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February 2011

Post image for Everything in its Place, Finally and Forever

Every morning, I wake up to a home with nothing out of place. I’ve never been a Neatness Nazi and I still am not, but I’ve set things up so that my place just doesn’t get messy.

Every object in my house has a home of its own now. A little over a month ago, I vowed to eliminate homelessness from my home. My reasoning was that if I can’t be bothered to give my possessions a proper place to sleep at night, then I own far too much. I don’t want to own anything I don’t use or don’t appreciate. I don’t want stuff any more, only things.

“A place for everything, and everything in its place” is an ancient platitude that we’re all familiar with, but don’t think I have never been in the home of someone truly living it. I suppose in ancient times most people only owned a few dozen possessions so it wasn’t so hard.

But in our culture it’s perfectly normal for one person to own thousands of objects, far more than they could ever remember they own, let alone make use of or keep organized.

I insisted on finding out what it’s like to live this dream. In thirty days my lot has gone from chronically disorganized to nearly immaculate, by making one simple but drastic change:

I won’t own anything I can’t give a home to.

After a lot of tossing, selling and donating, everything I own now has a place where it is properly, officially away. A place where:

I always know where it is I don’t have to move a bunch of crap to get to it It doesn’t look ugly or get in the way I can put it away in less than ten seconds

At the end of the day I take five minutes and put everything that’s still lying out where it belongs. There’s usually about ten or twelve items that aren’t already in bed, and the apartment quickly becomes hotel-room tidy again.

I used to live in perpetual untidiness. It wasn’t disgusting, but it wouldn’t be odd to find, say, notes and receipts on my kitchen table, a stack of library books on my coffee table, a jacket draped on a dining chair, and a hot sauce bottle stranded on my mantel — and that’s when it’s “clean.”

There was never a time when it looked good, except the hour immediately following the five-hour cleanup I would do every other Saturday when it got too bad to take.

And how could it look good? Since many things had no proper home, there was no “base” arrangement where things were exactly where they were supposed to be. I could hide messes, but the simple fact was that I had more things than I could care for. Most people do.

I had to reduce my possessions quite dramatically to get to be able to adequately house everything I chose to keep, but I still have quite a bit. Only once or twice have I wanted to use something that I’d gotten rid of, and it never was a big deal. There is an indescribable weight on your conscience that is released when you give something up. Every item you get rid of frees you, it really does.

I will never go back. There is just zero advantage to keeping more stuff than you can properly care for, even though it’s the normal thing to do. And it’s easy to maintain. I won’t buy anything I’m not prepared to give a home to. For once I am committed to really owning everything I have. Read More

Post image for 7 Reasons I Never Went Vegan

At its simplest level, the notion always made some sense to me: we hurt and kill animals for our pleasure and convenience, and we don’t have to.

But I’ve always held so many levels of resistance to veganism. Surely it’s not that simple.

I bring up the topic now because I’m about to give it a whirl, not as a response to any kind of ethical crisis, but instead as a health experiment. My diet has been without any hard edges for a long time. Nothing has been off limits, and as a result I’m steadily gaining the 1-pound-a-year perma-fat that the experts say will continue to bog down the typical adult until they die.

I ate about nine chicken taquitos at a get-together not long ago, and I think it was a cry for help. I want to put some strict boundaries onto my diet, if only so I become more conscious of what I eat and so I can practice that “just say no” reflex. Just for a month, to see what happens.

I was going to do the paleo diet, since that’s the thing these days, but to be honest the “on-limits” foods instantly depressed me. I don’t want to eat shrimp and avocado omelets, with berries and balsamic as a snack. Paleo looked like it would prescribe an increase in the animals foods that have had me feeling a bit, uh… clogged these days.

So I’m going the other way, and swan-diving into the plant kingdom. Besides, I’ve had it on my bucket list for a while now: try out a vegan diet for 30 days.

But what about the social ickiness I’ve always felt about veganism? Well I went over my long-standing reasons for steering clear of it, and I have to admit they’re looking a bit wilted since I last checked:

1) It’s too hard.

I know more former vegans than vegans. The unwillingness to live a cheeseless life seems to be the primary reason my once-vegan acquaintances quickly backpedaled to the more moderate vegetarian camp.

Usually restaurants have between zero and one vegan dishes, so that’s what you get. The world is made for omnivores, so you’re painting yourself into a pretty tiny corner if you only allow plants into your body.

While researching this post I kept running into the same surprising anecdote: when people go vegan, they typically wind up expanding their palette. They end up doing a lot more cooking, trying a lot more different goods, and learning a lot more about nutrition in the process. After the initial restocking of the fridge, and a crash course on vegan staples, finding something to eat isn’t so hard.

Ok, so it’s harder than what I’ve been doing, which has basically been doing whatever’s easiest and most gratifying to me. Maybe “hard” is just “harder than the easiest possible approach.”

2) It’s too idealistic.

Oh, I don’t want to hurt anything, so I’ll only eat plants. While I’m at it, I’ll never get angry. I’ll never drink. I’ll never swear. I’ll never take a pen from work or listen to burned CDs.

Life feeds on other life, and that’s a reality we all have to accept. Animals kill animals. We’re animals. We kill other animals too, and we couldn’t have gotten to where we are today without doing a lot of killing and dismembering of animals that really didn’t want to get killed or dismembered. Yes, it’s ugly, violent, bloody. It’s nature.

This was another argument I’ve used to veto the idea of going vegan. Just because I find nature’s violent side a little disturbing sometimes, does that mean it’s wrong to kill animals for food? Mother Nature creates horror on a daily basis. The spectacle of a predatory cat ripping its prey apart while it’s still alive is something most people would hide from their children. Most nature shows won’t even show it. Just because it’s unappetizing and disturbing, does that make it bad or wrong? Read More

Post image for We Check Email 17 Times a Day Because We Like to Get High

At the top of my browser, just below the Back button and Refresh button, I have tiny icons linking to my Gmail and Facebook, my stats counter and Twitter and a few other things, and they are delicious to me.

When I sit down at the computer to do some work, I find it unbelievably difficult to not click each of these buttons at least once before I get on with the task at hand.

Now and then I become aware of what it is I’m actually seeking when I click them. Intellectually, I know it doesn’t really serve me to check email 17 times a day. But new emails and website traffic stats are not what I’m looking for, not really anyway.

I’m looking to get high.

What I’m seeking is scraps of gratification, and sometimes they’re hidden behind those buttons, maybe in a gushing email from a new fan, a spike in traffic when Reddit picks up a piece I wrote, or when I log on to Facebook to see a little red indicator that somebody “Likes” a snarky comment I made on something or other.

It feels good to find these scraps, and so those buttons have become enormously attractive to me. It’s not like there’s really any practical reward for checking email a 3rd, 4th, or 14th time for the day. Those actions come from an emotional motive. They make me high and I guess I like being high.

Sometimes when I’m about to click the little Gmail button, I have a flash of awareness, and realize that my thought process at that moment is exactly as dull and simple as a burned-out rat in a psychology lab, pressing a button that sometimes rewards it with a pellet of food. Read More

Post image for Deal With it, Princess

Here’s a short fable that might be about you. Or someone you know.

Once upon a time long ago, after the invention of clothes but before the invention of shoes, there was a fabulous princess.

Born into wealth, she spent her days not working but rather wandering about her father’s vast kingdom, skipping down the pathways, stopping now and then to bask idly in her good fortune, or sometimes to frolic.

One day she was skipping along, and she stubbed her bare toe on a rock sticking out of the pathway.

She was quite upset, and became horrified at the thought of all the other aggressive and dangerous rocks that might be out there. So she pranced, at a cautious half-speed, back to the palace where she stormed into to the office of King’s closest advisor. She demanded that he have the entire kingdom sealed in leather, so that she never would have to suffer the pain and humiliation of stubbing a toe again.

After a moment, the advisor realized she was quite serious, and he began to to sweat a little. Her request, even if it could actually be carried out, would be hideously expensive even for such a fantastically wealthy kingdom. But the princess had her father wrapped around her finger and was unaccustomed to not getting what she wanted. Denying her wish would upset the king greatly, perhaps costing the advisor his head.

So he proposed a pragmatic solution. “Your highness, what if instead of paving the entire kingdom in leather, we create leather garments that we can slip onto your feet, so that you will be protected wherever you go, in our kingdom and even beyond?”

Being a fabulous, materialistic princess, she loved the idea and shoes were invented that day. By the time she died she had two thousand pairs.

(Traditional fable, hat tip to Jon Kabat-Zinn)

Such a wealthy and demanding princess might actually have had the worldly power to pull off her original solution, or at least most of it. Money and influence, external power in its two classic forms, were not normally limited for her. So if she could have the whole kingdom rendered harmless by gilding it in leather — or even pleather if the overlay had to be so large it drove cows to extinction — it would be incredibly costly and cause all sorts of unforeseen practical issues, but her problem could indeed be solved.

A person without vast reserves of wealth and power, such as one of her subjects in the village, wouldn’t have this option and would have no choice but to suffer a lifetime of scraped heels and disjointed toes. After all, if you have unlimited control over circumstances, then you have no problems.

But nobody has unlimited power over the world around them. So a wiser person brought to the princess’s attention, in a very diplomatic manner, that the problem she perceived as being everywhere only ever existed at the point of contact between her and the world around her.

Her extensive resources were usually enough to obliterate anything she perceived as a problem. She had always needed money and influence to solve her problems, because she had always been in the habit of defining a problem as the thing that vexed her, rather than what it really was: the friction between herself and that thing. Read More

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