t be repaired, at least it would make a good story.
The third night, the moon was full. I was sound asleep, having added a little sports tape from the first aid kit to the gradually spreading tear and eliminated the mosquito that had made the most of the opportunity. I heard a panting, snuffling sound outside that made me think of a bloodhound. I rolled over and opened my eyes. There was another pair of eyes looking back at me! A raccoon had crept under the rain fly and was peering at me through the mesh door! I shouted at it, waking up my friends and making them think I was having night terrors. Possibly Tourette’s Syndrome. 2:43 AM.
If we’d stayed any longer, I’m sure I would have found it wearing my pajamas and reading my Byron Katie. “I moved your bookmark, hope you don’t mind. Incidentally, do you have any peanuts?”
As I was taking the tent down the next morning, a fire ant crawled up my pants and bit me on the knee. I didn’t realize what had happened at first; I felt a pinch and thought I had strained my knee from hiking. Then I thought something was biting me. I shook something out of my pants that I thought was a spider. The burning pain intensified. My friend explained that those two-toned ants with the reddish-brown heads were indeed fire ants. As in: "F this, kill them with fire!"
If I’d left my pack where I had it stored on the first night, the fire ants would quite likely have spent two days infiltrating it. I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea when I picked it up, as I have done dozens of times before.
When something happens to me, is it really to me? Is it about me at all? Or is it simply a reflection of the nature of another being?
What does this series of incidents tell me about the way the world works? Should I feel like a victim? Should I accept the lesson and move on? Should I enjoy the opportunity to collect a funny story? Or is it possible that I can search for gratitude? Unintentionally, those pesky masked varmints may well have saved me from a nasty experience with real malefactors.
Maybe I should ultimately blame myself for obliviously setting myself up for trouble. I have lived in the region for well over a decade, and I probably should have learned to recognize fire ants by now. It was a relatively gentle introduction; I got a single bite that quit hurting about two hours later. Next time I’ll know what to look for, just as I do with stinging nettle, one of nature's many other ways of being really confusing and probably unfair.
I’ll go backpacking again. I’ll meet more animals as I vacation in their home. I’ll see chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, foxes, lizards, snakes, mountain goats, skunks, turtles, birds, and insects, just as I have before. I’ll learn about the way they live and I’ll do my best to respect their customs. I’ll become more aware and more focused in my behaviors. When I eventually meet a bear, I’ll remember its smaller cousin the raccoon, and I’ll hope I’m as prepared as possible.
I’ll give my pack a good scrubbing first.
Out of ten days, I spent eight traveling and backpacking. Apparently this is a thing I do now. I just got back on Sunday. It is still really weird to me that I have gone from needing help to get out of bed in the morning, to hiking into mountain goat zone with a backpack. Both felt natural at the time. When did I turn into this bushwhacking, rock-clambering person?
On the first trip, I was the eldest of six in our group. This is both strange and not-strange. Almost every single one of the dozens of people we saw on the trail was under 30. Usually, though, backpackers tend to skew a bit older. On weekdays you get retirees. Most endurance sports include more older than younger people due to the cash flow issues. Mature people can afford the equipment, the gas, and the permit fees. We also tend to be better organized, mostly because we have more control over our schedules. Getting a group of half a dozen people to arrive at the same place at the same time can be pretty complicated, especially if most or all of them work unpredictable shifts.
We were fortunate enough to win the permit lottery and hike into the Enchantments, the same route that we did back in September. This proved to be an interesting experiment. We were able to add mileage and camp at a higher elevation, and then do a day hike yet further up the mountain. 5500 feet! It made me want to repeat the Portland Marathon (knowing I would be virtually guaranteed to run a PR). All told, we hiked fourteen miles round-trip, and ten of that while wearing packs. I’m not sure exactly how much my pack weighed, because I crammed more stuff into it after the “official” weigh-in, not wanting my husband to know just how much I was planning to carry. It was at least 40 pounds though.
Why would a 122-pound, small-framed person such as myself want to carry a 40-pound backpack 5000 feet up a mountain? This is the crossroads of minimalism and endurance training. On the one hand, I want to carry as little as possible just to prove to myself that I can do it. On the other hand, I want to carry as much as possible just to prove to myself that I can do it. Here lies a real conundrum. The truth is that I don’t really feel the weight, and I feel like I will wind up carrying more than that if/when I graduate to longer trips. I’d really like to hike the Triple Crown one day, and it seems like being able to carry seven days’ worth of supplies would make that more likely.
Minimalism can often involve quite a lot of stuff. For a backpacker, I’m on the middling-to-absurd end. For a suburbanite, I’m on the extreme end. What have I got in there? I don’t tolerate cold at all well, so most of the heavy gear consists of bedding and clothing. There’s the sleeping bag, air mattress, space blanket, and inflatable pillow. There are the three jackets, the base layer, the hat and gloves and buff and package of hand warmers. I put them on at night and I still sit there shivering; I go to bed at 9 PM more because I’m cold than because I’m tired. There’s the water and the first aid kit, because really. There’s the inflatable solar lantern and the folding chair for luxury. Then there’s the cookpot, the stove, the fuel, and the food. Here is where I can cut weight easily: I tend to bring boil-in-a-bag meals rather than dehydrated food. I’m perfectly capable of dehydrating my own backpacking meals, and I have done so, but it’s so much more work that it seems worth it to just haul a heavy pack. If I cut five pounds of food or gear, I’d almost certainly add back five pounds of gear I don’t usually carry, such as a machete or another base layer. If only I had a 3D printer that could make things out of squashed mosquitos.
The second trip was less physically taxing, but I’ll include it for comedic purposes. A raccoon tore my tent. I got some mosquito bites, and I finally had my beloved Therapik with me, but as soon as I pushed the button I found that the 9V battery had died. The batteries in my head lamp had also gone flat. I packed for cold weather again, only to find that it was over 80 degrees every day, and I hadn’t brought any shorts, swimsuit, or sunblock. I still have never used the sunhat I bought at Goodwill years ago for this purpose, and I have the sunburned ears to prove it. I didn’t bring quarters for the shower. We went to this park specifically in hope of seeing a condor, hiked five miles to the preferred viewing area, and saw nary a one. Just as I was taking down the tent on the way home, a fire ant crawled up my pants and bit my knee. Like it couldn’t wait ten more minutes for me to leave.
It turns out that the outdoor life has toughened me up considerably. I can now state that stinging nettle and fire ant bites rate about the same, as the pain is worse from the fire ant but it only lasts about half as long. I’m (almost) grateful that these things happened, because I was able to endure without setting off a migraine or a fibromyalgia flare-up. I used to be a frail little flower indeed. Now, I’m tougher than just about anyone. Maybe one day I’ll feel that I’ve proved my point and I can convince myself to pack a lighter bag.
I have a little problem. You see, it’s still second quarter and I’ve already been on the road 32 days this year. I spend a lot of my time on the road with patchy or nonexistent internet access. How do I keep this blog running five days a week, plus a weekly newsletter, other writing, and of course coaching?
I like to write every day, although it’s not always possible. Sometimes I have good days when I’m able to write two or three articles. I always make the most of those days. If I write seven days and post five, it doesn’t take long to start building up a little savings account. Within a year, I had six weeks’ worth of backup material. I generally post a week at a time, formatting and auto-scheduling. Before our trip to Spain, I had the bulk of three weeks posted; I had to format a couple of days from cafes or hotel rooms. If I’m working from the road, I really prefer that I’m writing for the future, rather than scrambling to catch up with something I had planned to do before we left.
Trying to meet deadlines from the road is completely unreliable. There are issues with wi-fi access, with bandwidth, with battery life, with access to electricity, with website maintenance. The last time I wanted to post from a hotel room, the hotel was fine, but my laptop wasn’t. It chose that precise moment to force a software upgrade. It took ten minutes, and we were frantic to get checked out and meet a tour bus downstairs. We made it with three minutes to spare, but it was really annoying and frustrating. When I work from the road, I prefer it to be strategic planning or content creation – Quadrant II activities, not QI or QIII.
Most of the time when we’re traveling, my husband is still on duty with his office. This works well for me. Any moment that he’s on the phone, calling in for a meeting, doing timecards, or working on email, I’m at my keyboard. Sometimes I almost wish he had some reason to spend an hour on his laptop so I’d have an excuse to work on mine! We’re both on the same wavelength when it comes to packing chargers and connector cables and backup batteries. We don’t have to explain or apologize or negotiate – we just sit down and commence working.
When we travel with my stepdaughter, it’s the same, because she’s in college. We just pull up a third chair.
There’s work and then there’s homework. We still have to maintain our basic infrastructure no matter where we are. Bills have to be paid, accounts have to be balanced, contracts have to be renewed, appointments have to be booked. Our dog gets a shot every five weeks, an odd timespan for planning purposes. Most of these things can be handled from the road. Some, like receiving updated debit cards, still involve physical mail. That can be frustrating if, as we just experienced in April, something shows up in the mailbox and you don’t find out for three weeks. Hopefully future innovations will eliminate this type of situation. Being a real nomad with no strings might not be possible anymore, not if you rely on a phone and its attendant phone bill.
We do still have a house. We even live in it most of the time! There’s work, there’s homework, and then there’s housework. Stuff still gets dusty even when nobody is there. The physical structure still needs care and maintenance. We set up a drip system for the plants, and the garden mostly cares for itself. It’s funny to come home to full-grown plants that were tiny sprouts when you left. Boom, kale! We tend to come home with two loads of laundry. I like to set up the house so that there are clean sheets on the bed, clean towels on the rack, and clean dishes in the cabinets. Empty wastebaskets and an empty fridge are the bare minimum. Then there’s the problem of coming home to that empty fridge and going grocery shopping, even when that’s the last thing you want to do. Garden plus freezer can be a reasonable option.
A systematic approach really helps. See that my husband and I both have certain structures for our work. We know and expect that we will have to deal with certain issues before, during, and after a trip. Travel can mean a lot of extra work. The only way it can be done in a minimalist manner is to cut away anything unnecessary, unimportant, or less interesting. I run around like a crazy person in the three days before a long trip, because I know that anything I leave for when we get home is setting me up for frustration and exhaustion. Opening the door and dragging in a suitcase full of dirty laundry is not a moment when you want to see an overflowing sink, scary laundry hamper, and biohazardous refrigerator. Spend enough time in squeaky clean, streamlined hotel rooms, and it’s hard to open the door to homegrown clutter and excess. I really like that hotel feeling of always having a clear desktop, shelf space in the closet, and some empty drawers. There’s no reason I can’t have that at home, and I do.
What I’ve learned from systematizing my life is that there’s no end to it. It frees up mental bandwidth, and that creates opportunities for more interesting ideas to materialize. The better we get at creating routines, the higher the level at which we function. We have almost no discussions about housework or “honey-do” tasks, because we both just get that stuff done. Since we have a weekly status meeting for strategic planning, logistics, and finances, we don’t usually talk about those things the rest of the week. Rather than distract him when something crosses my mind, I add it to our agenda where he can read it. We respect each other’s right to High Quality Leisure Time as well as unbroken blocks of time for System II thinking.
We’ve reached a place where work and vacation intersect. It has its upsides and its downsides. Preferring work to most other activities is an enviable position. It tends to lead to advancement in life. Complaining and “not feeling like it” expands to fill the space available. Making the decision to simply do what has to be done and get it over with is a really fast way to cut a lot of grievance and hassle out of life. Just do it and don’t let it annoy you! Working in this way also means the backlog of necessary yet dreaded tasks is shorter, or nonexistent.
If we were billionaires, we’d probably still live in much the same way. We’d probably stay in nicer hotels and have better laptops. Otherwise, we’d be spending time managing our philanthropic activities and investments. We’d still have to spend a certain amount of time directing our staff to make our travel arrangements and schedule our appointments. There isn’t really a version of complete idleness and indolence that sounds like it would work for more than a few days. What we’re searching for is a fantasy lifestyle that really functions. Our current balance of work and leisure is getting pretty close.
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.