This is a story about planning and procrastination, a story about simplification and about complication.
This is a story of how it can take two weeks to plan a trip and twenty minutes to pack for it.
In ordinary circumstances, I’m a one-bag traveler. The more I have traveled this way, the better I have liked it. It argues for itself. I always know where my stuff is, I don’t have to go anywhere near the baggage claim, and in extraordinary circumstances I can dig out important items from my seat on the plane.
I’ve been flying on my own for over 35 years. I’ve tried so many different combinations of luggage and packing styles. I’ve got it down to a science: I open the suitcase, lay out everything I’m going to wear one on top of the other, matching the top seams to the edge of the suitcase, and then fold in the arms and legs and zip it closed.
I have literally made a video of this process and demonstrated that it takes less than five minutes.
Why do people get so worked up about packing? I ask myself. It has to be one of two reasons: worry about what people will think when they see you, about which I care not a fig, or worry about What Will Happen.
What if it gets cold?? What if it gets hot?? What if it rains?? What if Henry Cavill asks me on a date?
I will admit that I do worry about that first one, because I despise being cold and it has become a non-trivial problem in my life. The other three, eh, who cares.
I no longer attempt to pack a ball gown just in case I find myself in a simulation modeled after a romance novel. If I have to choose, I’m taking the thermal underwear, and I doubt there’s room after that for a crinoline.
Have I traveled through multiple countries with just a backpack? Yes I have.
This is why it is such a conundrum: why does it take so long, for someone who packs so quickly, to get ready for a trip of any duration?
For a vacation, surely anyone can understand that the more planning goes into the trip, the more fun it can be. I will never forget the day we arrived at a museum that we wanted to see - the entire reason we had stopped in this particular city - only to discover that it had been razed to the ground. All that was left was a flat gravel patch. Whoops.
Normally I will spend days or weeks researching restaurants - and double-checking that they are still there in the same location, with the same hours and the same menu. I will book shows and plot out grocery stores and pharmacies, and check the annual weather forecast and read blogs to find out what kind of bugs live there. All that good stuff.
This is part of why I can pack so quickly. By the time I get to the stage of hauling out my suitcase, which is an obstacle for daily life in a tiny apartment, I have a very strong sense of what the weather will be like and how I will be spending my time.
(The other secret is to only have clothes that you like to wear, stuff that you rate at least a 4 out of 5, so it doesn’t matter which ones you bring).
There is more to the planning of a trip than the activities that one does on the trip, though. That’s the future forecast part.
The real work is in getting ready to leave the apartment.
One of the bummers of travel is that such a large part of the trip involves re-packing, the return trip, and then walking in the door to resume normal life. Jet-lagged, perhaps sunburned, most likely dehydrated. With a suitcase full of dirty clothes to wash and put away.
And a messy apartment to clean?
This is the gift that I give to Future Me. After too many bummer weekends and road trips that ended in weird smells - ask me about the green juice I left on the bookcase by the front door one summer weekend - I decided that I needed to, at minimum, take out the trash before I left.
And clean out the fridge.
And make sure there was nothing damp in the laundry hamper.
And check for wasp nests in the bedroom.
Each, one by one, added to the list after bitter experience.
Trip planning has started to push itself further and further back into the timeline. Now, it involves making sure we don’t overbuy groceries, starting the week before the trip. It involves timing the laundry for optimal packing and minimal scariness. Ideally, it involves putting clean sheets on the bed the morning of travel.
There are other things that need to be arranged. Putting a hold on our produce delivery. Making sure I don’t have any appointments that need to be rescheduled. Perhaps putting a stop on the snail mail. Ensuring no packages are going to show up and sit inconveniently on the doorstep while nobody is there. What else, what else, what else am I forgetting?
On this particular trip, I ordered a box of supplies to be there on arrival. My special matcha, a case of soy milk, a bottle of mouthwash, and what else will I need? Hmm...
The biggest thing that I needed to arrange in advance was the ordering of my new MicroClimate helmet. I am hearing mixed things about how cooperative the various airline personnel will be in actually allowing me to wear my helmet through the whole trip. This is something I will have to write up. In the meantime, it seems possible that it might free me to ride the city bus once again, if I no longer have to worry about picking up every cold and flu the way I did in 2018.
There is one other important thing that I arranged in advance - over a month in advance, in fact - and that was getting my COVID-19 vaccines. I will be officially “fully vaccinated” the day of my trip.
I used to like to joke that all you really need is a bikini and a tiara. Now I think you don’t even need that much, just antibodies and a smile.
I bought myself a new desk. I realized it was time to take myself a little more seriously.
I’m still in the same 4-foot-square corner of our living room. That part hasn’t changed. We live in a tiny apartment, and if I wanted more space for my desk it was going to mean a major overhaul of our living space.
While I do intend to lean into my job more, I don’t intend for that to come at the expense of the comfort of our downtime.
So if I’m still using the same amount of space as before, what was the point of buying a new desk?
What I had was a make-do desk. A little desk. A desk that, in its cuteness, asked, Please don’t mind me. I’ll just squeeze in right here and try not to be noticed. I had a desk that apologized for the space it took up.
When I bought it, I wanted somewhere for myself, a personal spot where I could stash my papers and occasionally sit to do some writing. We were in yet another tiny apartment, and there just wasn’t room for anything more imposing.
Something that imposed simply by existing.
The tiny apartment was my idea. I didn’t want to build our lifestyle around a long commute to my husband’s job. If we wanted to live close to site, then it followed that we would have a one-bedroom apartment.
We just both assumed that The Desk would go to The Earner. He needed to work from home sometimes, and that required a computer that would run certain software, and that meant a desktop PC, and that meant a certain amount of physical space.
None of these constraints are incorrect by any means.
What it leaves, though, are certain built-in parameters. After the desk, there is square footage available.
Some people work these variables with things like a loft bed, or a desk that folds down from the wall, or they don’t have a dining table or a couch. I’ve even seen someone use his living room for a two-man hammock.
My choices again, but I like having a dining table and a couch and a traditional bed.
It was my choice to buy myself an apology desk.
My little desk was fantastic for its original purpose. I loved how it looked and it could fit almost anywhere. I usually worked at a cafe, and I don’t think I ever sat at the little desk for more than an hour at a time.
That’s why I never noticed that it had terrible ergonomics.
Then I got a full-time job working from home. I thought, look at my little desk paying for itself!
Several months went by. I started feeling very crooked and lumpy.
It was impossible not to notice. My monitor was a few inches too high, but I couldn’t stand and work because the work surface was too low. I was sitting on my foot, trying to prop myself up to optimal height. I could never get comfortable.
The other issue was that I constantly had to swap out components depending on what I was doing. Set up my company laptop whenever I had a meeting, then move it again so I could use my keyboard and work, then swap everything out again an hour later.
I started fantasizing about a different desk, but I didn’t think one would fit in the available space. I wasn’t sure how I would want it to look. I felt too busy to spend all my spare time looking at furniture listings.
I tolerated a bad situation for months.
There are lessons to be learned here. How often do we tolerate situations that other people are not in, just because we feel too tired or burned out to do something different? Because we feel stuck and don’t know exactly what else to do?
Finally I had had enough. What was the point of earning money if not to spend it on life improvements?
This is a lesson I come back to again and again. If a problem can be solved with money, then solve it.
I got out a measuring tape and set to work. My available space was 48 inches across. Since I already had a tiny desk, surely there were other desks larger than that, yet still smaller than the big beasts I was picturing in my mind?
It did take me a couple hours of searching until I found something I liked that was small enough. It was flat, with no riser to prop up my monitor. Since I’m short, this is what I needed. A taller person might want to go the other way, adding a monitor riser or buying a different style to get the right ergonomics.
The desk shipped right away and arrived in the evening, three days later. I built it on my off Friday. It took about an hour to assemble, and two hours of rearranging all my stuff. It had been nearly a year since I built furniture from a kit, and I had forgotten how fun it can be.
The next day, I had a surprising case of delayed-onset muscle soreness from all the crouching and bending and lifting and turning bolts, but it was worth it. I loved how my new desk looked. The moment I sat down and looked at my monitor, I thought, Ahh, yes.
My cute little secretary desk is now crammed into the corner of our dining room. I refuse to let go of it. I still love how it looks, even though it’s so wildly inappropriate for a nine-hour workday. There’s nothing wrong with it as a desk - it’s just not suited to have a computer on it. One day, one day when we’ve moved somewhere else, the little desk will go in our bedroom where I can use it to write in my journal. I can separate my personal life from my work life just a bit more.
One day, having a little desk will no longer be an apology. It will be a way to take up a little more space for myself. I have plenty of work to do and I’m entitled to have somewhere suitable to do it.
Something I’ve been noticing, as I contemplate moving from our 650-square-foot apartment, is that there are a lot of small apartments out there. In our area, there are entire houses that are smaller than this apartment!
It’s not just here. I’ve been trying to learn a little about interior design beyond “where do we put the rolling toolbox now that we don’t have a garage.” Maybe it’s just my algorithms, but I keep seeing places that are 500 square feet or smaller all around the world.
While it used to be common, before WWII, for most people to live in a home smaller than 800 square feet - and sometimes much smaller - we’ve come full circle. New construction seems to be going smaller as well. Tiny homes are hot, ADUs (accessory dwelling units) are growing in popularity, people are even bragging about how they live in a van.
DOWN BY THE RIVER!
Well, someone had to say it.
Personally, I don’t want to live in a McMansion for the single reason that I’m always freezing cold, and those big rooms seem to be drafty no matter how high you crank the heat. I think what’s going to happen to those big, multi-room homes is that more of them are going to be turned into hype houses or some other type of co-housing.
They’re going to have to, because there simply aren’t enough houses to go around. There is a shortfall of something like 4 million houses right now. By the time all those homes get built, there are going to be more young people entering adulthood and more new parents with young families. People have to live somewhere.
A lot of those somewheres are not going to be in a place with a big yard.
This is part of why I say the future is small. One of the things that I mean by that is that most people are going to be living in small homes, apartments, or shared housing for their entire lives. A century from now, nobody will even notice or care, just like most people didn’t a century in the past.
There are ramifications of this reversion to small homes.
When I think of the future, I always, literally always think of space habitats. I work in the space industry and I’m 100% positive that this is the direction we’re going. Consider the astronauts. Because of their passion to get off this dumb old rock and become spacefarers, they essentially give up all their privacy and personal space.
Dude, they don’t even have beds. The personal items they bring with them have to be weighed and measured. It’s like, I’m going to bring this roll of dimes as my item so I can distribute Space Dimes to all my friends. Well, and their families and neighbors, since I don’t have fifty friends.
In the future, I think the majority of people’s personal items will be digital. Our photos, journals, chat sessions, music playlists, and artwork will mostly be created and distributed in a virtual form. Because of this, it will be less and less common to have memorabilia in a physical form, other than something like a wedding ring.
We won’t get as emotionally attached to things like our old electronics, because we’ll associate them with being clunky, slow, and frustrating compared to what we have now. Also, there won’t be as many of them. I had a stereo in the Nineties that was the size of a small suitcase, and I don’t miss it at all. Nor do I miss my corded phone that picked up AM radio signals, or my old clock radio with the blaring alarm, or my answering machine, or any of the other 25 pounds of obsolete electronics I had 25 years ago.
Eventually it will all be mined for the metals.
Or recycled into flash graphene.
My bedroom in 1995 had an entire wall of books, housed on homemade shelves made of boards, bricks, and crates. That old stereo sat there too. All of that is now virtualized.
Next to it was a little desk with an 8086 desktop computer, big monitor, and keyboard. Took up the entire desktop. All of those functions now live in my phone.
I also had a big box of papers, including old school notes, bills, personal records, and junk mail. All of that as well is now digital.
Half the contents of my bedroom at the time were physical objects that I believed represented my tastes and interests. The way I spent my leisure time - reading, listening to music, chatting on the internet - used to take up considerably more space than it does today.
Now, it lives in my pocket on my smartphone.
The rest of it: my bed and my clothes.
We’ll still need somewhere to sleep in the future, I assume. Actually I assume that sleep will be a bigger deal in the future, as it’s when we’ll do a lot of our body modifications and perhaps also osmotic learning. It may well be some of the only private time we get to mentally and emotionally decompress.
We’re already adjusting to more personalized entertainment, in a way that is foreign to those of us who remember the Seventies and Eighties. It used to be that everyone watched the same show at the same time, because that was what there was. Everyone knew the same Top 40 songs, because that was what there was. Now, there might be five people in the same room, each watching a different show on a different device, all wearing noise-canceling headphones.
Welcome to the future, only more so.
I think we’re not going to notice the shift to smaller homes as much because we’ve all had our attention pulled to smaller and smaller screens. Our true homes are our phones anyway.
In the future, we’ll have less personal space, less stuff, and a smaller footprint in general. Our pets will be smaller, perhaps even bred that way. Who wouldn’t want a mini-giraffe? It’s also possible that we’ll start selecting for mates of smaller stature, that a century from now the average human will be closer to medieval size again.
For today, take a look around. If you had the opportunity to visit a luxury space hotel, is there anything in the room with you that you’d want to take with you in the rocket?
I came up with a new idea for Thanksgiving, and it worked out so well that I thought I’d share.
Or maybe other people have been doing this forever, and I was just the last to hear about it?
Anyway, it was just my hubby and me this year, after many years of either traveling or hosting large, elaborate parties. We were reciting all the delicious things we wanted to cook, and we realized:
THAT IS A LOT OF FOOD FOR TWO PEOPLE
Suddenly it struck me: What if we cooked all of it, and we just drew it out over the entire four-day weekend?
As soon as I had the idea, it clicked into place. Less cooking each night. Less cleanup. More space in the fridge.
We had already succeeded in eating up most of the contents of our freezer that month, and we had plenty of space. I had the additional idea that if we cooked Thanksgiving foods every night, we could box up some of the leftovers and make full fancy meals to save for later!
The idea sounded almost too good to be true. We could cook a fairly normal-sized dinner each night, just like normal, and we would get at least seven nights’ worth of dinners from cooking for four nights.
I’m here to report that it totally worked!
On Wednesday, my hubby made two berry pies. He’s the pie baker in the family. It is his considered opinion that fruit pies are better when they’ve had a day to rest. Also, it’s less work when the pies are the only thing going on in the kitchen. He was able to roll out the dough on a bare countertop with nothing and no one in his way.
There is something about the presence of home-made pies in the kitchen, waiting to be enjoyed, that makes everything else seem like less work.
On Thursday, we both cooked, and we were able to take turns to an extent. We haven’t had a kitchen that was big enough for both of us to cook at the same time in at least five years. I made cornbread and Brussels sprouts, and he made mashed potatoes and gravy. We also had store-bought cranberry sauce.
On Friday, we both cooked again. This time I made a double batch of green bean casserole and he made biscuits. We had leftovers of everything from Thursday, including plenty of pie.
On Saturday, we had eaten up all the mashed potatoes, so he made mashed sweet potatoes. Neither of us likes the kind with brown sugar or whatever. We still had leftovers of everything else from both Thursday and Friday at this point, including pie, and it was quite the spread!
By the time Sunday rolled around, the fridge and freezer were pretty full and we had at least half a dozen separate dishes to simply heat and eat.
You’re probably curious what were the main entrees, and that is something of a moot point, but we did it all vegan. The first night we made a Gardein holiday roast, and there was plenty for leftovers on Friday and one set of boxed dinners. The third night we made the regular Gardein turkey cutlets with gravy, cooking up a second bag so we could freeze a set of leftovers. The fourth night I made marinated tempeh and we froze our last set of boxed dinners.
We have a set of divided glass containers that I bought a few years ago. They have three sections, one larger and two a bit smaller. That works out to a main and two sides, though we were able to also fit in a little piece of cornbread in each one. We had three separate pairs of meals put away, and one night when we were very busy, we just whipped some out and microwaved them.
Arguably, that is both faster and tastier than ordering a pizza and standing on the sidewalk waiting for it. (We live in a city apartment).
It’s hard to say what the best part was about slow-walking our Thanksgiving. By Saturday we basically had a buffet of leftovers, just like most people do on Thanksgiving Friday. But we didn’t really do any more cooking or cleanup any night all week. We were able to fit everything in the dishwasher each night and easily wipe down the counters.
The only mistake I made is that I waited too long to go shopping, and when I went to buy myself a jar of cornichons, they were completely sold out. FAIL. Never fear, though, I learned from my error and restocked the next time I went in.
We’re definitely repeating our slow holiday feast. The only difference is that I think next time we’ll make cinnamon rolls for breakfast, too.
* Note: I also gave a little extra to the food drive that week.
I figured out this whole ‘capsule wardrobe’ thing. Except I don’t call it a capsule wardrobe, I call it:
I spent much of my work day, if not all of it, in meetings where we are expected to have our cameras on. Like many people in this situation, I have discovered that nobody can really tell what you’re wearing. Even the color doesn’t stand out much. The only thing that is particularly visible is my neckline.
I’m going with it!
Before All This Started (TM), I knew that I needed to replace my cold-weather wardrobe. I hate shopping, and even more than that, I hate letting go of my few favored garments. It seems that every year, the cuts, colors, and patterns available are more alienating and incomprehensible to me than they were the year before. There’s a sad irony in that I fit in everything and yet I don’t like any of it or want to wear it. What I had were four pairs of pants and a couple of sweaters.
I also had the problem that almost all my hot-weather clothes had spaghetti straps and necklines that were not appropriate for being on camera.
I needed something in a hurry - the on-camera decision was made a couple months after I took the job - and I was hardly in a mood to do a bunch of scrolling and shopping.
I picked out a t-shirt dress, tried it on, and saw that it was good. I ordered four more of the same thing in different colors.
Then the weather got colder. I ordered a bunch of leggings - again, trying on one pair for fit and then ordering variations of the same brand. This was fun because I realized that I could choose the wildest patterns that caught my eye and nobody but my husband and my parrot would ever know.
(She can see 200x more colors than the human eye, so this may in fact be a very weird and psychedelic experience for her).
The weather got colder still, and I ordered some heavy cardigans, what are apparently also known as “sweater coats.”
Keeping in mind that, post-COVID, I now start shaking with cold when the temperature drops to 68 F, I put a lot of emphasis on making sure I had multiple warm layers. Sometimes I still have to put a blanket over my legs and turn on the space heater, but I can get through the day.
The temperature dropped another notch. I found a miracle! Long-sleeved dresses with pockets big enough to hold my phone! This is basically the uniform I’ve been searching for all my life. I bought seven. Plus more leggings to match.
This is my work wardrobe now:
Five t-shirt dresses
Four big cardigans
Seven long-sleeve dresses with pockets
Roughly a dozen pairs of leggings
One pair of fake-fur-lined slippers
The big, dark secret here is that all of these garments are stupidly soft and comfortable. They feel indistinguishable from my pajamas, or in some cases are actually cozier. Plus not all of my actual pajamas have pockets.
My husband is quite envious.
None of these clothes are going to be seen on site at my new job - or, most likely, any job. There are two reasons for this.
First of all, my workplace has a “business professional” dress code. That means blazers and pencil skirts and brooches and pantyhose and all that fussy kind of thing. In no universe would something that feels like pajamas pass for suitable business professional attire.
Second of all, I may never be called upon to go to our physical building in my physical form.
My boss showed up on screen last week in a Ramones t-shirt. I have nothing to worry about from him. When we were discussing the policy change about turning cameras on, I told him, “I haven’t had my hair cut in over six months.” He said, “Neither have I.” Everyone on our team prefers working remotely, and it seems to have a lot of productivity advantages over commuting to the office. It may never happen.
If it does happen, if policy changes and we do start getting called in, I have two plans. Which one I prefer depends on my mood that day.
One plan is just to say, You know what? I’m working remote. I’ma stay right here.
The other plan is to shrug, schedule a real salon haircut, and go on a shopping bender. I have a preferred store that carries my size. I’d just get four pairs of slacks, four skirts, a couple of sheath dresses, matching blazers, and a dozen tops in various colors. I could do it in ninety minutes and get a cocoa on the way out.
All of that is part of the post-vaccine, post-pandemic fantasy in which it’s totally okay and normal to walk around in public again.
That’s the tradeoff. The thought of the world being normal again actually makes it sound exciting to get a proper haircut, go clothes shopping, and even eat in a mall food court. That fantasy doesn’t include the part about having to get up an hour earlier to put on fussy clothes and commute.
In the real world, I have to work in my living room in my tiny little apartment, which I virtually never leave for any reason, and sometimes it makes me climb the walls.
I applied for this job back in April, when I was still deathly ill from COVID, because I believed that the pandemic would last for three years. I knew that if I were right, I would be desperate for something to do! I wanted a way to keep busy. So far, we’re still on mandatory work-from-home status, continuing at least through next spring, and I have yet to be proved wrong.
Weird as the world is right now, unusual as it is to run an office out of our living room, at least I have one compensation to get me through. That is a little thing that I like to call work pajamas.
‘Wish list’ is a term that is probably used in a much more limited sense than it could be. That’s because most people are terrible at wishing.
I believe it’s good for us to be in touch with our hearts’ desires, both our own and those of others, whether they are close to us or not. It also seems clear that most people aren’t even tapped into whatever might be their heart’s desire. When the topic comes up, it can get awkward. There are those things we think we’re supposed to want, and then those things that we can allow ourselves to admit that we want, and then those things that we don’t want at all even though other people do.
Holidays are excellent examples of this, this thing where it’s not okay to say what we really want or do not want. We’re all supposed to participate in this big expensive ritual, trading gifts, and how long does it take for everyone involved to admit that we don’t even really enjoy it?
What if we simply transformed the experience by honestly talking it out with everyone?
My family has a time-honored tradition of writing wish lists for birthdays and any other gift-giving occasion. It’s a lot like registering for wedding or shower gifts. Write a list of every material object that you want, including the broadest possible price range, with enough items on the list that you can’t really guess what you’re going to get. Maybe at the top end is something expensive enough that the rest of the family can pool resources and give it as a group gift.
Example: If you drew our names, my hubby would appreciate a bottle of Cholula hot sauce or some dried blueberries. I like green tea and unlined index cards. Either of us would genuinely prefer these things to a wide variety of more expensive stuff, such as alcohol or a countertop kitchen appliance.
What people really want is to feel seen, understood, and appreciated. This is why it can be such a downer to receive a “nice” gift that will never be used. There is probably a very large audience out there who would rather get some nice mixed nuts and skip the rest.
I’m not necessarily arguing for frugality or simplicity - just authenticity.
One of the things I like to do is to choose gifts from gift drives. I like when there is an age and a highly specific item. I gravitate toward the teenagers and I try to pick something wildly frivolous if I can. Here are these kids with not much going for them in life, and they want one single thing - often a set of headphones. Sure, kid, no problem. Every teenager should have headphones so they can quietly listen to what is probably the worst selection of music they will choose at any point of their life. A gift for the whole neighborhood!
My hubby and I have been doing this together since before we were dating. He would usually pick a kid who wanted a bike, and then throw in the helmet and lock as well. We just wished we also had information on their favorite colors and motifs, like, is this a dinosaur kid or a rocket ship kid? Do they like red or blue better?
One year, I saw a Facebook post showing a big poster that someone had found in a field. It was written in Spanish. Now, my Spanish is A1 level, but I did take Latin in college, and I was curious enough that I pecked through it. It turned out to be a letter to Santa! These two little girls had tied their wish list to a helium balloon and set it loose, which is a lovely way to express a wish.
It struck me that I badly wanted to buy one of these gifts. I was a little girl, once upon a time, and I remember being starstruck by all the pink and purple stuff at the toy store. It was too late to go back in time and use my adult paycheck to buy Child Me any toys, but those girls were exactly the right age.
I realized, wait, I CAN GRANT A WISH!
One of the items was a ridiculously extravagant plastic dollhouse, exactly the kind of thing that two young sisters might want. I’m guessing, since I never had a sister, a wish that was probably not a good wish for me to wish. Make your wishes clean. A clean wish is a wish that is just for you, not one that drags in another person who might want the opposite.
I balked for a moment, thinking, is this weird? What if the parents were already planning to get this dollhouse for the girls? (Then they can use the gift receipt or pass it on to other little girls in the family). Would this freak the family out, getting an anonymous gift off that list?
I certainly hope so!!!
I did it. I ordered the ostentatious toy, and I used the address that the kids had written on their poster, and I sent it off, and nobody ever knew it was me.
Every now and then, when I’m adding an address to my Amazon contacts, I see their address again and I remember the silly thing I did several years ago, granting the heartfelt wish of two little girls in a city a hundred miles away. Every time I think, HA!
I’ve heard it said that it’s wrong to talk about giving to charity. How ludicrous. You mean you give to a charity that you care about so little that you won’t promote it to your friends? I talk about it, not because anyone is supposed to be impressed that I donated forty dollars to something, but because I want to normalize it.
I also want to normalize wishing. I think it would be fun if we spent more time surprising and delighting each other - something that is more likely to be completely free of charge, or inexpensive, than the rote materialism that we indulge for most formal gift-giving occasions.
I also think it would be fun if we focused more on wishing in general, and seeing how many of our wishes we can make happen for ourselves. What do we wish for our lives, our households, and ourselves for the next year?
It came up in casual conversation that my friend’s purse weighs over six pounds. The only reason she knows this is that she is recovering from major surgery and she is not supposed to lift anything that weighs more than... five pounds.
“What do you even have in there?”
“Everything! I’m like a Boy Scout - except I was never a Boy Scout - be prepared, right?”
“My husband is an Eagle Scout and he doesn’t carry a six-pound purse.”
Everyone knows that it’s a little silly to carry a huge, heavy purse. That’s fine - I am a big proponent of silly, as my sock drawer will attest. The main reason not to carry that big of a bag is that it can lead to chiropractic problems and chronic neck and shoulder pain.
Or at least it used to be.
The main reason not to carry a big, heavy purse now is that everything in it is vulnerable to contamination from coronavirus.
It also raises a few pertinent questions.
I happen to know that my friend still goes to church almost every day of the week. Physically. There are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of people doing this, which makes me really sad, because I was under the impression that church is about love and caring and having a close community. In my mind, that means protecting each other from deadly infections at the bare minimum!
Let’s change that subject, though, and talk a bit more about the whole “being prepared” aspect of scouting. I know a bit about it because I’ve been trekking for weeks on end with my husband, the Eagle Scout. It drives me crazy with envy that he got to do that, since girls are still not allowed, and I was obsessed with survivalism when I was around 12.
You mean to tell me you know how to build an actual snow cave?? And start a fire without matches??
This is why my hubby doesn’t carry a six-pound purse - or any purse. As long as I have known him, he carries:
...and, now, his eyeglasses and a mask.
I have learned this, having absorbed these lessons through proximity. And distance running. On the vanishingly rare occasions when I leave the apartment, I bring:
...and two fabric masks and a plastic face shield.
I bring my phone and keys even when I take out the trash, because I have to let myself back through the security system. One night I forgot, and I wasn’t able to go back up the elevator, and then the call box no longer worked due to a security upgrade. I had to call my hubby to come downstairs and let me in. Good thing he doesn’t go on travel anymore!
What a big purse is about is not really being prepared - it’s feeling like you can handle anything that might come up.
Is that actually true?
My friend mentioned that she carries a sewing kit. Yeah, me too. I have a sewing kit in my expedition backpack and another one in my suitcase. How would I deal with it if I... had a sewing emergency while I was outside somewhere??
...I... look over my clothes when I fold the laundry?
I have owned a sewing kit since at least the age of ten. I have used one several times. Not once have I needed it while doing errands or out for a run. Why not just keep it in the car?
There is one “emergency” item that I keep in my work bag - a bag that currently resides inside my bedroom closet - and that is a backup battery for my phone. I used to use it at least once a week, since I spent a lot of time on the bus, going to club meetings, or writing for hours in a cafe. (Remember when?) Then it turned out that I almost never needed it, because I got a phone upgrade and the battery life was better.
Why carry such a relatively heavy item everywhere I went?
My friend evidently feels safe and prepared because she has a sewing kit, among nameless other items, in her six-pound purse.
In reality, she is endangering her health post-surgery, causing herself actual physical pain by carrying so much.
She is also endangering her health by continuing to leave her house and socialize with people in enclosed indoor spaces, like she used to do before the pandemic.
Look, I know a lot of people are still gallivanting around because they believe they have evaluated the risk and made a conscious, adult decision. I know that. One of them had a phone conversation with me last week, wanting to know why I hadn’t made a bigger fuss about how serious my COVID symptoms were, because if she had realized she might not have traveled with three other families who all wound up getting sick.
What I’m talking about is how people make decisions, and how we evaluate risks, and what we do to mitigate those risks.
I changed a few things after I got sick with COVID. One of them was to reevaluate who I accept into my social group. One of my close friends is a loving, giving person who tolerates a wide spectrum of behavior in her friends that I don’t really tolerate in mine. I don’t trust her friends, and therefore I won’t socialize with my friend until the pandemic is over. Afterward, well, I’m still going to reevaluate.
We had a quaranteam buddy for a while. That ended a few months ago for a variety of reasons.
My husband and I now socialize with zero people in person. The only people we see are our inconsiderate neighbors who refuse to wear masks in our building lobby, laundry room, elevator, etc. We are physically afraid to open our front door, much less go anywhere.
That’s why neither of us will be found carrying a six-pound purse. Carry it where?
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.
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'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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