Once a year I write about something morbid, and that day is Halloween. Every spiritual tradition has beliefs about acknowledging our mortality in order to appreciate the life that we have today. I have always found this to be both comforting and inspirational, so I am making the most of the opportunity. Previously I have written about being a full-body donor and writing your advance care directive.
This year I’d like to ask you to consider making an escape plan.
Several of my friends in different parts of California have had to evacuate their homes due to wildfire, both within the last month and over the last few years. To us this is a daily reality, and much more so in October. One of my close friends is currently changing AirBnB’s every ten days because her house burned up, and that was an ordinary house fire, not even a natural disaster. They had to put her little kitties on oxygen and they barely made it.
A football field every three seconds. That’s how fast these fires move.
To make matters worse, a lot of people wind up with no power before the fire reaches their area. There have been situations when they did not receive evacuation alerts, because:
Nobody has a landline
No electricity = no wifi
No wifi = no cell service (for a lot of us)
No cell service = no calls
The first they know that they need to run for their actual lives, it’s when police cruise down their street yelling out of a bullhorn, even though they assume that sector has already been cleared. A mere formality, but a smart one born of experience.
Have you ever had a firefighter beat his fist on your front door because your apartment complex is on fire? I have.
I was sleeping on an air mattress only ten feet from the door, and I didn’t hear it. I have sleep issues, and even as a kid in grade school I couldn’t guarantee to you that anything will wake me up. This includes having popcorn dropped into my slack sleeping mouth. Fortunately my entire family was home and someone was able to physically drag me out of bed and haul me to my feet. WAKE UP!
Wake up. It’s time to get ready.
We know neither the day nor the hour. That means our time could come tonight.
We’re not really sure yet what we would do if a fire comes to our new place. There are a lot of factors in play.
1/3 chance it would happen while we are sleeping (8 hours out of 24)
5/7 chance that if it happens during the day, my husband will be at work several miles away
Non-zero chance he will be on business travel or airborne in a plane
It’s statistically unlikely that we would be in the same building when the snit hits the fan. Therefore we have to have a plan for how to find each other, and that plan has to assume that phones and internet are down across our region.
There are two other confounding factors for our household. They may or may not apply to yours.
We have two pets
We live on the top floor of a pretty big apartment building.
I’ve practiced putting on my go bag, getting my animals out of their crates, and getting them out of the door. My husband says “you could get out of here in one minute” but I know better. Even without smoke, it’s a bit complicated. Get a flapping, panicking parrot into a box and then clip a leash onto a struggling, wriggling dog.
Next step. I have to choose between either the elevator (BAD IDEA), three flights of stairs with three doors, or trying to lower everyone out of a fourth-floor window. Um...?
There are other natural disasters that might come for us besides fire. Tsunami? This is the only one where living on the top floor is actually an advantage. Earthquake? You feel it more on the top floor, but we will probably be fine unless it’s well above a 6.0. Our building is old enough to have been through a few rumbles. Fire is the one that demands quick thinking and preparedness.
Plan A is just to stay put. Chances are that we’ll be fine and so will our neighborhood. We don’t need to be blocking the roads or getting in the way of emergency services if it isn’t necessary.
Plan B, I stay put and my husband tries to get home to me. In a rough scenario, if he had to walk in bad conditions, it could take three hours, assuming a walking speed of one mile per hour. He is a certified emergency medical responder, so if he was late I would assume he was helping other people.
Plan C, I take our animals to the nearest Red Cross shelter and he has to figure out where that is.
If we can’t get through to each other by phone, we can call each other’s parents. If we can’t do that, we can find internet somehow and send each other email. If we can’t do that, I have index cards, pens, and masking tape in my go bag. If I have to leave, hopefully I have an extra 60 seconds to tape a note on the door before we go.
Everything we own can burn. It’s okay. We can always replace our passports and those are the only really important physical possessions we have. I would walk without a second thought. I need the time to be able to help my neighbors, not save my... what? Leftovers out of my fridge? Socks?
To be able to keep our heads clear in a crisis, we have to practice. We have to understand on a gut level that “losing everything” is just stuff. We have to get ourselves out because if we dawdle and try to lug a bunch of suitcases, an emergency responder might die trying to come after us.
We have to GET OUT and we have to do it on our own.
Please, after all the costumes and decorations have been put away and all the candy has been eaten, please extend your role-playing just a bit longer. Take a few moments to visualize how you are going to get yourself and your household OUT OF THE HOUSE in case of emergency. Especially if you have kids. Draw pictures. Set a timer and practice. Make sure all your doorways and hallways are clear. Make sure you and yours can get out if you need to.
Oh, it’s happening. It’s going down. I’ve got my Halloween costume and my bags of candy and my full game-day agenda.
What, for the kids? What kids?
Oh no no no. This candy is for ME.
Candy isn’t good for little kids. Why would I give it to THEM?
I look forward to this day all year long. It’s the ultimate cheat day. I’ve spent enough years waiting around all night with twenty dollars’ worth of candy only to have two kids knock on my door. If they want candy they can go to the fire station down the street.
One year I waited around to hand out candy. I wore a plain black cotton dress and I took a strand of my roommate’s fake cobwebs and stretched it into a shawl. Some kids knocked on my door and I gave them each a handful of candy.
“You’re scaring us,” said one little boy.
What, in this? I don’t even have scary makeup on. You should see what I wear on laundry day. Or is this about having to talk to a childless woman?
Hey, it’s not my fault you had kids, don’t blame me. I wasn’t there.
Anyway. Back to my candy.
I really don’t eat candy most of the time. Usually it’s too sweet, and a lot of it is just gross. For instance, I am not a fan of gummy candy or Swedish fish or any of that nonsense. Chocolate doesn’t impress me and I don’t like sour flavors. I also tend to hoard a bag and want to nibble at it over months, but at that point even peppermint candies have started to dissolve. Either it goes in the freezer or it goes in your mouth, right?
Planning a single day for major candy consumption requires forethought and planning. Over time, I’ve probably spent more brainpower thinking about my Halloween candy than I did in planning for my marathon.
For instance, I’m not very well going to be mixing peanut butter cups with fruity candy, am I? There are rules about these things.
Last year, I spent a month accumulating and organizing my candy. Then I ate only a small part of it on Halloween. I still had some of it six months later and my husband made fun of me.
I’ve decided that instead I should just splurge and choose one flavor. Eat as much as I want on Halloween, and then I’m done.
People tend to associate “willpower” and “self-control” with this kind of behavior. That’s inaccurate. First of all, I have no willpower. That’s the entire point of this exercise. Second, it’s not self-control if you just don’t like something. I’m sure everyone can easily think of something they don’t want to eat.
Cold greasy fries
I eat oatmeal every day for breakfast and I get “eww gross” commentary about that all the time. Basically anything with dietary fiber goes on most people’s yucky list, and that’s why 95% of Americans don’t get enough of it.
Ask yourself, does it take willpower or self-control to not eat things you think are gross? No it does not.
And you know what’s gross to me?
That’s my name for the feeling I get the day after I eat a bunch of candy. Actually sometimes it’s the same day.
A sour, stale, thoroughly non-delicious feeling.
Halloween mouth is the reason I don’t go crazy eating candy all the time. I have a vivid memory of the consequences that I refresh every year.
There are similar reasons why I don’t eat certain other foods. Fast food french fries tear up the roof of my mouth. I’ve cut my lip on corn chips. Popcorn bothers my gums. Pop Tarts, on the other hand, are simply nasty. Some foods I have thought were gross beyond words since childhood. Even as a kid I didn't like syrup, marshmallows, or popsicles.
I’m allowed not to eat things, especially when those things are treats that other people are delighted to have. Someone else always drinks “my” beer on race day, because why would I want to punish myself after all that training by drinking a beer?? Of all things???
Yes, I like candy, sometimes. It’s available to me literally twenty-four hours a day, every single day. It’s small and portable and a lot of people give it away for free, like at our veterinary office. If you plan your route you can get free candy every day and you don’t even have to say Trick or Treat, or ask anyone to smell your feet, although I suppose they might at the podiatrist.
For these reasons, I don’t need to feel scarcity around candy. Just like any other snack or dessert food, if I wake up at 4 AM with a craving, I can walk across the street and satisfy it. I can order it and have it delivered. I could keep it in my kitchen all the time, although that isn’t really fair to my husband.
A lot of people will eat whatever is in front of them, and eat it until it’s gone. I’m not like that because my memory is too good. I remember that while I *have* eaten an entire large pizza, or a family-size bag of chips, or a pound of candy, I didn't like how it felt afterward. Why do that when it’s actually better to have just the right amount? It’s not like pizza is canceled after tomorrow.
That’s why on Halloween I eat all the candy I want. I know at a certain point I’m going to go “You know what? Bleah” and seal the bag. As a child I was rationed to two pieces of Halloween candy a day, and that made it last until Easter, when, guess what? More candy!
My fun and holiday indulgences are not limited by availability, by cost, by tradition or by social pressure. I could literally have a piece of candy in my mouth every waking moment, and nobody would say anything, unless maybe I happened to be meeting the Pope. It is completely up to me to decide what I think is fun and how I like to celebrate. My limiting factor here is Halloween mouth. I respect my natural limits, and that allows me do whatever I want, all the time.
Minus the ghosts, there are some common images that suggest a haunted house, and you can spot them in any neighborhood. An overgrown yard with a dead lawn choked with weeds. Chipped and peeling paint. Windows with constantly closed curtains, blinds, or shutters. Nothing about such a home says Welcome, friends and neighbors! But a house doesn’t have to be haunted to look like that.
Houses are much more likely to be haunted by bad memories and a feeling of being trapped in the past.
Houses can also be haunted by power struggles, shame, constant fights, or occupants who have nothing to say to one another.
Myself, I wouldn’t mind a ghost so much. What’s it going to do, whisper in my ear at night or write on a foggy mirror? Leave my cabinets open? Pfft. I had student loans for twelve years so nothing scares me now. I’d much rather live in a house that WAS haunted or LOOKED haunted than in one that merely felt that way.
We do it to ourselves as often as not.
When I do clutter work during home visits, I almost always come across haunted relics. A sheaf of love letters, never mind the terrible breakups that followed. Random junk left behind by that roommate who left without paying the rent. Swag from every former job, especially the worst ones. Paperwork from...from everything:
Benefits folders from a decade ago
Collections letters from three years ago
Credit card statements from *gulp* today
Negative performance reviews
Scary medical reports
One of my very first space clearing jobs included an entire box of parking tickets, paid long ago, but there they were. An adult career woman carrying the guilt of a busy college student’s ancient mistakes.
We punish ourselves by keeping constant reminders of the worst moments of our lives. We don’t usually even realize we’re doing it. Either we’ve completely forgotten this stuff is hanging around, we have no memory of it, we’ve buried it in harmless junk mail, or we are avoiding it.
We know it’s there, we think about it constantly, and yet we can’t bear to face it or deal with it.
That right there. That’s the feeling of being haunted by your own stuff.
There is another category of stuff that haunts us, and that is the category of grief clutter. This is the hardest clutter of all to clear, and in fact I’ve failed at it every time. When the subject comes up, I tell people that I have no idea what to do about it. I have no suggestions. I don’t know what to say because nothing I have said has ever done any good.
In the worst example of this that I have yet seen, the surviving daughter sat on one couch cushion every night, because the rest of the couch had boxes on it. Both her parents had passed away, and she had ALL of their worldly goods packed in boxes, stacked four feet high, completely packing her home. Only a narrow goat path was available from the front door to the bathroom, the bedroom door, and the kitchen. You had to turn sideways. The bedroom was full, too.
She lived in a monument to the dead.
This impulse is universal. Death turns the survivors crazy, at least temporarily. Siblings will cut each other off for life. Entire extended families will disintegrate, just when they need each other the most. All that’s left is the stuff.
Hairbrushes with hair still in them
Prescription bottles on the nightstand
Old worn-out slippers
Every single stupid pot-holder and fridge magnet
We believe that these objects hold our memories, and so we turn them into horcruxes. It’s not a baking dish, it’s my childhood! We’ll drive ourselves to penury paying for storage units to hold stuff we don’t need, because we have no appropriate ceremony for letting it go.
It’s harder when it’s the residue of multiple lives. I know someone who moved into a family home hoarded up with at least two generations of grief clutter. The grandparents died, and the parents never dealt with it their entire lives, and then they died, and guess what. Pass the buck.
What I’d like when I go is a park bench, or ideally an entire park. I want my memorial to be a place where friends sit and talk together, where young people fall in love (or old people for that matter), where kids climb on and off their parents’ laps. I do NOT, for the love of all that is holy, want my memorial to be a bunch of boxes filled with my old clothes and dishes. Ugh.
One of my biggest fears is that this will happen, that nobody will throw out my old socks or my toothbrush and my spirit will be caught in purgatory for an extra generation.
It’s the time of the year to think about this stuff, how there is a time for every purpose and how the seasons come and go. We’re here for just a little minute, and then we’re gone. Why, then, does our old stuff hang around for so long?
Thinking of grief clutter, we can use that energy for some positive procrastination. We simply pretend that it’s finally time to deal with all those boxes, and then instead we find ourselves sorting through our own haunted junk. The clothes that we quit wearing because they remind us of a bad incident. The broken ornament or decoration that we can’t make ourselves throw out. The dead houseplants. The papers!
Unhaunting your house is getting rid of anything that serves only to hold bad memories. If even thinking about it makes you feel sad, guilty, or depressed, why do you have it? Because you’d have to look at it again as you were trashing it?
Unhaunt your house and do it soon. Maybe there’s a bonfire coming up and you can burn a bunch of your old papers and photos, like I did with my old wedding album. What if your house was clear, and only for the living, and facing toward the future rather than the past?
Allow me to introduce myself. I’m a freshly minted Distinguished Toastmaster, and four years ago anyone, including myself, would have voted me Least Likely to Be. I’ve been shy all my life, and I began this project with overwhelming stage fright and a deep dread of public speaking. I’m sharing my experience because truly, if I can do this, anyone can.
Let me give a brief explanation of what a Distinguished Toastmaster, or DTM, represents. It is an award for communication and leadership offered by Toastmasters International, which is a nonpartisan, secular, nonprofit public speaking club.
You should totally join!
The DTM is like the black belt or Eagle Scout of our organization. There are lots of other awards, but this is the biggie. Fewer than one percent of everyone who joins eventually reaches this designation.
On average, it takes most people 8-10 years to complete a DTM. With careful planning and a good mentor, it can be done in two years, depending on what time of year you sign up and assuming someone will accept you as a club officer shortly after you join. The fact that I did it in three and a half years is not all that amazing by timeline; it’s really about how I was able to make such a dramatic change that quickly.
Most people aren’t all that into spending their free time confronting their terrors.
When I stood up in a group, I could barely get my mouth open. Not just my voice would shake but my entire body. I almost collapsed once after speaking for 30 seconds. I would choke up and turn purple. My heart would hammer in my chest. The tremor in my hands would last for ten or fifteen minutes after I finished, long after the lectern had been yielded to other speakers.
After two months, I told my husband I was quitting. I would feel ill from the moment I woke up each Wednesday morning. Emotionally it was easier, a couple years later, to go into my Krav Maga classes and get put into chokeholds or punched in the mouth. I HATED SPEAKING SO SO MUCH. I mean, it was awful! I couldn’t bear it.
He asked me why I would quit and reminded me that I always want to quit things right before they start working. Good point.
I couldn’t have asked for more from my club. I had no idea how fortunate I was to live within a short walk from one of the highest-performing clubs in my region. All the people I met were unfailingly sweet and welcoming to me, and I’m proud to count several of them as close friends today. Drive-two-hours-to-hang-out friends. Follow-through friends. If I’d bumbled into a different room and been assigned a different mentor, I probably wouldn’t have made it.
Things started happening in there. People responded to my speeches. They asked questions. They laughed. They remembered what I had talked about months later. They talked me into doing standup comedy. They started voting me Best Speaker. Like, a lot.
I was invited to be vice president. Nothing could have surprised me more, until a year later when I was chosen to be an area director. And THEN I was asked to apply to be a division director, and I was nominated unanimously by the selection committee, and I won a contested election.
HOW DID THIS EVEN HAPPEN?
Inside I still feel like the gawky wallflower trying to hide in the curtains.
My self-image has been all over the place in this process. I went into the room trembling, knowing myself to be shy, painfully awkward, and boring. Somehow along the way I was convinced that nobody could see my hands shaking, I looked and sounded just fine, and in fact I was... interesting and funny.
I’ve seen the same thing happen with others. A couple of times a year, someone will come in who reminds me of myself. Unfailingly they describe themselves as being terrible at speaking. They worry about how visibly nervous they look. They think they’re boring or they have nothing to say. Yet they get up there and they have this charisma that is obvious to everyone except themselves.
Evaluation is the one thing we can’t do for ourselves.
Over and over again, a guest will come to a meeting for the first time. Often, they’re willing to stand up and do a one-minute improvisational speech, part of the game we call Table Topics. Over and over again, they’ll win a ribbon, and they won't believe it. “It’s a democratic process,” I tell them. “You have to accept that everyone voted and you legitimately won.”
That’s what I like the best. I like coaxing people to see themselves as something more, showing them that, objectively, everyone else in the world sees them as interesting and worthy of their attention. I love watching a stammering, quaking wreck like myself blossom into a confident entertainer. Together we shall rid the world of boring speeches, rambling stories, terrible wedding toasts, and unproductive meetings! AH ha ha ha hahahaha!
What I was given by my friends, I happily pass on to others: the gift of being seen and being heard. In exchange I receive the infinite gift of story. Week after week, I am surprised, delighted, informed, entertained, and often moved to tears by stories I wouldn’t hear anywhere else. It’s taught me that even the most ordinary-seeming people can have tidal waves of talent and the most fascinating lives imaginable.
Even more than I’ve learned to speak well, I’ve learned to listen well. Stories are what bring us together. Storytelling doesn’t just make the world go around, it built civilization and language itself. I’ll never get enough of it and that’s what keeps me coming back.
I never thought of myself as a speaker or a leader. I’ll rephrase that. I NEVER thought of myself, of all people, as a speaker or a leader. I only came to confront one of my worst fears. I didn’t think I’d ever actually be any good at it! Now I love what I once hated and dreaded, like a stray puppy being adopted by the city dog catcher.
Where there is resistance there is great power, hidden power. It wouldn’t bother us if it didn’t mean something to us, if it didn’t resonate on some deep level. I encourage you, if you’ve ever felt like me and wanted to run screaming from a microphone, to do something about it. You don’t have to carry that feeling forever. If you can make yourself get up and speak for one minute a hundred times, you can be free. I got my DTM with roughly forty speeches.
Well, what do you say? No, seriously, I’d love to know. I’m listening.
I have to admit, when I read the title of this book, I heard it as a disembodied voice calling me to account for some nebulous crime and asking ME, personally, Why Won’t You Apologize? I felt defensive! Even without anything or anyone specific in mind, I was sure that someone out there felt wronged by me, felt that they deserved an apology from me. Other may wonder if, instead, Harriet Lerner is advocating for them and asking that special villain, hey, Why Won’t You Apologize? Yeah, So-and-So, tell me you’re sorry! Forgiveness sounds beautiful right up until it’s time to actually forgive. Either way, this book definitely has something for everyone.
One of the best parts of Lerner’s book is the inside view it offers into other people’s scandals and private dramas. It really helps to put our own gossip into the appropriate context. Hypothetically, I can look at my divorce and be mad, or I can think, well, at least he didn’t cheat on me and get another woman pregnant... There are examples of all sorts of behavior, from the petty and comedic to the dark and deep, and how apologies were botched or done well.
Why Won’t You Apologize? has a more or less comprehensive catalog of fake, shoddy, sham pseudo-apologies with explanations of why they are D- or F-grade homework. These include the Mystifying Apology, “I’m sorry but,” “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and the rest of the gang. The explanations of exactly why non-apologies are so much worse than nothing are very helpful. At last we can clarify our feelings. Knowing these are universal tendencies and that being sloppy, lame, and uncool about apologizing applies to everyone can maybe close the loop on past hurts.
Culturally we are in a very weird place with apologies. The same person who feels slighted all the time and carries many grievances is likely also to be cruddy at apologizing, or even to be a passionate defender of the belief in never apologizing for anything, ever, at all. Being able to admit when you are wrong is a marker of adulthood and also a marker of intelligence. It’s not like refusing to apologize will keep people from noticing that you are sometimes in the wrong!
The best thing that we can do is to learn how to make graceful and effective apologies, because that’s how we demonstrate how it’s done. Give what you wish to receive. Let’s everyone read Why Won’t You Apologize? Then we can pass around our copies at Thanksgiving for some wholesome family fun.
Being too sorry can be a covert form of defensiveness.
No person can be more honest with us than they can be with their own self.
How do you find peace when the hurt you’ve suffered will never be acknowledged or repaired by the one who inflicted it?
Letting go of anger and hate requires us to give up the hope for a different past, along with the hope of a fantasized future.
That restless feeling is upon me, the feeling that the winds are changing and it’s time to do something new. What will it be?
A lot of people channel this feeling into something pretty specific, like shopping, changing their hair, breaking up with someone, or changing jobs. I suspect others feel compelled to have a baby or adopt a new pet. For me, it’s usually moving, rearranging the furniture, and/or getting rid of a bunch of stuff.
We just moved two months ago, though, so it’s probably going to have to be a new workout.
It’s important to recognize restlessness for what it is. It can be used wisely or poorly. It can turn into a short run of sleepless nights, a quarrel, or any of the not-cute types of impulsive behavior.
Things I’ve seen people do impulsively:
Bring home a puppy, a 15-year commitment after a 15-second decision
Quit jobs without having anything lined up
Join the Army
Run a half-marathon with zero training
Go off their meds
Relocate and cut off communication with their entire extended family
Get married “in France, so it doesn’t count”
Eat at Chipotle
Of course, plenty of people have done all these things after a great deal of deliberation. There’s probably a married, tattooed, dog-owning French Army veteran somewhere out there eating at Chipotle right this minute. Well, maybe not that last part; that’s not so very French. Still. It’s not so much what you do as when and why you do it.
Does it make sense for your life?
One thing I’ve learned from coaching is that people always feel like they have an issue (probably), and they can’t deal with it alone (doubtful), but the real issue that they describe has nothing to do with the approach they want to take. It’s not that they need “accountability,” whatever that is, it’s that they need help getting perspective on their situation.
The one who wants a tougher workout, but really needs about 30% more sleep
The one clearing clutter whose household has zero income
The one who is manufacturing projects in order to delay a divorce
Everyone has a blind spot. Everyone who knows how to drive also knows that something as massive as a sixteen-wheel semi truck or a cement mixer can easily fit into said blind spot. In this sense, we’re our own worst enemies, toodling along without realizing how we are setting ourselves up for trouble.
This is why the desire for a fresh start can end poorly. We have all the emotional energy we need to make amazing changes, and we squander it on the wrong things entirely.
A serious life review can help here, if we are able to do the hard work and if we can assess ourselves honestly. It can help even more if we’re willing to seek outside perspectives, but here again we often tend to listen to the wrong people.
Just the other night, I was talking to a sweet young bunny about her college major and what she wanted to do after she graduated. She said she was a theater major so she didn’t know, because “there weren’t that many jobs in theater.” “I don’t know about that,” I replied, “think about where we live. Some of the highest paid people in our region work in theater.” (Film, comedy, music, other sorts of performance art and the tens of thousands of support positions in sound, lighting etc). “That’s not what they’re going to tell me at Thanksgiving,” she said. I told her to ask herself how well “they” were doing in life before she took their advice.
Seriously, what does my friend’s wife’s grandfather’s next-door neighbor know about me and my career path? (Wishing that were hypothetical).
If I ever say one thing that anyone ever remembers, let it be this:
BEWARE OF NAYSAYERS
(Especially at Thanksgiving)
It continues to astound me how many grown adults out there are still running their decisions past their parents, or their family as an assembled council. I hear it all. The mom trying to convince her daughter to get back together with an alcoholic who cheats. The son who is over thirty who lets his mom pick out his furniture. The brother and sister who live together in their forties because the family pitches a fit whenever they talk about moving on.
I worry when I hear about families with adult kids who are compelled to eat together every week, or more often, because this is what always comes of it. “Kids” in their thirties, forties, or beyond who genuinely feel that they can’t make a decision if they know their extended family will disagree. These are almost never smart decisions!
Whether to buy a house or vehicle, change jobs, go back to school or drop out, have kids or not, get married or divorced - why does the family council always steer people wrong? Why do people keep trusting that tribal advice when it ends badly so much of the time?
The family council is always going to push everyone to get married, have a baby, stay local, buy a house, and choose only the tiniest possible sliver of career that they understand and approve.
I feel fortunate to be solid in my contrarian convictions, because none of those choices
(except marriage) would have worked for me. When I picture my alternate lifestyle, the path not taken, it makes me feel like crying because it would have ruled out my life today under the palm trees.
It’s really the big decisions that matter, the ones we shouldn’t make impulsively but also shouldn’t make because someone else approves. Are we making them when we need to, though, or are we delaying or ignoring them in favor of the superficial?
It’s probably better, then, to use the desire for a fresh start as a sign that it’s time for an assessment. How are things going? Is my most obvious problem, what: financial, dental, situational, relational, physical, social? While I think it out, would it be a good idea to also do some space clearing and update my resume? Should I stay away from pet stores and tattoo parlors just in case?
Every day really is a fresh start. It’s never too late to ditch the naysayers. It’s never a wrong time to take full accountability for your life.
As much as I like sweaters and boots, there are three things heralded by the arrival of fall that I don’t enjoy, and those are:
and weight gain.
I should say ‘candy’ because it’s alliterative and probably more honest, but I do enjoy candy and of course that’s my problem. There happens to be a bag of rainbow-colored candy in my otherwise empty fruit bowl right now.
I’m also fighting a cold. Since I live in Southern California, the weather is glorious, as it usually is in October, and I can’t complain about that. It seems to add some extra poignancy to be bundled on the couch, seeing the cloudless blue sky and infinitely preferring to be outdoors.
As far as I know, I’ve had a cold at least once every year of my life. Since there are supposed to be roughly 200 varieties of the common cold, I should be immune to them all in roughly 150 years, which will be fantastic. Until then, it’s become a predictable part of our lives to the extent that we just bought cold medicine in bulk at Costco. Two weeks before I got sick.
Given its predictability, we can plan around it to an extent.
To me, one of the worst things about getting sick is the week afterward. You’re still feeling low and your place is full of dirty laundry and empty of groceries. Dragging around feeling like it will never end, taking out the trash in the rain. Why do people like fall again??
This is why I become vigilant this time of year. I don’t generally believe in “stocking up” but I do check our quantities of a few things.
Pet food. Mucinex. Canned soup. Also my special jar of Super Bio Veg, aka “bouillon cubes” due to its striking taste of mushrooms and garlic.
The best thing about living in the 21st century is grocery delivery through an app. Last winter, I got sick while my husband was out of town, and I was able to order all the soup, juice, and cough drops I could ever want straight to my front door. The only issue with this is that only a portion of a store’s inventory is available online, and you can’t always get what you want.
[insert appropriate guitar lick]
Along with predictable inventory issues, we can predict that our households will probably be out of commission for at least a week every fall and winter. Think back a few years. I’ve known families with little kids in which the whole lot of them seem to be down three weeks a month. They basically put up an alert on social media saying DON’T COME OVER.
What does this mean? What can we do?
We have to take advantage of the time we have available when we are feeling relatively energetic and vertical. That’s what we can do.
Here is an exercise. Join me over here on the couch, if you will, and lie down. That’s it. Close your eyes. Now take a deep sigh and open your eyes and look around the room. If you see anything that annoys you or makes you feel glum, pop up and take care of it. I can tell you from down here, as soon as you get your first cold of the year, you’re going to be spending a lot of time looking at it, and you’re certainly not going to enjoy it any more when you’re ill than you do today.
In my case, the objectionable item happens to be my P90X DVDs, taunting me by reminding me how far I am from peak energy level right now.
For others, depending on where their couch is, it might be a pile of laundry, or a bunch of donation bags that haven’t gone out, or a stain on the carpet, or a desk covered in papers. Who knows. I don’t but I bet you do.
I have a lot of sympathy for Sick Me because her days are difficult and boring. From a distance it can seem cozy. Oh yeah, it will be great, I’ll just catch up on reading and have some naps. In reality, I can never concentrate on a book when I’m ill, and I seem to have a lot of legendary nightmares. Attacked by crocodiles that have hatched in the living room, hair full of spiders, all that good stuff.
If only our sick time could be a happy kind of downtime, a sweet staycation full of dancing around the living room and picnics on the lawn.
It can be very difficult for us to imagine Future Self and use that image as motivation to make our future lives easier. Yeah, sure, like I’m really going to “save money” for that crazy old bat. Who does she think she is? Well, me I guess. Future Me is me.
I think, though, that most of us can call up an image of being down with the flu or a pernicious case of the common cold. We can remember the last time, what we did that week (cough cough), and how it felt. We can use this image for a little extra boost of inspiration. Negative inspiration, yes, but many of us do better with a pushing-away image than we do with a pulling-toward.
Please, Past Self, save me from having to do three weeks of laundry while getting over the flu! You’re my only hope.
The truth is that I’m not really all that sick. Not compared to previous iterations. Sick enough to need two two-hour naps a day, sick enough that it’s a struggle to bring my dog downstairs in the elevator for a potty break. Sick enough that I need to lie down for a while if I’ve been vertical for ten minutes. But, no respiratory symptoms, no cough, no fever. I’m hearing that whatever is going around seems to cause laryngitis, and I certainly don’t have that. I can feel my immune system doing its job. Moral: zinc works.
The point of my story is that most of the work we do, we do for our own selves. We’re always trying to give ourselves a soft landing. A little extra for Future Self. Let’s all take a moment to show compassion for Future Sick Self and prepare a little while we’re up.
Here’s my wish that this year, you make it through unscathed.
When I read the term “hose-down house” in an article in an architecture magazine, I thought, “Is that a thing?” Because that’s exactly my goal for my own home, and what a great way to describe it. If there were a way to install a set of sprinklers in the ceiling and clean my place overnight like a car wash, I’d already have it done. Hose it down and hope the door latches behind me when I go out to do something more fun.
This is the opposite of what I find on home visits. My people want no part of automated cleaning. This is partly because they automatically resist new ideas; for instance, every time I say I like ebooks they will say they like paper books. It’s not a debate? Nobody is making you try new things? The main reason, though, is that it would take a lot of setup before their homes could be cleaned this way.
Take the dishwasher, for example. Not everyone has one, but they have been a common feature of houses and apartments for at least forty years now. They’re more energy efficient and sanitary than washing by hand. You can even buy a countertop or rollaway model for around the same price as a stand mixer. I’m in love with mine since I didn’t have access to one until I was past thirty.
My people see them as an obstacle, if they use them at all.
In a chronically disorganized house, it is never clear whether the dishwasher is clean, dirty, or empty. It’s nobody’s job on any given day. There are far, far too many dishes to fit in it and many or most of them are not dishwasher-safe, or at least nobody is too sure. Even though there is this marvelous dishwashing robot ready to please waiting in the kitchen all day, nobody wants to feed it.
Another example is the robot vacuum. I’ve been using mine for nearly a decade now, and I also have a robot mop. THE BEST. Yes, I’m privileged, and yes, these items also cost less than a smartphone. Amortized over several years, they’re less than a store-brand soda habit. I might also point out that my household doesn’t have a car, and that frees up a lot of folding money.
Since we have a parrot and a dog, our floors are a constant mess. Feathers, muddy paw prints, kibble crumbs, you name it. Every time we leave for an errand or go to the movies, we get ready to clean the floors. This means picking up the dog bowls and checking for dangling cables. One of us can do this while the other puts the critters in their crates and checks the bus schedule.
In a chronically disorganized home, this is not happening. My people aren’t even attracted to the idea. Why? What’s on their floors? Anything and everything!
Laundry and lots of it
Stacks of magazines
Stuff that fell over
Here we start to understand that the problem is not in acquiring the robot vacuum, which many people could suggest as a holiday gift. The problem is that the floor of every room is considered a viable storage area. It’s not a cleaning problem, it’s a tidying problem.
Putting things away that don’t even exist in a hose-down household like mine - that’s the problem.
There’s no laundry on my floor because we don’t own enough clothing between us to cover our floor. If we didn’t do laundry at least once a week, we’d have to wear it twice, and we’d constantly be covered in dog hair.
Flat surfaces are the main aspect of what, architecturally, would be considered a hose-down house. Kitchen counters, bathroom counters, the dining table, coffee table, end tables, and desks. While I have been known to use my robot mop on the kitchen counters, when we had a normal-size suburban ranch house, that would be overkill in the sub-900-square-foot places we’ve had since. When your kitchen counter is one foot square, all it takes is a swipe with a rag.
I guarantee that I could wipe down my kitchen counters, dining table, and bathroom counter in under one minute. Not only that, I could do them in a direct path and probably take only fifteen footsteps.
The reason is that we don’t pile things up on our tables or countertops. We don’t even own a coffee table because they are clutter magnets and I got tired of stubbing my toe.
What makes a hose-down house is the absence of clutter.
When there’s nothing in the way, it’s quick and easy to clean everything. When every room is filled with stuff, it’s complicated and exhausting.
The kitchen is full of double what it could reasonably store, so there’s no “away” for the dishes. The sink is always full and the counters are always covered. There are special wooden or pottery items that can’t go in the dishwasher. The chore known as “washing dishes” could take an hour or more because it only gets done every three days.
The floors are covered with laundry. The bathroom has eighty-seven bottles. Every other surface is covered with mail and other papers. For some reason, there are always shopping bags that someone went out and bought but nobody opened afterward.
Another problem is sheer size. My current place is 650 square feet, home to two adults and two messy pets. We haven’t had more than 900 square feet in five years. Prior to WWII, this was standard for middle-class families, and it still is in most parts of the world. Anyone living in a post-Brady Bunch-sized home simply has a lot more room to clean, or to clutter up.
I can wipe down all my flat surfaces in a minute, empty the dishwasher in four, clean my bathroom in ten, and run the dishwasher and vacuum while I go to the gym. That’s my hose-down house. Why would I want anything else?
Hey, I have an idea. Let’s start off the week with a highly loaded discussion of power dynamics!
When we talk about who makes the money and who does the chores, we tend to frame it in a really dumb way, which anyone who has multiple siblings should immediately understand. Why are chore wars always “husband vs. wife” or “mom vs. kids” when it should really just be “people who share common areas”?
I have two brothers, so in our household chores rotated week to week. My dad’s response to questions about trading chores was:
“I don’t care, just get it done.”
Right. Focus on the goal. Cleanest house with the least amount of effort. In my parents’ view, that meant training the kids to do as much as possible. A charitable interpretation of this is that they maximized our opportunities to learn adult skills.
It’s pretty common, in a traditional monogamous hetero marriage, for the wife to take on more of the housework and childcare. We’ve workshopped this, my husband and I, with groups of other couples. A wife will explain that she does more because she feels guilty that she is earning less money.
This is where the contrarian take comes in.
Power couples look at the division of labor strategically. What can be done so that both parties maximize their earning potential and overall career success? How can everyone in the household enjoy the highest possible quality of life?
This can happen in a million bajillion different ways, arranged over various timelines. Where it doesn’t happen is in relationships where one party is motivated by guilt and feelings of being a lesser contributor. What, one of you is the CEO so the other one has to be the janitor?
(Note: facilities maintenance is an honorable profession, and plenty of people have become millionaires through offering custodial services. Trash is cash).
When one person in a relationship is motivated by guilt and/or shame, the chore wars become about something entirely different than a smoothly running household. They become about earning approval, or avoiding conflict, or demonstrating, what? Fealty? Subservience?
What we’re talking about is not the sort of relationship in which one partner radiates joy and serenity through interior design and the culinary arts, while the other channels their self-expression into career ambition. That’s totally a thing, and if it works for both of you, more power to ya.
What we’re talking about is that other kind, where both parties are dissatisfied or bored or fighting about money or feeling unappreciated. None of those feelings tend to be part of someone’s wedding vows.
To have and to ignore, to annoy and exasperate, from this day forward.
We’re smarter than this. We didn’t marry our houses and we know better than to prioritize our stuff over our relationships. Besides, we have robots now.
The truth is that we tend to magnify the amount of work that “needs” to be done to run a household in four ways:
By having larger homes than we need,
Filled with more stuff than we need,
With no systems in place,
And having power struggles about it all.
My ex-husband and I used to play poker for chores, using a points system that we designed together. He did 95% of the cooking, because arguably he was a much better cook and he preferred it that way. Yes, he earned about 50% more than I did, and that was an issue when we discussed our budget and our savings goals, but it didn’t factor into how we divided labor at home. Rather, we had a plan that he would work while I got my degree, and then I would work at my newly increased rate of pay while he finished his. It was understood that it would be several years before we divided the housework “evenly.”
We never got to that point. I can claim, though, that we kept a pretty tidy home. Out of all the things we fought about, housework wasn’t on the list. Probably because we were minimalists and spent most of our marriage in small apartments. Possibly also because we both had multiple siblings!
Now I’m remarried, and the structure is different, partly because the man is different and partly because we rely on engineering principles rather than poker. What works on the manufacturing floor that would also work at home? We have successfully harnessed professional pride, his in Agile methodology and mine in my work with chronic disorganization and hoarding.
Keep work surfaces and common areas clear. Streamline processes and eliminate unnecessary steps. Don’t tie up capital in excess inventory. Cross-train and share best practices. Continuous improvement.
We have had a LOT of discussions about housework over our ten-year marriage. This has been almost entirely driven by me, because I’m the fussy one. I’ve framed it as a way to view a smoothly running household like an engineering management problem. Rather than make this, How do I convince you to wipe down counters my way?, I’ve tried to make it, What terminology would an engineer use to describe this work process?
Also, What kind of robot could do this particular task? Could you build me one?
This is how I learned that you can clean a greasy oven in ten minutes if you use a drill, and that the question, Can I get my husband to spend three hours kneeling in front of this thing instead of me? WAS THE WRONG QUESTION ENTIRELY.
All of the questions we have about dividing household labor fairly may, likewise, be structured in an unhelpful way. If the framework involves guilt, shame, blame, resentment, grudges, anger, or crying, there are probably other ways to look at the situation.
What if almost all of those feelings were directly related to household labor that didn’t even need to be done by a human? What if we engineered those chores out of existence?
There used to be household chores like churning butter, darning socks, and carrying coal scuttles that most 21st-century households no longer do. (Well, I still darn my own socks, but hey). It’s my thesis that a lot of our 20th-century chores can be canceled, too.
Stepping forward and focusing on a more interesting, challenging, and fulfilling career almost always results in significantly more income. A higher income can do a lot more for a family, like eliminating debt and buying a $200 robotic vacuum cleaner, than anyone can do just by focusing on folding laundry more often. Eyes on the prize.
Let’s find a way to restructure our division of labor so that everyone involved is excited, having fun, laughing, talking, and generally thinking about chores as little as possible. One day it’ll all be done by nanobots anyway.
We were having our weekly status meeting in the cafe when a neighbor walked in and asked what we were up to. “Status meeting?” he laughed. “Are you the board of directors?”
Well, yeah man, that is sort of the point. If not us, then who?
A conversation commenced in which we tried to determine who is the president and who is the CEO. “I’m actually the treasurer,” joked my husband, to which I replied that I was the one with formal treasurer experience.
Our neighbor, who is recently divorced, found everything about the premise of Status Meeting uproariously funny. He left chuckling, and we carried on our conversation.
The thing about a two-party marriage is that it’s not really a democracy because there are no majorities and no tie-breaking votes. Whatever a marriage is, it’s better when it’s a clearly defined something-or-other. There are so many business decisions involved - finance, property, logistics, strategic planning - that a lack of clear policy can only lead to...
Endless rehashing and relitigating?
The same issues coming up over and over again, either addressed or ignored until an inevitable crisis point.
Most couples handle these issues as they come up, because the idea of setting policy is not really a part of the pop culture understanding of love, marriage, or dating. Others handle issues the traditional way, in which they are divided out by gender role. Whether one couple’s method works or does not work can only really be determined by the decade. Are they still married, or not? Are they both happy, or not?
Are they in a perpetual detente over money, housekeeping, and childcare? Thinking that’s what it’s like for everyone, mustn’t grumble?
My husband was recently on a city bus, and he related that the driver tried to rope him into a conversation he was having with another male passenger. The driver asserted that a woman should submit to her husband. (Unsurprisingly he was single; surprisingly, he was around thirty). He wanted more male backup when the first passenger disagreed with him, and was dismayed that a second male also disagreed.
That’s the Board of Director model, I guess. One person is in charge and makes all the decisions?
Better be good decisions then!
In the business world, it can be really expensive when leadership makes poor decisions. The company can go under and thousands of people can lose their jobs. That’s an awful lot of responsibility for one individual.
Same thing with marriage. If everything depends on one person, and the other’s job is just to stand by and gnaw their fingernails, how fair is that? Sharing decisions means sharing the load and sharing the stress.
Everyone starts out single, and that’s fair in its own way. That’s when you really are the Board of Director. One person, one life, one career, one set of executive decisions. Either you’re doing just fine in that role, thank you very much, or you’re hating it and really wishing you had someone else to rely on.
Before I got married for the second time, I was doing well. I had my own little house, I managed my own portfolio, my career was on the rise, and I cooked for myself. There were a few areas where I felt like I could really use a partner:
Getting the flu
Having a wasp or hornet get in the window
It hadn’t yet occurred to me that I could hire professional movers and buy boxes. I had no idea what that sort of thing would cost. Now I know the answer to that but I still don’t know who I could hire to get stinging insects out the window or take care of me when I’m ill.
Being married is cheaper and easier than being single, if you do it right.
Two people can live for 1.4x the cost of one person. One rent, one set of utility bills, and significantly less effort for cooking and cleaning in one home instead of two. It’s a very practical arrangement, and that’s probably why people keep doing it even when they’re annoying each other and not really getting along.
Anyone who understands the dynamics of a power couple is obviously going to prefer to have a smart, hard-working partner. As a couple, you can handle things like layoffs, relocating, or one partner retraining. You’re each other’s buffer. You bring different perspectives to your strategic planning.
This is how my husband and I experience it. We started our friendship by talking about money, recognizing that we had different problems and were in different stages in life. He was fresh out of a divorce, while mine was already five years in the past. I had just graduated from college and was facing fifteen years of student loan payments, while he had already paid his off. We discovered that we could give each other pertinent and effective advice.
By the time we started dating, in some ways, we were already sort of mentally married.
I respected the way he made decisions, and I knew I could never marry anyone if I didn’t feel that way.
He respected the way I was constantly improving myself. He’d watched me get three promotions, pay off a student loan several years early, move from a rented room to a rented house, and drop five clothing sizes. I’d demonstrated what I was about. He wanted a seat on the party bus before it left the station.
We’ve been through some hard times together, some of them before we had even noticed that we felt a mutual romantic attraction. We’ve both paused several times to ponder how we would have handled the same events and choice points as bachelors, and often shuddered to think how we would have blundered or mangled the situation on our own.
Having a partner is most valuable for that additional perspective, that outer mirror that nobody can provide for themselves. Most people rely on their friends, family, or colleagues when they want to vent, and the best anyone can get out of that is the chance to blow off steam or maybe get some validation. It’s extremely unlikely that venting to anyone will lead to useful strategic advice, and that’s why friendship is not partnership. What we really need is not venting but insight, and that’s why there’s always more than one person on a Board of Directors.
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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