Coming from a minimalist nomad, it may sound strange to advocate for domestic contentment. Aren't you all about getting rid of your stuff in favor of traveling the world? Well, yes and no. Minimalism is about focusing on whatever is most important to you and jettisoning anything that gets in the way of that. Not everyone likes traveling. Most people do, however, have a taste for mundane delights that is not being fully realized in their day-to-day. Domestic contentment is within reach of anyone at any budget.
When I was a kid in grade school, I read the story of the Greek philosopher Diogenes. He was known for living in a barrel in the marketplace, aside from his reputation as a wise man. Alexander the Great came to visit him and wanted to give him a gift, as much to demonstrate his own largesse as because this guy obviously could have used a pillow or blanket or something. He asked Diogenes if he wanted anything. Diogenes replied, basically, "Yeah, move over, you're blocking my sun." This made a huge impression on me as a child, and I spent a lot of time wondering about the drawing of the philosopher in the barrel, wondering what he ate and that sort of thing. These days, we would call Diogenes "homeless."
Whether someone can feel happiness and contentment while living on the margins of society probably depends as much on the society as on that particular individual.
It's not about the possessions or the dwelling, though. What makes the difference between absolute penury and contentment is access to a support network. Health care, physical safety, money, secure banking, food, bathing and laundry facilities, a soft warm bed, entertainment, and a social network of friends and family. Someone with access to all of that could probably live pretty cheerfully in a hotel with wi-fi, and be content with little more than a shower kit, a week's worth of clothes, and a smartphone.
Some of us only really wear a week's worth of clothes, anyway, because none of our other stuff fits right now, or the rest is waiting in front of the washing machine.
This is where we start to touch on the LACK of domestic contentment.
What I see in my work is that most people have a perpetual backlog of chores. There are dirty dishes in and around the sink at least 80% of the time. Likewise, there is almost always spoiled food in the fridge. There is always at least one load of laundry waiting to be washed or folded or put away, and often as many as ten. The bathroom is almost always grimy, the carpet is almost never vacuumed, the floors are almost always sticky, and there is almost always a full bag of trash waiting to be taken out. What the household feels about this state of affairs can most likely not be described as 'contentment.' Words that come to mind might be: frustration, resentment, despair, anger, depression, guilt, shame, blame, annoyance, or confusion.
This total lack of domestic contentment can and does lead to divorce. It's tough on kids. It can consume years that could otherwise have been pretty nice. Who wants to waste years or decades being chronically irritated almost every day?
My contention is that it's not housework in itself that causes this constant level of background annoyance. Rather, there is no vision of how good things could be and what domestic contentment actually feels like.
There's also the matter of... the stuff. Clutter causes housework to take 40% longer. Everything has to be moved out of the way to clean around it, under it, or behind it. Every single item in the house gathers dust or needs to be washed at some point. The more stuff there is, the harder it is to clean up, even if it's cute or valuable or it gets used every day. Crowded equals high maintenance.
What tends to happen is a gradual feeling of defeat. The more crowded and cluttered the house, the harder it is to keep it clean and stay on top of everything, the less often it gets done, the worse it gets, and the harder it is to get it to look clean at all. We resign ourselves to it. After a while, olfactory fatigue sets in, and we can't even smell it. Somewhere along that continuum, it's far easier and more pleasant to stay away, and any excuse to be out shopping or running errands starts to look attractive. Contentment can only be found elsewhere.
There's a close link between this pattern and a reliance on takeout food, pizza delivery, restaurants, convenience foods, or eating cereal for dinner. Who wants to cook in this kitchen??
A well-run kitchen is central to domestic contentment. After I finally learned to cook, I wondered what I had been thinking. Why would anyone not want to know how to cook? You can cook all your favorite stuff exactly the way you like it, anytime you want. I make a lot of stuff I would never be able to get in a restaurant - anywhere, not just in my neighborhood. I'd rather eat my own cooking than what I could get in about 3/4 of restaurants. If you've ever had a greasy or disappointing meal out, you know what I mean. A functional kitchen makes it possible to experiment and constantly improve your culinary skills, and that pays off in better and better meals. It's also cheaper and healthier.
I take notes on various recipes, quoting the compliments my husband or family members or guests make about the food. It's encouraging.
As much as we love travel, my husband and I would really rather be home than just about anywhere else. It's where our pets are. Our bed is more comfortable than any other bed. We have everything we need, we know where it is, and we have the space to use it. Thanks to our practice of minimalism, cleaning house takes very little effort. Laundry and dishes aren't that big a deal when they get dealt with every day: about five minutes per meal for dishwashing, five minutes per day to put away clean dishes, five minutes to run the washer and dryer, and ten or fifteen minutes to fold and put away laundry. It's hardly worth thinking about. The rest of the time, we're working on projects, playing with our pets, walking around the neighborhood, or lounging around talking. Our apartment is tiny, but it's big enough to do all of that.
Start by thinking of your default emotional state and whether you like it that way. Imagine how you'd prefer to feel. Contentment is not the same as elation, bliss, ecstasy, or hysterical laughter; it's sustainable and lower-maintenance. It's a feeling of "yeah, I dig this." Gaining a base level of contentment is often as simple as removing any obstacles between you and it. Remove any irritants and annoyances, resolve any backlog of tasks that lead to power struggles or a drain on mental bandwidth. Then sit back, smile, and sigh. How much more do you need?
Airline incidents are the trend du jour. Now that almost everyone has a cell phone camera, all of this stuff is going to be documented and posted online almost instantaneously. Just as soon as it's started, the backlash will begin. Disputes will be disputed. These incidents are part of our larger cultural conversation (debate? battle?) over the boundaries around customer service and appropriate public behavior. This latest debacle over a birthday cake in the overhead bin is simply one example.
The story as it stood at time of writing was that a family brought a birthday cake on board their flight. Then they had an altercation with the flight crew, details under argument. The entire planeload of passengers was forced to disembark and reboard, and the family with the cake was rebooked on a different flight.
Right here is where I step in. I started flying alone when I was seven years old, and I've lost count of how many times I've flown in the 35 years since. Many of those flights have involved a box or zip-lock bag full of Voodoo Donuts. Have you ever tried to bring a frosted or glazed pastry onto a plane? Do you know what happens? The frosting melts all over the darn place. I don't know whether it's the heat, the humidity, the pressure, the oxygen mix, the altitude, or what. Now, when we're talking donuts, I don't particularly care how cosmetic they are when I land. They're going into my freezer, where I will eat them in little half-teaspoon smears if I have to. I haven't had much luck with sandwiches or other foods I've packed for myself, either. Airplane cabins are not great places for the culinary arts.
A birthday cake, though? I mean... they're so... fragile. Special occasion and all. I'm having trouble even imagining how an intact cake made it to the airport in the first place, much less down the gangplank, much less into an overhead bin. File under: ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN. I don't recall a cake-smashing scene in the movie Airplane, but if they do a remake, there should be. It writes itself. Plane hits turbulence, luggage starts smashing into the locks of the overhead bins, suitcases fly out, cake lands on someone. Someone stands up to get their medication out of their carry-on, accidentally shoves their entire hand into the cake instead. Flight attendant tired of someone's attitude grabs cake and smears it all over them.
Now I totally want to see this movie: Cakes on a Plane. Starring Samuel L. Jackson as an FBI agent and Melissa McCarthy as the cake.
Let's dive a little deeper. What happened? I watched the video provided by the family of the disputed cake. Telegenic as they are, I have questions. Anyone who has worked in customer service would have questions.
Supposedly there wasn't an issue with bringing a cake on the flight; the passengers put it in a bin reserved for safety equipment. The problems began when anything other than "Yes, sir or madam, I will certainly remove this cake and put it under my seat immediately, my mistake, so sorry for the inconvenience" came out of anyone's mouth. It's completely, totally implausible that rapid compliance would lead to the expensive and extreme choice by the flight crew to summon police and reboard the entire flight. How does this make any sense? What employee would arbitrarily bring that amount of paperwork on themselves? Why would other crew members back them up, rather than trying to mediate? Something just doesn't add up.
Flying is cheap and easy now, despite the trauma of TSA screening. Nobody has died on an American-certified flight since 2009, with the exception of a pilot who died during landing back in March. Did you catch that? Flying is so routine now that a plane landed safely even when one of the pilots became deathly ill during the landing. Flying has started to feel a lot like riding a bus - a bus with waiters. As a result, we tend to forget that flight attendants are highly trained safety professionals. A flight attendant bringing you a drink is roughly equivalent to Steven Seagal as the chef in Under Siege.
We have to listen to them.
We have to listen to flight attendants, not just because it's the law, but because it's their job to maintain the safety of every person on the flight, including themselves. They have training that we don't. Their training includes what is safe to stow where, and what kind of racket distracts the pilots, and other technical reasons why certain behaviors and activities are a bad idea in flight. We're supposed to put our tray tables up so we don't get impaled, and also so access isn't blocked if the plane has to be evacuated. We're supposed to stow all our extra junk so it doesn't go airborne during an emergency. Imagine 150 books, laptops, and briefcases flying through the air and then smacking everyone in the face at high speed. This stuff is serious. Flying is so safe today because the aviation industry has recorded, analyzed, and learned from previous disasters and fatalities.
They have their reasons.
The other reason we have to listen to flight attendants is that they have the power. When any kind of significant altercation or fight happens, the flight is likely to be delayed or canceled. That means that any disruptive passenger, right or wrong, now holds the power to ruin the travel arrangements of every single other passenger. YOU want to stow your cake in a choice spot, which may seem perfectly reasonable, until the result is that ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-FIVE PEOPLE on the plane with you now have to rearrange their whole life. It better be worth it, is all I'm saying.
What kind of situation merits the disruption of 185 fellow passengers? I'm going to go with: true emergencies. Nothing less. I'm never going to blame someone for having a major health crisis on a flight, unless of course they knew full well that they suffered a health condition likely to go into crisis mode while airborne. As an example, I was on a flight once that was delayed because a passenger had a condition that resulted in uncontrollable bursts of screaming. So, so not kidding. She was in the middle of the plane, while I was sitting near the front, and I was able to overhear the conversation of the flight crew (as well as the occasional shrieks from the passenger). There is no way this would not have been distracting to the pilots. One of the flight attendants said she was unwilling to enter a situation in which the flight would have to be diverted and grounded at an alternate airport, like a previous flight she had crewed. They agreed together that the screaming woman would have to disembark before takeoff. The woman apologetically cooperated, and the rest of us went on our merry way, half an hour behind schedule. I wish her well.
If someone with an 'uncontrollable screaming' problem can be that cooperative, why can't the rest of us?
Not everyone should travel via airplane. This excludes the category of medevac, obviously. Flying is stressful in every way: physically, mentally, emotionally, pastry-ly. Not everyone is up to it. Not every situation is appropriate for a flight. A German flight attendant once made me put away the nice red cabbage I was eating because it was "stinky." (Blush) Just because an airline employee embarrasses us, annoys us, hurts our feelings, or disappoints our expectations does not mean we are in the right. We should probably try to think of air travel as more like space travel than like ordering drinks at Starbucks.
I wish I wrote this book.
Rachel Hoffman is for real. She's going to say what she means, plainly, as we can tell straight from the title. Unf*ck Your Habitat: You're Better Than Your Mess. It's the uncensored speech that lets us know this is not a pretentious book about impressing people or following rules. You want to clean up your house for yourself, because it feels like time and because you deserve more from your life. This is a very approachable, comforting, and motivating book with enough actual instructional details for the novice.
I work with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization. It turns out that most people are never formally taught how to clean house or cook, just like most of us aren't taught much about personal finance, automotive maintenance, or animal husbandry. Arcane rituals! While we probably wouldn't judge ourselves for not knowing how to rebuild a transmission or adjust our own brakes, we do judge ourselves for our domestic skills (or lack thereof). It's when we moralize on ourselves that we bring in guilt and shame, which not only doesn't solve our problems, but makes them worse. This is why we need Rachel Hoffman.
I have taught many of the techniques and attitudes in Unf*ck Your Habitat and I know they work. Take 'before' photos. Work with a timer and take frequent breaks. Figure out a place for everything. My people have gotten rid of countless truckloads of excess stuff with these methods, and learned to keep clean homes for the first time. There is real pride and satisfaction to be found in doing this for yourself, your own way, on your own time.
One of the best parts of Unf*ck Your Habitat concerns negotiating with housemates. Whether you're the clean one or the messy one, whether cleaning up was your idea or not, these ideas obviously come from hard-won experience. There is also a section on Emergency Unf*cking that will stand the test of time.
Unf*ck Your Habitat should be taught in school. Maybe not elementary school, but certainly by freshman year of college. What a great, smart, and truly enjoyable read, a book whose time has come.
This is my second tax nightmare in 18 years. Why they choose me, I don't know.
The first time, someone else's income was reported under my social security number, and I got a tax bill representing about half my annual income. I only found out about it after my ex-husband intercepted and opened the letter and withheld it from me until after the deadline for dispute had passed. The IRS agent who helped me was warm and friendly. Although this was someone else's mistake, it fell upon me to do the research and resolve the problem. File under: NOT MY FAULT, STILL MY PROBLEM. This involved tracking down the other person, a coworker, and convincing her to give me a copy of her W-2. It seems obvious that someone involved in the payroll process at my office had made the mistake; otherwise, we would be looking at one of the most outrageous coincidences of all time. Could someone somewhere just vaguely, passively say that A Mistake Had Been Made and apologize to me for my inconvenience? Heavens no.
There are two things we can never expect in this life: gratitude for the good we've done, and apologies for the mistakes that other people have made.
Now I'm sitting in the City of Los Angeles Office of Finance. They've summoned me to a hearing for supposedly not paying municipal business taxes. This despite the fact that I have not lived within a City of Los Angeles zip code since 2015. The summons was even addressed to me at my previous non-LA address.
This is the fourth calendar year that we have been having this dispute. I tried everything. I sent letters. I spoke to an agent on the phone. I sent copies of our tax return. I have told them over and over again that 1. The income they were after is actually my husband's salary, not business income and 2. We don't live in LA.
Their response was to send a tax bill for slightly over $8000. Weirdly, it's almost the exact same amount I was mistakenly assessed by the federal government back in 1999. I got that cleared up, or so I thought, and then several months later I get this summons.
I guess it's my karma that maybe I robbed someone of $8000 in a past life? Or maybe I was a cruel tax collector? Who knows.
What I WANT from this transaction is:
For someone to take accountability and say, "This was our fault, not yours."
Compensation for my time
A letter absolving me from further bureaucratic transactions with this department
Some kind of goodie like a free bus pass
What I NEED from this transaction is:
Resolution of the issue
Some kind of notation in my account or in whatever database or mailing list
Knowledge of what to do if anything like this happens again
My INSTINCT is to:
Yell at someone
Tell the entire saga from start to finish
Call my mayor
Alert the media
Cry (actually I did that the day after I got the letter)
What I actually do is to use my carefully honed skills in navigating bureaucratic red tape. I use tact and civility. Guess what? My case is resolved half an hour after I walk in the door. I didn't get an apology or compensation or any of those feeble fantasies. What I did get was the most genial, easy-going guy on the staff, who listened carefully, closed my account, and gave me photocopies of his stamped paperwork for my file.
How is this done?
There's an art to doing these things smoothly, and as far as I can tell, not everyone is aware of it. I have seen people shouting so loudly that they could clearly be heard through the entire building, or pounding their fist on the counter. The only thing you get when you act that way is a conversation with a security guard. Threats, intimidation, swearing, scowling, glaring, sarcasm, rudeness, cutting in line, interrupting, and gesticulating are tools for fools. They're only going to make things harder. You never know when you'll find yourself in the same office again, or facing the exact same person in a different job.
The person I'm talking to is almost certainly not the person who made the mistake on my account. This person is my ally. We want the same thing. We both want a simple transaction in which I go away quickly with a smile on my face. His goal is to do his job and make it to the end of the day without someone shouting at him. My goal is to be the friendliest transaction of his week. This person, whoever it is, is much more likely to listen to me and believe me if I am rational, respectful, and deferential. I walk up smiling, dressed professionally, and I make sure to wait my turn before speaking.
Always start with the assumption that the miscommunication has been on your end. Maybe I walked in the wrong door, didn't read a sign, or unknowingly shuffled a vital piece of correspondence into a wad of coupons that I then recycled. I start from the position of empathy, imagining that I am on the other side of the desk, forced to deal with this uptight, nervous wreck of a middle-aged crazy birdwatcher lady before lunch. I've been a civil servant and I've worked in customer service, so this trick of empathy is easy. I want to be my own ideal customer or client, the person I wouldn't mind helping.
The truth is that there is nothing complicated about my situation. It's routine on both sides. Any weeping or gnashing of teeth I have done has arisen from 1. My own anxiety 2. Projecting 3. Mind-reading (which doesn't work) and 4. Predicting the future (badly). I got all wound around the axle. I felt like THIS ALWAYS HAPPENS TO ME and WHAT WILL I DO NOW? and WHYYYYY MEEEEEE? I also felt that IT'S NOT FAIR and I WANT CAAAAAAAKE. It actually crossed my mind that I would have to see a judge or that someone would demand some kind of payment from me. I thought I would have to camp out in the office the entire day and come back again the following day, possibly through the entire week. Not a single thing that worried me came true. If I really want compensation, it should be for the time I spent flagellating myself and the sleep I lost tormenting myself with weird imaginary scenarios that never happened.
Gracious behavior always helps. When I listen courteously, I hear more details and everything makes more sense. When I wait patiently, I get better treatment. Everything goes faster when people wait their turn, including me. Most importantly, the self-discipline of controlling my irrational responses and NOT doing what comes naturally helps me to realize how rarely I ever need to escalate. Life is easier than we think it is, especially when we're not having a conniption.
PS On the way home, I found a dollar coin. So that's something.
If there's a report card, I want to get an A on it. My ego needs this. The teacher's pet inside me can't accept anything less. I really want the approval of my dental hygienist, for example. Maybe I'm not good at anything else, but "my home care is excellent!" Yay! I feel the same way about getting lab work done. When my blood work results come in, I rush to compare them to the normal range and congratulate myself when everything is on target. This is what it's like to open those results and feel relieved and proud.
I realize fully and well that having good health is a luxury and a privilege. My mom couldn't bring me home from the hospital for three days after I was born because I had infant jaundice. I had a thyroid nodule at age 23 that was so big, I couldn't speak while lying on my back. They thought it was cancer. I had a respiratory infection for my college graduation, age 28, and it took my lung capacity down to 52%. Have you ever coughed up blood? I have. This is by no means a complete list of every scary or mysterious health problem I have ever had. My laundry list of health issues is the primary reason why I am so obsessed with being as healthy as possible.
Also, for the majority of my life between 18 and 30, I had no health insurance. That includes the coughing up blood, and the time I had to go to the emergency room and wound up being sent to collections for an amount under forty dollars. Health is cheaper.
Everyone thinks everything is genetic these days. By 'genetic,' we mean that "it was my fate to be born into a cursed family and nothing I ever do will ever affect anything in any way." We decide that we have no power or control. Thus, anything that goes wrong with our health is the will of the gods. Saying otherwise is a deep and dire insult, judging and criticizing others for things they can't help. Okay. Who comes from a pure and perfect genetic heritage in which nobody has any health issues thought to be hereditary? Not me!
Diabetes. Heart disease. Alzheimer's. Arthritis. Glaucoma. Cancer. Good times, yay. Let's throw in 'died of brain aneurysm' just to keep things interesting. I can wave the family banner of genetic tendencies just as hard and just as high as anyone else. This is the second reason why I pay so much attention to my health.
The third reason is that it pays off. Being healthy is its own reward. It is seriously awesome in every way.
Why not gloat a bit about it? I'm doing what very few people of my age (42 in July) have managed to do. I'm maintaining satisfactory health metrics without the use of pharmaceuticals. This is the result of tons of research on my part. This includes reading hundreds of articles and dozens of books on health, nutrition, and fitness; wearing health devices like a pedometer or a sports watch; tracking my health metrics with a food log, exercise log, and sleep log; learning to identify, cook, and eat dozens of vegetables I never tasted as a child; and pushing my physical abilities to the limit for years on end. I WORKED for this. My nice lovely lab results come from figuring out how to do it, and then doing it, meal after meal after meal and day after day.
I have had bone fractures and severe muscle strain and sprains and a dislocated hip and a dislocated rib and impacted wisdom teeth and nerve damage and chronic pain and fatigue and migraine and some wacky medical mysteries, including pavor nocturnus. Sometimes unfortunate stuff really does happen, and much of the time, doctors have no real idea of what went wrong or how to fix it. The bulk of my positive health results have come from my own persistent experimentation on myself, refusing to accept "just deal with it" as a valid medical response. I've learned that physical therapy, sleep, and nutritional inputs can do more than most people realize.
I haven't met my new doctor yet; I chose her out of a directory based on location, availability, and her photo and credentials. I don't know anything about her personal style or academic focus in medical school. What I do know is that the kind of health advice I get from a doctor depends a great deal on how I present myself at my visits. I want to walk in demonstrating that I am that teacher's pet, A+ student who will take vigorous notes and follow advice scrupulously. I want my doctor, whoever she may be, to feel that I am committed to taking care of myself and learning as much as I can. When I'm a "good patient" and "cooperative" it makes me seem more worth the time to give a doctor's full focus and attention. I say, "I really try to take care of myself, and whenever I learn about something positive I can do for my health, I add it in to my routine."
The last physician I had for a long period of time started taking health advice from me. She took up triathlon and made a point of telling me that I had inspired her to do it.
I have, in the past, felt helpless and confused and deeply sad about my health. I have had incredible frustration with dismissive doctors, and white-knuckled rage when I later learned something that helped me when a doctor said it wouldn't. (For instance, saying there was nothing I could do about my thyroid disease, which cost me years of ill health. Thanks for nothing, Dr. C). I have cried tears into my ears from the grief and powerlessness of having no idea what to do about a health problem. I feel younger and more energetic in my forties than I did in my twenties, almost entirely because of health issues I didn't understand at the time. I can say with certitude that my fixation with my physical health has paid off over the years. To me, if I had to choose between feeling healthy and fit or being a millionaire, well, naturally I'd choose all three, but having a strong body feels like a million dollars. Maybe ten million.
I don't let my A+ lab work get too much to my head. I look forward and ask my Future Self what I will want for myself ten years from now. The answer is more muscle and more bone density. I'd like to be a little stronger in ten years than I am today. That will come from giving myself the gift of more physical activity and more nutritional support. I do these things so that I can feel better today and tomorrow, and also so that Old Me will maintain mobility and independence as long as possible. We're in this for the long haul and until they make a full body transplant, I'm stuck doing it in the body I have.
When it starts cascading onto the floor, it's only a matter of time. Sometimes it's a slow trickle; other times it pours. Gradually it forms pools and puddles. Then it's wall to wall. Then the level rises, sometimes to the ceiling. It's not water; it's clutter. Clutter gets backed up and starts filling the house when it flows in faster than it flows out. Draining the house is what we do when we finally realize we're in too deep.
In the normal state of affairs, stuff comes in and stuff goes out. Buy a bunch of bananas, eat them, and compost the peels. Buy a bag of new socks, wear them until they're threadbare, and throw them out. One in, one out. If stuff goes out at the same rate that it comes in, then there's never any buildup. The only need to drain the house is the periodic carrying out of garbage and recycling and donations to charity.
The outflow is faster than the inflow under certain conditions. Moving away. Hopefully the truck is getting loaded faster than anyone is carrying in new shopping bags! Having a yard sale, many of the contents of which may originally have come from someone else's yard sale. Declaring laundry bankruptcy and spending an afternoon at the laundromat. Major space clearing, when we realize that the house needs to be fully drained.
Usually, stuff flows into a house at a faster rate than it flows out. This is the nature of the vast material wealth of our society. Paper that would have been precious to the ancients is foisted upon us in endless drifts of junk mail and coupon circulars. Entire stores specialize in selling goods for one dollar. Others sell recycled/donated items they collected for free. Others are known for handing out free samples. Things are so upside down in our time that poor people can wind up having more stuff in their houses than wealthy people do.
What I tend to find in my work is:
Laundry carpet - so many clothes that they are strewn across the floor, and the flooring itself is invisible. Carpet? Tile? Hardwood? Who knows?
"Why is there a pot on the floor?" - so many dirty dishes piled in the sink and on the counter that there isn't enough room, so some have to go elsewhere. On the floor? On the dining table? In the oven?
Mail blizzard - so many papers that they cover every flat surface, sometimes to be moved into bags and boxes so the surfaces can be covered again, like bailing out a boat
Cupboard explosion - so many plastic food storage containers/coffee mugs that the cupboards are too full even when the majority of items are waiting to be washed. So many food packages that cases of food are stacked on the floor for lack of storage space.
Bags in a box in a stack on a pile - so many items of every description that they can't even be stacked anymore. This is when the level starts to climb past three feet or higher.
No free space, either vertical or horizontal - everything flat has a pile on it, unless it's vertical, in which case it's covered by a bookcase or a stack of bins or a bunch of refrigerator magnets. Not so much as a single square foot of blank space to rest the eyes.
The worse it gets, the worse it gets. The deeper the accumulation of dirty dishes, the more dishes are "needed" so that there will still be a clean one, somewhere. The wider the stream of dirty clothes on the path toward the washing machine, the more clothes are "needed" so there will be something somewhat clean to wear, somewhere. The more papers there are, the more magazines with articles on Getting Organized are "needed" to add to the stack. The less comfortable it is to live amongst the rising floodwaters of clutter, the stronger the need to be out somewhere, away from it all, which usually means a manufactured need for a shopping trip. Every trip outward, escaping the mess, tends to result in at least one shopping bag that comes in. Nothing is going out. The floodwaters continue to rise.
A house won't drain itself. Usually it is only initiated by unfortunate external events, like an eviction or a natural disaster. Once I saw a photo some acquaintances had posted of their kitchen after a major earthquake. Quite honestly, it took me a minute to realize that anything had happened, because it looked like any other messy kitchen with greasy cobwebs. "This place looks like a tornado hit it." Mean, but sometimes true. When the piles of clutter get too high and too deep, it becomes impossible to tell if real disaster is going on underneath, whether that's a hidden water leak, toxic black mold, or an infestation of vermin. Then the clutter becomes the least of the problems.
Draining the house voluntarily is a very brave decision. It's hard work. The accumulation of years won't disappear overnight. Usually it starts to look worse for a while even after a lot of strenuous work has been done, exactly like rebuilding after a flood. The detritus has to be cleared away. Usually it reveals stained carpet and damaged flooring, marks on the walls, and damage to various fixtures. Years of deferred maintenance start to reveal themselves. That's why we remind ourselves that we don't have to do it alone. Rebuilding is done in groups. Drain the floodwaters, and ask for help so you don't get in over your head.
It's a mystery to me why some people like to shop. I hate it. It's not just the odious clouds of perfumes or the bad lighting or the "music" or the people accosting you from kiosks. It's not just that I'm alienated by almost all patterns and most fashion colors, or that I'm more utterly befuddled by cuts and styles with every passing season. I just hate spending money. It makes me break out in hives sometimes. All of these reasons combine to make me an under-buyer. That's why my only bag threatened to disintegrate before I deigned to replace it.
The irony here is that in my work with compulsive accumulators and chronic disorganization, all of my clients, universally, have uncountable numbers of bags. Shopping bags, gift bags, plastic bags, paper sacks, tote bags, purses and messenger bags, bags of every description. The reason is that they always have piles of unsorted stuff skewed everywhere, and bags are irresistible "temporary" sorting depositories. Some of my people will cast off previous handbags, like a snake shedding its skin, when they get too full of receipts and other detritus to use anymore. The more I see this in my work, the more I respond by swinging to the other extreme and avoiding bags in general.
The lining of one section of my particular bag had been ripped out for at least a year. This regularly resulted in stuff migrating from one section to another. I put a new bag on my wish list last year. This is a convenient custom in my family; you make a wish list of stuff you want in various price ranges, and if someone is assigned to get you a gift for some reason, they can choose something off your wish list and still surprise you. My husband is relieved by this tradition and finds it useful. It wasn't so useful when the bag I had chosen, after looking at dozens, turned out to be back-ordered. Then the back-order was canceled and the price was refunded. But! THAT was my bag! What am I supposed to do, pick a different bag? I remembered this as Christmastime, but it was really my birthday, which means I already knew my work bag was falling apart nearly a year ago.
Then I noticed that one end of the strap was tearing loose.
Here is where I confess that I bought the darn thing at the Hollywood Goodwill for $7 in the first place. In my defense, it still had the original tags on it...
I'm not a purse person. What baffles me the most is the appeal of all these brown-and-tan bags with logos on them that don't match anything else in the known universe. Unless it's bags that cost more than a car. I went a long stretch without carrying any kind of handbag; I could just put my wallet and keys in my pocket. Then the stuff started to catch up to me. Wallet, keys, phone, sunglasses. If I wanted one single additional item, like lip balm or tissues, it started to get more complicated not to carry a bag. Then I got my iPad and started writing anywhere and everywhere, and I had to carry that, too.
Where it really starts to get complicated is when you don't have a car. Long hours on public transportation tend to attract additional stuff. Consolidating errands tends to mean there's always at least one small extra item to carry. Today it was business envelopes, as shown in the embarrassing photo above. I realized how frustrating it would be if this strap finally came loose while I was still two hours from home. As much as I hate carrying a bag that crosses the line from 'purse' into 'luggage,' it was time. My purse is my car now. I went into Ross and came out with a $20 commuter bag that has lots of inner pockets. I transferred my stuff into it and threw the old bag in the trash, right outside the store.
I walked in the door with the new bag, and my husband looked right at me and didn't notice. I did a little curtsy and moved my arm to draw attention to it. Still didn't notice. That's a sign that you've picked a sufficiently utilitarian bag, when your pet engineer is unable to detect it.
The first thing I did was to sit down and pull some things out of the bag. That's because I need them. The envelopes went with the other office supplies. I took out my charger and plugged it in. There's a daily homecoming ritual of pulling out the flotsam and jetsam of the day, the receipts and paper napkins and earrings and whatever other stray items find their way inside. It only takes a minute - literally like 60 seconds. The absence of that homecoming clear-out ritual is what leads to Bags Everywhere.
Bags Everywhere. We've got the shopping bags with items still in them, tags still on, receipt still inside. We've got the donation bags that are now mixed in with the keepers again. We've got the plastic bags filled with random stuff, usually car clutter that got scooped up and carried in, mostly including junk mail and coupons. We've got the purses, each partially filled with a combination of receipts, mail, hair ties, coins, and useful stuff we can't find. We've got the gift bags from various occasions with the gifts still inside. Then we have the boxes with a couple of bags inside, like Russian nesting dolls. Then there are the piles, usually laundry, with bags on top. That's the nature of my work. We gradually go through the bags, one by one, recycling all the junk mail and the excess bags, realizing that there really isn't all that much in these bags after all. I guess bags are just so friendly that they like being surrounded by others of their kind.
I can accept that it's useful to have a bag. I can even accept that I'm allowed to have more than one bag, or to buy one before the previous one turns into shreds and scraps. In the same way, my clients can accept that their lives would be easier if they had fewer bags to manage. Every day is simpler when you know where all your most important daily stuff is. Streamlining your daily bag, whether you're an accumulator or an under-buyer, is one of those small projects that can have disproportionately awesome effects.
The Compound Effect is the kind of book that is incredibly motivating and inspiring for people who are already motivated and inspired, yet intimidating for people who are not. I say this as someone who probably would not have bought into it in my younger days, while knowing, through later experience, that everything in it is true. Believing is seeing.
Darren Hardy begins with his origin story. He had a tough dad who drilled discipline into him from a young age. These few opening pages could be off-putting to the majority of us, who would find such tough-love parenting tactics a bit scary and depressing. Just keep reading. I can attest that reaching your goals does not require drill-instructor parents or early success. You can build positive habits even if you're a late bloomer like me.
The Compound Effect refers to the way that our habits take us in different directions over time. Hardy offers the example of three imaginary dudes. One just keeps doing what comes naturally. One cuts 125 calories a day out of his diet, and the third starts cooking more recipes from the Food Network. Not quite three years later, Dude Two has lost over 30 pounds while Dude Three has gained over 30 pounds and the first dude is just the same as he ever was. I can scroll through my Facebook feed and point out several real-life examples of this phenomenon. In one case, I sincerely didn't recognize an old friend in a photo and thought she had been tagged incorrectly. I had seen her in person 2-3 years previously and she had somehow nearly doubled her body weight in that time. Meanwhile, another friend who had started in that weight range is now doing triathlon and is likewise nearly unrecognizable. Comparing the habit changes of my two friends would be instructive, although the first person would find that kind of question very hurtful and the second would be proud and flattered. This is what habits can do.
Hardy shares examples of various people he has coached, usually his employees. "Beverly" was overweight and lost her breath climbing one flight of stairs. Through his coaching, she lost 40 pounds and ran a marathon. Yeah, right, you might say. That story could have been about me! I only lost 35 pounds, but I not only got out of breath climbing a flight of stairs (at age 29), I would see black spots. I did wind up running a marathon, just like Beverly. I kept the weight off and I haven't been at my top weight in 12 years. I started just by walking 2 miles per hour on a treadmill for 30 minutes at a time a few days a week. Little habits really, really do add up. I didn't know that I would become a marathon runner when I started. I just knew that I was too young to have that much trouble climbing stairs, and there were people in their 60s with more energy than I had, and I wanted more for myself. Little by little, my efforts compounded. It works.
An idea I loved from The Compound Effect was to use your snooze button time positively. Hardy says his snooze lasts 8 minutes. In those 8 minutes, he does gratitude practice and then sends love to someone. I found this enchanting! What a lovely way to start the day. A variation on using your snooze time could be to record a video of yourself talking about how exhausted you are and how you want Future You to stop sleep procrastinating and go to bed half an hour earlier.
Ask yourself where you were five years ago, Hardy suggests. Compare where you were then with where you are now. Are you where 2012 You would have hoped you would be? Do you have the same negative habits you wanted to get rid of then? Have you built the positive habits you wished you had then? This is sobering. I found that I had indeed built some positive habits, but that I had slipped on others, and that some things I still don't seem to have figured out.
Only when you experience the compound effects of a habit do you start to feel and believe the power. It's delightful and addictive. You can change anything with just the tiniest increments over time! Hardy offers real-life examples, such as how he wrote down at least one thing he appreciated about his wife every day and then gave her a book full of the observations. I wouldn't have thought metrics could be applied to marriage until I read that. The Compound Effect is an eye-opener, with the kind of insights that can put everything in your life into new perspective.
Some questions from Chapter 5 to ask your friends:
"How do I show up to you? What do you think my strengths are? In what areas do you think I can improve? Where do you think I sabotage myself? What's one thing I can stop doing that would benefit me the most? What's the one thing I should start doing?"
I'm still totally not over United Flight #3411 yet. I wasn't even there and I can't get over it! I've been flying alone since I was 7 years old, and I've been a frequent air traveler ever since. So many changes have happened in the industry since that time that it's barely recognizable. I remember when there wasn't even a gate around the metal detector, just a person with a chair who sat next to it and waved you through. There was never even a line. I remember in-flight meals, magazine racks, free decks of playing cards, and many occasions when I had nearly an entire plane to myself. You could basically bring infinite checked bags and carry-ons of any size. I wear business casual when I fly, but back in those days everyone wore their Sunday-go-to-meetin' best. Now there's no dress code, everything but everything has an added fee, and it appears we're not even guaranteed a seat if we've paid for our tickets and boarded the plane. Times have changed. When times change, strategize. Make a policy decision for what you'll do when and if you get bumped.
A policy decision means no further decisions without game-changing new information. For instance, as a policy decision, I like walnuts in my cookies even though not everyone does. Most frequent travelers have policies. I am a one-bag traveler, by policy, and it would take very special circumstances for me to check a bag. I have a couple of weather-tested travel "uniforms" that I wear. Other policies might have to do with how early you plan to arrive before each flight, or whether you use your flight time to work, sleep, or catch up on reading. Making a policy about getting bumped is just one more aspect of this overall strategic plan.
I decided some time ago that I would volunteer to give up my seat if a volunteer were needed. This is partly because I am naturally altruistic, partly because I usually travel alone, partly because my schedule is flexible, and mostly because I freaking love money. A cash prize would be the best, of course, but I would actually use flight vouchers. Just don't try to buy me off with drinks coupons, because I don't drink. Last year, I had a layover at McCarran, and the ticket agent announced that they needed a volunteer. Woohoo! Four hundred dollars and possibly a night in Vegas? I'm in! Unfortunately, before I could finish standing up to claim my prize, a bearded guy in a tie-dyed t-shirt had bounded over to the counter. Clearly I am not the only person lying in wait for the golden ticket.
The scenario changes when I am flying with my husband. Unlike me, he has a normal office schedule, or more so, because he works 9/80s. It's a big deal for him to get time off. We would be unlikely to volunteer as a unit unless the conditions were optimal. Maybe we'd be on the last leg of a flight with no connections to make and the payout sounded attractive enough. This is somewhat of a moot point, though. The salient feature of a getting-bumped scenario is that we may not have a choice. What if one of us got bumped and the other didn't? We talked it out and decided that we stay together, so if one of us gets bumped, we both disembark. Other couples might go the other way, figuring that it's better for one person to arrive on schedule. One of you might volunteer as tribute. Some couples might have a multi-faceted policy that factored in multiple inputs. It's much easier to do these calculations in advance than to try to figure it out in a crisis moment, when you're both exhausted.
Consider Flight #3411 again. Here is this poor elderly doctor, traveling with his wife. He says in one video that he's been traveling around 24 hours. These are hardly optimal conditions for making difficult decisions. Then she agrees to depart, changing the nature of the stakes for his own decision and adding to his stress level. Quite frankly, most travelers would not have found vouchers for $800 and a night in a mediocre hotel to be enough enticement to get off a plane, fearing the loss of their bags, and cancel their plans. Cold hard cash, hand-carried valet service for the luggage, and a suite at a high-end luxury hotel, plus limo to the runway and Michelin-starred restaurant vouchers? Then we're starting to talk. Then we're getting to the stampede-to-the-counter level of incentives. All of that still would have been significantly cheaper than an international public relations disaster. Don't hold your breath waiting.
Until we're collectively willing to pay higher ticket prices, seat availability is going to get tighter and conditions are going to deteriorate. We might as well accept that one of these days, we're going to wind up in an unfortunate scenario. I've sat out five-hour weather delays more than once, usually when all food service in the terminal has closed for the day. Stuff happens. While advance planning can't make these problems go away, it does help to have some idea of what we would choose to do if they happen to us.
News flash: Not everyone has to eat the same thing. It helps to understand this before anyone in the household sets out to make dietary changes of any kind. Changing what you eat is hard enough. Adding power struggles between household members can only make it harder. When you decide that you want to take ownership of your body and make positive changes, this will immediately change the power dynamic. Others around you will get nervous and try to restore equilibrium by pushing back and trying to making you quit. It is known. Plan around them. This is also true if you're the one who wants snacks and someone else is trying to change. The only rules are the rules that work for everyone concerned.
Power struggles come in every variety. You can have a power struggle about who goes to bed when, who gets to use which bathroom for how long at what time of day, who unloads the dishwasher, who cleans up cat barf, who gets to spend how much money on what, and on and on. You can make every single thing a power struggle every day if you like. If you have children, you can have power struggles with them about whether the left shoe goes on the left or right foot, whether you can wear the same outfit after it technically no longer fits, or how many times to reread the same storybook. A popular child-oriented power struggle is whether one needs to eat any foods that contain insoluble dietary fiber or micronutrients, or whether one can simply get rickets or pellagra instead. Look at the snacks/diet plan spectrum as a non-binary, non-zero-sum choice in the context of power struggles in general.
Non-binary means there are more than two options. Non-zero-sum means there can be multiple winners. For example, if I wear a t-shirt, everyone else can also wear a t-shirt, or a sweater, or a T-Rex costume, or whatever. It only becomes an issue if I'm trying to enforce a dorky dress code on a family photo.
That's the thing about food intake. In our culture, apparently anything other than 24/7 cheese-covered deep-fried super-sized buffet is preachy and body-shaming.
There is food everywhere. If you haven't noticed yet, you're going to. Vending machines! Candy bowls! Free breadsticks and chips and salsa! Ice cream trucks! Restaurant delivery! All-night drive-thru! You can get pizza delivery by drone on two continents already. I anticipate 3D-printed food on demand, just like Star Trek, in only a few years. Before we know it, we're going to be accosted by little R2-D2-type robots trying to give us free samples and take our orders for third breakfast, second lunch, and eighthsnack. Drones can fly through our windows and drop food bundles straight down our funnels, directly into the esophagus. It'll be great.
Things changed for me when I realized how deep my scarcity mindset went around food. I had spent at least four minutes chasing a single pumpkin seed around my plate, trying to get it on my fork. I froze. I asked my husband, "How long have I been doing this?" He said, "As long as I've known you." I had this rule somewhere in my psyche that I had to absorb every single molecule of food that had been served to me. I sat with this feeling. I taught myself that because I have 24-hour access to all foods known, I can relax. I will not starve. In fact, if I got anywhere within 40 pounds of starving, a committee would chase me down, wearing matching hats that read GIRL, EAT A SANDWICH, and would in fact force-feed me sandwiches until I reached the new zaftig ideal. I don't have to have food in my mouth during every waking moment, and it turns out my dentist agrees.
I lost 35 pounds, and I haven't had a migraine in over three years. I'm never going back.
My husband has struggled with his weight all his life. His top weight was 305. He taught me everything I know about weight loss, and the irony of this is that we're never trying to lose weight at the same time. I've learned that to support him when he's on a mission, I simply can't eat certain things in front of him, or store them where he will see them. When I was training for my marathon and he was cutting calories, I had: first and second breakfast, first and second lunch, afternoon snack, Frappy Hour, and of course my fanny pack o' fig bars and trail mix for the run itself. I had a secret container of Birthday Cake Oreos hidden in my office. I bought Nutter Butters because he doesn't like them. (Neither do I, but COOKIES). We ate a sensible dinner together after he got home, and if I wanted late-night snacks, I would just stuff them in my pocket when he wasn't looking and "go for a walk." I do everything I can to be courteous and supportive around his eating plans, just as I would for any of his other plans.
A strategy that was helpful for me, when I was untraining myself from EATING ALL THE THINGS, was to remember the grossness of some former coworkers. People be touching the snacks. There was this one guy my husband referred to as "Mister Poopy Hands" because he had seen him walk out of the restroom many times without ever going near the sinks. I never ate out of communal office bowls ever again. If there's something I want to not eat, I just picture that particular dude scrabbling around in the bowl or working in the kitchen. Bleah.
The truth is that nobody is responsible for what goes into my mouth but me. I just make a decision and then the decision is made. If I'm going to eat cake for breakfast, so be it, the Word has been spoken. If I decide to trim the four pounds I gained over Thanksgiving weekend, so be it, the Word has been spoken. If I struggle and resist Past Self's policy choices, I can give myself R. Lee Ermey-style coaching or I can wear a thick rubber band around my wrist and snap myself. I can remind myself that I'll be at my goal in a few more days. What I can do for anyone other than myself is significantly more limited.
Good luck ever trying to change anyone else's eating habits. Good luck ever trying to change anything about anyone. The very fact that your intention has become obvious sabotages any chance of a positive result. Assuming the mantle of Nutritional Gatekeeper is nuanced and complicated. It does tend to work on children, though, because they don't have money, they can't drive, and they generally can't cook, either. What your kids eat, if you have children, IS entirely up to you. Just because they demand nutrient-free foods does not mean you have to provide them.
Scarcity mindset will poison your best attempts, whether for yourself or others. Put joy back into your life, there and in other areas. More good stuff. More music, more color, more nature, more laughing, more making of things rather than consuming of things, more hugging, more fascination. If food is the highlight of your day, then you have a devastatingly boring life. Find a way to make your life more interesting and pleasure-filled overall. This may have a ripple effect on the people closest to you, changing the power dynamic, or it may not. What you eat can't really be about what everyone else eats. Do what works for you, and it will work for you.
I'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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