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Post image for The Difference Between Getting By and Getting Better

When you do something the same way long enough, it stops occurring to you that it can be done differently.

I’ve begun making up for thirty years of mediocre interactions with clerks and cashiers. I was a very shy kid, so I often mumbled my way through retail exchanges. I wasn’t impolite, but I said nothing more than necessary, and didn’t always attempt eye contact. It didn’t feel great, but it worked well enough, and the cashiers didn’t seem to mind.

I’m much less mumbly as an adult than I was at eight, but I’ve apparently still been coasting on the same minimalist approach, navigating retail transactions politely, but not warmly. Hi. I don’t need a bag, thanks. Great, thank you. All in a low voice, sometimes verging on a whisper.

A few weeks ago, after apparently having acted through pure habit for thirty years, I suddenly became conscious of just how needlessly unpersonable I’d been that whole time. As I lifted my grocery bag and spoke my usual “Thank you,” my voice was so low that no sound actually came out. Rather than make a second attempt at speech, I nodded to signal thanks but the cashier had already turned to the next person.

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Post image for When In Doubt, Make Soup

One night a few months ago, two friends and I were feeling the onset of winter doldrums, and made a plan to address it with soup.

We had come together for some activity I no longer recall (movie? board game?) but everyone was feeling pretty low. Each of us was clearly addled by one or more ongoing life-woe—angst over relationships, money, health, aimlessness. Nobody wanted to ruin the evening by dumping their laundry on the floor, but it was obvious that we all needed to talk to someone.

So we made a plan to get together, on a different night, to do just that. Somebody would make a big pot of soup, then while we dined, each person would have a chance share their current struggles, and the rest of the group would listen and try to help.

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Post image for The Other Environmental Crisis

During a holiday get-together, several times the topic of conversation became, “Things that have quietly disappeared from ordinary life.”

We had been playing a word game that requires you to come up with examples from obscure categories of nouns: shampoo brands, film directors, types of fish. When “fashion model” came up, we noticed nobody could name one from this century.

In the 1990s, some of the most famous people in the world were fashion models, but at some point the world-famous model must have become an obsolete institution. Nobody was sad about this, but it seemed interesting that we hadn’t noticed their disappearance till twenty years later.

Earlier, my mom had been unable to make a particular recipe because she didn’t have enough sugar, and didn’t want to make a trip to the store just for that. Someone asked, “Hey… why don’t people knock on the neighbor’s door to borrow a cup of sugar anymore? When did that stop?”

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Post image for How To Go Deeper In 2020

Taped to the door of my friend’s apartment, right at eye level, is an Anais Nin quote: “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”

Think of a good friend, and picture the moment you met them. They might have been a stranger, a co-worker, or a friend’s friend. However that moment went, the unique quirks and qualities you would one day love about them were already there in the room with you, but you had no idea they even existed.

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Post image for How To Make Meditation Ten Times Easier

Meditation has reached an interesting place in Western culture. It’s popular, well-reviewed by clinicians and scientists, and most people seem to have tried it.

Yet for all the acclaim meditation receives, it’s not very common to actually meditate regularly.

As hobbies go, meditation isn’t known for being beginner-friendly. Its learning curve can seem nearly wall-like at the beginning, mainly because its central task – focusing indefinitely on one thing – is essentially impossible if you haven’t already meditated for years.

You know this if you’ve tried it. Staying with a breath or two is no problem. But just beyond that, at some always-unseen moment, your intention to focus dissolves into dreamlike images, mental chatter, and bits of Taylor Swift songs.

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Post image for Most Accomplishments Are Invisible

A few weeks ago a viral tweet went around asking, “There’s only one month left in the decade… What have you accomplished?”

If that question strikes you as uncomfortable, you’re not alone.

Both the tweet and its tweeter have since disappeared from the platform, but you can still read the replies, and they say a lot about our notion of “achievement,” and how it’s changing.

The thread began with impressive lists of conventional successes: medals won, degrees earned, books published, startups sold. But as the replies accumulated, the tone shifted. More people began listing not what they had won or created but what they had survived—job losses, bad relationships, addiction, depression, chronic pain, debt, and anxiety.

Many described their great achievement of the 2010s as moving from an unbearably tough place to a bearably tough place, or even just surviving where they were. Virtual hugs and high fives were exchanged.

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Post image for Mr. Rogers Wasn’t a Saint, He Was One of Us

Last week, a friend and I went to see Last Christmas. It was sold out, which turned out to be a stroke of holiday good luck.

We saw the Mister Rogers biopic instead, and I think it made us kinder.

The filmmakers had recreated the show’s details perfectly. The busy piano theme that accompanies the trolley. The way Mr. Rogers changed shoes while he sang. The unexplained traffic light in his living room.

The nostalgic effect was intense. Apparently I hadn’t seen much of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood since I was its intended audience—a sensitive five-year-old, sitting cross-legged on our brown living room rug, bewildered by feelings.

At the time, I believed Mr. Rogers was an extremely kind man who talked directly to me and wanted me to be okay. Today, I think that’s exactly what he was trying to be, and what he was. By all accounts of those who knew Fred Rogers, he was really that kind.

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Post image for Do What You’re Doing

Years ago my mother introduced me to an extraordinary, out-of-print book on house cleaning, which has stuck in my mind ever since.

It was a thin, battered paperback from the early 1990s called Speed Cleaning, and it tells you how to clean a whole house in 42 minutes. Both of us were so impressed with its clarity and confidence that we resolved to learn its methods before it had to go back to the library.

Speed cleaning takes persistence to master, and I didn’t persist for long. But I did enough of it to experience its great revelation: cleaning, or any other challenging task, when done with a certain vigor and wholeheartedness, becomes strangely easier, even as you do more work in less time.

Another copy recently entered our lives, and I think I understand better what creates this effect.

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Post image for Two Ways to Keep the Fountain Flowing

I’ve been working on an interesting math problem I first pondered as a kid.

One day in the early nineties, my dad heard on the radio that there was a new technology coming called “INTER-NET,” and he struggled to describe it to me.

One thing he said was, “You could type in ‘Michael Jackson jokes’ and see all the Michael Jackson jokes in the world.”

It didn’t occur to me that this INTER-NET wasn’t a physical thing, or that you would have it in your home. I pictured a towering, all-connected computer at the university that people would line up to use.

“And it’s free!” He added.

That part seemed unlikely. I knew that even the lowliest candies cost at least one cent, and this computer with infinite jokes was clearly far more valuable. Even my pre-teen brain recognized there was something unusual about the economics of that.

I wouldn’t have guessed that decades later I’d be fully enmeshed in this futuristic value-distribution system, living on it and for it, supplying it not just with jokes but articles, rants, and some genuine insights, alongside millions of other creators.

Somewhat surprisingly, the internet did turn out to be the fountain of freely available art, entertainment, and information my Dad promised.

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Post image for Five Old School Things To Consider Doing Again

I have a not-so-secret hope that we’re reaching a sort of technology nausea point, when it becomes utterly clear that pre-digital (or at least pre-smartphone) approaches to certain things were better in many ways, and we begin to re-adopt them for that simple reason.

Even in 2010, we were still excited when, while doing something in the old, dependable, manual way, somebody said, “Hey there’s an app for that!” Today, the excitement comes when you realize you can do that thing much easier without trying to bumble through it on your phone.

As we approach the 2020s, I think we’re becoming more aware of what we’ve left behind. But a lot of it is still there if we want it.

Here are some places where I’ve enjoyed returning to the ways of years past.

1. Cooking From a Cookbook

There have always been a few recipes in my rotation that I had to open a cookbook for, and I couldn’t help but notice a hint of relief at that.

What a joy it is, when you’ve got flour everywhere and olive oil on your fingers, to simply glance over to an open book, rather than knuckle-scroll through clunkily-loading ads and long-winded anecdotes about the author’s husband just to check a measurement. You also don’t need to keep touching the recipe every so often to prevent it from disappearing.

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