Well, that escalated quickly. I wrote a post about manifesting a relocation on a Friday. We found a place we really liked on Sunday morning, called about it after lunch, went to see it at 2 PM, and decided to apply for it when we got home. The landlord pulled the ad and we had finished filling out the paperwork Monday night.
That was the easy part.
On Tuesday I thought I would get ahead of the curve. I went to the local moving company, conveniently located five minutes from our apartment, and scheduled a pair of movers. I brought home some boxes to get an early start. Then I called around to see if any of our friends could watch our pets for the day.
There are a bunch of parts to this move that I never saw coming, and factors that make it very lucky that I took action as early in the process as I did.
First, scheduling the move. It turns out that our new building is about half owner-occupied and it has a homeowner’s association. There is also a really strict procedure about moving into the building, and a formal Welcoming Committee. We don’t just pick up the keys. We have to tell people when we’re coming so they can put up the pads in the elevator.
It’s a good thing I asked, because it also turns out that I need to apply for a parking permit from the City for the moving van.
Can you imagine, showing up in a moving van with everything you own, only to get a ticket? Or find that there is nowhere within a half mile that you’re allowed to park?
Picture this. The parking lot for the building is underground, and there’s no clearance for a moving van to get down there. Even a pickup truck loaded up for a move might struggle. The only parking is in front of the building on a busy street on a major bus route. It’s not like a suburban move with a driveway or a large apartment complex parking lot.
Next, we’re moving in summer while school is out and the weather is predictable. That makes it a busy time. The ONLY reason the moving company fit me in is because we live in a studio apartment and we don’t have much furniture. They were going to try to give me a Thursday when I’m teaching a workshop in the middle of the day. We’re taking a Friday. Saturday and Sunday, so not happening.
Honestly I could see their schedule board from the front desk, and it looked like the entire month is already booked up.
Going down the list, what are our pets going to do on moving day? It’s not safe for them to be out and around while two dudes are hauling heavy stuff and loading a dolly. They just don’t need that kind of stress, and neither do the movers.
Ah, but, everyone I called will be out of town that week. No can do.
I have a boarding option for my parrot. The dog is more complicated. There is a doggy day care close to the new place, but it has a really elaborate application process. He has to have proof of three different vaccinations, which is great because he actually got kennel cough a few years ago from one place that didn’t require shots. I had to schedule an appointment so my husband can take him in there and prove that he can get along with other dogs. Also, they only accept dogs under 30 pounds, and we’re lucky because he happens to be under 25. I don’t know what we would do if we had a large breed; we might have had a lot of trouble even finding a rental house, much less an apartment in this region, with a big dog.
This is the new reality of a city move for us.
Oh, and, by the way, moving day is nine days from now. Countdown begins.
Why are we moving in such a hurry anyway? Partly because our current living situation has been destroying our quality of life. We’ve tried multiple times, and failed, to get any kind of corrective action. We came back from vacation and realized that we truly couldn’t take it any more.
Next, because we have a trip planned for our ten-year wedding anniversary, and we have a chance to get all this done before we even leave for our trip.
Ultimately, because we could hardly believe that our dream apartment was available and we know how hard it is to find a place. Any place! Much less a place where we can see ourselves being happy.
The new building has a long list of strict rules. A lot of them are subjective decisions about quality of life and noise level. When we walked in from the street and the lobby door shut behind us, it was like entering a walled garden. Middle of the afternoon on a summer weekend, and it was hushed. Most of the tenants (and owners) are middle-aged professionals like us. We’ll be on the top floor, no neighbors stomping overhead unless Santa comes early.
This rushed and complicated move is a sign of privilege, and it’s also a sign that I’ve done this a lot and I know how to make it happen. We save half our income (or at least we did over the last couple of years), so we can afford to overlap rent by a couple of weeks and pay for a half-day with professional movers. (It’s just under $500 if you want to know). We passed the credit check, also the result of ten years of frugal marriage.
Mostly, we can pull off a quick and complicated move because we hardly own any stuff! The less space you take up, with every hundred square feet below 1200, the easier it is to find a place. If you can get below 800 square feet, you can live in most places in the world, many of them with a better view than you have today.
*** Extra complication ***
Jurisdictional dispute between the city and state transportation department, still figuring out exactly who can issue the parking permit for the moving van
*** a learning extravaganza! ***
It’s that time again, time to move! We’ve been eating up what we have on hand, and this has led to some interesting revelations. What are we doing when we’re coasting along in default mode, and how does it compare to what we would rather claim to be doing on some sort of survey?
Our freezer is almost completely empty right now. We decided to get ready to move immediately after coming home from vacation, when we hadn’t been shopping yet. That was the first disruption. HALT! Eat what we have and try to avoid bringing home anything new.
The second disruption happened when I also skipped my occasional “stocking up” trips. One of our frugality tricks is to wait until certain staples go on sale, and then buy as much as we can fit. Since we haven’t had a pantry for the past couple of years, this means freezer stuff. It keeps, it’s at eye level, and it’s a very limited space, so we know we can’t overdo it.
This would definitely be the point when I would plan to fill up the freezer with entrees to last 1-2 weeks.
The third disruption was when we noticed we were running out of oatmeal and declined to go to Costco. There is truly no point to going to a warehouse store immediately before loading a moving van, especially when you plan to live closer to said warehouse store afterward.
As with any area of complexity, there are multiple inputs here, all with different causes and all with different effects.
As our freezer has gradually and steadily emptied out, it is becoming apparent that I harbor some major fantasies about leisurely hot breakfasts. Now more than half of what is left in there consists of breakfast foods. That does sort of solve the low oatmeal reserve problem.
It has also become apparent that we tend to eat certain foods more quickly than others, and some orphans have been hanging around. I discovered, much to my surprise, that there are two containers of homemade soup in the freezer, and one of a special katsu sauce that I batch-cook because it is incredibly messy.
This makes it theoretically possible to eat an actual “home-cooked” meal in our new place the very night we move in!
Something else came up in the surprise pantry assessment. My hubby found my carefully hidden, freezer-burned non-dairy chocolate brownie ice cream. It’s probably been in there, what month is it? Six months or more? It was under my stash of vegan white chocolate chips from New Year’s Eve 2017.
Yes, it’s true, no matter what I eat or claim to eat, I always have a stash of dessert foods hidden away somewhere. Twenty-five years ago it was a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies in the back of my desk drawer, kept at work so I wouldn’t have to share with my boyfriend. Now it’s - well, it’s whatever I feel like - considerately hidden from my abstainer husband.
Abstainers have to avoid temptations entirely, because otherwise they will immediately cave in. Moderators like me prefer to have the temptation on hand, just to know it’s there, like a fire extinguisher. It’s just as unfair for me to prominently display treats around my husband as it is unfair for him to require me not to keep any in the house.
I learned to be a moderator from my dad, incidentally. He would get three Cadbury chocolate bars for Christmas, one plain, one with dried fruit, and one with nuts. They lived in a desk drawer next to his favorite chair. Sometimes, while reading a book, he would unwrap one of these, snap off one rectangle, and nibble at it. Just one. Not every day. Those chocolate bars - you can imagine how I knew, a little kid staring at candy - would last him for months. I learned to associate moderation with higher-quality candy! That’s probably why, in our fruit bowl, I still have a few pieces of candy left over from Halloween, over nine months ago.
What else do we have in our pantry, now that we’re aiming for nothing?
A dozen or so jars of homemade soup stock, canned four years ago when we had a much larger kitchen. Likewise home-grown and canned tomatoes and collard greens. Are we going to cook from scratch more when we move to a new place and have a conventional kitchen again?
A few different kinds of flours and sweeteners, kept in the fridge for lack of space. Again, bought when we had a bigger kitchen and more counter space for baking. Are we going to do more of that, or are we wasting money by buying more than we use?
Condiments, so many condiments. We seem to keep accumulating mustards and capers and barbecue sauce and salad dressings, no matter where we live or what we’re doing. At least they are current, since we definitely started from zero when we moved to this region.
Behavioral research indicates that moving is the best time to start new habits. Thinking about when we first moved to this apartment, things have been different. We’ve eaten a lot more prepared foods and we’ve done very little cooking. We’re fitter, though, because we started taking classes at a gym instead of leaving our workouts up to fate. We used to alternate which one of us cooked, but it’s been very haphazard in this tiny studio kitchen.
Now what we want to do is to set careful intentions about our new place, because if we don’t, we will certainly fall into default behavior. We’ll have our first grocery shopping trip to fill up our ghostly, echoing fridge. What’s going in the basket? What will we bring home, what will we cook, what will we eat?
Most importantly, where will I hide my treats?
We’re moving again. When? I dunno. I just know that this is not the place where we are going to retire. Our lease is up this fall and I want to go sooner rather than later. This is the method that I use when I want to shake things up a bit.
Most people don’t plan their moves. In my experience, this is one of THE most commonly procrastinated human activities. I know it because when I do home visits, there are universally always boxes still sealed from the last move, often many years in the past. Nothing personal. People just suck at moving.
One thing I know is true. If something stays sealed in a box, then nobody needs it.
If they did, they would have found it and opened the box and gotten it out.
I’ve moved, I think, 27 times as an adult. Add to that all the people who I have helped pack or move or unpack, and all the clients I have helped do space clearing years after the fact. It’s a lot.
Working with hoarders has been a great refresher for me. Every single time I come home from a home visit, I get rid of another bag of stuff. I even start thinking about my own belongings while I’m still on site. Why do I have so many books I haven’t read? Why do I insist on keeping certain garments even when they’re threadbare and it drives my husband nuts to see me wearing them?
I don’t have much as a general rule, because I formally downsize on a regular basis. Even so, I’ve found that moving requires a culling both before and after a move. First there’s all the stuff you shouldn’t pack in the first place, like empty paper sacks, and then there’s all the stuff that won’t work in the new place, like furniture that won’t fit.
The difference between me and most people is that I actually DO the work that should be done here. I actually DO go through my stuff and get rid of a bunch of things before we move. Then I DO go through it the second time while I’m unpacking.
This has been made easier by our tenuous existence inside of a 612-square-foot studio apartment over a year and a half.
When we first moved into this unit, we had three boxes left over that had nowhere to go. It was mostly pantry food (and, as it turns out, the sewing machine). I had them stacked up next to our dining chairs, and they were unbelievably annoying.
Too stubborn to throw them away, though!
(Many types of food can’t be donated to the food bank, such as flour in a canister, homemade soup stock, or anything in a container that has been opened).
I finally managed to unpack those last three boxes one day while my husband was at work. Let me tell you, he noticed the moment he walked in the door.
It’s easy to be a minimalist in a normal-sized suburban home. That’s because they tend to have tons of closets and cabinets, and you can hide all your stuff.
In a studio where almost all the available storage is on open shelving, suddenly you don’t look like such a minimalist any more! Anyone who comes over and uses our bathroom is going to get a view of our closet, with almost all our worldly goods, not to mention our laundry hampers.
I’m determined to get ready to move, and I want the unpacking process to be even easier than it was last time.
The last time we moved, I unpacked a lot of stuff as we went. We had a friend - a truly amazing person to whom we owe a major debt - come over and help us hand-carry our stuff from one building in our apartment complex to another. Every time I would bring over a load, I would put it where it belonged, starting with the shower and the fridge. By the time we finished late that night, the bathroom was completely unpacked, the bed was made, all our clothes were set up, and the kitchen was half done. We were able to get up the next morning, shower, dress, and make breakfast like nothing had happened.
The main area where I’m focusing as I manifest our next relocation is the kitchen. I’m planning around eating up everything in our fridge and freezer, including condiments. This means the only grocery shopping we’ll really be doing is to buy fresh vegetables. I always wonder how we wind up with so many different flavors of mustard and salad dressing, and that continues to be a question that will probably never be solved.
Doing the closet is a fairly quick job. It takes my husband ten minutes because he’s all about the capsule wardrobe. It will probably take me more like an hour. Then maybe a half hour for the bathroom cabinets.
The other big challenges are our paper file box and the books.
At some point in our relationship, I seem to have passed the baton of book collecting to my hubby. Almost all my reading is digital these days, while he has been doing an unprecedented amount of business travel, which generates a lot of paperback books. Books add bulk and weight to the moving boxes more quickly than anything except clothes, so it’s worth putting in extra focus here.
As for papers, we try to be paper-free as much as possible, yet still they tend to accumulate. I keep hoping that one day we can scan and shred what’s left and be done with it entirely. Papers tend to take the most concentration, and the more they pile up, the harder the job is. That’s why I insist that we purge the file box every year. I refuse to spend more than an hour at a time on this odious task.
I’ll do an inventory of household cleansers and all the random boxes, bags, and bottles that our pets generate.
This time, we’re hiring professional movers again, at my husband’s insistence. I know the job will be easier for them if everything is orderly and streamlined when they arrive. I also know they’re going to unpack in the most random way possible, so the less we have, the better.
Watch this space as I demonstrate how quickly I can manifest a nicer apartment, or maybe even a house!
I shouldn’t read horror stories in bed late at night, and I know this, but I do it anyway. It’s easier when I have my big strong husband lying next to me. I can usually tell myself “it’s just make-believe,” except for when it isn’t. This time, the story was so scary that I had to share it.
The nightmare that was real? The Wall Street Journal feature of August 1, 2019, “Families Go Deep In Debt to Stay in the Middle Class.”
The subtitle of this piece says a lot for two Gen X people like us. “Wages stalled but costs haven’t, so people increasingly rent or finance what their parents might have owned outright.”
My hubby and I both were raised by frugal Boomer parents. He grew up in a small town that didn’t have a movie theater, shopping mall, or fast food. My parents didn’t get a credit card until I was 14. I was in my twenties the first time they bought a new vehicle from a car lot. We probably have our parents to thank for the fact that we are debt-free and saving half our income today.
This is why we both had an issue with the WSJ article.
To start, we know the economy is hosed. That’s why we save so much. We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop and for another market correction/recession to happen. We know that incomes have flatlined and that almost nobody can “afford” housing or healthcare. We’re blaming broader historical currents, not individuals.
There is still room for an individual (person, couple, or family) to buck trends and behave unusually, to live a radically different lifestyle and thus get radically different results.
Default behavior gets default results.
The WSJ article starts by comparing income and various categories of consumer spending and debt since 1987. Then it brings in three couples and shares details of their household budgets. All of them are younger than we are, and it would certainly be interesting to follow up in 10-15 years and see how they are doing.
Otherwise we risk sounding like grumpy old codgers...
The first couple are both 28, they own a home and two cars, and they have a baby. The article includes pictures of them in their home, and my first thought was, Wow, I wish our furniture was that nice! At age 28, I had a college degree, but no dreams of home ownership. I had never owned a car and in fact I still didn’t have my driver’s license.
That’s the difference. I had no expectations of living a middle-class lifestyle in my twenties. My parents didn’t, so why would I think I could?
Blue-collar kids don’t live in that world.
When I told my family I was going back to school, they challenged me and suggested that I become an electrician instead. My brothers invited me to their company picnic, intending to play matchmaker and find me a husband. Nobody in my acquaintance thought that I would graduate into student loan debt and magically be able to afford a home loan and a car.
The no-college plan is a solid plan indeed. Both of my (younger) brothers will retire comfortably in their fifties, debt-free, with their houses paid off. Consider commercial construction and encourage your kids to become apprentice carpenters.
I didn’t go that route. I went into debt to get a history degree at a state school.
Plan A was to pay off my loans and then save for a house. I had paid one of them off six years early and was working on the other when I met my husband. That was when we rejected the idea of home ownership, and eventually the idea of car ownership as well.
He had just started paying alimony and child support. We understood that we could choose either to own a house and a car OR to fund our retirement.
The more research we did, the more it confirmed our sense that home ownership is a luxury and that the game is structured in favor of the bank, not us. Where we live, renting and investing the difference offers a much higher rate of return than the supposed appreciation on a house.
In the 2.5 years since we sold our car and downsized into a studio apartment, our investment portfolio has gained two hundred thousand dollars.
A single-family house in most markets is highly unlikely to appreciate at that rate.
In the same timeframe, my husband has begun applying for patents and is currently working on his fourth. He didn’t have the time when we lived in a suburban house, with its constant lawn mowing, yard maintenance, and repairs. The WSJ article doesn’t talk about being on the hook for roofing, windows, plumbing, electrical problems, pest control, remodels, or fun stuff like collapsing chimneys and cracked or shifting foundations - that’s a whole separate article. The effect of home ownership on mental bandwidth is non-trivial.
Granted, most people are not aerospace engineers and their lawn care does not compete with their invention time. Most people would not be willing to get rid of 80% of their stuff and live in a studio apartment just to save money for retirement. Most people are demonstrably unwilling to live car-free and ride the bus to work, even if it saves them $8000 a year.
The WSJ article includes couples who ran up $50,000 in credit card debt, make minimum payments on store cards for retailers that sell little more than clothing and home decor items, go further into debt to attend weddings, take out dual car loans after a reduction in income, and, unbelievably, cash out a pension to pay off a credit card balance. My husband and I were so astonished by each and every one of these choices that we grimaced and made flailing hand gestures as we read.
What freaked us out the most was the line about someone being “forced... to borrow more” because of a wrecked car. Forced?
We would describe it more as “took out a loan for a second vehicle because it never crossed their minds that two married people can share one car, save in advance, ride a bicycle or take the bus for a few months, move to a smaller/cheaper place closer to work, trade/barter to carpool for a while, or make do with an old beater.”
What we would have liked to see in this WSJ article was a counterpoint, the voice of a certified financial planner, or someone who paid off a large quantity of debt in a short period of time, or someone from the FIRE community. Maybe one of each?
What we’d like to see is empowerment. We cringe to think of young couples and families drowning in debt, fighting or crying about money. We’ve certainly both been broke, both had cancer scares, both been unemployed and unclear about when we’d be gainfully employed again, both been divorced after marrying a secret spender, both struggled and counted pennies. Neither of us were born into the middle class. We put into practice the arcane guild knowledge of frugality that we learned from our economic stratum.
Is it possible to enter the middle class or the upper middle class as a 21st century American? Sure, yes, we’ve both done it from the downlow. Is it possible to do this with a handful of credit cards, a traditional mortgage, and a couple of car loans? Probably not. Proceed accordingly.
Passion is overrated. This is the message of The Passion Paradox. This research-based book helps to distinguish between different types of passion, positive and negative, which is something that pop culture could really use right now. We can thank Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness for offering a message that is much more nuanced and interesting than a million memes and fridge magnets.
The term ‘passion’ originally had dark and religious meanings. It wasn’t a feeling that people would associate with a dream job, say, or interior design. Passion was (and probably still is) a form of suffering, just as nostalgia was considered an illness. I can tell you, as a person afflicted with a lifelong passion for birdwatching, that I do sometimes question why I am bushwhacking through brambles and waist-high weeds just to look at a bird for a few minutes.
Dopamine, that’s why. There are biological reasons why some people are ‘passionate’ and others less so. There are also psychological roots, and passion can lead to obsession and addiction. Whatever else it does, passion does not guarantee a path to happiness; it’s not comfortable.
Two ways that the search for passion can mess us up are the destiny belief of love and the fit mind-set of passion. The first is the belief in “soulmates” rather than that relationships take work, and the second is a sense that there is a “dream job” out there for everyone. These beliefs convince us that any difficulty, awkwardness, or less-than-perfect feelings mean a job or relationship aren’t right for us. This in turn can lead us to quit rather than putting in any effort, meaning we destroy our own chances at happiness before they have a chance to get anywhere.
The Passion Paradox does more than identify problems with our pop culture perception of passion. This book teaches ways to deal with hedonic adaptation and fear of failure. Unexpectedly, it suggests that we seek out ways to experience awe and develop a greater perspective. It also encourages enhancing our self-awareness. Ultimately, we can incorporate a health and balanced passion into our very identity.
Everyone tells us to find our passion but no one tells us how to find it, let alone how to live with it.
After a massive achievement or a devastating failure, getting back to work serves as an embodied reminder that external results aren’t why you are in this.
Be most intent not on winning or losing, but on becoming better—stronger, kinder, and wiser—than your past self.
You simply cannot be deeply passionate and balanced in combination.
I went to a travel workshop once. The presenter asked everyone to raise their hands:
“Who likes the window seat?” Half the hands went up.
“Who likes the aisle seat?” The other half of the hands went up.
“Who likes the middle seat?” My hand went up.
Everyone looked around and laughed. I shrugged. What can I say? I’m the middle seat lady.
This is part of the secret to happiness. Know who you are and know what you want, then go for it. I have a long history of admitting my weird preferences to people, such as the fact that I don’t like coffee. Usually my weird preference makes life easier for other people in some way, so why not just own up to it?
Okay, so why do I like the middle seat?
It’s mostly process of elimination. First off, I hate the aisle seat. The aisle seat is the absolute worst. Whether it’s on an airplane, a train, or a bus, the aisle seat is the target of every swinging strap and elbow and passing cart. Not just during boarding, which would be bad enough. The entire duration of the trip.
I’ve been hit in the face with so many strap ends, I can’t even say. Once, the zipper on someone’s jacket swung out and actually cut my forehead and drew a line of blood.
In the middle seat, you’re still somewhat vulnerable when people drag massive, heavy bags out of the overhead bin. They’re much less likely to fall on on your head than they are for the poor, long-suffering aisle seat person.
Why not the window seat, then?
For many years, I was a white-knuckle nervous flyer. I wanted no part of being anywhere near the window. It also seemed fair and just that a person who loves looking out the window should sit there, instead of me. I’ve been flying since I was seven years old and I’ve spent many hours looking out of an airplane window. I’ve had my turn. I’m busy reading, anyway.
Ah, but there are things I dislike about the window seat as well. First, I feel trapped. If I need to get up to use the restroom, I have to ask two people to get up, and then disrupt them again when it’s time to come back. Second, I’m the person in control of the window shade, which means I’m often asked to raise or lower it. Third, I feel like the window seat is colder?
The worst part about the window seat, though, is that the person in the seat behind often seems to have a thing about putting THEIR FOOT up in the crack and propping it up on the arm rest.
MY arm rest.
Is there a handbook that indicates to uncouth people a list of fun things to do on planes? Is one of those things sticking a dirty bare foot through a crack into someone else’s lawfully bought and paid-for seat space?
My main goal in life is to not have to have embarrassing confrontations with people, partly because some of them are psycho. It’s not my job. I don’t run a kindergarten and I shouldn’t have to ask someone to put their foot back on the floor where it belongs. I also shouldn’t have to ask a flight attendant, who certainly has better things to do and has also seen worse.
You’d think it was just me. You’d think I was making it up. You’d think it had only happened once. Now, though, thanks to social media, we can explore entire photo albums together of other people documenting the same phenomenon with their cameras.
FOOT INTRUSION. IT’S REAL!
Speaking of arm rests, one of the perks of the middle seat is that people generally feel sorry for the middle seat person and allow them (me) to use both arm rests. I’m short and I have long upper arms, so this works out pretty well. It makes it pretty straightforward for me to sit quietly and read my book.
The last time I flew, though, I sat between two large men, both of whom used both of their arm rests. Like I wasn’t even there. Like I’m just a bit of foam packaging material to keep them from brushing against each other.
My powers of invisibility are usually useful. It can be emotional, though, when another passenger is... on me. Like, squishing half my thigh under their body and refusing to acknowledge it. Come on. What if we were both big, then what would happen? Just because I don’t use 100% of my space, the space I bought for the same price that you bought yours, does not mean I get 65% and you get the rest. Also, you are literally treating me like a piece of furniture.
Maybe one day airlines or space ships will go with individual pods, like in Alien.
I still think the middle seat is the best. Safe from the barrage of arms and luggage coming at the aisle seat person, safe from carts bashing into one’s funny bone. Relatively able to come and go at will, unlike the window seat person with the dirty foot prodding at them from behind.
One of the strangest aspects of the middle seat is that when there are unassigned seats, people will flag you down. On more than one occasion, I have been cruising down the aisle looking for a nice middle seat when I’ve been waved down. “You can sit with us!” As a small person with a small bag, I’m a good bargain. A married couple once explained to me in great detail that she likes the window seat and he likes the aisle, so they seek out small people like me to sit between them.
She’s portable, she’s unobtrusive, she comes with only a few curated accessories, she’s streamlined, she’s... Middle Seat Lady!
I will never not be tired. That was a realization I had, or at least a passing thought that feels true while dealing with jet lag. Then I had an interesting conversation with one of our favorite baristas.
He related that he had been talking to my husband earlier about what their generation’s version of smoking is. Cigarettes had been on our mind, since very few Californians smoke tobacco and they are rather more common in Britain. It didn’t surprise me that the topic had come up.
(It’s also fairly common for us to have these sorts of extended relay conversations by means of the tea counter).
The topic of warfare in antiquity had come up in my Classics program. We were wondering what it must be like to run into battle with nothing but sandals, shield, and spear, knowing you might die any minute. Did we have anything that scary in modern life? The answer everyone came up with was driving on the freeway. Almost every day we might see cars piled up, and everyone knows someone who was killed in a traffic collision, but we shrug and keep doing it. I didn’t have a license yet and this conversation put me in no great hurry to learn to drive; indeed I quit and I don’t think I’ve been behind the wheel in at least two years.
What this is saying is that our social norms can change, they can and they do. Sometimes they change quite suddenly and other times it creeps up on us slowly, almost unnoticeably.
What they decided is that our generation’s version of smoking is: not sleeping.
“Our generation” in this case meant Millennials. My hubby and I are both Generation X, from opposite ends of the age bracket. Our tattooed, pierced, beanie-wearing bearded barista made this observation, and it instantly snapped something into place for me.
It didn’t use to be this way.
I honestly don’t remember everyone going around talking about how tired they are all the time back in the Eighties or Nineties.
When did it start? When did it change?
It used to be “how are you?” “Fine, how are you?”
Then it was “how are you?” “Busy!”
Then “Crazy busy!”
Now it’s perpetually “tired.”
I shared that people weren’t talking about how tired they were all the time, now that he mentioned it. An observation like this from a young man who wakes up at 3:00 AM to serve coffee all day might be somewhat suspect, but then consider that our neighborhood asks this of him. Nobody is asking bookstore clerks to wake up at 3 AM to sell books, am I right?
I said I thought it probably changed with the advent of the internet.
It was cable TV that had everyone gradually quit hanging out in each other’s living rooms, I’m pretty sure of that. In the Seventies and Eighties it was pretty common, even if we were just talking or playing cards. Even our less-favorite neighbors would still drop by and vice versa, maybe just to watch Knight Rider.
Back in those days, you had to watch stuff at a specific time. Videos were expensive to rent, let alone buy, and getting a movie and pizza was a big enough deal for people to put their shoes on and actually leave their apartment.
Then we all got cable.
It was a few years after that before the “Information Superhighway” and the “World Wide Web” started to take off. Years after that before we all got smartphones.
I remember all of this point by point, when I look back, because I grew up with a rotary phone and a little black and white television with an antenna on top. I remember that when we met, my ex-husband had a pager. I remember how incredibly excited I was to have a new flip phone with a clock on it.
It crept up on us.
When I went to get my tea today, I was feeling really sorry for myself about how tired I have been and how hard it’s been to get a decent night’s sleep.
Then I had this conversation with a Millennial who says his wife only sleeps five hours a night, and he needs “at least six.”
I feel like a total wreck on six hours. I’m a nine-hour person. Our barista’s wife is routinely sleeping a little over half what I consider the “correct” amount.
It was spontaneously mentioned that this poor sleepless gal spends an hour in bed on her phone before going to sleep.
“In my day,” she creaked querulously, “‘on the phone’ meant talking to someone.”
Now we’re scrolling, scrolling, endlessly scrolling. Looking at what?
As far as our quantity and quality of sleep is concerned, it doesn’t matter.
It is probably true that lack of sleep is the new smoking. It’s also pretty indisputable that if we’re lying there in the dark, scrolling on our phones, then the phones have something to do with it. It is certainly true that if everyone is doing it, it feels “normal” even when it also feels terrible.
It feels terrible and it might be killing us, in a way we won’t realize for decades.
Almost everyone smoked back in the Seventies and Eighties. Everyone had at least one ashtray, sometimes several. You could buy cigarettes from vending machines in restaurants and at gas stations. It was rare to go to someone’s house or ride in their car without at least one person smoking a cigarette the whole time. Then it hit the media that there were people out there smoking out of a hole in their throat. It started to be less and less common, until now smoking means you do it next to a dumpster in the rain.
Eventually, just like with smoking, it will start to be more obvious how devastating a health impact comes from never getting enough sleep. Constant sleep deprivation will stop making any kind of sense. It will gradually start to become unfashionable to be tired all the time, when it’s so obvious that something can be done about it.
Back in the day, there was room for boredom, for staring at the ceiling, for hanging out and doing nothing, and maybe that’s why we slept more. Maybe we won’t go back to that, but surely there’s something more interesting than being Tired, So Tired every day.
Maybe it will only happen when we replace it with something like spacesuit chafing or the health effects of faster-than-light travel.
Trip planning is nuts. Every single detail is important. Anything you forget to pack has the potential to mess up your trip, and I know, because someone in my traveling party has forgotten everything including: passport, wallet, car keys, glasses, prescription meds, and hiking boots. There’s even been more than one ticket booked to an airport in the wrong city. Rigor in travel planning is rarely wasted.
The first law of trip planning is: NO CHECKED BAGS.
[The only exception to this is a wilderness trip, because our expedition packs are too big to fit in the cabin, they weigh too much, and we sometimes want to pack liquids].
Personally, I expect the entire sum total of my luggage to fit under the seat in front of me, and usually that’s where I put it.
Why hand luggage? Because you always know where it is, and because you can make connections after a flight delay when others can’t. It also gives you far more options for layover adventures when you don’t have a big wheelie bag - they aren’t even allowed in all places, and you don’t want to find that out the hard way.
NO CHECKED BAGS - NOT JUST A PHILOSOPHY, BUT A RELIGION.
The second law of trip planning: THREE DAYS PER CITY.
We break this rule all the time in small ways, but it is the true foundation of a trip. Three days is enough time to thoroughly explore most cities - too long in my home city, unless you love napping on the beach! Any city that requires more than three days to explore, like London or New York, probably deserves multiple trips. It might also be a good candidate for a hub city.
As an example, we love O’Hare Airport so we route international trips through there whenever we can.
The third law of trip planning: ONE HIGHLIGHT EACH.
A “highlight” is the “swear I’ll never ask for anything else as long as I live” part of someone’s trip. Everyone gets one. The rest of the group better be either ride or die, or they’re going off alone for their own highlight at the same time.
Examples: I rode the London Eye with my husband because it was his highlight, even though I freaking hate Ferris wheels. I owe him for all the times he’s bushwhacked with me in search of, say, the tricolored blackbird, and don’t even ask him about Mandarin ducks.
[Note: I don’t think Mandarin ducks are real. I think they are the Sasquatch of the birding world, added to birdwatching guides as a prank].
Ideally, everyone gets a highlight each day of the trip. Usually they are something small like “buy a bag of Starburst” or “walk across this famous bridge.” In museums, it’s good for each person to pick a room, because the biggest and best museums can’t be covered adequately in a single day anyway.
These are the three laws. They may be amended only after discussion and official approval.
My husband and I also have a policy that we take turns choosing the destination of our trip. We’ve agreed that we would both like to visit every country on Earth, so it’s somewhat arbitrary in which order we see them.
This is when the true trip planning starts.
The very first thing that we do is to check the weather history during the time of our trip. This tends to rule out a lot of ideas. Our wedding anniversary is in late August, which just happens to be a terrible time to travel in large sections of the world. It’s our personal choice to avoid the rainy season, partly because inclement weather means more clothes and bulkier bags.
Next we look at the country’s “national day” and any other major festivals. Usually we are trying to avoid these. They make everything cost 3x as much and almost universally result in large drunken mobs. It can be really fun to see a country decorated for celebration, though.
My next pass - and this falls to me, because I’m the one with the dietary constraints - is to look up as many suitable restaurants as possible. I search for “vegan restaurant” [city] and cross-reference with Happy Cow. Then I mark them all as a favorite on Apple Maps. This is huge because we often wind up in parts of town that we had never anticipated, and we can often find a place to eat nearby without standing on the sidewalk searching for half an hour. Many parts of the world have better options and labeling for gluten-free, vegan, or other preferences or sensitivities than we do in the US. Others do not. It can ruin a trip to discover that the only places with real options for a meal are already closed for the day.
Another vital part of trip planning is to look up “[city] in 24 hours” and “must-see [city]” and “don’t miss [city].” Most of those attractions usually don’t interest either of us at all. A few of them will turn out to be the major highlights of the trip. Sometimes we hadn’t even realized that that attraction existed, and it changes our goals for the trip entirely. I mark all of these in Apple Maps as well.
Once our key attractions and a bunch of restaurants are marked, we zoom in on the map together and browse around. This helps us to get acquainted with the layout of the city in advance. It tends to be pretty obvious that certain places are grouped near each other, and we can spend a day in each area. Other attractions are so far afield that we cross them off our list, not wanting to spend half a day or more on a tour bus unless it’s truly epic.
London wound up happening in pie wedges, with Waterloo as the center of the pie. Iceland happened in loops, starting and ending in Reykjavik.
Spending a few weeks planning a trip adds to the anticipation and extends the fun. It also helps to avoid pitfalls such as showing up on the day that a destination is closed, or arriving so late that we can’t buy a ticket.
Policy is part of trip planning for us. We have a weekly status meeting, where we’ve worked out policies for all aspects of our marriage, and our travel policies have become a friendly, efficient way of having fun together without annoying each other. (Much). The better we get at planning, the more fun we have, and the more we can anticipate our next trip.
I won’t claim that we went to Europe “for free” because nothing in this world is free. We like to say it’s “included.” For all intents and purposes, though, we got our flights and lodging without paying, and that’s kinda free, but we’ll stick to points for accuracy’s sake.
Los Angeles to Heathrow, United miles.
Edinburgh to O’Hare and back to LAX, United miles.
Waterloo Hampton Inn, Hilton points.
Edinburgh Airport Hampton Inn, Hilton points.
There are parts of our trip that we possibly could have paid for with other types of points that we have saved up, but we’re still learning how this stuff works. Sometimes the exchange rate isn’t a good enough value and sometimes we’re a couple hundred points short.
The main thing to note is that I’m not a big fan of providing free advertisements to major corporations that don’t need it. As an historian I’ll just note that in the attempt to attract loyal customers, various branded megaliths will offer increasingly enticing deals in exchange for that loyalty - and the data, of course. If you’re cynical enough to believe that your data are already floating around out there, and we know ours has been hacked at least three separate and distinct times, then you may as well eke some slight gratification out of it.
Rewinding a bit, what did I mean when I said that things aren’t “free” but are rather “included”?
Let’s say someone offers me a paper plate with a slice of pie. Technically it’s “free” but is it? I’m on the hook for being at the event with the free pie, whatever it is, which means I’ve probably either paid to get in, I’m volunteering with cleanup, or at the very least I paid to get there and traded my time for this over any other options. Also, I’ll have to deal with the caloric intake of the slice of pie itself and, in my case, checking the clock because I can’t eat within three hours of bedtime.
Everything is a tradeoff.
In this case, the reward points that my husband and I used for our trip could have come from two sources: his business travel and our credit card usage.
The tradeoff for the frequent business travel is that we often can’t be together. He traveled something like 21 out of the last 50 weeks, sometimes for a week at a time. We haven’t been married so long that we quit liking each other or anything.
The tradeoff for the points cards is that they have an annual fee. They require a certain credit profile, which not everyone can manage, and they require artful juggling to make sure that we don’t carry a balance.
In other words, this trip is not only something that not everyone could do, it’s something that not everyone would even want to do.
Another way that we did not travel for “free” is that we paid for a bunch of stuff that is not available through points, not that we know of anyway. We ate meals, some in restaurants and some from grocery stores. We paid admission to museums and historical sites. We rode all sorts of public transit, from the tram to the water bus. We even paid cash to use the restroom.
It’s a bad idea to imagine that you can travel for “free.” It can be either a form of abundance mindset or of scarcity, and as we all know scarcity mindset spreads like mold. It seems that most people who want to travel on a tight budget will get so fixated on their bargains and extracting value that it prevents them from having a good time.
It’s also rough on the communities.
Let me throw in there that I’ve had occasion to live in a resort area more than once. It’s not my preference. Why? Right now we live on a pier. What people basically do is come to our neighborhood on the weekend to get drunk and leave a bunch of trash and broken bottles, then drag their crying kids around or get into domestic arguments, sometimes within earshot of our living room. Every single one of them is hellbent on sneaking into our parking lot because they don’t believe they should have to pay one red cent toward our personal apartment complex or municipal expenses. Such as trash pickup, parking lots, road maintenance, or policing their drunken butts.
I don’t want to be that kind of tourist, the one who brings a cooler from home and feels like local people are trying to rob them.
I’d rather be mildly interesting, a middle-aged lady with a big backpack going somewhere cool. Want to come along?
The way that we look at our points accrual is that it’s a sort of weird coupon for certain specific consumer habits. My hubby is rewarded for putting in mega-long hours at work and being the designated fix-it guy, the closer. We are both rewarded for committing financial transactions. We use these bizarre consumer bonuses to offset our spending in other areas, such as:
Eating at local restaurants
Shopping at the co-op grocery store
Riding public transit
Buying a book or travel gear from an independent bookstore
Contributing toward wilderness preservation, because birds
Supporting museums and historic sites, because if we don’t, who will?
We’d like to feel that we are contributing in some small way to the places that we go. We’ve seen a lot of preposterously bad behavior from fellow tourists during our travels. Sometimes it’s so embarrassing that we still talk about it years later, like the guy who demanded a guarantee that he would see a blue whale or his money back. Um, sir? They live in the sea, wild and free? They do not answer to thee or to me? Whales they be?
One fine day in Iceland, we were waiting for a tour bus when I saw a young woman drop her glove. I tried calling after her but it was pretty windy. She was walking so fast and that glove was obviously hand-knit, a beautiful fuchsia, days of effort. I ran after her and handed it over. I was rewarded by her thanks and the slight smiles and nods of the bystanders who saw. The GDP technically decreased that day because I destroyed the reason for someone to buy something new. In reality I know that I contributed to the community, not just of “people in the national park that day” but the international community, built on goodwill and mutual trust.
In other words, the foundational concepts of an economy.
Secret confession time: I’ve been cheating. Blatantly. Right there in plain view, too big to miss. I have a bunch of review books to read, and instead I’ve been reading Neal Stephenson’s new book Fall. In hardcover. Over 800 pages of it.
It’s summer, and it’s hot, and I’ve been traveling and I had oral surgery, and, well, no book review.
Instead I’m just going to talk about how we choose what to read, and why, and when.
Books have always lit me up more than anything else. When I am invited to someone’s home, I’m going to read every title on their bookshelf to see what we have in common. If I see someone reading or carrying a book, whether on public transportation or at a cafe, I’m going to try to get a look at the cover to see what it is, even if I have to turn my head sideways.
Often it’s something I’ve already read, because when a book is very popular I have to find out why, even if it’ll terrible, with the exception of Fifty Shades of Grey which I couldn’t manage even on principle. Not sorry.
Like most readers, I have a list of books I plan to read one day. I also have a working stack of books I “am reading,” which means I started them and intend to finish, and another pile of books in the house that I haven’t started yet.
In my mind, this is enough reading for a few days. In reality, experience shows that it will take me longer than that.
How much longer?
This is an actual calculation that can be performed, just like the timeline of knitting up yarn or eating up cans of soup can be calculated.
Since it’s summer, we don’t have to, we can just do a freshness test like we would with some nice fruit.
Let’s say we can read a book a day. Most people are not reading that much, that fast, which is fine of course, though we can compare our reading habits to our propensity to binge-watch several television episodes and rate that against our reading quota.
(If we wish we had more time to read, the time may be there, that’s all. Everything is a tradeoff).
If I read a book a day, then I have enough books to keep me busy for over two weeks.
Wait, no, four weeks. I forgot to count audio.
In my imagination, that’s the fresh stuff. It’s the lettuce in my produce bin. In reality, sometimes that fresh lettuce is more like the limp white celery that’s been there since who knows how long.
On top of my active reading list, I have books on hold at the library. Well, libraries plural. That adds up to...
Almost seven weeks, that is if I actually read a book a day. Seven weeks plus the four I already have.
The good thing about having plenty of books piled up and in the pipeline is that I always have something to read. I can’t think of the last time I was stuck in a boring situation without a book at hand. I read more than most people because it’s something I love to do, I make time for it, I would miss it if I didn’t do it, and I wish I had more time for it than I do.
On the other hand, it seems that Past Me has been dictating a lot of my reading choices.
I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be “done” with a book and wander around looking for something new to read.
I think I may have been in that place during summer vacation between the ages of nine and twelve. We lived two blocks from the city library, which was housed in an old grocery store where I used to get a free cookie. I even had a “cookie card” with my name on it. The association between fresh hot sugar cookies and BOOKS is probably just a Me thing, but it’s there. I started with the Nancy Drew books. Then I would go in and read the jacket copy on every book in the young adult rack. Once I’d read my way through the children’s section, I realized that nothing was stopping me from crossing the building and looking at adult books. That’s when I discovered Ray Bradbury.
I used to come home with as many books as I could fit in my bag. I realized I could read a book a day, then two. My record was four, the month I was reading Lois Lowry.
That was discovery mode, walking in desperate for a book and walking out excited over my score.
Then I had the idea that I would be able to read “every book in the library” and I started at A. That was the beginning of feeling like I had a mission, the beginning of the feeling that I was not completely caught up. I’m afraid I became a completist.
Most readers believe in being surrounded by hundreds of books at home, even if they haven't read most of them. These books are aspirational even if they are not elitist choices. Much ink has been spilled in outrage over the concept of getting rid of books, any books, for any reason. Sure, fine, whatever. If having shelves full of books you haven't read genuinely gives you more passion and inspiration for reading the books you do choose, then great.
Me, I’m starting to wonder if maybe I should dial back. Start over. Dump my list. Venture forth with “nothing to read” at all.
What if I didn’t let Past Me choose the next seventy books I plan to read?
Or does having that list add some kind of illicit thrill to playing hooky and reading something just because I can’t wait, because I need to drop everything and read it right now?
That’s my suggestion. At least in your mind, if you love to read, or used to, play a little visioning exercise. In your imagination, picture that you don’t have a dusty stack of partial or unread books next to your bed. Imagine that you never made a mental or emotional commitment to read these books before you’re allowed to move on and read something else.
Play book hooky and see how you feel about picking something fresh and new.
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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