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December 2012

Post image for How to sit in a chair and drink tea

First, slow down, like you’ve just turned off the highway into a quiet neighborhood. Normal rat-race speed is unsuitable for what we’re about to do. Hurrying through the process of relaxing defeats its purpose.

This experience is all about decelerating. Take a breath if you have to, or if you wish to.

Take out your tools. Kettle. Cup. A mesh infuser if you’re using one.

Your supplies — the consumables — will be two of nature’s simplest creations: water and leaves. Loose tea is best but a teabag will do.

Choose your leaves. Chai. Rooibos. Ceylon. Oolong. Yerba mate. This is a personal decision and I won’t make a suggestion. Depending on the plant you choose here, you may be embarking on a mild drug experience. If you’re running low, on either quantity or variety, here is a wonderful source.

Run water into the kettle, feeling its growing weight, and take a moment to smile at your fortune if you did not have to leave the house to do so.

Turn on the heat. Put your tea into your cup.

You will now confront one of modern society’s ever-present dangers, which is the risk of distraction we face whenever nothing interesting happens for a few minutes. Your muscle memory will suggest something, maybe slipping your smartphone out, maybe leaning over the computer chair to surf Reddit, maybe straightening something on the counter. Worst of all, you may start talking to yourself in your head.

Stay where you are. You’re making tea. It’s tempting to think of the next two minutes of kettle-heating time as something in the way, something you want to get to the end of, like an unmemorable stretch of parking lot you have to cross to get from your car to your destination.

Your impulse might be to self-entertain. Opt instead to do something simple and self-contained, like stretching or looking out the window. If you’re game, just stand beside the stove. Let time just hang there, without making you feel like you should be somewhere else.

Whatever you end up doing for that two minutes, if you stay with it, your simple experience of standing or window-looking will seem to grow in intensity, until your whole world begins whistling and rattling.

Don’t rush here. A boiling kettle is not a crisis. To make sure you’re not reacting, watch it exhale steam for a few seconds. Observe how the world stays together. Let your pulse return to normal, then take it off.

Pour your water into the cup. Set the kettle aside. Heat off. Read More

Post image for How much does it cost to be you?

Now that I’ve installed snow tires, my car has only four things wrong with it. The passenger-side lock is misbehaving since someone tried to screwdriver it open this summer. The throttle sticks for a moment when the automatic transmission shifts to second gear. The heat takes twenty minutes to come on, and the suspension is creaking now.

I don’t know how much each will cost, but I figure if I’m lucky I can fix one item with each of my next four paychecks, if I tighten in other areas.

This is a pretty normal financial position for me. My life, the way I live it, is affordable, except when unpredictable expenses overlap. Just a little bit more income, say 10% more, would theoretically stop this from happening. But I’ve been thinking that for years, and my income is nearly double what it was seven years ago.

Parkinson’s Law is mostly responsible for this. We have an almost automatic tendency to increase our standard of living the moment our income increases. If you’re like most people, when your pay increases by another $500 a month, the first thing you decide is what additional $500-per-month thing you can now afford to enjoy, which is the same as deciding what additional $500-per-month expense you now wish to take on.

Every time that happens, your financial situation doesn’t really change, even as you climb through tax brackets. Ephemeral details of your life — what you are wearing, where you are eating, the sleekness of your furniture — do change, but the feeling of your financial situation doesn’t, and it is this feeling that determines whether your financial situation feels stretched, or ample.

That ample feeling comes, al least partly, from space. Ideally there would be space between what you earn and the cost of your lifestyle. If you have space, the thought of an unexpected expense doesn’t have the power to worry you, because normal life (for you) costs less than you have to spend on it, and so incidentals don’t put you in the red. On most of the occasions where life costs more than you expect, it still costs less than you have.

Space is an interesting asset in that it doesn’t actually cost money. It only requires that you leave a portion unspent. The returns on this zero-net-cost investment are considerable. It can make the difference between carrying a daily feeling of abundance and carrying a daily feeling of not-enough.

I’m convinced that a single middle-classer who makes $45,000 a year, and whose lifestyle costs $40,000 a year, is necessarily going to feel more day-to-day abundance than an upper-middle-classer who makes $100,000 and whose lifestyle costs every bit of that.

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Post image for On being under the influence at Ikea

Last month my city became a real city. After a two-year gestation period, a field on the outskirts of Winnipeg gave birth to an Ikea.

Those who already live in Ikea cities may not comprehend the significance of this event, but to my people it is a very big deal. I had not been into an Ikea since I was a child being dragged into one, but since reaching the age where one begins to value furniture (26?) it has taken on an enigmatic quality for me, and I know I’m not alone. At 32 I’m finally living in a home that feels like one, and I’ve been experiencing a powerful domestic urge to assemble a coherent decorative scheme around me. How our values change.

During the summer months I monitored the store’s construction whenever I drove by. At first it was hard to tell anything was being built at all. The site was just concrete piles and trailers. In the Fall, climbing over the tops of the small city of construction site offices, a gleaming blue rectangle emerged, unfolding panel by panel at an alarming rate.

I imagined crane operators working from concise sets instructions that diagram the entire facility’s construction with foolproof arrows — wall “B” into slot “EE” — and every joint tightened with a great Allen key.

Two weeks ago it was done, and seven hundred thousand thrift-minded (but aesthetically sensitive) Winnipeggers descended on it.

I avoided the insanity of the first weekend, thinking I might even wait until after Christmas to outfit my home, aware that until I was ready it was best not to know what I was missing.

With winter here and a friend coming for the weekend from Calgary — a city to which Ikea is old hat — I find myself in immediate need of a presentable doormat (I’ve been using a corrugated plastic board that has my fantasy football league’s draft results on it.) So I get in the car and head to the box store hell that lies west of Linden Woods.

On the way there I decide to make it a quick operation and grab a passable mat at one of the now-empty homeware stores across the highway, saving my Ikea adventure for another time. But as I begin my drive home I notice that the deadening quiet inside Home Outfitters has left me with the feeling you get when you know everyone else is at a party. I find myself changing lanes and I know I am on my way to Ikea.


The vast parking lot is nearly full, and so I park at the very back, beside the base of a sign so enormous I would have guessed it was a neighboring microwave tower. It’s visible for (without exaggeration) miles, and it would not surprise me if it were now Manitoba’s highest building. On top of a white tubular steel tower sits a three-faced logo, the whole of which gives the impression, perhaps only accidentally, of a giant middle finger that simultaneously faces Wal-Mart, Jysk, and HomeSense.

The great rectangle of the store itself is so uniformly blue and featureless that it’s difficult to gauge its size from a distance. From my car, the yellow letters on its broad side could be eight feet tall or forty feet tall. My walk takes far longer than I thought it would. It is perhaps the largest parking lot I have ever crossed and the blue wall looms larger with each step.

The entrance is a great revolving door, maybe thirty feet across. It moves the people, not the other way around, swallowing about a dozen people per third of a revolution. I am swallowed along with a large Chinese family, and the door turns so slowly that for almost ten full seconds we are completely sealed in plexiglass. Some of the children begin to cry.  Read More

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