I’m closing in on my first martial arts promotion. I knew virtually nothing about martial arts when I signed up in January; all I knew was that I wanted more humility and self-discipline, and that martial arts would probably be a good way to make that happen. I was so raw and new that I didn’t even know the school offered kickboxing. I signed up for classes and walked out the door with a bag of gear I couldn’t name and didn’t know how to put on. This is a reflection on what I’ve learned in four months.
First, we wear colored belts to show which level we’ve reached. The color systems vary depending on the discipline. Every ten classes, we get a stripe, which at my school is symbolized by a strip of black tape. Right now, I have a yellow belt with two stripes for Krav Maga and a white belt with two stripes for Muay Thai. This system is not traditional but it is convenient.
I’ve participated in one promotion. Students are encouraged to show up and do the workout to support those who are testing up a level, and also so we know what we’re in for. The result of this is that daisy-fresh novices like myself are doing a hundred squats with blue belts who’ve been training for years. This four-hour workout stands out as one of the toughest physical challenges of my life, right up there with hiking Hrafntinnusker, a sweat lodge ceremony, and running my marathon. Certainly it was harder than the Warrior Dash. I bonked for the first time in years. I was so tired afterward that my hands were shaking and I had to fight to tie my shoes.
Working out with people who have been training longer is a sort of emotional bridge. It can be demotivating when you feel like you can’t keep up, or if you mistakenly attribute the results of their extra months or years of training to “genetics.” I almost ran out of the room at one point, and if I hadn’t had my arms linked with two other people, I probably would have. (I made a dumb mistake and called out the wrong number, and 50-60 people had to do extra squats to pay for my error). Fortunately the woman between me and the door is a legend in our school, possibly a decade older than me and an excellent peer role model. I’ll get to train with her after I reach advanced level. I doubt she has any idea what an example she is to newer students.
That’s the motivating part of working out in a group. If you have a growth mindset and you believe that each workout brings you one step closer to group level, it helps you to push harder. One more coat of shellac on the jar. One more drop in the bucket. Water can drill through solid rock, drop by drop.
When I showed up for my first class, it had never really crossed my mind that there would be this thing called a “warmup.” We usually start with “tens,” which is a set of ten pushups, ten sit-ups, and ten jump squats. (Um, what’s a jump squat?) I thought I was in pretty good shape, for anyone, not just for a bookish middle-aged lady. Then I discovered that I couldn’t really do a sit-up. I had to grab hold of my thigh to pull myself up. Demoralized, embarrassed, and stubborn as all get-out. This is what humility is supposed to feel like, my cupcake, so get back down there and finish your set.
Fast forward four months. Now I can do twenty push-ups and holding a plank for sixty seconds just feels like a nice calf stretch. I can do fifteen burpees. I can trot up three flights of stairs in the Metro in one minute. I can do a roundhouse kick. The stuff I can do now is starting to feel like superpowers, like the day young Spider-Man wakes up and realizes he’s not ordinary any more.
Perhaps more interesting, I’m going through some wild physical changes. I can see my tricep bulge while my arm is at rest. When I assume fighting stance, my trapezius muscles make a pretty intimidating bulge. My quadriceps are starting to pop again like they did when I was a bicycle commuter. My husband says he can see my lats. I’ve gained as much as twelve pounds since I started training, but weirdly, my clothes still fit. (It’s not all muscle but some of it has to be). Most importantly for my life, my pain threshold is much higher.
Things that should hurt don’t really anymore. It’s hard to express how major this is for someone with a history of fibromyalgia and migraine. I’ve punched myself in the eye and had the pads smack me in the mouth and nose. I’ve throat-tagged myself by falling onto my own fist. I’ve kicked someone else’s toenail and cut myself, and then a couple days later I kicked a pad, cracked my toenail, and drew blood. Fortunately I’ve managed not to bleed on the mat. I generally have bruises or minor scrapes in various states of healing on every limb.
I opened a pickle jar with my bare hands for the first time in my life. I was so excited I texted my husband, who was possibly even more thrilled than I was.
Learning to fight has changed a lot about my mindset. On the one hand, I find myself automatically sizing up everyone who passes by, and I’m a little more flinchy when people stand behind me. On the other hand, I get a lot more out of fighting scenes in action films, and I have a new confidence. A drunk guy catcalled me from where he sat on the curb as I walked by, and I just rolled my eyes, thinking, “You have no idea who you’re dealing with.”
I nearly quit after my first few weeks in martial arts classes. I felt so unfit and weak and breathless and clumsy and uncoordinated, I genuinely felt like my presence was unfairly holding other students back. My teachers and fellow students were so encouraging, though, that I reminded myself why I was there. HUMILITY AND SELF-DISCIPLINE, not confidence or pride, although those feelings are starting to surface. I stuck around and started to be captivated by the forms.
Speaking as a distance runner and endurance athlete, martial arts is a completely different type of physical challenge. I don’t get the mood elevating or analgesic effects of running. Usually I don’t even get the “good workout” tingle afterward. The mental challenge, though, makes martial arts far more interesting. It’s a much better all-around workout. At least at this stage of my training, I haven’t incurred any overuse injuries. When I ran an 8k three months into training, I set a personal best, and it’s obviously been paying off in stronger glutes, quads, core, and hip flexors. I plan to add running back into my routine as soon as I can physically handle it, because I miss it, but this is something I can see doing indefinitely.
There are students at my martial arts academy ranging in age from four to seventy-eight. I remind myself of this every time we do an exercise that is outside my current abilities. I’m in exactly the right place, which is right here and right now. I’ll never be younger than I am today, and at least my skeleton is fully grown. The work I do today as a clumsy beginner is another drop in the bucket, work that will inevitably lead me forward to my next stripes.
We’re sharing a table at a conference. Breakfast is being served. We haven’t met before, but I know immediately that he’s one of mine. I know because he’s a bag-spreader. He has more personal belongings arrayed around him than I’ve brought with me on long international flights. At a table meant to seat eight, where there aren’t enough spots for all the attendees to eat their meals, he’s taking up a quarter of the table, and that’s only because my husband has nudged some of his stuff away from his plate.
Bag-spreader, bag-spreader, what’s in your bag?
Nobody knows. I find out later that, in addition to all the stuff he has spread around him at the table, he has two additional bags stashed on the extra chairs off to the side of the room.
What’s in front of him?
A smartphone. A tablet with a keyboard. A Moleskine notebook. A composition book. A stack of catalogs, not relevant to the conference. Two separate glasses cases. A pen. A protein bar. The folder of conference materials. Index cards.
Some people might be annoyed at this excess, for excess it surely was. Across the table, I was able to find it amusing and interesting. That’s because I study material culture through history. This tableau is a solid representation of the challenge of straddling two or three eras: the 19th Century desire to keep archival records and commonplace books, the 20th Century habit of taking paper notes at meetings, and the nascent 21st Century practice of using portable “smart” electronic devices. A generation or two further down, it will feel more natural and obvious to rely on the electronics alone and see all that paper as unwieldy and inefficient.
To my guy, Mr. Bag-Spreader, all that paper must feel like a good idea. Why? What is he thinking?
I’d ask him, but we’re on a tight agenda today. Besides, he hasn’t introduced himself or spoken to anyone at our table. He’s taken it upon himself to move other people’s belongings as well. It seems clear that he really wants the whole table to himself and he’s made annoyed faces at those encroaching on him.
Sorry, bud, this is a common area! We paid to be here, too. We have to share.
Why can’t you just keep all your stuff in your bag and put it by your feet or hang it off the back of your chair? You could take items out one at a time as you need them, and put them back in when you’re not actively using them. I mean, that’s what I’m doing.
Back to what’s going on with the bag-spreading. Why a Moleskine AND a composition book AND index cards? Even excluding the two electronic devices? My guess is that he’s using index cards because he doesn’t want to mess up his nice expensive (bright yellow) Moleskine. But he wants to have it out because he’s referencing earlier notes? Or he just likes looking at it? Or he doesn’t even realize that this particular object is extraneous to purpose? I’m also guessing that the composition book is part of a different project, perhaps notes from his home club’s meetings. The catalogs are in case he gets bored.
I used to be like this. I was a bag-spreader myself. I would bag-spread in class, on the bus, on airplanes, at restaurants. I didn’t realize that I was being selfish and unfair to others around me. I didn’t realize that I was spending far more time than other people in interacting with objects, playing with my personal possessions, distracting myself from whatever was going on. It was most likely a way to sublimate my desire to just stay home, a way of comforting myself with familiar belongings and marking my territory. I guess. I can’t say I had much insight into it at the time.
It’s pretty common for bag-spreaders to drag multiple bags everywhere. I kinda still do this, at least one day a week. I have to go straight from kickboxing to one of my weekly Toastmasters meetings, so I have my gym bag with my boxing gloves and shin guards, and then I have my work bag with my tablet, pen, workbook, sunglasses, wallet, etc.
That’s what gets us into trouble with the bag-spreading. Our stuff expands to fill the bag available, and then it becomes background stuff, and then we stop having enough space to carry all the other stuff we want to bring with us.
Right now I have an explanation for everything in my bag, but I can guarantee that there are things in it that would make someone else laugh. (Library cards for three distinct libraries?). Sun block. Wallet. Keys. Lotion. Lip balm. Tissues. Headache tablets. Microfiber screen cleaner cloth. Backup battery with two types of charger cables. Dental floss. Phone and tablet. Paper day planner, for which I cannot defend myself. Right now there’s a trophy and a cowbell, and hopefully I remember to take them out. It’s true that I could have gone out the door with half this stuff and made it through the day.
The heuristic behind bag-spreading is to bring as much as possible, just in case. In case of what? I have no idea, which is what “just in case” means! This is the opposite of minimalism. The minimalist heuristic is to try to bring nothing at all, and add only that which is truly necessary. Anything more is an encumbrance.
More to carry, more chronic neck pain and shoulder pain and back pain. More to lose, more to have stolen. More to spill on, more to stain and fold and spindle and mutilate. More to detract from your fashionable ensemble and general poise. More to spoil photographs. More to trip people or bump into them. More to spread over twice as much space as you’re legitimately entitled to. Or three times. One man, three chairs?
What if everyone brought three bags everywhere? Where would they all go? Would every hallway and every room have to have a wall of cubbyholes? Would every bus need an overhead rack and every plane have room for only half as many passengers?
There were three reasons why I finally learned to quit bag-spreading. One, working with chronically disorganized people and hoarders put it into context. Two, my career ambitions demanded a more polished appearance. Three, I got a smartphone and realized that almost everything I carried could be digitized. I had a fear of boredom as much as anything else. I learned to trust that my phone wouldn’t start bulging or weighing more if I put more books, magazines, news articles, podcasts, or music on it. Oh, and then I became a distance runner and learned that I could leave my house with nothing more than my phone, headphones, and keys.
Bag-spreading can come from a desire to feel resourceful and prepared for every occasion. It can come from a desire to look polished and have backup hygiene and beauty supplies on demand. It can come from a fear of boredom. It can come from simple habit. It can come from distraction and lack of focus. Look at it as a behavior pattern, and observe how many other people indulge in it. Look again and wonder how the majority of people seem to be able to get through the day without bag-spreading. It can be done!
Money is a paradox. The more you have, the more you get, and the easier it is to get more and more. The less you have, the easier it is to lose everything and the harder it is to get any opportunities. I figured this out when I had a temp job at a (very very famous) bank, and one set of elevators stopped at the sixteenth floor, where the other set started. What a metaphor! I knew I was stuck in the lower-floor elevator and I had no idea how to cross over and get to the upper suites. All I knew was that it was there and I wanted inside.
I guess as a temp, it was even a better metaphor, because really I was in the metaphorical service elevator that ran back and forth from the lobby to the basement.
Looking back, it’s really easy for me to make a list of about a hundred things that were holding me back. I had no idea that I was doing anything wrong, and nobody was going to tell me, either. That’s the hardest thing about trying to change your socioeconomic status. Blue-collar people are very direct because we value authenticity. We’ll tell you to your face if you’re making a mistake, and we expect you to do the same for us. Don’t go talking to other people if you have a problem with me. Just come straight to me.
Middle-class and upper-middle-class people do not share this value of directness. It’s not that they just expect everyone to “know better.” They genuinely do not believe that their social code is something to be learned or taught. They believe this because they acquired it, in the same way that babies acquire language and the ability to eat with a fork, or chopsticks, or flatbread, or whatever is standard in their home. Learning the secret code when you didn’t acquire it as a child is exactly like a cultural exchange, where people dress and eat and sit and greet each other differently and you’ll never be 100% fluent in the language.
The trick to switching from one financial elevator to the other is in looking the part. The trouble with this is that it can feel like being forced into something inauthentic, into being something you’re not. This is repugnant to many people. We value self-expression, being able to dress and speak naturally. The only way this can lead into the “other” elevator is through the arts, sports, business success - essentially buying your way in rather than ascending through the traditional professional ranks.
Probably there’s a lot more money to be made that way, by taking the initiative and creating your own career. Unfortunately, it requires a great deal more work.
This is what I’ve learned on my mission.
When I was poor, the “budget” version always cost more. A single bus ticket costs more than one day’s worth of a monthly pass. The small package costs more per ounce or unit than the large package. The cheap apartment costs the most to heat and it has the longest commute. The beater car gets lower mileage and costs more in maintenance. I could never afford the “good enough” version of anything, anything I needed to pass the threshold, whether that was a haircut, an interview outfit, or a university degree.
As I’ve become more comfortable, I’ve noticed that the more you rise in status, the more people are constantly giving you free stuff. Free cookies! Upgrades! A suite instead of a room, a suite with a view, a suite with a view in the penthouse tower. Free desserts or appetizers! Reward points! More upgrades, upgrades to business class! Personal shoppers! Hot towels! Just every darn thing. Celebrities get even more, from gala outfits to cars, because everyone wants that face and that name associated with their brand.
It’s crazy-making. Where were all these freebies when I actually needed them???
I learned slowly although I studied hard. It was easy for me to learn the mannerisms and speech patterns, hard for me to learn to avoid taboo topics and speak in the secret code of tact and allusion. It was easy for me to exhibit the work ethic, hard for me to show up reliably due to transportation issues. There was nothing easy for me in learning the style guide, how to “pass” the clothing, grooming, cosmetic, and hair styling meters. I doubt I’ll ever get that right, which is why I always take the advice of my husband, personal shopper, stylist, or whoever. Just... have me not stand out or look weird.
This is the reason that college was so important for me. Having the degree unlocked certain doors, because there are many jobs only open to people with at least a bachelor’s. More importantly, attending university was like a foreign exchange program for me. I had the chance to surround myself with people who knew the code. Some of them were kind enough to carefully explain certain rules. Reading thousands of novels helped, too.
I look back at myself, age twenty, stuck in the short elevator, and I cringe a bit. Wrong haircut! Wrong clothes! Wrong shoes! Talking about unprofessional topics! Missing cue after hint after clue! I wish I’d had a fairy godmother to come along and tell me everything I needed to change. If I had, though, it would have hurt my feelings and I would have resented it. I needed to learn things the hard way, as usual, because I needed to understand why. Why is this dumb rule a rule?
‘Cause why, that’s why. Games have rules. If I wanted to switch financial elevators, I needed to follow those rules, or ultimately break them. I either needed to do the things that the other elevator riders do, or I needed to learn the rules to the other game, the entrepreneurial game. If I didn’t or couldn’t do either, then I was doomed to the short elevator. Nobody in the upper elevator would have even noticed me or realized I was there.
When I was broke, I did a lot of scutwork; took orders from incompetent, disorganized managers; and dealt with uncouth customers. As I earned promotions and title bumps and pay increases, the work got easier, the managers got smarter, and the customers became nicer. It’s not just the money that’s better, it’s everything about the nature of work. Figuring out how to switch financial elevators has a way of elevating all sorts of things.
I’ve Decided to Live 120 Years, and that decision made itself the moment I read the title of Ilchi Lee’s book. Longevity seems to be something that is creeping up on us unawares; I’m convinced that most people have no idea how long we’re really going to live, and we’ll find ourselves with fifteen or more extra years. What are we going to do with all that time? How are we going to prepare ourselves, emotionally, financially, physically, mentally?
Lee is a Taoist master, so there is a little bit of woo-woo in this book. Mostly, though, it’s a very practical look at aging from the perspective of a man in his sixties. We think of “65” as the magical year of old age because of a bureaucratic decision made in 19th Century Germany. Lee includes a poignant quote from a 95-year-old man who says he regrets wasting the thirty years of his retirement between 65 and 95. The man plans to study a foreign language so that he won’t reach his 105th birthday feeling that he’s wasted the previous ten years.
We look at that idea of the 105th birthday and smirk, thinking: Good luck with that one, old-timer! Then we read about Robert Marchand, who set a new world record in cycling at age 105 and raced as recently as February 2018, at 106.
I often ask myself, if a centenarian can do this, why can’t I? I’ll be 43 in July. There will come a day when I feel that 43 was young, oh so very young. I want to impress Old Me with how hard I’ve tried.
I know that Young Me had some really weird ideas about aging. Young Me thought that after I turned 30, I’d be “too old” to travel. Young Me never thought that I’d backpacking across Iceland and Spain after that age, much less that I’d run a marathon at age 39 or study kickboxing at 42. I feel physically younger now than I did at 20, and I have to assume that at 60, I’ll feel younger than I can imagine today. I want to make the best use of my time so I don’t look back wistfully, in regret and self-blame that I burned through so many years doing nothing.
Lee’s attitude is inspiring. He has a lot to say about letting go of the past, connecting with others and playing an active role in the community, staying fit, and not defining oneself as a frail, elderly person. His example of the older lady who gave away her recliner and her TV really lit me up! I’m going to do two things after reading I’ve Decided to Live 120 Years. I’m going to give my copy to my parents, and then I’m going to try to do wall push-ups like Lee does. He’s older than my dad, so if he can do it, why can’t I?
Problems are for eliminating. The toughest problems are the mysterious ones, the pervasive, persistent drags that we can’t seem to figure out no matter what we do. The key to an easy, happy life is to methodically chase down and drive out these persistent problems. Break them up into tiny pieces, make them specific, and finally crush them. Bring them into the tangible, physical world. Strategize, somatize, financialize, pulverize.
Strategic thinking is about looking at the big picture. What’s the aerial view? What about this problem is universal? Who else has had this problem? How did they solve it? Almost all problems are so common that they’re stereotypes, such as struggling to pay off debt or being an exhausted new parent. Strategizing is about looking for the root cause and doing something about it. Usually this can be done by googling the problem and finding a how-to list, tutorial, or video.
Somatizing is exhibiting a problem physically, in the body. Usually this happens when we turn stress into illness, when our suppressed or denied emotions make us sick. Traditionally, it’s permitted to share physical complaints such as headaches or back pain, while sharing our negative emotions is rejected. It can be the only way that people close to us will offer any kind of validation, privacy, or consideration. Sometimes there can be gaslighting around emotional experience. “I feel X.” “No you don’t.” “That’s crazy.” We can only go so far down those roads alone. That’s why we tend not to be aware that there is a positive way to somatize, too.
Building physical power and strength eliminates an astonishing range of pain and illness. We can’t know how many of our weird physical issues are related to lifestyle inputs until we change them and feel the effects for ourselves. I speak from experience. When I quadrupled my consumption of cruciferous vegetables, I stopped having migraines and night terrors, started sleeping more, and lost weight. Feeling physically capable and powerful put me in an entirely different emotional and mental universe, a world I’d never known. If anyone had tried to tell me that all these great things would happen just through “living a healthy lifestyle,” I would have forcefully resisted and rejected the idea. Now I somatize whenever I can.
Financializing is a similar strategy, a way of defining a problem with money. It isn’t always accurate. “Gee, if only I were rich,” so I could trade my current problems for rich-person problems? The funny thing is, though, that usually even a minor shift in earning or spending can produce outsize effects. Earning 5% more or spending 1% less might make the difference between paying off debt, chasing off creditors, or having an emergency cushion. Feeling broke is more of a mindset problem. Scarcity mindset convinces us that there are no better opportunities, that there’s no point in negotiating lower interest rates, spending slightly more for the durable option, or pursuing a higher-paying career.
I spent so many years feeling broke and struggling that it took a while to realize I had gotten on top of it. I was renting my own mini house. I had no roommates, no credit card debt, no car payment, no unpaid bills. I could buy groceries with my debit card without cringing and waiting for the card to be declined. One day, I had a talk with myself. It was time to learn to enjoy myself. I used to cry myself to sleep at night over financial problems that I no longer had. Financially, I had everything I ever wanted (peace of mind, privacy) and if I didn’t appreciate it today, then I never would. Any problems I had from now on would be problems of relationships or personal philosophy.
Contentment comes from within. We can’t buy it. We can’t get contentment through money or consumer goods, but we can find it through gratitude and the realization that we have enough. There is plenty and there will always be plenty more. We can’t get contentment through fashion or beauty, because they are fleeting and subjective. We can, though, find contentment by being centered in the body. Health and vitality, strength and agility, grit and self-confidence have a tendency to set new emotional norms. Fully inhabiting ourselves, dissolving the artificial and contrived sense of separation between mind and body, is a necessity for inner peace.
Maybe there’s a way to feel total serenity through denial of everything on the physical plane. I doubt it. The body sends us sensations of pain, stress, hunger, and thirst because we’re biologically required to move and eat in certain ways. Being alive means we simply have certain needs. When we handle our physical needs with the minimum of fuss and focus, we can return our awareness to higher things. Maybe most or all of our problems can be boiled down to the material world. What if we solved our biggest distractions through care for the body and attention to our financial affairs? Strategize, somatize, financialize, realize.
If you have only one spoon today, I’m honored that you’re using it to read this. If you are fortunate enough not to know what “spoons” refer to, I’ll briefly explain that it’s a subjective unit of measure for people with chronic pain and fatigue issues, or other hidden illnesses. I’d like to share some thoughts that came up when I recently got some reader mail thanking me for writing about my experience beating fibromyalgia. (I see you! <3)
It puzzles me that virtually all of the online presence for invisible illnesses seems to be about emotional support and painstakingly tutoring “well” people in the details of our diagnoses. Aren’t we... trying to feel better? Shouldn’t we see a disease as an opponent, not a roommate or a spouse? Shouldn’t we be trying to GET MORE SPOONS??? Stop sleeping with the enemy and tell it to pack its bags because it is out of here.
First off, the concept of chronic illness drives me crazy. I believe that it is unscientific for a doctor or anyone else in the medical community to describe something as “incurable.” Just because nobody has cured it YET doesn’t mean it will never happen. Isn’t your entire job to try to cure and treat illnesses?
I’m pro-science. Let’s not get confused about that. I always get my flu shot and I’ll promote vaccinations to anyone who will listen. If a doctor gives me a prescription for antibiotics, I fill it and I take the full course. If I get a printout of instructions to do physical therapy exercises, or anything else, I follow those instructions. I’m obedient and open to input. This is why it upsets me so much when I’m treated with condescension by doctors.
The doctor who patted me on the shoulder and assured me that there were in fact zero ways I could modify my diet, exercise, or lifestyle to impact my thyroid disease. - FALSE
The doctor who told me he doesn’t “believe in germ theory” - UHHHH....
The doctor who told me I must have been misdiagnosed because “people don’t get better from fibromyalgia” and she knew, because her sister-in-law has it. She told me not to mention that diagnosis to doctors, because they would “automatically write you off.” Then she tried to prescribe me an anti-depressant, although I am not depressed. - HUH?
The point I’m trying to make is that just because you waited forty minutes for a fifteen-minute time slot with one overworked, obtuse physician who wasn’t able to help you, does not then mean that you are beyond help. Just because you’ve suffered for many years doesn’t mean you always will. Just because your pain is extreme does not mean it will always be that way, or that it will get worse. There are no reasons to believe that a physical illness will remain permanent and debilitating until the end of time.
I always felt that if I had to suffer, then let it be toward a purpose. Take notes on my condition and track my metrics. Record everything I tried on my search for relief and wellness. Use these notes to build a better treatment plan for the next generation of sufferers.
Then I take that attitude to my primary care physician, who invalidates my position. I’m game, try me! How many people like me constitute “anecdotal evidence” that is 100% disregarded by the medical community? How many more are laboring under false stories of sickness because this information is withheld from them?
I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia at age 23. I also had a thyroid nodule that disappeared without treatment. I suffered debilitating migraines for about ten years. I would say that I actively manage sleep issues that began 35 years ago, and I’m successful now about 90% of the time. Since then I’ve run a marathon, completed a mud run, and gone on several multi-day expeditions carrying a 40+ pound backpack. Now I’m studying the martial arts of Krav Maga and Muay Thai kickboxing. Four hours a week I repeatedly catch kicks, punches, and shoves, get thrown onto the ground, and do a full circuit-training workout. If I can think of any more extreme sport that demonstrates how fully I beat fibromyalgia, I might try it.
I’m a middle-aged woman with a history of multiple chronic illnesses. I crushed them.
I’m a formerly obese woman who fully recovered from thyroid disease. Now I wear a size XS.
How is it possible for someone of my age bracket and health history to be in better shape than I was twenty years ago?
How is it possible, when my doctors told me it wasn’t? How is it possible, when my doctors brushed off and invalidated my experiences? How is it possible, when I never took medication or had surgery?
There are three reasons.
First, I didn’t have a choice. My ex-husband divorced me when he realized how sick I was. I didn’t even have health insurance, much less another human who could help me get out of bed or fill in for tasks I couldn’t do. I had to get up and take care of myself because I was the only one I had.
Second, most of my insights and epiphanies and realizations and hypotheses came from TOTAL ACCIDENTS and coincidences. I would notice something that didn’t seem to make sense, and as it caught my attention, I would start to track more details while I tried to figure it out.
Third, being told that something is impossible is something that deeply annoys me. It’s stupid! It’s a wrong thought. It is unscientific, if I might be pardoned for repeating myself. I’ll trust a doctor who tells me to get a tetanus shot or change bandages or take eye drops. I’ll never, ever trust a doctor who tells me I’m stuck with some health condition for the rest of my life.
Nobody needs to run an obstacle course or go backpacking or start taking karate classes. That’s a high bar. All I’m asking is that we question this chronic illness paradigm. I ask that we allow for the possibility that we may one day be free. What if we’ve been misdiagnosed? What if we become “anecdotal” and have a spontaneous remission? What if we age out, as it often happens with migraines, because our hormone levels change over time? What if new research leads to new treatments, new medications, or new understanding of root cause?
Please stop sleeping with the enemy. Illness is not your body part. Illness is not one of your internal organs. Illness is not your heritage. Perfect health is your birthright. Track your metrics and keep asking questions until you have all the spoons you could ever want.
When we were newlyweds, we moved into a big house in the suburbs. It was in fact bigger than both our bachelor places put together. We had been living on our own for years at that point, and we each had our own house full of furniture and housewares, so we just brought it all. We had plenty of space, a big kitchen, plenty of couches, plenty of chairs, and two dining tables. What the heck? We decided to have an open house once a week.
What does “open house” mean?
“Open house” means that for a set window of time, our door is open. Anyone who wants to visit can stop by and stay, for a few minutes or a few hours, until we send everyone home at the end of the evening. Ours was either Tuesday or Wednesday, from 6 PM to 9 PM.
An open house means we don’t require an RSVP. Although a lot of people would text, call, email, or post on Facebook that they planned to come over, we didn’t insist on it. The point is for people to feel free to drop by on the most casual basis possible. Some people would come every week, while others would show up once every few months. The unpredictability added to the fun.
An open house also means there’s no set invite list. We encouraged our friends to bring people with them. Bring a date, bring a sibling, bring a classmate. On a few occasions, someone would show up with a carload of four or five new people who hadn’t been there before. Sometimes one of these surprise guests would become an open house regular.
At our open house, we provided food. I would make some pans of lasagna, or a huge stock pot full of soup, or we’d put out bowls of ingredients for a burrito bar. A few of the regulars would often bring a big green salad, some fresh bread, drinks, or a dessert. There was always plenty to go around, except for one memorable night when we had about double the number of guests as usual, and we ran to Safeway for some take-and-bake pizzas.
When I say ‘casual,’ I mean casual. We had no requirements for social participation. There was usually someone sitting in a corner doing homework or knitting. One guy came over to sit quietly on our couch specifically because he was trying to quit smoking weed. We never say a thing about people messing with their phones, because we can’t actually know that we’re the most urgent or important conversation. As a result, we would often find that our gathering was tagged on social media with the sweetest comments and compliments.
We had a couple of firm rules, but no more. One rule was that there would be zero discussion of post-Industrial politics. Someone once tried to start a (contemporary) political conversation, and everyone started making alarm calls and shouting out, “Danger, Will Robinson! Warning!” Another rule was that everyone had to get along. Anyone who made another guest uncomfortable would be expected to stop and apologize. We never had to send anyone home, but we were prepared to do it if necessary.
We did have some drama once, and it was quite bad, partly because it didn’t happen on the premises. A newer guest bore false witness against another guest, a bizarre story since I was there when it supposedly happened, and I got a call about it later. The instigator never came back, probably having realized that those bridges were burned. One weird incident in four years? We could handle it.
There was a certain amount of work involved in hosting as many as two dozen people in our home every week. We had a dishwasher, and we’d sometimes have to run it three times between 8 PM and 8 AM. (I had a stack of plastic plates and extra metal cutlery from Costco). But the guests would help wipe down the table and counters and put the chairs away. One trip to take the trash out, and the Roomba handled the rest. The key factor in having a regular open house is to delegate. With a large group, each person can put in about two minutes of effort and all the cleanup is done.
An open house is a good argument for minimalism. We always had motivation to finish home improvement projects, clear clutter, and do our chores. Leftovers got used up quickly. We were perpetually catching people before they drove away without their keys/glasses/purse/phone/hoodie or whatever.
We generally didn’t have to make rules about pets because everyone knew we have a dog and a parrot. It would have been chaos if even one or two people brought dogs. I had a guest come to book group with a dog once, and it couldn’t sit for five minutes without getting hyper around my bird. For people with bigger yards or a different setup, it might work, depending on the individual dogs.
There’s a lot of trust involved with having dozens of strangers cycle through your home. Your privacy! Your stuff! I happen to believe that there’s no point in stealing most physical objects, but we do have a safe and we hid its location. Obviously we would never leave cash, passports, or anything sensitive to identity theft laying around. We didn’t (and still don’t) really have anything that anyone would steal. Furniture, appliances? Our old desktop computer? I did “lend” out a few books that were never returned, and finally I realized that if I just buy ebooks, this would cease to be a temptation. As a spiritual goal I try only to give as a gift, not lend as an obligation. We gave away all sorts of things: rides, meals, tutoring, clothes, tools, craft supplies, random objects, and job references. In return, we had a never-ending supply of pet sitters and willing helpers we could hire for odd jobs.
Having an open house is an amazing experience. It always turns into a much bigger deal than it seems like it deserves. We spent so many hours laughing, playing games, telling stories, watching movies, singing, dancing, cooking, eating, hugging, and generally living that everything seemed very small and pale the day after. One day, when we’re ready to move into a bigger home, we’ll do it again. A bigger home and a bigger life, an open house, an open door, and an open heart.
I keep reading that huge numbers of people in different age groups have no savings. Zero savings. Not so much as a penny in savings. I want to share that I get this, intimately. I recall having to spend my “lucky dollar” coin to take the bus to work. I’ve gone to bed without dinner many times, walked four miles with a suitcase because I didn’t have bus fare, and sold personal items to pay for my marriage license. I also want to say that I know how to save a fairly significant amount of money out of a stupidly low wage.
Why do I attribute the word “stupidly” to a low wage? Because when wages are low, people have nothing to spend, which means they’re not raising GDP or creating jobs. I paid over 40% of my income in rent for much of the period between age 18 and age 30. What did my landlords do with the money? My guess is that they used it to buy more rental properties, which is exactly what I would do, so it’s not like I blame them. Frugality is a very particular type of economic message that, if widespread, would lead to very particular results across the economy. But I digress.
I started out working part-time at a convenience store and earning the Oregon minimum wage, which was $4.75 per hour in 1993. I earned $300 a month and my rent was $300 a month. I would put snacks on my tab at work when I occasionally got too hungry, a primitive form of credit. I did not get an employee discount. My boss suddenly showed up one day and presented my bill for the month, which, sadly, ate up almost my entire paycheck that week. Due to drama, I commuted on the bus over two hours each way - for a 4-6 hour shift. Clearly this was not going to work.
This situation lasted only about two months, and it was over 20 years ago, but it feels like I can remember every minute of every shift. I could still draw the layout of the store and tell you which items were on which aisles.
I got a full-time job as an office temp. Suddenly my income tripled!
There is nothing quite like tripling your income from one week to the next to make you relax about money worries.
I was making $7.00 an hour and getting a solid 40 hours a week, unlike the convenience store job, where my schedule was constantly being changed and my hours were continually whittled away, until I could barely get sixteen, mostly on weekends.
I netted about $220 per paycheck. As it happens, my mom worked in the same building, and we were members of the same credit union. We would ride the bus up the street together to deposit our paychecks. This was fortunate for me, because I was still young enough that parental command tones worked on me. Mom told me that I could afford to save $50 per week, so I shrugged and did it.
I could also easily have SPENT that $50 per week. I never would have noticed and I never would have been able to explain where it went. In 1993 we had to pay for such things as video rentals and compact discs if we wanted entertainment. Probably that’s where my savings would have gone: to clothes and lunches and magazines and movie rentals and music and funny trinkets and posters and concerts. If I’d had a car most of it would have gone into my gas tank, insurance, etc. Instead I saved it.
That money wound up being about exactly enough to pay for my plane ticket when I decided to go to New Zealand the next year.
When I came back, my circumstances changed. For a series of [drama] I fell out of the savings habit. I didn’t have access to credit, so at least I wasn’t able to run up any debt. I started saving again during my first marriage, and that was the money I lived on between my divorce and going back for my degree.
How was I able to save nearly a quarter of my net income at 18 years old?
It started with the feeling that I was really lucky to have such a great job (making photocopies as an office temp) and that I was doing better than bare-bones survival. Seven dollars an hour and weekends off gave me a feeling of natural abundance.
I lived on a cash basis because that’s how I grew up. My parents often talked about the dangers of credit and all the ways that debt could destroy you. As a result, I never had to pay finance charges or over-limit fees. (The fact that I was denied credit when I finally applied is also relevant).
I didn’t have a student loan. I wish I’d been in school at the time, because compared to what I wound up paying a few years later, tuition was dirt cheap. Only after I got my degree was I able to land a middle-class job.
I rented a room in a house with three other people. My rent was $300 a month, which was roughly on target, and I split utility expenses. I did not own a car. I didn’t pay for cable, I didn’t have any substance habits like caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine, and I spent basically nothing on clothes, beauty treatments, or entertainment. I did not experience these things as hardships or scarcity. What I liked to do at the time was to chat on IRC (before the “Information Superhighway” had a name) and to read library books. I lived cheaply and it felt like I was living richly.
In many ways, I live the same lifestyle now that I did over half a lifetime ago. I didn’t own a car then and I don’t own a car now. I didn’t drink coffee or alcohol then and I still don’t today. I didn’t dye my hair then and I don’t now either. I bought my clothes at thrift stores then, and that’s a habit I’ve never dropped. I didn’t carry consumer debt then and I don’t now either. I didn’t have a mortgage then, and in fact I never have. No dishwasher, washer, dryer, or air conditioning - same same. I live in a 612-square-foot studio apartment rather than a single room in a shared house, so that part feels a bit more luxurious. The major differences in my life are having health insurance, a retirement account, access to credit, an emergency savings cushion, and a proper mattress.
The thing about savings is not that giving up everything that makes life pleasurable will somehow be enough to, I dunno, pay off your student loans or buy a house. Oh no. It isn’t enough! The point of savings is that you have to find a path to inner contentment that does not rely on external stimuli. The feelings of deprivation and scarcity can follow you even if you have multiple millions of dollars. That’s why so many celebrity actors, musicians, athletes, and lottery winners wind up going broke. It’s not really about the money. If you can live an interesting and fulfilling life in spite of a low-wage job and a cruddy room in a sketchy neighborhood, then you can find peace and joy anywhere you go. That alone is the point.
This book might be even better for single people to read than for married people. It’s incredible. I think it might save marriages as well as start some. Eli J. Finkel presents some research findings, complete with charts and graphs, in a very approachable way that just happens to explode a lot of pop culture notions. He starts with the premise that divorce is up because our expectations of marriage are so high, and reminds us that, on a historic scale, expectations of marriage have, in many ways, never been lower. This is just one of the many fascinating and challenging ideas about The All-or-Nothing Marriage.
Marriage has changed. I know a few couples who are in arranged marriages, a practice which is common enough that people will publicly admit to it, yet still so uncommon that it is very surprising. How quickly we forget that this used to be the norm! Finkel discusses the original form of pragmatic marriage, in which couples depended on one another for their actual physical survival. This was what people expected of each other up until around 1850. Industrialization allowed us to relax a bit about such concerns, making space for the concept of the love-based marriage. No longer would we need to audition each other for our agricultural or home-construction skills; more time for kissy-kissy. Suddenly, around 1965, we saw the advent of the self-expression marriage, in which we expect our mates to help us fulfill all our wildest dreams and be perfect in every way.
This is where the book becomes staggeringly important.
Most divorces are initiated by women now. The figure is nearly 70%. Pause and think about that, because the proportions are nowhere near that for break-ups in regular dating. What is it about marriage specifically that makes so many women want to get the heck out? Partly it’s the natural outgrowth of realizing that you’ve married a bad roommate, someone who exploits traditional gender roles to get free maid service. Partly, as we discover in The All-or-Nothing Marriage, it’s our expectation that marriage needs to be a major factor in our self-expression.
What’s great about this book is that it offers so much perspective and so many attitude adjustments. It also has a section devoted to “love hacks,” tested ways of improving marital satisfaction even when the couple are annoying each other. The All-or-Nothing Marriage is also an optimistic book. The research indicates that the best marriages in our era are better than ever before. A self-expression marriage is something worth striving for, as long as we support our partner’s needs as well as our own.
Speaking as a divorced person remarried to another divorced person, please read this book before you start signing any papers. You can also feel free to leave it laying around in plain view; like The Five Love Languages, it’s the kind of relationship book that men will appreciate, especially because the author is male. Approach the conversation with curiosity and leave space for your partner to respond. May it help you to find your way back to one another.
Not everyone who is alive at the same time is experiencing the same era in history. As examples, may I present the Amish, modern hunter-gatherer societies, and anyone who is still using a VCR. It’s possible for different people to use time differently and get different results. Anyone who shares a bathroom with a teenager knows how true this is. Let’s explore how the same hour can be perceived and used by people in different slipstreams.
An example of slipstreams would be lanes on a freeway. Slow traffic keeps right, speed demons keep left, and if there are center lanes they tend to be inhabited by those who want to avoid a lot of merging and tailgating. Everyone on that stretch of freeway is traveling in the same general direction, and they’re going to arrive at different times.
Another example would be a group reading menus in a restaurant. One person walks in already fantasizing about his favorite dish. He orders quickly and turns his attention to the conversation. Another person dithers over what to order, fretting and fussing and focusing only on the food. These people are in completely different slipstreams. The decisive person may be decisive for any of a list of reasons: He may get the same thing all the time because he loves it or he’s super-picky or he’s not terribly interested in food. He may be impatient or he may be bursting with news. One way or the other, he has a priority that is more important than this one particular plate of food. The indecisive person is stressed out and worried, either about missing out on the best dish or getting stuck with something yucky. A chronically indecisive person feels this way all the time, and that’s what makes this a different slipstream.
We get stuck in the slow lane, the slow slipstream, all the time. Sometimes we can’t figure out what to do. Sometimes we don’t know what we want. Sometimes we’re afraid of what comes next. Sometimes we want to be let off the hook, to avoid being stuck with extra responsibilities or higher expectations. Sometimes we simply don’t realize our own power.
I’ve worked with people who’ve spent years “clearing clutter.” I’ve also met people who’ve gotten rid of almost everything they owned over a weekend. You can spend the same hour flipping through old school papers (that you then keep) or hauling a dozen boxes out to a truck and driving them to a donation center.
There are people who have struggled with debt for decades, and others who have buckled down and paid off the same amount in just a couple of years. You can spend the same hour reading a book on your couch or running up $300 of credit card debt buying things at the mall.
We sometimes see this in romantic relationships. Some people meet and get married six months later, while others may be engaged for years without setting a date. Some people break up and never see each other again, while others reunite and break up again over and over.
Other common areas where we see people in different slipstreams are in advanced education, writing a novel, starting a business, doing research, and completing projects such as reconditioning a classic car or knitting an afghan. We do things at our own speeds, sometimes cruising along in one area while puttering in another. Every hour that passes is either an hour that goes toward that goal, or an hour that goes to something else.
I’m training in martial arts right now. The classes are divided into Beginner and Advanced, and test windows come up every two months to advance to a new level. There are all ages at this gym, from tiny tots to people in their sixties, but age doesn’t differentiate people as much as their fitness level does. For instance, we all jump rope together for three minutes during warm-up. I always trip on the rope several times. I may skip 200 times in three minutes, breathlessly, with a lot of stumbles and false starts. Next to me is a guy my age, an avid cyclist, who does all kinds of rope tricks and whose calves look like they were carved from wood. He probably skips at least 500 skips in the same three minutes. Same hour, different intensity, different calorie burn. Many of our classmates take two classes a day. I’m training at my own beginner level four times a week, while others are showing up ten or twelves times. They’re in faster slipstreams, and they’ll make much faster progress than I do.
In a one-hour period during my (slow, awkward, uncoordinated, amateur) fitness career, I have walked, bicycled, run, done yoga and water aerobics and ballroom dance, ridden an elliptical machine, or even tried a bootcamp in the mud. Each of these activities is its own slipstream, a route to radically different results. Within each discipline are also various slipstreams, where people choose their own rates of effort and learning. This realization is why I chose such a physically demanding school this year. I want to be in a faster slipstream. In fact I’m pushing my limits in hopes that I can also level up and handle two classes a day.
We often feel judged or criticized for our progress in life. There’s always a naysayer or a critic to make snarky little comments about every single thing, from our work schedule to our housekeeping to our physical appearance. What we don’t always realize is that we have the power to choose where we want to go and how quickly we want to get there (and the power to ignore naysayers). Sometimes it’s simple lack of information, like when I thought I would have to wait an extra year to finish my bachelor’s degree because the math class I needed was already full, but then I got the requirement waived. Sometimes we burn energy in envy or jealousy, focusing on how other people have results that we don’t. Ultimately all we need is that click, that feeling of decision and resolve, that we’re going to focus on moving forward as quickly as possible.
What would be different today if you had already accomplished everything on your to-do list? If you already had everything the way you want it, from your job to your house to your relationships to your body to your cooking or artistic skills? What would you do next? Is it possible that you could jump forward and do that thing right now? How can you shift into a faster slipstream and get to your goal all the quicker?
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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