Talking about money is why my husband and I are married. Done right, a big money talk can be exciting and fun.
Then, of course, there’s the way most people do it.
When you’re broke, which we both were when we met, thinking about money is stressful. It makes some people cry, others freeze up, and others want to throw things at the wall. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The trouble is, most people don't know that. All we have to go on are the examples we learned in childhood, the sanitized academic exercises we might have learned in one semester of personal finance, what we see in the media, and maybe what we’re being pitched by someone or other in an MLM scheme.
(I have one of them in my life *again* - sending me texts and emails over the holiday weekend asking me to pitch her company’s product to my work, which is a non-profit - and probably quite cheesed off that I am ignoring her).
(Come to think of it, I’m probably going to have to have a sort of big money talk with her, too).
Fear of conflict is what holds so many of us back. We won’t take the initiative because we don’t really know how to do it, how to open up a conversation about a topic that is so loaded.
Go first. That’s the first rule. Be willing to take the lead, be willing to be the planner and the researcher. One way or the other, there is no escape - you must take total responsibility for your own finances whether you are alone or whether you have a partner.
It might not work. People often need to be told that they don’t need permission to break up, that their relationship might not be viable and that they might need to get out before doing anything else. Your partner might be completely unwilling to make changes in this area, and that’s okay.
You’re not the boss of them and they aren’t the boss of you.
All right. Assume that you do have a partner, which is why you would need to have a money talk, and that you are fairly sure your partner is willing to hear you out.
What you’re aiming for is a high-level strategy, not something like “I can’t believe you spend $5 a day on chewing gum.” (True story). Or, “You have to quit buying so many Funko Pops or we’ll never be able to go on vacation.” Your motivating force may be irritation with your partner’s spending habits, and if so, I don’t blame you - but it also means you’re losing the game.
The truth is, at a certain income level, an “excessive” spending habit is actually affordable, or even negligible.
The big money talk, on a strategic level, is about two things. It’s about lifestyle upgrades and it’s about personal empowerment. The first is about what sort of stuff you would buy or what you would do in your spare time, if you could “afford” it. The second is about whether you both actually enjoy your jobs and find them interesting versus feeling constant stress, burnout, and background dread.
Getting rid of debt is both a lifestyle upgrade and a personal empowerment.
Talking about the debt first doesn’t really work. Generally it will make anyone flinch and start feeling defensive. The entire concept of debt revolves around guilt, blame, and shame. You can skirt right around that by talking about blue-sky visions first.
This is where you have to do a lot of prep work before you initiate the talk. What do you personally want? What would you do differently if you were debt-free? What would you do differently if you had $100,000 in the bank?
These are the types of questions that get the juices flowing. These are the types of questions that encourage your partner to actually want to engage with the discussion.
In my coaching work, I have discovered that almost nobody has an answer to the question, “What do you really want?” Most people can’t finish the “perfect day” exercise, either. We don’t know what to do with ourselves when we aren’t fussing and fretting over something. It’s so, so important though!
Most of the items in my perfect day/dream life don’t cost money. They include lots of time in nature, staying in touch with my family, eating a hot breakfast on weekend days, and reading a lot. It’s possible to do all of those things regardless of one’s income or balance sheet. This is another area you can explore with your partner, to wit, “What do you already know makes you feel wealthy?”
The goal of the big money talk is to figure out how you can facilitate each other in whatever you both need to live a bigger life. There are two ways to do it, the trapped way or the liberating way. Either you feel like you’re pinching every penny until the end of time, or you feel optimistic and lit up because you know you’re making steady progress.
Our first big money talk happened not long before my husband proposed. The way I remember it, he spontaneously offered to come over and do a ten-year financial plan together. The way he remembers it, I suggested it and asked him to show me how he did his. Somehow we both think it was the other’s idea. It was fun. That evening is probably why we finally did get married. This year, we realized we had hit the target right on schedule - in fact, we were .1% over our goal.
If you want to start this type of discussion with your partner, you can start with any introductory personal finance book. Or you can start by introducing the concept of FIRE, financial independence/retire early. (We don’t plan to retire early because neither of us plans to retire at all). Start by asking what your partner would really like to do, and offer to facilitate that in some way. Make sure you can both explore the topic with curiosity and willingness. If you’re going to be a strong team, this big money talk is going to go on for years or decades, so make it easy to agree with you.
I just heard this story, and it is really giving me pause. I’m sharing it now because this is my last chance to reach anyone who may still be waffling on whether to pretend to have a “normal” Thanksgiving.
A young friend of ours went off on a five-day camping trip in a party of ten. They all got tested first, all ten of them. They all tested negative, all ten of them.
Toward the end of the trip, guess what? One of them started feeling sick.
They went home and he tested positive for COVID-19.
But - how did that happen???
This is what seems to be happening. If someone is exposed to coronavirus and then gets a test very shortly afterward, it won’t show up on the test quite yet.
The other problem is accuracy. Even a test that is 99% accurate would still miss one out of a hundred people, right? That’s an A+ grade - it’s just that the consequences of most tests aren’t as high as this one.
What were the consequences?
All ten of the people on the camping trip, the ten who tested responsibly and spent time together out of doors, all ten of them had to quarantine from work for two weeks.
Fortunately, none of the other people on the trip seem to have been infected, which is the best possible result. Did the false-negative guy infect other people, like at the gas station or the grocery store?
Nobody will ever know.
Just like I don’t know if I got anyone sick the time I went to the grocery store while unaware that I already had the coronavirus.
This is a real problem that everyone is obviously quite tired of talking about, and yet I really want to make some points here.
First: The worst feelings I have ever had in my life were thinking I got my husband sick, and having to call two friends to say I might have exposed them. The guilt is absolutely crushing and nauseating. How much worse would it have been if any of them caught it and died? Or... all of them?
Second: I got COVID-19 in a restaurant, in a small group with only six other people. We were extravagantly careful to follow all known rules at the time, including not shaking hands, not hugging, and using hand sanitizer, and we even took megadoses of vitamin C at the table.
(On the way there, my friend asked me, “Do you think we should cancel?” I said, “Nah, it’s a small group, we’ll be fine.”)
Third: It is now well-documented that it’s possible to get COVID-19 twice, even a couple months apart.
Fourth: This “let’s all get tested first and then it will be okay” scenario has been proposed to me by three distinct groups of people. I’m not even all that popular!
It’s not that I think so many people want to hang out with me, specifically, especially since I’ve become so morbid. I think people keep inviting me to “socially distanced” hangouts because I’m the naysayer. I’m the cautious one. I’m the bear in the world of bulls. If Jessica says she’s cool with it, then we’re all immortal, right?
Will you hang out with us if we all sit six feet apart?
NO! I got COVID from ten feet away in a small group, so why would I want to sit six feet apart in a large group?
Will you hang out with us if we all get tested first?
Sorry, no. What if you got infected literally on the way to the testing station? Also, no offense and please don’t take this personally, but I don’t even trust the Pope to tell the truth about the last time he got tested. That’s assuming the tests themselves are 100% reliable, which they obviously can’t be.
What if we all wear masks?
Can we game this out? Do you really think it’s better to sit in a room together in person if we have to wear masks and we can’t hug? What are we going to do when we eat, slink off to various corners of the yard like dogs because we have to take our masks off? Isn’t it more normal to see each other’s faces close up on Zoom?
I’m comfortable saying NO to people over and over again, family, friends, colleagues, our landlord, or whoever. I have never really had an issue with telling people if something won’t work for me, because why should I just blindly obey someone? If they won’t change anything for my convenience, then why should I be the one to change for theirs?
This time, though, it’s life or death. I am actually stunned and shocked that people who know I almost died this year have come to me and petitioned me to come socialize in person. It’s like they were just waiting until I was done talking and they didn’t hear one of the most significant things that ever happened in my life.
People who aren’t over their battle with their car insurance over how a fender-bender was adjudicated. People who aren’t over their grudge with their coworker or their upstairs neighbor. People who know what it’s like to still be stuck on relatively minor grievances are surprised that I’m not over a mortal illness six months later, when I still have a few lingering symptoms.
That’s what COVID is like. You get it and maybe, in some ways, you always have it. It’s like at Hogwarts when not everyone can see the hippogriffs.
I know someone whose Boomer parents are having a *cough* no, I am not making this up, they are having an “open door” Thanksgiving. It’s similar to a progressive dinner party, where each neighbor hosts a course and they all troop up and down the street together. They’re literally inviting their entire neighborhood to come inside their house to eat.
Is this a problem during the coronavirus pandemic? Clearly yes.
Is it a problem that the dad has had a high fever that won’t break for the past several days? That he refuses to get tested because he thinks COVID-19 is a hoax?
I guess we’re all going to find out.
Okay, let’s go over this one more time. I am staying inside my tiny apartment and eating dinner with one other person, my husband. I am not waving at other people, or walking by their house and calling to them from their yard, or driving by to drop off plates or pick up slices of pie. I am not sitting or standing outdoors to socialize with anyone. I am physically not going near any of the 7.8 billion people on Earth, with the single exception of the one wearing my ring on his hand.
Six feet? Too close!
Masks? Yes, but not enough.
Airports? Heck no!
Rapid testing? Only if you get in a big plastic bubble for three weeks first.
Just this one time? No. Wait until next year.
But this might be the last time we see each other! You’re right. And I don’t want that on my conscience.
We all have so much to be grateful for, if we think about it. We have the information we need to protect each other. Back in the Eighties, we used a timer for long-distance calls, and now we can video call for free and talk as long as we like. We can get through this together. We’re almost out of the woods, so let’s keep holding the line and being strong for one another.
We can do this. We can even do this over a slice of pie.
I’m hoping everyone is being smart about Thanksgiving plans this week, you know, making sure we’re all still here to do it properly next year. It’s been on my mind a lot. I thought, what could we all do with the extra time off if we aren’t either traveling or getting ready for guests?
(Obviously I know not everyone gets Thanksgiving off - my family has eaten our meal on the Friday for over 30 years due to work schedules. Something to keep in mind, this year more so than others: what a luxury it is to be with family, even if you have mixed feelings about it).
The thing I came up with was to sort out all the rarely-used platters and serving dishes and kitchen gizmos that are only used on special occasions.
There are three things to do in the kitchen when it comes to this stuff.
One is to ask if you even want it, much less use it at all.
The second is to get rid of, fix, or reunite the pieces of anything that has issues.
Third is to rearrange everything based on whether you wish you used it more often or whether it’s driving you nuts and getting in the way all the time.
There is literally never a good time to do this kind of chore. If it were easy and obvious, it would have happened already. I’ve been asking myself this question about my book collection:
If I’m not going through it in 2020, of all years, when will I ever??
Clutter can be a minor tragedy. We tend to gather objects that represent a wish, something we would ideally like to be doing or to have as part of our lifestyle. The accumulated stuff then fills up the *space* we would need to actually do that thing.
Examples: The garage so full of tools and supplies that it can’t be used as a workspace. The sewing room so full of fabric that nothing can be made. The shed (and yard) so full of stuff that no gardening is being done.
And, of course, the kitchen so full of stuff that nobody can cook.
My available counter space is typically about 2’x3.’ That because we have lived in tiny apartments for the past five years. There’s nowhere to put anything like a kitchen island or a butcher block or a rolling cart or a baker’s rack. The space we have is the space we have, and that’s why I keep our pantry staples in the fridge.
What do I keep on my counter?
Other people keep astonishing amounts of stuff on their counters and dining tables. This is what I usually see:
A cookie jar
A stand mixer
Both a toaster and a toaster oven
A crock of utensils
Soda cans or bottles
Cooking oil, spice jars, etc.
A coffee maker, sometimes two
Dirty dishes, of course
Random junk that wandered in from elsewhere
Four of those items I don’t even own, but the rest can indeed be found in my tiny little kitchen that has only two dinky drawers.
This is because my husband and I take turns cooking, and the focus for us has always been having enough space to actually make the food.
We’re maniacs. We make our own jam. We have a couple dozen canning jars in our kitchen. The canning equipment stays on a high shelf in the linen closet, because it only gets used a few days a year. This is an important principle: Store things based on how often you use them, not necessarily “where they fit.”
What goes where?
We have a cabinet above the fridge. It always fascinates me what people keep up there, because that space is so challenging to reach. That is where I keep all our baking equipment, including various sizes of muffin tins, loaf pans, a Bundt cake pan, springform cake pans, pie pans, and even a cupcake caddy. Most people keep their baking stuff in a low cabinet, where it’s easy to reach, but how often are most people baking fancy desserts on the average weeknight?
I keep my serving dishes in the same cabinet where we keep the plates, bowls, and glasses. All our plastic storage containers and their lids are there, too, basically because we only have two cabinets. Same stuff as everyone else, just less of it.
In most kitchens, there are plenty of cabinets, but they are chock-full of coffee mugs and plastic cups and plastic travel coffee cups. This has always mystified me. Cupboards go to things that are almost never used, so stuff that does get used has to sit on the countertop instead.
What if I told you there was triple the amount of stuff in your kitchen than it was designed to hold?
Not everyone has the problem with the unintentional multiplication of plastics. For some, it’s more of a shopping hobby that got out of hand. That shopping hobby might be their own, or it might be someone else’s, someone who uses gift-giving as a sort of pressure valve for their own habit. For some reason, this category of person often fixates on holiday decorations and special occasions. Anything holiday-related becomes instantly full of special spiritual qualities that mean it must be kept forever.
This is why Thanksgiving is such a good time to reevaluate all the fancy cooking gear. Can it all realistically be used at one meal?
Another thing to reevaluate at the time of cooking fancy foods is the recipe collection. I’m willing to bet that the majority of home cookbooks have never been used at all, and almost all the rest are kept for one or two specific recipes. Scan the ones you use and get your counter space back.
Not sure who needs to hear this, but: You don’t have to keep any of it. Not everyone cooks at all. I read about a woman who used her kitchen cabinets to store her books; she didn’t even own any pots or pans because she never cooked at home. It’s not against the law. You can do that.
The emphasis on any holiday should be on enjoying yourself and doing the things you like to do to relax. If one of those things is cooking, then is your kitchen serving you? Or is it really a kitchen-shaped storage unit?
Whatever else you do this week, keep the focus on what works for your household and take a moment to reconsider what doesn’t.
Stay safe, be well, and start planning now for Thanksgiving 2021!
Black Friday has another name, and that is Buy Nothing Day. For the past several years, that is how I’ve chosen to celebrate. This year, 2020, it seems there is even more reason to do it than normal.
I went out to shop on Black Friday precisely once. I set an alarm and got up to go shopping with my brother and his family. I am not an early bird, and I was a poor student at the time, but I had set my cap for one particular item and I was pretty excited that it would be on sale.
I didn’t understand how this stuff worked, though. Black Friday didn’t mean that every single item was discounted. I went straight to the aisle where my prize was - I believe it was a buckwheat pillow - only to find that it wasn’t on sale. Then I spent the next two hours trudging along and yawning while my fam bought a bunch of socks. All that and I Bought Nothing after all.
I will forever associate shopping on Black Friday with long lines, surly throngs, and people honking at each other as they endlessly circle parking lots. For what?
This year, there is no way in hell that I would physically go to any store on Black Friday, not anywhere on Planet Earth. I wouldn’t go out even if it meant I got a coupon for a hundred thousand dollars and a free hot chocolate.
BTW you did know that hundreds of people around the world have caught COVID-19 twice, right? You know there’s no immunity and you can get it twice? Okay, just checking.
I guess a lot of people buy stuff online, and I’m not planning to do that either.
There are a lot of reasons why I’m into Buy Nothing Day. More keep getting added to the list every year. Right now the main one is that, this year, the search for bargains is going to put thousands of people in the hospital and a lot of them are going to die within days. Usually, it’s not nearly so compelling.
I always found the concept of a holiday that drags out over two months or more to be confusing at best. Why that one?
Since I plan events for the morale committee at work, I’ve put more thought into these things than I usually would. Holidays can be divided into the ones for food, the ones for dancing, the ones for candy, and the ones for gifts. Halloween and New Year’s are the ones for dancing, Thanksgiving and Fourth of July are for food, for example, and Valentine’s Day is for candy.
Christmas is the one for shopping, and that’s why there’s this rabid, intense pressure to decorate everything, pump perky music through every pipe, and sell, SELL, $ELL!!!
I can’t bear it. Everything about this season sets my teeth on edge, from the green and red color scheme to the tinsel and lights to, most especially, the music. It starts earlier every year, and every year, I flinch and head back inside for my annual holiday sabbatical a little earlier.
This time, the store across the street from our apartment put up huge inflatable Christmas decorations the first week of November. Now, on the rare occasions when I leave our building, they are literally the first thing I see. It’s hard to escape the festive frenzy, though I do try.
Obviously not everyone feels the way I do about the holiday that never ends - I’ve noted decorations still up well into the second week of February, and they start showing up in October, so somebody must be into it. Does it have to be about shopping and buying and purchasing and spending, though?
What I usually do on the day after Thanksgiving is to hang around with my family, telling stories, cooking together, and playing games. That’s what makes it feel like a holiday to me. There aren’t really any other four-day weekends when I get to be with my family and just hang around. We live a thousand miles apart, and it’s a pretty big deal for us all to be together.
This year, of course, I’m not going anywhere near the airport, nor would I spend two days driving each way just to put myself, my family, and everyone along the I-5 corridor at risk. It’s irresponsible and, frankly, unpatriotic to travel from a hot zone to a less-affected area during a pandemic.
I just read that 1 in 3 parents (in the US, obviously) feel it’s worth the risk to have a family gathering for Thanksgiving. There seems to be this logic either that “we’re too smart and cute for bad things to ever happen to us” or that “this might be our last chance to see each other.” As for the first, I won’t comment, but as for the second, let’s not make it a self-fulfilling prophecy, okay?
This year we’re going to hang out on Zoom, which everyone is probably fed up with by now, but we are all familiar enough with it that we can play games and gossip just the same. There is the added advantage that all our pets can attend, since they’re in different rooms.
Maybe this will be the holiday season when I don’t gain several pounds between Thanksgiving and the New Year.
As far as buying things and keeping the economy going, I think that this artificial seasonality and the social pressure to buy tons of gifts for all and sundry, I think maybe it’s better not to plan the entire year’s revenue targets around that. What would an economy look like if it was not a December-oriented consumer economy?
After all these years, I am firmly committed. Celebrating Buy Nothing Day instead of Black Friday means I get to lounge around in my pajamas, reading, maybe taking a nap, talking to my family and playing some games. The alternatives are driving in circles around a bunch of parking lots, standing in line with cranky people, and, this year, maybe picking up a lethal disease. Count me out.
Care to join me? The relaxation and debt-free part, that is.
I started a new habit of watching a documentary immediately after work on my working Fridays. It helps me make the mental transition away from my desk, which I can reach out and touch from the couch, to a sort of semi-weekend rest state. This time, we watched “Totally Under Control,” the COVID-19 documentary.
This may not have been one of my better ideas. As a COVID survivor, it sort of gave me PTSD.
I don’t want to talk about politics - I actually want to talk about the business world. I’ve made my position on “debating” “politics” abundantly clear: no. I am not here for that. Also, I can’t understand why it is under dispute that viruses can jump from animals to humans and create deadly infectious diseases.
The question is not: Is COVID-19 real or a hoax?
The question, for me, is: Are there diseases?
Is there anything that someone can spread to someone else by coughing or sneezing?
If yes, then put a dang mask on! We knew this a century ago!
Actually, whether there is such a thing as a respiratory illness is a small sub-set of the problem that I think is actually posed by “Totally Under Control.” That is, how does a group of business professionals handle a problem?
The tail end of the documentary makes this point quite clearly. Sometimes it’s a pandemic, sometimes it’s a hurricane, sometimes it’s a wildfire.
What did the people of Pompeii do when they found out there was a volcano erupting?
Not quite 2000 years ago, the people living in the vicinity of Mt. Vesuvius ... did not know that it was a volcano. Just like the people of San Francisco circa 1918 did not know what a virus was when H1N1 hit. The poor Pompeiians had 11 hours before the final ash cloud would drop on the town, but they didn’t know that. Most of them crouched and hid and became human statues, monuments to disaster. Only a few managed to evacuate, just as a few left when the earthquakes started several years earlier.
Pompeii did not have any kind of emergency management system that we are aware of.
None of this is in the “Totally Under Control” documentary, by the way. Just me making connections with history.
There will probably always be a new kind of disaster ready to strike us humans here on Earth. Right now, we know what volcanos and tornadoes and earthquakes and gas leaks are. We know what plane crashes and terrorist attacks are. By this point in the timeline, we also know what pandemics are.
We had plenty of information and plenty of time to act on it, and this is where I will make the point I wanted to make about the business world.
This documentary was hard to watch for professional reasons. It is just blisteringly painful to watch as hard-working and well-meaning people, who are trying to do their jobs and save lives, are unable to make headway no matter how hard they try.
When the pandemic began, I was serving in a volunteer position in Toastmasters. I was called to an emergency steering committee meeting shortly before our international leadership made its formal policy. We all dropped everything, got on Zoom, and decided to move our activities online. It took about 90 minutes to meet and another few hours for the announcement to go out. Not long after, the international org came down and said, No in-person meetings until we say otherwise. Everyone nodded and... it was done.
Same thing with our work. We have offices all around the country. The corporation came out almost immediately with a multi-phase policy and sent everyone home. We continue to have some of the strictest standards in our industry. We get weekly updates, and there have been a few thank-you videos and virtual all hands meetings to remind us how it works. I suppose I should say that the company moved first, and I had that information to share when my steering committee meeting happened a week or so later.
Anyone who is good at their job can say, we could have done more and we could have done it sooner. Anyone who knows anything at all about WWII history knows, we could have done more and we could have done it sooner. Anyone who has been conscious for even a few weeks of 2020 knows, we are still not doing as good of a job as we could be, and lives are on the line.
This is going to be a very... instructive time of history to look back on. Maybe people won’t be talking about it two millennia later, like Vesuvius, but I’m certain they will a century from now. At that point, whatever format they use to watch it, “Totally Under Control” is going to be a core piece of primary source material.
It’s a week from Thanksgiving. No matter what you’re doing or with whom you are doing it, I’m pretty sure you’re probably planning to eat something. Care to join me in the annual fridge and freezer clear-out?
The reason I do it a week early is to make room for all the leftovers. We have this thing I like to call Fridge Tetris, where all the containers have to fit just so. There is no way I’m going to hang on to some sketchy old jars if they’re going to block my nice pan of cornbread. Out they go!
I used to be terrible about this, because I have food hoarding tendencies. As I resolved to change my ways, I picked up a pro tip from someone else in an organizing article. She said she likes to clear out her entire fridge at the New Year so she knows nothing in there is older than that point.
One thing I can tell you from working with the chronically disorganized is that fridges? Tend to be the most squalid places of all. I have literally found condiments, tahini, salad dressing, etc that are over a decade old.
Halt! If you’re muttering to yourself “so what” then I challenge you to open your fridge, take a picture of it, and post that picture to your social media. No staging no edits.
I say it with love because I have fought that fight with my own self.
Hold onto your old friends, hold onto your memories, but please don’t hold onto your ancient mustards.
There is another thing I picked up from someone else, and that is the concept of the “silly amount.” A silly amount is whatever is left in a container that is smaller than a serving, like a quarter teaspoon of jam or a dribble of milk. It’s silly to let a whole huge container take up space waiting for someone to be disappointed by this sad smidge. The rule with the silly amount, then, is to either finish it off on the spot or throw it out.
My husband caught me doing this once with dry beans. I was saving something like eight dry beans in the bag because I had already measured what I needed. He looked at me, utterly incredulous. What are you doing?? I explained my reasoning and he explained his, that adding the extra few beans wouldn’t be noticeable in my gallon soup pot. Aha. I froze in place, stunned at how much sense that made and wondering how much of my life I had spent dealing with silly amounts of food.
Those silly amounts add up, you see. Maybe the exact same amount is spent on groceries, down to the penny, and in one household the foods are eaten when they are fresh. In another, the silly amounts add up and start to get stale or moldy or runny. Kitchen One is spotless and full of fresh things. Kitchen Two is scary and full of hidden oozes. Both may operate on the edict to Save Money and Don’t Waste Food.
Gives you chills, doesn’t it??
Here’s another thing we do. This is a tradition of my own, and I call it Freezer Surprise. It’s a little running joke. I reached a point in my cooking abilities where the stuff I threw together on a whim started to be better than what I made by strictly following a recipe. The idea is to look at whatever random things in the fridge or freezer Need to Get Eaten Up, and then try to cobble them together into a pleasing meal.
Between Thanksgiving and the New Year, my goal is to finish off as many tubs, jars, bottles, or other containers in our kitchen as possible. This doesn’t necessarily include pantry items like canned soup, especially this year, but it definitely includes anything that has been opened. Better to eat it now than to discover it’s full of weevils a year from now.
Usually this has been a more straightforward goal, because we often travel for at least a week in November or December. Coming home from vacation to a fridge full of turquoise leftovers is not my idea of fun. It’s easier to run a little lean for a couple of weeks, eating up what’s on hand and then restocking in January.
This year is going to be different, since we’re staying home for the first time in a long time, and we’re going to be sad to miss out on being with family. On the other hand, since we aren’t traveling, we have more time to focus on things like cleaning out the fridge.
It’s a time to remind ourselves how lucky we are that we have maybe a little too much, rather than too little. We can nudge ourselves with haunting memories from March 2020, when entire aisles were completely empty in every grocery store for two towns in any direction. Yes, we’re keeping more food supplies at hand now, but no, that doesn’t mean that a single smear of something in the back of the fridge is what’s going to save us.
Cleaning out the fridge is a sign of abundance. It’s a way to anticipate nice meals, a way to bring a little peace of mind into a home that could probably use more. It’s also a way to remember, oh yes, I was making my own wild bread yeast earlier this year and maybe I can let that go.
As I clear out our fridge and freezer before Thanksgiving, I plan our meal. I think about what I’m going to cook for my family the next time we’re all together. (Yeah, yeah, the stuffed mushrooms, I gotcha). I also plan my gifts to the food pantry and the soup kitchen. May all be fed.
I just realized that it’s been roughly six months since I recovered from COVID-19. It’s hard to say, because all this time later I’m still having issues.
What’s it like?
My case was weird. Unlike a lot of people, I know what day I was exposed, and I know who I got it from. If the numbers are to be believed, I was one of the first 400 cases in California. My friends and I were exposed the morning of the day that our governor announced that bars and restaurants would be shut down.
If only we’d known that! I could have avoided the whole thing!
Because we caught it early in the cycle, our experiences with the coronavirus were different than what would happen today. A lot of our collective symptoms were not officially recognized. Tests were very hard to get, and only if you could prove you had traveled to a COVID-affected area. Contact tracing was not being done. There were no known treatments. At the time we were sick, if you wound up in a hospital, you had about a 50/50 chance of never coming home again. Everything about how to survive COVID-19 was guesswork.
My doctor didn’t believe I was sick at first, but even if he did, there wouldn’t have been much he could have done for me. Not a single one of the drugs that the FDA has approved for treatment were even on the radar back in April 2020.
I didn’t start feeling ill until more than two weeks after my exposure. My first symptoms, sneezing and extremely itchy eyes, were not on the list. I didn’t have any of the “official” symptoms: no fever, no cough, no body aches, no gastrointestinal issues.
These are problems. I didn’t know I was ill. I never had a fever, so temperature checks wouldn’t have caught me. I felt fine for two weeks, and I had been isolating at home quite strictly.
Based on my experience, a two-week quarantine is not long enough, temperature checks are pointless, and six feet is not far enough to distance.
I was quite ill for four weeks. The entire second week, I felt certain I would die any day. The third week, I cleared the virus but picked up an opportunistic viral infection in my lungs. I had a chest x-ray and got a prescription for antibiotics. This was the second distinct time period when I felt like my body was in the process of actively, rapidly dying. I couldn’t really say I was “better” for six weeks.
Two months later, I got bacterial pneumonia. Happy birthday. Had to treat that with antibiotics, an inhaler, and prescription cough medicine. I did not feel like I was going to die, but I did feel like I fell down the stairs and that someone was kicking me in the chest and back with steel-toed boots.
Two months after that, I started having gut pain that woke me every night for a week. When I finally went online to look at an anatomical chart, I discerned that the pulsing, burning pain I was having was in my duodenum. A bacterial infection there can turn into an ulcer. Fortunately, I was able to quickly reverse that with mass quantities of probiotics.
A few symptoms lingered for months, and others have never really gone away.
While I was ill with COVID-19, I lost my sense of taste and smell for three weeks. I couldn’t even smell bleach. I couldn’t taste chocolate, mouthwash, taco sauce, or other foods with very strong flavors.
I experienced, according to what I wrote at the time, “weakness, fatigue, malaise, tremors, dizziness, vertigo, headache, chills, the rigors (look it up), stomach pain, feeling faint, ears ringing, lost my voice, complete loss of sense of taste and smell for three weeks, memory problems, confusion, shortness of breath, heart palpitations” - the two scariest of these were the shortness of breath and the tachycardia.
I’m still having both of those six months later, just not as bad or as often.
The hand tremors lasted for several months but seem to have finally cleared up.
I’m also still having constant problems regulating my body temperature. I have a work partner who had COVID back in February, and both of us appear in meetings bundled up in blankets. I am always, always cold. When I get cold enough, I start shaking all over, and it takes hours to warm up again. The threshold temperature for this is 68 F.
I’m also chronically tired. My energy level, on a scale of 1-5, is generally between a 2 and a 3. Sometimes I just go to bed the minute I clock out at work, and sometimes I don’t even make it that far. I just get up from my desk, pivot slightly, and face plant on the couch.
I feel like I’ve aged ten years.
There are a few other weird problems.
My night terrors came back. That’s a “me” thing - obviously most adults don’t have night terrors - but it’s been super annoying and unfair to my husband. It also affects my work productivity the next day.
I’ve gotten migraine a couple of times, another thing that I had problems with prior to COVID but that I had gotten rid of for several years.
I still have issues with concentration and word loss. For me the difference is very noticeable. Sometimes I just run out of steam mid-sentence and stop before I ever remember the basic noun I was reaching for.
I have a persistent skin issue, acne on my chest, which is unusual for a 45-year-old. I tried half a dozen treatments and it still hasn’t cleared up. I read up a bit and it turns out that it’s not regular acne, but a yeast overgrowth called “fungal acne” that can result from taking antibiotics. Since I had three courses of antibiotics in December and two more in 2020, this makes sense. Now I am trying an OTC ointment and hoping I will be able to wear v-neck tops again one day.
Yes, this is gross, my point being: COVID-19 is not sexy, cute, or fun. Even a relatively mild case.
I gained 15 pounds and, with intense focus and effort, I have been able to drop four.
I’ve been trying to start up an exercise schedule again. It would be nice to be able to walk around our neighborhood, but we live in a dense area filled with young mask deniers. I also struggle with shortness of breath when I walk uphill with my mask on.
Another issue is that when I work out on my elliptical, I have a strange side effect. About a half hour after I get out of the shower, I start having sneezing fits for 2-3 hours. Then I will have symptoms of the common cold for several days. I did some reading on this, and it corresponds with something called ‘exercise-induced rhinitis.’ I ordered yet another box of OTC meds that other athletes claim are helpful, and we’ll see how that goes.
What I worry about most, six months after my case of COVID-19, is the stroke risk. This is why I’m so persistent in trying to get into a regular exercise routine again, despite all the setbacks. All I do is sit or lie down about 22 hours a day. I used to feel a decade younger than my chronological age, and now I feel a decade older. I don’t want to keep slipping into lethargy. I don’t want to live my life as a sort of invalid, although many days I feel like I am.
I’ve been very lucky in all of this. I lived, and my husband lived, and my family is still here. We have insurance, we have money, we have food, we have a roof over our heads. This is part of why I’ve been so vocal in sharing my experience - because I want to encourage others to take this virus seriously and do everything they can to avoid it.
Please, don’t be like me. Don’t go out expecting to have a fun social outing and share a casual meal with friends, and then come home permanently messed up from coronavirus. I hope that you and yours make it through 2020 together and that we all stay safe through 2021.
I feel super dumb right now, and I don’t know what to do with this feeling other than to 1. Broadcast it in public and 2. Come up with a plan to deal with it.
Why do I feel dumb? Because I’ve been taking math placement tests, and apparently I need to redo stuff I supposedly learned in fifth grade.
Is this an after-effect of COVID-19? Maybe?
Or is it more like all the other people around my age who are trying to help their kids do their math homework, only to discover they don’t teach it the way we learned it in the Eighties?
Either way, it’s basically like this. Either I sit down and shut up and start re-learning how to use decimals, or I give up on taking the GRE.
One way to look at it is that at least grade-school math should be somewhat easy. I can get math games with cute animals and fun sound effects. As far as I could tell, none of that sort of thing is available for adult-style things, like filling out more complicated tax forms for the first time or forming a corporation.
Another way to look at it is that I have spent the last several years forcing myself to take on the worst, most obnoxious challenges I could come up with, and that this is just the last one on the list.
What have been the hardest things for you to learn to do in your life?
For me they were learning to drive, getting over my fear of public speaking, and learning to take a punch in Krav Maga. I did all those things. The first one made me cry myself into a sick headache, the second one made me think I was going to faint, and the third one was, well, kinda awesome.
Maybe what is different there is that I found it humiliating to be so bad at driving, humiliating to be rendered so overwrought by the simple act of standing behind a lectern - yet martial arts made me feel brave and powerful.
(After, that is, I hit my head on the floor trying to do sit-ups).
This is just another one of those things that I do. I supposedly like to start from a place of abject uselessness and gradually work my way up to a level of basic competence. I can look back at all my hard work and confirm that it works, that grinding away at something will eventually get you somewhere.
More importantly, I can look at my new-found skill and think, I’ll never be as bad at this as when I started, ever again.
Why math, though? Or, rather, arithmetic? Why would I do this to myself??
What’s particularly rough about this is that I work with astrophysicists and aerospace engineers. Our shipping clerks and security guards are probably demonstrably better at basic math than I am today.
The other rough thing is that I’m a card-carrying Mensan. It doesn’t even seem to fit.
How does that even happen? Like my husband, I’m unusually gifted in one area while pretty average at another. For him, math is the big kid on teeter-totter, and spelling is the little kid about to get slammed onto the ground. For me, it’s more of the reverse. I can live-translate in two languages on the same afternoon, but I need total silence before I can calculate a tip.
Something weird about all this is that I am good with money, budgets, and estimating how much I’m spending at the store. It remains a mystery to me. Maybe I can find a way to financialize every math problem?
If I had to choose between being “good with money” and being “good at math,” I’d definitely pick the former, but perhaps that is a false choice and it’s possible to become equally good at both.
Anyway, here I am, facing my own inadequacies and frustration and embarrassment. About to step into the space of humility, for my own good. The way I do every few years.
How am I doing it?
I poked around for a few days, looking at various websites and apps, considering paper workbooks. I decided that I wanted an app that could track my progress and perhaps help point me to areas where I needed more focus, rather than a stack of workbooks that would not correct or even notice my many errors.
I looked at games, and what I found were games for really tiny kids, focusing on addition and subtraction. I was hoping for something like that touch-typing game that kills zombies while you build your typing speed. If you want an idea for an app to build, something that gamifies math from the earliest levels to the highest could potentially do well. Maybe help some junior math whiz learn pre-calc in her high chair or whatever.
I compared the various education apps I already have on my phone.
The app I chose was Khan Academy. You can start out with preschool math, if you want to, and take a test to see if you’re already done with that level.
This is where I was when I discovered that the skills I stalled out at in my earlier placement test are not 7th grade math, but 5th. Are kids getting smarter, or have I been getting dumber?
This is all a moot point, because the point is to develop and reinforce a growth mindset. WE CAN LEARN NEW THINGS! It doesn’t matter how bad I am at something today, if I’m willing to apply myself and keep learning.
My goal is to pass calculus, something I never did in high school. For that to happen, assuming I was a senior, I need to get through eight academic years. How long is it going to take me? My husband says I can blast through it in a few weeks. I know better, and I know that thinking that way is demotivating for me. I don’t want to feel competitive, I just want to make sure I nail this material so I never have to go over it again.
These are the levels:
Arithmetic, basic geometry, pre-algebra, algebra, trigonometry, statistics, pre-calculus, and then apparently there is more than one kind of calculus??
All right, I’ve just shown the world my dirty laundry. Now to you. Is there anything you’ve always felt a little inadequate about that you might be able to study? If you could magically give yourself one new skill, what would it be?
I’ve started taking the idea of going back to grad school seriously. This is when I do a bit of recon and try to work out a strategy. What is the quickest, easiest, cheapest route to a doctorate?
I didn’t do any of this when I went back for my bachelor’s. I was such a blank slate, I didn’t even realize that the numbers after the course name represented what level the class was. I didn’t know what the Dean’s List was. I didn’t know what ‘undergrad’ meant or what ‘grad school’ was. Looking back, it seems like a miracle that I ever managed to get my degree.
The first question to ask about a project like this is, WHY am I doing this? For the heck of it? Or do I have a specific goal that this will help me to reach?
This is an important question because it’s common for people to attach to a plan that does not actually move them toward their ultimate goal. For instance, I want to get Rosetta Stone/ so I can learn a new language. Does that step actually follow?
The most useful question is, How do people who are successful at this get it done?
In this case, there are two questions. One, who actually completes the work and gets the PhD? Two, who gets a PhD and uses it to get a job in their field?
Corollary questions would be: Do I want that type of job? Does that job pay what I think it does? Are there as many openings as I suspect there might be? Or, moving on to hidden goals: Am I doing this to prove something to someone? Am I doing this because it seems like the most obvious next step from what I’m doing now, and I don’t have any other ideas? Am I doing this to delay or avoid something else?
My strategy, when I went back for my bachelor’s, was to get out a calculator and see if I could pay for my loans at my current wage. Even if it never got me a better job, I wanted to do it just to have the experience. That helped me to quit worrying about what I would do after I graduated.
Then I got a better-paying job doing basically the same stuff I did before, and my degree paid for itself in the first year.
The trick with grad school, if the rumors are true, is that you can get it paid for. Arrangements can be made such that you work for free, helping grade papers, teach classes, and do research for someone else. It’s also possible to apply for fellowships and maybe get your employer to pay for all or part of it - depending on where you work, of course.
I told my boss during my performance review that I was thinking about going to grad school to get a PhD in strategic forecasting. He listened carefully. I told him that if I went back, I was willing to stay in my current position for the next, say, five years. I don’t want to overtax my mental bandwidth pushing for promotions while trying to write a dissertation. My boss said there probably wouldn’t be a position for me in his subdivision, but then he listed off other departments that might make a place for me and gave me the names of some people to talk to.
Name it and claim it!
Now there are some additional obvious questions:
Where will I apply?
Can I attend remotely or would I have to relocate?
How do I get in?
What year do I start?
I’m looking at academic year 2022, because that’s what I’ve had in mind. As a COVID survivor, I’ve been pretty tired, and I wasn’t confident I could handle the load yet. I was poking around looking at a particular school that was recommended to me, and it looked like I would have had to apply this summer to go next fall. That’s more than a year’s lead time, which is why I’m planning now.
The other issue is the GRE. My understanding is that this is a big standardized test, the scores of which determine whether you can get accepted to specific schools.
More questions: Can I get in without taking the GRE? If I have to take it, how do I prepare to get the highest score?
Answers: Depends on the school and the program. Yes, there are schools and practice exams and workbooks and tutors, a whole cottage industry.
What’s in the GRE?
...Apparently half of it is... calculus.
Here we have my first stumbling block, because not only have I not been in a math class since 1993, I never got as far as calculus.
This is... well, it isn’t necessarily a Pons Asinorum, but it is an obstacle. A high GRE score is a golden ticket that would definitely make my life easier. I “test well” and I find the idea of a four-hour exam interesting and exciting, rather than intimidating.
On the other hand, I’m strictly average at math. I tried to take a practice GRE a while ago, and I didn’t even know how to approach any of the sample math problems. [Then I did a math placement test and... it looks like I’m going to have to repeat that part of 7th grade].
I have the feeling that this may haunt me for the rest of my life unless I do something about it. The real challenge here isn’t to earn the doctorate. I’m pretty confident I could get a fellowship and some letters of recommendation, get accepted to the school of my choice without taking the GRE, and walk out with the degree debt-free five to seven years later.
PhD = challenge
Learning calculus = risk
In my mind, getting the PhD is like training for the marathon. I knew I would do it, and I did, even though I was quite slow and walked with a limp for months afterward. Learning calculus might be more like my experience of learning to drive, which involved a lot of sobbing in a lot of parking lots. I also failed twice and had to face the same instructor who had already flunked me before I finally passed.
Why do I want to get a PhD? Six months ago, when I was lying in bed contemplating my imminent death from COVID-19, I thought about what was left on my bucket list. What would I do if I got a second chance at life? What did I most regret not having done? One of the two things that immediately came to mind was to go to grad school.
I don’t have to ask myself what I’ll regret at the end of my days, because I already know. I thought I was already there. I’m already 45, and so far all I have done is get a year older every year. The next 5-10 years will pass whether I accept this challenge or not. The worst-case scenario is that I pay $205 to take an exam, and then fail it.
All right then, let’s do this thing!
I stumbled across a random idea this week, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It’s a topic that deserves deeper reading, but sometimes I like to dash out my thoughts while they are raw and then go back and bake them later.
This random idea has to do with the concepts of learned helplessness and learned hopefulness.
Learned helplessness is mentioned over and over again in pop psychology. You’ve probably heard of it. Martin Seligman did some behavioral experiments with dogs back in the Seventies, where they were electrocuted and they had to try to jump away from the shock. (Like, was that the only possible way to test this concept, seriously?) If the pattern was inconsistent, most of the dogs would eventually just lie there and quit trying to escape. This was supposed to demonstrate the concept of learned helplessness.
Learned hopefulness, on the other hand, is the idea that creatures (including us) can learn to be more persistent in dealing with obstacles if they believe that eventually their efforts will pay off.
The insight that I stumbled across is that Seligman, after decades of research, has decided he had it backwards.
It isn’t that adversity induces learned helplessness. It’s more that creatures start out feeling helpless - the state of infancy - and gradually learn their hopefulness as they become more skilled in solving problems.
Doesn’t this make so much more sense??
A baby isn’t all that good at most stuff. A baby will never get up and make a pot of coffee. A baby can’t tie its shoes, set up double authentication on its passwords, win a chili cook-off, or fold fitted sheets.
When I thought about learned hopefulness as an aspect of growth, the first image that came to mind was of a baby bird. There are two kinds of chicks: the kind that can get up and run around as soon as they hatch, and the kind that are naked and blind. A baby chicken vs a baby parrot.
You can’t blame a parrot chick for being bald and wobbly, so helpless in comparison to, say, a duckling. On the other hand, you can’t blame a duck for not living as long or being as smart as an adult parrot.
Sorry, I just lost my train of thought after doing an image search of altricial and precocial chicks. Water rail chicks!!!
Obviously infants are dependent for some kind of reason. If it wasn’t a survival trait it would have faded out.
A fun thing about birdwatching is when the parent birds get tired of feeding their juveniles, who are old enough to fend for themselves, full-sized, yet still needy and asking for a few last handouts. You may have noticed this. The juvenile will hop up and start shimmying its little wings. The adult will humor this behavior to a certain point in the season, and then start chasing off these adolescent beggars. It’s nature’s way. They have to learn to feed themselves by winter or... or they don’t.
That’s the limit for wild creatures, though. Base survival. All they need to do is to get food, avoid predators, and hopefully reproduce. It’s a little more complicated for us, isn’t it?
I’ve come to the conclusion that solving problems is what human beings are for. We get bored very quickly when we have no problems to solve, also known as the state of having “nothing to do.”
“Solve the biggest problem you can,” says Nick Hanauer, and that has become both my motto and my boogeyman. I keep asking myself, This? Is *this* the biggest problem I can be working on, or am I selling myself short? Am I not aiming high enough?
The reason this attitude works for me is that it puts the focus on the thing that needs to be done and my possible contribution, not on my goals or personal growth objectives. If the thing I am trying to do is important enough, then I have reason to propel myself forward, to tackle it. I believe that if I set out to learn something and I am willing to spend enough time focusing on it, then eventually I can figure it out.
Am I good enough today? Probably not. Maybe in a moral sense, perhaps, sure. In the sense of skills that need sharpening? If that is the question, then why ever stop?
It is hugely helpful to see ourselves in the context of fumbling and bumbling creatures that can continue to learn new things every day. It’s not our fault that we weren’t born knowing everything. Nobody was. How could a baby come into this world knowing how to touch-type and chiffonade vegetables? How could a baby be expected to perform calculus, play the saxophone, and speak eight languages?
Yet, think about it. Anything that one human can learn to do, probably any human could learn to do. With the right teacher or the right YouTube video, why not?
I don’t know how, and that’s okay.
I don’t know how yet. Maybe I don’t even want to know how. But if I did, I could figure it out.
This isn’t even a question of forgiveness. There is nothing to forgive. It is not a mistake to not know something. It is not wrong to be new and awkward.
I like being bad at things now. After several years of pushing myself to always be in a position where I am terrible at something, being humble is the best default state. I can trust the process, that wherever I am, other beginners have walked in that door and eventually walked out with competence. In that room is the place to mess up and be lousy at something, yet have fun with it. I’d rather have people laugh at me for my earnest blunders while I learn something new, if they’re going to laugh anyway.
At this point in my life, I’m perfectly willing to draw that fire so that another newbie is more comfortable. Go ahead and laugh - and when is the last time you pushed yourself to learn anything new?
Let us all be a little less precious about how others perceive us. Let us spend less time blaming ourselves or comparing ourselves to others. Instead let’s remember that as long as we are alive, we still have the capacity to learn new things, and isn’t that the most exciting thing?
What are you going to learn next?
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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