I caved. I looked at too many fridge pinups and I ordered some fridge organizers. For years I’ve thought this was one of the dumbest interior design trends of the century, a frivolous waste of time. Really, who is looking in our refrigerators besides the people who live here?
Then I realized that I’m the only one who always knows where everything is, and that I could automate away the necessity of giving fridge directions to anyone. Where is the margarine? Why, it’s on the top shelf behind the chard, of course!
In honor of Thanksgiving, I thought I would redo our fridge as a nice little surprise for my husband. As an engineer he finds this sort of thing more compelling than I do.
November and December are the months when I try to plan meals around what we already have on hand. A lot of the jars that find their way into our fridge come without expiration dates. If I don’t write the date of purchase on them, which I rarely do, then I am unlikely to remember how long they’ve been in there. Having an almost entirely empty fridge on New Year’s Eve means that at least nothing is older than a year.
I work with hoarding and squalor, and I’ve helped to clean out fridges where scary things came out. “Do you want some hummus from 2005?,” I text my husband, and he replies in a way that I can’t share here. There are often jars and bottles seven years old or more.
Separated salad dressings. Runny mustards. Olives with suspicious films floating on top. Crispy soy sauce. White celery and brown lettuce. Rare and special shades of aqua and pink and orange.
My people don’t believe in germ theory, but I do. I can’t help but make the connection between their invariably poor health and the fact that almost all the food hoard in their kitchens is old, old and expired, old and expired and often leaking. They haven’t eaten it yet and they never intend to, but they’ll never get rid of it. They need a sort of barricade as the wallpaper to their lives. Once it’s in place they can safely ignore it.
If you are alive right now, I tell them, then you have always had absolutely everything you needed. QED. You made it. You survived.
We all try to argue against this but we can’t. We have survived as well as or better than the sparrows in the parking lot. We’re still here. If we’ve managed to do it without having to open our stores of expired food, then we don’t need them. If we’ve managed it without opening our various boxes of clutter, then we don’t need them either.
But my anxiety! What am I supposed to do with that?
Live with it, I suppose?
I have a jar, my fairy jar. In it is the sum total of all the pennies and other coins I’ve picked up in the past 15 years. There’s about $200 in there now. I used to struggle with wanting to keep a lot of extra food in my pantry, but now I just keep the fairy jar. I know if an endless series of crises came to our home, and all our savings disappeared, and we had both been out of work for months, I know we could open the jar and use the contents to buy a carload of fine groceries.
24/7. There are groceries available near me every minute of the day, even on holidays.
I don’t have to keep a bulging pantry any more. It’s okay for my fridge to be empty sometimes. Every time that has happened, I’ve been able to go out and fill it back up.
Well, every time in the past 15 years, anyway...
This is part of what bothers me about the expired food hoards that I keep finding, home after home. A month or two before the expiration date, that household could have donated all of those packaged nonperishables to a food pantry. They could have been distributed and eaten by people who really don’t have enough to get by. I’ve been there myself and I know that even a single can of soup can make a difference.
Instead they will eventually, inevitably, get thrown out. I’ve had to throw out rusty food cans and dissolving cardboard food packages lots of times, when we’re clearing out storage units or space clearing unusable kitchens. Such a waste.
This is why I’ve finally given in to the trend of extreme fridge organization. It’s a simple way to avoid wasting food.
Most households have pretty scary fridges. Perfectly lovely restaurant leftovers wind up getting thrown out instead of becoming someone’s nice lunch. Expensive condiments spoil and get rinsed down the sink. Households like mine wind up with two open jars of capers, three mustards, and five salad dressings.
Then, when it comes time for any holiday, but especially Thanksgiving, we can’t find anywhere to put the leftovers. It adds another layer of hard labor to what could have been fairly straightforward.
I’m cheating this year, like I did for the last two. I ordered a meal with all the sides from a restaurant. All we have to do is pick up two paper bags, empty them into the fridge, and then heat them up on Thursday when we’re ready to eat. I can picture just what this looks like, and I know how much space we’ll need.
The truth is that all our meals are really this predictable. We eat pretty much the same dozen meals over and over again, and the portions are pretty much the same every time. This is why our refrigerators could easily be as orderly as anything else in our lives.
Why have an appliance in our homes that is reliably full of dubious food and bad smells? Why have to dig around and hunt for stuff when we want it? Why not take a little time and find some fridge freedom for ourselves?
She claims it really happened.
Our friend is from Thailand, and she went home to spend some time with her grandma. During her visit, they went to a temple in Chiang Mai where wishes are granted. It works like this. You make a sincere wish and bring an elaborate floral arrangement to the temple. Then the goddess grants your wish.
She won’t tell us what her wish was, but she says it came true.
I tried to guess, without actually probing her privacy. Let’s see. She’s already finished school and she’s working at her dream job in her dream career. She was currently on what looked like a pretty incredible and fun vacation. She still has her youth and her health. What could she wish for? True love? A home of her own? A wedding? Ooooh, I hope it’s a wedding!
We’ve been a bit fixated on this ever since. Not whether our sweet-natured young friend is going to get married and have a baby, nah. The wish-granting thing!
What if there really WAS a place where you could go and make a wish that you knew 100% would come true?
What would you wish for?
Obviously two people of means who enjoy world travel are going to have to go to this particular temple, just to see it in person. Just like if we went to Ireland I would feel compelled to kiss the Blarney Stone. What if… what if it worked??
Or what if almost all wishes were really pretty mundane and easy to make come true?
What if most of us are simply in a conflicted state, where we both want something and want not to have it at the same time?
I honestly think this is the problem, and there are countless do-want/don’t-want situations.
Take grad school for example. Most people probably do not wish to enroll in graduate school and study for a master’s degree. I’m a little obsessed with the idea. I’m also sure that if I did go, I would graduate, and I would have a strong chance at magna cum laude. So why don’t I do it?
Three reasons. 1. I wouldn’t choose anything that would lead directly to a job, so it wouldn’t pay for itself, and that’s quite a lot of debt. 2. There are at least three separate and distinct fields that interest me, and I still can’t make up my mind which one I would choose. 3. I haven’t been in a math class since early 1993, and I believe I would have to do a year of remedial mathematics just to pass the GRE.
Therefore, I don’t wish my wish.
I guess I sorta wish that grad school was free, that I was a math whiz, or that I could talk my way in without having to pass calculus. Those are neat wishes that I know are not as realistic as Paying What It Costs or Doing What It Actually Takes.
I don’t need there to be a special wish-granting temple to go to grad school. I would just need to make a decision and then spend some time with some math tutorials.
What are some other common conflicts that stop us from making a heartfelt wish?
A new job! I can’t count how many people I know who actively hate their current job yet have no plans to look for a new one. As much as they would prefer to work somewhere else, they:
Don’t want to update their resume
Don’t want to spend even five minutes thinking about work while they are at home
Don’t want to buy an interview outfit at their current size
Are close enough to retirement that it feels like less work to stay put
Don’t want to spend months applying for jobs or trying to schedule secret interviews
The more we know about the specific process of making our wish come true, the less we want to move forward and do it! Every wish touches on some other area where we would need a fresh new wish. It’s like shampooing your carpet only to feel like you need a new couch.
Dating is another example. I know a lot of single people who could easily be in a relationship. They’re fun and they basically have their lives together. There’s always something, though. One of my friends doesn’t really want to meet someone because it would mean moving and she just loves her apartment too much. Another is so afraid she might meet a serial killer that she doesn’t want to go on a date. Alas, the love of your life is indeed going to be a total stranger the first time you meet… I think the biggest destroyer of incipient new love, though, is poor body image. Don’t look at me, I’m not ready to be loved yet.
Not yet! Not yet! Don’t grant my wish yet!
Because I need to be photo-ready, because I want to rehearse my acceptance speech first, because I haven’t figured out precisely what I want down to the carpet tacks. Because I guess I don’t really want anything different after all.
Take your wish and stuff it in a garbage sack and haul it out back to the dumpster, because I don’t want a wish!
Maybe we’ve spent too long listening to the naysayers. Maybe we’re one internet search and ten minutes away from finding out that our true wish is much easier and cheaper than we had believed, just like I found out that my dream desktop computer cost less than half what I thought it would. Maybe our wishes are planted so deeply inside of us that there is nothing we can do to stop them. Maybe our wishes will be granted so quickly that we find ourselves on our knees weeping big sloppy tears.
All right then. If you knew you’d get your wish, what would you wish for?
Financial Freedom is a book about financial independence for those who are ready to look at the numbers. This is a practical handbook. It’s particularly ideal for someone who wants to convince a skeptical partner to give FI a closer look.
As a non-math person, I like that Financial Freedom includes lookup tables of numbers. It doesn’t require a calculator, which is good because I’m the kind of person who can get four different answers for the same math problem. Fortunately, financial independence is possible for anyone, regardless of numeracy.
Sabatier starts the book with a copy of his bank statement, containing $2.26, while he is back living with his parents after a layoff. At one point he counts up how much he had earned at his last job, after taxes, and compares it to the credit card balance he had run up. He doesn’t say it in so many words, but effectively he’s come out ahead by only $2.50 an hour. Whatever was going on with his full-time work/standard consumer lifestyle, it wasn’t working and it sure didn’t look much like financial freedom.
Five years later he was a millionaire.
I’m guessing that part does NOT sound so familiar.
Not everyone wants or needs to be a millionaire, and most people won’t feel that it’s possible for them when they start. Sabatier outlines seven levels of financial freedom, starting with simple clarity, and none of these levels has a specific dollar amount attached. It depends on your personal situation. The author started with no knowledge and a bunch of debt, and one year later he had seven income streams and $100,000 in savings. It can happen fast if you figure out how to do it.
Most people probably spend more time, in minutes, figuring out what movie to watch than they do looking over their accounts or planning a financial strategy. We have the free time, we have the intelligence, we certainly have the desire to be free of stress and struggle. All we’re missing are the role models and the plan, and Grant Sabatier is here to help with both.
No matter how much money you owe, there’s a path out and a path to wealth.
I’m just going to come out and say it—most people who are side hustling, especially when they are first starting out, charge way too little for their services or products.
The next time you think about buying something, ask yourself, Is this worth trading my freedom for?
Gossip is bad, okay? Except for when it’s not.
Saying nice things about people when they aren’t there is a sneaky, underhanded trick that can be really effective, especially in business situations. Some people may be suspicious if you talk them up when they aren’t around, but if you do it often enough about enough people, they will eventually write you off as some sort of goody-goody. Then they’ll quit coming to you when they want to talk smack about other people.
That’s not the bad type of gossip that is good, though. Here I am talking about the real, low-down, dirty, judgmental type. *pats sofa cushion* Sit over here where nobody can hear us and I’ll tell you what I mean.
I use bad gossip to build a better marriage, and you can do it, too.
Look, everyone in a long-term relationship of any kind has some rough patches. There is always going to be something annoying about any person on earth. It’s only human. Whether a relationship lasts or not depends on three things:
This is true for neighbors, siblings, coworkers, anybody. Of course it’s a bigger deal with your romantic partner, because they know where you sleep and they can probably also access your bank account.
Depending on who you’re dealing with, it can sometimes be effective to be direct and simply say, “Please quit doing that.” Some annoying habits, like pen tapping, are done obliviously. The person has no idea they are doing the annoying thing, and may even appreciate having it brought to their attention.
Other annoying habits come from a deep sense of personal entitlement. Not only does this person feel totally justified in whatever obnoxious thing, they may even see it as a legitimate part of their very personality. Like if they stop annoying you and others with it, whatever it is, it will make them into a different person!
This is where you have to make a choice. Are you willing to tolerate whatever this is? Forever and always?
Or do you think you are devious enough to gradually get them to change?
This is possible but it usually takes a minimum of three years and a strategic plan.
Long-term couples are sweet, but they do tend to have one glaring issue, which is that they have become accustomed to one another’s foibles in ways that nobody else ever would. High school sweethearts who stay together are, in some ways, sixteen forever.
Nobody really talks about the benefits of breakups, or serial monogamy in general, but what happens is that it resets the clock. People eventually learn that whatever annoyed their ex will also annoy other people, and if they want to be part of a romantic relationship then they have to give up and quit doing it.
I used to love a boy who played the radio all night while he slept. Cute single habit. Not cute married habit.
Picture the guy with three dogs, all of whom slept on the bed, including the one who couldn’t jump up anymore and had to be lifted. For a non-dog person it could be disconcerting to have twelve paws shoving her off the edge of the mattress. All night. Every night.
These are example stories, and this is how you use them if your honey does something even remotely similar:
“OH MY GOSH, can you believe what this guy does?? He plays the radio ALL NIGHT LONG!”
The strategy here is to start with a gossipy story about someone else who has an annoying trait that you happen to know would be extremely annoying *to your partner*. Preferably one that is even more annoying to them than it is to you.
Why does this work?
The power of story is compelling. It’s human nature to want to know more. It’s relatable and believable. The natural response to a story like this is for each person in the room to start sharing similar stories. That’s the first trick. You’ve set up a storytelling scenario that builds your case.
Next, you’ve used your emotional intelligence to show that you understand your partner. You get what they’re about. You’ve paid attention to their likes and dislikes! You can also use a gossipy story like this to paint your partner in a flattering light. Anyone would agree that your partner would never act in such a grotesque way.
You’re going for a relationship-wide ratio of at least ten positive statements, compliments, cheerleading, affection etc for every potentially critical or negative statement. By their count, not yours! Most people hover around 1:1 and long-term couples are so sloppy that they often have 3 negatives for every single positive.
This is another reason that dirty gossip can help you bond and have a more harmonious relationship, because you’re able to share emotional closeness without, you know, being all lovey-dovey or suspiciously sweet and positive.
Now that you’ve shared your gossipy anecdote, let the attack begin! You both talk out all the ways that couple is messing things up. You let fly on the inconsiderate, obnoxious one in the story and all the reasons that person is so clueless, selfish, or other favorite bad trait.
This is how you both set your norms. You are teaching each other your likes and dislikes. You have a neutral opportunity, at some hapless victim’s expense, of explaining your values. This is not just in the context of the relationship between the two of you, but possibly more, like community norms, appropriate workplace behavior, or sibling relationships.
The absolute best way to get this type of material is from advice columns, which are incredible. Next best is to share stories from distant acquaintances, such as Lady from the Plane or Guy from Networking Event. Randoms.
This is in fact the anthropological significance of gossip!
This is how human culture progresses, when we all collectively start to do things like Not Have Fleas or Wash Our Hands Before We Eat or Not Beat Our Kids.
If you haven’t done it already, the two of you can compare notes on your various exes, or the flirtations that didn’t pan out. Why is the person you’re with better than that sad sack? Apparently a lot of people mess up this opportunity and only mention their ex when their current partner isn’t measuring up. Oh yeah? Well why aren’t you two together then? Possibly better to stick to those random examples from the community, from advice columns, or even from movies or novels.
Oh darling, I know you would never do that!
Ideally your love relationship is a partnership. You like each other. You enjoy talking to each other and you enjoy spending time together. Why not do that at someone else’s expense? Gossip to the rescue! Gossip for marital harmony, and if you don’t agree, you certainly have my permission to have at me. As long as it’s together.
I just met a man who hates mashed potatoes. What, seriously? How could anyone possibly hate mashed potatoes?
He says it’s because he eats really slowly, and mashed potatoes are gross cold. Fair enough. I suggested putting a mug warmer under the serving bowl. It turns out he also dislikes gravy. How about wasabi mashed potatoes, I asked, and he admitted that sounded good. Then we substituted Japanese curry sauce instead, and we were off and running.
Incidentally, the same guy loves stuffing, which I think is the most pointless food in the world. I hate stuffing both wet and dry. Why not a nice cornbread, or wild rice with mushrooms and cranberries?
The truth is that there is no one food that everyone likes to eat, no matter how cherished the holiday tradition. A lot of people take it very personally when someone doesn’t want to eat their favorite food(s), even though it has nothing to do with them.
Why care what anyone else does or does not eat?
Welcome to 2019, when not everyone eats the same things!
I’m not even talking about food sensitivities or alternative dietary lifestyles. I’m just sharing the open secret that even the most dyed-in-the-wool traditional omnivores don’t all like the same foods, and it’s high time to consider mixing things up.
My husband loves every type of pie, but he hates all things pumpkin. Sweet potato pie he will eat, pumpkin pie he won’t.
But they’re the identical color and they have the exact same texture and the exact same spices!
People like what they like. De gustibus non est disputandem. That’s usually translated as “there is no accounting for taste,” but really it’s closer to:
As for taste preference, it is not to be debated.
You can’t talk someone into wanting to eat black olives if they don’t like black olives.
What’s more, not everyone likes turkey and there is nothing you can do about it.
Why try to convince someone to eat something they don’t like, something they don’t want to eat? This has always been a huge mystery to me because whatever I don’t eat, there’s more for you, right? I’m never going to be the one to eat the last slice of bacon. I’m also not going to interfere with your sandwich leftovers.
This is what people have told me:
Not all meat eaters like either turkey, goose, ham, beef, chicken, elk, venison, salmon, or any other animal meat you can name
Most people hate that sweet potato dish with the marshmallows/whipped cream
Likewise the green bean casserole, although I personally think it’s fantastic
Macaroni and cheese - single most disgusting food that humans have ever concocted
You know what else I don’t like? Dinner rolls.
As a child, I got a lot of guilt for resisting my Thanksgiving dinner, particularly because it was expensive and it took a lot of work. Nobody asked me, though! On my plate, I enjoyed the peas, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and the canned black olives. Of course I ate pie. We also had a fruit salad with whipped cream that was pretty good.
I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with:
Turkey meat, white but especially not dark, bleah
Stuffing, either wet or dry
Gravy, heck no!
Candied yams, not in this lifetime
I liked rolls back then, although my tastes have since changed.
As an adult, I made some executive decisions the first time I hosted Thanksgiving for my family. I always felt that Thanksgiving needed SOUP and nobody ever made any. There was never any salad, either, and I particularly felt the absence of my good friend cornbread. Furthermore, I was putting my foot down and offering kale, chard, and Brussels sprouts. I rounded out the menu with stuffed mushrooms. There were also a couple of different options for the main course, but most importantly:
There was. To be. Zero stuffing. At my table.
Nobody rioted! Nobody complained. Everyone raved about the soup and I had to give out the recipe. Brussels sprouts and cornbread made the must-have list for holiday dinners from that year onward. And the stuffed mushrooms are mandatory, my most requested offering.
I sort of had this idea that I would try out different recipes every year, but no, now it’s all stuffed mushrooms all the time...
My ex-husband’s family always put on a burrito buffet, which satisfied every dietary preference. I think it started the year everyone went into the kitchen to get pie, and the Basset hound got up on the table and snarfed the turkey.
The no-mashed-potatoes guy I mentioned earlier? His family are doing Indian food, and I hope they have a lot of leftovers because I’m totally climbing in their window on Friday.
Another friend has a Chinese buffet, which I admit also sounds far more appealing than the sad, brown, and lumpy traditional Thanksgiving.
It is a huge amount of work, isn’t it, my fellow home cooks? A huge amount of work for fussy non-cooks who need prodding to offer to clean up or contribute. Do we really want to keep doing it?
As a longtime plant-based person, I’ve often been asked to bring my own entree to Thanksgiving. I prefer this! I’m a great cook, and it takes a lot of anxiety off my mind to know that there will be at least one thing for me to eat. If you go this route, recognize that it’s very untraditional to expect guests to bring their own meal and that you haven't asked this of anyone else. Therefore, your only requirement as host is to protect this guest’s experience in your home.
Do not bully your nontraditional guest. Do not allow anyone else in your home to do so, either. Continue to talk about topics of broad conversational appeal to everyone. You’re pretty sure you wouldn’t want a veggie guest to try to “preach” or “convert” anyone, especially any little kids who might be there, right? So don’t bring it up. You probably don’t want to spend the entire meal discussing the symptoms of nut allergies or gluten intolerance. You probably don’t want to spend the whole meal learning all about ketosis, either. The best food-related comments are along the lines of “This is fantastic” and “Thank you so much for spending your holiday with us.”
Remember, even your few acquaintances who have no food sensitivities still have their preferences. Not everyone likes turkey, not everyone likes any specific thing. Don’t take it personally. Just smile, offer to let them bring their favorite dish, and make sure everyone helps wash up afterward.
Giving each other thinking space starts right as you walk in the door. This has nothing to do with the time of day or whether it’s a weekday or the weekend. If someone has just come in from somewhere, even a quick walk to the mailbox, this is when it starts.
Don’t say anything except “hi” for the next five minutes.
That’s it. If you only have one rule, let it be that one.
Five minutes is enough to start if anyone in the household ever feels burned out, frustrated, distracted, sad, angry, ill... really any other feeling than ‘elated’ or ‘enthused.’
Not everyone does this. It actually boggles my mind all the time, how I might be hanging out with someone in their home, and someone else comes in, only to be immediately barraged with a tidal wave of news and complaints and task assignments.
Whoa! I think. Do you people do this to each other all the time?
The answer is always yes. A household that doesn’t understand or respect transitions probably has no idea how it feels, or that there’s another way to do things.
Why is this important?
When we first see each other after an absence, even a brief one, we have no idea what the other person has been doing. We have no information on their state of mind or their physical sensations, and vice versa. It’s a bit like a poker game. Your news update might well be a four of a kind, but theirs might well be a royal flush.
I don’t know about everyone else, but when I walk in my front door, I usually have a lot going on. I have my keys in one hand, a dog leash in the other, a bag over my shoulder (and sometimes two), I’m listening to something on my headphones, and I probably have to pee. Anyone who is trying to get my attention is simply going to have to wait while I:
Unclip the dog
Turn off my audio
Put my keys in my bag
Set my bag down
And only THEN leave the room for ninety seconds.
Can’t you wait for two minutes??
That’s on a normal day. I may also need to turn around and leave for another appointment and have barely 20 minutes to get ready. It’s not that you’re not fully entitled to my attention, it’s just that I can’t give it to you. Not yet. I have none to give.
What we need is a buffer, a way to pause between one phase of the day and another. We need to make a mental and emotional transition, not just a physical one where we move from one location to another. Just because my body is in the room does not mean my attention is!
A five-minute pause is respectful. It says (without saying): I acknowledge you and your day. You have obligations other than me. You have the perfect and absolute right to collect your thoughts, put your stuff down, make a quick phone call, listen to the end of a song, take an aspirin, sort the mail, tap dance, get mud off your pants, or whatever else you need to do in order to feel ready to interact with me.
The reward for this natural pause is that your friend is now able to give you their full focus and attention. (Child? Roommate? Spouse? I hope you’re friends, in any case).
This pause may not always be reciprocated, because the other person may not realize you’re doing it. It can take time. You may have to spell it out, say, “Give me a minute,” and then explain why you were distracted. Like several hundred times. Eventually, gradually, anyone can be taught. Even pets.
Our rat terrier used to jump up on everyone, as a puppy and a young dog. After much practice, he started crouching next to someone instead. He could then avoid getting in trouble and simultaneously invite a nice rubdown. It’s pretty similar with people. If you start giving them a few moments to shake off the day, when they come in, it gives them time to want to come over for a hug.
There are a few other guidelines for giving and getting more thinking space. None of these are universal by any means.
One, no yelling from room to room. If you want to talk to someone, go to the room that they’re in. I don’t know about you, but if I’m in the next room, I can’t even hear or understand what someone else is trying to say. Raised voices are pointless. It’s worse when the person you’re calling turns out not to be there at all, or they’re on the phone with someone from work.
We avoid raised voices partly because we have both a parrot and a dog, and it tends to give both of them the wrong idea. She’s internalized this idea that there is a Quiet Time and a Noisy Time, so if you’re quiet then she’s quiet, too. But if you’re trying to watch a movie or talk on the phone then that is obviously Noisy Time. A free-for-all. She starts running through her full discography of electronic sounds, and then he stands underneath her and starts howling.
You think your house is loud...
Two, set aside your administrative discussions and do them all in bulk. This eliminates so, so much tedious daily choremastering. A lot of this can be done without discussion at all. For instance, I bought a four-way dishwasher magnet and we haven’t had to ask each other whether the dishes were clean or dirty ever since. (Clean/dirty/running/empty). We also have a shared grocery list on our phones. We do a status meeting every week to go over finances, travel plans, etc.
The idea here is that most of your conversations should be interesting, fun, relaxing... something other than vexing, boring, or infuriating. The time that was formerly taken up by discussions about the dishwasher or what to have for dinner is then freed up. Everyone can finally have a moment to think. This is how we build space in our lives for daydreaming and peace of mind.
There are two things that writers and engineers have in common, and that is the fact that they can only do their real work with a certain amount of focus. That level of concentration is not only impossible in most jobs, it’s contrary to the job description. Protecting someone else’s mental bubble of focus does not come naturally in our culture. It’s something that parents should be thinking about if their kids are still in school. It’s also something for couples to think about if they’re struggling financially or feeling stuck at work.
Protect each other’s thinking space if you want to move ahead in your careers.
If you like to read, you may have noticed that many people see an open book as some kind of social signal. “Oh, you must be lonely, so I will kindly rescue you from the terrible fate of having to read that book.” I remember trying to cram in a chapter of homework at a day-long social event, when a steady stream of people found me sitting on the floor in a back hallway next to the janitorial closet and wanted to “keep me company.” Writing is the same. Look like you’re concentrating hard and typing rapidly, and some perfect stranger might well come up and try to strike up a conversation.
It’s certainly no better in most workplaces. Ask any engineer how they feel about having hour-long meetings scattered throughout their schedule, breaking their time up into brief segments. Um, are you paying me to design things or are you paying to chat with me about why my design isn’t finished yet?
See what it’s like for most little kids in school. Even when they’re still trying to learn to read, even when they’re still clutching their pencil stubs and poking out their tongues when they laboriously scrawl out their numbers, the rest of the household is usually in full mayhem mode. The TV is on. People are talking. Food is being eaten. Pets are running around. Sure, it’s good to be able to learn to tune out background noise, gradually. It’s a lot to expect of a tiny child. It is no surprise to me at all that so many kids struggle with attention deficit. They’ve never seen full focus in action! Not a single person in their life actually focuses on anything!
I have had the privilege of babysitting a few kids who had been diagnosed with ADHD. Interestingly, I find that they are able to sit and focus and concentrate and get their work done. They’re usually smarter than average, after all. They just need to be able to sit within someone else’s larger and more developed thought bubble. I would sit at the table with them and balance my bank statements, write some email, maybe do some cryptograms. That’s the type of Level Two thinking that they have to use to read or do their math. The room would be quiet, my pets would take a nap, and suddenly all the worksheets were complete.
But then mine is a tranquil house, a house organized around the premise that we protect each other’s thinking space.
My stepdaughter was salutatorian of her school. This came as no surprise to anyone who knew her. When she was ten, she started setting her alarm clock so she could get up at 5:30 AM and do extra homework. Her idea. “You can get so much more done,” she said, and if she worked ahead then she could watch cartoons when she came home from school.
That’s the thing. It isn’t that a room needs to be quiet around the clock. It only has to be quiet for at least one two-hour chunk at a time.
I guess the other thing is that we have to have a mutual regard for each other’s mental space. Not everyone does.
A lot of families have a nerdy kid. Almost without fail, that child is teased relentlessly about it, by relatives as well as peers at school. This type of kid gravitates to us, because we find it endearing and we will listen attentively while they spout on and on about dinosaurs or whatever their pet topic is. This is the vibe of the future engineer/mathematician/academic, our type of kid. We were the same way at that age, and so were our little friends, many of whom went on to earn graduate degrees.
Why on earth don’t parents appreciate their nerdy kids? They have no idea what they have.
I think any child could really do that well academically. The main difference with the sweet little nerds-in-training is that they’ve somehow figured out how to generate their own concentration bubble and get into it in spite of the bedlam of a family on a weekday evening. Almost all children are completely deprived of this energy their entire academic lives.
Quiet time isn’t just for thinking, of course. It’s key to High Quality Leisure Time, the missing piece of many marriages. Everyone needs a solid block of HQLT, and yet whenever we try to indulge in it, someone else will come along and try to disrupt it on general principle. We imagine a cat peering at a human in a bathtub. WHAT are you DOING in there?? People are classically annoyed with each other for having an interest that they don’t share, especially if it involves taking off on the weekend and spending time with others. There’s less of a need for that when we can reliably get our daily dose of HQLT at home.
Ours is a home where we respect naps, usually cross-species group naps. This is a place where it’s safe to sit down and read a textbook for fun, or frankly read any book for fun. We’re able to resolve financial or strategic issues together because we aren’t constantly annoying each other by interrupting each other’s HQLT. We have this reserve of dignity and respected space for private thoughts. It’s also no mistake that my husband is working on an idea for his fourth patent application. We can do that here.
The thing about protecting each other’s thinking space is that the more you give, the more you receive. You both benefit. Every hour that your partner spends quietly doing something important or interesting (or not) is an hour of serenity for yourself. Protect each other’s thinking space, pause for breath, and watch what happens.
What to read next? This is a question that crosses my mind every day, yet not for long. That’s because I have a never-ending book list. This list is a key to my productivity, because I use my reading habit as a tool. Reading entertains me while I do boring drudgery, like housework and exercise, and it’s also my reward when I want to relax. More people should be spending more time relaxing, in my opinion, and what better way to do it than with a book?
We’re fortunate to live in a time when books are everywhere and you can even get them for free. A thousand years ago almost nobody was literate, and even two hundred years ago a lot of people couldn’t even sign their own name. Now you can trade books back and forth with your friends by the grocery sack load. You could probably go a year reading only books you got for free.
A lot of us could go a year reading only books we already have waiting on the shelf...
This is why I emphasize having a never-ending *list* rather than a never-ending *stack.* In my opinion, a stack of books is intimidating. It can’t help but look a little like homework. It’s that much worse when even one of them is a loaner book or a book club pick, when the pleasure of reading is tainted by social pressure.
This is why I haven’t finished reading the Game of Thrones series yet, although I’m sure I would have whipped through them in a couple of weeks if I felt like they were my little secret.
Being given books by other people is one of two pitfalls of being a constant reader. The other is having your books “borrowed” only to never see either the book or the borrower again. I have no idea why this is so hard to get right; it just is. Reading ebooks has mostly solved this problem for me, because I no longer have visible books in my living room to tempt my guests.
I still want to “help” my friends and family by curating book lists for them. This is one of my worst habits. I’m sure I’ll never stop, though. I convinced both of my parents to let me add books to their library wish lists, and honestly there are probably enough titles on there to keep them both busy for three years.
See, once you get into the habit of creating a never-ending (auto-correct just changed this to nerve-rending) book list, it’s easy to spawn more.
What goes into it, though?
It starts with knowing your own tastes. This is surprisingly uncommon. I am friends with a couple who are perpetually watching two-star movies and then being disappointed. Don’t you read the reviews? I ask. I could have told you from the description that you weren’t going to enjoy this. Chances are, I have a better handle on their viewing preferences than they do, which is bonkers. Recognizing genres and plot patterns can help here.
I personally find stories with a kidnapping theme to be totally uninteresting. Doesn’t matter what genre. This is a problem, because I’m drawn to thrillers, and they often revolve around kidnappings. I also can’t stand stories about extramarital affairs. Everyone has something - several people I know can’t handle ghost stories or anything spooky in any way - and the first step to building a book list is to make sure that nothing on it actively repels you.
The list itself, there’s a point. I am a big believer in using a list, rather than actively buying books more than a few days ahead. One of the reasons is that sometimes a new edition comes out before I manage to get to a title, and it will often include new material. Mainly, though, I find it oppressive to have an unread stack of books staring me down. It’s a distinction between feeling like there is a buffet of options, versus feeling like there is a syllabus.
I use my library apps as a working list. When I hear about a book that I want to read, I add it to the list. If it’s new and popular, I will put it on hold right away. This generates a steady feed of hot new titles, and probably 80% of my reading material is thus automatically queued up for me.
Once upon a time, I had a spiral notebook filled with titles I wanted to read. I had started it in ninth grade, so it was mostly of the college prep / “100 books to read before you die” variety. When I would read one, I would check it off the list. I threw it out a few years later, after my boyfriend found it and told me it was “crass.”
I wish I had it back. It’s one of the few things I’ve ever regretted downsizing. I no longer feel like it’s crass to want to track what I read, or to feel like I’m keeping up with a great conversation and staying involved with pop culture. Instead I feel like a dunce for letting some dumb pretentious boy influence my choices.
He did, though. That boy influenced what colors I wore, which cuisines I would eat, what music I listened to, what movies I watched, and indeed what I read. The stream did not flow in the opposite direction. I doubt he even knew what I would have chosen when I wasn’t actively trying to impress him.
My list is mine, and your list should be yours, something personal and private, a secret delight.
Where do the titles come from?
Those “most-loved books” lists
Books that I see other people carrying around
Newsletters from various bookstores, Goodreads, etc.
Reviews from selected sources (bloggers, podcasts, news articles), which I only read *after* I’ve finished the book because SPOILERS
‘Recommended’ placards at indie bookstores (which is why I go to them)
My favorite literary website, The Millions (themillions.com)
Have you ever found out, years later, that one of your favorite authors had a new book out? This doesn’t have to happen if you can find a way to stay in the loop. If you’re lucky, your favorite authors will each put out a new book at least once every few years, and your never-ending book list will continue on and on.
I’m closing in on 300 books read for 2019, not the most I’ve read in a year and not the first time I’ve done this, either. It’s not that I think everyone should aim for a book a day - although plenty of people read that much - it’s more that I feel bad for people who love reading and can’t seem to find the time.
If you love books, I’m telling you, you are missing out on reading opportunities.
I met a woman at a party, and it didn’t take long for us to figure out that we were both book nerds. Her husband popped up, wondering what we were so excited about, and it turned out that one of their favorite things to do is to listen to audio books together on road trips. Yay!
Then it turned out that they only used one smartphone app (the worst one) and they had been struggling to find books they both wanted to hear.
THIS is why it’s a good idea to go to parties even when you hate it and you really don’t want to. I proceeded to whip out my phone and blow both of their minds with all the portals they were missing out on.
Now, because I’m nice, I’m going to tell you as well.
If you only like print books, that’s fine, good for you, and you can skip the rest of this post, but you are probably still missing out. I’ll throw you a few ideas. One, I didn’t realize until I was thirty that I could put books on hold at my local library, and that’s why the books I found the most interesting never seemed to be on the shelf. Two, it’s also possible to put books on hold *before they are even in print* and that’s why there is always a line of 375 people already waiting on publication day. Three, most libraries take suggestions for purchases, and they will notify you if they buy your suggestion. They’ll usually put your name on the waiting list, too. Four, the Large Print section is likely to have popular books in stock when the regular scale is checked out, and they’re easier to read during your workout.
Okay, done with all that. Next point, anyone who buys most of their reading material off the bookstore remainder table probably has a house full of partially read books. Shopping is not reading! Just like shopping is not crafting. Look around and ask yourself if you are choosing books based on price rather than preference. Don’t feel beholden to books that couldn’t keep your interest past page 40. Free yourself of any feelings of obligation, give those books away, and try not to pre-commit to more than the next three books you plan to read.
Oh! And if you have books that you have borrowed from other people, there is probably a reading-related curse on your head, and you should give them back right away.
Back to the 21st century, where we have ebooks and audio books and futuristic speed-reading tools that would have been worth a king’s ransom a century ago. Imagine poor Abraham Lincoln reading on horseback, and then the rains came...
This is my secret: I can acquire and read any book while it is still red-hot, fresh, and desirable, then immediately move on to another.
The most interesting thing about ebooks to me is that you can boost a library’s circulation figures even if you’ve only walked in their door once. As a corollary to this, ebooks make it easy to be a member of multiple libraries. As I showed my new friends at the party, I have no fewer than four library apps on my phone, and I’m an active patron of five library systems.
I can theoretically check out 75 books at a time and have 70 on hold.
That’s only through one app (OverDrive), and it doesn’t include magazines.
My new book-loving friends had never heard of OverDrive, even though it’s the most popular library app with the biggest selection. The other three I use are Hoopla, cloudLibrary, and RBdigital. Some ebook editions can only be read through a web browser, and some are only available as Kindle Editions. (Note: using the Kindle app does not require using the Kindle device)
I seem to have discovered an exploit, because often books that are on hold for months through one app will be sitting there available for checkout through the same library on another app. I think almost all library users of digital materials download one app and use that as their portal, rather than going through the library catalog, where they might see more options.
Something about digital books seems to outrage many traditional readers. NO, they will tell me, I PREFER REAL BOOKS! Ebook readers still read print books, and we tend to read more than we did before because we always have our books with us. We increase library circulation numbers, which increases sales. I’ll tell you what else. I quit buying used books years ago - zero of that revenue goes to the author - and I’m much more likely to buy a new book in hardcover now.
Me: $120 on four new books in hardcover and a couple of digital downloads
Others: $10/month on used or remaindered books, stacked all over the house unread
= SAME PRICE
(But my way, at least the authors get paid)
My enthusiasm for reading is at least as strong as it ever was, when I was two years old and couldn’t read at all, when I was six and learning to sound things out, when I was seven and sprawled on the floor reading my first chapter book, when I was twelve and discovered an entire library shelf dedicated to Stephen King. So many people are like me, book people! Yet we deprive ourselves of our favorite activity because we don’t feel like we have any leisure time any more.
When you were in line at Costco, so was I, but I was reading
When you were washing dishes, so was I, but I was reading
When you were folding laundry, so was I, but I was reading
When you were playing Candy Crush, I wasn’t, I was busy reading; but I bet you could play an audio book in the background
When you were watching TV, I wasn’t, but I probably read the book when it came out
When you were cooking dinner, so was I, but I was blasting a Hoopla audio book at 3x
When you were at the bookstore, I was in the next aisle, playing one book while looking for another
Just writing this is making me want to quit and go back to my book. We’re both missing an opportunity here, because I’ve run out of room before I had time to talk about my secret speed-reading tricks for print books. Suffice to say that because I read so much and so fast, I feel like I have plenty of time to stay current on nonfiction, business books, pop culture, memoir, YA, and literally whatever else crosses my book radar.
The only reading opportunity I worry about missing now is what will happen if I ever run out of books.
In the urgent care examination room, I read a poster on the wall while the nurse took my vitals. There wasn’t much else to do while simultaneously wearing three pieces of medical equipment, trying to hold still for a pulse ox, thermometer, and blood pressure cuff.
This poster outlined the clinic’s policy for pain medication. It was pretty long!
I happened to be in a pretty distracting level of pain myself, due to a sports injury, and it had gotten worse during the hour I had just waited. As a routine part of the exam, the nurse asked me to rate my pain on a level of 1 to 10. I told her ‘4,’ on which I will elaborate.
Then I mentioned the poster and how it put things in perspective for me. I don’t like being in pain, but I also have no interest in a prescription painkiller habit.
“I’d have to be screaming on the floor before I would want painkillers,” I told the nurse. “I have enough to deal with right now. It’s like you walk in with one problem and walk out with two problems.”
She laughed ruefully. Nurses are prone to dark comedy. With her level of experience she likely dealt with patients trying to score extra pills on a daily basis.
I avoid painkillers for many of the same reasons that I avoid sleeping pills. I have a firm conviction that almost all medical issues originate in a person’s daily habits, and a prescription is a short-term fix for what most likely started as a long-term problem. I’ve had sleep issues since I was seven, for instance, and these issues are poorly understood. The most common medical solution for night terrors like mine is a prescription for barbiturates.
Okay, great. Two years later I’ll still have a sleep problem, and also a pill problem. Thanks. (No thanks)
I used to work at a drug rehab. The program was court-mandated, meaning that over 99% of our clients came in to avoid jail time. Many of them were clean-cut and looked like any other suburban business professional. They got busted by having multiple prescriptions at multiple pharmacies. It could happen to anyone, I’m convinced of that.
I had oral surgery a few times this year, and I was not offered painkillers. I didn’t take anything stronger than ibuprofen, even when I had sutures in my mouth and couldn’t eat solid food.
I’d rather spend a week thrashing around in mind-numbing pain than spend years fighting an addiction.
This is a philosophical position, and by no means something that I expect to appeal to anyone but me. Painkillers are there for a reason, and it is possible to die of shock. I don’t blame other people for succumbing to what is a built-in risk of a rational, legal, and standard choice. I know this is a neurochemical thing, not some... “willpower” thing or what-have-you.
I don’t believe in “willpower.”
I do, though, believe in the Pain Scale.
Sitting in a veterinary office one day, I saw a little poster on the wall. It was a pain scale for animals. It impressed me that veterinary science had worked out a way to rate the pain of animals who can’t speak or write. We can tell how they feel by looking at them, by the way they behave.
According to this poster, a ‘10’ for an animal might show up as loss of consciousness, convulsions, and possibly death.
Whoa! I thought. Good point. I know I have never experienced a 10 on the pain scale in my life. It occurred to me that few people probably have, even if they’ve been in labor or had major burns.
The pain scale I’ve seen for humans is subjective. It asks us to rate our pain according to what we have experienced before, or whether we feel it is ‘severe.’
A stubbed toe rates as a 1, according to one scale. Everyone has stubbed a toe at some point, and the universal reaction is to hop around swearing a blue streak. This is one of the three reasons I haven’t owned a coffee table for the past twenty years. We don’t call 911 when we stub our toes, though, because we know it will only hurt that much for a minute or two. Acute but brief and not dangerous.
Chronic pain is what tends to get us into trouble. I started getting migraines the same year I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a long time ago when there weren’t any reliable prescription drugs for either condition. Those were some tough years.
I figured out along the way, though, how to avoid flare-ups. Everything I ever did that worked was a permanent, often quite radical, lifestyle modification. I figured a lot of things out accidentally, coincidentally, and sometimes by trial and error. Problems like these are systemic, and they are hard to treat because they are the result of multiple inputs. Changing even three things might not be enough to make a difference, and they might not even be the right three things.
If I’d gotten some prescriptions, I’m convinced that I would not have pushed through and figured out how to leave the pain state. I would have thought of myself as a sick person who needed to take pills forever.
Pain is an invader, but it’s also a messenger. Pain tells us, Hey, whatever you’re doing, knock it off. Pain is an opportunity to learn something.
Not everyone is interested in receiving the message from pain. Emotionally - why do we continue to interact with people who hurt us or betray our trust over and over? Mentally - why do we dig in and double down on ideas after we’re exposed to contradictory evidence? Physically - why do we keep eating foods that make us ill, deprive ourselves of sleep, or ignore doctor’s orders?
When I’m in a difficult situation, I like to ask myself, What would an ordinary person do right now? Sometimes I can say, Okay, that’s what I should do, and other times the response should obviously be, Okay, definitely don’t do that. It depends on whether the standard response seems to lead to good or bad results. If the standard response to pain is to get a prescription for painkillers, and a common response to painkillers is to develop a tolerance, then I want to avoid that common outcome.
When I think of the pain scale, my personal version of it, it helps me to stay in my right mind and think about Future Me. The truth is that Future Me has probably already gotten over this.
1 - stubbed toe, paper cut
2 - headache, common cold
3 - migraine
4 - distracting pain
5 - “better get that looked at” pain
6 - “incapable of doing anything else” pain
7 - involuntary sobbing pain (antibiotic eye drops)
8 - cry yourself to sleep pain (losing a fingernail in a metal door)
9 - uncontrollable screaming
10 - unconscious, seizure, coma
I survived an 8, my personal 8, and that was a level of pain that made me believe that torture works. It also helps me to believe that there are of course worse levels of pain within human experience. Maybe I’ve already experienced the worst pain I will ever feel in my life! At that level, I could still speak, could still get up and walk, could go about my business without pain treatment. I knew that my body can heal, that my brain can eventually tune out pain, that this too would pass. Not a single one of the most painful experiences of my life is bothering me today.
I believe that there is a natural neurochemical response to pain, and that this neurochemistry can be permanently disrupted after even a short period of using various pharmaceuticals. I don’t trust them at all. I trust that I can handle almost any painful experience that comes my way, and that almost anything is easier than fighting an addiction.
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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