Boxes are everywhere and my neck is all gimped up. We’ve been packing for almost a week, quota five boxes a day, and I’m feeling it. All I can do right now is fantasize about doing yoga in our new living room.
There isn’t a huge difference between a 612-square-foot studio and a 650-square-foot one-bedroom apartment. It’s just enough, though, that there might be enough room to do a workout in the living room when there wasn’t before.
I’ve tried P90X. I’ve tried yoga. I’ve tried burpees. I’ve tried hula hooping.
The only thing I can effectively do in my studio apartment, even when I move furniture out of the way, is to jog in place.
I often do. At the end of the day, if I haven’t quite done enough to impress my activity tracker, I jog in place until the green loop is closed. I would go outside but then I’d have to put my shoes back on.
I’d go to our apartment gym, but there lies madness. I love working out late at night, see, and once I started using the elliptical at 10:00 pm I’d be out there every night. This doesn’t work when you have upstairs neighbors who get up between 4:30 and 5:30 every morning.
The first law of the workout is to understand your constraints. Know your first sixty-five layers of obstacles, reasons, complaints, and excuses so you can plan something that is actually possible in your routine life, every day.
I’ve got grievances that have affected my workouts.
I also have a history of thyroid problems, and when I quit working out for an extended period, I descend rapidly into a netherworld of chronic pain, fatigue, migraines and tension headaches, low mood, and general crabbiness. I can feel it happening. I can feel the difference between the lower range of thyroid function and the middle range.
It’s like quicksand. The more tired I get, the less I want to do, and the more I sit around, the farther I fall.
My life is easier when I work out at least a little every day.
That’s why I wear the fitness tracker, it’s why I walk everywhere, it’s why I always take the stairs even when I’m carrying a suitcase, and it’s why I’m so invested in whether I can do a floor workout in my living room.
This is part of the connection between clutter and physical health.
My people do not like the feel of a reasonably arranged room. They will continue to pile up boxes and bags to prevent having extra space or blank walls. Alas, the effort involved to carry in shopping bags and pile them around is not enough to keep one’s energy levels up.
Living in a tiny, crowded room means sitting still most of the time.
Thus the nest. My people usually have a nest that is easily identified from across the room. There will be a spot, for instance in front of the computer keyboard, that will be surrounded by small important items like a tea cup or the TV remote. Other popular areas are the bed, a spot on the couch, a favorite chair, or the driver’s seat of the car. While there are seated workouts that can be found to accommodate physical therapy situations, my people aren’t doing them.
It’s not a problem, of course not. It’s not a problem when 40% of Americans have zero workout. It’s not a problem for extended phone stroking, gaming, binge-watching, or other seated activities.
It only starts to become a problem when it’s time to pack and move, or in an emergency situation when sitting still is no longer an option.
Eh, but that’s not gonna happen, right? *wink*
Here I am, packing our stuff, working on Box 28 and maybe ten to go. I’ve walked home balancing stacks of folded cardboard on my head, causing a man in a convertible to pull over and ask if I needed a ride. (Nice). I’ve folded and taped, lifted and hauled and stacked. Not currently being a weightlifter, I am feeling this unfamiliar effort in my neck and shoulder. That’s a place where I carry a lot of tension because my real workout, my true default mode, is hunched over a keyboard.
That’s my reason for walking so much, walking when there are tons of other outdoor workouts available to me.
Walking causes thousands of micro-movements when I swing my arms. I would never do that much physical therapy in any other situation. Walking, though, is fun. It’s something I can ignore, too. I walk to do my errands because we sold our car over two years ago. I walk when it would take twenty minutes longer to wait for the bus. I walk to go to the movies, the library, the grocery store. I walk a minimum of four miles a day, usually six, sometimes eight to ten.
When I’m not doing as much walking, like when I’m home packing boxes, I start to feel it right away. I feel it in the middle-aged places.
Habit research shows that people tend to have the easiest time switching habits after a major change like a move or a new job. I know this is true because I’ve moved so many times in my adult life. My husband and I are both planning around this blip in our schedule, thinking about what we want to be different.
One difference in our new place is that we’ll be on the fifth floor instead of the ground floor. We have the option to take the stairs when we walk our dog and do the laundry. Our building is also on the same block as our martial arts gym.
Mainly, though, we won’t have upstairs neighbors anymore. I’m trying to remember what it was like when I could sleep as much as I wanted, back when we were newlyweds, back when I started running for the first time. I’m trying to hold a vision of something I want.
I’m trying to imagine what I will do differently when I have room to move.
My husband is an aerospace engineer, and I’ve been interviewing him about his school days. This was spurred by his recent intervention in the educational trajectory of one of our young baristas. He started tutoring her in calculus, and she brought her grade up from a D to an A. Never having made it to calculus myself, I had a lot of questions. Is he just smarter than the average bear, or does he know something that the rest of us don’t know?
I hated study groups in school. I hated them because I was always the one who wound up doing all the work while everyone else got credit for it. This might have been awesome and lovely if anyone had thanked me for it, but, well, I was a nerd. I made the Dean’s List in college all on my own.
What would have been different about my academic career if I hadn’t had this distaste for group work?
Heck, what would have been different about my work career??
I knew about my hubby’s study group because he had briefly mentioned it back when we were still getting to know each other. Suddenly, after fourteen years, it struck me that this was no average study group. I needed to know more.
How did this group form?
What were the rules?
Who was in it, and how did they meet?
Where are they now?
The first thing to know is that aerospace engineering is not like most fields. Over 80% of the students wash out. It takes five years of hard work to get through the requirements, and there’s no time for electives. This is not a career that people stumble into by accident.
Compare and contrast: History degree
I knew that my husband moved to the opposite end of the state to go to school. Therefore, he had no classmates, friends, family, or colleagues nearby for social support. How did he meet people?
Crucial to the formation of the high-powered study group was a natural social hub, M. M was a member of several clubs and an active student group. He was bilingual, which is intriguing and seems relevant. (I grew up in a neighborhood composed of about 1/3 immigrant families representing at least five languages, and my classmates were generally top students). M went around getting to know people and introducing them to each other, and that’s how the members of the high-powered study group met.
The group originally consisted of four Upholders and one Questioner. The Questioner lost interest in engineering over the summer and never came back.
One member was second in the class and top in the group. The other three, including my husband, competed for second in the group. A certain amount of smack talk and teasing arose from this, driving competition.
(This would not have worked on me)
Other students tried to get into the group. While the group would help them if they showed up, they would not be invited back. The group changed locations between study sessions, essentially to protect their small size and remain exclusive. The rationale here was: if you want to sit at our table, you’d better add value.
There was another high-powered study group. Its membership and size fluctuated. Then there was another study group that consisted of C students. Studying together did nothing to improve their grades, and this is why the nature of the high-powered study group is so interesting.
Most of the C students did graduate and become engineers. Studying together probably helped them quite a bit. They weren’t accepted in the high-powered group because they couldn’t keep up. What they really wanted was the opportunity for tutoring. That’s a big ask. It’s really asking for free labor from other busy people without offering anything in exchange.
I think that’s fair. I’ve helped other students in school, just as I’ve helped people with their resumes in the working world. There’s only so much you can do for them, for one thing. I helped another student in my dorm by editing her papers, and I did it gladly because she helped me quite a bit in non-academic ways. Did I have time to edit papers for any and all comers? Nope, I did not.
Most people don’t ask. Most people don’t ask for help because they know it’s their responsibility to do it on their own. Most people also understand the concepts of win-win and fair exchange, that you give and then you receive and then you give again.
What happened with the high-powered study group? What were its impressive powers?
The faculty became aware of the high-powered study group, because they always worked together on group assignments. They took on more complicated projects than the other groups. They stood out for their test scores. They could also be found using various empty classrooms for studying. This is how they built their reputation.
The school decided to close their aerospace program when this particular high-powered study group was one year from graduating.
The members of the high-powered study group marched into the dean’s office. They advocated for themselves and insisted that the program remain open until they graduated. The dean agreed and the program continued for an additional year.
Note that this was a win for all the students in their program that year, about fifty people.
The tradition continues. My hubby just did something similar, thirty years later. A group of interns who all went to school together were going to be relocated to various desks around the facility. My hubby thought they worked much better when the five of them sat together. He went up the chain of command - unbeknownst to the interns - and pushed back. The five interns continue to sit together and work together. Maybe they’ll go on to get patents together, maybe they’ll publish academic papers together, maybe they’ll leave and start their own company. Maybe they’ll just continue to turn out above-average work, because their group makes them more powerful than they were alone.
Out of the chaos came a brief window of opportunity for something different, something polished and orderly. How it happened I’m still not sure. We found ourselves at an awards banquet, where I received a trophy for the first time in my life.
Actually not one but three!
This is how it looks on the outside:
A woman walks on stage and accepts an award. She is wearing a new dress and is in full hair and makeup.
This is how it looked 90 minutes earlier:
The scene, a studio apartment full of half-packed boxes, rolls of tape, and Sharpie markers.
A man has blood all over his face because he has somehow cut open his eyelid. This is terrifying and also very inconvenient timing! The man and his wife are in the process of getting ready to leave for a formal event and ‘blood everywhere’ is not part of the dress code.
Injury treated, the couple dress in haste and run to the street to catch their rideshare. Picture a woman sitting next to an open window, hair blowing vertically because all the windows are open, as she tries to apply makeup using her phone camera.
Couple stops on the way to pick up keys to their new apartment, where they will be moving in five days, hence the precarious towers of cardboard scattered around their home.
Couple climbs out of rideshare. Wife still has vertical hair, complemented by mascara on only one eye. Wife scurries into restroom hoping nobody will try to take her picture as it is not Halloween.
While the doors have not yet opened, wife feels that she is 20 minutes late. She was supposed to help set up the table for the door prizes.
When you see a normal, average person, it can be hard to tell that that person is having a tough time. Not unless he still has blood on his face or she is still walking around with her hair pointing toward the ceiling.
This has been a tough year. I signed on to fill an office, and almost immediately my personal life exploded. I had a devastating death in the family, my husband traveled for work 21 out of 50 weeks, our dog was diagnosed with a liver tumor and given two months to live, and I started having migraines and night terrors again. Then there were all the oral surgeries and now we’re moving. The hardest part has been our inconsiderate upstairs neighbors, who are only reliably quiet between midnight and 4:30 am. I’m so tired all the time I feel like I have amnesia, or maybe dementia.
I have felt scattered, disorganized, guilty, desperate, and often incompetent every day for the past twelve months.
Yet how do I explain the trophies?
Oh, sure, I did the work. I did it all and I did it well. A lot of the stuff I did was not even mentioned.
I wasn’t just an area director, I had a Distinguished area.
I may have been a Spark Plug for one person, but I also coached a club from two members to twenty-one and trained officers from two districts and five divisions.
I did all the stuff they mentioned for the Above and Beyond trophy, and I also did three other similarly-scaled projects that weren’t on the list.
Not only that, but I also co-chaired a conference in another district, completed four award levels, completed all the work for my Distinguished Toastmaster except for faxing in the final paperwork, ran a campaign, and won a contested election.
It feels weird and inappropriate to actually list off all the stuff I did over the past twelve months. It doesn’t seem real, or fair, or something I can’t quite name.
I’m having a lot of trouble reconciling my self-image with my outer image, my emotions with what is apparently objective fact.
Why do I FEEL like an incompetent slacker loser? Why do I constantly feel like I am procrastinating when objectively, I get so much done?
They say it’s Impostor Syndrome. That when we’re growing and learning, it means we’re working outside our comfort zone. That the only way to never feel like an impostor is to only do things we know we can handle 100%, like making toast or putting our shoes on the correct feet.
Can’t I just feel for one day like I’m on top of everything? Can’t I just for one day feel like I know what I’m doing?
Every day in Toastmasters has been a battle for me, every day since the first day, when I stood shaking like a leaf and barely able to say my name. My fight against shyness, social phobia, and pathological stage fright has been one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. It looks like nothing and it feels like someone should call me an ambulance. I have felt that I would collapse if I took another step. I have felt like sprinting for the exit. I have felt like crying and I have felt like I would black out and hit the floor.
I never did. I forced myself and I kept going.
Oh, it’s hard. It’s hard sometimes.
People say I’m a great speaker now. Most of the time, I’m not scared anymore. People notice that I show up and I’m willing to help out anywhere I am asked. Sometimes they tease me about being District Director one day. Let’s not be getting ahead of ourselves, I say.
The analogy I gave earlier is that I feel like I’m constantly falling up a flight of stairs. I trip and stumble and bounce from one step to another, and somehow I always seem to stick the landing, breathless and rumpled. How far can someone tumble upstairs, though?
The truth is that we can’t tell how other people feel by looking at them, we can only tell if we ask. I have no way of knowing whether all my friends and peers feel just as uncertain and overwhelmed as I do. Maybe they also shun the spotlight and work out of a sense of duty and curiosity, maybe they also find themselves up there trying to be gracious when they’d rather peek out from under a tablecloth.
What I’ve found in my case is that my emotions are rarely appropriate to the occasion, and they always try to steer me wrong. I’ve found that my stress level is always about the same, even when I’m doing 10x more than I previously did at that exact same mix of neurochemistry. I’ve found that I am not good at feelings like pride or satisfaction or fun or relaxation. I am a tightly wound person, and I probably always will be, and I may as well use some of that energy to benefit society.
This is why I occasionally go above and beyond, because acceptable and enough isn’t really in my comfort zone.
The Procrastination Equation is a curious artifact, the product of a former extreme procrastinator who became an academic researcher and actually completed and published a book on procrastination. Piers Steel, PhD in your face! Something like 90% of doctoral candidates never complete their thesis, so this is a pretty big deal. If a procrastinator can get a PhD, then maybe anyone can do anything?
I keep reading and reviewing procrastination research books because guess why.
About 95% of people admit to procrastination and about a quarter consider it one of their defining personality traits. I’m in that quarter, although I have worked so hard at it for so long that when I try to cop to it, people will laugh. You?? Yup, me. I want to be in that magical 5% elite group that never puts anything off, never feels guilty or distracted, gets to wear a diamond tiara that spells out IN THE NOW.
While this book includes targeted behavioral suggestions, it revolves around research, including quizzes which are always a great way to be entertained while procrastinating. It’s pretty funny, for instance when Steel includes a footnote as a supposed reference to an astrology factoid.
One of the most interesting ideas I picked up was the link between impulsivity and procrastination. There is probably a strong link here with hoarding and chronic disorganization as well, because my people tend to be big-time guilty procrastinators as well. The impulsive streak tends to make them fun to be around, ready to try out mental exercises and games as we clear. It’s the same trait that makes them want to bring home random bargains and anything shiny, patterned, or brightly colored. It’s also what makes it hard for them to stay on task.
Procrastination Polka is one section of The Procrastination Equation that is particularly telling. Maybe flip to that section first and see if it catches your attention. I felt smug about several items but there were three out of thirteen that applied to me. Ouch.
Procrastination is as old as agriculture, extending at least to the dawn of written history. There’s a term for it in every culture and language. This makes me feel better. Then I learn that procrastinators get lower grades, have less money, are less healthy, and also less happy, and it gets harder to pretend that my cute little personality trait derives from perfectionism. When Steel calculates it as a trillion-dollar problem and points out how little Congress gets done, procrastination starts to look like a bigger deal than just whether I personally keep up on my email.
I enjoyed The Procrastination Equation, and it actually changed my perspective. Viewing my petty to-do list in a broader historical, anthropological, and economic context gave me a new perspective. I’d rather see myself as different type of animal, like a crow maybe, than a typical procrastinating ordinary human. I read this book and then I did the first next thing on my list, which was to review it.
Now, how about you? What are you going to do next?
By your own standards, if you thought delay was a good idea in the first place, you wouldn’t be procrastinating.
“...the only thing I really ever finish is dessert.”
Those bizarre outfits that languish in your closet were likely purchased toward the end of a shopping trip.
Well, that escalated quickly. I wrote a post about manifesting a relocation on a Friday. We found a place we really liked on Sunday morning, called about it after lunch, went to see it at 2 PM, and decided to apply for it when we got home. The landlord pulled the ad and we had finished filling out the paperwork Monday night.
That was the easy part.
On Tuesday I thought I would get ahead of the curve. I went to the local moving company, conveniently located five minutes from our apartment, and scheduled a pair of movers. I brought home some boxes to get an early start. Then I called around to see if any of our friends could watch our pets for the day.
There are a bunch of parts to this move that I never saw coming, and factors that make it very lucky that I took action as early in the process as I did.
First, scheduling the move. It turns out that our new building is about half owner-occupied and it has a homeowner’s association. There is also a really strict procedure about moving into the building, and a formal Welcoming Committee. We don’t just pick up the keys. We have to tell people when we’re coming so they can put up the pads in the elevator.
It’s a good thing I asked, because it also turns out that I need to apply for a parking permit from the City for the moving van.
Can you imagine, showing up in a moving van with everything you own, only to get a ticket? Or find that there is nowhere within a half mile that you’re allowed to park?
Picture this. The parking lot for the building is underground, and there’s no clearance for a moving van to get down there. Even a pickup truck loaded up for a move might struggle. The only parking is in front of the building on a busy street on a major bus route. It’s not like a suburban move with a driveway or a large apartment complex parking lot.
Next, we’re moving in summer while school is out and the weather is predictable. That makes it a busy time. The ONLY reason the moving company fit me in is because we live in a studio apartment and we don’t have much furniture. They were going to try to give me a Thursday when I’m teaching a workshop in the middle of the day. We’re taking a Friday. Saturday and Sunday, so not happening.
Honestly I could see their schedule board from the front desk, and it looked like the entire month is already booked up.
Going down the list, what are our pets going to do on moving day? It’s not safe for them to be out and around while two dudes are hauling heavy stuff and loading a dolly. They just don’t need that kind of stress, and neither do the movers.
Ah, but, everyone I called will be out of town that week. No can do.
I have a boarding option for my parrot. The dog is more complicated. There is a doggy day care close to the new place, but it has a really elaborate application process. He has to have proof of three different vaccinations, which is great because he actually got kennel cough a few years ago from one place that didn’t require shots. I had to schedule an appointment so my husband can take him in there and prove that he can get along with other dogs. Also, they only accept dogs under 30 pounds, and we’re lucky because he happens to be under 25. I don’t know what we would do if we had a large breed; we might have had a lot of trouble even finding a rental house, much less an apartment in this region, with a big dog.
This is the new reality of a city move for us.
Oh, and, by the way, moving day is nine days from now. Countdown begins.
Why are we moving in such a hurry anyway? Partly because our current living situation has been destroying our quality of life. We’ve tried multiple times, and failed, to get any kind of corrective action. We came back from vacation and realized that we truly couldn’t take it any more.
Next, because we have a trip planned for our ten-year wedding anniversary, and we have a chance to get all this done before we even leave for our trip.
Ultimately, because we could hardly believe that our dream apartment was available and we know how hard it is to find a place. Any place! Much less a place where we can see ourselves being happy.
The new building has a long list of strict rules. A lot of them are subjective decisions about quality of life and noise level. When we walked in from the street and the lobby door shut behind us, it was like entering a walled garden. Middle of the afternoon on a summer weekend, and it was hushed. Most of the tenants (and owners) are middle-aged professionals like us. We’ll be on the top floor, no neighbors stomping overhead unless Santa comes early.
This rushed and complicated move is a sign of privilege, and it’s also a sign that I’ve done this a lot and I know how to make it happen. We save half our income (or at least we did over the last couple of years), so we can afford to overlap rent by a couple of weeks and pay for a half-day with professional movers. (It’s just under $500 if you want to know). We passed the credit check, also the result of ten years of frugal marriage.
Mostly, we can pull off a quick and complicated move because we hardly own any stuff! The less space you take up, with every hundred square feet below 1200, the easier it is to find a place. If you can get below 800 square feet, you can live in most places in the world, many of them with a better view than you have today.
*** Extra complication ***
Jurisdictional dispute between the city and state transportation department, still figuring out exactly who can issue the parking permit for the moving van
*** a learning extravaganza! ***
It’s that time again, time to move! We’ve been eating up what we have on hand, and this has led to some interesting revelations. What are we doing when we’re coasting along in default mode, and how does it compare to what we would rather claim to be doing on some sort of survey?
Our freezer is almost completely empty right now. We decided to get ready to move immediately after coming home from vacation, when we hadn’t been shopping yet. That was the first disruption. HALT! Eat what we have and try to avoid bringing home anything new.
The second disruption happened when I also skipped my occasional “stocking up” trips. One of our frugality tricks is to wait until certain staples go on sale, and then buy as much as we can fit. Since we haven’t had a pantry for the past couple of years, this means freezer stuff. It keeps, it’s at eye level, and it’s a very limited space, so we know we can’t overdo it.
This would definitely be the point when I would plan to fill up the freezer with entrees to last 1-2 weeks.
The third disruption was when we noticed we were running out of oatmeal and declined to go to Costco. There is truly no point to going to a warehouse store immediately before loading a moving van, especially when you plan to live closer to said warehouse store afterward.
As with any area of complexity, there are multiple inputs here, all with different causes and all with different effects.
As our freezer has gradually and steadily emptied out, it is becoming apparent that I harbor some major fantasies about leisurely hot breakfasts. Now more than half of what is left in there consists of breakfast foods. That does sort of solve the low oatmeal reserve problem.
It has also become apparent that we tend to eat certain foods more quickly than others, and some orphans have been hanging around. I discovered, much to my surprise, that there are two containers of homemade soup in the freezer, and one of a special katsu sauce that I batch-cook because it is incredibly messy.
This makes it theoretically possible to eat an actual “home-cooked” meal in our new place the very night we move in!
Something else came up in the surprise pantry assessment. My hubby found my carefully hidden, freezer-burned non-dairy chocolate brownie ice cream. It’s probably been in there, what month is it? Six months or more? It was under my stash of vegan white chocolate chips from New Year’s Eve 2017.
Yes, it’s true, no matter what I eat or claim to eat, I always have a stash of dessert foods hidden away somewhere. Twenty-five years ago it was a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies in the back of my desk drawer, kept at work so I wouldn’t have to share with my boyfriend. Now it’s - well, it’s whatever I feel like - considerately hidden from my abstainer husband.
Abstainers have to avoid temptations entirely, because otherwise they will immediately cave in. Moderators like me prefer to have the temptation on hand, just to know it’s there, like a fire extinguisher. It’s just as unfair for me to prominently display treats around my husband as it is unfair for him to require me not to keep any in the house.
I learned to be a moderator from my dad, incidentally. He would get three Cadbury chocolate bars for Christmas, one plain, one with dried fruit, and one with nuts. They lived in a desk drawer next to his favorite chair. Sometimes, while reading a book, he would unwrap one of these, snap off one rectangle, and nibble at it. Just one. Not every day. Those chocolate bars - you can imagine how I knew, a little kid staring at candy - would last him for months. I learned to associate moderation with higher-quality candy! That’s probably why, in our fruit bowl, I still have a few pieces of candy left over from Halloween, over nine months ago.
What else do we have in our pantry, now that we’re aiming for nothing?
A dozen or so jars of homemade soup stock, canned four years ago when we had a much larger kitchen. Likewise home-grown and canned tomatoes and collard greens. Are we going to cook from scratch more when we move to a new place and have a conventional kitchen again?
A few different kinds of flours and sweeteners, kept in the fridge for lack of space. Again, bought when we had a bigger kitchen and more counter space for baking. Are we going to do more of that, or are we wasting money by buying more than we use?
Condiments, so many condiments. We seem to keep accumulating mustards and capers and barbecue sauce and salad dressings, no matter where we live or what we’re doing. At least they are current, since we definitely started from zero when we moved to this region.
Behavioral research indicates that moving is the best time to start new habits. Thinking about when we first moved to this apartment, things have been different. We’ve eaten a lot more prepared foods and we’ve done very little cooking. We’re fitter, though, because we started taking classes at a gym instead of leaving our workouts up to fate. We used to alternate which one of us cooked, but it’s been very haphazard in this tiny studio kitchen.
Now what we want to do is to set careful intentions about our new place, because if we don’t, we will certainly fall into default behavior. We’ll have our first grocery shopping trip to fill up our ghostly, echoing fridge. What’s going in the basket? What will we bring home, what will we cook, what will we eat?
Most importantly, where will I hide my treats?
We’re moving again. When? I dunno. I just know that this is not the place where we are going to retire. Our lease is up this fall and I want to go sooner rather than later. This is the method that I use when I want to shake things up a bit.
Most people don’t plan their moves. In my experience, this is one of THE most commonly procrastinated human activities. I know it because when I do home visits, there are universally always boxes still sealed from the last move, often many years in the past. Nothing personal. People just suck at moving.
One thing I know is true. If something stays sealed in a box, then nobody needs it.
If they did, they would have found it and opened the box and gotten it out.
I’ve moved, I think, 27 times as an adult. Add to that all the people who I have helped pack or move or unpack, and all the clients I have helped do space clearing years after the fact. It’s a lot.
Working with hoarders has been a great refresher for me. Every single time I come home from a home visit, I get rid of another bag of stuff. I even start thinking about my own belongings while I’m still on site. Why do I have so many books I haven’t read? Why do I insist on keeping certain garments even when they’re threadbare and it drives my husband nuts to see me wearing them?
I don’t have much as a general rule, because I formally downsize on a regular basis. Even so, I’ve found that moving requires a culling both before and after a move. First there’s all the stuff you shouldn’t pack in the first place, like empty paper sacks, and then there’s all the stuff that won’t work in the new place, like furniture that won’t fit.
The difference between me and most people is that I actually DO the work that should be done here. I actually DO go through my stuff and get rid of a bunch of things before we move. Then I DO go through it the second time while I’m unpacking.
This has been made easier by our tenuous existence inside of a 612-square-foot studio apartment over a year and a half.
When we first moved into this unit, we had three boxes left over that had nowhere to go. It was mostly pantry food (and, as it turns out, the sewing machine). I had them stacked up next to our dining chairs, and they were unbelievably annoying.
Too stubborn to throw them away, though!
(Many types of food can’t be donated to the food bank, such as flour in a canister, homemade soup stock, or anything in a container that has been opened).
I finally managed to unpack those last three boxes one day while my husband was at work. Let me tell you, he noticed the moment he walked in the door.
It’s easy to be a minimalist in a normal-sized suburban home. That’s because they tend to have tons of closets and cabinets, and you can hide all your stuff.
In a studio where almost all the available storage is on open shelving, suddenly you don’t look like such a minimalist any more! Anyone who comes over and uses our bathroom is going to get a view of our closet, with almost all our worldly goods, not to mention our laundry hampers.
I’m determined to get ready to move, and I want the unpacking process to be even easier than it was last time.
The last time we moved, I unpacked a lot of stuff as we went. We had a friend - a truly amazing person to whom we owe a major debt - come over and help us hand-carry our stuff from one building in our apartment complex to another. Every time I would bring over a load, I would put it where it belonged, starting with the shower and the fridge. By the time we finished late that night, the bathroom was completely unpacked, the bed was made, all our clothes were set up, and the kitchen was half done. We were able to get up the next morning, shower, dress, and make breakfast like nothing had happened.
The main area where I’m focusing as I manifest our next relocation is the kitchen. I’m planning around eating up everything in our fridge and freezer, including condiments. This means the only grocery shopping we’ll really be doing is to buy fresh vegetables. I always wonder how we wind up with so many different flavors of mustard and salad dressing, and that continues to be a question that will probably never be solved.
Doing the closet is a fairly quick job. It takes my husband ten minutes because he’s all about the capsule wardrobe. It will probably take me more like an hour. Then maybe a half hour for the bathroom cabinets.
The other big challenges are our paper file box and the books.
At some point in our relationship, I seem to have passed the baton of book collecting to my hubby. Almost all my reading is digital these days, while he has been doing an unprecedented amount of business travel, which generates a lot of paperback books. Books add bulk and weight to the moving boxes more quickly than anything except clothes, so it’s worth putting in extra focus here.
As for papers, we try to be paper-free as much as possible, yet still they tend to accumulate. I keep hoping that one day we can scan and shred what’s left and be done with it entirely. Papers tend to take the most concentration, and the more they pile up, the harder the job is. That’s why I insist that we purge the file box every year. I refuse to spend more than an hour at a time on this odious task.
I’ll do an inventory of household cleansers and all the random boxes, bags, and bottles that our pets generate.
This time, we’re hiring professional movers again, at my husband’s insistence. I know the job will be easier for them if everything is orderly and streamlined when they arrive. I also know they’re going to unpack in the most random way possible, so the less we have, the better.
Watch this space as I demonstrate how quickly I can manifest a nicer apartment, or maybe even a house!
I shouldn’t read horror stories in bed late at night, and I know this, but I do it anyway. It’s easier when I have my big strong husband lying next to me. I can usually tell myself “it’s just make-believe,” except for when it isn’t. This time, the story was so scary that I had to share it.
The nightmare that was real? The Wall Street Journal feature of August 1, 2019, “Families Go Deep In Debt to Stay in the Middle Class.”
The subtitle of this piece says a lot for two Gen X people like us. “Wages stalled but costs haven’t, so people increasingly rent or finance what their parents might have owned outright.”
My hubby and I both were raised by frugal Boomer parents. He grew up in a small town that didn’t have a movie theater, shopping mall, or fast food. My parents didn’t get a credit card until I was 14. I was in my twenties the first time they bought a new vehicle from a car lot. We probably have our parents to thank for the fact that we are debt-free and saving half our income today.
This is why we both had an issue with the WSJ article.
To start, we know the economy is hosed. That’s why we save so much. We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop and for another market correction/recession to happen. We know that incomes have flatlined and that almost nobody can “afford” housing or healthcare. We’re blaming broader historical currents, not individuals.
There is still room for an individual (person, couple, or family) to buck trends and behave unusually, to live a radically different lifestyle and thus get radically different results.
Default behavior gets default results.
The WSJ article starts by comparing income and various categories of consumer spending and debt since 1987. Then it brings in three couples and shares details of their household budgets. All of them are younger than we are, and it would certainly be interesting to follow up in 10-15 years and see how they are doing.
Otherwise we risk sounding like grumpy old codgers...
The first couple are both 28, they own a home and two cars, and they have a baby. The article includes pictures of them in their home, and my first thought was, Wow, I wish our furniture was that nice! At age 28, I had a college degree, but no dreams of home ownership. I had never owned a car and in fact I still didn’t have my driver’s license.
That’s the difference. I had no expectations of living a middle-class lifestyle in my twenties. My parents didn’t, so why would I think I could?
Blue-collar kids don’t live in that world.
When I told my family I was going back to school, they challenged me and suggested that I become an electrician instead. My brothers invited me to their company picnic, intending to play matchmaker and find me a husband. Nobody in my acquaintance thought that I would graduate into student loan debt and magically be able to afford a home loan and a car.
The no-college plan is a solid plan indeed. Both of my (younger) brothers will retire comfortably in their fifties, debt-free, with their houses paid off. Consider commercial construction and encourage your kids to become apprentice carpenters.
I didn’t go that route. I went into debt to get a history degree at a state school.
Plan A was to pay off my loans and then save for a house. I had paid one of them off six years early and was working on the other when I met my husband. That was when we rejected the idea of home ownership, and eventually the idea of car ownership as well.
He had just started paying alimony and child support. We understood that we could choose either to own a house and a car OR to fund our retirement.
The more research we did, the more it confirmed our sense that home ownership is a luxury and that the game is structured in favor of the bank, not us. Where we live, renting and investing the difference offers a much higher rate of return than the supposed appreciation on a house.
In the 2.5 years since we sold our car and downsized into a studio apartment, our investment portfolio has gained two hundred thousand dollars.
A single-family house in most markets is highly unlikely to appreciate at that rate.
In the same timeframe, my husband has begun applying for patents and is currently working on his fourth. He didn’t have the time when we lived in a suburban house, with its constant lawn mowing, yard maintenance, and repairs. The WSJ article doesn’t talk about being on the hook for roofing, windows, plumbing, electrical problems, pest control, remodels, or fun stuff like collapsing chimneys and cracked or shifting foundations - that’s a whole separate article. The effect of home ownership on mental bandwidth is non-trivial.
Granted, most people are not aerospace engineers and their lawn care does not compete with their invention time. Most people would not be willing to get rid of 80% of their stuff and live in a studio apartment just to save money for retirement. Most people are demonstrably unwilling to live car-free and ride the bus to work, even if it saves them $8000 a year.
The WSJ article includes couples who ran up $50,000 in credit card debt, make minimum payments on store cards for retailers that sell little more than clothing and home decor items, go further into debt to attend weddings, take out dual car loans after a reduction in income, and, unbelievably, cash out a pension to pay off a credit card balance. My husband and I were so astonished by each and every one of these choices that we grimaced and made flailing hand gestures as we read.
What freaked us out the most was the line about someone being “forced... to borrow more” because of a wrecked car. Forced?
We would describe it more as “took out a loan for a second vehicle because it never crossed their minds that two married people can share one car, save in advance, ride a bicycle or take the bus for a few months, move to a smaller/cheaper place closer to work, trade/barter to carpool for a while, or make do with an old beater.”
What we would have liked to see in this WSJ article was a counterpoint, the voice of a certified financial planner, or someone who paid off a large quantity of debt in a short period of time, or someone from the FIRE community. Maybe one of each?
What we’d like to see is empowerment. We cringe to think of young couples and families drowning in debt, fighting or crying about money. We’ve certainly both been broke, both had cancer scares, both been unemployed and unclear about when we’d be gainfully employed again, both been divorced after marrying a secret spender, both struggled and counted pennies. Neither of us were born into the middle class. We put into practice the arcane guild knowledge of frugality that we learned from our economic stratum.
Is it possible to enter the middle class or the upper middle class as a 21st century American? Sure, yes, we’ve both done it from the downlow. Is it possible to do this with a handful of credit cards, a traditional mortgage, and a couple of car loans? Probably not. Proceed accordingly.
Passion is overrated. This is the message of The Passion Paradox. This research-based book helps to distinguish between different types of passion, positive and negative, which is something that pop culture could really use right now. We can thank Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness for offering a message that is much more nuanced and interesting than a million memes and fridge magnets.
The term ‘passion’ originally had dark and religious meanings. It wasn’t a feeling that people would associate with a dream job, say, or interior design. Passion was (and probably still is) a form of suffering, just as nostalgia was considered an illness. I can tell you, as a person afflicted with a lifelong passion for birdwatching, that I do sometimes question why I am bushwhacking through brambles and waist-high weeds just to look at a bird for a few minutes.
Dopamine, that’s why. There are biological reasons why some people are ‘passionate’ and others less so. There are also psychological roots, and passion can lead to obsession and addiction. Whatever else it does, passion does not guarantee a path to happiness; it’s not comfortable.
Two ways that the search for passion can mess us up are the destiny belief of love and the fit mind-set of passion. The first is the belief in “soulmates” rather than that relationships take work, and the second is a sense that there is a “dream job” out there for everyone. These beliefs convince us that any difficulty, awkwardness, or less-than-perfect feelings mean a job or relationship aren’t right for us. This in turn can lead us to quit rather than putting in any effort, meaning we destroy our own chances at happiness before they have a chance to get anywhere.
The Passion Paradox does more than identify problems with our pop culture perception of passion. This book teaches ways to deal with hedonic adaptation and fear of failure. Unexpectedly, it suggests that we seek out ways to experience awe and develop a greater perspective. It also encourages enhancing our self-awareness. Ultimately, we can incorporate a health and balanced passion into our very identity.
Everyone tells us to find our passion but no one tells us how to find it, let alone how to live with it.
After a massive achievement or a devastating failure, getting back to work serves as an embodied reminder that external results aren’t why you are in this.
Be most intent not on winning or losing, but on becoming better—stronger, kinder, and wiser—than your past self.
You simply cannot be deeply passionate and balanced in combination.
I went to a travel workshop once. The presenter asked everyone to raise their hands:
“Who likes the window seat?” Half the hands went up.
“Who likes the aisle seat?” The other half of the hands went up.
“Who likes the middle seat?” My hand went up.
Everyone looked around and laughed. I shrugged. What can I say? I’m the middle seat lady.
This is part of the secret to happiness. Know who you are and know what you want, then go for it. I have a long history of admitting my weird preferences to people, such as the fact that I don’t like coffee. Usually my weird preference makes life easier for other people in some way, so why not just own up to it?
Okay, so why do I like the middle seat?
It’s mostly process of elimination. First off, I hate the aisle seat. The aisle seat is the absolute worst. Whether it’s on an airplane, a train, or a bus, the aisle seat is the target of every swinging strap and elbow and passing cart. Not just during boarding, which would be bad enough. The entire duration of the trip.
I’ve been hit in the face with so many strap ends, I can’t even say. Once, the zipper on someone’s jacket swung out and actually cut my forehead and drew a line of blood.
In the middle seat, you’re still somewhat vulnerable when people drag massive, heavy bags out of the overhead bin. They’re much less likely to fall on on your head than they are for the poor, long-suffering aisle seat person.
Why not the window seat, then?
For many years, I was a white-knuckle nervous flyer. I wanted no part of being anywhere near the window. It also seemed fair and just that a person who loves looking out the window should sit there, instead of me. I’ve been flying since I was seven years old and I’ve spent many hours looking out of an airplane window. I’ve had my turn. I’m busy reading, anyway.
Ah, but there are things I dislike about the window seat as well. First, I feel trapped. If I need to get up to use the restroom, I have to ask two people to get up, and then disrupt them again when it’s time to come back. Second, I’m the person in control of the window shade, which means I’m often asked to raise or lower it. Third, I feel like the window seat is colder?
The worst part about the window seat, though, is that the person in the seat behind often seems to have a thing about putting THEIR FOOT up in the crack and propping it up on the arm rest.
MY arm rest.
Is there a handbook that indicates to uncouth people a list of fun things to do on planes? Is one of those things sticking a dirty bare foot through a crack into someone else’s lawfully bought and paid-for seat space?
My main goal in life is to not have to have embarrassing confrontations with people, partly because some of them are psycho. It’s not my job. I don’t run a kindergarten and I shouldn’t have to ask someone to put their foot back on the floor where it belongs. I also shouldn’t have to ask a flight attendant, who certainly has better things to do and has also seen worse.
You’d think it was just me. You’d think I was making it up. You’d think it had only happened once. Now, though, thanks to social media, we can explore entire photo albums together of other people documenting the same phenomenon with their cameras.
FOOT INTRUSION. IT’S REAL!
Speaking of arm rests, one of the perks of the middle seat is that people generally feel sorry for the middle seat person and allow them (me) to use both arm rests. I’m short and I have long upper arms, so this works out pretty well. It makes it pretty straightforward for me to sit quietly and read my book.
The last time I flew, though, I sat between two large men, both of whom used both of their arm rests. Like I wasn’t even there. Like I’m just a bit of foam packaging material to keep them from brushing against each other.
My powers of invisibility are usually useful. It can be emotional, though, when another passenger is... on me. Like, squishing half my thigh under their body and refusing to acknowledge it. Come on. What if we were both big, then what would happen? Just because I don’t use 100% of my space, the space I bought for the same price that you bought yours, does not mean I get 65% and you get the rest. Also, you are literally treating me like a piece of furniture.
Maybe one day airlines or space ships will go with individual pods, like in Alien.
I still think the middle seat is the best. Safe from the barrage of arms and luggage coming at the aisle seat person, safe from carts bashing into one’s funny bone. Relatively able to come and go at will, unlike the window seat person with the dirty foot prodding at them from behind.
One of the strangest aspects of the middle seat is that when there are unassigned seats, people will flag you down. On more than one occasion, I have been cruising down the aisle looking for a nice middle seat when I’ve been waved down. “You can sit with us!” As a small person with a small bag, I’m a good bargain. A married couple once explained to me in great detail that she likes the window seat and he likes the aisle, so they seek out small people like me to sit between them.
She’s portable, she’s unobtrusive, she comes with only a few curated accessories, she’s streamlined, she’s... Middle Seat Lady!
I'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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