Lifestyle

Woke AF (But Still Not Happy)

(Hey friends, I just wanted to put in a note that I wrote this post before the incredible tornado of dumpster fires that is Trump’s presidency began. It seems like I’m ignoring the very obvious truth that, in at least the U.S., everything is not in fact amazing. However, I think the concept of cultivating happiness in your own mind holds extra significance in tough times. So while this post lacks a little bit of temporal relevance, I hope you’ll still find its points useful.)

It’s amazing how I can walk through life with a personal philosophy bordering on nihilism yet still experience the effects of a generalized anxiety disorder. You’d think one would surely preclude the other. How can the mundane tasks of an ordinary day stress someone who sees the cosmic futility and overall unimportance of absolutely everything they do? This is just one of several great examples of the magic and mystery of the human brain.

The answer to this question answers several others, including but not limited to: Why don’t people take their own advice? How do I keep making the same mistakes? Why is it so difficult to choose to be happy?

In case you haven’t noticed, your brain is not your personal assistant. You do not hand it a list of tasks to complete, and it does not respond, “Roger that!” and get straight to work making your life easier. Your brain, while quite possibly being the most complex and advanced piece of biological equipment in the known universe, is still just a collection of reactionary components. It is designed, by natural selection, Mother Nature, God, whatever you want to call it, to respond to stimuli in order to keep you alive. The ability to conceptualize and enjoy the experiences with the world our brains give us is a special, and fairly recent (evolutionarily speaking), externality of this complexity. Yet this little footnote is the cornerstone of our world.

The ways in which the archaic machinery of our brains inhibits the enjoyment of “modern life” has been addressed ad nauseum by people far smarter than myself. For great reads on the subject, try Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by the surprisingly snarky neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky or Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. The first gets into the nitty gritty of how and why our brains mess with our health and lives, the second attempts to give strategies on how to fix this.

My intention is not to attempt to summarize the information in these books to tell you how to live better. My intention is to draw attention to the fact that information alone is not enough. To put a spotlight on how fucking hard it is to change your mind. Just like the hippies you meet at music festivals who complain about our political system yet can’t seem to stumble their way to a voting booth come November, seeing the cracks doesn’t always lead to trying to fix them.

In most forms of schooling we’re taught to learn and regurgitate pertinent information. If you’re one of the lucky people with a sticky brain, some flashcards are all you need to push concepts past recognition and into the filing cabinets of your brain. Others absorb information more like temporary tattoos, the details pristine when the sponge is removed, but fading in the days that follow. Regardless of how easily you remember mathematical theorems and Latin names, attempting to change the very nature of your mind is more like the second model. No matter how long you soak that Lisa Frank kitten, or how delicately you pull off the paper, you’re not going to get much more than a week out of that sucker.

Learning something, even digesting information on a deep, contemplative level does not directly lead to manifesting it. Just because you intellectually know something to be true does not mean your reality changes to reflect this fact. This is why dreams, psychedelic experiences, and pain do not disappear once you realize they are constructs of your neurology, rather than realities being imposed directly on you by the outside world.

Your reality is produced by your brain. At first glance, this can be a freeing notion. If our brains produce our individual realities and we are in control of our brains, we all must be free to design our own realities. This is the premise on which Buddhists build the capacity to resist suffering, enduring severe pain and discomfort without so much as a shudder. But for all of us who haven’t made it to Buddhist monk status, the realization that your brain constructs your reality can be the opposite of freeing. More than likely, it means you are at the mercy of the predispositions of an undisciplined mind. It means you can be surrounded by beauty, comfort, and love yet still feel empty and alone.

In other words…

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Louie always says it better.

Recently, I found myself at odds with a philosophy I had adopted in full: don’t give advice you don’t already follow. Essentially I’m scared of being a hypocrite. I can’t tell someone to avoid packaged foods if I ate a nutrigrain bar the other day. I can’t tell someone they should start meditating regularly when I’m lucky if I get to it a couple times a month. How dare I tell someone to reduce their dependency on drugs when I’m generally on two cups and a bowl a day.

What made me realize the problem in this philosophy was, strangely enough, Krav Maga. During a training drill, I was told to correct my partner’s form. My partner had been coming to class longer than I had, her form wasn’t perfect but it was sure as hell better than mine. It was like my entire mind hit a wall; I literally couldn’t correct her. Our instructor threatened us with pushups if he didn’t hear constructive criticism coming from every pair. I panicked. Finally I blurted out, “Widen your stance a little, and pivot more at the hips.” To my anxious brain’s shock and dismay, my partner responded with, “Oh! Right!” and repositioned herself for the next flurry of jabs and crosses. Really? No calls of hypocrisy. No eye rolls? No wordless facial communicating of “this bitch”? Why would this person take advice from a novice? Because like it or not, her stance was too narrow and she was not pivoting at the hips enough. Facts are facts, regardless of who communicates them. And facts help make people better.

Does this revelation make it any easier to criticize my partners in class? Fuck no. Just knowing a fact does not immediately change your behavior to align with it. And this is the whole point of this seemingly aimless, rambling anecdote. Just because you see the realities of your life and the surrounding universe, does not mean that change immediately follows. Changing the way you perceive and interact with the world around requires diligent, constant, and often difficult mental action.

I see this evidenced so clearly in my dealings with introversion and social anxiety. Logically, I know people care far more about what’s going on in their own lives than what comes out of my mouth. Yet I still find myself acting as if others’ opinions of me change drastically in response to every small thing I say or do. I also behave as if the opinions of strangers and loose acquaintances actually affect me when, logically, I also know this to be false.

The problem is that your brain gets wired a certain way by genetics, the way you are raised, and your experiences as you grow into adulthood. If you were taught impeccable manners by your parents after inheriting a predisposition for generalized anxiety, you may end up stuck in these thought patterns (like me). You may have created a negative feedback loop with yourself in grade school, where you perceived situations as going better the more you worried and planned for them, rewarding your brain for debilitating over-activity.

Sadly, the pathways created by repeat behaviors and cycles of reward centers in your brain are much easier to create than to break (for more on this see Hardwiring Happiness). Thus, forcing your brain to actually align it’s responses with new information you’ve gained about the world, instead of with what it already thought it knew, is like trying to walk in immaculate tall grass instead of a flattened deer path. You must consciously focus on lifting your legs higher than you normally would and pay attention to where you are setting them down. To change the way you think, and thus feel, you must constantly acknowledge and often redirect your own thoughts.

I want people to understand that there is really no such thing as “enlightenment.” Sure, those Buddhist monks have their shit pretty together, and it’s not likely they’ll relapse into anxiety-ridden, caffeine-guzzling westerners anytime soon. But the idea of being enlightened (or my current favorite shorthand phrase, “woke as fuck”) is that it implies stasis. It gives the impression that once you figure out how your mind works and how to control it, you’ve unlocked the achievement and life is smooth-sailing from then on. Instead, I want people to realize that taking on the endeavor of being self-aware is a lifelong commitment to a very complex game. It’s a game that feels like work and can often be exhausting. And it’s a game in which you will never stop racking up points and those points will never be enough. But it also may be the only game worth playing.

Categories: Humanity, Lifestyle, Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Residential Unit

There’s a sign in the elevator of my downtown DC apartment complex that unabashedly refers to my 600-square foot dwelling as a “residential unit.” I looked at the sign for much longer than it took to read the simple arrangement of words, trying to decide why it made me feel strange. Perhaps it’s because the phrase “residential unit” bares hardly any resemblance to the word home. “Welcome to my humble residential unit.” “My residential unit is your residential unit.” Nice.

I’m sure there are others who would find discomfort in the utilitarian nature of the phrase. It does conjure some Orwellian images; humans living in simplistic, identical cubicles packed into an aging brick facade. Yet these notions really don’t bother me. Simple, condensed housing is affordable and sustainable and can be made beautiful.

The sign unsettles me ever so slightly because it reminds me that I live in an epicenter. A human hive. My apartment, though I consider it my current “home,” is one unit of hundreds contained within the same monolith structure, neighbored by countless other monolith structures, creating a man-made landscape that blots out the horizon.

It’s not that I necessarily object to this arrangement. If ants and termites didn’t arrange themselves into hills and towers, their presence would likely overwhelm the spaces they inhabit. Living close by one another, where we can easily access the goods and services we need without burning long-dead organic matters and releasing toxic fumes, is the most sustainable, logical way to support our populations at their current numbers.

I don’t mind my residential unit. It’s the perfect size for two human beings and a cat and requires minimal maintenance. Were it to serve as my entire world however, it would be in desperate need of what a zookeeper would refer to as “enrichment.” Sure there are books on the shelves, a TV, and implements for my various hobbies. But living solely within the confines of any space becomes difficult after too long, regardless of the opportunities for amusement.

I suspect that I am overly aware of my captivity in much the same way that some pets are. While I am not explicitly kept in doors and on asphalt against my will, I am a prisoner of my nature. Just as a golden retriever does not want to be abandoned on the side of a dirt road, I don’t long to escape the shackles of civilization for a proud life of shitting in the woods and eating rabbit meat. I like baths, coffee, and live music as much as the next girl. I have been designed, by both nature and nurture, to exist in this framework of human existence and find little romanticism in the idea of wholly “returning to nature.”

Still, I often look over the railing atop my 11-story building and revel at how exceedingly easy it would be to initiate the fall that would crumple my body and end my brief experience with this world. The image is both a nightmare and a fantasy.

Perhaps someday I’ll find the proper balance of “nature” (this word is it’s own conundrum) and practical human existence. Maybe the lingering, sticking sensation of living in a hamster cage would evaporate if I were to achieve my dream existence in an earthship in the woods, or nomadically wandering the continent in a comfortably compact van. But deep in the recesses of my brain I suspect that wouldn’t be the case. You can always make your dog happier, but you can never make it understand what it means to no longer be a wolf.

Categories: About me, Humanity, Lifestyle, Sustainability, Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tiny Vampires

Hello my lovely 20-something followers! It’s been a while. But don’t worry; I have a whole new cornucopia of excuses to justify my lack of commitment to my blog. First and foremost, I’ve started actually getting paid to write (not a lot, but enough to motivate me to choose the gig over blogging). Second, I’ve had a whole host of life changes recently that kind of threw my routine (if I ever had one) out the window.

The most interesting of those is the subject of this post. After quite some time deliberating on the subject—and getting over some embarrassment and mild PTSD—I decided I am comfortable enough to share my experience. Don’t you feel lucky?

So here it goes.

Over the summer, my life was almost destroyed by a creature the size of a flax seed.

Those who’ve been victimized by this agent of Satan probably already know what I’m referring to. For the rest of you lucky, bright-eyed, blissfully ignorant bastards, I’ll elaborate (and ruin your night’s sleep): I’m talking about bed bugs. Sounds creepy right?

Well…

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When I first heard of bed bugs it was probably whilst combing travel websites. Bed bugs are often mentioned in the realm of hostels, dorms, and cheap motels, especially those abroad. I believe I checked for them half-heartedly a few times while staying in hostels in Costa Rica, not really even knowing what I was looking for.

However, everyone seems to forget to mention some very important information about bed bugs, predominantly that they are FUCKING EVERYWHERE. That’s right kiddos, nowhere is safe. Since the 80s, bed bug infestations have exploded in developed nations. Bed bugs aren’t just in hostels or motels, but in high-end apartments, restaurants, laundromats, and even libraries—yes they hide in books, and yes you can get them from these books. Commence psychotic breakdown.

Most attribute this rise to an increase in travel and pesticide resistance as well as a lack of education and the stigma surrounding infestations. Well, I’m going to do my share to tackle the last part of that sentence and school anyone reading this about these little vampires:

 

Bed bugs don’t give a shit if you’re dirty or clean, poor or rich.

Anyone and any place can be infested by bed bugs. My apartment definitely wasn’t what I would consider “high-end” but it also wasn’t a slum. Bed bugs may seem to plague poor areas more than affluent ones due to larger amounts of clutter, less responsive pest management practices, and the circulation of second-hand furniture. This doesn’t change the fact that the evil little shits will live anywhere, hitchhike on anything, and feed on anyone. Anywhere they can find warm bodies is good place to settle down. Oh, and they can also wait around for months without a meal. Like I said, nowhere is safe.

 

Bed bugs aren’t just annoying.

Some sources refer to bed bugs as an “annoying pest.” People who write things like this should try waking up to the feeling of something snacking on you, and then dealing with the knowledge that said something has actually been living in your bed frame for weeks, living off your precious life energy and shitting in your bed the whole time. Then they can tell me just how “annoying” that is. It’s not annoying, it’s fucking horrifying. This is the stuff of nightmares. Though they don’t spread disease, bed bugs can turn normal human beings into paranoid, anxiety-ridden insomniacs. So not exactly a great experience for someone who already suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Now I have the added delight of experiencing a mini heart attack any time I see something vaguely reminiscent in shape or size of a bed bug or feel an itch while in bed. For more on “Bed Bug Madness”, check out this article.

 

There is hope. Kind of.

The internet and brazen honesty are our friends in the fight against bed bugs. Through my research I found that in addition to professional extermination services, the most valuable weapon against bed bugs is plain old heat. You can purchase a product called the “Bug Zapper.” It’s basically just a portable oven that will heat your possessions (in a much safer and more effective manner than a conventional oven) to a point that cooks the tiny vampires alive. You can also freeze possessions to kill bed bugs, but this takes a lot longer and is less reliable. Most importantly people need to stop acting like this is something that only happens in the third world. All apartment complexes should warn tenants about bed bugs. Parents should teach their kids about bed bugs. President Obama should deliver an address and turn national attention and full military power towards bed bugs. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Oprah should be solving the bed bug crisis.

 

So maybe I’m just a little bent out of shape about this. But the reality is not that bed bugs ruined my life but that they took something sacred away from it. The second most devastating loss of my bed bug infestation (the first being my sanity, naturally) was my love for second-hand items. I hate buying new things in a world full of unwanted stuff and I love the character of used books, furniture, and clothing. But now that I’ve peered into the rabbit hole of lunacy, desperation and paranoia that is life with bed bugs, my zeal has been replaced with fear. I still buy used clothes, but I throw them immediately into the wash on hot and dry them for 60 minutes to set my mind at ease. I’ve also bought a few used books after flipping neurotically through the pages. But my love affair with used furniture has officially ended. I feel as though my innocence has been taken. I find it tragic that I must pass up a perfectly good futon on craigslist, or a unique end table with a turkey on it at the thrift store for fear of another infestation.

I’m not sure what the answer to the bed bug epidemic is, other than spreading the word to avoid curbside castaways and inspect hotel beds. I don’t know if throwing infested furniture in landfills or using new pesticides will do anything but prolong the inevitable: a hostile takeover of human society by nefarious bed bug overlords.

Ok obviously I’m kidding but it’s still pretty frightening, don’t you think?

 

So for anyone with something important to do today, here’s the ANGTFT (Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That) version of the last six months of my life:

Just when I was starting to really love my new tiny apartment lifestyle, it was unceremoniously demolished by demonic arthropods. My cat and I moved in with my boyfriend, almost infested his place as well, and I salvaged what possessions and sanity I could. Despite all this, we still managed to escape Michigan just before winter truly set in. We now share a small apartment in downtown D.C. where we are hoping to find work before our modest savings run out.

Thanks for reading friends, and may you never wake up in the middle of the night to find a tiny vampire hiding in the pages of your scifi novel.

Cheers.

Categories: About me, Lifestyle, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Make Your Life Better, Right Now

Alright bare with me folks, I promise I’m not selling essential oils, shake weights, or sex toys (but if I was going to suggest any of the three for making life better, I would definitely go with the sex toys). I’m also not touting “4 Ways To Fix Your Life and Be Happy”. Anyone who tells you they’ve figured out how to be happy is either lying or assuming you’re an identical person to them. Either way run.

I have simply observed the power of certain tasks to improve my life and I’d like to share them. Some of these tips may seem obvious, but I encourage you to take a look at those around you and determine how many of them actually do these things regularly. I’m guessing not many. The selling point of these tips is they require almost no time, money, or changes in philosophy, just perhaps a little dedication. So, for anyone who needs a little pick-me-up, here are 5 EASY ways to make your experience on planet earth a little better, almost immediately.

  1. Drink water.

It feels so silly to have to say this but after seeing people day in and day out drink nothing but coffee, soda, and alcohol I feel the need to remind the human species that we RUN ON WATER. While coffee and soda don’t dehydrate your body as per a common myth*, completely replacing water with them in your diet brings several other ill effects such as increased sugar intake and serious caffeine dependency. Water is the ultimate refreshing beverage and hey, if you’re fortunate enough to live in a developed nation it’s usually cheap or free! Aside from just generally keeping your body a nice, squishy, well-oiled machine, the most shockingly beneficial thing about water to me is its ability to ward off headaches. I used to get a lot of headaches and now not so much. Although some of this is likely due to improved stress reduction and management, I actually believe most of it is just hydration. I tend to get headaches when I leave my water bottle at home, but days I keep it on me and sip periodically are typically smooth sailing. Now, I’m not saying you need to drink the absurd amount of water some health gurus recommend, in fact sources say even the oft-repeated “8 glasses a day” is bull (see same article I cited above). Judging by the size of my water bottle, I probably drink around 35 oz of water on an average day but much more on a day full of strenuous exercise.

  1. Start monitoring your sleep.

As most of us know, sleep makes a world of difference in how you feel each day. However saying, “Hey, you should just get more sleep!” to someone who works two jobs to pay rent or is getting their phD is a dick move. I’m sure most people would just LOVE to “get more sleep” but their schedule and responsibilities do not allow that right now. Therefore, a smaller and more tangible step for someone feeling tired or sleep deprived all the time is to start monitoring your sleep in some way. This could range from just keeping a journal on your nightstand to buying a fancy activity tracker wristband such as a Jawbone or FitBit. I personally use a $1 app for my iPhone called Sleep Cycle. The app (supposedly) uses the iPhone’s accelerometer to track your movements while you sleep to judge what phase of sleep you are in at all times throughout your night. It then uses this judgment to try to wake you up at an “appropriate” time—aka when you’re not in a deep, dark, tar pit of a sleep coma. Although according to current research, the sleep stage you’re awoken in doesn’t affect cognitive performance**, I for one believe it affects my mood and immediate feelings about how my day’s going to go. Most people I talk to agree getting woken up during deep sleep or an intense dream is pretty awful.

Although I won’t say the app works perfectly, I certainly prefer it to my old alarm and the data it provides are where the real usefulness lies. Whether using an app, journal, or device, the goal is to take note of the factors each day that may be affecting your sleep length or quality, and matching those up with feelings and behaviors you observe in yourself. Do you often eat a large dinner close to bedtime? Start writing down when you do or don’t and you may begin to notice a correlation with the way you sleep or wake up. Once you start to pick out these patterns, it often becomes clear that small and easy changes could make a huge difference for your sleep quality. One of the most important things I found was that I sleep much better when I read before bed than when I spend time on my phone or computer. Although this pattern is statistically validated, the push for me to stop reading on my phone before bed came from my own data instead of from real science. Go figure.

  1. Do something to improve your space.

Do you find yourself sitting at home sometimes feeling frustrated yet not sure why? Perhaps it’s just me but this tends to happen a lot. I discovered some time ago that all I need to quell this restlessness is a change of functional scenery. I say functional scenery because I don’t believe just decorating can produce this affect. Aesthetics are important and feng shui is great but I’m all about maximizing the utility of a space. A functional space improvement adds a new, usable dimension or property to your environment, specifically the one you see every day. An example of this could be moving your furniture into a more “social” arrangement, perhaps facing each other instead of a TV. Another could be de-cluttering and organizing a table so the top can now be used as a workspace. Often, you don’t even need to buy anything for this; it’s just a small, seemingly obvious change you just never thought to try. Sometimes you won’t notice the difference or even dislike it. But most of the time it improves your space in a way that allows you to be more of something desirable to you: organized, social, creative, hardworking, sexually devious, whatever!

  1. Do something for someone else.

My final and sappiest tip is to be selfless in some small way. Or big way. That depends on your passion, time, and resources. However, I believe all of us are capable of doing something at least small for someone just about every day. Now make no mistake; just as in the natural world, altruism is not the warm, fuzzy act it often appears. I don’t consider myself a bad person but I’m not Mother Theresa. Obviously I care about people and want them to be happy. But often, I do random acts of kindness predominantly because they make me happy. I would even wager that I often get more reciprocal happiness than the act was even worth. For example, giving a homeless man five dollars may make his hour better but it will probably make my whole day better. Perhaps this is why a study a few years back found spending money on other people is the best way to “buy happiness”***. So donate ten dollars to charity, share your lunch with someone who doesn’t have one, go play with the animals at a shelter, or at the very least smile at someone (sometimes this is all I can muster). I promise you won’t be disappointed.

* http://www.huffingtonpost.com/monica-reinagel-ms-ldn-cns/dehydration-myth_b_1080956.html

** http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/dream2.htm

*** http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88682320

Categories: Advice, Lifestyle | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Checking in: Six Months of Tiny Living and Carlessness!

So remember that time I said I was going to try to write a little bit each week instead of waiting and then doing a massive thought dump? Well, I did try.

I’m not very good at keeping routines and as much as I liked writing regularly, it didn’t take long for me to become distracted by various other things. You see there are just too many fun activities out there to occupy my time. I have far too many hobbies and not enough (free) hours in the day. So much like meditation, yoga, and waking up early, my newfound habit sort of fell by the wayside. Furthermore since the golden, short time of summer is finally upon us Michiganders, I spend 90% of my day riding my bike, hiking around in woodlots and fields at work, and otherwise recreating outside. Thus, I’m not exactly sitting in front of my computer frequently.

Me, every week.

Me, every week.

Now that I’ve got my excuses out of the way, let’s get to the main purpose of this post. I am officially into month six of my simple living lifestyle design experiment, or whatever the hell you want to call it. It’s not so much an experiment as it is just my life…but since it’s all kind of new to me and more or less uncharted territory as far as my peers go, I’m taking note of the results. I have to say, so far things have gone remarkably well. I’m smitten with my tiny apartment, my job at the university is enjoyable, and the majority of the time I love being car-less. In the interest of organization and keeping up with themes, I’m going to construct this post much the same way I did my pre-move in post. Yup, cliché internet list style. Enjoy.

6 Triumphs and Failures of a Simplified Lifestyle

1. Living a 10-minute bike ride from work is amazing.

If you’re a sane human being you hate commuting to work. Who the hell wants to get early up just to sit in traffic with thousands of other miserable people? Getting to work is basically just like an extra punch in the face on top of the drudgery of the average 8-hour workday. However, biking or busing to work in 10-20 minutes has basically taken all the stress out of this experience. I find that I actually show up to work in a decent mood most days (well, now that it’s above 45 degrees in the morning that is).

2. Living in a small space has helped me prioritize my needs and wants.

When your kitchen is the size of a walk-in closet you really start to learn which cooking implements are really necessary. Spatula? For sure. Strange contraption that peels an orange for you? I’ll pass. I’ve gotten rid of a fair amount of stuff, from video games to clothes to toiletries and it honestly feels fantastic. Not only is a small living space incentive to purge (or not purchase in the first place) unneeded things, it’s a great (and valid) excuse as to why you can’t accept unwanted gifts or giveaways. “Sorry, I literally do not have room in my apartment for the most wasteful coffee maker known to mankind Karen but thanks for the biodegradable K-cups.”

3. Not having a car is surprisingly liberating.

You would think not having a car would be a hindrance, almost impossible depending on where you live. However, due to the fairly reliable bus system in my area, my love of biking and moderate distaste for driving, I’ve found it predominantly enjoyable. Finding parking, paying for parking, rush-hour traffic, wondering if I’d had one too many drinks to get my car home tonight…these are all things I miss worrying about literally 0 percent. My bike is also helping to keep me in great shape, even when I don’t bust my ass at work or take time to exercise. It’s nice not having to think about exercising, instead it’s just part of my existence. If my bike is reading this, I love you!

4. Not having a car is predictably constraining.

For out-of-city needs and adventures however, not having a car is undoubtedly frustrating. Things like the Greyhound, Michigan Flyer (basically a nicer Greyhound), and Zipcar are definitely better than nothing and I’m so glad they exist…but they don’t exactly close the gap. Zipcars get pricey when you need them for more than a few hours, and getting to and from a bus station can be an adventure in and of itself. Thus, I haven’t seen my out of town friends or traveled around Michigan nearly as much as I’d like and I do a lot of mooching off my boyfriend to get to metro Detroit. By far the worst part of this however is getting to medical appointments. My insurance blows and many of the doctors I need or would like to see are 30 minutes or more outside my city. It essentially makes the ordeal of seeing a doctor even more annoying, which I didn’t even know was possible honestly. Still though, I would take these relatively infrequent annoyances over stress and astronomical monthly payments any day.

5. Having more free time is a blast.

Until recently I was only working 32 hours a week. Due to my low rent and lack of car costs, this was more than enough to cover my expenses. However, due to my need to save for my impending move and the increase in workload that comes with field season, I am back up to full time. I was blissfully happy working 32 hours however. That extra day before the weekend hit was just what I needed to do the things I wanted to do, but was always too tired or burnt out to do during a normal 40-hour workweek. I found the extra free time gave me space to be creative, functional, and reflective, as well as relax. Saving money by living simply speaks volumes when it allows you to have this freedom. It’s unfortunate there aren’t more jobs out there that allow 32-hour workweeks.

6. Having less money to spend during it is a drag.

Chances are if you live 10 minutes from where you work and you take the bus everywhere, you live in a city. And chances are if you live in a city, you’re not exactly in range of a lot of free recreation options. Compared to the hiking, swimming, snorkeling, coconut husking free time of Costa Rica jungle living, free activities in the city are a little less enthralling. The ironic thing is that my lifestyle is what allows me to have this free time, yet that same lifestyle limits what I can do with it. Luckily I’ve found a few great low-cost hobbies that I genuinely love, like hula hooping in parks and hanging around campus on nice days. But the glory of sitting on sunny patios, drinking long islands and eating seasoned fries still beckons. Hence why I’ve eaten or drank about a third of the money I was supposed to save this month. Whoops.

So there you have it folks, a quick run through of the pros and cons of my lifestyle. I may also post some pictures of my tiny apartment (if I ever get around to taking them) in a future post, because I think it’s pretty rad. If I had to give the past six months a rating, I would probably say eight out of ten, do recommend. However, I’m still more than ready for a change…and I have a feeling fall is going to sneak up fast. It’s becoming increasingly important for me to save money and focus on how I’m going to get my ass from Michigan to somewhere warm…but that’s for another post. Till next time, Pura Vida!

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A for Effort

I had some mildly interesting thoughts about effort the other day. What spurred these on was an errand I had to run. Some back-story is necessary to explain this errand. My cat Lita,

This is my daughter, Lita. Also known colloquially as "The Floof".

This is my daughter, Lita. Also known colloquially as “The Floof”.

love of my life and best friend since 6th grade (I am now 23, she’s getting up there) has a condition known as CRF—Chronic Renal Failure. It basically means her kidneys woke up one morning, said, “fuck that” and decided to stop coming to work. It is a very common condition in older cats and often can’t be prevented. There is also no cure but there are a myriad of things you can do to control the symptoms and expand both the quantity and quality of time you have with your cat. One of those things is giving doses of subcutaneous fluids to re-hydrate the cat because kidney failure causes chronic dehydration. So my errand was to get to my vet to pick up a big box of fluids and a case of prescription food for my fur child. This wouldn’t be something to think twice about for someone with a car, but for me it was a little tricky. There were several ways I could have completed the task. I could have rented a Zipcar for the trip, asked a friend to help out, or even taken the bus to the vet and then grabbed an Uber or cab home. Simple, elegant solutions to a minor problem. I instead chose to take the bus both ways. Which meant I was hauling a large box of medical supplies and a backpack full of cans of cat food on two busses to get home. F for efficiency, but A for Effort.

The easiest answer to why I chose this route is I’m a cheap-ass. The bare minimum I would have had to spend on a Zipcar or cab would have been around $8. I have a bus pass so the bus was free. I chose free. However my mental process is almost never that simple. Ok never. I have to think of about 37 different angles to every option before I choose one. This is probably part of the reason I have so much anxiety. But that’s a topic for another day. This experience got me thinking about the ways in which people choose to, or not to, expend effort and how they make those choices. I chose to put in about double the effort and time in order to get home without spending any money. However some of the externalities of that effort were positive. For example, the day I ran this errand was a beautiful spring day (we only get about 5 of those in Michigan so it’s something precious). I got to spend more time outside while I waited at the bus stops. I also got the added bonus of a small arm workout from carrying that big box around. These may seem like silly benefits but in my strange little world they were noteworthy.

The broader idea I’m getting at with all these internal cost-benefit analyses is that I think a lot of people neglect to consider how they are spending their effort. If we treat effort as a finite resource (renewable obviously with rest, food, etc. but finite within a giving time period), the question becomes: how do we want to spend it? My decision to choose the more strenuous option for my errand makes sense in the context of another, larger choice I made prior. That was to stop going to the gym. I have belonged to a gym since the age of 16. My mom was always somewhat of a fitness freak and we used to work out together; I always really enjoyed it. I’ve never been one of those people who hates running on a treadmill. I always saw it as a kind of meditative time where I could listen to all the new music I downloaded that week. Yet I NEVER liked the act of going to the gym. Getting to the gym might as well be traversing Middle Earth to submerge the one ring in the fires of Mount Doom: I usually need a friend to come with me and it takes like 9 hours.

During my three months in Costa Rica however the jungle became my gym. And no, I don’t mean I turned vines into pull-up bars or ran laps carrying coconuts, I mean I didn’t really “work out”. Most of my downtime was spent reading in a hammock or sitting on a porch drinking awesome coffee. I was actually really lazy. Yet I felt fantastic and looked great. I figured this was because, overall, I was still expending the same amount (or more) physical effort I had been at home, it was just rolled into my daily life instead of banged out during 60 hardcore minutes at the local gym. Not only were work tasks physically demanding (maintaining trails, leading hikes, changing dozens of beds) but even small things just took more effort. Hand washing your laundry burns a lot more calories than using a washing machine. Carrying weeks worth of groceries in from a boat on the beach and up two flights of stairs to the kitchen is a bit more strenuous than walking 10 feet from your car to your apartment. These seemingly small, insignificant expenditures of physical effort added up to a lifestyle that kept me in fabulous shape.

Taking those principles with me into the modern world has, so far, not been as difficult as I thought it would be. Although I am fortunate enough to have a physical job (I know leading an active lifestyle is a lot more difficult when you work in a cubicle), I also have introduced effort into my life in places where most people opt for efficiency. In our busy world, time is king. If something can save you a half hour of time, it’s worth its weight in gold. I don’t really subscribe to that anymore. Choosing the more difficult route (such as biking to work or walking 15 minutes to a bus stop) may cost me both time and effort, but my return on investment is huge when you consider I’ve eliminated the need for two expensive, often unpleasant things—a car and a gym membership—with one simple act. In a country where one in three people is obese (I think that’s the statistic, right? Someone fact check me if I’m wrong), do we really need to prioritize physical effortlessness? I would obviously say no. I’m not saying don’t own a car or never choose the time-saving option. Sometimes our lives necessitate these things. To me it just seems silly to, as a rule, pay more for transportation in order to spend minimal effort all day, only to use the time and effort saved to get to a gym (with a membership fee) in order to run literally nowhere. As far as time goes, that just depends on how busy you are. But if you really don’t have time for longer commutes or errands, you probably don’t have time to go to the gym every other day either. That sort of lack of free time is another issue entirely that I’m not prepared to address right now. Let’s leave those worms canned.

One of those most simple, yet convincing arguments for alternative transportation I've ever seen.

One of the most simple, yet convincing arguments for alternative transportation I’ve ever seen.

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“Hello, I’m poor.”

The past few weeks I’ve been trying (and succeeding I might add) to sell my old playstation 2 and games since I don’t really play it much anymore and it’s just taking up space at this point. In doing so I’ve had more strangers visit my apartment than I would ever normally expect. It was interesting to observe the reactions of the people when they finally managed to find my teeny tiny remodeled motel of an apartment “complex” and then my teeny tiny apartment all the way in the back. More than one of the strangers said something to the effect of “I didn’t even realize these were apartments” or “I thought this was a motel”, which is totally to be expected, I thought the same thing when I went to visit the place before signing a lease. I didn’t think anything of it really until today, when the guy who was coming in to buy my controllers had trouble opening the door with my ill-fitted draft protector from amazon wedged awkwardly beneath it. “Sorry” I said, laughing as I fixed the cumbersome thing, “I’m poor and this helps with the electric”. Before he left, he asked why I was selling my playstation. “Well I don’t really use it much anymore and I’m poor, so…” I said, laughing again. He seemed mildly taken aback that I was so fond of referring to myself as “poor” but laughed politely and took his leave. After the encounter I thought to myself, why am I so quick to say that? By all rational consideration, I am not poor. I work a job that pays well above minimum wage, I live in a safe area of town in an apartment by myself, I’m never hungry, etc. I’m also not ashamed of my lifestyle in any way. I find extravagance to be far more embarrassing and hope that people never assume I’m wealthy or spoiled. I think me countering with “I’m poor” is a sort of shortcut because I don’t want to give the whole answer. I don’t want to explain why I’d rather have a little extra cash than things I don’t really need, or that my apartment looks like a motel because it totally is one and I love the location and size, or why I choose not to work fulltime. It’s easier for people to understand my choices if I just communicate in the most clear way that I don’t have a lot of money to throw around.

Being poor in a developing country or in blighted inner-city neighborhoods here in the US can mean spending most of your day worrying about how you’re going to eat or where you’re going to sleep. For that reason, it seems utterly insulting to compare my lifestyle to that of someone who actually struggles with poverty. Yet our culture of consumption is so strong that if a person is not actively consuming as much as they can, people start to question your choices. Amassing things and space you don’t need is a sign of happiness and wealth so by this logic, selling off possessions and taking up as little space as possible must be sign of desperation and poverty.

I wish more people would develop the distaste for extravagance I have and embrace the liberating experience of discovering what you actually need to be happy. Once you start viewing runaway consumption for what it is—an act of violence on the rest of the resource-consuming world for taking up far more than your fair share—it is rather hard to go back to thinking you really need a hummer or three video game consoles. I think the tiny house movement and the “hipster” popularization of thrift shopping, local food, and other money and/or resource-saving escapades are steps in the right direction, but I also think they are often taken for the wrong reasons. Fads can only take a movement so far until they get watered down into completely appearance-based phenomena and suddenly you have people paying two million dollars for designer tiny homes and several hundred for used suits. When this happens, the movement’s credibility is lost entirely and everyone goes back to hating hipsters.

So the question really becomes, how do we make being “poor” acceptable, even cool? By this I of course mean that choosing to work less, spend less, and accumulate less isn’t viewed as being poor or even as being a hipster, but as being sensible and making choices that prioritize quality of life over quantity of stuff.

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Poverty, Independence, and Simple Living: How my life is changing in 2015.

The conclusion to yet another earthly rotation about the sun has everyone busy making grandiose “New Year’s Resolutions”. While I recognize the inanity of making weighty promises to yourself just because you drank a lot of champagne and put up a brand new puppy calendar, I can’t help but notice this is the second year in a row in which the new year actually marks one or more important changes in my life. Last year it was pretty obvious: two days before the ball dropped I hopped on a plane for Costa Rica and didn’t return to the states (or the “civilized” world) for nearly 3 months. This year’s changes are a tad more subtle but in my mind, equally worth noting:

Epic 2015 change #1: I have no car. To my close friends who may be reading, this shouldn’t come as a surprise as I’ve been preparing for this for months. Although my “decision” to go car-less isn’t so much a decisions as it is a budget necessity (*hint* that means I’m really poor), I recognize it wouldn’t be possible if some aspects of my life were different. Which leads me to my next thing…

Epic 2015 change #2: I’m moving into my own place. Yes, my dream of living alone with my cat like a miserable spinster is finally coming true. Before you start wondering how someone making $1 above minimum wage could possibly afford to live alone, let me tell you some things about my new digs. First, my rent will be my only large expense. As I stated above, I have NO CAR. That means no car payment, no insurance payment, no gas money, etc etc. In addition, my only utility costs will be electricity and wifi. Even still, my rent needed to be cheap so that I can continue to save at least some of my money. Lucky for me, I was fortunate enough to find what I’m referring to as a “micro-studio” in East Lansing, just down the road from where I work!

So what exactly do I mean by micro-studio? Well, my soon-to-be apartment complex is essentially a converted motel. There are 30 units, all “studios” but basically motel rooms converted into apartments by adding an oven/stove and normal sized refrigerator. The studios are probably around 240 square feet (I’m not exactly sure, because I didn’t really care what the square footage was once I saw the place in person). Does this sound awful to you? It may have to me several years ago but current me says it’s a dream come true. Rather than going on a pages-long rant explaining why I feel this way, I’ll try to do this BuzzFeed style (that’s what the kids like these days, right?) and create an eye-catching list! Oo! Ah!

5 Reasons Why I’m Excited To Have a Tiny Studio Apartment

  1. It is mine and mine alone.

In a perfect world full of rainbows, unicorns, and free slurpee re-fills, I could afford a slightly nicer, larger apartment. However, in this reality I am a broke recent college grad. My high-anxiety, perfectionist nature makes it difficult for me to find satisfaction living with virtually anyone. In almost every housing situation I’ve experienced in the past several years, I have found myself unhappy for at least part of the time. That’s not to say I’ve never had good roommates, I have. But I have never stopped wanting to live alone since the concept of doing so entered my mind.

With almost every other one-bedroom or studio apartment in the East Lansing/Lansing area running upwards of $600/month, I always assumed I’d have to stick to the roommate model. Well, I suppose I will still have a roommate…but she’s fluffy and poops in a box.

  1. It will help me experience life without a car.

Since I turned 16 I have had almost constant access to a car. Being a spoiled suburban white kid whose dad works for one of the big three auto companies, I’ve never had a problem getting from one place to another. Although I’ve always been concerned about fuel efficiency and ozone action days, recently I’ve wanted to do more. In my mind, individual car ownership does not have a big place in an efficient, sustainable future version of our society. Although I recognize the necessity of owning a car if you live in the country or urban sprawl with no reliable public transportation, I do not for “city folk” such as myself. I think improved public transit along with car and ride-sharing services such as Zipcar, Uber, and Lyft are the future. I also believe in the health and well-being benefits associated with having a more physically engaging commute (walking to a bus stop, biking to work, etc.). I think if you truly believe in something, you better be willing to take the plunge and do it yourself. Thus, although my decision to go car-less may be predominantly a financial one, it has the added bonus of fulfilling a personal goal.

  1. I love independence.

I am beyond lucky to have the greatest family, friends, and boyfriend in the world, all of whom I have leaned on many times in my life. I do not expect to ever reach a point where I won’t need to lean on someone occasionally; humans are social animals after all. But I like the idea of being responsible for as much of my own living situation as I can be.

  1. I hate stuff.

This is a rather recent development in my life that was truly solidified when I lived out of a small duffel bag for 3 months in Costa Rica and barely missed a damn thing. “Stuff” is horrible. We, as human beings, need certain things to survive. Beyond those things, we “need” certain other things to lead healthy, successful, happy lives. Beyond that, we accumulate stuff. Almost everyone is guilty of it including me. It almost seems as if stuff appears out of nowhere, suddenly occupying space on your bookshelves, crammed into cabinets in your bathroom, or taking up precious space in your garage. I hate stuff partially because of my aforementioned high-anxiety, perfectionist personality. Clutter gives me anxiety and the more stuff you have, the more clutter you inevitably live with.

However, it goes way beyond that. I truly believe the more stuff I have, the less happy I am. There are certain exceptions to this rule of course. There are things I own and would purchase again and again that I most certainly do not need. These are things such as books, electronic devices, musical instruments, and outdoor and art supplies, which I perceive as enriching my life. Most other forms of stuff however I see as vampiric in nature. Stuff lures you in when it’s shiny and new, promising a break from the monotony of daily life at the low low price of $19.99. It then grows old and loses luster. As it drains your paycheck it also drains your ability to appreciate what is actually important in life, and instead feeds into an insatiable need for the next cool thing. To me, unnecessary stuff in my living space is a constant reminder of my failures to spend my money, time, and energy enjoying experiences instead of buying into our culture of consumption. With a small living space it is virtually impossible to accumulate stuff. If something comes in, something else must go out. I have already donated several boxes worth of clothes and other items and my intention is to continue to slim my possessions down to the things I need or otherwise cherish.

  1. This is still a pampered life.

Even with my meager paycheck, I recognize that I am still living leaps and bounds above the standard for most people that inhabit this earth. I believe if we could all learn to live with a little less, the tremendous inequality displayed across the world might start to dissipate.

So that’s it for me. These changes aren’t so much “resolutions” as they are ambitious plans that may or may not go the way I envision. I do have resolutions but those are always personal things I keep to myself. I encourage people to make lifestyle goals and resolutions all the time, not just at the end of a calendar year. Thinking of ways you can improve your own life, as well as the world around you is refreshing and gives us hope for the future. Implementing these ideas in the real world is empowering. What will you do differently this year?

Categories: About me, Lifestyle, Sustainability | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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