Nine Days

To escape the heat yesterday, Kim and I went to the movies. We saw “Nine Days” on a whim without any foreknowledge of the film. It is amazing. I give it my strongest possible recommendation. It’s thoughtful, beautiful, and unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

More like this, please! (Here’s a glowing review for the curious.)

The snowball method of writing stories

While mindlessly browsing the web this morning, I happened this 15-year-old comment at AskMetafilter. It is, in essence, a description of what I’m going to call “the snowball method” for writing a story.

Why snowball? Because the writing process builds upon itself, gaining size and speed as the work progresses. Here’s the entire comment from /u/unSane (with some editing by me to make it read more easily):

Context: I’m a professional screenwriter. I wrote the movie SYLVIA. The following works for me. I’m not saying it will work for anything else.

Start with three sentences representing the beginning, middle and end of your story:

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.

Woman buys house. House turns out to be haunted. Woman defeats ghosts.

Those are dumb examples but you get the idea.

You already have a finished story. You just need to expand it now. You expand it by doing the exact same thing. Take each sentence and expand it into three sentences.

So, you write the beginning of the beginning, the middle of the beginning, and the end of the beginning. Thus, boy meets girl becomes:

Family moves house. Boy is lonely. Boy meets girl who is next-door-neighbor.

Or whatever.

You know where I am going with this next, right? You keep doing the beginning/middle/end thing over and over again.

Family moves house becomes:

Boy lives with parents. Parents divorce. Boy forced to move with mother to new town.

And so on. Pretty soon you have every event in your story mapped out. Then you can write it for real. In fact, you will discover that you have already written most of it.

The great, huge virtue of this is that you always have a finished story, and you are just filling it out. Of course sometimes things change, and at a certain point you just write, forgetting about the top-down thing… but it’s like scaffolding that you can eventually discard.

I’ve used this for every script I’ve ever written.

Serious writing is a serious business, like building a house. You don’t expect a builder to just get out of bed and start building.

This snowball writing method appeals to me. I think this is primarily because this isn’t how I work. I’m a professional writer, but almost zero percent of my work is planned top-down like this. Mostly, I just start writing and I see where things take me.

That’s what I’m doing right now. It’s what I did last year. It’s what I did yesterday.

(When I started writing yesterday’s post, it was about my recent fascination with mid-century modern homes. I have some strong opinions on the subject. But while researching and writing that post, I discovered Japandi design, and ultimately that’s what I wrote about.)

But I can’t help but wonder if taking a top-down approach to writing wouldn’t help me be more productive and more effective at communication. This snowball method of writing sounds like a great way for me to experiment with top-down writing.

An introduction to Japandi design (and more)

As Kim and I begin our house hunt, it’s become clear that I am drawn to mid-century modern design. Yes, I realize that’s a bit cliché. Mid-century modern (or MCM, for short) is popular with many, many people.

For me, I’m drawn to MCM — or any sort of modernist design, really — because it seems to be the United States’ closest approximation of two other design paradigms that I find appealing: Japanese and Scandinavian.

Both Japanese and Scandinavian design seem to emphasize the same things: simplicity, clean lines, natural materials, and so on. Turns out, I’m not the first to notice the similarities. In fact, Japandi (as it’s called) is a hot design trend in 2021! (Here’s a blog post about employing Japandi in a traditional ranch home.)

I just spent the past two hours down an internet rabbit hole as I tried to learn more about Japandi design. Since I don’t want to forget what I’ve learned, I’m going to share some of the things I liked best here.

Here’s a ten-minute video on how to decorate Japandi from the Posh Pennies channel on YouTube.

And here’s a sixteen-minute video from Nick Lewis that explores the same subject.

I haven’t watched that one yet, but I will just as soon as publish this blog post. 😉

Lastly, I enjoyed Joe Allam’s 21-minute “Made in Japan”, which explores traditional craftsmanship in the Ishikawa and Gifu prefectures.

Although I’ve been drawn to this sort of design my entire adult life, it’s only recently that I’ve considered decorating my home this way. And it’s only in the past year that I’ve realized it’s possible to purchase notebooks and pens, etc. from Japan.

So that I have a permanent resource for this stuff, here are some links (most of which I have not explored thoroughly) to sources for Japandi design inspiration and Japanese products.

  • Hobbs Modern is a San Diego company that restores and sells mid-century modern pieces. Gorgeous stuff but expensive.
  • Artek is a Finnish company that has been creating modern furniture since 1935.
  • Modloft (in Miami) produces “elite modern furniture for the contemporary home”.
  • Maruni is a Japanese company that has been “pioneering the industrial application of craft skills” for almost 100 years.
  • Karimoku is a Japanese manufacturer of wooden furniture.
  • BoConcept is a source of Danish furniture that feels very modern.
  • Motarasu is a company deliberately working to blend Japanese and Danish design. (I don’t like most of their stuff, though.)
  • Mobilia is a Canadian company that sells (creates?) Scandinavian-inspired modern furniture.

And here’s a list of semi-related companies that sell high-quality and/or elegant items that aren’t necessarily Japandi, but which are related in my mind.

  • Schoolhouse is a local Portland company that sells a wide range of items for the home. They’re not all Japandi, but they are all quality. I’ve been buying from them for more than a decade now. I’m not sure how I feel about it. (For sale here.)
  • Muji is a Japanese company that sells a wide range of products — clothing, furniture, and more — that are meant to be simple and practical.
  • Walden sells high-quality (but expensive) meditation cushions, etc.
  • Studio Neat creates high-quality, simple tools. Last year, I spent $65 on this pen. I love it. Love it, love it, love it.
  • Hobinichi Store for my favorite journals and planners. (Also available from JetPens.)
  • Uniqlo is a Japanese company that produces “stylish and affordable sportswear”. They’re very popular in the /r/frugalmalefashion subreddit, but I’ve never looked at their stuff because I thought the company name was stupid. My mistake, I guess.
  • Takasaki is like an online Japanese supermarket. (See also: ZenMarket.)
  • Umami Mart is a California-based source of Japanese food and drinks.
  • Nihon Ichiban is an online shop for authentic Japanese household items.

Kim and I already own a few pieces that would fit well (if not perfectly) in a Japandi home. I have the four Stickley items I bought in 2009. She owns a couple of black cabinets. And, of course, technically all of my Ikea office furniture is Scandinavian haha.

We’ll see where we end up. If the home lends itself to it, maybe we’ll pursue Japandi interior design.

Let the nerdery resume…

Earlier this year, I made an abortive attempt to resurrect Folded Space (or, if you prefer). For the six weeks I was writing here, I really enjoyed it. But there were a couple of problems.

  • First, my webhost could not handle the site, for whatever reason. It makes no sense to me. It’s a basic WordPress blog with almost no traffic. Yet, the site crashed constantly, both for me and for others.
  • Second, as a result of the hosting issues, readers could not leave comments on the stuff I wrote. I enjoy engaging with an audience, however small. And the small audience that reads this site seems to enjoy engaging with me. It was frustrating to not be able to have a conversation.
  • Third, the entire site was bogged down by nearly thirty years of cruft. Since starting my first website in 1993 (or 1994?), I’d created a whole lot of chaos with scores of directories containing words and photos and files and mp3s and so on. Behind the scenes, things were a mess.

In mid-February, my business partner offered to move this site to a new webhost. I agreed. Tom moved the install. But then I got distracted with a trip to Mexico, an ice storm that knocked out power for ten days, and — most significantly — selling our house.

It wasn’t until today that I actually found time to sit down and update (nearly) everything.

The bottom line? Folded Space is back online! Let the nerdery resume…

Learning Spanish

A decade ago, I decided to learn Spanish. In the summer of 2011, I sought out a Spanish tutor in the Portland area and chanced to meet a Peruvian woman named Aly. For the next eighteen months or so, Aly and I met three times a week for 90 minute sessions. It was a ton of fun.

My progress was slow at first, of course. There was so much to learn! But gradually I discovered ways to make learning Spanish more fun for me.

I dove deep into Spanish-language pop music, for instance. At the time, Portland had a great radio station that played contemporary Spanish-language pop. (Most Portland Spanish-language stations are either religious or play traditional Mexican music. I had not — and still have not — acquired a taste for traditional Mexican music.) I’d listen to the songs while driving around, make a point to note my favorites.

I’d download these favorite songs to my phone and I’d print out the lyrics. Then, I’d take these lyrics to my sessions of Aly. She’d help me work through the process of translating them.

Again, at first this was difficult. It’s one thing to learn the “rules” of a language. It’s another thing to learn how the language is actually used (especially when usage varies from country to country). The start of many tutoring sessions was spent translating song lyrics. In time, Aly started bringing some of her favorite songs for me to learn.

On top of this, I began watching movies and TV shows with the Spanish audio track (and English subtitles). I was also reading Spanish-language books. I started with children’s books, but gradually worked my way up to full-fledged novels. By the time Aly and I stopped working together, we had worked through The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Spanish plus one or two other books that I don’t recall at the moment.

All of this study paid off.

After less than six months, I took my first trip to a Spanish-speaking country. I traveled to Peru and Bolivia to hike through the Andes. I was by no means fluent, but I knew enough Spanish to get by.

Three months later, I traveled to Argentina and Chile. My Spanish was even better by this time. I could read anything I encountered in daily life. I could engage in simple conversations. People complimented my accent.

And in 2013, I spent a couple of weeks in Ecuador. This time, I ended up being the de facto translator for the group I was traveling with. I couldn’t understand everything that was said to me, and I sometimes had trouble formulating thoughts, but I could speak well enough to do whatever I wanted. (One funny exception: In rural Ecuador, I had to help a companion purchase hair conditioner. I had no idea what the word was. The owner of the small shop couldn’t understand what I was trying to tell her. Everyone became frustrated. But, in the end, I learned the word acondicionador.)

As I traveled, I bought more books. And, especially, I bought Spanish-language graphic novels. I loved Spanish. I loved comic books. Naturally, Spanish comic books appealed to me. These too helped me learn.

At my Spanish peak, I was actually volunteering in a bilingual second-grade classroom, helping kids learn to read for a few hours per week. This was challenging but fun.

Aly and I stopped working together sometime in late 2012. At the time, she told me that I had learned enough that I could easily test into late intermediate (or early advanced) Spanish at a college level. This boggled my mind!

But once we stopped working together, my Spanish skills froze. Then, with time, they began to erode.

That said, my Spanish hasn’t faded completely. Not even close.

It helps that I’ve returned to Ecuador several times since. Plus, I exercise my Spanish when I travel to Italy or Portugal. (Italian and Portuguese are close enough to Spanish that my brain engages in the same way.) Every once in a while, I grab a Spanish children’s book from my shelf. (I like reading Harry Potter in Spanish.)

I’ve found that my ability to read Spanish seems to have remained. Yes, I’ve forgotten certain words, but words are easy to look up. I can parse a book fairly easily, pausing only to use a dictionary when needed.

That said, my ability to hear and speak Spanish is pretty low right now. I haven’t tried to write anything, but I think that would be rough too.

I bring all of this up because I’m currently on my second trip to Mexico in the past month. The first trip was spent in an English bubble. This trip, I’m with a Mexican friend and we’re doing Mexican things. I am surrounded by Spanish. Yes, most of the people we encounter can (and do) speak English, but much of the time, I’m afloat in a sea of Spanish.

We’ve been here nearly 48 hours now, and even in this short time, I’ve found my comprehension has made huge strides. When we landed, I could only pick out a few words of spoken Spanish here and there. I was especially flustered that whenever a person spoke, it pretty much sounded like a wall of noise. But as time goes on, I’ve gained the ability to delineate individual words when they’re spoken. That’s super helpful!

Last night at dinner, as the group of Mexican friends grew drunker and drunker (and I grew drunker and drunker), I was generally able to follow the flow of conversation. I could get the gist of what was being said most of the time. I couldn’t tell you what any given sentence was, but I understood many of the stories. On our way home, I told my friend that I felt like I might have been able to understand almost everything if the speed of the conversation could have been slowed by 50%.

I’ve noticed some things, though.

  • First, it takes a lot of focus and mental energy to attend to a conversation. As a result, I get tired. And when I get tired, I tune out. The moment I tune out, I lose any thread of what’s being said. (If I tune out of an English conversation, I still subconsciously pick up the thread.)
  • Second, some speakers are much easier to understand than others.
  • Third, some of the rules I’ve learned and followed don’t seem to apply. I’m not sure if they’ve never applied or whether they simply don’t apply to this part of Mexico. (Example: I was taught that each letter in Spanish is always pronounced and always pronounced the same way. This isn’t true. “Muelle” isn’t pronounced the way it’s spelled, for instance.)
  • Fourth, I really struggle with the little “extra” bits in Spanish. This has always been true, but it’s especially true now. The personal a. The se in a phrase like se me olvidó. I understand them when I see them and/or hear them, but I never remember to include them when I speak. Never.
  • Fifth, the Spanish you learn in the classroom doesn’t overlap completely with the Spanish you see in the real world. I learned llanta (tire) when working with Aly, for example, but never had occasion to use the word. But you see llanta all over the place — more than you’d think! — when out and about in a city.

There’s lots of other stuff like this that makes actually spending time in a Spanish-speaking country (or area) wholly different than learning Spanish in a classroom. It’s fun.

My friend tells me that he thinks I could become fluent if I were to spend three months here. He recognizes that I’m struggling, especially when it comes to speech. But he says that I seem to understand more than he expected me to. (I understand more than I expected me to, also.)

We’ll be here another three days before flying home to Portland. I’m curious to see if my ability to parse speech (and to speak myself) continues to improve during this time. It almost has to.

On past trips like this, I’ve tended to bury my head in books, magazines, and newspapers. I’ve paid more attention to print Spanish. This time, I’m not doing any of that. None. Instead, it’s all conversational. It’s a different experience, but I think it’ll be more profitable in the long run.

And you know what? All of this is thinking that it might be smart for me to find a Spanish tutor again this year. I wouldn’t dive as deep as I did before, but it might be fun to meet somebody every week or two (even if it’s with Zoom and not in person). I would love to bring my Spanish skills back to where they once were.

Speaking another language changes the way you view the world. It’s fun!

A maximally fulfilling life

Since my epiphany last week about online interaction likely being the source of much of my stress and anxiety, I’ve been doing a lot of introspection. Overanalytical Man is flexing his muscles…but in a good way.

I’m reading books (currently reading Waking Up by Sam Harris), watching movies, and talking with friends.

This latter action is huge.

For one, COVID has severely reduced my in-person social interactons. No surprise there, right? I do still chat with people by Zoom, but mostly it’s about business. I rarely have conversations with friends right now.

Well. It occurred to me last week that this isn’t just because of COVID. The reality is that I’ve allowed my friendships to fade over the past few years. And this could be a large part of my recent mental health struggles.

So, I’ve made an effort this past week to have long conversations with friends. I’ve had hour-long calls with Julie and Nick and Cody. Today, I had an hour-long call with my friend Todd (who runs Financial Mentor).

These calls have been great. It’s felt so good to reconnect with people.

As a bonus, because these people know me, they’re able to offer feedback on my crazy idea that maybe I should walk away from everything. Some agree that’s probably a good idea. But most think that I should take a more measured approach. They’re probably right.

During my call with Todd today, he asked a terrific question. I liked it so much that I jotted it down on a sticky-note and stuck it to my computer monitor. Todd asked:

“How could you restructure everything so that you have a maximally fulfilling life?”

A maximally fulfilling life

This is, in essence, the fundamental question for folks who are retired or who have achieved financial independence. I love it. It’s especially appropriate for me, obviously, as I’m wrestling with how best to proceed with my online presence.

I don’t know the answer to the question yet, and that’s okay. It’s fun to think about the possibilities.

One thing is for certain (and this became clear while speaking with Todd today). Moving forward, it’s vital that I make choices that are true to who I am and what my needs are. I need to write what I want in the way that I want and to hell with what anyone else thinks about it.

Too often, I temper what I say. Or, more accurately, I restrict what I share at Get Rich Slowly because I think the audience wouldn’t want to read about it. I think this is a huge part of the problem.

Talking with Todd made me realize that I need to write whatever I want at Get Rich Slowly — and everywhere else. If people don’t like it, they don’t have to read it, right? If my audience shrinks, so what? It’s already a tiny fraction of what it used to be. But what if it’s a tiny fraction of what it used to be precisely because I’m so worried about what people want me to write?

Anyhow, I like that I’ve spent the past ten days talking more with my friends. It’s helpful, both in the moment and in the grand scheme of things. I believe that more time with friends is a key component of my maximally fulfilling life.

The epiphany

I had an interesting insight during the dog walk earlier this week, and I want to set it down before I forget it.

Tuesday was a good morning. I felt confident (which is unusual for me in recent years) and I was productive. I got stuff done.

During the dog walk, my mind started to wander. I have a mind forever voyaging to different places. My thoughts are rarely solely in the here and now. I usually have two or three or four different thought processes going on in my head at once.

I don’t know if this is normal. Maybe it is. Do other people have heads filled with a million billion jumbled thoughts? Or is this indicative of my ADHD? Is my brain wired differently than other people? I have no way to tell. (And I really wonder if all of this is related to my chronic depression!)

But some days are different.

Overanalytical Man

On the days I take my ADHD meds, a calm settles over me. I often describe it like this: It’s as if normally there’s a (metaphorical) swarm of bees in my head. They’re buzzing and flying and everything is chaos. But when I take my Vyvanse (which I don’t do often), those bees settle. They calm down. They stop buzzing about for a few hours and instead settle in a clumpy mass on a tree branch. It’s still a bit chaotic, but it’s calm chaos. Does that make sense?

Then, as the Vyvanse fades, the bees begin buzzing about again.

That’s life inside my head.

It’s important to note that one of the bees (perhaps the queen?) is this judgemental little motherfucker that’s always picking things apart. Sometimes it’s picking apart whatever it is I’m watching or reading or doing. Sometimes it’s picking apart the people I’m with. But usually? Usually this little bastard is picking me apart. My head is filled with constant negative self-talk.

I’m constantly asking myself, “Do I look okay? Did I do that right? Did I say the right thing? Was that a mistake? Do I dare publish this? I’m too fat. Remember that time you fucked up at the FI chautauqua?” And so on.

Inside my mind, there’s this constant monologue that runs parallel to my regular thought processes. Sometimes I’m able to suppress this. Normally, however, I can’t. (And with certain strains of marijuana? Yikes! It’s bad news because for whatever reason, they magnify this dark voice from a whisper to a scream.)

When we were married, Kris used to call me Overanalytical Man. We’d laugh about how I overanalyzed everything. I never thought much about it outside of being a joke, though. Now, though, I’m starting to realize that Overanalytical Man is like my nemesis. He’s the recurring super-villain of my life. Overanalytical Man is the guy who prevents me from enjoying anything, from relaxing, from just being myself.

So, let’s get back to Tuesday’s dog walk.

Walking the Dog

Left to her own devices, Tally wouldn’t really go for a walk. Instead, we’d pick a place or two and just sniff and dig for an hour. Or a day. That’s what she wants. But I want the exercise. I’m trying to kill two birds with one stone. I want forward motion. Our dog walks are mostly a compromise between me wanting to be in motion and the dog wanting to plant in place.

Tuesday, for whatever reason, I decided to let the mountain beagle have her way. When she wanted to stop to sniff and dig, I let her stop to sniff and dig. She loved it. And instead of resenting our lack of forward motion, for once I tried to pay attention to what Tally was doing. I tried to be in tune with her.

This is something I’ve been working on for a couple of weeks now.

During the nearly five years Tally has lived with us, Kim has always had this sort of natural intuitive communication with her. (She has this ability with all animals, actually.) I, on the other hand, only pick up on the dog’s broadest cues. And when I try to communicate with her, I’m usually very forceful: loud commands, leash tugs, very obvious hand signals.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that for whatever reason I was picking up on some subtle cues from the dog. It was as if I could read her mind. (I wasn’t reading her mind, obviously. I was just taking time to pay attention to her face and her body language.)

Since then, I’ve been actively striving to better communicate with the hound. The results have been remarkable. She’s more compliant. She comes to me more often during the day to ask for things. And we’re having better walks together.

Tuesday, I actively tried to put myself in her paws. I was trying to imagine what it was like to be a dog as she sniffed about and rooted with her nose and dug in the holes she found. And you know what? It was like I actually felt like what it was to be a dog. For five or ten minutes, I was completely in the moment. I wasn’t analyzing anything about the situation.

It was amazing.

For just a few minutes, I forgot everything else in the world.

That constant narrative in my head? It disappeared. The swarm of bees vanished. Overanalytical Man was nowhere to be found. There was no judgemental, negative self-talk. (There wasn’t any self-talk at all!) There was just me and the dog on a foggy morning in Portland digging in the muddy earth. It was magical.

Then the reverie was over.

The Power of Now

“I wonder what it would be like to always be in the moment?” Overanalytical Man thought as his normal state of constant reflection returned. “Are there other times that I’m more present than others?” Yes, there are times I’m more present than others. There absolutely are.

Kim and I just returned from vacation, for instance. Most of the time we were gone, I was in a good head space. I didn’t spend time judging myself or others. The swarm of bees in my head took a vacation too. For a week, I just existed in the moment. On the beach. With Kim’s family. It was fun!

I realized that this is usually the case when I travel. When I travel for work I’m my normal self, but when I travel for pleasure I let go and am completely in the moment. Not 100% but most of the time. And maybe this is one of the reasons I especially love travel — because it frees me from my inner demons. Overanalytical Man isn’t present on these trips. (He’s only there when I travel for work.)

I thought back to the 15-month RV trip that Kim and I took across the United States. I frequently say that this was the best experience of my life. And it was. But why was it the best? I think I enjoyed it so much because we were literally living in the moment all of the time. We deliberately tried not to plan ahead. We made things up as we went along. Literally. Often we’d be driving down the highway at four in the afternoon with zero idea where we’d park the RV for the night.

This is similar to the best vacations I’ve experienced. When my cousin Nick and I went to Turkey in 2012, we had some waypoints planned, but we made things up in the middle. Kim and I did the same when we visited France and England in 2013. We rented a car in London and just drove. Nick and I did the same during our last two trips to Europe: We just made things up as we went along.

Life Without Judgment

Now, there’s another important aspect to these moments I’ve enjoyed most in life. They’re moments without judgment. I’m doing the things I want when I want to do them, and I’m not judging myself. Nobody else is judging me either. (Or if they are, I don’t know about it and it doesn’t matter one whit.)

As I thought about this fact on Tuesday, I realized that perhaps part of my current struggles are precisely because I put myself in situations that allow others to judge me.

  • I write for the internet.
  • I write books.
  • I make YouTube videos.
  • I post on Facebook.

All of these actions invite judgment from others (in the form of likes and comments and shares and so on). And as much as I say that I don’t care what other people think of me, I obviously very much do care.

And that is the root of the problem.

I have inadvertently created a life built around external validation. Maybe my life has always been built around external validation. I don’t know. Did I get good grades in school because I was smart and applied effort? Or did I do well in order to obtain the approval of my parents and teachers?

Improving My Mental Health

I let the dog continue to dig as I thought more about this notion. I’ve been blogging for over twenty years now. I’ve been on social media for roughly fifteen years. During this time, my self-esteem — never great — has sunk to new lows.

My mental health did make a resurgence from 2012 to 2015, however. I’ve always attributed that to shifting my focus to taking care of my mental, physical, and emotional health. I’m sure that’s part of it. But that’s also the period in my life during which I was least present on the web. I had sold Get Rich Slowly and resigned as editor. I was posting less on social media. I was more present in the here and now.

In 2015, I started Money Boss. This brought back a bit of the pressure, but the real stress didn’t reappear until 2017 when I repurchased GRS. This pressure (which is one of the reasons I sold the blog in the first place) is largely self-induced, and I know it, but a lot of it comes from constantly putting myself out there, leaving myself open for others to judge. (And let’s not forget that with each thing I produce online, I’m adding bees to the swarm buzzing around my head!)

Have you heard about the young actors from Game of Thrones? Nearly every one of them has struggled with mental health issues and/or addiction as a result of achieving fame at a young age.

Now, I’m not trying to compare myself to a movie star. (See, even writing that sentence is my internal voice attempting to counter possible external judgment before it occurs!) I’m trying to point out the pressures of living a life that’s open for others to judge, the stress of being in a spotlight — even a small blogger-sized spotlight.

Everything you do, you ask yourself, “What will others think of this?” That’s what Overanalytical Man does, anyhow.

Thinking Different

At times like this, I wish I weren’t Overanalytical Man. I wish I were more like my friend Pete (a.k.a. Mr. Money Mustache). Pete doesn’t give a fuck what other people think. (Or that’s my impression, anyhow.) He believes what he believes and he does what he wants to do. To hell with the judgment of others!

Apparently, I’m not wired that way.

But could I be wired that way? Could I change how I think?

For years, counselors and friends and romantic partners and business associates have encouraged me to pursue meditation. I’ve never done it. I talk about doing it. I buy fancy meditation cushions. I download meditation apps. But I never meditate. How do I force myself to start? And would it help?

I’ve also had many people recommend that I read The Power of Now, which is all about living in the present (instead of the past or the future). I’ve started the book dozens of times. What I’ve read of it, I like. Sure, it’s mystical and fuzzy at times, but that’s okay. Again, maybe I should force myself to follow through with this, to finish the entire book.

And you know what? Maybe I should take a deliberate forced vacation from the internet. Maybe I should take a month (or three) off from all of the things that invite the judgment of others. No Facebook. No Twitter. No YouTube. No blogging. If I did this, what would happen? What would I feel like?

Again, during the dogwalk on Tuesday I realized that this sort of internet sabbatical is exactly what I enjoy when I’m traveling. When I travel, I’m living in the moment, yes, but I’m also completely (or mostly, anyhow) divorced from my life online.

All or Nothing

I have a bi-weekly call with my friend Diania. Ostensibly, these chats are to plan the next EconoMe Conference. In reality, we spend the bulk of our time building each other up, talking about our current struggles (my mental health, her job), then offering insights and solutions. I love these calls.

This week, I told Diania about my Tuesday epiphany. “I’m thinking about giving it all up,” I told her. “I’m thinking about just walking away from the internet.”

Diania laughed.

“You’re like me,” she said. “You’re an all or nothing person. And you’re trying to be all or nothing with this, but I don’t think you need to be. You don’t have to give it all up. You don’t have to go on a three-month sabbatical. There are other solutions.”

“Like what?” I said.

“Well, you could take a short sabbatical every single day. Fifteen minutes. An hour. That’s what meditation is for,” she said. “Or you could look for a balance point.”

I nodded. Her advice made sense.

“What you’re describing is the human condition. We all experience this,” Diania said. “We’re never going to escape the depression and anxiety. You and I are wired for it. We can’t avoid it. What we can do is mitigate it. When it comes, we can do things to cope with it.”

Diania has some very valid points. I am an all or nothing guy. I know this. And yes, there probably is a way to achieve balance without completely giving up the internet.

But what would that balance look like?

The Epiphany

I’ve spent most of this week thinking about my present and my future. For once, I’ve actually sought out the advice of my friends and family too. (And I intend to seek the counsel of other friends in the coming weeks.)

On Thursday night, I tried a thought exercise. “What if,” I thought, “I didn’t have any online obligations whatsoever? What if I used the internet only as a tool, not a platform for writing and sharing myself?”

I put myself in that mindset. And, no joke, it was instantly as if a weight lifted from my shoulders. I felt that “unbearable lightness of being”. I looked around at this old house, at Kim, at our animals. I smiled. I was content. I was happy. Everything felt amazing.

And I realized that the last time I truly felt this way was 1997 or 1998, back when Kris and I still lived in our first house with two cats and zero responsibilities. I had a static website but I didn’t yet have an active blog. There was no social media. Email was novel. YouTube didn’t exist. I chatted with my friends on the phone and I saw them in real life. Life was grand.

I also thought about the first few years that Kim and I were dating. I had sold Get Rich Slowly — and I eventually gave up any writing or editing duties at the site. I was working on World Domination Summit, but eventually shed that responsibility too. I was focused solely on self improvement: exercise, language learning, reading, writing, my mental health. We bought the RV and went on our roat trip. Life was grand.

This thought exercise led to an epiphany, to a personal “thought singularity”. All of the stuff I’ve been reading about and thinking about and writing about for the past six months came to a head. I had clarity. In this moment, during this epiphany, I had a vision of the correct path before me. But choosing that path seems scary.

Very scary.

People Who Know Me

After sitting alone with this epiphany for twenty or thirty minutes, I went to find Kim. “Do you have time to talk?” I asked her.

“Sure,” she said. “What’s up?”

“What would you think if I just gave up my on-line life? How would you feel if I were to give up Get Rich Slowly completely? And Facebook. And Twitter. And everything else? What if I just walked away and spent my time on you and me and the house and the animals?”

Kim smiled. “I think that’s a great idea,” she said. “In fact, this is what I’ve been trying to tell you to do for years. You could write a novel. You could volunteer. You could spend more time with friends. You could do lots of things.”

Last night, I chatted with my cousin Nick. (He goes by Duane at Get Rich Slowly, for those of you who also read that site.) I told him that I was considering giving up my online life. I told him that I’d come to the conclusion that my internet world was responsible for many of my mental health problems, for my unhappiness.

“J.D.,” he said, echoing Kim, “I’ve been trying to tell you this for years. You are a lucky man. You’ve put yourself in a position where you can do almost anything you want. I don’t know why you choose to do anything you don’t want to do. I don’t know why you choose to do things that bring you stress and anxiety. It doesn’t make any sense.”

An Uncertain Future

So, that’s where I am at the moment. I haven’t made any decisions about what I intend to do moving forward. I’ve sketched out several possible futures, each with a different degree of involvement on the internet.

Broadly speaking, options include:

  • Zero online creative production. No blogging. No social media. No YouTube videos. No email newsletters. None of it. Just quit cold turkey and walk away. I am 95% confident that this would relieve me of my anxiety. But I have a small bit of worry that I’d miss having an outlet for my writing. I love to write. I’ll always do it. It’s nice to have a forum like this to share some of that writing.
  • Minimal online creative production. Because I do like having an outlet, maybe it would be best to instead alter my expectations. Maybe I should keep this blog, for instance, but remove analytics, kill the mailing list, and avoid a schedule. Just write when I want.
  • Moderate online creative production. And what if I simply chose to cut back on my current expectations, made them super easy to meet? Maybe commit to only one GRS post per month. And one GRS email per month. Meanwhile, post here and at YouTube whenever I feel like it. Could I commit to that and adhere to it without feeling pressure to produce more?
  • Maximum online creative production. At the most extreme level, I thought that maybe I could keep doing what I’m doing, but simply cut back a little. Remove the things that cause the greatest stress but keep everything else. This is a slippery slope, though. It doesn’t feel like any kind of real change.

Right now, this morning, I have no idea what I’m going to choose to do. My heart says to give up everything completely. My brain says, “No no, dude. Keep some of it.”

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll talk to my business partner and additional friends. I’ll explore possibilities. I’ll try to spend some time acting as if I had really given everything up already to see what it feels like.

Actually, I’ve been practicing this mindset for the past two days. I already know it feels amazing. The other night, after my epiphany, I had this warm glow for several hours. I felt happy and confident and secure. I was 100% present in the moment, in the now. The bees in my head? They were gone. For a short time, my mind was completely at ease. It felt brilliant. I felt in control of my life. And I liked it.

Then again yesterday afternoon, I had the same experience: present in the moment, confident, in control of my life. No bees. Again, I liked it.

I want more of it. Yes indeed, I certainly do.

Further reading related to this meditation:

And for those who like video, here’s a YouTube version of that “Lazy” essay…

Trees are my enemy

I know it’s commonplace for middle-aged men to complain that growing old isn’t for sissies, but I’m about to grouse about my health. Fair warning.

Now, nothing drastic is wrong with me at the moment. Thank goodness. But in recent years, I’ve experienced a variety of physical woes, large and small. I’ve had pneumonia, which I guess can hit anyone at any age. Because I was overweight for so long, my back experienced low level chronic pain. I struggle to get good sleep. I was flexible when I was young; that is no longer true. Last year, for no apparent reason, I tore a bicep tendon. That sucked in a big way.

But I think my biggest frustration stems from my allergies.

When I was a boy, my parents had me tested for food allergies. The testing revealed that I have problems with wheat and potatoes (but nothing else, fortunately). For a while — one year? two? three? — my mother drove me to get allergy shots every week. As far as I can tell, I no longer have issues with wheat or potatoes.

I do have problems with dairy products, but I’m not hear to day to complain about lactose intolerance. Most folks struggle with that to some degree, right?

No, I’m here to complain about trees.

About fifteen years ago, I began to notice I had severe allergy issues every spring. Right around spring break, I grew miserable. Sore throat. Itchy eyes. Sneezing. Stuffy nose. I was a mess. On sunny days, I was such a mess that I didn’t want to leave the house. I would literally retreat to the bathtub, place a wet washcloth over my face, then lay there for hours (I’m serious!) listening to audiobooks. It was the only way for me to get comfortable.

We Roths aren’t so good at solving problems sometimes. We’ll take care of the immediate issue (by hiding in the bathtub with a washcloth draped across our faces!), but we won’t address the core issue. I have this problem, but it’s not just me. It’s my family.

Well, eventually Kris (my wife at the time) managed to convince me to see an allergist. Just like when I was a kid, they gave me a battery of tests. Grass was fine. Dust was fine. Lots of things were fine. Trees were not fine.

In fact, when the doc came in to look at my scratch test, he was startled the welts on my arm. “Wow,” he said. “Trees are your enemy!” I laughed at the time, but that’s stuck with me all of these years. Trees are my enemy.

Alder, in particular, sets me off. The allergist told me that the long, long welt on my arm from the Alder test was one of the biggest responses he had ever seen.

Anyhow, this all comes up because we’re approaching allergy season, and I can sense it. I just spent ten minutes with a minor sneezing/nose-blowing fit. My allergies don’t usually set in until late February, but temps have been warm this year, and we already have some trees blooming here in the Portland area. Not many, but enough. My enemies have launched their first attack of 2021!

Over the years, I’ve developed a regimen to combat these vile plants.

Usually, I start taking a battery of drugs on or around Valentine’s Day. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what works. I take a 12-hour pseudoephedrine in the morning along with loratadine. At night before bed, I take diphenhydramine. (I take two if I’m especially miserable.)

These drugs don’t eliminate my symptoms, but they make them manageable.

It used to be that I only needed these crutches from March 1st to April 15th. I’ve learned though that if I start on February 14th, my body builds up defenses. If I wait until March 1st, there’s a transition week where things suck. I’m also learning that I oughtn’t stop on April 15th. If I do, then the last week of April also sucks. So, I’m currently on a ten-week schedule with these anti-tree meds: February 14th to April 30th.

But this year? This year, things may be starting even earlier. I’m going to message my doctor this morning to see if she can put in a prescription for Claritin-D. I’ll try to hold out until Valentine’s Day before I begin taking them, but at this point it looks like the trees have launched a sneak attack. It’s time for me to take up arms.

The clarity of purpose and perspective that comes from taking time off

I’m currently on vacation with Kim’s brother and his family. We’re enjoying a much-needed beach retreat.

Before we left for this trip, I felt overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed by U.S. politics. I was overwhelmed by my work at Get Rich Slowly. I was overwhelmed by the things that needed to be done around the house.

Now that we’ve been away for a few days, though, none of the things that had been weighing on my mind before I left take even a bit of mental energy. I made it through all of yesterday without an inkling of concern over all of the chores that I was worried about last week.

This is nothing new.

I’ve noticed that same thing happens whenever I take an extended vacation. Up until the last minute, I’ll be frantic trying to get things done. As we leave the house and head to the airport or drive to our destination, I’ll still be upset at myself for not finishing more of the tasks I had set for myself. During the first night, I’ll still be thinking about my unfinished work.

Then, gradually, my problems fade from my mind. I forget about them. I shift my attention to living in the moment. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I value vacation so much: It’s the only time that I allow myself to be fully present in the moment. Most of the time in daily life, I’m too caught up in fretting over the past and worrying about the future.

From past experience, I know that this shift in attitude sticks with me for a few days (or a few weeks sometimes) after we return home. The vacation grants me perspective. I’m able to view my to-do list with greater clarity. I make better decisions after a trip than I do before a trip. Then, slowly but surely, I revert to my default mindset. I become overwhelmed again.

I wish there were a way to somehow capture this mindset in a bottle. I would love to be able to take a pill or to sip something that grants me this insight, if only for an hour each day. I think it would help me be a happier, more capable human being.

Finding leaks and rot in our crawlspace

Kim and I moved out of our lovely penthouse condo in June 2017 and moved into our quaint country cottage. In many ways, we love the place. But in some ways, this has been the worst financial decision I’ve ever made.

This house has been a money pit. And I have very real fears that things are about to get worse.

Despite reassurances from a structural engineer and a foundation contractor that our house, while a little wonky, isn’t about to fall down, I’ve been worried since we moved in that the foundation is faulty.

Those worries intensified this summer and autumn as I discovered a variety of cracks in the walls and ceiling.

Last Sunday, feel stress not just from the house but also from the U.S. political environment, I decided that the only sensible thing to do was to crawl under the house and poke around for a while. Stress relief, you know? So, that’s what I did.

There was good news and bad news. The good news was that I didn’t see anything different about the foundation than on previous inspections. (Well, I don’t think I did, anyhow.) The bad news is that I found out that we have some rot directly beneath our bathtub.

Really, though, the best thing about this whole process was alleviating some uncertainty. I’d been stressing about all of this, floundering about what to do. Now, I feel like I have some direction. I have a next step. And I know one problem, at the very least.

Because we’ve already poured so much money into repairing this place (nearly $100,000!), I’m hoping that any potential repairs here don’t get costly. But who knows? In any event, I’m certain to have more stuff to write about in the near future!