There is no single right answer to how to celebrate a holiday. There isn’t even a right answer as to which holidays to celebrate, although I’m pretty sure that spending two months on a one-day holiday is a little excessive. Personally, I’d rather see more new and fabulous holidays than put extra glitz and glamor into any that currently exist, except for New Year’s Eve, of course, which reminds me *orders disco ball.* In our heart of hearts, there IS a right way, though. Even the most cynical among us will still have a chewy caramel center somewhere in there, a tiny remnant of ourselves aged somewhere from two to six years, the part that would definitely believe in a fairy if only we ever saw one. That’s not the part of us, alas, that comes to the negotiating table when we blend families.
I’m a grinch, I’ll say it now. I like celebrations and big parties, but I want to do them my way. For instance, when I make Thanksgiving dinner, I never make stuffing, because stuffing is not a food. Come on! You’re going to be plenty stuffed after this meal. Calling it ‘stuffing’ is a bit too on the nose. Might as well start calling pie the ‘fattening.’ Ah, but it turns out that a lot of people wait all year to eat stuffing. Just because I refuse to make a dish does not mean it isn’t going to creep onto the table. Also, just because I do make a dish does not mean anyone is going to eat it.
One year, when my husband and I were newlyweds, I spent three days cooking and preparing for both of our families to come down for the weekend. I think I made something like 17 different dishes. My hubby was on a diet. He went through the buffet line and came away with: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and biscuits. In other words, the stuff he made himself. Not so much as a molecule of all the fancy-dancy new recipes I had made!
I had only myself to blame for taking offense. In his mind, there is one true Thanksgiving menu. I could have saved myself approximately sixteen hours of labor by delegating the cooking to him.
The first lesson of merging family holiday traditions is: Take full and total accountability for your own emotional experience.
The second lesson is that you can almost always fit in the tradition that is most meaningful to you, while still accommodating someone else’s. All it takes is listening respectfully with an open heart. This is what you like to do? Fair enough. Sounds awesome.
When you marry, you start a new life with this new person. Traditionally, formally, correctly, this is the time when both of you cut the cords. You start over as adults with your own new family. In any argument or quandary that involves the parents or other in-laws, the spouse must win. A marriage in which either party sides with the family of origin, against the spouse, is not a forever kind of a marriage. Check this with any etiquette manual or advice columnist, unless you wish to wait and discuss it with a marriage counselor. Or a divorce lawyer.
That being said, when you marry, you marry an entire extended family, a backstory, everything that comes with your spouse. The pets, the kids, the baggage, the habits, everything. Be gracious to your in-laws because if your marriage is a good one, you’re going to be seeing a lot of them. For years. You may wind up seeing more of them than you do of your own blood relations - and who knows? You may come to find that you prefer it.
Starting a new life and a new family is an adventure, an exciting challenge. Making new holiday traditions (and sometimes ditching old ones) is part of the fun. You are not only allowed but encouraged to add or subtract whatever works for your clan. Often, the littlest kids are the ones with the best, most imaginative ideas. For instance, one family I know now calls canned whipped cream “zizz.”
When my parents married, they discovered that they had different traditions for when to open Christmas gifts. One opened gifts on Christmas Eve, and the other did them on Christmas morning. They shrugged and decided to... do both! We would open gifts from extended family on Christmas Eve, and do stockings and Santa presents on Christmas morning. This expanded the festivities, and it was more manageable for excitable little kids. We also had a tradition that we would take turns opening gifts, starting with the youngest and going around the circle in ascending order of age. One year, we went with the free-for-all method, and it was total chaos. Much less satisfying or interesting than the deferred-gratification method, when you can actually watch the reactions of each person opening their packages.
I live a thousand miles away from my family, and I always feel a serious case of FoMO when they’re all partying without me. At some point in the evening on a birthday or holiday, I try to convince one of the younger family members to set me up on Skype so everyone can say hello. I find myself peeking out of a laptop screen in the kitchen, at such a height that it almost feels like I’m sitting there at the table. I want to reach out and help myself to some cookies or a marker. One day, there’ll be a robotic arm, and I’ll be able to move my own Scrabble tiles...
Family is what you make it, and traditions can be, too. As we blend and flow into new formations of step-in-laws, marriages, divorces, adoptions, births, graduations, and every combination of relationship, we adjust. It’s always possible to love just a little bit more and make room for one more chair at the table. There is always more fun to be had. We have to remind ourselves of this, that holidays should be fun, fun for everyone. With creativity and flexibility, we can innovate new traditions while still paying our respects to the old.
Technically, I’m on Day 369, but who’s counting? I don’t have to count how many days in a row I make my activity goals. For one thing, I wear a fitness tracker. More importantly, my body counts. My muscles and my heart and lungs are tracking every step I take. I can’t lie to my own insides.
There is something really satisfying about scrolling back and seeing all of these completed activity rings. The design worked. When I first received this Apple Watch as a gift for my fortieth birthday, I was still gimping around after an ankle injury. My athletic pursuits included sitting around and muttering to myself while reading ultramarathon manuals. On the first day, the record shows that I walked 1,044 steps and burned 30 calories. Fantastic! ...for a baby...
I got my first pedometer over a decade ago. They were pretty primitive in the early days. All they did was track motion. You could game them by shaking them back and forth. They also reset if they got dropped, and mine fell out of my pocket so many times that I had to start using a safety pin. I got one with a clip and that kept falling off, too. Memories... I remember the first day I hit what I thought was an important fitness milestone, and I ran off to show my friends.
A THOUSAND STEPS!
Um, the goal is TEN thousand steps. A thousand steps is like a quarter mile.
Let’s just say I’ve come a long way in twelve years. When I started out, it took me months to build to walking a thousand steps in a day. My daily average for 2017 is 11,055 steps, 4.9 miles, four flights of stairs, and 48 minutes working out.
Another interesting tidbit is that my daily average calorie burn from physical activity is: 407. This is why it’s impossible to “lose weight” simply through exercise. A bagel is about 245 calories, and a Costco muffin is almost 650. I could literally add ONE snack or make ONE lousy, inefficient food choice each day and completely wipe out whatever I burned from my workout.
(Flip this by thinking like a marathon runner. “If I eat this muffin that is nearly as big as my head, I can run at least 6 miles later”)
I used to think I could just skip this whole thing, you know, standing up and moving around. After all, doctors had told me all sorts of things about my health that included “exercise intolerant.” There is nothing like a diagnosed thyroid condition to give one a get-out-of-gym-free card for life, am I right? Then I went to the mall with my Nana, who was 75 at the time, and I watched in dismay as she struggled to get on the escalator. She was still working, still driving, still living a full life in every way. But stepping onto an automatic staircase with a handrail was physically challenging and intimidating for her. Suddenly, I saw myself in this context, as a younger version of my mother and grandmother. This was to be my future, too.
Unless I did something about it.
The kind of exercise that I do today would not have been possible for my female ancestors. By that I mean that they would not have been allowed. Women were legally excluded from competing in races like I do, we were legally excluded from gym memberships like I have had, we could not legally go out in public wearing the kind of workout clothes that I wear today. This probably has a lot to do with why there was no feminine tradition of strenuous exercise in my family. I had no examples and I had no idea what to do.
Start by walking. Walk 1% farther and 1% faster.
Start by paying attention to what you do during the day. Not what you “do” as in how busy you are, but what you DO, as in how much you physically move your body around. Notice your range of motion. Visualize your path through life. Where do you go and what do you see? Same stuff all the time? Hmm, seems boring.
Looking back at my activity level in my twenties, I feel embarrassed. I don’t move around twice as much as I did twenty years ago, I move around more than ten times as much! Middle-aged me could kick younger me’s butt without hardly trying. I just wish, I wish, I wish, I wish there were a way that I could go back in time and teach Twenties Me everything that Forties Me knows. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time feeling tired, ill, and trapped in chronic pain. We had a happy ending, though. The future arrived and brought some pretty great technology with it.
Just a few years from now, activity trackers are going to be available for everything. They’re going to test blood glucose and monitor our skin for sun damage. I predict that one day, gamers will be the fittest people of all, because they’ll be controlling their avatars with haptic body suits or some kind of hologram thing that requires leaping, rolling, and backflips. Until then, what we have now has been enough to get at least one sedentary, obese thyroid patient with fibromyalgia up and moving.
Comedy abounds in my work with the chronically disorganized, the compulsive accumulators, the hoarders. Each group is somewhat mystified by the problems of the others. The chronically disorganized guy who is always behind schedule can’t understand why other people can’t keep their dining tables cleared off. The compulsive accumulator who carries new stuff through his door every day can’t imagine ever allowing himself to be late to work. There’s a huge amount of opinion and emotion, justification and rationalization. Nowhere is this so true as in the case of food hoarding.
Food hoarders cannot bear to throw away food for any reason. They also can’t bear the thought of running out of anything. The result of these two overwhelming emotional drives is that they are constantly surrounded by vast amounts of food, a certain portion of which is spoiled. The majority of what they eat is pushing the limits of edibility, even though they are constantly bringing in streams of fresh new food. This makes perfect sense to food hoarders, who may be following in the footsteps of entire generations of their family.
To everyone else, it’s gross, sad, and often scary.
The saddest thing of all is that one of the main motivations of food hoarders is...
Accumulators of other types of stuff are also often motivated by hospitality. They buy “gifts” that never manage to get sent to the intended recipients, even when they haven’t seen those people for many years. (Indeed, the lack of connection is the reason for the supposed gift purchase). They stash large amounts of serving platters, bedding, board games, toiletries, and anything else they think a guest might need. Meanwhile, the house becomes so full of stuff that guests are uncomfortable visiting. At some point, people stop coming over, and that tends to be when the heavy-duty hoarding begins in earnest.
Hoarding <——> Isolation
Stuff stands in for feelings. Stuff represents aspirations and intentions. We often reach for physical objects without realizing that they are nothing more than symbols for something deeper.
I buy a workout DVD to represent my intention to take better care of my body. There, I fixed it!
I buy a crock pot to represent my intention to save money. There, I fixed it!
I buy a bunch of tubs, bins, and dividers to represent my intention to get organized. There, I fixed it!
I buy double or triple the groceries I need so that I’ll always be prepared to feed my guests with lavish extravagance. A year goes by. Same food. Hey, money doesn’t grow on trees, you know. I’m glad you’re here but you’d better finish what’s on your plate.
Preserving food is a survival trait. It’s instinctual. We’re descendants of a precarious people, nomads and hunter/gatherers who lived on the brink. Throughout human history, entire villages have been wiped out by famine, a trend that has never yet ceased. We have an innate physical drive to acquire extra calories, particularly sugar and fat, and eat them as fast as we can get them into our mouths. For primitive people such as the Neanderthals, that was the only way to survive droughts or brutal winters.
For modern people, it’s a sure-fire path toward obesity, lifestyle-related diseases of excess, and, in the current consumerist moment, kitchens packed to the rafters with rapidly expiring packaged food.
Oh, and possibly debt.
I left town for Thanksgiving. I wanted to be with my family, and my husband had to work. I dealt with my conflicted emotions by going to the store twice in one day and spending six hours cooking an entire Thanksgiving meal for him to eat while I was gone. I labeled each container with masking tape and a Sharpie marker. It lasted him five days. The detail that should stand out here is that I didn’t draw from our pantry or freezer, other than to use cooking oil and seasonings. I just made up a menu, walked to the store with a shopping list, and walked out with a bag of groceries. When I realized that I was short a few items, I walked back over there and bought the rest. I used up everything while I cooked the meal. My husband ate it all. I could do it again tonight; that’s why they call it a “store.” Because it STORES things!
(What did I buy? Three pounds of sweet potatoes, a fine fat cauliflower, a bag of mushrooms, an onion, a package of cornmeal, a quart of soy milk, a package of bouillon cubes, a bag of green beans, a container of crispy onions, a loaf of bread, and a box of oatmeal).
I myself lean toward food hoarding. Somewhere deep inside me is the firm intention to have one of every item from every grocery store I visit. Why shouldn’t I have one of every single flavor of jam and salad dressing and five kinds of mustard? What, just because it will expire, potentially exposing me and my friends and family to mold, listeria, staph poisoning, botulism, and who knows what else?
My squalor people do not, as a rule, believe in germ theory. They just don’t. They have a deep sense of certainty and okayness that no level of filth or decay can ever cause any kind of problem or health issue. They’ll cheerfully live with vermin, insect infestations, black mold, and of course spoiled, rotten food. This is partly because due to olfactory fatigue, they no longer have much of a sense of smell. They don’t even notice strong odors like spoiled milk or animal waste. If you come over and you have a problem with smells or spores, well, you’re just uptight. Loosen up! Relax! Just scrape off the turquoise part.
I say it’s immoral to trick guests into eating expired food. Withholding information from someone is violating their free will. We can only make real choices when we have full knowledge of a situation. The golden rule says to treat others the way you would wish to be treated, which creates a loophole for people who would shrug off extreme, fringe behaviors like eating moldy food. We aim to treat others the way THEY would wish to be treated, with kindness and dignity. True hospitality comes from abundance and generosity; offering spoiled food is a pretty good definition of miserly stinginess and materialism.
Two easy ways to get around this are to 1. Host a potluck or 2. Meet at a restaurant.
Radical change is a way out. For those of us who are naturally very frugal, an interesting challenge would be to see how long you can live off your existing pantry stores without spending a penny on additional groceries. Then, test your skills by buying the smallest amounts of food and rigorously consuming it before it comes anywhere near expiration. The technical term is “food discipline.” The money you save by not maintaining an overflowing pantry can be used as an emergency slush fund.
I’m working on what I call Fridge Zero right now. I plan to do a full kitchen purge every New Year, emptying my fridge and freezer of anything dubious. Because this makes me feel anxious and wasteful, I plan meals around eating everything up after Thanksgiving. By the end of December, our fridge is gleaming and virtually empty, ready to receive lovely fresh new produce. If we get surprise visitors, I’ll either go straight to the store, or we’ll all go out for burritos. There is plenty and there will always be plenty more.
Anticipation, right? Suspense? Excitement? These are all part of the reasons we enjoy buying and wrapping gifts for people, true? Draw on these feelings and you can make it even more fun for next year. Set a reminder for yourself at some point during 2018, so you can save a little bit extra in advance. Maybe thinking about gift-giving in October, or July, or May will give you the nudge you need to put aside more of a slush fund. However much you splurge this year, you could be extravagant next year.
Future Self always seems so greedy and demanding. Dang it, Future Me, what do you want from me? Always judging and finger-wagging and tsk-tsking. I’m just over here trying to live my life. Now you want me to *switches to nasal voice* PLAN AHEAD and BE RESPONSIBLE and ngngngngng. I prefer to switch this around and think of myself as giving gifts to Future Me.
Oh, Meeeeee! I gootttttt something for youuuuuu! You’re going to liiiiiiiike it! But you can’t open it until next year!
Past Me! You shouldn’t have! *gasp* Oh my gosh, an extra $500 for gift shopping? It’s so me. I love it!
($500 between now and next year is less than $10 a week).
Of course, the other secret behind this idea of saving in advance is that it’s purely unselfish. We’re planning to use it all to buy lovely things for other people.
For some reason, most people can’t bring themselves to save money. Well, yeah, because we’re all broke! Ahh, but buying stuff with credit cards and paying interest on it makes us even more broke, even faster. The kind of savings I’m talking about, over the time span I’m talking about, can be achieved with really small tweaks or a very modest extra income source. Or both.
As a broke college student, I had several mini-side hustles that brought in a few dollars here and there. Added up together, it wasn’t nothing. Pet-sitting, babysitting. I used to charge $10 to clean someone’s bathroom. $1 to sew a button, $5 to hem a pair of pants. I made a little extra buying books and clothes at thrift stores and reselling them to used bookstores and consignment shops. I made significantly more taking notes for a disabled student and doing transcriptions for grad students. I actually had two official job-jobs, both part time. Even for a full-time Dean’s List student with no car and a lot of all-nighters to pull, it’s not really that hard to find ways to earn extra cash on the side.
(I’d charge more now; those were 2002 prices).
(Also, if I were a college student today, I’d learn how to repair smartphone screens. I’d charge $50 each and, as a bonus, I wouldn’t have to pay anyone else whenever I smashed my own phone).
It’s far easier to earn more than it is to cut spending. You can only cut back to zero, but you can earn until they run out of numbers. There’s no maximum wage.
That being said, there are tons of ways to cut expenses in small ways. If you have a very specific dollar amount with a very specific deadline, such as a scheduled holiday, you have the advantage of thinking of this as a game or a contest rather than...
We keep reminding ourselves that this is not deprivation, that we are voluntarily choosing to do something nice for someone else. We can go on to remind ourselves that we’d much rather spend our money buying sweet gifts for our favorite people than giving it to the banks that issued our credit cards.
How do you come up with $500 in a year?
Occasionally check out a library book rather than buying a new book
Pack a lunch or cook at home occasionally when you would have gone out
Quit buying soda
Bulk-buy snack food at Costco instead of stopping at a convenience store
Continue to go out, but cut back on appetizers, drinks, OR dessert
Get rid of your storage unit, or downsize and move into a smaller, cheaper unit
Clutter-clear your house and sell off extra stuff
Cancel cable TV
Do your own mani-pedi instead of going to a salon
Ask a friend to help you color your hair instead of going to a salon
See how long you can go by eating what’s in your kitchen right now before you buy more groceries
Weatherize your windows with shrink wrap and see if you can get your heat bill down
I don’t make these suggestions idly. My husband and I live in a 680-square-foot apartment and we don’t own a car. We also save 35% of our income and we have no credit card debt. In fact, as soon as I finish paying off my student loan, we’ll be completely debt-free.
Being debt-free changes your attitude toward buying gifts. We’ve been able to make family visits almost twice as often, and most of that extra money has come from the interest payments we no longer have to make. Sometimes I ask a friend for their address and send them a present, like a book we were just talking about or a random gift that just makes me laugh really hard. One year, a friend posted a picture on Facebook of a sign she’d found, from some little girls in another town who attached their letter to Santa to a bunch of helium balloons. It had their first names and their home address, along with their entire wish list. I looked up one of the items, a big pink foo-foo dollhouse, and I ordered it and sent it to them anonymously. Every time I look at the list of shipping addresses I have stored on Amazon, it cracks me up all over again. THEY SHALL NEVER KNOW IT WAS ME, MUWAHAHAHAHA!
Money is just a number. It’s a weird way we have of recording and transferring energy. We convert our life energy into work, and that work causes numbers to be tallied somewhere, which we then use for objects and services and our baseline lifestyle. That being said, money can also be a magical way to grant wishes and spark spontaneous smiles and laughter. (There is nothing I could have done in my physical form to delight two little girls I’ve never met; someone would probably call the police! But with money I could cast a spell of awe and wonder). Thinking of money in terms of bills and fees and fines and obligations is depressing and frustrating. Thinking of money as a sort of wand of power, a creative force that turns thin air into gifts, is an entirely different form of discipline. I wish you joy of it.
The New Superpower for Women, as Steve Kardian would have us know, is intuition. This is a self-defense book, and it’s a particularly good one. The central message is that we are empowered when we can anticipate and avoid crime before it happens. According to the book, one in four women will be assaulted in her lifetime, and I am one of that group. I can vouch for the information in The New Superpower for Women. We need to know this stuff.
Thinking about being assaulted seems like it would be depressing and scary. In reality, it’s a lot like defensive driving. You hope you never need it, and then one night you find yourself skidding sideways in the ice. Time seems to come to a standstill as you pump your brakes and steer into the skid. All the information you ever took in about what to do in that situation suddenly just springs up. Your body takes over. Looking back, you aren’t even sure how you did what you just did, but clearly, you did. Same thing if you’re ever attacked.
It’s not strength or speed, or at least it hasn’t been for me. It’s emotional intelligence. What we’re able to do so well is to read other people’s facial expressions, body language, speech patterns, and behavior. We read these cues and anticipate their mood and intentions. Then, usually, we talk ourselves out of our intuitive sense that something is off, something is wrong. Only later do we remind ourselves that there were several signs, clear signals, if only we had been paying attention. If only we had trusted our own judgment. That’s what Kardian is here to remind us to do.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the copious illustrations. We learn that criminals target victims by their stride, of all things, and there are illustrations demonstrating the types of gait that catch the wrong sort of attention. (Confident and aware is good, trudging and distracted is bad). The New Superpower covers scenarios from walking up to your car to running from an active shooter. This is the kind of thing that gives you an entirely new strategic mindset.
When I took my first self-defense class at age eighteen, the first exercise we all did was to shout “NO!” Would you believe it? None of us did it! Even in the safety of the classroom, even when we were all in A-student mode, not one of the women in the group actually dared to shout the word ‘no.’ Next it turned out that none of us knew how to make a proper fist, much less throw a punch. Those classes may have saved my life, not so much from the moves but because I learned how to evaluate scenarios and anticipate problems before they happened. Most importantly, I learned that it is my duty to incapacitate an attacker, because if he comes after me, he’s probably done it before and he’ll probably do it again to someone else.
What I liked best about this book was the way it addressed mindset. Kardian explains what happens when we put self-defense techniques into practice. He spends a chapter on the physiological responses that we feel in different levels of stressful situation, which basically means that certain moves work more or less well when we’re extremely freaked out. With imagination, we can visualize ourselves in these situations and mentally adjust. Hopefully, we never need any of this information, but when we start driving into that sideways skid on the ice...
We don’t have to be scared. Crime is pretty predictable, really. Walk confidently with your head up, make eye contact with people, and pay attention to your surroundings. (And read The New Superpower for Women, obviously). Even though I’ve been physically attacked, I still travel, even alone, even at night. With a phone and a camera in your hand, you’re more intimidating than you realize. The more of us who are out and about, the more witnesses there are and the safer this world is for everyone.
Books are my life. Actually what I typed there was ‘books ate my life,’ which was a typo but may be more accurate. I have fallen up a flight of stairs because I was reading a book while walking. I read while I brush my teeth. I’m not going to apologize for my reading habits. On the contrary! Reading so much has helped me bridge my way into other positive habits. If you love to read, you can use it as a tool to reward yourself and keep yourself company while getting other things done.
Audio books were the big revolution for me. Well, not exactly. Back in the bad old days, when they came on cassette tapes or CDs, they were pretty annoying and high maintenance. Library audio CDs especially would tend to skip and stall due to their many scratches. Digital audio solved those problems. Digital audio plus headphones! No longer would I draw curious stares and commentary when reading while walking; nobody would have to know. I haven’t fallen up a flight of stairs in years now.
There are three major things I do while listening to audio books:
Basically every aversive task can be improved with the addition of a book.
Let’s face it. The real reason most people don’t reach goals is that they involve boring, tedious, repetitious tasks, self-discipline, and time robbed from leisure pursuits. The most boring thing I can think of is running on a treadmill with no entertainment or distractions. On the other hand, I’ll run for miles in the rain and snow if I can do it outdoors while listening to a good book. It’s the same with housework. Ten minutes of folding and putting away laundry is, to me, like forty minutes getting my teeth drilled (except without the comfy reclining dental chair). With audio, folding laundry is just one ten-minute activity I do while blasting through a new chapter on 2x speed.
There are other mindless tasks I do while listening to a book. I skim through email, remove my name from mailing lists, categorize receipts, save news articles to Pocket, format my website, make illustrations, maybe fill out web forms or window-shop online.
The one thing I don’t generally do is to sit still and just listen to a book at natural speed. I’m so conditioned to be up and moving around while the book plays that my dog even jumps off the couch when he hears a narrator start talking.
It’s not all about the audio, either. I still read text books, as opposed to textbooks. That’s my husband over there reading another robotics textbook. I read hardcover library books and ebooks. Don’t care much for the paperback format. I’m still reading my way through the backlog of books I had bought and stuffed into my bookcase “for later.” I like library hardcovers for reading on the elliptical, because they have a plastic jacket and because they stay open. The pages don’t have to be turned as often as an ebook, due to the form factor of my tablet. I’ll also grab a hardcover if I see it sitting on the shelf at the library and the waiting list is too long for the ebook.
These are things you can do with a serious reading habit:
Clean your house
Cook healthy meals
Mend and iron your clothes
Sort and shred piles of junk mail
Give yourself a manicure
Experiment with cosmetics or hairstyles
Finish all your craft projects
Wash your windows
Clean your oven
Distract yourself from pain or illness
Clean out your fridge
Wipe down your cabinets
Groom your pets
Weed the yard
Dust chair rails and other fussy details
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My husband and I sold our car last spring, so we walk or take the bus almost everywhere. My daily mileage has gone from three to over seven miles on average. I walk to the grocery store, the library, the coffee shop where I sometimes write, and of course all the bus stops. My shoes are my car. Naturally a book accompanies me with every step.
Most audio books are under eleven hours. On 2x speed, that’s 5.5 hours. Spend forty minutes a day doing housework, half an hour cooking dinner, and an hour exercising, and that’s over two hours of reading time. Add in another hour of miscellaneous activities like getting dressed and fixing lunch, and you can blast through a book in two days.
When I was young, I could thank my obsessive reading habit for a lot of negativity. I always had a book in my lap or my hand. It reinforced my tendency to procrastinate. I was almost completely sedentary, which exacerbated my problems with chronic pain and fatigue. I felt chilly all the time. My apartment was a cluttered mess and I was a terrible cook. Sure, I’d read everything, which makes me fascinating (mmhmm) and gives me an ever-expanding vocabulary. I didn’t have much else to show for my vast erudition, though.
Now that I’m almost constantly listening to a book, I can look around and see the magical effects of literature. My apartment is clean and tidy. I’m fit. I’m always on the move instead of huddled in a blanket. I don’t have a backlog of unfinished craft projects. I enjoy cooking, partly because it means I can sneak in another chapter even when my husband is home. “It’s not you, darling, it’s Chapter Five.” All the stuff I never wanted to do before is now done, and it feels like nothing more than a way to pass the time while listening to talented voice actors.
If you love to read, you can use it to improve your life in additional ways. Whether you want to transform your house, your paper piles, your craft basket, your kitchen, or your body, you can read your way to it. What are you going to read first?
The lid comes off. Cookies! Each kind has its own specially shaped compartment. Chocolate covered cookies! Butter cookies! Rectangles! Tubes! Circles! I haven’t had lunch yet and they are just right there, a few inches from my hand. Free, chocolate, cookies. It’s not just that I could eat them, I’m supposed to eat them. Someone brought them in as a gift. They’re for sharing. Who would I be to reject such a thoughtful, chocolate-covered gesture?
I don’t eat any of the cookies.
Clearly I am a grinch. Guilty as charged. What kind of joyless, belligerent, terrible excuse for a human being would refuse free holiday cookies? I must hate having fun. Or maybe I hate watching other people have fun. Also, I must hate my body. Right?
The truth is, I don’t really care for chocolate all that much. Plain and simple. It doesn’t do much for me. Inexpensive chocolate is just gross. The last time I ate a grocery-store candy bar, it tasted like candles. Crayons, maybe.
There’s a lot more to my mutant ability to pass by a free box of cookies. I’m sharing because it was key to my total physical transformation. The reason for that is that cookies were one of my top trigger foods.
A trigger food is something that gives you a total case of swirly eyes. You don’t even make a decision whether or not to eat it; basically you take one look at it and it’s inside your mouth before you even realize your hand was in motion. You’ll eat it even if it’s low-quality or it’s been sitting around for a while, just as people in research studies will snarf down three-day-old stale popcorn while complaining about how stale it is.
My trigger foods were cookies, breakfast cereal, and rainbow-colored candies. My husband’s are white bread, pie, corn chips, and any kind of homemade baked goods. We were both serious cola drinkers, and we agreed to quit together, and fell off the wagon together, several times when we were dating.
The funny thing about trigger foods is that one person’s trigger is uninteresting to someone else. For instance, my hubby likes pita chips and I think they are gross. I used to date a guy who was obsessed with black licorice. I would eat cookies or cake for breakfast, a habit most people are much too smart to engage in. Now it gives me a headache just thinking about it.
Once upon a time, I worked for a bank in a big skyscraper downtown. In the lobby was a well-stocked convenience store. I would glance at it as I came and went, and I couldn’t help but notice the large, well-lit display of Pepperidge Farm Cookies. Oh dear. Ineluctably, I felt myself drawn inside, where I slowly took in each individual label. Gosh, there are so many different kinds of Pepperidge Farm Cookies. So many delicious flavors and all of them look absolutely awesome. We never got these when I was a kid. I bought a package and took them upstairs to my desk. No roommates or boyfriends would ask to share my nice expensive cookies!
I opened the package and carefully ate every crumb of one of these fine cookies, Milanos if you’re interested. Then I closed the package and put it in my desk drawer.
About a minute later, I opened the drawer, opened the package, and got out another cookie.
In the back of my mind was an intention that these cookies would last me a week or two. I thought of them as very expensive luxury items.
Needless to say, even after I moved the Milanos to the back of the drawer and locked it with a key, I got the mechanics of retrieving and opening the bag down to about two seconds. They were gone in two days.
The next fifteen years would demonstrate a conclusive link between my cookie consumption and my thirty-five pound weight gain.
There were other food habits I had to learn and unlearn before I finally figured out how to eat like an athlete. Pretty much mostly cookies, though.
I lost my taste for cookies, breakfast cereal, and other trigger foods at some point during my marathon training. I had assumed that cookies would fuel me past the finish line, and I definitely ate a lot of Nutter Butters and vanilla fig bars in the early days. Somehow, though, I lost my taste for sweets. Even sweetened dried fruit started tasting too sticky and treacly. Cereal tastes like baby food to me now. I just don’t want that stuff any more.
I still have strong associations between foods and celebrations. I still love to eat just as much as I ever did. My tastes have changed, that’s all. Sometimes I eat a cookie, and I look at it, feeling betrayed. “Cookie! Why u taste so boring!” I have to remind myself that my excitement over a particular food is not always matched by my actual experience. Usually it takes like three hundred attempts.
Now, the way I connect food to celebrations is to plan and cook a fine meal. I know I’ve won when I see someone pop up to get thirds. I know I’ve done well when someone insists on the recipe, and then cooks it next time I’m in town. I know I’ve done well when I can sit down, enjoy what’s on my plate, and not feel a sense of FoMO. I’m not missing out; there is always going to be a box of cookies within my reach, round the clock, twenty-four hours a day. I can if I want to, and most of the time, I choose something else.
Plastic bags breed in the dark. They do! That’s the only possible explanation. Plastic bags, paper sacks, wire hangers, and junk mail are running a breeding farm and they’re using stray socks for food. Clutter attracts more clutter. On the path toward minimalism, we can turn this around, recognizing and removing entire categories of clutter all at once.
My husband and I made a radical lifestyle change in spring of 2017. We sold our car and downsized into a tiny seaside apartment. Not only that: we did it all in eleven days! An unbelievably cool job offer and the chance to live at the beach made the transition irresistible. At the same time, dropping half our living space (again) in such a short time period made for some tough choices.
No garage = no garage stuff, no extra storage, no “indecision zone”
No car = nothing that requires a car to carry it around
No yard = no gardening tools, mower, etc.
We didn’t have to decide on individual items like, say, an empty plastic herb pot from planting basil starts. Everything from Category: Gardening went to a charity rummage sale.
Policies, not decisions!
One way to start a clutter chain reaction is to look at categories of items, like we did. Here are some examples:
All clothes that require dry cleaning
All plastic kitchen items
All kitchen items that are not dishwasher-safe
Anything stored in a cardboard box
All magazines older than three months
All clothes that don’t fit today
Anything that is cracked, stained, or broken
All expired foods and pharmaceuticals
Anything being stored on a countertop due to lack of space
Another way to start a clutter chain reaction is to work in the time dimension. WHEN are you using this stuff? If it isn’t an item of daily use, like your keys, it’s up for legitimate scrutiny.
Anything you used in the past but haven’t touched in a year
Anything you have never used but are convinced you might, possibly, one day, maybe
Anything linked to a past event that is only saved as memorabilia
Anything that only gets used in rare circumstances, such as holidays
Yet another way to start a clutter chain reaction is to evaluate based on storage. Where are these things being stored? Would the space be used more effectively to store something else? Could the space be used for an activity that can’t be done while it’s currently full of clutter? Would the space look more attractive and satisfying if it was simply kept clear?
Tops of appliances
The front of the refrigerator
A clutter chain reaction based on storage can continue on and on for quite a while. For instance, when I gave away all my crafting stuff, it freed up the giant plastic tubs I had been storing it in. Those tubs were then available for other stuff. I bought two plastic tubs sometime around 1995, and I can’t remember how many times I reused them over twenty years. I don’t have them anymore; they were too big to fit anywhere in our one closet, and there’s nothing left that I would have stored in them anyway.
The clutter chain reaction I’m working on right now involves an old bookcase. I’ve been annoyed with it since the day I bought it home from IKEA, because apparently the outer surfaces rubbed together during transport and abraded away the finish. It was clearly my fault, so I kept it, but that bookcase is a clutter magnet and it clashes with every other piece of furniture we own.
I can hear the anguished cries now: “Wait. HOW can you get rid of a BOOKCASE? Can I have it???”
I’ve been working on releasing hard copies of books, and I’ve downsized about 80% of my collection over the past five years. We move quite a lot, and I’m tired of packing, hauling, and unpacking so many heavy boxes. Also, I have a dumb tendency to buy books and then not read them because I’m busy reading library books I checked out for free. Once I read a book, I’m done with it. The exception is reference books such as cookbooks, and I’ve been digitizing those, scanning the few relevant pages or replacing them with e-books. I’m not obligated to keep a two-pound book that I bought just because I like three recipes in it. The author already has my money. Obviously, when I finish downsizing all of my books, I will no longer need the bookcase.
What happens when the bookcase goes out the door? I have a free space in the room. There is no longer a misfit, different in style and color from our other stuff. The other furniture looks more coordinated. There’s one less thing to dust, or, rather, one less large thing that contained a hundred smaller things. Most importantly, there’s no longer a clutter magnet in the form of shelf space, a series of flat surfaces that tends to magnetically attract mail, receipts, and random objects.
Thinking of clutter in terms of categories is an almost mystical secret tool for getting rid of it. Clutter doesn’t even have to be evaluated in terms of dozens of small categories. We can ask ourselves much simpler questions. The best question of all is, In the category of Items That Improve My Life Experience Every Single Day, does this thing fit?
Is it all getting a little too much? Do you find yourself caught up in a gift exchange that seems to escalate every year? Are you sometimes startled when someone buys you a gift that you weren’t expecting?
I can’t reciprocate
Because I didn’t anticipate
The way that you celebrate
Now I feel like a reprobate
Little ditty for ya there.
A sizable chunk of the population is still paying off credit card debt incurred from buying last year’s Christmas presents. (Do other winter holiday traditions have this same intense social expectation around gifts?) No matter how much you love someone, do you love that person enough to pay an additional 16% interest on top of the cost of their gift? (One of the benefits of being debt-free is that you can give more to your friends instead of your bank). Another relevant question: is this a Gift-of-the-Magi situation? Are we all sitting in the room, sweating our credit card payments, hoping our gifts are elaborate enough to meet the standard, to the point that we hope the gifts we receive aren’t... a little TOO nice?
This is sort of what happened with my own family, and finally I became a wet blanket and bowed out. We talked it out and decided that for the adults at least, we’d rather spend the money spending time together than on gifts. Plane tickets, group dinners out, the occasional family vacation. When you get to a certain age, you pretty much have everything you need. We were at the point where we were deliberately holding back on buying things during the year just so that we’d have something, anything, to add to our written wish lists.
There are a bunch of different ways to restructure gift-giving so that it doesn’t... heh... snowball out of control.
The “white elephant” party. My ex-in-laws did this with their extended family every year. It was a laugh riot! Most people brought joke gifts, although there would always be a few generic items like a scented candle or a box of chocolates. One year, I got a potted amaryllis bulb, which I loved, and evidently so did our neighbors, because a couple of months later they stole it off the porch when they moved.
Drawing names from a hat. This was the first stage of our Christmas gift exchange slowdown. We decided that we would all continue to buy presents for the children in the family as usual. The adults would all put our names in the hat, so that each person would only buy a gift for one other person, and receive a gift from some other person. We enlisted one of the nephews to assign names. Then everyone, kids and adults included, passed around wish lists. The adults had a $100 spending limit, so you could buy either one more expensive gift or a few smaller items. (Equivalent to spending $14.29 apiece on seven people).
Wish lists. This is a time-honored tradition in my family. Several people have told me they wish their own families would do this. Your job is to compile a long list of stuff you would like, covering all different price ranges. This solves several problems. One! Everyone can get you a gift without having to rack their brain figuring out what you might like. Two! They are guaranteed that you will love your present - no disappointed micro-expressions. Three! You yourself are guaranteed to get something you want. Four! You also don’t know exactly what you’re getting, because you made your list too long to be receiving all of it in one year. Five! Nobody has to worry about cost, because there should be a few $1-5 items as well as bigger stuff. Sometimes, several family members will band together to buy someone a larger item off the list, like when we all pooled resources to replace my grandma’s fridge.
Cookie exchange. This is another idea I’ve seen done for friend groups, like book clubs. Personally I am a big fan of the cinnamon roll flavor of Oreo.
Book exchange. I am given to understand that this is a tradition in Iceland. Everyone gives books as gifts and then spends the rest of the day reading them. COZY! I love choosing books for people I know well, and it feels like mega-points when they really like the book.
Gifts of experiences. This is another idea for family discussion. There are so many lovely holiday traditions that can be done with little or no money. One year we took the kids downtown to look at the animated store window displays. We’ve driven around to lighted-up neighborhoods to look at the decorations. My mom sat at the table with my brothers and me for about two hours one legendary night, and we rewrote “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to be all about food. FIIIIIVE ONION RIIIIIIINGS! Now that I live a thousand miles away, and there are often serious weather issues, we have to get together over Skype. We’ve done several games, such as team gift-wrapping using only one hand, or trying to copy a holiday-themed drawing while blindfolded and then comparing results. Still works even when some of us aren’t in the same room.
Charity. Another year, while I was jamming my foot on the gift-giving brake, I suggested that we all exchange charitable donations. Well, I did it anyway... I tried to choose something that would be meaningful to each recipient, and I looked on Charity Navigator to make sure I was picking a good one. We also discussed adopting a family for the holiday, and I did the research on this. Bring food and gifts and meet the family in person. It sounded amazing. Then it occurred to us that there were people already in our acquaintance for whom we could do this, so we do.
(Incidentally, I wish there was a way to connect with people in my neighborhood and share leftovers with them. Like a young couple with kids. “Hey guys, here’s half a lasagna, see you next week.” Right?).
Gift giving should be about love, joy, and delight. Choosing something for someone and watching their face while they open it is one of the best feelings. On the other hand, watching someone open a gift that obviously wasn’t quite what they wanted is a real bummer. Oh, well, it’s the thought that counts. Yeah? If that’s true, what if we just decide to put more value on the thought and less on the trinkets?
One year, my future husband and I agreed not to get each other anything. Then we both broke the promise. I got him a li’l something and he got me rainbow striped knee socks. That gift said that he understood me, that he saw me the way I see myself. Also that he knew I “had cold feet.” If he’d bought me diamond earrings, I would have been alarmed and put off, especially if they were on credit.
What we love about people usually can’t be summed up with a material object in the way that retailers wish it could.
If you love these people and they love you, whoever they are, then everyone will probably welcome an honest conversation about What This Holiday Means to Us. The traditions and the foods and the photo ops that we care about the most probably have little or nothing to do with opening gifts. Who is going to be brave enough to... break the ice?
IT’S DECEMBER! And you know what that means! Two entire months of... NEW YEAR’S PLANNING!!! Oh, gosh, there’s nothing quite as magical and special as spending two months celebrating a one-day holiday. They won’t let me do full-on Valentine’s Mania for two months, so I’m going with the New Year. Obviously everyone is going to dedicate the month before the New Year to the big day. I’m just doing all of January because I can, because I never want the glitter to end.
Look at my shiny new day planner! LOOK AT IT!
I got this 13-month planner so I could get a head start on 2018. Holy smoke. I can’t think of a year I’ve wanted to get here quite as much as I’ve wanted 2018. An entire year loaded with potential. So. Much. Potential.
Seriously, this is a big freaking deal. They say only 8% of people who make New Year’s Resolutions actually keep them, and I’m definitely in that 8%. I’ve been doing this every year since I was 9. Take all your feelings about freshly sharpened pencils, crunchy leaves, rainbows, puppies, cereal for dinner, and new socks, wrap them into one feeling, and that’s getting close to how I feel about my strategic planning process for my annual goals and resolutions.
How does it work???
Start with optimism. Whatever sucks in your life, you can get rid of it. No matter how much you are annoying yourself, you can stop. Anything you want to learn, you can learn, because this is the internet, yo.
Identify your open loops. There are 31 whole, complete days left of 2017. That’s actually a huge amount of time for year-end closure.
For the last few years, I have been doing quarterly check-ins on my goals and resolutions. This is not just for public accountability; it’s also to keep myself focused. I want to at least REMEMBER the fabulous plans I made for myself. For 2017 I tried an experiment, breaking my annual plans down by the month. That was a pathetic failure. Granted, our personal life blew up in the first week of the New Year, but saying that is like blaming your tiles for losing at Scrabble.
The big thing in my year is that I committed to two major fitness goals, and I have yet to complete either one. I’m supposed to be able to run five miles again, and I’m supposed to do P90X, since I bought it for myself a few years ago and it’s still in the shrink wrap. Either I’m going to fail or I’m going to spend most of December hopping around and sweating.
I have a large piece of furniture that I want to get rid of, and now is as good a time as any. I also have a few things to sell on eBay, and the timing will be particularly good if I do it within the next two weeks.
Every year, I clean my home top to bottom. I open every drawer, every cabinet, every cupboard, every closet, and I look at the contents of every shelf. This is partly a time to tighten screws and spot-clean walls and carpets. Mostly, it’s time to throw away worn-out socks, check expiration dates, and consider what needs upgrading or replacing. On New Year’s Day, I like to wake up to a gleaming house with some free storage space, with nothing to do but lounge around reading all day in my pajamas.
Every year, I also like to go through all my papers and digital files. Above all, I want to start the New Year with the feeling of a truly fresh start. That means no loose ends in the form of incomplete applications, unpaid fines, unsorted papers, unanswered email, unsent letters or packages, or otherwise incomplete bureaucratic work. DONE is what I want. I don’t even want to be in the middle of reading a book!
I’m doing Fridge Zero (more to come on this topic), and since I know I’ll be throwing out any leftovers, I’m also planning meals around what we currently have in the fridge, freezer, and pantry.
Coincidentally, December First is a Friday this year, and it’s one of my husband’s alternating three-day weekends. He’s cheerfully agreed to do a strat session with me. He has this vile habit of making his goals and then crushing them within the first three weeks. Upholders! What can you do with them? It’s up to you whether goal-planning with your friendly local Upholder is motivating or demotivating for you. As for us, we’re going to spend part of the weekend getting a head start on the delectable, once-in-a-lifetime 2018 that is coming our way.
Oh, and someone’s gotta say it, so I will. It has been exactly one year since December 1, 2016, so... HAPPY NEW YEAR!
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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