Checklists for Daily Life

Recently, one of my readers pointed me to an old New Yorker article from Atul Gawande. In “The Checklist”, Gawande describes how one simple change seems to be revolutionizing medicine: the use of checklists.

Modern medicine is complicated. There’s a lot of stuff that doctors and nurses need to know and do in order to provide effective care. Health-care professionals are smart and capable, but they’re also human. It’s easy to forget (or casually neglect) important details during the heat of the moment or the crush of monotonous routine.

That’s where checklists come in: By creating and using checklists for important procedures, health-care providers can be certain that they haven’t forgotten to do something important. Gawande’s article explains that pilots have used checklists for decades to make sure they don’t forget about important steps in prepping and flying their planes. Now, hospitals are realizing that checklists can help them prevent infections and save lives too.

Gawande’s article is great — interesting and insightful — and you should read it if you haven’t already. (I readily admit I may be the last person on Earth to have seen it since it was published seven years ago.)

For me, this idea of checklists has more profound personal implications.

One of the side-effects of my ADHD nature is that I often forget to do the most basic things. I forget to brush my teeth, to wash my face, to comb my hair. I forget to close cupboards, put dishes in the dishwasher, pick up my dirty clothes. It’s not that I don’t care about these things — I do care — but that I get distracted and forget to finish what I was doing. (“Complete the cycle,” Kim tells me when she notices I’ve left something out on the counter once again. She means that I should follow one action complete to the finish before moving onto something else.)

It occurred to me after reading Gawande’s article that checklists might help me manage my life more effectively. One common ADHD coping mechanism, one that I’ve learned to love, is the to-do list. If something needs doing, it’s important for me to get it out of my head and onto a piece of paper because otherwise I’ll forget. I keep a running to-do list on a whiteboard in my office.

Actually, I keep three lists:

  • One list for high-priority tasks (“prep laptop to sell”, “do year-end business finances”).
  • Another list is for medium-priority tasks (“get maintenance on Mini”, “sort storage unit”).
  • A final list for low-priority tasks (“repair grandfather clock”, “learn three songs on guitar”).

My to-do list is great, but there’s a weakness. It doesn’t capture items that need to be done every single day. To that end, inspired by Gawande’s article, I’ve decided to adopt a series of checklists to help me stay focused, to help me establish a routine.

I have one for morning:

Drink a glass of water
Wash face
Take meds
Get ready for gym
Eat a healthy breakfast
Inbox zero
Brush teeth

I have one for during the day:

Eat a healthy snack
Drink greens powder
Take fish oil
Shower and shave
Read 30 minutes
Write something substantial
Eat a healthy lunch
Brush teeth
Drink a glass of water
Practice guitar
Practice Spanish
Run errands
Complete one to-do item
Inbox zero
¡4pm Clean sweep!

And I have one for before bed:

Perform a brain dump
Record calories and exercise
Flip checklist on computer
Brush teeth
Wash face
Take meds
Drink a glass of water

As you can see, the things I’m asking myself aren’t tough. In fact, most are easy. For some of you, this may seem crazy. Checklists for basic life tasks? Who needs that!?! Well, I need that. In fact, even with checklists, these things can be a challenge. I can quickly become blind to the checklists, can begin to ignore them.

One of my goals for 2015 is to force myself to go through each list every day. My hope is that in time, all of this stuff will become routine. I realize that I probably won’t get every item done every day, and that’s okay. The important thing is for me to get in the habit of doing most of these things on most days. If I do, I’ll be a better man.

Buying an RV, part one: Searching for the Perfect Used RV

Last weekend, Kim and I moved from casually browsing RVs to searching in earnest. We spent much of Friday and Saturday touring coaches, both used and new, trying to learn more about what we do and don’t want in a rig.

Part of the problem is that everything is theoretical at this point. Neither of us has extensive RV experience — in fact, I have zero RV experience — so there’s no way for us to make a decision grounded in reality. “This is tough for me,” I said on Saturday. “You know how I wrestle with perfection. How can we can possibly make a perfect decision?”

“We can’t,” Kim said, “and you shouldn’t try.”

She’s right, of course. I have to let go of the idea that we’re going to find the “perfect” RV. It’s not going to happen. We won’t even really know what we want until we’ve bought one and used it for a week or two. Still, I’m scared of making a bad decision.

But we have to start somewhere, right?

Our first stop on Friday afternoon was a consignment lot. We visited “Steve and Sons” out on 82nd Avenue to look at a 37-foot Class A 1998 Fleetwood “Bounder” ($21,500 and 51,000 miles) that I saw listed on Craigslist.

Note: RVs are divided into “classes”. Class A RVs look like a bus. Class B RVs look like a van. Class C RVs look like a delivery truck. Each class has its pros and cons.

We didn’t like the Bounder, but we did like the little 30-foot Winnebago (a “Minnie Winnie”) sitting next to it. It was in our price range ($37,000) and relatively new (2003 and 33,000 miles). Plus the layout looked great and the quality seemed good — as far as we could tell.

Next, we dashed off to meet Sam and Donna. This couple is selling a 38-foot Class A Newmar Kountry Star. Their coach is gorgeous and in great condition. Plus, their price is reasonable: $27,000 (and 49,000 miles). In fact, they probably had the best price we saw all weekend. The problem? Well, 38 feet is a lot of feet. Driving the Kountry Star really is like driving a bus.

Plus, the Kountry Star had a problem. While we were chatting with Sam and Donna, I noticed that something seemed…wrong. There was some discoloration on the ceiling. When I poked a ceiling tile, we found out why. The sagging tile seeped water down my arm. Sam went outside and climbed onto the roof, where he was shocked to find the cover to the air conditioner had blown away. Yikes. Water had been collecting in the attic. (Turns out this wasn’t an act of god. A prowler had been trying to break into RVs at the lot where this was stored. They caught him, but not before he damaged several vehicles.)

To finish our Friday, Kim and I drove out to Sandy to look at a couple of used RV lots. Nothing really struck our fancy, though. RV lots tend to take in only recent models, and they mark them up by outrageous amounts. (It’s not uncommon to find an RV at a dealer for $10,000 to $15,000 more than you can find it from a private party.)

Note: Kim and I aren’t interested in buying new. Buying an RV is like buying both a house and a car — but combines the worst features of both without any of the advantages. The biggest downfall is that you take a huge hit on depreciation, just like you would from any other vehicle. One fellow we met this weekend says he figures RVs decline in value by 3% each quarter, so that in five years an RV has lost almost half its value. We’re trying to balance finding something recent (and quality) with trying to avoid taking a beating from depreciation.

On Saturday morning, we drove to Vancouver to look at two used RVs.

  • The first was a 29-foot 1996 Gulfstream Sun Voyager with 53,000 miles for $26,000. This Class A wasn’t bad — and we liked the owner — but it just didn’t seem to be a good fit for us.
  • The second was a 30-foot 1996 Gulfstream Conquest LE with 25,000 miles for $20,000. This Class B seemed ragged around the edges. Plus, the price seemed high.

We met the owner of the Gulfstream Conquest in the corner of a Costco parking lot. He offered to let us take the rig for a spin, and we accepted. I drove the RV around local surface streets — my first time behind wheel of any recreational vehicle. It wasn’t bad. It felt like driving a U-Haul.

Next, we dashed down to Tigard to meet a fellow with a 28-foot 2004 Fleetwood Tioga. This was a beautiful coach in tip-top condition. Plus, the owner seemed like a nice guy. But he’d purchased the unit new from a dealer three months ago, so his asking price was high ($40,000 and 29,000 miles). We like this vehicle, but not at this price.

By now, we’d honed in on what we think we want. We want a class C RV (for a number of reasons, Kim’s not keen on the bus-like class A profile) between 28 and 32 feet. At this length, we’d get a back bedroom that separates from the front end of the vehicle, which would allow for one person to sleep while the other read or wrote or cooked. Based on our budget, that probably puts us in the 1998 to 2004 range.

After a quick stop to taste some sparkling wine, we visited another RV dealer. We were severely unimpressed with the options, so we returned to the place we’d started. We drove back to Steve and Sons to look at the Minnie Winnie we’d liked on Friday.

We spent half an hour examining the vehicle, and there’s no doubt we like it. But a couple of things happened that really turned us off from the dealer.

First, we had called to say that we wanted to test-drive the vehicle. But when we reached the lot, it was buried behind several other trucks and RVs. No effort had been made to allow us to run the rig. The obvious question was, “Why not?”

Next, we were under the impression that the dealership was selling consigned vehicles. That’s not the case. The salesman confided that the dealership places ads on Craigslist in the “for sale by owner” section because they think people will trust the ads more. But they’re not for sale by owner. Nor are they consigned. The RVs are bought at auction and then put on the lot. Whoa… Huge red flags!

Kim and I decided to call it a day. We headed home (well, actually we headed to a champagne bar) better-educated but no closer to purchasing an RV. After a weekend of RV shopping, I’ve let go of my need to find the perfect coach. But I’d dearly love to find a quality rig at a reasonable price.

Footnote: Yesterday morning, I drove down to Canby to look at a 29-foot 2000 Bigfoot Class C motorhome. While the rig was a bit rundown (and lacked the slide-out that Kim wants), I was impressed. There was an obvious quality difference between this unit and most of the vehicles we’ve seen. Even in its “well-loved” condition, it was easy to see that the construction was better, the materials were better, and the design was better. I filmed a couple of minutes of my tour with the owner.

How to Become a Better Communicator

As I continue to do more public speaking — whether on stage, on air, or via recorded interview — I’m becoming interested in what does and does not make an effective communicator. But I’m not just interested in how to communicate with a passive audience; I also want to be a better conversationalist with my friends and family.

Recently I spent ten minutes watching this TED Talk from Julian Treasure about how to speak so that people will listen:

To begin, Treasure covers the things you ought not do when you talk. He says that these are the seven deadly sins of speaking:

  1. Gossip. When you speak ill of somebody who’s not present, the action reflects as poorly on you as it does on them (and perhaps more so). I gossip way more than I should. It’s a problem.
  2. Judging. Gossip is, of course, a form of judging. But judging includes sweeping generalizations about a group of people or things. Whenever you judge, you run the risk of offending somebody in your audience. (This isn’t always a bad thing, perhaps, but it’s something you should be aware of.)
  3. Negativity. It seems that some people only see (or speak of) the bad things in life. But people prefer to pass time with folks who are positive. We want to feel good about ourselves and the world around us.
  4. Complaining. One form of negativity is complaining — or “viral misery” as Treasure calls it. It goes beyond just talking about what’s wrong with the world at large to griping about perceived trials and tribulations in your own life. Everyone has shit to deal with; try to keep your complaints to yourself. Don’t vent.
  5. Excuses. People don’t like to listen to the reasons you haven’t accomplished the things you’ve promised to do (whether for yourself or others). They want you to do these things. If you don’t do them, don’t talk about them. And, especially, do not blame others for not getting things done. (Again, I have trouble with the first piece of this. I try not to blame other people, but I tend to make excuses for not doing my work.)
  6. Exaggeration. At its most basic, exaggeration (or hyperbole) demeans our language, says Treasure. If we use big words all the time — like “awesome” and “unbelievable” and so on — they lose their meanings. At its worst, exaggeration becomes outright lying. I have a couple of friends who are prone to exaggeration; it can be tough to know when to believe what they’re saying!
  7. Dogmatism. Too often, people confuse fact and opinion. They believe that just because they think something is so, it must be so. They don’t recognize that each person has her unique personality, circumstances, and experiences. What’s true for one person may not be true for another.

These seven “sins” can sabotage effective communication. But there are things to become a more effective speaker. According to Treasure, the four cornerstones of powerful speech are:

  • Honesty, the ability to be plain and true in what you say. “Be clear and straight,” Treasure says.
  • Authenticity, the ability to say what you think and feel instead of trying to say what you feel is expected of you. “Be your self,” Treasure says.
  • Integrity, or the ability to do what you say. “Be your word,” Treasure says.
  • Love, or the ability to make others feel better about themselves. “Wish them well,” Treasure says.

By aligning what you say with these qualities, people will want to listen to you. Treasure says that how you speak is important too. He covers tools of speech, such as rhythm and pitch and pace and timbre.

Treasure’s talk is short. If you’d like to become a better communicator, it’s well worth ten minutes of your time.

Stumbling Toward Perfection: An Interview with Leo Babauta

In 2007, Leo Babauta started Zen Habits, a blog where he chronicled the changes he was trying to make in his life. For the past seven years, he’s documented his successes and failures as he’s striven to stop smoking, lose weight, get out of debt, and otherwise improve his world (and the world around him).

Leo’s current project is The Zen Habits Book, which he’s funding entirely through Kickstarter. (As of this writing, his project has 5,691 backers who have pledged $151,450 toward Leo’s goal. That’s three times as much as he’d hoped — and there are still fifteen days left to back the project!)

Recently, Leo and I spent an hour chatting by Skype. I asked him about his background, about coping with the fear of change, and the struggle many folks face with the need to be “perfect”. I’ve edited that conversation down to about thirty minutes and am pleased to present it here as the first episode of the Awesome People project, a new series of interviews with interesting individuals from all walks of life.

Here’s the video of our conversation:

Or, if you’d prefer, here’s a link to the audio version [55mb M4A file].

Finally, for those who’d rather read the written word, the remaining 5000 words of this article contain a transcription of the interview between me and Leo.

Note: Please note that this is not an exact transcription. For one, it’s hurried. I’m the one who transcribed the interview, and I’m not a professional. For another, I edited out irrelevant asides and various tics of speech. Some of these work okay in audio but would be a nuisance in writing. So please accept this a a faithful representation of what was said — but not a word-for-word transcription. Sound fair?

Welcome. This is J.D. Roth, and this is the first of what I hope will be many interviews that I conduct with some of my favorite people.

Today, the very first person I’m talking to is Leo Babauta. Leo writes a blog called Zen Habits. It’s a great site for learning about how to make improvements with your life — how to live a better life. Leo and I came up in the blogging world together, and have been colleagues for a long time. He’s one of my favorite people, so I’m really pleased to have him as the first person I talk to in this series.

Leo, to start, why don’t you give us a little bit of background about yourself and how you came to write Zen Habits.

Continue reading

Announcing the Awesome People Project

I know lots of awesome people. So do you. We all do.

At the start of her excellent writing manual, If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland states her premise: “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.” That’s my premise too.

The more people I meet, the more I believe that each of us has something unique to share with the world.

I don’t mean unique in a liberal “everyone deserves a gold star” sense. I mean it in an “everybody is the hero of her own life” sense. People are awesome. Despite the occasional evil action from an evil person, most folks are doing the best they can to make life better, both for themselves and others.

Lately I’ve been thinking that it’d be fun to highlight some of the awesome people I know. Not only bloggers — though I certainly know some awesome bloggers — but also teachers and scientists and bakers and retirees. Kim and I already plan to interview people during our future travels, but I want to get a head start on that project. I want to practice.

Starting today I’m going to put my new-found extroversion to good use. I plan to record and share a series of video interviews with the awesome people in my world. Sometimes these will be recorded Skype interviews. Sometimes they’ll be filmed in peson.

And because I’m not a guy who likes to watch video, I’ll provide both audio and written versions of the conversations too.

Note: When I mention this project to folks, they often ask if I’ve seen Humans of New York. Yes, I have. It’s terrific.

Early episodes of Awesome People will be imperfect. I know this. Quality will improve as I gain experience as an interviewer and learn to use my equipment. If you have constructive feedback, by all means share it! Do the interviews need to be shorter? Longer? Better edited? What parts were boring? Most interesting? What topics should I have pursued?

I promise that these productions will improve in time if you agree to provide feedback so that we can make this series something of lasting value.

What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua…that’s the only name I can think of for it…like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer.


In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?,” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.

— Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

In Search of Sleep

It’s 4 a.m. on a Friday. I can’t sleep. After an hour of tossing and turning in bed, I’ve got up and moved to the couch so that I won’t wake Kim. Because I work from home, I have the luxury of catching a mid-day nap. She has to be up and out of the house in a couple of hours, so I don’t want to disturb her sleep.

J.D. in his C-PAP machinePoor sleep is nothing new for me. In 2005, when I was fifty pounds overweight, I was diagnosed with sleep apnea. For the next several years, I strapped on a C-PAP machine every night. I was amazed at how better breathing led to better sleep.

When I lost weight and ditched the C-PAP machine, my sleep improved. It helped too that I learned my body’s natural rhythm. Most of the time, I sleep in ninety-minute cycles. A perfect night’s sleep is 7-1/2 hours, but six hours will do. (Tonight I only managed 4-1/2 hours.) Building my bedtime around my sleep cycle is key.

It’s also been key to realize that there’s a difference between getting to sleep and staying asleep. Some things, such as alcohol, might help me get to sleep. But these same things actually disrupt the quality of my rest. The trick is to find foods and develop habits that aid with both quality and quantity of sleep.

As bad as I have it, Kim has it worse. She’s had trouble sleeping since she was a teenager. In fact, it used to be a real burden. Much of her life was miserable because she was never well-rested. In time she too has developed tricks to improve the odds that she’ll sleep well. She is what her father calls a “cave sleeper”. That is, she needs complete darkness and no noise distractions in order to sleep well. Although she’s in the other room right now, I worry that the dim light from this laptop may wake her or that she’ll be able to hear the clickety-clickety of the keyboard above the white noise of the fan we run in the bedroom every night.

Oops! When I got up a moment ago to grab a glass of water, I saw that she’d closed the bedroom door. I’m a bad boyfriend.

Kim has sought solace through medication. When we started dating, she was taking Ambien, which was effective but made her moody. For the past couple of years, she’s been taking trazadone, which seems more effective and has fewer side effects. (Over the past year, she’s been working to reduce the dosage she takes every night. She now takes half of what she was originally prescribed and it seems to work.)

Although my doctor has given me some trazadone to tackle my own sleep problems, I almost never use it. (Just as I rarely use the Vyvanse to medicate my ADHD.) Instead, I take diphenhydramine (Benadryl) every night. Well, most nights anyhow.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with new ways to get good sleep. I’ve been increasing my intake of melatonin, for example. And just this week, I’ve begun trying 5-HTP to both address my winter blues and improve my sleep. At the same time, I’ve stopped taking Benadryl.

The results? Well, they’re mixed. I’m falling asleep easily and having very vivid dreams, which is cool. (I feel like vivid dreams are an indicator of deep sleep, at least for me.) But I can’t seem to stay asleep. Two nights ago, I woke at midnight and couldn’t fall back asleep until two. Even then my rest was fitful (maybe because I’d moved to the couch). And tonight, of course, I woke at three with my mind in full gear.

Facebook post about lack of sleep
Apparently Kathleen is struggling too tonight.

To me, the worst part about poor sleep is how I feel the next day. I feel ragged, like I have some sort of brain cloud. I’m half the man I usually am.

I’m scheduled to interview Leo from Zen Habits in a few hours. After that, Joe will interview me. At noon, I’m supposed to lift heavy weights with Cody. Later tonight, Kim and I will meet Brent and Kathleen for a comedy show. But right now I don’t want to do any of this. All I really want is to get some sleep.

Another thing I don’t like? On days like today when I have to get stuff done after a sleepless night, I take my ADHD meds. But not so that I can concentrate. I take them because I know they’re a stimulant and will help me stay awake. Now that is a bad cycle to fall into.

I guess maybe I should stick with the Benadryl. It’s not perfect — I still have insomnia once or twice a month when I use it — but it’s better than the alternatives.

A Conversation about Travel, Aging, and Happiness

Last night, we had our neighbors over for drinks. For three hours, we sat around sipping wine while chatting about life with Jan and Sheila. (Jan is pronounced “yawn”.)

Jan and Sheila are both in their early seventies, about thirty years older than Kim and I are. But whereas some folks their age seem to have resigned themselves to silently fading away, our neighbors are still active and engaged with life.

The couple met about fifteen years ago, soon after Jan’s first wife died. Sheila was recently divorced and happy to find a man who, for once, was a kindred spirit. For a few years, they traveled the world, teaching English in China, exploring Costa Rica, and so on. They still travel regularly. Last summer, for instance, they spent several months in eastern Europe, including a lot of time in rural Poland.

A couple of years ago, Jan and Sheila towed a pop-up camper across the United States, from Oregon to Montana to New Mexico to Texas to Arkansas to North Carolina. They visited seventeen states in three months. In each state, they stopped at a nursing home to interview the residents.

“We asked people to tell us their stories,” Sheila said. “At first, our recordings weren’t very good. In time, we figured out what we were doing. We got better with the equipment and we learned what questions to ask.”

“Interesting,” I said. “Kim and I want to do something similar. In fact, we’re shopping for a used RV right now. We want to use it to make forays across the U.S. and Canada. We plan to interview the folks we meet along the way. But we’re not sure what we’ll talk about.”

“You should have a plan,” Sheila said. “Otherwise the conversations will just wander. We found that the StoryCorps method was a fantastic way to spark discussion. Their website has a list of great interview questions. You should check it out.”

Jan recommended that we try to keep an open mind when we travel, to not set a fixed agenda. “You should eavesdrop,” he said. “You learn a lot about a place when you eavesdrop. You learn what’s important to the people there. You learn about the things going on in the town.”

By eavesdropping in Taos, New Mexico, Jan and Sheila found out about a jam session at a local bar. Because they’re both musicians, they stopped in. They got to hear some amazing performers that they might have otherwise missed. “You haven’t heard of the best musicians in this country,” Jan explained. “Often the best musicians don’t have recording contracts. They’re not pretty enough for the stage. Or they never wanted to be famous. You find them in out-of-the-way places like Taos.”

“I’m happy that you two are traveling now while you’re young,” Sheila said. “Travel isn’t as easy as it used to be. For whatever reason, this last trip to Poland was especially hard. The language barrier was hard. Airport transfers were hard. It’s the first time I’ve really felt old while traveling.”

Note: Sheila’s advice echoes something I’ve heard time and again. Most people wait to travel. They wait until they’ve quit work, the kids have moved out, and they’ve saved everything they need for retirement. At 60 or 65 or 70, they begin exploring the world around them — but find it’s tougher than anticipated. Without exception, the older travelers I’ve met wish they had started in their thirties and forties.

We spent a long time talking about aging, about intergenerational connections. Kim noted that although she’s in her mid-forties, she loves learning from both people who are younger and people who are older than she is. “I feel like there’s something to learn from everyone if we’re willing to listen,” she said.

“That’s true,” Jan said. “I wish more people felt the same way. Mostly folks seem too busy to connect with anyone else. That’s one of the reasons we did our nursing-home trip.”

“Tomorrow night at our wisdom circle, we’re going to talk about stuff like this,” Sheila said. “We’re going to talk about the things you lose as you get older.”

“You mean like family and friends?” asked Kim.

“Like family and friends, but other things too,” Sheila said, motioning to Jan, who wears a hearing aid. “Like hearing. Like flexibility and mobility. Like health, in general.”

“What about connection to culture?” I asked. “It seems to me that as you get older, you might become more and more disconnected from popular culture. The movies and music you loved as a child get buried under a flood of changing taste and fashion.”

“It’s not as bad as you might think,” Jan said. “You don’t care as much anymore. Plus, the things you love are always there. You just have to know where to look for them.”

The conversation moved to money and happiness. Sheila asked me something she’s brought up before: “Why do you think so many people believe money will bring them happiness? Is it what the money represents? Is it something else?”

We talked about people we know and how they handle money. Jan mentioned a friend who’s afraid to spend anything at all. He has plenty of money but can’t bring himself to buy even things that might make him happier. “He could easily afford a new car, but he won’t let himself have it. I think that’s too bad. His money won’t do him any good once he’s gone.”

I noted that some people have the opposite problem: “In my line of work, I’ve heard plenty of stories about folks who have squandered windfalls. Inheritances, the lottery, that sort of thing. A person can be broke, win $100,000 in the lottery, and then be broke again a year later. I think people like this mistakenly believe that money will solve all their problems. But money can’t solve problems. You have to solve them. Happiness comes from inside.”

“That’s true,” Kim said, “but money certainly makes things easier. For me, I feel a whole lot better knowing that I have so much money in savings. If something goes wrong, I have a safety net. Money may not buy happiness but I think that not having money can make people pretty unhappy.”

I described how my pursuit of happiness has changed over time. When I was deep in debt, I thought money was the answer. After I’d repaid my debt, I thought I’d be happy if I had more money. Eventually I realized that money wouldn’t make me happy. I made other changes to my life. Some increased my happiness but most didn’t. In time, I came to understand that in order to be happy, I had to just be myself. I had to be comfortable with who I am, warts and all. And I had to surround myself with friends who were happy with who I am too.

Sheila nodded. “That’s smart,” she said. “A lot of people never realize that. You’re lucky to have figured it out while you’re young.”

I laughed. “I don’t have it all figured out,” I said. “Sometimes I forget everything I’ve learned. Sometimes I find myself doing things to please others or buying things because I think they’ll make me happy. It’s a process.”

“You know what?” Kim said as the night came to a close. “Before our trip, we need to practice our interview skills. Can we interview you two sometime? We’d love to hear your stories.”

“Sure,” said Sheila. “We’d be happy to help.”

“You’ll want to have a good microphone,” Jan said. “Sound is at least fifty percent of the puzzle.”

“Everyone keeps telling us that,” Kim said. “That’s why J.D. bought a fancy microphone.” I went back to my office to retrieve the gear I bought after asking for advice from my friend Tess Vigeland, a long-time reporter for NPR.

“That should do the trick,” Jan said. “You want to be able to record the person you’re talking too without getting the clatter of dishes or the din of the television in the background.”

And so, Kim and I have started the next phase of our adventure together. Last Friday, we spent several hours browsing the Portland RV show. Today we took our first steps toward conducting interviews. Next up? I need to use our new gear — the camera, the lenses, the lights, the microphone — to make some test recordings. Be warned: Over the next few weeks, you might see some more silly videos around here! (If you have requests, let me know.)

A Portrait of the Artist: My Development as a Writer

I’ve loved words and books for as long as I can remember. As a boy, I was always eager for my parents to read to me: Harry the Dirty Dog, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Millions of Cats, Tikki Tikki Tembo, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The Giving Tree, Anything by Dr. Seuss. Like most children, I enjoyed the pictures in these books, but what I really loved was the stories.

In grade school, most kids couldn’t wait until recess. Me? I couldn’t wait until storytime. I was always eager for the teacher to read to us: A Wrinkle in Time, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, TheLittle House on the Prairie series, The Mad Scientists’ Club, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Great Brain, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

Eventually, I began to write my own stories. The first story I can remember writing was “The Meanest Inchworm”. To call it a story is generous, I suppose. I was in the third grade, and my creative ambition far outstripped my narrative abilities. But by the fourth grade, I was regularly writing two-page tales.

Mr. Zagyva had a clever story-generating system. Each week, we had writing time. During writing time, we’d pull story elements from a hat: place, plot, protagonist, and so on. So, for instance, I might draw “the moon” from the places, “someone is lost” from the plots, and “a little boy” from the protagonists. I’d then have to construct a story from these random combinations.

In fifth and sixth grades we wrote stories too. As I wrote (and read) more, my skills improved. So did my ambition. I remember once in Miss Bell’s class we were supposed to write a two-page story about a trip to the zoo. My story was ten pages long and I turned the topic on its head. I wrote about being kidnapped by an alien named Gloops who wanted to make me a part of his interstellar menagerie. (Geeks in the crowd will recognize this as the plot to an episode of Star Trek. My homage was unintentional.)

As I got older, I wrote more. In junior high school, I wrote stories for the school paper. (My grandest effort was a multi-part cliffhanger about Donald McRonald, a serial killer who poisoned people with fast-food hamburgers.) I also began dabbling in poetry. By the time I reached high school, I often wrote in my spare time — just for kicks.

It was in high school that I got serious about writing. The English department at Canby High School was phenomenal. Not only were the teachers supportive but they actively encouraged me (and other kids) to push beyond my expectations. Mr. Nichols pulled me out of sophomore English and had me write independently. I designed my own curriculum. Mr. Sanvitale recruited me to work on the school literary magazine, and eventually I became the editor. And Mr. Dage took on a handful of us writing nerds to help foster our development for an entire semester.

Compared to high school, my college English classes were a disappointment. Not only were they less rigorous, but the teachers seemed less practical — more, well, woo-woo. I’m sure that Willamette had some good English professors during the late 1980s, but (with the exception of Mr. Strelow) I didn’t end up in their classes. Still, I continued to write. I continued to work on (and edit) the school literary magazine. Gradually, however, my writing moved from fiction and poetry to personal essays.

After I graduated, I entered a period of hibernation. From 1991 until 1997, I wrote very little. Very little. It wasn’t until I started my web journal during the summer of 1997 that I began to write in earnest again. I re-discovered how much I loved telling stories.

To revitalize my skills, I took writing classes at the local community college. Most of the other students were kids and not serious about writing. (Many were looking for an easy class to pad their GPA.) But a handful of older folks were serious about writing and producing serious work. The instructors knew who we were and would ask us to stay after class to provide personal feedback. It was in these classes that I wrote some of my best short stories. (While cleaning house earlier this year, I found a bunch of these stories buried in the bottom of a box. I spent a couple of hours reading them and was impressed. They were better than I had remembered.)

A large part of my development as a writer has been my development as a reader. When I was younger, I mostly read fantasy and science fiction. I’m still fond of speculative fiction, but as I’ve grown older my tastes have changed. Now I like historical fiction and historical non-fiction. I like philosophy and pop psychology. And after working with professional editors over the past five years, I’ve come to appreciate carefully crafted magazine articles written for mass consumption. Writing simply is tougher than it looks!

Here’s another thing that’s helped my development as a reader over the past eighteen years: Our book group. In 1996, Kris and I formed the Elm Street Book Group with one of my former English teachers (Mr. Dage) and his wife. The group has met every month since November 1996. Along the way, we’ve read a crazy variety of books. Some of them (House Made of Dawn, Mutant Message Down Under) have sucked. Others (Mutiny on the Bounty, How Green Was My Valley) have been shockingly good. But each has helped me grow as a reader — and a writer.

This month, to celebrate our eighteenth anniversary, our book group has come full circle. We’re reading Trout Kill by Paul Dage, one of our founding members and my former high-school English teacher. It’s sort of a surreal experience, actually, to be a professional writer who is reading a novel from one of the men who taught you to write. (Not to mention that Paul has become a real-life friend over the past thirty years.) It’s even more surreal to be marking up the book with the same sorts of comments the author used to put on the papers I submitted in his class: “too many adjectives”, “too much repetition”, “this may be a crutch word”, “show, don’t tell”.

Here’s the most important thing I’ve learned during my almost forty years (!!!) as a writer: You never stop growing. Yes, you’re a better writer now than you’ve ever been. Yes, you can look back on your older work and wonder why you saw fit to publish it. Yes, your style has evolved over time. But the process isn’t finished. Good writers continue to grow. They read writing manuals. They take writing classes. They read good books (and bad) and try to figure out what works (and what doesn’t). Real writers don’t shy from criticism and feedback. In fact, they revel in it.

Kathleen and I have begun working on a joint writing project. “How do you feel about me editing your work?” I asked during one of our first meetings. “Some writers get uptight about it.”

Kathleen laughed. “J.D.,” she said. “Edit away. I’m not precious about my words. And I know you’re not either.” She’s right. I used to be precious about my words — I hated to be told that something didn’t work or that my sentences were sloppy — but now I welcome constructive criticism. My goal is to entertain and inform my readers, and to become a better writer. If I don’t listen to what my readers have to say, I’ll never improve as a writer. I’ll stagnate. I don’t want that.

I’ve loved words and books for as long as I can remember. I want other people to love words and books as much as I do. The best way for me to be an effective evangelist for the written language is to become more proficient with it each passing week. And so I’ll continue to take classes, to read books (both good and bad), to write stories, and to listen to my editors. There’s no such thing as a perfect writer — but I want to be the best writer I can be.

Never Too Late to Be Great

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about folks who get late starts in life. Some people, like my ex-wife, have a clear vision of their future from a young age. That’s great. I’m glad they’re able to steer a course (and stick to it) from the time they get out college until they retire.

But there are other people who are more like me. We’re lost when we enter the real world, and we only discover our direction later in life. That feeling of aimlessness can be agonizing, especially when it feels like your life isn’t going to amount to much.

It’s tough to be patient and to wait for purpose and direction to appear in your life, but for many of us, that’s the best option. I feel like my own life is a good example.

  • For two decades, I lacked direction. I thought I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know what I would write. When I was young, I thought I’d write poetry or science fiction. (Or maybe science-fiction poetry?) I wrote a lot for myself. I edited school literary magazines. And so on.
  • I earned a psychology degree, but I didn’t do anything with it. I graduated and became a box salesman instead.
  • Because I’d always been interested in computers and computer programming, I was quick to set up camp on the World Wide Web. But I didn’t do much besides share my thoughts on cats, computers, and comic books.
  • Meanwhile, I was drowning in debt. I couldn’t get a handle on money.

Though I had no way to know it, each of these attributes was to become an important part of my eventual “career”. I thought my life sucked. Actually, my experiences were quietly preparing me to become a personal-finance blogger. I was 37 years old when I started down the path that would lead me to personal and professional fulfillment. But how could I have known this would happen even at age 36?

And you know what? It’s very possible that all of the things that have occurred over the past decade are simply prelude to some sort of greater work.

My point is that you can’t know where life is taking you. If it feels like you have no purpose or passion right now, be patient. Try new things. Meet new people. Do whatever it is you love and/or are good at. Don’t force it. Allow time for things to develop.

Even if you do know what your passion and purpose are when you’re young, age can bring wisdom and maturity that allow you to develop your ideas and skills more fully. In a recent New York Times Magazine article about “Old Masters“, Lewis Lapham writes that “after 80, some people don’t retire; they reign”. This is a great essay, and I strongly recommend you take the time to read it. It’s short. The package includes profiles of fifteen men and women over the age of eighty who are still vibrant and creative and alive.

Also last week, I discovered this infographic about late bloomers from a site called “Funders and Founders”:

Late Bloomers
Late Bloomers” by Anna Vital and Anastasia Borko

Over the past few years, I’ve read a lot about happiness. One interesting book on the subject is Aging Well by George Vaillant. Aging Well documents the 75-year Grant Study of adult development from Harvard Medical School. From the book, here’s a quick overview of the results:

Among the many significant findings to emerge from the Study of Adult Development thus far are the following:

  • It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us; it is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age.
  • Healing relationships are facilitated by a capacity for gratitude, forgiveness, and for taking people inside. (By this metaphor I mean becoming eternally enriched by loving a particular person.)
  • A good marriage at age 50 predicted positive aging at age 80. But surprisingly, low cholesterol levels at age 50 did not.
  • Alcohol abuse — unrelated to unhappy childhood — consistently predicted unsuccessful aging, in part because alcoholism damaged future social supports.
  • Learning to play and create after retirement and learning to gain younger friends as we lose older ones add more to to life’s enjoyment than retirement income.
  • Objective good health was less important to successful aging than subjective good health. By this I mean that it is all right to be ill as long as you do not feel sick.

Vaillant observes that old people “grow more understanding and perhaps more aware of who they are”. Also, “wisdom involves the toleration of ambiguity and paradox”. When we’re young, we think we know how the world works (or should work); as we age, we become less sure. We see shades of grey where once we saw black and white. Plus, we recognize that while we prefer blue, it’s not wrong for others to prefer red. Aging well often means being adaptable and resilient. (Vaillant admits that some people become more rigid in their beliefs as they age, but I’m not sure he thinks these folks are “aging well”.)

Another interesting book about aging — and one more relevant to this conversation — is Never Too Late to Be Great by Tom Butler-Bowdon. I’ve written before about this author, who has produced a series of books called 50 XXX Classics (where XXX might be Psychology, Success, Prosperity, and so on). [Here’s my review of 50 Prosperity Classics.]

After reading scores of books about personal development, Butler-Bowdon became fixated on Tony Robbins’ notion that most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year but underestimate what they can achieve in a lifetime.

In the preface to Never Too Late to Be Great, he writes:

[I] noticed that many of the great achievers I had read and written about had not even discovered their great project or passion until having done other things, lived other lives, had other careers. They nearly all took time to get into their stride. At many points they may have felt like they were getting nowhere, but when looked at from the vantage point of history, they were just getting ready to make their mark.

Butler-Bowdon spends the entire book exploring how certain people are able to take the sum of their previous life experiences and synthesize them into something greater. “The remarkable and somewhat shocking truth,” he says, “is that we can build uniquely powerful lives, but only if we take a long-term view which can accommodate the inevitable reversals, obstacles or changes of direction that come along.”

I’m reminded of “Ulysses” by Tennyson, which relates the mindset and emotions of an aging king and adventurer. A quote:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

No, two quotes!

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

It’s never too late to be great, my friends. It’s never too late to sail beyond the sunset. It’s never too late to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Why I Walk: Some Thoughts on a Car-Free Lifestyle

Since returning from Ecuador in early September, Kim and I have both been focused on fitness. She’s doing Jenny Craig and hitting the gym; I’m doing Atkins and walking all over creation. We’re both down about ten pounds in two months. Yay!

It feels great to be walking again. When I decided to lose weight in 2010, walking and Crossfit were the cornerstones of my fitness plan. (With them, I lost fifty pounds in eighteen months.) After my divorce, I rented an apartment in northeast Portland from which I could walk to everything. I loved it. I loved it so much that when I decided to buy a new home, I looked specifically for locations with a high walkscore.

But when I allowed my life to be subsumed by the Get Rich Slowly course last spring, I stopped exercising. As part of that, I forgot to walk. I got in the habit of driving even the half mile to the grocery store. For six months, I was sedentary, and my body showed it. Over the past two months, though, I’ve re-discovered the joys of walking.

First thing in the morning, I roll out of bed and take a long walk. I walk to “run” errands during the day. I walk to the grocery store. I walk to restaurants. I walk for exercise. I walk for fun. Kathleen and I even conduct business meetings while walking.

True story! Right now, I’m outlining this article about walking during a two-mile stroll to the gym. I’ll write more during my two-mile stroll home.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that sometimes it’s possible to forego the car for longish jaunts into downtown Portland. The center of the city is five miles from our condo. It takes about twenty minutes to drive that distance (counting time for parking). If I take the Springwater Corridor, I can bike downtown in 25 minutes or walk the distance in 85. Not bad.

So, I walked six miles to meet Kim before the final Portland Timbers match. And although I drove to meet her and Sahra for drinks before last Friday’s Jason Mraz concert, we left my Mini at Lloyd Center overnight. The next morning, I hoofed it exactly five miles to retrieve the car. (Believe it or not, I’ve found that walking can be an excellent cure for a hangover.)

If I were to become adept at Portland’s plentiful public transportation, I’d never have to drive downtown.

Because I’ve been walking and biking (and riding my motorcycle) so much lately, I’ve actually begun toying with the idea of selling my Mini. As much as I love the car, I just don’t use it that often. It’s very easy to imagine a car-free lifestyle.

Actually, I suspect that most folks — especially young folks — could profit from experimenting with carlessness. I don’t mean profit in strictly a financial sense, either — although your bank account would certainly benefit — but in myriad other ways as well: physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and more.

From a personal-finance perspective, automobiles are mostly money pits. The Consumer Expenditure Survey from the U.S. Department of Labor reveals that vehicles are the second-largest expense for the average American family, making up about 17% of the typical budget.

According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), the average new vehicle cost 60.8 cents per mile to operate in 2013; that includes fuel, maintenance, registration, insurance, depreciation, and the cost of buying the vehicle (with finance charges). AAA figures the average driver spends just over $9,000 per year on her automobile.

But, as I said, going car-free offers other benefits. Here are a few of the reasons I prefer to walk:

  • Walking keeps me fit. I’ve always said that my body is built for walking, and it’s true. Some guys are natural muscle men. I have a good friend who is one of the world’s top ultrarunners; she was born to run. Others are naturally adept at jumping or climbing or swimming. Me? I’m built to walk long, slow distances.
  • Walking calms my mind. Normally my brain buzzes like a swarm of bees. But when I get outside, the pace of the world seems to slow. I’m more present in the moment. I watch the natural world around me. I feel a part of my environment rather than apart from it.
  • Walking connects me to my neighbors and my neighborhood. In a car, I drive the same streets all the time, and I travel through them at high speed. By foot, I’m more aware of the changes around me. And I meet people. Walking home on Tuesday, I struck up a conversation with an older guy who lives nearby. He’s lived here for thirty years, and was full of neighborhood lore. If I’d been driving, I’d never have met him.

When I suggest that more people ought to test-drive a car-free lifestyle (heh), I meet a lot of objections. I’ll admit there are folks for whom biking and busing and walking don’t make a lot of sense. If you live in rural Alaska, you probably need a car.

Often, however, the objections amount to little more than laziness: “I don’t want to put forth the effort and won’t even try.” People are quick to point out why biking or walking or public transit wouldn’t work for their situation, but fail to acknowledge that there are plenty of people in similar circumstances who do make it work. Mostly it’s a matter of will.

To truly go car-free — or to build your life around biking, busing, and walking — may require some forethought and drastic changes, but it’s almost certainly possible.

Note: Interested in car-free living but don’t know how to start? Mr. Money Mustache just issued a challenge: “Can you go car-free this weekend?” he asks. Can you? Give it a shot!

When you begin walking, it can seem like a hassle. It takes so long to get where you’re going! Soon, however, you learn to love the slower pace. How much time does it take? Both less and more than you’d think. Less time because it generally doesn’t take much longer than driving, especially over short distances. But more time in that people tend to grossly overestimate how quickly they walk.

Because I’m a nerd, I keep close tabs on how long it takes me to get to common destinations. This helps me to know when it makes sense to walk and when driving is a viable option. For instance:

  • The gym is a 2.5-mile drive (eight minutes) from home. It takes 32 minutes to walk or twelve minutes to bike to the gym via the nearby multi-use path.
  • Our grocery store is a half-mile drive (four minutes) from home. It takes ten minutes to walk that distance and five to bike it.
  • Our neighborhood is a little spread out. Our favorite restaurant is 0.6 miles up the street, but the movie theater is 1.3 miles away. It takes between four and six minutes to reach these places by car. It takes from ten to twenty minutes to walk and between five and ten minutes to bike.

When you figure in the fitness benefits, it almost always makes sense for me to walk to nearby destinations. Yes, biking can be quicker, but it’s also more of a hassle. I don’t do it often. (Biking makes more sense when I’m going downtown. It’s an hour quicker each way than walking, so the “overhead” of getting the bike out is worth it — especially since biking downtown doesn’t take much longer than driving.)

How fast do people walk? Non-walkers often believe that a good walking pace is four or five miles per hour. I wish. Over the past five years, I’ve logged thousands of miles by stopwatch and spreadsheet. My average pace hovers around seventeen minutes per mile (or 3.5 miles per hour). When hard-pressed, I can crank out fifteen-minute miles. (Once at Crossfit, Kyra paced a group of us to walk a 42-minute 5k — 13.5-minute miles. That was insane. I’d much rather run that distance in 25 minutes than walk it in 42.) If I’m on a groggy early-morning walk, I might amble through slug-like nineteen-minute miles. I feel like my seventeen-minute pace is pretty average — and might be a bit brisk over long distances.

According to my trusty pedometer, I’ve averaged 13,182 steps per day during the month of October. Because I know that the length of my stride yields almost exactly one mile per 2000 steps, I figure I’m walking about 6.5 miles per day. (Some days I walk twelve miles. Some days I walk zero. Most days, I walk five or six.)

Kim and I aren’t ready to go completely car-free. Her work office is 6.5 miles from home. She’s biked before, but it was a bother. The streets were busy, and it was tough to carry everything she needed. If her office were three miles away, or close to the nearby multi-use trail, she’d be more open to the idea. But for now, she prefers to drive.

Meanwhile, I still need want a car for a handful of errands. My orthodontist is twenty miles away, for instance. Also, my mother is in an assisted-living facility halfway between here and Salem. And what about Costco?

But you know what? My braces will come off in a couple of months. After that, I ought to be able to structure my long trips so that I can either take my motorcycle or borrow Kim’s car. Maybe I really could sell my Mini. We’ll see.