Stealth Cleaning

Here’s another experiment I’m doing. Stealth Cleaning.

On Christmas day, the house got to a critical level of clutter and mess. We have a high level of general messiness. The boxes, wrapping, and additional stuff took it over the top.

I started cleaning and straightening up and pitching trash. Quietly.

All that stuff had taken a while to pile up. It wasn’t going to go away overnight. No use being bent about it. Just start somewhere. I started in the kitchen.

Cleaning without the usual sense of resentment about the mess, and without being under the gun to get it done before the arrival of guests was a completely different experience. Instead of huffing and fuming and sweating and getting worn out, at every moment I found I could enjoy the newly uncluttered space.

Nobody felt guilty. No recriminations about who made this mess. The truth is, all of us who are living here contributed to it. It doesn’t matter anyway.

I’ve been stealth cleaning for a week now. A little bit each day. Easy does it. There are a couple clean rooms in the house. I have a long way to go. Some of the biggest un-cluttering challenges still lie ahead.

My wife has noticed the clean areas. She asked what I’m up to. I told her. She smiled. My kid has not noticed, or if he has he hasn’t let on. That’s ok. It’s not really about him.

I can’t change them. They are who they are. I love them as they are.

It’s not about having a perfectly spotless house, either. Let’s be realistic. That’ll never happen. We’ve got to live here. Our house isn’t a museum or a model home for Good Housekeeping magazine. If I clean something, I expect it to get messy again.

I’ve found that in the week I’ve been stealth cleaning, my stress level around the house has gone down a notch or two and my patience level has gone up a notch. So far, so good.

Happy New Year!

Four Books I’d Read (If someone wrote them)

I sometimes dream up plots for fiction that I’m not going to write, but I’d love to read the books if someone else did. Here are 4.

Feel free to write them and make a fortune with a best-seller. If you want to give me a cut of the royalties for the idea, that’d be nice, but you don’t have to. Just send me a free copy of the book.

  1. Car 468. A series of short stories about the guy from the county senior center who drives a minivan with the number 468 on the hood. He picks up seniors and drops them off at medical appointments. That kind of thing. He gets paid minimum wage, but he’s in it for the insurance and retirement plan. Each chapter is about one of the seniors he picks up.
  2. Gondola Ride. A slow day at Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in upstate NY. Guy gets on the gondola at the bottom. He’s the only rider in that car. When the doors open at the top he’s dead. Shot in the neck. Maybe it’s suicide. Maybe it’s not. But the story is what happened on that gondola ride. (Or maybe what led up to it, or what came after. You decide.) Write the book, or the movie, or both. To make it more interesting, throw this in: a marine biology team has found some unusual readings at the bottom of a particularly deep cove of Loch Ness (or maybe it’s Lake Champlain).
  3. Dream Catcher. Someone has invented a dream catcher machine. The government (or the corporations, the Koch Brothers, the Illuminati, Faux News, or whoever — Faux News conspiring with MSNBC, that’d be good) has found a way to intercept dream readings and is using it to take over the world. Joe (or Jane) Schmoe (the plumber?) realizes what’s going on when his dream machine chip malfunctions and suddenly it’s him (or her) against the conspiracy in a game of cat and mouse. Bonus if you write it as a book for “young readers.”
  4. Ice Storm. 9 unlikely people, who would never be found together otherwise, find themselves iced in during a week-long ice storm in the Adirondacks (or maybe it’s the Green or White Mountains, or somewhere in Maine). Like “Big Brother, the Novel.” A couple fall in love, one goes after another with a kitchen knife. Another just goes bat-shit crazy from being stuck in close quarters. Here’s the cast of characters:
    • A millionaire bond trader from a NYC financial giant who used to be with Leaman Brothers
    • A member of the Bloods (he was on his way down the Adirondack Northway with a trunk full of crack when the storm hit)
    • A fundamentalist Christian housewife who’s taking a “spiritual retreat” — or so she says,
    • A lesbian feminist women’s rights agitator,
    • A photographer-artist whose work is mostly about taking pictures of naked women on rocks,
    • A “Dog Whisperer” celebrity from the Animal Channel TV Network,
    • A couple from South Jersey. He fancies himself a folk musician, and she can’t stand life in the north country.
    • An Adirondack lumber mill worker.

Be Where You Are

Derek Sivers has moved to New Zealand’s South Island.

He had been living, I don’t know for how long, in Singapore. A close friend of his died in a crash involving a car and a bicycle on December 8. Then, by December 20, Derek writes that he’s moved to New Zealand, “To work. To focus. To write. To code. To launch.” That’s what he says.

Somehow, moving to New Zealand made sense to Derek. Given the massive disruption caused by the death of his friend, a major change of scenery is understandable. Natural, even. It’s a good story he tells: he couldn’t focus in Singapore. New Zealand is probably quieter.

I’ve thought now and then that it would be nice to visit New Zealand, maybe to live there for a while and see what it’s like. I have no idea if I would like it. I think I might. It looks beautiful in pictures. Maybe I could focus there, too.

Unlike Sivers, though, I’m not free to just up and move to New Zealand on a week’s notice. I suspect most people aren’t. Otherwise, there would be a lot more people in New Zealand. I have to find my focus here, where I am, in the Adirondacks of Upstate New York. Fortunately, it’s beautiful here, and quiet.

I suppose someone might say that I could move to New Zealand if I really wanted to. They’re right, of course. I could. I could pack up my family, insist that my wife quit her job, and my son leave behind a school and friends he loves, and cart us all around the globe. It would be the adventure of a lifetime. I’m not going to do that. Not now. Maybe someday I’ll visit there. I’d still like to see it for myself.

A friend once gave me a little card with a quote from the Buddha. “Be where you are. Otherwise you will miss your life.” I’ve since lost the card. (Impermanence!) But the words have stuck with me.

Derek asks, “Why am I here?” My answer. “Because this is where I am.” No need to travel half way around the world. I can work, focus, write, code and launch from wherever I am.

I hope Derek is happy in New Zealand. I really do. I’m sorry for his loss of a close friend. I wish him peace. In New Zealand, or wherever.

Wherever you are. Be there. Be at peace.

That’s my wish for you. And for me. And Derek.

A Book In the Mail

I’m doing a little experiment.

For the next week or so, on days that the post office is open, I’m going to mail someone a book. Who doesn’t love to get a little present in the mail, especially after Christmas when you’re not expecting it. They’re all people I’ve known, and all books I’ve read. I’m not sending packages to congress here — that would be another experiment entirely.

I mailed the first one to Steve and Arlene on Friday.

I have multiple copies of several books. How I came to possess multiple copies is another story, but they’re not doing anyone any good sitting on my shelf collecting dust.

For $3.26 I can send a book with a card tucked into the front cover, and a little hand-written note in the card. I’m trying to match the books to the people I’m sending them to. Who knows if they’ll read the books. It doesn’t matter. The note and the remembering them is at least as important as the book itself. If not for them, it is for me.

I don’t know if I’ll keep it up after these initial extra copies are gone. I have enough books on the shelves that I could probably keep going for a year or two. Like I said, it’s an experiment. The point is, it’s a whimsical way to say, “Hey, you’re fondly remembered.”

You might want to try it sometime. If not with a book, in your own whimsical way.

Read More by Reading Non-Sequentially

I used to read one book at a time, start to finish. If I had to guess, it was a habit formed from years of school, where the curriculum was defined sequentially by one book, then a test, then the next. Everything in order, start to finish. One thing at a time.

For years I kept a pile of books to read on the corner of my desk. New books would go on the bottom. When I finished the top book, I’d start the next book on the stack.

The trouble with that was that it sometimes would take me a long time to plow through a book. Especially if it turned out to be a difficult read. I felt compelled to finish it before starting the next one. The whole pile would stack up to an impossible depth while one difficult book at the top bottle-necked the whole stack. If the book was particularly slow, I’d sometimes stop reading altogether for long stints.

More recently I’ve started reading differently, and it’s increased my capacity to read tremendously.

I’ve still got a reading queue, but I no longer keep a single stack to read sequentially. Instead of a stack, I’ve got a “to read” shelf, and next to my armchair I have a small table with the four books that I’m reading simultaneously. At any given time, I generally have two books of fiction and two of non-fiction, all on different topics, and every day, I read from at least three of the four.

I don’t make it a “rule,” so much as a practice. If I get really engaged in a book and don’t have time to get to three or four some days, it’s no big deal. I’m just thankful for an enjoyable read. More often than not, though, it’s the variety of ideas and topics made possible by crossing from one book to the next that keeps my interest and pace going.

Having several books all on different topics makes it easier to keep with the more difficult reads because I know that I don’t have to plow through any single read for long stretches. I find it much easier to do a difficult read for 15 or 20 minutes knowing that I’ll be able to read something more riveting right away. It’s a little instant gratification for my brain to be able to follow a hard think with a fast-moving thriller.

Because the books vary in length and in how well they hold my attention, I don’t finish them in the same order I started. That’s ok. I replace the one I’ve finished with another book from the same fiction or non-fiction category from the “to read” shelf in more-or-less the order they’ve come to my attention. Having one book that moves slowly doesn’t hold up the rest of the stack, so I’ve found that in the same amount of time I read more books.

In all, this non-sequential reading has helped me tremendously. I’d recommend trying it for anyone who wants to read more but frequently gets hung up on one slow-moving book.

A Week with No Facebook

… and I haven’t missed it.

No one’s called me in a panic about my absence, either.

It must not be as essential as everyone says.

Merry Christmas, Dammit

My wife’s father died before I ever met her. All the stories are that he was a mean s.o.b.

At Christmas he would come home from wherever he’d been for the previous few months and expect the family to be precisely in line with the Leave It to Beaver perfect Christmas image.

The rest of the family wasn’t perfect. Far from it. They kept on doing what they did when he wasn’t there. Lighting things on fire. Throwing their little sister down the stairs. Staying out to all hours of the night. Staying locked in the bedroom with several bottles of JD and a carton of cigarettes. Which made him angry and just that much meaner. Every year, so the story goes, the drama ended in a tirade ending with the declaration, “We will have a Merry Christmas, dammit!”

Now, whenever something doesn’t go right at Christmastime, or any time of year, and one or another of us is getting bent out of shape over the violation of imagined traditions, we tell each other, “Merry Christmas, dammit!”

Then we laugh.

Merry Christmas, dammit!

Find Your Christmas Zen

The ticket to enjoying holidays (as the ticket to enjoying anything) is letting go of expectations.

My Christmas Started Off In the Toilet

This morning, before dawn, Christmas Eve, the toilet flusher thing gave way.

It would be easy for me to say, and true, that my Christmas this year literally started off in the toilet. Does it mean that my Christmas is ruined? No!

Not if I let go of the expectation that somehow the days around Christmas are magically exempt from things wearing out. Things wear out every day. Even toilet flushers. As a day, Christmas and Christmas Eve are like any other days. Things wear out. It hasn’t ruined my Christmas, unless I let it.

Whatever is going wrong with your Christmas, I’ll bet yours didn’t start out in the toilet. Not really. Not like mine did.

Great expectations aren’t so great.

We put so many expectations on big holidays that it’s hard for them not to be stressful occasions. Whether it’s unexpected random stuff, like toilets breaking, or things you can totally predict, like certain family gatherings, the disappointment is magnified when we hold up reality against our completely arbitrary ideals of what “should” be.

Start with the ideal that everything should be “perfect.” What does perfect even mean? Your idea of perfect and mine might be two completely different things.

Perfect for me means having no obligations to do anything but what I want to. Perfect to my mother means having every member of the family present at the “Family Christmas” celebration. Her idea of perfect and mine are, by definition, are mutually exclusive. I don’t go to the Family Christmas celebration. Her Christmas is not perfect. She sends a picture of everyone but me and my family around the Christmas table with a guilt note saying, “Everyone was here but you. Wish you were here!” My idea of perfect goes out the window.

Our ideas of “perfect” are illusions. It’s an illusion for me to think that I will ever be completely free of all obligations. It’s an illusion of my mother’s that it’s reasonable for my family to drive 11 hours one way when we have work obligations near home on Christmas Eve.

Life in general, and holidays in particular, are only perfect when we can let go of our expectations and accept things as they are. But how?

Here are a couple things to try.

First, let go of the word “should.” Strip it right out of your vocabulary. Any time you find yourself using should (or shouldn’t) stop and rethink what your expectations are. Take a deep breath, let go of the expectation, and start again.

  • The turkey should be carved in this way.
  • Uncle Jack shouldn’t talk politics at the dinner table.
  • The grandkids should have an attitude of gratitude after opening their gifts.
  • Cousin Arlene should refrain from bringing her lame-ass boyfriend with her.
  • The cat shouldn’t climb the Christmas tree.
  • The toilet flusher shouldn’t break on Christmas Eve.

Second, rephrase statements and assertions as questions. Using exactly the same words but changing the punctuation at the end opens you up to re-examining your expectations, nudging you toward a more open and realistic attitude.

  • Christmas is all about family. Becomes, Christmas is all about family?
  • Jesus is the Reason for the season! Becomes, Jesus is the reason for the season?
  • Holidays should be less commercialized. Becomes, Holidays should be less commercialized?

You get the picture. These may hit a nerve in you. That’s ok. They force you to consider that someone else may have completely different reasons and expectations. You can’t change them. It’s hard enough just to change you. Until you can change you, don’t worry so much about changing anyone else.

Christmas is as Christmas does. Let go of your expectations and let Christmas (or whatever holiday has you in knots) be what it will be. Watch it. Observe it. (That’s why people used to say, “We observe the holiday.”) Instead of trying to fit it into your idea of what it should be, see what you can learn from it. Accept it’s challenges as opportunities for you to rethink and change for the better.

Cheers!

Here’s to you finding your Christmas Zen! As for me, I’ll be out in the rush of last minute Christmas shoppers looking for a toilet part.

Advice for Having a Bad Day

Some days are simply bad days.

Things don’t go as planned. Things break. You get interrupted. People you’d rather not talk to get in your face. You feel grouchy for no particular reason, and you’re living under the proverbial rain cloud. Whatever.

On bad days, I try to do as little as possible.

If I’m feeling irritable, the fewer people I interact with, the less they bother me, and the fewer people will have a bad experience of me. I may feel like ruining someone else’s day. They may deserve to have their day ruined. But better someone else ruin it than me. Ruining other people’s days might feel good, but it’s only a momentary reprieve from feeling like crap, and it never helps.

If I’m feeling jinxed, the less I do the less I’ll screw up.

If I can, I take a nap. But some days you have to show up. Just try to close things down as soon as possible. Keep everything to a minimum. If I can, I read something that doesn’t require a lot of concentration, something that isn’t related to any obligation if possible.

Avoid alcohol on down days. Alcohol is a depressant. Things are already depressed on a down day. Don’t make it worse.

Ok. I’m going to go read on the couch now until I fall asleep.

It’s Ok to Walk Away.

In fact, it feels pretty damn good.

There’s a group of people we know. You don’t know them. Doesn’t matter who they are. You have people like this. You hate having to spend time with them, but whatever the reason, you feel obligated.

There may be a few cases where you actually do have an obligation to be with them. Say, they’re your co-workers and you have to go to work every day. In those cases, you need to get a new job. No excuses. Check the want ads, or whatever you have to do. Get out of there.

Most of the time, though, the sense of obligation is an internal one. One you’ve decided to have. Maybe you once thought you liked these people, but it turns out you don’t, but you feel obligated to keep pretending to like them.

Maybe a friend introduced them to you, so you go for the sake of your friend. That’s a valid reason to go if you’re going with your friend, for the sake of your friendship. But even then, it might be better to be honest with your friend and let her know you don’t like those people and you’d rather not go.

We have those people. We’re expected to go to lunch with them every week. Except last week, we decided we didn’t have to go to lunch with them every week. We went somewhere else for lunch. It was wonderful.

If I’m honest with myself, I spend far too much time with people who bring me down. I used to spend even more time with that crowd. I’m getting better. And the less time I spend with them, the better I feel. Because, guess what! They’re not bringing me down anymore.

Well, maybe they are talking about me behind my back, but I don’t have to listen to it or pay any attention to it.

Ian Flemming wrote in a James Bond novel once, “The first time is happenstance. The second time is coincidence. The third time is enemy action.” Or something like that. I forget which novel it was. You can Google it.

It’s a good way of dealing with people. The first time they bring you down, maybe they were having a bad day. You never know. The second time, maybe they were having another bad day. Again, you never know. The third time, though, their bad days are starting to rub off on you. Or they’re mean bringer-downers. Either way, it’s time to walk away.

Lose the people who bring you down. People who bring you down are not your friends. Look up the definition of friendship. Adopt a 3-strikes rule if you have to. So what if they call you names and don’t like you. Do you really think they like you now? If not, then what has changed. Except that the time they call you all kinds of crazy shit on your way out their door is the last time you have to put up with their abuse.

What are you waiting for? You’re free to go.