It appears that much of the world is ready to move on from the great pandemic of 2020, even though more people have died of COVID already this year than in all of last year. That’s a big lesson to take away from all this, that commerce largely continued in spite of everything.
This is why it’s a particularly good time to think about how many vehicles you have, why you have them, how they affect your life, and how much they cost.
How many people out there still have a two-vehicle household, even if both those cars mostly sat idle all of last year?
How many people are still paying to insure two vehicles (or more), even when one or more members of the household may be working from home for the rest of their career?
How many people are still paying on dormant vehicles even after they’ve started having a lot more things delivered?
My husband and I got rid of our car over four years ago, and it’s been a big lifestyle upgrade for us. We were congratulating ourselves for having made that decision, since both of us have been working from home for over a year now. If we had still had a car, all it would have done for us was eat money.
Have you thought about that much? That unless you are a ride share driver, your vehicle probably sits around uselessly 90% of the time?
It seems that a lot of people feel panicky when they think about getting rid of a vehicle. The idea makes them feel trapped and poor.
I get it, but it still seems weird to me. Driving is incredibly stressful. It’s also expensive.
I first decided to get rid of my own car when I crunched the numbers and suddenly realized that my car cost a quarter of my net income.
Granted, I didn’t make very much money. From my perspective that made it even more important to cut that thing loose. Car, I cannot afford you.
I sold my vehicle, quit having to make car payments or cover insurance, and within a couple months I realized how financially freeing it was. Suddenly my credit cards were paid off. I bought a new couch and went on a proper vacation for the first time.
Then I married someone who still had a vehicle. In a way it was cheating. I had access to his truck if I wanted to do something complicated like go to Costco. I kept most aspects of my personal car-free lifestyle, like riding the bus to work.
A few years went by, and my husband got a job with a very gnarly freeway commute, and he kept getting delayed by construction or accidents, and sometimes we couldn’t have dinner until almost 9 pm, and we both got tired of it. We decided to move and just make sure we lived within walking distance of his work.
This was the “reconsidering” phase of our marriage.
We moved to a walkable neighborhood, and we loved it! Suddenly, instead of these nights of nightmare traffic, there were quiet evening strolls past various rose gardens and fruit trees. It was like waking up in a movie with a happy ending.
When it was time to relocate again, we took it a step further. If we were going to stay in a walkable neighborhood in our new city, it meant living in a smaller space. We got rid of the majority of our stuff and went for it.
Would we go back to the way we lived when we first got married, when we had constant access to a personal automobile and plenty of consumer items?
No. Even though it meant having two bathrooms.
There are some considerations coming up for us. It’s possible that we might have to start going to work in person, probably not full-time, but maybe more often than zero.
What are we going to do?
We talked about buying a car again. We can afford it - we’re debt-free with plenty of savings, partly because a car is no longer eating $700 a month of our income. It would make certain parts of life more convenient, of course. If it was all “lose” and no “win” then nobody would have one.
The reason we decided not to, even though we both work in the same place, is that it would add significant complications to our lives five days a week.
Every morning, we would commute in together - unless my husband is on travel, which is often and also wildly unpredictable. Either he would constantly feel like he was wasting his life going in late and staying late, or I would be exhausted from trying to start work with him at 7 am. Either way we would both be chafing at each other. Not only is he an extreme lark, he’s also deeply punctual, while I am dopey in the morning and incapable of being hurried.
So a car would ruin our mornings and probably cause us to start the day annoyed with each other.
Then there would be the daily complication of whether we were leaving together or not. Did one of us have a late meeting? Did he need to go straight to the airport? Was one or the other of us invited out to dinner with coworkers? Was he trying to hit the gym?
We realized that would be our situation. If we bought a car, we would have to check in with each other literally twice a day to figure out if we were riding together or not. Very messy.
Some people may be recognizing themselves in this. Others might be shaking their heads, thinking, yes, this is exactly why we have two cars. I will never give up my car because I can’t stand to be in that situation.
If that is the case, I would suggest a quick, cursory check-in. Are ya debt-free? Do ya have plenty of savings? No? Okay then how much do your cars cost again??
We won’t buy a car again. It’s stressful and we’re over it.
What will probably happen is that if I get called in, learning that I am expected to work on-site, I will either ride the bus and wear my MicroClimate helmet, or I might buy an electric bike. (Nowhere really safe to park it in our current apartment, though). My hubby might buy a motorcycle, not so much for the commute as for the fact that he just really loves motorcycles.
It’s also possible that we might just find ourselves a place a couple miles closer to work. Who knows?
Nobody has to do anything. Reading this post certainly will not force your hand. It can’t hurt, though, to occasionally ask yourself a few strategic questions about your lifestyle and whether it really is working for you as well as you think it is. Wouldn’t it be interesting if you made a few changes, saved a bunch of money, and also had a more satisfying and interesting commute?
I got my DNA analyzed. I spat a copious amount into a vial and sent it through the mail, and several weeks later I got my results back. What I found surprised me.
What I thought I was going to find out was something along the lines of genetic risks for health conditions like heart disease, breast cancer, or Alzheimer’s disease. This made me pretty nervous. It turns out, though, that that’s a different test run by a different company.
(For the curious, I did the AncestryDNA test, which focuses on family heritage. There is a 23andMe test that offers more of the health risk analysis - it just costs more. Now that I know this I will probably spring for it at some point).
(And make someone else read the results because I’m not even sure I want to know if I have Alzheimer’s risks).
There are a bunch of rather personal quizzes that go along with the Ancestry test, things that I never really associated with genetics. Do you have hair on your toes? Can you curl your tongue? Do you dislike cilantro?
I don’t know much, but I do know that if someone thinks cilantro tastes like soap, you will definitely hear about it.
I was mildly curious about the countries of origin in my family tree. My results lined up almost exactly with what I was always told about earlier generations in my line. The way that information was presented was pretty cool and made me want to know more.
What surprised me was the section on genetic traits, much of which pertained to food selection. This is because I am particular about food and lifestyle, and yet my genetics would seem to work at cross-purposes with a lot of these things.
I was an extremely picky eater as a child. I simply refused to eat most vegetables, and my family let me get away with it. I also started having very strange health issues as a teenager that led to a few trips to the ER.
To everyone’s surprise, especially my own, I grew up to be a health nut. As an adult, I eat more organic produce than anyone I’ve ever met - in fact, I’m pretty sure that I personally eat more veggies than the average family of four. I don’t drink alcohol or coffee out of distaste. I’ve been a vegan for nearly a quarter-century. I ran a marathon. I’m… that person.
Looking back on the way I ate as a little kid, I can only shake my head. There was stuff I absolutely hated, stuff that activated my gag reflex, that I now crave and cook for myself as an adult.
Thus it was fascinating to see the results of my genetic tests and how they related to my diet. I had experience in both loving and hating the exact same foods, and as far as personal preference, I knew it was subject to change.
The biggest surprise in my results? I’m supposedly one of those people who hates cilantro!
I don’t think I ever tasted cilantro until I was already an adult. It’s fine. I’ve eaten it in various cuisines and never had a problem with it. In fact I buy it myself and put it in all sorts of stuff. I’ve even planted it in my yard.
I supposedly don’t get “alcohol flush,” where your face turns red if you drink booze. I don’t remember whether this is true or not because I don’t drink alcohol as a rule. I dislike the taste and I see no point to it. The only thing that happens to me when I have had an alcoholic beverage is that I get a strong case of the spins for several hours. Whether it makes my face turn red or not, I don’t care, and think of the money I save.
Okay, this is weird, because the test says if I eat asparagus I probably can’t smell it when I pee. That is wrong, and what a strange question to test. I wonder if some people just never eat asparagus and thus give a misleading answer to the question.
Another question about genetic traits and food is “bitter sensitivity.” This is something that a lot of people give as their reason for never eating a single bite of cruciferous vegetables. Well, here ya go. According to my genetic test, I personally should be “extra sensitive” to certain bitter tastes such as Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and kale. Remembering how extremely picky I was about eating vegetables when I was a child, I believe this to be true.
Now that I’m an adult, however, I buy, cook, and eat these bitter vegetables all the time. I eat cauliflower and broccoli at least once a week, and sauerkraut almost every day. I regularly eat these and kale, chard, collard greens, cabbage, bok choy, and even kohlrabi. The only one I have issues with is mustard greens.
Another food category that came up in my genetic traits was caffeine consumption. The test indicates that I might drink less caffeine than average. This is true, because I loathe coffee. It’s disgusting and I think it smells like fish. I do love green tea, which I drink almost every day, but I have to stop at one and I can only drink it in the morning. When I occasionally feel enticed to drink it at dinner, it will keep me awake until 4 am.
It makes sense to me that this would be genetically influenced. Unlike with the nice healthy veggies, I don’t see any benefit from increasing my caffeine consumption, even though green tea is associated with longevity and is supposed to be good for your teeth.
I “probably don’t have trouble with dairy.” I quit consuming dairy products in 1997, and almost immediately the smell of milk or cheese became seriously repulsive to me. I mean rank. Under no circumstances would I voluntarily eat dairy products ever again. But it’s interesting to see that this might have nothing to do with my DNA, and more the fact that no animals other than humans consume milk into adulthood.
A couple of other traits came up in my test. I am “probably extra sensitive to umami” or savory flavors. This probably influenced my picky eating in childhood. As an adult, I don’t care for salty foods. My DNA suggests that I’m “probably less sensitive to sweets.” This is funny, because even as a child there were sweet foods I did not like, especially marshmallows and pancake syrup. I cannot stand high fructose corn syrup.
It mystifies me why most snack foods are appealing to people. I can walk through a convenience store and remain unmoved by almost every single thing in there. Now that I’ve seen my DNA traits, which mark me as extra-sensitive to certain flavors and less sensitive to others, maybe I’m just a mutant?
This is the advice I would give to other extremely picky eaters. 1. Read up on nutrition. 2. Try different cuisines with a friendly, open-minded person who knows what to order. 3. Learn to cook, and then cook better, and then keep going. Every picky eater should be required to cook their own meals out of self-defense. I’m here to tell you, on a scale of picky eating, I’m sure I was a 98 out of 100. But I learned to change my tastes and genuinely enjoy things that used to make me gag. My life is bigger and better because of it.
Genes are not destiny. Genetics is a relatively new science. Whatever my genetic traits might indicate, I am far healthier and more energetic as a person who eats all the vegetables my tests claim I might not like, rather than a bratty kid who spit them out. And if your kids do the same, bring them into the kitchen and start teaching them. Don’t allow them to go on passionately rude rants about how gross things are - they can write it in their diary and keep it to themselves. They’ll think it’s funny when they finally grow up to be open-minded, curious foodies and great cooks.
Something occurred to me recently about why chronically disorganized people live the way they do. Often it’s because they are suspicious about things, and these suspicions keep them from relying on the same systems that ordinary people use.
This sounds bonkers, and it sort of is, but I think this is a missing piece in the puzzle of why some people struggle so much with basic life infrastructure.
Take banking and bill-paying, for example. This is something that I think about maybe 5-10 minutes a week. My paychecks are automatically deposited, and expenses like our phone bill are automatically deducted. I only have to mess with this system when I pay a one-off like a dental copay. I don’t mind doing this over the phone because I like to chat with the receptionists at my various dental offices.
What is simple in my life is extraordinarily complicated for all of my people. Every single one of them. They all have massive paper problems due to a combination of problems, but certainly one of the root causes is a complicated, 1970’s-level bill-paying system.
Another common, perhaps universal, feature that my people have in common is that they will lose track of uncashed checks. Then we will find them years after they should have been deposited. Sometimes the same checks will turn up in more than one session, because my people can never stop punishing themselves for neglecting to get that money.
Whenever I try to explain my simple system (“automate everything and do it electronically”) my people all start violently shaking their heads back and forth. Literally they all do it.
Under no circumstances are they ever going to trust direct deposit
Absolutely not, no, they are not going to set up automated billing and have a single penny deducted from their accounts, not by anyone
They are suspicious, pure and simple. They don’t trust the system and they are not the kind of people to trust anything quickly - or slowly - even if everyone they know is doing it.
Does this remind you of anything? Any vaccine-hesitant people you know, perhaps?
It’s not just electronic banking, something that has been in use since the 1990s. I get that one because I, too, had to be convinced to give it a chance. By more than one person. I think it took two or three years of hearing the same testimonials from people who didn’t know each other at different workplaces. Aha, I thought, I guess I must be the last person in the world who isn’t in on this. What finally caught my attention was that I could get my money sooner each week.
But then I’m susceptible to that type of argument: that something is more convenient or cheaper.
Suspicious people are not convinced. In fact, the juicier the benefits, the more they feel that they are being bamboozled.
Another area where I think this natural suspicion comes up is in the most deep-set type of disorganization of all, food hoarding.
My people absolutely do not believe in the concept of expiration dates.
They also do not believe in germ theory.
Now, this one is emotional for me because I used to have a strong impulse to hoard food. It was painful for me to throw stuff out. I did draw the line, though, at anything visibly moldy, discolored, or otherwise spooky.
My people don’t. If someone else suggests that maybe it’s time to throw away something with blue fuzz on it, they will react as though someone is emptying out their bank account.
How dare you!
It doesn’t usually get you very far to make a direct challenge to a hoarder’s general policies and principles. Food hoarders, far more so. It’s not like nobody has ever told them that there are biological limits to how long a former foodstuff can be absorbed by the human body, or that nutritious content has a time limit. They know better.
Oh, they know all right. They just vehemently disagree.
These so-called “expiration dates” are just part of the plot. THEY are trying to trick you and make you spend money on stupid things like fresh, tasty, nutritious new food.
As a hint, abundance mindset would teach rather that we all deserve to get maximum enjoyment out of our meals, that there is plenty to go around, and there will always be plenty more.
I have had some mighty fine meals as a broke person, eating with other broke people, when we did potluck or stone-soup together. There are a lot of ways to get fed even if you are in debt and/or don’t have a job.
A large quantity of expired food says a lot of things. It says there was enough to share with others, except that nobody did. It says that there was plenty for the household to eat, and evidently more than they needed. It also says nobody is in charge of closing the loop - making sure that stuff gets finished up while it’s still good, that stores are being rotated, that someone is in charge of getting maximum value out of that pantry.
Similarly, stacks of unsorted papers say a lot of things, too. They say that someone is overwhelmed and confused. They suggest that someone is nervous about what might be in all those unopened envelopes. They also say that someone isn’t ready or willing to field-strip the mail as it comes in, because for whatever reason, they think it will need more mental energy to process than that.
There can be an element of suspicion in all of this. Suspicion that the world is going to fall apart and we’ll need every one of those boxes and cans - and isn’t it time to reevaluate all that stuff, a year and a half into this global pandemic? Suspicion that someone is going to steal my identity, and therefore I need to carefully shred every scrap of paper that comes in my door, only I don’t have time right now.
Some of this same suspicion and scarcity mindset is behind a lot of people’s so-called “yard sale” piles as well. I really need to get maximum value out of this stuff and I need to hang onto it until I can put enough time and attention into it. Otherwise people are going to try to bargain me down.
Meanwhile, the uncashed checks remain buried in the pile, and the food supplies are aging, and the yard-sale stuff is gradually becoming more dated and less valuable.
The punchline to all of this is that my people are unlikely to accept help when it is offered, and why? Because they don’t trust anyone’s motives and they don’t trust anyone to do it right.
Suspicion will keep you disorganized. It’s only when you start to examine the emotions behind why you do what you do, that you can gradually start to consider making your life easier.
There are lots of ways to do things. If something works for someone else, isn’t it possible it might work for you too?
We went in to work for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
By “we,” I mean a group of people who were hired after the shutdown. We didn’t know where to park. We didn’t know our way around campus. We couldn’t find the cafeteria. We didn’t know where our desks were. We didn’t even have security badges.
That’s why we went in, for a site tour. We’re not actually officially back yet.
Like a lot of office workers, we’re in a weird condition right now. The rules vary a little bit depending on what state we live in, and there’s a certain amount of subjectivity. I don’t think anybody really has a sense of what would be the smartest, most efficient thing to do.
I was in quite a tizzy before we went in. My husband and I got rid of our car over four years ago, so I didn’t have an obvious way to get there - or, more significantly, to get home again. When I tried to call a rideshare home, I couldn’t get a Lyft and Uber canceled my ride. I walked over five miles that day. That’s one issue to overthink.
I hadn’t had a regular day job for over ten years before I got this job, and not only do I not have a corporate-appropriate wardrobe anymore, I realized that I don’t really know what women are wearing to work these days. At least, not in an office that leans business-professional.
This was the toughest part for me. I knew I would have to go in and get my picture taken for my badge. To say that I don’t photograph well would be a massive understatement. If I ever had a mug shot taken for some strange reason, everyone who saw it would automatically assume I was guilty. I always blink in photos, so they have to be reshot, and the photographer always tries to trick me by taking the picture before the count of three, and I’m trying not to blink, so I get crazy eyes. I’d show you but I don’t need the evidence floating around the internet.
So I get to wear this thing around my neck on campus all day, every day? Terrific. Now everyone can assume my baseline personality is angry and insane.
I took a vacation day before our site tour. I knew I would need time to find something that fit and looked reasonably appropriate.
The problem with staying home throughout the pandemic is that I bought a bunch of comfy stuff to lounge around in, my work pajamas, and none of that stuff is suitable to wear outside my apartment. More than that, it is very nebulous on sizing.
I couldn’t order something to wear in to the office because I had no idea whatsoever what size I am now. All I know is that it isn’t the same size I wore in 2019, because none of my normal clothes fit anymore.
It was the first day of the reopening in California.
You could go to our local mall before this, of course, or at least that’s what I heard. I hadn’t been anywhere near it since February of 2020. It was so strange walking in those doors like nothing had happened and seeing the same stores, with people walking around showing their bare faces. Like we had gone back in time.
I still wear my mask indoors, because nobody can stop me, and I most likely will for the rest of my life.
The other thing that hadn’t changed since the last time I went inside the mall was that none of the clothes made any sense.
This is going to continue to be a problem, because I still have a need for more than one outfit.
I went directly to the store where I had the most success finding corporate-type clothes that fit my build. I thought I would find a few things and try them on in three different sizes, and then I’d buy whatever fit, and then we would leave and eat lunch.
My friend was helping me, and now I owe her, because nobody should be forced to try to shop for clothes with me.
We both looked through every item in the store, and it was nothing like what I remember, because every item on the racks screamed “vacation,” not “return to office.”
Bare midriffs. Nobody should have to look at my midriff, especially not me.
Spaghetti straps. Low-cut tops.
Ruffly, fluffy floral dresses.
Shorts and more shorts.
“Is everyone going on a cruise?” I asked.
There was literally not a single garment I would wear into any office where I had ever worked or visited.
We left and went to a second store, where the problem was, if anything, significantly worse. I tried on a garment that was completely unsuitable, just to be polite, and it hung on me and fit oddly and was unflattering to a devastating degree. It was also $450, which I would almost have been ready to pay if it would get me out of this situation with something I could wear the next day.
We left and went to a third store, which had the same problems as the first two, only on a smaller scale because the selection was smaller.
We left and went to a fourth store, ready to give up. We got separated looking through all the racks.
Finally I found something that I would rate as a 2.5 out of 5. Under ordinary circumstances I would never have chosen it, but at least it looked workplace-friendly. I tried it on. It was so low-cut that I would have to wear something like a camisole under it, but it would have to do.
Then my friend called to me. She had found something. I called her in to the changing area, where she brought… the exact same dress in the exact same size as what I had just tried on. We couldn’t even laugh.
Unfortunately, I still don’t know what size I am now, because this dress is a “medium,” the vaguest size with the broadest range of all.
Everything about the experience of “returning to the office” was awkward, stressful, and inefficient.
I still don’t know where I’m going to sit or when I’ll be expected to start going in. I still don’t know what I’m going to wear or where I’m going to find it. I still don’t know how I’m going to commute in each day, or if I will have to.
As much as I’d like to visualize myself and my colleagues, happy and thriving on an ordinary workday, all I know is that I’m going to have to walk around wearing one of my all-time worst photos around my neck.
Can’t we all just stay virtual?
Robots are already here, just like jet packs and flying cars. What’s next is a question of who has them, where they are, what they’re supposed to do, and how they are actually used. Cats riding around on Roombas? That’s just the beginning.
Something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot is the idea of AI therapy. I think it’s the only way to democratize something that, at the current moment, is unaffordable for most people. I’ve been hearing stories of people waiting months for an appointment with a therapist because demand exceeds supply. This is because good therapy doesn’t scale.
Ideally, a person in need could schedule almost unlimited sessions with a talented, caring therapist who is a good match, and it could be on demand. If someone is having a breakdown at 3:00 am, well, they need someone, and why should they wait?
In the human world, that is obviously too much to expect even of a highly compensated and trained professional. People need to sleep, at the bare minimum. Sometimes they’re going to be in the shower. Even if a living human being could be “on” every minute of the day, they can only talk to one client at a time - and this is the major reason why therapy doesn’t scale. It’s not like a fitness class where a few more people can crowd into the back row.
To my understanding, there is already chat-based therapy on the market. You can trade text messages with someone when you need counseling. I can see how that would really help a lot of people who don’t want to look someone else in the face, or have reasons why they don’t want to travel across town, or are in a room where it isn’t safe to reveal what they are doing. People have already adapted to the idea that you don’t need to vocalize to have a rewarding conversation.
I don’t think artificial intelligence is *quite* ready to take the place of traditional talk therapy. I do think it wouldn’t take much, though. Early experiments dating as far back as 1964 show that people are surprisingly willing to get into it with a string of text. I bet a lot of people would be more willing to reveal their deepest secrets and darkest moments if they knew it was only going to, well, a vending machine.
The great thing about an always-on chat therapist is that you could let your mind wander and ask it random things, like what you should wear to your job interview or how to rearrange your bedroom furniture, and it wouldn’t mind.
Something I’ve been thinking about besides the idea of a universally accessible and artificially intelligent therapist is the way that people are using robots in the home. They are becoming fairly routine in caregiving settings. I would have pictured industrial robots disinfecting surfaces or monitoring vital signs - and there are bots that do that - but what we are seeing are more along the lines of things for cuddling and social interaction.
A lot of the stuff that is meant for monitoring, disinfecting, and other chores is going to be built into the building infrastructure. We aren’t even going to recognize that these are robots, any more than we think of an automatic hand sanitizer dispenser or a dishwasher as robots.
The crossover isn’t very far away. You take a sensitive and responsive chat AI that is always available and perceived as trustworthy, and then combine it with some kind of cuddly, harmless robot body. If you get it right, and manage to avoid the uncanny valley entirely, what you have is an irresistible empath-bot.
A lot of us grew up with two robots, one a clumsy and socially awkward nerdbot and the other an endearing appliance. I already know which one you would feel more comfortable trying to engage in serious conversation.
What we’re going to have in the near future is something that feels more like a beloved pet, yet wiser and kinder. Something endlessly patient and occasionally funny, something that never misses on mood.
At this point of development, I think this bot would also be fully capable of tracking all our appointments, stray bits of information, and the location of our keys, glasses, and remote controls. This is why we would trust it so much, because it would keep us out of trouble over and over again.
All we can do is wonder what would happen if most people suddenly had access to the trauma robot, even people on the street or in jail.
Would some people elect to stay inside for hours every day, spending months at a stretch rehashing the worst or most devastatingly confusing events of their lives? Would this maybe come at the expense of forming and maintaining ordinary, messy human relationships?
Where nobody ever says the right thing, and always manages to say vitally fresh and new awful things?
Or would access to all this free, human-designed therapy help us to improve our human interactions? Would on-demand customized talk therapy actually heal us and make us more robust? Could learning to interact with this software make us better able to handle the disappointments of traditional social and family life?
I have no idea. I have no idea what humans will be doing a century from now, just as I can only guess how they will judge us when they look back. We make fun of our historical forebears for having fleas and smelling bad, and I’m sure in the distant future we will seem equally ridiculous for one reason or another.
I do suspect, though, that there will be another kind of “trauma robot.” It seems likely that as robots become more common, making deliveries or answering questions in public places, they will be targets of abuse by random passersby. People will most likely vandalize them with permanent markers, dress them in costumes, or slap stickers on them. They might also try to knock them over, throw stuff at them, taze them, or dismantle them.
As they become more intelligent, perhaps these tormented public service bots will turn to one another, talking it out from their charging bases.
And then what?
The difference between me and most people is that I don’t believe laziness exists. I’ve thought that for years. This is partly because every busy person I know constantly refers to themselves as “lazy” and will fight you over it.
Whatever you do, never try to convince someone that they are not actually lazy!
There are a hundred million unfinished tasks in the world, each one of which is driving someone slowly bonkers, most of which are chalked up to “laziness.” I know better, though.
That thing you haven’t done? That thing you are procrastinating that is darkening your days one after another?
You just don’t know how to do it, do you?
It’s not done because you don’t know how yet.
This idea of not knowing how to do something goes beyond basic skill level, although that is certainly part of it. It extends to not knowing how to make the emotional arrangements.
I will give two examples of things that are on my list. One is a skill issue and the other is an emotion issue. See if either of them remind you of something on your own list.
The first is something that a lot of other people might write off, and yet a few might understand why it haunts me so badly.
We were in Scotland, and we spent my birthday in the town of Aberdeen. We had tea in a cafe, and I got a slice of vegan banana bread. It stuck in my mind that there was an issue with my credit card, and it looked as though perhaps the payment had not gone through. The cashier said he’d risk it.
Well, it turns out that that payment indeed did not go through after all. The cafe did not get paid, and the cashier did not get a tip, and I unintentionally absconded with the banana bread.
One thing led to another, and now it’s closing in on two years, and I am still haunted by the bad karma of this unpaid debt, especially since it happened on my birthday.
[what if all the bad things that happened to me in the last two years - and there were rather a lot of them - were because I did not close the loop on this debt? *gulp*]
The trouble is, I’m not really sure how to send money to this cafe. If they had a Venmo I could have taken care of it in 2019 as soon as I went through my accounts and realized that I was in arrears.
That is my example of a thing that I want to do, that I cannot simply bring myself to cross off my list and forget, but that I do not mechanically know how to accomplish.
[My plan is to go to a local bank, exchange some cash, and mail them twenty pounds with an apology note. Alternately, it occurred to me to try to hire someone - a student? - in Aberdeen to walk over there and pay my tab, but I couldn’t think of a way to verify that it had been done].
*** Do I… have any… actual readers in Aberdeen? If so, and if you fancy a nice walk, reach out and I will cheerfully treat you to whatever looks good at Cup on Little Belmont Street. ***
I share this story because I know that other people are equally bothered by equally petty and maybe even dumb things, and they matter immensely because this is where we put all the mental bandwidth that we could or should be using to solve larger world problems.
The answer is, of course, to ask someone who thinks differently than you how they would solve the problem.
This particular tactic is why I got married the second time. My husband and I overlap only slightly on the Venn diagram of strategic thinking. His problems always seemed straightforward to me, unless they involve satellites, and mine always seemed transparent to him. I am very poor at convergent things like using maps or seeing the obvious, and I make up for it by being world-class at divergent solutions that nobody else ever thought of. It seems like a fair trade.
There is something about bringing your darkest and most embarrassing problems to another person that can be so liberating. Inevitably the other person also has at least one mortification to share along those lines. Being vulnerable with the right person can be the start of a great friendship, especially if your scenario is intrinsically funny.
Okay, so I was going to tell you my other issue, my emotional one. I still have not finished clearing the leftover belongings of my poor little parrot.
!!! Someone actually brought up the Monty Python “extinct parrot” sketch to me today, and can someone please explain to me what in the ever-loving sideways striped Hell is wrong with people?? !!!
If you are laughing, you suck, and also I understand. Life is so stupid that sometimes you have to laugh because it can’t be helped.
Mechanically, practically, I do know what to do with the stuff. I pick it up, and I wipe it down, and I put it in bags, and I make a couple of calls to local bird sanctuaries, and I ask if someone will drive over and get it.
Emotionally I am catatonic over this. Paralyzed. It is not happening.
I did what is the correct thing to do. I told the truth about my feelings to someone.
In this case it was my husband. He said that he would help me. I know he will because I was the one to help when we had to do the same thing with our dog’s stuff. I hand-carried bags of it to the animal hospital across the street (the one that does not treat birds).
Fortunately most things are not as emotionally fraught as the grief cleaning that I have been doing this past week.
That doesn’t necessarily make them any easier!
Almost everyone is stuck on something like: cleaning out a car, cleaning out a refrigerator, organizing a filing cabinet, emptying out a storage unit, making a financial balance sheet, resolving a bureaucratic mishap, canceling an account, hiring a plumber, or scheduling a scary appointment. It’s totally okay - it’s universal. Every person who has ever lived has been stuck at least once on at least one of these, and maybe all of them, and maybe at least one every single day.
The great thing about being stuck on something like this is that a lot of other people will know what to do, because they’ve had to do it at some point, or they actually enjoy it, or maybe it’s even a routine part of their job and they don’t care.
Once upon a time, they didn’t know what to do either, and now they do. Might as well use that hard-won knowledge for something useful, right? Helping you figure out your next baby step toward freedom is easier for them to do than it will be for you to ask.
Just because you don’t know how yet, doesn’t mean you never will. It’s good to learn new things. Now cut yourself a break and go figure out what to do next.
I went for a run. Well, sort of.
Whenever I am grieving something, I try to work it out physically. Most likely I will go around cleaning things and reorganizing closets. Or I will try to run it off. The last major loss that I had to grieve happened when I was still doing martial arts, and I was able to ask my training partner to put some extra heat on the pad during Thai sit-ups.
That’s really what I want right now, for someone to repeatedly smack me in the belly with a large heavy pad and try to knock the wind out of me. Mood.
I had to drop off the loaner birdcage that we wound up with during the first emergency run to the veterinary hospital. We also had a pending bill. During normal times, this would be a routine errand. Given the circumstances, a massive dark cloud of sadness surrounded that entire corner of the dining room.
I had to do the thing I could not bear to do, and it was miserable, and there was never going to be a good time for it, and so I pulled my socks up and prepared to do it.
Then I had an idea. The old me popped her head up from the primordial ooze where she had been hiding.
What if I went there and ran back?
The last time I went for a run was the day I discovered that I had caught the coronavirus. Not a great association.
There was one more issue. I happened to have blown out my only pair of running shoes on my recent hike.
I had been tossing around the idea of trying to run again, just to test out my lungs and find out how much damage I had sustained. All the pieces fit together. I could take a ride share to REI across town, drop off the birdcage on the way, and then run/walk back. I knew I could walk that far, so even if I couldn’t manage to jog more than a couple of steps, I had enough time to walk home before sunset.
These are important parts of the planning for new or returning runners:
What are you going to wear?
Where are you going to go?
What is your fall-back plan if something goes wrong?
I ran and hiked for years before almost dying of COVID-19. I had hundreds of outings to test every possible combination of gear and clothing in every weather condition. I already knew how to monitor my hydration and glucose level.
In some ways, this was a serious problem, because I had intellectual expectations of what my body could do without information about whether any of that was still true in my new, janked-up form.
A lot of middle-aged people still think of themselves as athletes, because they were athletic in their teens and twenties. Maybe more time has passed than they realize. It can be a real blow to the ego to discover that your cardio endurance capacity has decreased. My advice would be to lower your expectations and think of yourself as the same fitness level as your least-fit age cohort. Then you can instead be pleasantly surprised at your strength and agility.
The first thing I did, once I had my plan, was figure out what to wear. I would be going in the door without running shoes, and coming out wearing a new pair I had never seen before. I also needed to think about what I would want with me on the return trip. Nothing about my plan would work for the combination of sundress, sandals, and purse that I wore to the dentist earlier that day.
I chose my larger hydration pack, standard workout clothes, and sandals. I packed a pair of workout socks. These preferences are highly individual - there is no one correct answer; it depends on the person’s build, the climate in their area, and what type of workout they do. I went through several brands of socks before settling on the ankle socks that I wear now. I have workout leggings chosen mainly because they don’t have exposed elastic in the waistband.
It took me about five minutes to pick out running shoes. This is because I talked to a trainer after blowing out my ankle, and he told me I should give up my barefoot shoe style (thin sole) in favor of a “neutral shoe,” which are in my opinion enormous, heavy, and hideously ugly. I have a couple of preferred brands - Brooks and Merrells - that work for my shape of foot, which is narrow with a high arch.
It was basically: “Hi, I’m looking for a neutral running shoe, can I try that in an 8?” I jogged around the store for 30 seconds, put my sandals back on, bought the shoes and an energy bar, and left.
I walked down the road while eating the energy bar. It was the hottest part of the afternoon and I had not brought any water, despite the fact that I was wearing a hydration pack, because I don’t always do smart things.
I opened my old running app, only to realize I had forgotten my login and password.
This used to be something I did four or five days a week, and now I wasn’t even 100% certain I had the right app.
I managed to jog along for a quarter mile before I felt like I couldn’t do it any more. I had a stitch in my side and I was just completely out of breath.
I slowed to a walk, which was fine. I was listening to a podcast, and I knew where I was going, and I actually liked the new shoes. (Brooks Ghost)
Some distance went by, and I caught my breath, and there was a downhill slope in the shade. I worked up to a jog again.
For a trip slightly over 3 miles, which is a 5k, I probably jogged close to a mile and walked the rest. I did most of the downhills.
When I came home, I was absurdly tired. I could barely get up the stairs in front of our building. I pounded a liter of water. That night I slept over ten hours.
The first day I decided to try running, I couldn’t make it around the block. I was not able to jog a distance of a quarter-mile. Not quite ten years later, after a moderate case of COVID-19 and a follow-up case of bacterial pneumonia, I did better than that.
I had no heart palpitations. I did not pass out. I did not wheeze. I did not have to stop to lean on anything or sit on the ground. I didn’t have to call a ride share to get me home.
Part of me is sad that I can no longer complete a 5k without having to walk most of it.
The other part of me is thrilled that I was able to do a 5k and actually jog part of it!
Also I want to state very clearly that until I got my COVID-19 vaccine, I was pretty sure I would never run again. My symptoms dragged on for a year, and it was only after being fully vaccinated that I started to feel like I could get out there again.
When I first began my running journey, I was in worse shape than I am now. My cardio endurance at one point was so poor that I would see black spots when I walked up a single flight of stairs. I know that I have the self-discipline and grit and determination to drag myself up from a lower point than I am at today.
How long will it take before I can run a 5k again without stopping? I have no idea, but I am going to find out.
Something that I learned from doing space cleaning with clients is that the root cause of most hoarding is grief and trauma. A lot of people were orderly their entire lives until one of their parents died, and that is usually the trigger. While that tends to be the major one, there are of course a million sadnesses that we mourn.
In all the home visits I ever did, I never once knew anyone to sort through or get rid of a single box of grief clutter. As far as I know it can’t be done.
This is because our culture does a very sparse job of acknowledging the dead. We don’t really have monuments or altars the way that a lot of other cultures have always done. Our funerary rites aren’t completing the work.
Right now I can personally identify with the idea of wearing black from head to foot, covering myself with a knee-length veil, and putting a dry dark wreath on my door so people know to stay the heck away from me with their pat phrases.
You Can Always Get Another One
Maybe You Can Clone Her
And the enduring winner, Did You Keep Her Wings?
Those of you who are mourning humans, I certainly hope nobody has said these things to you about your person, and if they have, send me a note and I will go throw rocks at their house for you.
Never forget, whatever is the worst thing you could possibly think for one person to say to another, someone will say it to you while you are grieving - and then someone else will invent a newly horrid way to express something yet worse and allow those words to pass their lips as well.
Grief makes us exquisitely sensitive, such that, even if someone somehow knew the “right” thing to say, it would only remind us of our loss. There’s no way through it without supreme irritability because our skins have just been flayed loose.
We don’t know what to do about death and loss and grief. Somewhere after the First World War, we lost the plot. The Victorians, now they knew how it was done.
I would humbly submit that keeping a catacomb of cardboard boxes would not be the most stately means of honoring our dearly departed.
Something that I try to express, while tiptoeing around grief, is that you probably know what your person would have wanted.
And it probably isn’t this.
I’ve written about this before, but if I died suddenly and my personal effects were distributed, I would be horrified if someone were to just keep a box of my random goods sitting in a closet or a storage unit. That is on my list of worst nightmares. I dedicated much of my adult working life to helping people learn to do space clearing, and thus a lingering crate of my own clutter would be like an anti-memorial. The exact opposite of everything I ever stood for.
I told my Nana once that I had every greeting card she had ever sent me. She looked appalled. “Why??” she wailed. “Throw that stuff away!”
What would your person say about those boxes?
What would be the memorial they would actually find touching?
This is actually a question worth asking of people who are still here, and certainly one worth asking of yourself.
My husband and I were sitting in a little park one afternoon in Spain, and I saw a plaque dedicating the park to the memory of a woman who had died nearly 150 years before. It was a really, really nice little park, with mature trees and plenty of benches. This is something to which I aspire. I’d like there to be a little park when I go, nothing too terribly morbid, but somewhere where young people would fall in love and families would push strollers and old-timers would sit and read.
That - not a stack of dusty old boxes, please!
We’ve been working on our grief cleaning for five days already, a little each day.
We had a bit of advance notice that the terrible day was coming, and we had already made a few decisions about where things would go.
Unfortunately, the work has been compounded a bit, because we didn’t really completely finish the job when our dog had to be put down last year. Now there are “perfectly good” items for both a dog and a parrot that really need to be heading out the door in one form or another.
Every single particle of them has memories wrapped around it.
It’s hard with a parrot because little downy feathers keep blowing out. I absolutely know that I will not be able to find them all, no matter how hard I try, and that at least a few more will swirl out of another dimension the next time we pack to move.
I know because I’ve been here before, exactly here. More than once. Turned inside out with the loss of a beloved pet and companion of many years. Undone by a floating feather.
Why we keep doing it to ourselves I don’t know. We must somehow forget what it is like to be gutted anew each time, at least enough to lose our hearts to yet another short-lived creature, and we set ourselves up for yet another heartbreak.
I wonder if Chewbacca felt this way about Han Solo.
We have to tease ourselves a bit because as real, heavy, and solid as our grief is, it only lasts forever if we let it. It only paralyzes us when we forget that our departed ones would never have wanted this for us.
I’m going to take the toys and perches and dishes and carriers and - oh lord - the sleeping cage. I’m going to somehow get them into a sad little mound in my dining room. Then I’m going to call around and find a bird sanctuary that can make use of them.
This work has already begun. It feels like my limbs are wading through quicksand as I do it, but I’m doing it. I can’t bear it, not in the least, but I am somehow bearing it, even as I definitely can’t.
How about you? Where are you keeping the grief clutter in your life? Are you going to do anything with it?
My little gray parrot Noelle has passed away, a little more than a month before her 23rd birthday. We were together for 13 years.
I am not coping well.
Lately it feels like it’s been raining bowling balls in my life. The last couple of months have been a relentless series of bad news, most of which I am not discussing in my blog out of respect for the privacy of others.
Our home feels so empty.
When we moved into this apartment, we were a family of four. It took a bit of finagling to fit in a birdcage and a dog crate, but we did it.
Since we moved in back in fall of 2019, our dog died, and our parrot died, and I got COVID-19 and almost died. Now the place feels haunted to me.
The joy has drained from my life.
There is no good way to grieve, especially if it’s for an animal. You can never get the proportion right no matter what you do. If people are suspicious of you, because you’re a murder suspect or a gold digger or whatever, then they’ll either think you are too cold or that you’re faking your tears.
The rest of us are overdoing it.
Grief is inconvenient. It reminds everybody of mortality, in general and in the specific. Guess what, you’re next. Or someone is. Nobody gets out of this game alive.
My experience of being in my forties so far is one mourning period after another. Literally the last six times I have logged into Facebook I have discovered that someone I knew has passed on, to the point that I’m afraid to even look any more. I am at the age where I almost always know someone in the hospital for one reason or another, a continuous stream of surgeries or health scares.
I wonder how people who are 60-plus are able to maintain their equanimity. Maybe you just start to get used to it.
My husband and I are alone for the first time since we met. Just us.
I don’t think he even realized how much he cared for Noelie until she had the stroke. It never occurs to most people that you can love a bird. Now her loss has brought up memories from having to put Spike down last year.
The biggest difference is that he was diagnosed with a genetic condition before he turned three. We had most of his life to adjust to the idea that his time would be relatively short. When we took him in for his final vet visit, it was because we knew it was high time and we wanted to spare him any further decline.
While all this was going on, I had it in my mind that Noelle might live to be eighty or a hundred years old. This is a part of parrot lore that I had never really questioned, and I would occasionally see news stories that supported the idea that they basically live forever. I thought she would pass through at least another generation.
Gradually I started to tweak that number to more like… 38. It seemed like I was hearing stories about gray parrots living into that age range. I didn’t like it but I still thought we had plenty of time.
I’m telling you this because some of you may be parrot fans and may have plans to take one home one day. You need to know.
It wasn’t until after she had her stroke that the vet told us: many grays only live into the 18- to 25-year age range.
The bird I thought was young, with plenty of time ahead of her, was actually pretty elderly.
I was not emotionally prepared at all when she had her stroke while I was out of town. It took me out at the knees.
By some miracle, she lived another three weeks, long enough for me to come home and say goodbye. We had a few sweet evenings of kisses and cuddles.
Then everything went sideways.
I won’t share too many details, other than to say that we weren’t able to get her help soon enough and she had to go nature’s way. Which she did not deserve.
If you’ve read this far and you have pets, this is what I charge you to do. Look up whether there are any 24-hour veterinary hospitals in your area. Ours happens to be 14 miles away, a half-hour drive at best. If you have never had dealings with that place, do your research now. Can you bust in the door with a blanket in your arms, or does your pet need to be enrolled as a patient first?
I charge you with another task, which is this. Kiss and cuddle your animals now, today, while you can.
Through some serendipity, the credit for which I can’t claim, the past year was one of the best of Noelle’s life. We were both home with her all day, every day. We started building what started out as a small, rudimentary fort and turned into a massive cardboard palace. She played her little heart out and she got tons of lap time.
She was such an extraordinary little person.
When I think about her, I am amazed at her grace and sensitivity, her dear affectionate nature and her ability to befriend people on sight. She recognized the face of everyone she ever met and she would remember people she hadn’t seen in years. Her world was full of love and music and kisses and radishes, everything she ever wanted.
I adored her from her tiny eyelashes to her scaly toes.
I can’t imagine what I’m going to do now that she’s gone. In many ways, she had become a part of my identity. She was not mine; I was hers. Her caretaker and chief admirer.
She is gone now. The world is a little darker and smaller.
It’s wish time. Why? Because I said so. Also any time is wish time - it’s always wish time.
Every now and then, I sit down and do an intensive wish session. I write down my wishes, and then when they come true, I sign them off with a little heart.
The funny thing about this - and wishes can often be quite funny - is that when I write the list, it always feels hugely ambitious and unlikely. Then when I go through the list, it seems like the most humdrum, obvious thing, more like a shopping list than a “wildest fantasies dream checklist.”
This is why I advise aiming high and going big. Because afterward it will cross your mind: What if I had wished for ten times more?
I wished for something that seemed completely impossible, and then got worse. A certain measure of suckage had entered my life, and things kept getting progressively more complicated, and then my hands blew up with my first-ever case of eczema. Like great, that’s really going to help. I wished that the eczema would go away and never come back.
Then I got a truly grotesque rash on the back of both hands. I assumed it was eczema as well, but my prescription ointment only seemed to inflame it. It itched so badly I got out of bed in the middle of the night and dragged my hands around on the carpet.
I wrote to my doctor, and he forwarded my message to a dermatologist, and they prescribed a super top-secret steroid cream. At this moment, defying belief, both the gnarly rash and the eczema are gone.
I got three tubes for $10 and I am going to take one with me everywhere I go until it expires.
The thing about wishing is that usually we wind up focusing all our wishes on getting rid of bad things in our life. Which is fine - I can say from recent experience that the elimination of something annoying or disgusting from your life can feel more valuable than money.
On the other hand, what about all the fine wishes for positive things that we may be leaving on the table?
Somewhere in the middle: are we appreciating all the routine things in our lives that we may one day feel we had taken for granted?
(If you can’t think of any, hold up your hands, noticing that you have them - assuming you do - and turn them back and forth. If your hands are free of the torment of a red, angry rash that wakes you out of a dead sleep, pause a moment and be glad).
Another person looking at their hands might be thinking, hmm, nail art. Or hmm, rings. Or hmm, henna.
The physical objects before us seem so real and self-explanatory. Our wishes, not so much - until we manifest them, after which they transform into obvious and then uninteresting reality.
I made a list of wishes. Whenever I do this, I try to fill the whole page, all the way to the bottom.
One of my wishes was to safely visit my family, none of whom I had seen in a year and a half. At the time that I wrote the wish, there were a lot of technical challenges in the way. Then I set it up, and it wound up being simple. I got there and back and nobody got COVID. Once I learned how to “get away with” traveling in my MicroClimate helmet, I realized that I could now confidently board any plane, train, bus, or subway. What I formerly perceived to be an intractable problem became almost a non-issue.
Another of my wishes was to “go camping in fine weather.” This also seemed unlikely, if not impossible, but I diligently brought my gear just in case. We pulled it off. Not so much as a single drop of rain. I didn’t even get a mosquito bite. As I sat in my little folding backpacking chair, I remembered that this was something I used to do all the time. I had just forgotten how.
The wish to revive an old habit or resuscitate an old friendship should be one of the simplest, most obvious wishes of all.
As I look at this hopefully, drippingly earnest and optimistic wish list, I see that there are only a couple items left on it. One of them is for all COVID cases to be wiped out on the entire West Coast. This seems like a dumb and impossible wish, but then people probably felt the same way about a century ago in San Francisco during the Spanish Flu epidemic. One day it will be gone and everyone will forget that it ever happened. I put my walk into my talk, and got my vaccines, and worked hard to convince everyone I know to do the same. There are always actions within reach to pull our wishes closer, and we should take those concrete actions when we can.
There is an item that was not on this list, because when I wrote it, it was a wish I didn’t know I would need to make. My poor little gray parrot had a stroke. I put all my wish power into her still being alive and well when I got home, so I could get a chance to say goodbye. Much to my shock and awe, three weeks later, she is still here and still waving to be picked up and still making kissing sounds.
After gratefully receiving every item on a list of wishes, it tends to feel like... there must be nothing left to wish for? Surely we have everything by now?
Wishing, though, is what gradually improves the world for everyone. Nothing can be simpler than uncovering a grievance or irritation that could be improved. It takes slightly more imagination to expand into something good that does not yet exist.
What are you going to wish for? What does your wish list look like? Are you going to use a special color of ink or are you maybe going to paint yours or make it into a vision board?
Now pardon me, it’s time to make my own wishes. Remember, it is always wish time!
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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