Intro to Decluttering

Some time ago while working as an executive assistant I coordinated my boss’s move. He was married with a toddler and a very pregnant wife. I arranged for the movers, set up the appointments with the condo, called for internet installation, the usual. On the day of the move I sat around as his old Condo was packed up and put into the moving truck.

After many hours I got a message from my boss that there were two storage areas in the parking garage that also had to be emptied. He forgot about them when we originally brought the movers out for an estimate. I took two of the movers downstairs and we opened up the units to reveal bicycles, bins, and the other sorts of things one stores in a condo garage unit. One of the movers turned to me with a smile on his face.

“This makes more sense,” he said. “It didn’t seem like they had a lot of stuff. I was like, ‘Where are the golf clubs and ski equipment and stuff?’” He laughed.

I’m sure the mover thought nothing of it, but his words really stuck with me. This is what he does for a living, and it was finally making sense to him right as it was becoming astounding for me. Obviously it made sense that a family of three should have more stuff than I do and I don’t begrudge them their possessions, but after hours of packing it already felt like a lot to me. But not to this guy. He knew exactly how much there would be.

Most of us find it easy to justify what we own in aggregate, or justify any item individually. Recently I started a document called “Why I Have Everything I Own.” I turn to it when I need to get in my daily words and don’t have any ideas. I look towards any section of my apartment and list every item. I’ve started with the things that are in and around my desk, and may one day make it through the whole apartment. It’s dull writing and it’s unlikely to produce anything worth sharing, but as an exercise it’s been helpful. It’s easy for me to justify having purses in general, but to justify each individual bag by itself, defending its merits and explaining why none of the other bags could fully replace it – that’s a struggle worth attempting. Every so often I end up throwing a few things in the giveaway bin before I’m done with my word count for the day.

I have this dream of one day owning very few things. It’s a weird dream when you think about it. I could have it right now if I wanted. A couple trips to Goodwill and the dump and I could get down to only what would fit in my car. But that’s not the struggle of course. I’ve been slowly minimizing my belongings for several years now, and I’m starting to hit a wall. It’s easy to get rid of the broken and stupid and useless things in our lives. It’s harder to get rid of the good-but-too-much and if-I-just-wait-long-enough things.

In the coming months I’d like to write more about the art of paring down and my personal struggles with it. It’s more complicated than most people realize, and the problems are more universal than most people think. When I went on vacation in February and told people I did work as a professional organizer, I ended up in a lot of mini-counseling sessions with the people around me. I always thought I’d have to see a clutter problem to fix it, but you can learn a lot from how a person describes their situation. If you have a specific problem you need help with, feel free to leave it in the comments. You’ll help me to know which topics to focus on, and you may just find a solution to your problem!

Things That Don’t Need to Be Done

I’ve been reading about productivity for a long time now. I’m long past the point where every article sounds the same and it feels like there’s no new advice out there. But there’s one piece of advice that I’ve been hearing for a long time, and only recently was I finally ready to listen:

Don’t do things that don’t need to be done.

It sounds stupidly simple. Of course you shouldn’t do things that don’t need to be done. But it’s easy to fool yourself. After all, you can tell yourself exactly what you want to hear.

Stacked PapersI’ve been slowly going through all my old college papers and scanning what I want to keep. It’s a slow process, but we have a commercial scanner at work which makes it a little easier. One day after work I was standing over the copier with my computer, slowly scanning old script drafts. They were for a play I wrote many years ago. I like to keep the scripts from the readings because people write on them and it’s interesting to read comments about my old work.

These scripts are arguably the lowest priority of things worth scanning. These are old drafts, and the play that was actually performed ended up being very different. But they hold a certain sentimental value. And as a writer there is an education to be had from occasionally reading your old work.

The scripts were originally printed landscape and double-sided, so when I ran them through the scanner I ended up with a PDF where every other page was facing the opposite direction. I was clicking around and rotating pages when I realized how utterly unnecessary the task was. I might never look at these files again. And if I do, I’ll be going page by page to read them, and could easily rotate pages then. Plus it’s very possible that if I wait six months they’ll have invented a way to tell the PDF reader to only rotate odd pages, without having to click each individually.

This is what they meant when they said I shouldn’t do things that don’t need to be done. I felt the need to rotate the pages because it was in line with my habits of proper organization and storage. But even I know that I may never open these files again. I can barely justify scanning them. The time spent rotating is a complete waste.

Once I figured this out I realized something even more important: I don’t have to name them either. I was on auto-pilot, assuming it had to be done because that’s usually the case. Most of my files need to be named, but not all. I had eleven scripts that were going to be named after the person who had made the notes, but that information is already written on the first page. I can do it later if I need to. Instead I threw all the files into a single folder labeled “Reading Scripts” and called it a day.

Wasting time on over-organization is a problem of mine, I know that. Most of the time I can justify it because I like organizing and it can be meditative and satisfying. But I don’t like naming files or rotating PDFs. And not everything has to be done. Don’t do things that don’t need to be done.

The 2015 Reading Challenge

Ever since I completed the mini BookTubeAThon challenge last December, I’ve been anxiously awaiting the full challenge in July. And I guess I’ve decided I can’t wait anymore, because I’ve just accepted a year-long challenge that I can start right now.

After much back-and-forth about what I should choose as my goal number for 2015, I settled on 24 books. If I kept up my book-a-month pace and finished seven additional books in July for the BookTubeAThon, getting to 24 would only require a little extra effort. Plus the GoodReads page shows your books for the year in rows of six, so I wanted to hit an even multiple.

This was all well and good. I had my goal, I had some books on my shelf and a few I planned to grab at the library. And then the other day my friend Kristina told me about the Popsugar 2015 Reading Challenge. Because so many avid readers and booktubers choose 50 books as their yearly goal, Popsugar released a set of 50 challenges for what kind of books they should read. This is exactly how BookTubeAThon works, but on a much larger scale. I asked Kristina if you were allowed to double up on challenges (fulfill two challenges with the same book). She said the recommendation was to do that no more than three times, and she was going to try to get through the list with no doubles at all. I looked at the challenges.

“I bet I if I doubled up on every one, I could hit all 50 challenges and still only read 24 books.”

“You have to try that,” she told me.

Agreed.

So what are my challenges? Here’s the entire list:

  1. A book with more than 500 pages
  2. A classic romance
  3. A book that became a movie
  4. A book published this year
  5. A book with a number in the title
  6. A book written by someone under 30
  7. A book with nonhuman characters
  8. A funny book
  9. A book by a female author
  10. A mystery or thriller
  11. A book with a one word title
  12. A book with short stories
  13. A book set in a different country
  14. A non-fiction book
  15. A popular author’s first book
  16. A book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet
  17. A book a friend recommended
  18. A Pulitzer Prize winning novel
  19. A book based on a true story
  20. A book at the bottom of your TBR list
  21. A book your mom loves
  22. A book that scares you
  23. A book more than a 100 years old
  24. A book based entirely on its cover
  25. A book you were supposed to read in school and didn’t
  26. A memoir
  27. A book with antonyms in the title
  28. A book you can finish in a day
  29. A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to go
  30. A book published the year you were born
  31. A book with bad reviews
  32. A Trilogy
  33. A book from your childhood
  34. A book with a love triangle
  35. A book set in the future
  36. A book set in high school
  37. A book with a color in the title
  38. A book that made you cry
  39. A book with magic
  40. A graphic novel
  41. A book by an author you’ve never read before
  42. A book you own but never read
  43. A book that takes place in your hometown
  44. A book that was originally written in another language
  45. A book set during Christmas
  46. A book by an author who had your same initials
  47. A play
  48. A banned book
  49. A book based on or turned into a tv show
  50. A book you started but never finished

For better or worse, I’ve already read one book and started on three more, so my first four books are set no matter how few challenges they meet. So between four books, I only got five challenges (and not very hard ones).imgres

How to Read a Book
A non-fiction book

The Forgotten Desert Mothers
A book by a female author
A book set in a different country

Blue Highways
A memoir

Walden
A book more than a 100 years old

The other night I spent at least an hour looking at the challenges, the books on my shelf, and the books on my To Be Read list. I found a few winners that can hit a number of challenges. The only one that doesn’t hit at least two is In a Sunburned Country. My main reason for wanting to read it anyway is that I’m currently editing my own travel memoir book, and it’s helpful to look at similar books in the genre when making cuts.

imgres-1In a Sunburned Country
A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to go

Wolf in White Van
A book with a color in the title
A book by an author you’ve never read before

Post Secret: Confessions on Life, Death, and God
A book with antonyms in the title
A book you can finish in a day

Midnight Assassin
A mystery or thriller
A book based on a true story

The Best of Roald Dahl
A book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet
A book with more than 500 pages
A book with short storiesimgres-2

Monstrous Regiment
A book you own but never read
A funny book
A book a friend recommended

Walk Two Moons
A book from your childhood
A book with a number in the title
A book that made you cry

Beloved
A Pulitzer Prize winning novel
A book with a one word titleimgres-4

Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant
A Trilogy
A book written by someone under 30
A book set in the future
A popular author’s first book
A book that became a movie

The Wizard of Seattle
A book by an author who had your same initials
A book that takes place in your hometown

On the Road
A book you were supposed to read in school and didn’t
A book you started but never finished
A book that scares you

After working my way down the list, I suddenly found myself staring at a set of nine challenges I could fulfill with a single book. Might not be the best choice, But I couldn’t resist.

Twilight
A book with nonhuman characters
A book at the bottom of your TBR list
A book with bad reviews
A book with a love triangle
A book set in high school
A book with magic
A banned book

A few things have been left undecided. I found three good contenders for a book published the year I was born (Ender’s Game, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, and Contact) however that would be the only challenge any of them fulfill. Ender’s Game would be worth it for the cultural knowledge, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman was already on my To Be Read list, and Contact is one of my favorite movies of all time. I’ll leave it undecided for now.

This leaves me with nine challenges and only five books to capture them all:

  • A classic romance (what exactly does this mean anyway?)
  • A book published this year
  • A book your mom loves
  • A book based entirely on its cover
  • A graphic novel
  • A book that was originally written in another language
  • A book set during Christmas
  • A play
  • A book based on or turned into a tv show

Will I manage to hit all 50 without going over 24 books? It’s possible, but unlikely. Then again that’s not really the point. Part of the reason silly reading challenges like this are fun is that they force you out of your reading comfort zone. Let’s face it, if left to my own devices I was probably never going to read a book like The Wizard of Seattle, but now I’m actually excited about it.

So while I’ll do my best, I don’t intend to stress about this challenge. I probably can’t get them all. Or maybe my mother has a favorite book that’s a classic Christmas romance originally written in another language and made into a TV show. Either way, I’m reading more, and that’s got to be worth something.

Sit Up Straight Part Two: Anterior Pelvic Tilt

Here’s a fun fact: it turns out fixing years of terrible posture is complicated.

I told you a month ago about my big posture realization and my resolution to fix it. After a lot of research and trial and error, I’m realizing that it’s not enough to say I have bad posture, because there are a lot of ways one can have bad posture. So rather than throw everything at you all at once, I’m splitting this subject up into several posts, each on a different problem that I’m researching. Today’s topic is:

Anterior Pelvic Tilt

The Problem:

At the top and front of your hips are two bony protrusions that signal the edge or your hip bones (the iliac crest). Below them and in the center is your pubic bone. If the way you’re sitting right now these three bones form a triangle that’s perpendicular to the floor, congratulations. Your pelvis is just fine. If your triangle is tilted with the iliac crests further forward than the pubic bone, then you’re in Anterior Pelvic Tilt.

The Cause:

Muscles can become tight and short by being kept in a shortened position too often. So if the muscles on the front of the hips are shortened, they are inclined to constantly pull your thighs and belly closer together to keep themselves shortened. This is most commonly caused by sitting too much.

In addition to shortening muscles, sitting all day can force some muscles to start slacking while other muscles are overworked. If your abs and glutes aren’t doing their fair share, the back muscles might try to compensate by working too hard in ways they weren’t designed for. You end up tight and stretched and weak and tense in all the wrong places, and the more you reenforce the position with sitting the more your body fights to stay in it. After a while your pelvis tilts every time you sit, then when you stand, then when you walk, and eventually the tilt is there all the time.

The Treatment:

To fix Anterior Pelvic Tilt you have to retrain the muscles through both strengthening and stretching exercises. The primary muscles to stretch are the psoas (which runs along the front of the hip) and the quads (the front of the thighs). Just reading about Anterior Pelvic Tilt makes my hips feel like they’re encased in cement, so I’ve decided to stretch all the muscles in the hip area. My favorite video for this is from The Yoga Solution with Tara Styles. It’s only five postures so you can do it really fast, but you can linger in them for a long time if you want to get a deeper stretch.

The next step will be to strengthen my glutes and abs, two muscles that should be doing more work than they are currently. I haven’t set up a routine yet, but unsurprisingly there are a million suggestions online for how to tone your butt and give you great abs. I’ll probably start with the basics like lunges, leg lifts, and crunches, and maybe move on to others as the routine gets boring.

After the first post a lot of people told me they also struggle with good posture. So, do any of you think you might have Anterior Pelvic Tilt? Is your tilt bad enough to join me for several weeks of bicycle crunches?

A Holy Waste of Time

This piece was written last summer while I was on retreat. As we speak I’m staying at an isolated retreat village several hours out of town, the first vacation I’ve taken since that weekend trip and the first long vacation I’ve had in 16 months. It seemed like an appropriate time to post this.

View from St AndrewsAs I write this I’m sitting the the freshly refinished deck of St. Andrew’s Retreat Center on Hood Canal. I have a view of the water, a warm breeze, and the surprisingly comforting smell of fresh paint. I’m here as part of a retreat weekend for young adults called “A Holy Waste of Time.” The point of the weekend is to simply relax. There’s activities to do, but all are voluntary. There’s a hike to go on if you feel like it, and a movie tonight if you want. Right now I’m choosing not to play dominos with some of the other young adults, and in a little while I’ll choose to go to an evening chapel service with them.

In the last few years I’ve developed a real fixation with doing things. I have trouble unplugging and relaxing. I’m always working, always moving, always searching for that elusive secret to perfect productivity. I feel guilty when I sit around doing nothing for too long. I feel bad when items on my to-do list linger. I chastise myself all the time for minutes wasted and activities left undone.

It’s one of my favorite phrases, “left undone.” I know it from the written confession used by the Episcopal Church, the same church that’s putting on this retreat. In the confession we confess that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, “by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” The congregation I grew up in didn’t say the confession much, which is a liturgical policy I support. But I always loved that phrase, I suppose because it reminds us that living a good life isn’t just about refraining from the so-called evil temptations, but also about proactively doing good in the world.

I spent the first few years out of college getting rid of the bad in my life. I got rid of unnecessary spending. I got rid of eating junk. I got rid of so many unneeded possessions. And in that way I took care of the sins I had done, and was left with what I had left undone. I had the writing I never got around to. I had the languages and instruments I wanted to learn. But what I didn’t realize was that I had placed myself on a hamster wheel. There is no limit to what has been left undone. Because every inch of the world may have been explored, but not yet by me.

This is not what is intended in our confession, and it’s not what I intend for my life. But the focus and drive that allows me to do so much of what I want also blinds me to the world as it goes by. I’m rarely able to casually waste time anymore. Wasted time is a productivity sin. If I want to sit back and enjoy myself, I have to define it clearly as free time. I have to proactively tell myself to stop being proactive.

AltarAnd that’s why I’m here, wholly wasting time. I might normally feel guilty about not playing with the other people, but not today. I wanted to use this time to write. Granted that’s because I still feel the need to keep up my 200+ day streak of writing every day, but the sentiment is there. I want the freedom to watch the movie later, which means finishing my writing now.

I know that I push myself harder than I need to, but I also know that the road to my goals is paved with my accomplishments. I keep working because I still want the things that only work can provide. And intellectually I understand the value of taking breaks, of letting go, of closings one’s eyes. But it’s difficult to stop the wheel once it’s turning. It may be hard to keep running, but it’s harder to jump off.

But I try. Right now, I’m trying. The deck is getting a little dark and a little chilly. The house caretaker showed me how to turn on the fireplace earlier. Perhaps I’ll go sit by the fire. Perhaps I’ll read a book. Maybe I’ll take a nap, and not feel bad about it at all.

Decluttering with Nikki

For a while now I’ve been offering my services as a Professional Organizer. At least, that’s what I introduce myself as. In truth, I think Professional Declutterer is more accurate. Because to me it’s not about how you organize the things you have, it’s about getting rid of the things you don’t need.
My sister Nikki asked for my help with a couple big boxes of cables. She’s not a super techie person, so she didn’t know what half of the stuff she had was even for. I once worked for a computer cable manufacturer and as a result I’m pretty good at looking at a box of cords and telling you what everything does.

Nikki had five boxes and bags of various sizes full of old electronics and peripherals. We started sorting and found several categories for immediately removal:

Phones1) Old cell phones
I can accept an argument for a person having at most two cell phones. One phone that they use, and one feature phone that’s kept fully charged in case of emergencies. That’s more than most people need, but it’s defensible. My sister had five old cell phones, including a Blackberry she doesn’t remember ever owning. Many cell phone providers take old phones to be wiped and repurposed for organizations that deal with domestic violence victims. The phones are included in bags that victims can take in case they need a safe and private way to call the police. Nikki and I put together her collection of old phones and chargers for donation.

2) Orphan Chargers
The good and terrible thing about chargers is that they are usually generic. This means you can sometimes charge your phone or camera at a friend’s house if need be, but it also means that once a charger is separated from the intended device there is no way to know what it’s for. Nikki had a large collection of chargers, many identical, and none identifiable. Over the course of the morning we were able to pair a few up, but many were left without a match. It can be difficult to part with such items, since for all you know you still have the things they charge. My solution was to have Nikki label a gallon zip-top bag with the words “Orphan Chargers” and the date. If she ever needs a charger she knows where to look, and if she comes across the bag again in five years and has never opened it, she’ll know it’s time to let them go.

3) Duplicates
There are explanations for how my sister ended up with three routers. There are reasons why she owned eleven coaxial cables. We all end up with duplicates from time to time, and we all have our reasons. The important thing is periodically taking stock and asking a simple question: how many extras will I ever really need? Nikki was already using the best of the three routers for her wireless network, and the other two were so old that they’d likely be obsolete by the time her current one broke. Most things that require coaxial cables come with coaxial cables, so we picked the best two just in case. We went through each duplicate cord and picked the best of the bunch to keep. Nikki has a cord-chewing cat, so some duplicates are reasonable.

4) Boxes
As we were separating the wheat from the chaff in her electronics, I also found that she had a lot of unnecessary boxes. Old box clutter is pretty easy to acquire, since anyone who’s ever had to return something knows not to get rid of the box right away. However once your manufacturer’s warrantee has expired (usually one year after purchase), the box is only worth what it’s worth to you. Some boxes are so perfectly fitted that it’s worth keeping them around just so you can properly pack the item next time you move. Some boxes are easily repurposed for storage of other items. But a box for the box’s sake is just clutter. Every time I saw an old electronics box I asked Nikki the same question: “Have you had this for more than a year?” The answer was always yes, and the box always went away.Cables in Bags

By the end of the day Nikki’s five boxes and bags were down to a single box, with cables organized by function (computer cables in one bag, TV cables in another, etc). But we didn’t stop there. We also fixed up and cleared away unnecessary parts of her TV setup and downsized her remotes. But the real gem of the day for me came when we were taking a lunch break. I asked her a question that had been bugging me for the last half hour.

“Why do you have a shelf of VHS tapes if you don’t own a VCR?”

It honestly hadn’t occurred to her. She’d had most of them for a very long time, probably going back to a time when she did have a VCR hooked up to her TV. We pulled them off the shelf and she gave them away without protest. If anything, she seemed upset that she even had some of them.

“Why do I own The Core?” she asked.

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” I told her, “But I was wondering that myself.”

One of the things I’ve struggled with in trying to build my personal decluttering business is explaining to people why they might need outside help to get rid of their own belongings. I think Nikki is a great example of that. Sometimes we own things for so long, we become blind to them. Sometimes we’re so use to our lives as we’ve built them, we don’t stop to think about how we’ve changed over time. In the hours I’ve spent helping people clear out their homes, I’ve realized that the majority of the time is spent saying goodbye to the people they used to be, and the things that used to matter.

I said Nikki gave away her movies without protest, but that’s not entirely true. She did briefly resist giving away a copy of The Boy Who Could Fly, a drama from 1986. “We used to watch it all the time,” she told me. I couldn’t remember it at all. She started to describe it and realized she didn’t remember much of it either. She shrugged it off and it went in the give-away pile with all the other things. Nikki has been making some big and wonderful changes in her life over the last few years. She needs room in her home for the person she is now and the person she is becoming.

Everything else is just something that used to be important to the person she used to be.

Sit Up Straight, Part One

I have atrocious posture. I’ve slouched since junior high, I imagine as the combined result of growing both upwards and outwards in puberty – two directions that make many young girls uncomfortable. I knew I hunched, I knew it was bad for me, and I did nothing to change it.

About a year ago my neck began to hurt. A lot. It was a lie-on-the-floor-of-your-office-in-the-middle-of-the-day kind of pain. I thought it was stress. Things had been tough at work, and I wondered if maybe it was getting to me. Turning to the left hurt for awhile, then I developed a sort of constant, dull ache. Soon I could barely move at all. I went to the doctor.

After examining me and asking zero questions about my stress level, she told me my neck pain was caused by my posture, and probably aggravated by the way I sat at my computer at work. She prescribed a book called “Treat Your Own Neck,” a title that my boyfriend found hilariously passive-aggressive coming from a doctor. The book walked you through a series of exercises meant to treat and prevent neck pain. I had my reservations, but she also gave me some muscle relaxers to take in the evening, so I thought I’d give her the benefit of the doubt.

I only took the pills twice. By the third day of exercises my pain was almost completely gone. I kept up my exercises and tried to look up from the keyboard more often, but eventually I stopped doing both. My neck didn’t hurt anymore. I decided that maybe it was the stress, it was just that the stress made my posture worse than usual.

Skip ahead about eight or nine months. I went to GeekGirlCon with a few of my friends. We were all cosplaying, and I was dressed as Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie. My friend Kristina is a vlogger, and she was making a video about life in costume. Our friend Joe followed us around the convention shooting video as we walked. I didn’t think much of it. He was looking for candid shots, after all. A few days after the convention the video went up. It was a fun video but I couldn’t enjoy it. I was too distracted. I couldn’t stand the sight of me.

Unhappy JeannieMy costume looked great. My wig looked great. But I was walking around looking like my 90-year-old grandmother the year before she passed away. How is it I never noticed? I saw my posture every morning in the mirror, yet I never knew how bad it had gotten. I tried to blame it on the heavy wig. I tried to blame it on convention fatigue. But I knew I was just making excuses. I didn’t want it to be true. I looked so bad. And so unhappy. And I knew the truth right away: I always looked like that.

I’m not sure what all needs to be done (I’d welcome your suggestions), but I need to do something. I’m going to start by reviewing my old class papers from Alexander Technique, which I think will help. I’m considering doing an online typing course to teach myself to look up from the keys. I certainly need to stop putting my hair in clips (because of my car’s headrest, hair clips make hunching while driving mandatory).

This post is both backstory and blackmail. Like when I did the Clean Eating Challenge last fall, I want a bunch of people to bug me if I flake out on this. Certainly it will take more than a week, it may take months or years, but I should at least check back in about a month from now. Let’s say February 16th.

Here’s to changing how I walk in the world. Here’s hoping it’s not too late.

Spinning My Wheels

I like to think of myself as a highly productive person, and by many measures I am. I don’t waste time very often. Even my break time is spent productively, reading books or watching movies I believe are in some way important. I learn constantly, I work constantly, I produce constantly.

But sometimes I find that for all of my production I am not actually producing anything of note. I write every day, but can go days or even weeks without working on a specific book or play. I read everyday, but still only manage a few pages at a time. The truly awful thing is that sometimes I’ll even manage to rest in an unproductive way. I’ll listen to an intense podcast while on lunch break and end up going through the motions of taking a break yet feeling no restorative effects.

These are not constants of course, but when my incredible productivity hasn’t produced anything for several days or weeks, I can feel it. I feel it every time I sit down, every time I get home. I stare at my computer with a sense of hopelessness. I realize that I’m about to expend effort and achieve no satisfying result. Even though the majority of my work both at home and in the office is self-generated and self-managed, somehow I’ve managed to make it unfulfilling.

I know what I ought to do in such times. I ought to take a break – a real break. I ought to stop all my normal routines and just waste time for a day or two. I ought to do a full reset. Turn it off and on again like a malfunctioning computer.

I don’t take vacations like I should. I think it’s because I know that even if I had a day where I truly took a break from everything else, I would still think. I would still know all the things I am not doing. I would still know all the things I want to be doing. And I would grow impatient with my vacation. I would want to get to work on something – anything – to feel like I’m being productive. I must learn, I must work, I must produce. It is my natural resting state.

In the end, the thing I struggle with is learning to let go of possibilities, and forgiving myself for not going after them. There are so many things in the world that fascinate me, so many things I want to do and know, that I will always have to say no to what I want more often than I get to say yes. I make lists all the time. I make lists of languages to learn, books to read, TV shows to watch, skills to acquire. I’m constantly re-writing my goals in hopes of one day figuring out how I’m going to accomplish them all in the one short life I have available. This means sometimes I fall so much in love with the the What and How of doing that I forget about the Why.

Snow on Trees landscapeI booked a vacation for February. I’m going to Holden Village, a retreat community three hours out of town that you can only get to by boat. I’m told that the winter community is small, and there’s a good chance that my aversion to cold will keep me bundled up in my own room the whole week. They cook all the meals and there’s no access to the internet. Hopefully it will be the kind of reset I’m looking for, and a chance to forgive myself for only having 24 hours in a day. At very least, I’ll have plenty of free time to make more lists.

Too Many Mugs

My boyfriend and I have too many mugs. Seriously. Way too many mugs. Even if both of us drank two cups of coffee in the morning we would have too many mugs. We don’t drink coffee at all. Even if we had dinner parties with coffee and desert we would have too many mugs. We don’t have dinner parties.

For the most part the mugs get used when I’m sick and needing to drink a lot of tea. Occasionally my boyfriend will eat ice cream out of a mug. And that’s it. That’s our total mug usage. So how did we get this way?

MugsGrowing up, my parents always had an amazingly eclectic mug collection. They are both coffee drinkers and often had coffee-drinking guests, so it made since. They had mugs from NPR pledge drives and Mother’s and Father’s Days past. They had Mary Engelbreit mugs and Disneyland mugs. I associated those mugs with a well-established home. After all, it must have taken them years to amass such a fine collection. So when I went to the church garage sale when I was about 13, I bought a bunch of mugs. I figured I had to start sometime, and the mugs at the garage sale were so cheap. I must have picked up 10 mugs on the assumption that in five years I would need them.

I didn’t stop at mugs. Inspired by that time our video store was going out of business and my mom and I picked up dozens of VHS tapes for a dollar each, I slowly acquired over 400 DVDs. A well-established home had a large video collection, after all. There’s more. I have posters and candles and more fabric than I imagine I’ll ever use, all in deference to my future self and her established home. She would be so glad to have such a vast movie collection to pull from. She would be overjoyed at being able to pick from cupboard full of mugs every morning.

I wasn’t totally wrong. My future self would have been overjoyed at all of these things – if my future self had turned out exactly like my parents. At thirteen, this wasn’t an insane prediction. I love my parents and they have a wonderful life and home. I loved growing up in that home and will probably throw a joint fit with my sister if they ever try to sell it. And there are ways in which I still want to be like them. But having their home, their family, their stuff – it may not be one of them.

My thirteen-year-old self was planning for the house she loved growing up in, because she figured she’d be raising her own little thirteen-year-olds in it. Even back then I considered staying childless, but the house/husband/kids track was just as real an option. As that option drifts further from my mind, I realize that my home needs to cater to the person I am right now, not the person I may one day want to be. The person I am now doesn’t need so many mugs. She’d rather get her movies off Nexflix – it loads faster than the DVD player anyway. Someday I may change my mind and want the house and the family and the thirteen-year-old girls. But I don’t need to prepare for that just in case. I am confident I will be able to find more mugs. Maybe my parents will give me some.

Take a Look, It’s in a Book

last-night-at-the-lobsterIn February of this year, something very embarrassing happened to me. I was browsing Reddit (despite having better things to do), when a question popped up on the writing subreddit: “How many books do you read a year?” It seemed like a simple enough question. I knew that I didn’t read much – hardly at all really. I’d wanted to start reading more as a way to improve my writing, so I thought it would be good to look at the responses and get an idea of how much my fellow authors were reading.

Fifty.

Excuse me?

Fifty to sixty books a year. Some claimed a bit more, a few claimed a bit less. But the answers were routinely hovering around one book a week. I was shocked. In 2013 I had read two books. Total. Even then, I ended up skimming a lot of the first one, and the second one was a very short book of very short stories (it was also brilliant and I highly recommend it: Sum by David Eagleman).

This was my wakeup call. While I knew it was possible that people were over-selling themselves, they could be doubling their results and still outpacing me twelve to one. It was unacceptable. I had always been a great reader – the top of my class. By junior high I was testing as “13+”, meaning beyond the standard 12 grades and past the point where they keep track. Thirteen Plus. I was so good at reading, I was off the chart. There was a plus sign to prove it.

9780440508830_p0_v1_s260x420Looking back, the problem started early. I was good at reading, yes, but I didn’t enjoy it. More specifically, I didn’t enjoy the books I had to read for school. I didn’t enjoy The Picture of Dorian Gray. I didn’t enjoy The Scarlet Letter or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There were a few hits of course. The Little Prince was worth it. The Good Earth was surprisingly engaging, as was A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. But those were anomalies. I didn’t like most of the books. More importantly, I loved television. I spent hours in front of the television, internalizing the five-act plot structure and studying the timing of commercial breaks. These days most people know that a half hour show is really just over 20 minutes, but that’s because we watch shows on Netflix. I learned it the hard way – with a stopwatch and an unhealthy fascination.

The point is, I didn’t like what I was forced to read, and I didn’t bother reading anything in my spare time since I preferred television to books. It got worse in college when I discovered passing a class was a matter of reading the material OR attending the lectures. You didn’t need to do both, and I’ve always had great attendance. Besides, in high school and college I crammed my schedule so full of activities that the idea of leisure reading was absurd. I read on vacation. That was it.

And now? Now I don’t even go on vacation, so I don’t read anything at all. At least, that’s where I was in February of 2014 when I got my wake up call. I needed to do something. And I needed to start immediately: twelve books in the next twelve months.

It wasn’t easy at first. There’s a pretty big gap between two and twelve. I wasn’t used to reading every day. I wasn’t used to reading in the day at all in fact. I had always tried to read before bed, which is probably why reading makes me so sleepy. I started reading more during the daylight hours. I would give myself the freedom to only read a few pages and stop as soon as I felt myself nodding off.

By the end of February I finished my first novel, and I had another book done not long after March. I stayed on track, and by the end of July I was at eight books. I had made up for my late start and even managed to get ahead.

FermatThen in September I hit a wall. I got stuck with a book that didn’t interest me, but for unrelated reasons I knew I had to finish. I tried starting a second book so I could alternate between the two, which didn’t work. I would get interrupted when I didn’t read a high-demand library book fast enough and had to return it for a few weeks. It was a rough couple months. I lost the cockiness I’d developed in July.

But I got a second wind and now I’m halfway through book seventeen. Even if it hadn’t been for my last minute participation in the Christmas BookTubeAThon, I still would have hit my goal and then some. I’m finally a reader again.

The problem with setting goals is that once I achieve them I instantly want to set higher ones. I’m already planning on doing the July BookTubeAThon, so twelve books shouldn’t be much of a challenge. How many should I shoot for in 2015? Eighteen? Twenty-four? Perhaps I’ll need to set more specific goals, like a certain number of novels (I read mostly non-fiction this year) or a minimum page count (some of the books were quite short). Or maybe I just need to get back to the reader I once was. Maybe I already know what the real goal should be, next year and every year for the rest of my life: 13+.

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I created a GoodReads account to track my goals and the books I want to read next. If you’d like to be my friend on GoodReads, look for NoodleDrive.