On Libraries

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me: I absolutely love the library. Sometimes it strikes me just how much of an incredible social good public libraries are, how lucky we are for such a concept to exist and for it to have lasted so solidly all these years. Think about it – a free service which is available to everyone that provides nearly unlimited entertainment, enrichment, education. (It also blows my mind to think about how many materials would be in the library if their entire inventory was in the building – if no books were taken out, all of them arrayed on the shelves, how packed would the place be!) These days, the entertainment industry is one of the most profitable out there, willing to go to great lengths to make a buck. We are forced to pay ridiculous amounts of money to see a film projected for one time only while surrounded by tons of strangers who may or may not ruin the experience for us. Netflix, Spotify, Youtube, and similar services provide some modicum of entertainment- and media-sharing service at low to no cost, but there are plenty of limitations to the size, quality, depth, and breadth of their catalogs, not to mention the fact that you need an internet connection and a computer to access them in the first place.

The education industry isn’t much better, with colleges and universities (American ones at least) charging their students what equates to a middle class person’s annual salary for a service that our national dialogue insists is necessary to achieving the American dream. Post-secondary education is supposed to enhance critical thinking skills, prepare young adults for careers, and provide them with experiences to launch them into successful lives, but it also leaves many of them in insurmountable debt with unmarketable or impractical degrees in subjects that could have been mastered just as easily for free via self-guided reading. The piece of paper attained at the end of a four year education holds way too much weight in society, in my humble opinion, since it signifies more about a student’s social class standing than their intelligence or knowledge base.

But we can satisfy our needs for plot, story, character, knowledge, theory, and thought at no cost in every community. We can expand our minds on our own time without paying a penny of tuition (think Good Will Hunting).

Without a doubt, I would be flat broke if I had to pay for the countless books I’ve read courtesy of my local library. In considering this, I feel nothing but the deepest gratitude for those brilliant souls who insisted on instituting the public library way back when. This incredibly powerful and valuable social institution allows me, at absolutely no cost, to do the things I love most in the world: to read, to enter another world, to engage with a story, to stir my mind.

In this day and age, if the concept of the library had never previously existed, if it was only being suggested for the first time that we create a free book and media lending service, I am extremely confident that the public library scheme would not be implemented. Our national values are so misplaced, so profit-driven and individualistic, failing to see the vast benefits of providing people with certain basic social goods and services. And this fills me with great sadness (and the desire to give my local library a huge hug) but it also leads me to wonder if the future of the public library truly is in danger. It seems so anathema to what many political leaders value, I fear that it may become a more serious target of their budget-cutting and profit-prioritizing in years to come, especially as forms of media beyond the type so associated with brick and mortar libraries become increasingly valued over paperbacks. These fears may be totally unfounded in my lifetime – I really haven’t done the proper research on how imminent the end of the library may be if it is in fact a true likelihood – but I did some digging and found more than a few articles that piqued my interest on this topic. For further reading, check out the links below.

The Week: What the ‘death of the library’ means for the future of books: An interesting read on the importance of physical libraries as social meeting spaces and the site of helpful, brilliant librarians. Plus a smattering of library history launched off of Tim Worstall’s horrendous recommendation that everyone be given a Kindle with unlimited subscriptions so we can shut libraries down (has he seen the bad publicity e-reading before bed has gotten lately???)

Slate: What will become of the library? – An overview of the burning of the Library of Alexandria and other historical instances of biblioclasm as they relate to our modern-day predicament. Also looks at trends and changes in the form and function of libraries, including the fascinating Snead Bookshelf Company’s design of library shelving in which the shelves themselves are load-bearing such that their removal would literally compromise the structure of library buildings.

Knight Foundation: Future of Libraries – Interviews with library directors regarding how they are transforming their services to fit the needs of the modern world and what they envision the future role of libraries will become.

Go to Hellman: Are public libraries in a death spiral? – In response to library budget cuts and the suggestion of limiting library hours in 2010, a fellow blogger argues for enhancing the service and programming aspect of the local library, an aspect of the brick and mortar institution that online resources cannot replace.

On My Hiatus

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything in this space. This is partially due to the fact that a job I once loved slowly devolved into one I despised, leaving me sapped of all physical and mental energy at the end of each eight hour work day. I simply didn’t have the desire or the wherewithal to write about any of the myriad topics life was otherwise offering up to me. The Orioles were also in the playoff run this past fall, so a considerable amount of my non-work time was consumed with all things baseball.

But I also began to think about the real reason why I even had a blog. I worried that my posts were motivated by a self-conscious desire to present myself in a certain way to the wider world. I don’t believe that efforts to publicly define one’s identity are inherently bad, but this blog felt more and more like a superficial, composite means of doing so. The web is ripe with beautifully designed, thoughtfully written, carefully planned blogs – I felt like I was modeling the look and sound of my own space after these pristine paradigms and devaluing my own work, however authentic it was, for not being up to par. Before even embarking on writing a post, I considered what others would think of the topic, my thoughts on the issue, my writing ability. Surely I don’t need to write about every guilty pleasure in order to be an authentic writer (who has ovaries and doesn’t partake in the occasional perfectly constructed pop song by Taylor Swift?), but when you hold yourself back from putting your thoughts out there for fear of others’ judgment, something is undeniably off. I don’t know exactly how many people have ever read this thing, but I know it isn’t many. That just made the whole effort feel vain and pointless whenever I considered posting again.

I hadn’t even thought about Remember When the Music for a couple of months until today when I heard Letitia Vansant broadcast on the Live Lunch segment at local radio station WTMD. I remembered Letitia reaching out to me via email after I posted about her music some time ago. The fact that my words initiated that communication felt deeply important and meaningful to me at the time, and it still does today. A modest number of other people, whether readers or sometimes the subject of posts themselves, have similarly contacted me via this blog, and each correspondence is unique and significant and part of what I faintly hoped becoming a blogger would entail. Though I appreciated Letitia’s thoughts and we shared a few emails, I feel like I allowed my anxiety to cut short what could have become an even more thorough dialogue. As I was thinking about what this blog has done and could do for me, I decided that maybe I should start writing again. Maybe it could open up whole new worlds, opportunities that I denied myself in the past. Maybe it could be a great exercise in being myself, reigning in my self-consciousness to honestly and openly put to paper my thoughts and feelings on things that move me.

While I was walking dogs today (my new and much more satisfying day job), thoughts of writing swirling around my head, I thought about LiveJournal. I remember this being a popular blogging platform back in the day, although I never partook and can’t even say if I ever visited the site. But the name rings true to what I want to do now. I’ve never been a journaler because it’s exceedingly difficult to motivate myself to write knowing that no one else will ever see the finished product. But I’m hoping to start blogging somewhat more regularly (being a student certainly doesn’t help with the whole time to write thing, despite the drastic decrease in job stress) and with an appropriate level of self-consciousness. It’s good to write with an audience in mind – it keeps you in line and holds you more accountable to what you say. And a journal is more akin to what I hope this blog will be, something personal and genuine and hopefully interesting.

It seems self important to write a post about my own “hiatus,” but I couldn’t really think of how else to frame these thoughts. I don’t know who reads this and I don’t particularly care how many people it reaches. I just hope that maybe it can foster a few more of those connections it has yielded before, those types of interactions that make you feel like what you are writing is meaningful and contributory and real. And along the way I certainly won’t complain if it also becomes a personal project in shedding self-consciousness, anxiety, and too much worry.

On Visiting Winterthur

Taking full advantage of a day off for Good Friday, my mom and I visited the Winterthur estate in the Brandywine Valley of Delaware. Originally the home of Henry Francis du Pont, the property is over 100 acres large and boasts a museum, garden, and library. My main attraction was the grounds, consisting of a sprawling 60 acre naturalistic garden which models the way that the decorative plants, shrubs, and trees contained therein would arrange themselves if found in nature. The photos below are my attempt at capturing a portion of the early springtime beauty to be found on the gorgeous property. My mother and I took countless pictures of majestic magnolia trees, paper-thin pink azaleas, brilliant yellow branches of forsythia, delicate white snowdrops, and a whole host of tiny buds just starting to bloom. Even at $20 a pop just to enter the grounds without a museum tour, the garden is such a sight to behold that it makes the property worth a visit.

Although we didn’t tour the museum this time, the history of the building is what made most of an impression on me. Originally a much smaller home for the du Pont family occupying the property, eventually it grew to be an unimaginable 9-story, 175-room home. Today the house is occupied by the Winterthur museum, showcasing decorative arts and galleries of textiles, ceramics, antique furniture, and more.

As we approached the home, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles which provided a portrait of an incomparably rich American family, the Siegel’s, in their attempt to build the States’ largest house, modeled after Versailles. The sheer enormity of 175 rooms rings as rather wasteful to me. Obviously the du Ponts lived in a vastly different time, but the inequality inherent in a world where homes such as this one and the one which the Siegel family aimed to build exist is impossible to ignore. The fact that any family has the ability to be so over-housed while others have no homes whatsoever or live in properties that are falling down around them makes me unspeakably frustrated and angry. As my mom pointed out, at least the du Pont estate opens this home up to the public, however this comes at a price of $30 per ticket for the museum tour.

We can fawn over the wealth and property of others all we like, but doing so ultimately serves as a stamp of approval from society when it comes to vast income inequality. I would rather see Winterthur as a true relic of the past, a picture of exorbitant wealth that a universal middle class could visit (for free! or at least at a much lower ticket cost) with a sense of wonder since no such grand displays of money are to be found among modern men.

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On Community

As a married, working adult, I still live in the same town where I grew up. I’ve even landed in the house that my own mother grew up in herself. Though life has taken me to college in Delaware for three years, on a month-long trip to India, and all over this country by car and plane, my home base has never strayed far from Baltimore.

As a young twenty something, the question of what this lack of relocation means has come up again and again. Am I missing out by staying in a place that I already know fairly well? Am I allowing fear of the unknown to hold me back from better options? Am I failing to embark on a necessary and vital life experience by not establishing myself elsewhere, at least temporarily? For a long time I struggled with these questions, especially as I scrolled through facebook and saw friends and acquaintances pick up their lives for adventures in new cities, even new countries. As sense of despair would overcome me as I compared myself to others, failing to recognize that what I saw was a carefully framed and unrealistic portrait of a mere fraction of their lives.

But when I looked at my own sisters, whose stories and decisions I know much more intimately than the vast majority of my facebook friends’, things came into much clearer perspective. My older sister is a civil engineer and her husband works for the Department of Defense (but we’re not allowed to know what he really does there). His job largely dictates why they chose to settle down in a congested suburb of DC not particularly close to either of their families’ homes. And my younger sister, a grad student in Pittsburgh, traveled to the Steel City because of the psychology program they offer, the research to which said program will allow her to contribute, the faculty at that particular school, the degree she will receive in six years’ time. She couldn’t work on her doctorate in psychology just anywhere and Pittsburgh ended up being the best fit for her on multiple levels.

As a social worker, I could really pick up and move anywhere while still continuing to pursue the career I currently have. My husband is similarly employed in a human services job that doesn’t tie him to Baltimore, Maryland, or even the East Coast. Our skills are transferable and in need wherever we could possibly decide to go (although admittedly his comedy career might blossom more in a metropolis than on the rural plains). I actually have more freedom than either of my sisters in this regard. But somehow I’m the one closest to home. Not just close, still in the same zip code.

After much thought, I’ve realized that what I love about Baltimore, the reason I’m still here, is the sense of community I have in this place. I don’t mean the friendly culture of Baltimore (we’ve got a long way to go if we want to earn the City of Brotherly Love title) or the way in which neighborhoods are closely knit. Sadly, I only know a handful of my neighbors by name, and some of those names I only know because my mother knew them from years ago when my grandmother was still living in our house. Others just have nicknames of which they are unaware, bestowed by myself and my husband. So no, it’s not that traditional understanding of community that keeps me here. I certainly would like to foster more of these notions of local community in my life; creating a neighborhood vegetable garden, finding other couples whose dogs could play with our own, even learning more of my neighbors’ names.

The real type of community I have takes a slightly larger scope, encompassing my family and my husband’s, our friends from this area old and new, near and a little bit farther away. My relationships with these people are the most important things in my life. And while some of these people have moved an hour away, I’m still located so conveniently that I can visit my DC friends one weekend, catch up with my friend living over the Pennsylvania line the next, grab coffee with Baltimoreans during the week, and stop by my parents’ house whenever I so please. A life peopled with long-time friends and family makes the most sense to me and keeps me rooted in a town I’ve always loved. Having a name for this idea, labeling “community” as the motivating factor in my current location, placates those nagging worries that I’m doing the wrong thing by illuminating truths about what I know to be right for myself.

I contrast the sense of community that keeps me here with the career path choices that force many people to move away from their original home. I want to have a worthwhile career, but I will never allow doing so to absolutely dictate my life choices. Where you live defines so many aspects of your life; I consider my job to be only a fraction of the meaningful, full life I create for myself surrounded by family, friends, a local state park, the unique small-town Baltimore culture, and more of the things I love in this area. For me, the idea of following a job across the country sounds lonely, frightening, and empty; no salary would be worth the cost of relocating away from my network of friends. I’d rather be surrounded by people I know and love who can support me through a tough day at work than pursue an enviable career amid a tiny social circle. And who wants to have to battle holiday traffic just to have Thanksgiving dinner with their family? There is no reason why someone like me should shrug off the community of loved ones I have created in order to build a new one rooted elsewhere.

My life choices are mine alone, and I guess my husband’s as well. We have remained in Baltimore because it makes sense given the type of people we are. Community matters much more to us than climbing the career ladder. If we need to move to New York City to advance Mike’s comedy career, that is a hurdle we will have to cross in time. But New York is a place we both fervently love, where other friends of ours are located, where a sense of community is already rooted even if we visit for a weekend. For now, Baltimore is a place I am happy to be in. When I run into old high school classmates home for the holidays, I will always worry about being judged for staying right where I started. But I’ve finally overcome the arbitrary belief that moving signifies anything more than what it is. My life in Baltimore may not seem wildly adventurous from the outside, but I deeply love it here. That’s the most important reason to settle anywhere. While it may not have been fully conscious, my decision to stay here was fueled by that combination of commonsense, self-understanding, and love of the particular people this place has to offer.

On Being a Comedy Wife

Stand up comedy is never really something I aspired to or even showed a vague interest in. To me, Steve Martin was just the funny dad in those Father of the Bride movies we watched incessantly as kids. Bill Cosby kept the Huxtable children in line while starring in a few Jello commercials on the side. Sadly, I knew George Carlin as Ben Affleck’s dad in Jersey Girl, never recognizing that he was one of the most renowned comics of all time and probably would roll over in his grave to know that someone thought that movie was his first big break. Comedy Central was one of those channels on TV that other people gravitated to, but I just never really got. I have never ever listened to a Dane Cook CD. And I only professed to like Dave Chappelle because I laughed during one episode of his show (his skit about the black and blind white supremacist really got me) and it was cool to be a fan. What I’m trying to say is, my comedy knowledge was zero and I was content with that. Then Mike, my then-fiance, now-husband, told me his dream was to be a stand up. And one of the things I loved then and now about my husband is that he’s the kind of person who relentlessly pursues even his wildest dreams.

So that’s how I got here – a reluctant expert on the sometimes-skimpy Baltimore comedy scene, a novice on classic comedy, and somewhere in between on what’s trendy in the funny business nowadays. To be perfectly honest, I know that my husband doesn’t think I really get the comedy thing and, much as I try to deny it, I kind of have to agree with him.

When he first started trying his hand at comedy, I was a super supportive wife, tagging along to as many open mics as I could bare. My tolerance for comedy was high back then – I had yet to memorize all the local performers’ punchlines and it wasn’t initially apparent how degrading and defeating a pursuit comedy can be. Over time, I couldn’t understand why people were so willing to put themselves up to the brutal punishment that is a bad set night after night. I didn’t recognize that so many comedians ride on the faintest glimmer of hope, a hope that isn’t always visible to audience members. Someone on stage might consider that cluster of chuckles that I mistook for a cough as indication that they are killing (aka kicking comedy ass). That five minute spot at a venue over an hours’ drive away for a handful of audience members may look, for some optimistic amateurs, more like a huge opportunity to spread the fan base than a huge waste of gas.

When you listen to professional comedians, the pursuit starts to make a little more sense, at least to someone who spent most of her life comedy-illiterate. While there are some performers I adore, these people could be much more accurately classified as storytellers than as comedians. Mike gave me a handful of comedy CDs to listen to since I spend a significant amount of time in the car for work. I gave his collection, which ranged from Mike Birbiglia to Louie CK to Anthony Jeselnik to Marc Maron, a fair shot. Maybe the audio-only element contributed to my lackluster response to the vast majority of these CDs. In all honesty, Mike Birbiglia’s album was the only one I ever felt compelled to listen to again. And apparently among comic circles, Birbiglia is a highly polarizing figure, the kind of performer that some love, some don’t even consider a real comedian, and others just don’t get at all. After seeing Mike Birbiglia perform his latest one man show live, my husband Mike commented that the audience seemed to consist of people who want to like comedy but don’t really get it. Sadly, I felt like one of them and I totally enjoyed myself (as did he and many of the other audience members).

But when the person you love shows an interest in something, you try your best to be supportive, to be understanding, and to show at least a modest attempt at interest in that same thing. So I continued to try. And I learned a lot from Mike in the process. My name recognition of famous comedians is decent. I can throw out terms like “hack,” “bombing,” and “callback” with some degree of confidence. Though I have yet to learn enough to be a competent comedy critic, I can keep up my side of the conversation when Mike talks shop. But most of all, I have truly come to appreciate the art of comedy as elucidated to me by my husband. When he grows impassioned with talk of his craft, I can’t help but also get excited about the new bits he has in mind, the gigs out of state, or the clever punchline offered by a friend. When he moved past the open mic circuit and began to book his fair share of paid spots, I couldn’t help but congratulate him with a certain sense of pride and excitement.

Even if this dream takes my husband away from me for weekends in a row or leaves me to my own devices more nights than not, I am a willing party to it now. People always ask me if/how comedy takes a toll on our relationship. There are certainly arguments for my husband to lead such a lifestyle since I tend to be a homebody, and I consider a book as good company as (if not sometimes better than) a real human being. And I feel much less guilty about having a girls’ night when Mike is out at an open mic, rather than sitting at home alone while I’m socializing without him. Of course I miss Mike when he’s away, but I also love being married to someone so creative, tirelessly committed to his craft, and constantly working to make others laugh. There was an adjustment period at first but we’ve settled into the swing of things four years in, valuing our time together all the more as a result of it sometimes being so limited by comedy and other engagements.

This post wasn’t an effort at shamelessly promoting my husband’s comedy career but I can’t think of a better way to conclude all these thoughts and feelings than with a link to his website so anyone interested can get a taste of what I live with and (sometimes grudgingly) support in my husband’s creative life. My introduction to comedy has been, at the very least, an unconventional one and I hope the world of humor continues to surprise and engage me as it has recently done.

On Nothing New (Again)

In recent years I have grown more keen on making New Year’s resolutions. Though I never take them too seriously, there is something refreshing about setting goals and guidelines for yourself at the start of a new year. For 2014, I’ve taken a stab at creating some resolutions that I can take a bit more seriously, things that will improve my general well-being and happiness, others that help me adhere to ethical guidelines, plus some goals that will help me achieve larger bucket list items, all of which are outlined in ways that are both achievable and relatively practical. Listing these on my calendar in the form of a to-do list will hopefully serve as a daily reminder of how I want to live my life and how I should be spending my time, money, thoughts, and energy in 2014.

The resolution about which I am most excited, however, involves abstaining from something for moral reasons, rather than doing or creating something. I’m aiming to make no new purchases in the coming year. No brand new clothes, nothing new in the home goods department, and certainly no shoes, purses, or other accessories either. I’ve tried my hand at such a challenge before with some positive results. But then something comes along that I absolutely need – my old winter jacket falls apart at the seams, a change in my employment requires a change in my wardrobe – and renders most of my efforts completely moot (last year I think I made it about 6 months until something needed buying, then I adhered to it intermittently thereafter). A domino effect comes into play after that first purchase as I allow myself to write off subsequent buys with less and less explanation or thought until I’ve abandoned the challenge altogether. And that is exactly what I hope will not happen this time around.

I recently realized that I have reached a level of satiety regarding my belongings. Everything decorative in my home has it’s place and I rarely find myself in need of a new kitchen gadget or yet another candle (who really needs these things anyway?). And it has been months, if not years, since I rifled through my closet, unable to find absolutely anything fit for a particular occasion, whether casual, formal, or anywhere in between (though my husband will probably argue with me on this one). I admittedly do own more belongings, clothes and otherwise, than I truly need, however this is the fact upon which I know I can successfully fulfill my resolution. There is no way I can make an argument to myself that I need something more, because I have more than enough as is.

Inspired by writers such as Elizabeth Cline, whose revealing book about the clothing industry makes me question why we throw our money away on new and incredibly poorly made clothing, and William Powers, who spent some time living off the land in a 12 foot by 12 foot cabin with no electricity or running water, I realize that my goal is a pretty amateur effort at curbing my own personal case of affluenza, lowering my carbon footprint, and reconnecting with my sense of happiness, creativity, and community. It almost makes me sad to know that, for some people, this challenge is a rather measly attempt to positively improve the world and my life, while for those on the other side of the lifestyle spectrum, this is an absurdly strict rule to which they themselves never could nor would adhere.

But the reasons to give it a shot are myriad and varied, from the environmental toll of material production and consumption to the financial strain it places on us when we believe we are constantly in need of more things, not to mention the emotional and social burdens incurred by using material goods to find happiness. The clothes mass-produced today are oftentimes as good as rags, made of such inferior quality compared to the clothing of old as to be practically disposable – one wear and they’re pilled, torn, ill-fitting, and snagged. The people who make them are, more often than not, subsisting on below living wages in a third world nation. And the stores that sell them often belong to corporations where CEOs make unheard of sums of money while providing measly hourly wages and few essential benefits to their hardworking employees that serve as the face of the brand.

Maybe this resolution is not so much about abstaining from consumption, as it is about giving what I buy much greater thought. Because when I do think about it more deeply – about the implications of each individual purchase, about how every time I go to checkout I find it the tiniest bit easier to justify the next purchase and then the next, about whether the ticketed price of a product has any connection to its true value and worth, about the real reason I feel compelled to go to the mall or browse the racks at Marshall’s – I realize that I often don’t truly want to buy anything. What I seek on a more essential level may range from a cure for loneliness to a cure for boredom, from a desire to craft a specific material identity to a simple need to be out of the house. Whatever the motivating factor, there are always alternative ways to find a cure that are more fruitful and productive and have less negative repercussions. Then if I find that what I thought I so desperately needed is still lingering in my mind, I can find a secondhand store or a traditional craftsperson to procure it from. Armed with more knowledge than I’ve had in the past and the recurring experience of material satiety, my commitment to (and excitement about) this goal is, I believe, stronger and more realistic than it was in the past. My commitment to finding happiness in non-material goods is more solid than ever – and arguably the true purpose behind the nothing new resolution.

On 21st Century Guilt

I like to imagine myself a runner. But when the days grow dark during my commute home from work, I find it increasingly difficult to get out and about after work – not that it’s ever easy to muster up the energy for a run after an 8 hour day and commuting an hour on top of that. So I joined a gym. It makes me feel a little safer about running in the dark, I’m nice and toasty during my winter runs winter, and my $10 monthly gym fee is enough of a commitment that I feel guilty when I don’t exercise at least three times a week.

The problem comes when I think about treadmills, and wasted energy, and the energy required to operate a gym in general. I used to be a gym-goer during my college years, only to turn into a scorner of such places when I started running long distances. Why be inside on a machine when you can run in more beautiful, scenic, and interesting places? Why waste energy running on a rubber belt when there is so much ground to cover without any environmental trade off? As the sun goes down earlier and earlier, however, so my feelings are gyms have turned warmer. That is, until I get there and feel guilty about my wasteful exercise habits. Around and around the circular arguments go in my head.

It’s not so different from the guilt I feel about writing a blog. I hate how much time I spend in front of screens and go to great efforts to minimize my computer and TV time whenever possible. So why do I write in a format that requires myself to compose by screen and others to read by a screen, should they choose to access my end product? Or the guilt I feel about driving to the farmer’s market instead of taking my bike – even though 15 minute ride there is entirely uphill, my poor bike is dusty, my body could use the exercise, and I should not expect my car to take me everywhere I go.

Taking a step back from these first world problems, I realize that the true culprit isn’t necessarily gyms, daylight savings time, computers, cars, or even my own dismal motivation level – it’s the way in which I’ve bought into the time- and energy-sapping expectations and demands of today’s working world. Work is long, stressful, and demanding to the extent that I can’t easily partake in simple pleasures like writing by hand or biking around town in the regular and balanced way that I’d like.

After college, I served for ten months on an AmeriCorps team in a state park, rising early to spend all day outdoors, and easily making it home by 3:15 after a frequently enjoyable 8 hour workday. I was living on minimum wage but my expenses were low too. A uniform was provided for me, there was a reimbursement for my costly hiking boots, and living with my parents for a bit, followed by my then-boyfriend now-husband made for affordable living situations. After my ten months were up, it wasn’t too difficult to move into part time work at a decent hourly wage, the type of jobs (running an after school program and dog walking) that essentially sustained my income level but afforded me more free time for hiking the trails at my beloved park, walking my dog, exercising at length, and pursuing creative projects.

It was also easier to write off my dog walking day job as a temporary stint since I was in graduate school at the time. If I had not the least concern what others thought of me and my career choices, I might still be walking dogs today, content with my ability to exercise and get outside every day while working with the most joyful and stress-relieving creatures I know. Guilt and worry set in after graduation though, alongside dreams of starting a family and maybe buying a home one day. I could probably eke out a meager existence as a dog walker in the long term, but I got ahead of myself imagining how we’d be able to handle pregnancy, childcare, diapers, etc. on my husband’s salary when I had to take off after the birth. Note: we’re certainly not having kids for at least five years so these concerns were unbelievably premature. I was certainly over-thinking things, but a nagging worry in the back of my mind kept pointing to the state of the job market, how many years of experience are necessary to advance, the rising cost of living, and the mediocre salary range in my field of choice.

I caved and took a 9 to 5 position that grew out of a part time internship. It’s a job that I enjoy when boiled down to its essence minus the bureaucratic concerns and administrative demands that overly complicate my life: I help people. That’s what I love to do. Nothing more than that. But in the modern job market, I could never dream of finding an affordable-wage, part-time career in the social services nor can I imagine how to balance a modest-salaried, full-time social work position with raising a family and leading a positive, healthy, worthwhile life. I can’t even seem to exercise on top of a 40 hour work week without reeling from the multitude of repercussions stemming from my decision to become a gym member.

So are job flexibility and job integrity completely at odds? Are we sacrificing too much of our lives in order to make even the most modest, if not minimal of livings? I’m afraid that the answer may be heading in the direction of yes on both these counts. I work on consuming less stuff, simplifying in every way possible, and going the DIY route whenever I can to make my life more meaningful, affordable, and stress-less. But our society is not conducive to such a lifestyle on a grand scale. Certainly some pockets of the country have specific cultures that allow for a better balance between work and play, that make it easy to tread lightly and stress less (places like Portland and Seattle come to mind). These are largely, however, major exceptions to the ultimate social rule of suburban sprawl, vehicle-dependence, technology-addiction, and consumption.

While composing this post, I’m overcome with guilt and a sense that this is too negative a piece to put out in the world, ripe with complaints and devoid of viable solutions. Much as I decry the way in which expectations for working life have gotten out of hand alongside the ethical concerns inherent in our lifestyles, there’s an underlying sense that things will always be okay in my life. Not because of divine intervention or my can-do attitude, but because of the most basic privileges I was afforded at birth – loving and generous parents, a middle class family in a good community with excellent public schools, the knowledge of what social skill set is necessary to thrive in society, the all-encompassing cushion of an upper-middle class upbringing. I know my family will always allow me to fall back on them if need be, much as I will resist doing so if it comes to that. Maybe that is where all this guilt truly stems from – the fact that I have the luxury to chose integrity in my career while sacrificing my salary, the fact that free grandparental childcare is just across town, that someone can lend me money for a down payment at zero interest, that I’m not buried in student loans, that even if I can’t make rent I will always have a roof over my head (even if it is the same one I stayed under during my teenage years, minus Dashboard Confessional posters and bookshelves stuffed with Jane Austen and young adult fiction).

There is a growing recognition of the heavy footprint of our lifestyle among certain segments of the population. But some people are struggling to make ends meet too much to consider the ethical dilemmas of sourcing their wardrobe from Walmart or the environmental implications of driving their kid to school instead of putting them on a dangerous and unreliable bus. It is pure luxury for me to worry about how wasteful my half-hour run on a treadmill is. But I won’t relent on the strains of the 40 hour work week, for myself, for people earning minimum-wage everywhere, for anyone doing honest work. When less effort is required to balance the work life of Americans with the good, necessary, and simple things in the rest of their lives, then we can all be so fortunate as to worry about the implications of the lifestyles we work so hard to enjoy.

Interesting how what started at the gym as another instance of blaming my job for my reckless exercise choices has quite seamlessly (at least to my twisted mind) become an essay on inequality, privilege, and worker’s rights. The sociologist in me is feeling very triumphant right about now.

On The 40 Hour Work Week

Maybe this is a bit far-fetched or even overly self-indulgent, but I’m fairly convinced that a reduction in the typical 40 hour work week would solve many of the current social problems facing the US. We live our lives at a breakneck speed, rarely having much time for ourselves between work, family, friends, social commitments, and other obligations. We always desire more hours in a single day, but maybe we need to focus on how we spend those hours, on how we allow our time to be allocated (more on that here). One of my propositions to aid us in stopping the hustle and bustle of life is a not so uncommon idea – reducing the work week from a standard of 40 hours to 30.

By eliminating the typical Monday through Friday 9 to 5 schedule, we can also cut down on traffic, as well as the frustration and environmental harm it introduces. If 30 hours become the norm, rush hour will likely be eliminated. Some people may opt for a 5 day work week with 6 hour days, while others may try to fit in 30 hours over 3 or 4 days. Because of the increased flexibility and variability of work schedules following a reduction in weekly work hour standards, travel to and from work will no longer be concentrated during the normal rush hour times we see today. And the reduction in rush hour activity will mean fewer hours wasted commuting, fewer cars idling in long lines of traffic, less road rage, and likely fewer accidents.

Many employers and corporations would probably argue against a reduced working week because to do so would render their organizations less productive. But if their current employees saw reduced work loads in concordance with their hours, then there would still be work enough to hire new employees. The same amount of output could be achieved by a greater number of people. This has the potential to cut unemployment and underemployment in significant ways. Inequality would incrementally become less of a social problem as more people are gainfully employed.

Others will counter that this change could be financially ruinous – salaries would need to decrease, leaving employees with less disposable income. But maybe a reduction in disposable income among the American people isn’t the worst thing that could happen. Demand for the luxuries of life would fall as would demand for some of those things we consider “necessities” that really are not so (ie. cellphone, cable TV, internet service). This could help realign social values, as reflected by how we spend our money. It could also spur improved relationships – if we don’t have as much money to spend on entertainment and material things, we may just focus on spending more time with one another.

But reducing salaries doesn’t necessitate that people will be unable to support themselves. I’m no economic expert, but if people don’t have the means to pay for goods and services, I’m fairly confident that demand will fall. And the companies that supply said goods and services just may lower their prices to meet this reduced demand – after all, they need some profit margin to stay viable. Cost of living will be forced to adjust based upon the laws of supply and demand. And then once this factors level out, maybe more free time will result in more spending, spurring local economies.

When I had a conversation with my sister about this idea, she countered that more employees would require more health insurance spending on the part of employers. And though this initially struck me as a strike against a new work week standard, I think it could actually work to the advantage of everyone in the long run. As health insurance becomes too costly through the existing employer-sponsored system, many powerful corporations may find themselves proponents of healthcare reform. If it is too expensive for employers to provide insurance coverage to the people they employ, an already much-needed alternative may finally be seriously considered.

Let’s not forget the personal benefits for employees themselves. By working less, we’re likely to have lower levels of job-related stress, but also more time to attend to our health, hobbies, families, and other pursuits. My main motivations for desiring this reduced work week stem from the personal time I would gain. Surely I desire more time to enjoy myself and to see to my wellbeing. But it also seems that many people forget how time can be productively spent outside the workplace. I imagine I’d volunteer more, as lack of time is a major barrier to volunteer commitments currently. More time outside of the office would allow for the pursuit of creative endeavors, philanthropic ventures, improved parenting, and general personal development.

I admit to my idealism. I recognize that cutting the current work week by 25% is a drastic change that could never be made in one fell swoop. I am well aware that I don’t have fact or statistics to back up my seemingly-naive arguments (though I know that some such facts and statistics do exist). I know these arguments are far from flawless given that they are presented on a rarely-read blog rather than a sophisticated platform with voluminous readership. But I also firmly believe that imagining a world where work does not demand so much of our time, where jobs are not considered more important than relationships, joy, or personal fulfillment, is an important first step toward changing our social value system. Consider this a challenge to the status quo whereby we put up with commuting, sending our children to daycare, putting our passions on hold, and sacrificing our health for work. I hope that minds more knowledgeable than mine can utilize their expertise to transform some of these idyll dreams into some semblance of reality.

On Ambition

Yesterday was my younger sister’s college graduation. I am beyond proud of Leanne – she graduated with honors, conducted exciting psychology research, and is going on to get her PhD next year. But I couldn’t help feeling more than a little bit lazy surrounded by so many accomplished young adults. Sure, I did well in school, but academia always intimidated me. I wasn’t sure enough of myself to take advantage of the opportunities available to me as a college student, like undergraduate research, internships, and other such leadership programs. And my plans after graduation involved an AmeriCorps program with the Maryland State Parks – something which I enjoyed and learned a lot from, but didn’t necessarily earn me much in the way of respectability or a career boost. Sitting in the audience among so many proud parents and family members, I couldn’t determine whether my ambition was lacking or just different.

I was also more than a bit cynical; I couldn’t abstain from feeling a few inklings of doubt as I heard each young graduates’ bright plans announced as they crossed the stage. Maybe the real word has beaten me down, or maybe I’ve just yet to land upon my dream career path. There’s probably a healthy dose of burn out mixed in as well, contributing to how I felt about these students’ grand dreams upon embarking out into the post-collegiate world. I just couldn’t help thinking that their goals were all so high, while the job market is so tough and the cost of life without parental financial support is so daunting.

After mulling this over for a day, however, I worry that maybe my dreams are too unrealistic. I want to do well in my career, but I don’t want work to be my life. My job as a social worker is particularly demanding right now, yet I’m the only person in my modest department who doesn’t regularly work overtime (and those people that do are still beyond stressed and not accomplishing everything that needs to be done anyway). At first I thought this was a sign of my devotion to the idea of balance – I don’t want any part of my life to overtake the others and work is the one area where I am most conscious of this possibility. Long critical of our society’s conviction about the overriding importance of work, I value my family, my marriage, my relationships, and my personal health more than getting far in my career, and I certainly will not sacrifice any of the former for the later. When surrounded by ambitious and career-oriented people, especially ones younger than myself, I begin to question these convictions I so firmly have held. Are my dreams the wrong ones? Am I becoming a selfish person? Is my life’s worth less than that of those people who go above and beyond the call of duty on the job?

I give lots of thought to my dream home these days. I’m not superficial about the American Dream of homeownership; in fact, I want a very small, simple home as the outdoor space is my major reason for wanting to own. But I’m almost obsessive about finding a modest house on a private tract of land with easy access to both the nearest state park and my parents’ home (free childcare in the future is always in the back of my mind too). I consider these housing requirements as essential to my ability to lead the life I want. Spending lots of time out of doors, gardening, not wasting my days cleaning a huge home, leading a simple life – these are all hallmarks of my ideal future lifestyle. But I’m becoming disillusioned as I realize what I want costs just a little more money than I have. And I worry that the only way to get enough of the requisite money is to sacrifice this dream lifestyle, to work more hours in order to work my way up the career ladder, only to find myself more stressed and overworked.

As a relative newcomer to the “real world” and as someone who entered during a particularly troublesome economic time, I recognize that my fears are probably both over-exaggerated and premature. I also need to shake off my self-consciousness and doubt – I know that I’m good at my job even if I don’t like to devote more than 40 hours to it each week. But I’m worried about falling behind as more people follow their grand ambitions and I struggle to figure out what my dreams consist of, let alone how to get started.

I’m reminded of a conversation I recently had with my cousin. In her mid-forties, she has a great family of three, a lovely home, and a stable career in public relations. She recently told me that she still doesn’t know what she wants to be “when she grows up,” a comment that both comforted and scared me. Her lifestyle (at least as I view it from the outside) is a very close approximation to the one I envision for myself. I imagine her life to be full and satisfying in the areas that I also value, particularly family. Her career confusion helps me recognize that there’s no rush – I still have many years ahead to figure it all out. But then I also wonder if there is a dream job out there for everyone, or if it’s even all that important to locate it if you enjoy what you are doing enough. Is it settling to not seek more or just a balanced, realistic, and self-aware means of looking at life?

I’m happy to know that some people have the clarity, determination, and ambition to land the seemingly perfect position for themselves. But maybe there isn’t a perfect fit for everyone, and certainly other realms of life require higher levels of satisfaction for certain people. I’m coming to find that my career ambitions aren’t lacking so much as being overshadowed by my family/relational ambitions – and I’m coming to think that just maybe this is how I would truly like my life to be.

On Creativity and Utility

There is certainly a utility to the minimalist extremism displayed by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, bloggers at The Minimalists; their example pushes the boundaries of possibility and allows us to envision radical but achievable new modes of living. At the same time, their lifestyle represents a largely unrealistic departure from that of the majority of Americans, and their blog leaves something to be desired regarding a means of incorporating their principles into typical American life.
That being said, I check their blog from time to time for inspiration of sorts and recently found the type of inspiration that makes me a repeat visiter to their site. This post on creativity spoke to my need for productivity, my desire to avoid consumption, and my recently latent creative urgings. I constantly seek satisfaction of my own sense of productivity and relish the crossing off of to-do list items. Oftentimes cleaning house or getting errands done, however, leaves me feeling more worn out than inspired. I see all the hours that have gone by accomplishing these tasks and feel as though all that time was rather wasted.
But when I consider creativity in all its myriad forms, from writing to cooking and baking, from crafting to gardening, I find a balance between productivity and personal fulfillment. The Minimalists conceptualize our human need to create as a desire to add value to our lives and worlds. This is countered by the necessity of consumption, which capitalism has exploited by creating a vast consumer market for items that are far outside the realm of necessity and ultimately leave us more depressed and empty than fulfilled.
The Minimalist bloggers suggest a turn toward creating more as a way to fill that void and avoid consumption. The overall premise that we need to buy less and go DIY more often is far from foreign to me. I firmly believe that the mass production of consumer goods is ground in industrialization, which served to reduce the burden of work that needed to be done in the home, increased our free time, and provided us with more disposable income. This historical era changed how we spent our time and our money while laying the foundation for today’s consumeristic, microwave-happy society. And that transformation may have wrought havoc on our base instincts. As new inventions reduce the need for us to develop by hand the things on which we rely for daily life, comestibles and furniture and clothing and toiletries, a creative void gapes ever-wider in our human nature.
What Joshua and Ryan suggest is focusing our creative energies on meaningful projects as a method to avoid over-consumption. While creative pursuits are certainly virtuous in their own right, I’d also like to recommend the merits of utilitarian creativity. As I attempt to pare down my life and be a model of simple living, I find that certain purely artistic pursuits seem wasteful and counterproductive. Much as I love t0 be behind a camera, I don’t need to capture and print another piece of artwork to adorn my walls, and knitting another scarf would run counter to all previous efforts at streamlining my wardrobe.
On the other hand, culturing homemade yogurt, growing fresh produce from seeds, building furniture from scrap lumber, preparing cleaning solutions at home, and other similar do-it-yourself projects engage our creative minds while satisfying our needs. The internet makes it exceedingly easy to take on these radical home economics projects (and so does this book) which yield a sense of accomplishment, fill our creative voids, save money, and meet the necessities of modern day life. When I first saw the title of this particular Minimalists blog post, “Create More, Consume Less,” I thought the central premise of the piece would be just this. Though their argument certainly resonated with me, I feel that their intentions could gain greater traction by reframing the idea of creativity.  Artistic endeavors certainly offer a deeply meaningful way to fill our creative voids, but any project in which we engage in the act of creating something, whether pleasurable or utilitarian in nature, can address that void as well while reducing our consumptive desires.

On Road Tripping

Taking a cross country road trip had always been a bucket list item in my mind. From a young age, I had romanticized the notion of seeing the country by car, of exploring America’s small towns, speeding through the heartland prairies, visiting national parks across the nation, and discovering quirky attractions along the way. I proposed the idea of a cross country road trip to my then-boyfriend, now-husband Mike after we had been dating a mere two months. After a dinner date early in our relationship, we excitedly relocated to Barnes and Noble, ransacking the travel section and drawing up lists of potential routes, must-see vistas, and little towns to hit. In the past, such planning sessions would have ultimately seen no follow through. I remember speaking with a friend during college about touring the nation by train the summer after graduation – an idea we enthusiastically discussed once, then never brought up again. But with Mike, things were different. Though my family didn’t think it would actually happen when I first shared the idea with them, five months later we were hitting the road and proving everyone wrong.

My first taste of road tripping came as a young girl when my family would make the long drive from Baltimore, Maryland to Englewood, Florida each summer to visit my paternal grandparents. Unlike my more recent road trips, these vacations were more about the destination than the journey. My memories of actually spending 12-plus hours in the car with my parents and two sisters are hazy, except for the time when our van broke down just after crossing the Georgia state line and I had to spend the rest of our long ride home squished between my two sisters in the back seat of a rented sedan. But for the most part, I enjoyed the prospect of spending time at my grandparents’ place in Florida, rendering the car trip less painful than it might otherwise have been. I still cannot imagine what my parents were thinking when they decided to spend so much time in a car with their three daughters who almost never got along, but more power to them for taking on the challenge.

Though I took a handful of three hour drives to the beach with friends throughout my high school years, it wasn’t until college that I ventured out on my first legitimate, parent-free, long-distance road trip. My friend Meghan and I trekked from Baltimore to Chicago for Lollapalooza, an annual music festival held in Grant Park. My most fond and clear memory of the entire trip is when we sang along in perfect form to a medley from Moulin Rouge, Meghan taking on the Nicole Kidman lines and I taking on the role of Ewan McGregor. We never spoke about who would sing which lines or set out to deliver such a spot-on karaoke performance. I’m fairly confident that the exhaustion and tedium of driving for so long fueled our silly rendition of the song, complete with tearful laughter at its conclusion. This moment occurred long before we made it to Chicago and remains one of my absolute favorite memories of the entire trip.

Because there’s something about being in a car with another person for unnaturally extended periods of time – it breeds good conversation, ridiculous antics, unanticipated confessions, side-splitting spells of laughter, and a wildly unique bond between driver and copilot. Which is why I always knew that I wanted to hit the road on an extended road trip, even if not a coast to coast one, with my future husband. It was the kind of adventure I yearned to have but an experience that I recognized as best shared with the people most special and stable in your life.

That’s why Meghan and I hit the road again one more time before Mike and I set out on our epic trip – and this time, we had my younger sister in tow. We took on Bonnaroo, a four day camping and musical festival in Tennessee, the year following our Chicago trip. The festival itself stands, once again, less defined in my mind, but the drive is nice and clear. Sure, plenty of the things that happened to us at the festival were hilarious, like haphazardly setting up our tent in the midst of a nighttime thunderstorm. But the most fun happened when we didn’t have much entertainment besides one another – when we were on the road. We kept a notebook handy at all times in order to record all those little moments that had us laughing until we almost peed ourselves. From time to time, the three of us take a look back at the notebook and can’t help cracking up all over again. But the majority of the hysterical events recorded in that notebook took place driving to and from Tennessee. I guess sitting in an eleven-hour line of cars just to enter the festival provided us with an excess of time in the car for antics to be had. Nonetheless, we made our own fun while driving, made observations on the bizarre things we saw, sang along to the best and worst songs we could find on the radio, and created a whole lot of fun for ourselves in the process.

When it came time for Mike and I to tour the country from the seats on my Toyota Corolla, we were beyond excited to explore corners of the country we’d never seen – and probably more than a few we had never even heard of previously. Though this trip contained destinations galore, it was the type of drive that wasn’t so much about getting where we were going, but rather about what we encountered along the way. This was by far the road trip on which I learned the most, about myself, about the places we were traveling to and through, about my companion – both by virtue of the two week length of the trip and the rather spontaneous way in which we approached each day.

Despite our eagerness during those early planning sessions, we left our home with little direction other than “West” and only a mere handful of must-see stops. I would have been disappointed in the trip had we skipped over Yosemite or Redwood and Chicago had long held the position of our last major stop before heading home. But the fluidity with which we set the majority of our course made for the beauty of the trip. We were able to detour to Rockville, Illinois, hometown of the band Cheap Trick and to Belleville, Illinois, hometown of Wilco’s lead singer Jeff Tweedy entirely on music-inspired whims. We found ourselves in Georgetown, Colorado, a devastatingly quaint town nestled in the valley of the Rocky Mountains, in search of postage – and because of our schedule, or rather our lack thereof, we made a day of it in Georgetown. Skipping the Grand Canyon allowed us to visit Joshua Tree. We didn’t get much sleep while camping in the park since we arrived well after midnight, slept tent-less under the stars (with a meteor shower in effect), then were woken up by a breathtaking sunrise. It was one of the most remarkable natural experiences of my life – to wake up in the humbling beauty of the desert park’s sunrise, never having seen the boulders and cacti of Joshua Tree by the light of day. Remaining open to the spontaneity of the road allowed us to embrace Mike’s sudden suggestion of visiting the less crowded park in lieu of the overrated Grand Canyon.

I could post about this road trip (as well as the second one we took for our honeymoon) ad nauseam. But the point isn’t to share the experiences Mike and I had – and it would be impossible to do so – but to focus on the beauty of road trips themselves. Road trips are suited to those spirits that believe in the oft-unexplored fun of the journey, not just the pursuit of a destination. Our trip was replete with destinations, but half the fun was finding them while on the road, of giving into the moment when a highway sign advertised an odd, alluring, or beautiful sight we couldn’t pass up, of allowing mazes of conversation to emerge along the way, of finding excitement in every new experience. Even the motels were a source of joy – Motel 6 was our go to source of lodging and we got quite a kick out of seeing the previously identical decor change to a new tropical standard midway across the country. Though the entire two weeks certainly were not spent in total harmony, Mike and I did have an opportunity to talk about things we never had previously even touched upon, to do things together that our typical daily lives would never have allowed for, and to share an experience that created a bond far more permanent than the trip itself.

Most of the time we spend in cars nowadays is full of stress and anxiety or finds us lost in our own thoughts. Commuting to work rarely makes for a pleasant drive, especially when traffic and the dread of another day at the office are added to the mix. Everyone always seems to be speeding to some destination, rarely aware of their surroundings (a scary thought when they’re operating a vehicle), oblivious to the world they’re tearing through. I’m certainly one of the first to admit that cars are not the most efficient or earth-friendly mode of transportation, but I also think they are one that can be quite a treat from time to time. Hitting the road is an experience often romanticized and ripe with nostalgia and the prospect of untold adventure. It can never be planned to a t as traffic, detours, vehicle troubles, the weather, and so many other elements can quickly force things off route. But I think we all need a bit more spontaneity in our lives, something that is required of any road tripper. Road trips teach us how to be a little less boxed in, a touch more daring, and ridiculously ourselves with our companions. They make an adventurous experience out of the entire trip, not just the planned excursions or structured sight-seeing. Long distance car travel is the kind of thing that has to be tried at least once – it provides the most unique and nuanced perspective of our country but also leaves road trippers with a shared experience that is purely indescribable. And there is no better recipe for a ridiculously good time – even when it makes no sense to be having such fun stuffed in a hot car for hours on end.

On Busyness

People are constantly wishing for more hours in a day (myself included). But it recently occurred to me that we address the issue of time, as we do countless other human problems, from an entirely too human-centric point of view. Why are wishing to change the laws of the universe, which is utterly impossible, rather than altering our flexible mortal schedules to fit the laws of time? Rather than wishing time would change to suit our needs, maybe we shouldn’t try to fit so many things into a single 24 hour period. Maybe we need to change the way we allocate our time, since we hold it so precious that we beg for more. Maybe we need to adjust how we think about the finite number of hours we’re given if the current model just doesn’t stand up.

I don’t mean to say that we should get rid of our hobbies or devote less time to the things that fill our lives with joy and levity. While plenty of people wish for more time in the hopes of squeezing an increasing number of these delightful pursuits in, many others want a few extra hours so as to mark more tasks off their ever growing to-do lists. Work, household chores, commuting, errands – I would argue that these are the things consuming far too many of our precious 24 hours each day. The effort of making a living should not interfere with our ability to lead a meaningful, enjoyable life. Our relationships, diversions, and experiences should not be cumbersome  burdens to shoulder after putting in our eight hours, secondary to our working lives.

Putting in a typical 9 to 5 saps up more than just those requisite eight hours each day. For many people, nine, ten, or even eleven hours a day are consumed with the job itself, in addition to time spent commuting and preparing ourselves for work. And what is lost when we spend countless hours in preparation for, at, or recovering from a day on the job? Our health, wellbeing, happiness, relationships. We run ourselves ragged from work and the effort of getting to and from it, that we have little time to ensure we are actually fit to work, mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially.

This has been ringing far too true for me lately. The prospect of a weeknight dinner date with friends consistently takes on overwhelming proportions when 4:30, my daily quitting time, draws near. I’m not only overcome with exhaustion at the thought of driving home, gussying myself up, and heading back out again, but I also find myself entirely incapable of calculating how the benefit of seeing my closest friends could outweigh the cost of getting to them. Sure, I trudge home through traffic, change into my post-work outfit, get in the “How was your day” conversation with my husband, battle traffic to a restaurant, and ultimately enjoy myself. But then I head back home to find that my night has been completely wiled away, with a mountain of household tasks awaiting me upon my return and no time for restoration or relaxation.

Every day certainly does not follow this pattern, and maybe I need to lighten up on myself when it comes to keeping a clean household. But I find myself exhausted, sleep-deprived, and backed up on chores when I spend even a mere two nights of the week outside of my house. I value my alone time more than most, but it’s not just my me-time that’s being sacrificed here, it’s catching up with old friends time, family time, cleaning house time, blogging time, volunteering time, dog walking time.

Life is not nearly as long as we desire and there are far too many things to see and experience in the ephemeral lifetimes we’re granted. I don’t expect to get everything I want in this life. My every whim should not and will not be satisfied; I will never be able to see all the movies on my wish list, to sample all the restaurants whose menus I salivate over, to read all the books I pine after in the library, or to travel to every destination I’ve dreamed of visiting. But what is realistic, practical, and achievable is to take a more modest approach to the work of our lives. By glorifying career paths, magazine-perfect homes, and the elusive American dream, we have denied ourselves the opportunity to languidly delight in the time we’re given. If we allow ourselves the freedom to work less and play more, we just might take a healthy indulgence in our lives.

I count myself extremely fortunate to have stable employment, to work a fulltime job, to receive passable benefits. I consider myself one of the lucky ones – I only need to work one job to squeeze by in this world, I don’t have to worry about supporting a family beyond my husband, my dog, my cat, and myself. Even though I have less free time and more stress than I would prefer, I still exercise more than a modicum of control over my own circumstances and my ability to enjoy and entertain myself outside of work.

But I represent a small minority. The vast number of people who are forced to work multiple jobs in an effort to simply make ends meet have it much worse than myself and probably have more responsibilities than me as well, from kids to mortgages to medical bills and student loans. By allowing busyness to be an everyday staple of our days, by regarding our careers as the most important aspect of our lives, we not only grow disconnected from ourselves and others but also fail to realize the toll this mindset takes on those less fortunate than us. If it becomes so common for people to put in upwards of eight hours on the job each day, we’re also prolonging the time on the clock expected of low-wage workers, mothers, fathers, volunteers. If and when overworking becomes the norm, families will suffer, largely in the form of absent parents putting in long hours on the job and people struggling to balance their 40 plus hour work weeks with children and other familial obligations.

What is it all for in the end? I distinctly remember a conversation my older sister and I had with our parents during my final year of college. My dad explained that he and my mother made a conscious decision to model themselves after the traditional male-breadwinner, female-housewife blueprint of American family life so as to ensure the best lives for myself and my two sisters. Their unfaltering logic was that my father would work on his career, no matter the sacrifices, in order to provide for the rest of the family. Those sacrifices included but were not limited to lots of travel during our childhood and long hours logged on a daily basis. My relationship with my father was largely nonexistent until I reached young adulthood, when he made certain lifestyle changes that brought us closer, and I found myself better able to relate to and respect the person he was. But as his young daughter, I failed to grasp the intentions behind his career choice and saw only a father to whom I never felt close enough. But is it fair and realistic, let alone worthwhile, for people to make such sacrifices in order to make a living? If working so tirelessly just to support the people we love requires that we spend so little time with them, what is the value of working to support them at all?

On Taxation

Since the beginning of the new year, I’ve heard quite a bit of grumbling, both virtually and in real life conversations, about decreasing net pay due to federal tax increases. Most people claim losing relatively moderate sums, to the tune of $100 or so a paycheck. For some families, $100 less disposable income each pay period is significant, a deceptively small amount which has the remarkable ability to ensure that everyone’s mouths are fed and the power doesn’t go out in a household. For others, it adds up to eating out on one less occasion each month, while for still more people, the dollar value is so minuscule relative to total income as to make the impact of the tax hike entirely negligible (though very vocal complaints are definitely to be heard from this group too). I have long been in favor of a more progressive tax system, of a reversal of those tax cuts bestowed again and again upon the richest among us, however that’s an issue for another post.

What gets me about all this ranting and complaining is the complete lack of thought regarding where that tax money goes. I’ve long wished that American taxpayers held a more European view toward taxation. A German-born professor of mine always touted April 15th as one of her favorite days of the year – paying taxes fills her with pride and generosity, a sense of positively contributing to something of which she is a part. Across the pond, many nations have considerably higher tax rates and alarmingly fewer qualms about it than us. But that’s because they have a heightened awareness regarding not only where that tax money goes but how it benefits the entire citizenry, not to mention a more progressive attitude toward social welfare.

Sure, some portion of our tax dollars will be routed to unsuccessful projects or to causes that we don’t support (something like $0.37 of every American tax dollar used to go to military spending, a figure I have hope to imagine will soon be decrease). But despite all our misgivings and dissatisfactions, we are the ultimate beneficiaries of a sizable amount of that tax money, whether in the form of roads and infrastructure development, education, the production of jobs, or safety and security now and into our old age. These benefits are rarely considered when taxes increase, and the opportunity costs are given even less thought. If the government weren’t to manage all of these services for us, how much would they cost under private hands? Would they even be managed? We don’t have to worry that the overpass will give out on our commute to work or that our children won’t be able to receive a basic education because these things, albiet at times imperfectly, are built in by virtue of our tax dollars. Just consider the healthcare system. Countries with universal coverage spend less on average per person for care than Americans do, and they have the comfort of knowing there is a tightly woven safety net in place should they fall ill or become injured. In stark contrast, many Americans delay doctor or hospital visits because of the impending cost, praying away symptoms and injuries in the hope that they won’t need to spend exorbitant sums of money on their own health and wellbeing.

Transforming our attitude toward taxation requires an overhaul of the fiercely independent American spirit. The values upon which the Founding Fathers created this nation are beautiful and stirring – liberty, freedom, sovereignty. But overtime such a moral code has translated into a rather self-centered populace, one that gives little regard to the necessity of community, cooperation, or ensuring the welfare of others. In practice, this social mentality prizes individual rights over the wellbeing of the general population while generating fear of infringements upon those freedoms without recognition of the necessity of communal liberty.

But what I’m calling for is not a total overhaul of the American way of thinking (much as I would relish one!) so much as a subtle shift in our mentality. The concept is simple and universal: mindfulness. Rather than isolating ourselves in bubbles without regard for the ways in which our lives touch and are touched by others, we need to increase our awareness of the grand interconnectedness of things. No complaint, decision, word, or deed of ours is immune to this interdependence. If, upon receiving a smaller sum in the net pay section on our paychecks, we considered for only a brief moment to what we are contributing with that money out of our own pockets, it might be just enough to stop the whining. If we realized that paying taxes is a privilege of living in a democratized nation, these complaints could abruptly stop. And if we truly seized upon the power that taxation provides, if we held ourselves more accountable for the ways in which our tax dollars are spent, if we deeply considered and voiced our concerns regarding the allocation of public money, then maybe we just might grow to like, or even love, paying taxes.

On Tracking Good Things

Another resolution for 2013 that I’ve made well on so far has been to track at least one good thing that happens each day. Before turning in each night, I list something joyful, meaningful, or memorable that I experienced since the time I woke up in a notebook beside my bed. My attempts to track good things started in October of last year and since that time I’ve written about things as simple as catching a beautiful winter sunset on my drive home and as rare as visiting with old friends who live on the other side of the country. An exercise in optimism, in finding the joy in the everyday, the simple routine of seeking and documenting positive occurrences from my daily life has already proved invaluable to me.

The purposes served by tracking these good things are as varied as the things themselves. Some days require long and hard consideration before putting pen to paper, days when it feels nearly impossible to come by a positive, memorable occurrence. Other times, succinctly narrowing down the multitude of good brought in a single day proves to be a challenge (and I end up lumping three or four separate items into a single day’s entry). But with either extreme or any scenario that falls in between, transcribing the simple delights of daily life never fails to leave me with a profound sense of gratitude and joy, as well as a fuller sense of self.

Scouring over the minutes and hours of a horrible day for that one glimmer of good is a necessary task that routinely realigns my mindset for the better. It’s certainly a challenge on those days when a dark cloud hangs over my head from the moment I step out of bed in the morning until I lay back down at night. But finding one worthwhile, joyous, or bright piece of even the worst days ensures that I force myself to practice optimism and seek positivity. In vowing to identify the good in my life on a daily basis, the practice of doing so has quickly become rather natural and automatic, not only when I prepare to jot something down in my notebook at night but throughout the whole day.

On those days when I am overcome with goodness, when I decide to jot down three good things because I simply cannot select a single one, I’m filled with a confident contentment that was formerly absent from my life. Insecurity, anxiety, discontent, and lack of perspective used to cloud my worldview, obscuring the fact that I have a full and joyous life. Though my practice of tracking good things is still in it’s infancy, I am already overcome with a grand sense of satiety when reviewing my life these past few months through the contents of my notebook. The things which I value most would be patently clear to anyone who completed even the most cursory review of my pseudo-journal: friendship, family, nature, compassion, generosity, good meals, creativity, living a life of intention. By tracking all of those things which make my days bright, I become more cognizant of the presence of these at-times abstract values in my actions, the importance I place upon them, and the frequency with which I channel them in my life. True, I am often yearning for more adventure and excitement in my subdued life. But this good things journal makes clear not only what I value but how I constantly infuse my life with these things that are most important to me. It makes me patently aware of the fact that I am living the life I want to live.

The very idea of work used to instinctively inspire a negative reaction in me. As the end of the weekend approached, a sense of dread would overcome my mind and body as a result of simply considering my obligation to put in eight hours five days out of the week. Given that I tend to enjoy the opportunity to engage with people throughout the day, it was rarely the work itself that I felt anxious about so much as the abstract idea of having a job, a work commitment, a required time for clocking in, eight hours to spend toiling away. I encounter people in my career as a social worker who are the source of fondly remembered anecdotes, brilliant tidbits of wisdom, stimulating conversation, and vital human connections. Once I allowed myself to count these interactions among my daily good things, I also witnessed a subtle change in my attitude toward work. It is not always easy or rewarding to work with people, but there are just as many times when it feels effortless and not like work at all. By virtue of documenting those work interactions that bring happiness and meaning to my days, I’ve found myself more positive about work overall and better able to appreciate those aspects of my position which are well-suited and fulfilling to me.

While I often welcome new challenges, they can quickly become overwhelming to me if not easy to incorporate into my routine. Tracking good things has been remarkably easy to add to my days as and, for relatively little effort, the payoff has been quite sizable. I find myself considering what I’d like to remember from each day when I’m making the commute home and can’t help feeling delightfully positive when I come across something worth tracking in the first few hours of my day. The good things notebook started primarily as a means of providing necessary reinforcement to my shoddy memory, but has quickly reinforced my senses of optimism and contentment.

On The Nothing New Challenge

While it is somewhat out of character for me to have composed (and largely adhered to) a list of 2013 New Year’s Resolutions, my decision to do so was largely motivated by the desire to to pursue one particular goal – what I like to call the Nothing New Challenge. Rather than buying clothes off the rack that are brand new, this resolution entails that I only purchase secondhand items or accept hand-me-downs. It requires frequenting thrift stores and vintage-only shops instead of prowling the mall or stopping by the clothing department when picking up groceries at Target. And this challenges not only goes for clothes but also for decorative items around the house – tchotchkes, candles, artwork, furniture, and the like – as well as jewelry and accessories.

When I mention the challenge to my family and friends, their reactions tend to fall into one of two categories. The first is simply asking why I would decide to do something like this and the second is a response of plain incredulity. Regarding those in the former camp, I explain my various reasonings, from the environmental benefits of buying secondhand to the labor rights issues that purchasing from so many corporate retailers raises and the decreased burden imposed by my wardrobe on my bank account. Abstaining from purchasing new clothing items reduces landfill consumption of thrown out clothing, the waste generated by packaging new clothes, and the shipment time and accompanying environmental harm wreaked by factories sending their products to storefronts. By no means a new concept, sweatshop labor is a major concern when purchasing new items from major clothing manufacturers that many people fail to consider when they decide to make a transaction. Buying clothing in its second life reduces the number of items that must be produced in dangerous and inhumane working conditions halfway around the world in order to feed America’s insatiable appetite for fashion. And secondhand clothes are just plain cheaper. I’ve purchased untold gems for a steal after scouring the racks at Goodwill and have even found a thrift shop that carries items still on the racks in other stores, only these ones have already been discarded and discounted without any reduction in quality. I could further expound upon the benefits of buying secondhand, but that’s not my real concern here.

For those with a reaction of the later sort, I barely even know where to begin. The fact that not buying new clothes for an entire 365 days is so unfathomable to people downright worries me. It’s certainly nice to buy a fabulous new dress every so often and clothes need replacing from time to time as they’re worn out. I’d warrant a guess, however, that the rate at which many people purchase new clothes is not just a matter of replacement and occasional splurges but actually one of consistently adding to an exponentially-increasing wardrobe. It appears that clothing purchasing behavior far outruns mere need and approaches addiction, an unhealthy pattern that becomes a means of mindlessly filling the time and acting on impulse rather than thoughtfully considering what is truly needed.

It’s certainly easy for me to come up with a wardrobe wish list, to take a look through my closet and imagine other items that could complete my clothing collection. But denying myself these desired clothes by no means makes my life any less meaningful or joyful. More often than not, simply wanting something does not warrant buying it. This challenge, which does allow me to purchase clothes albiet in a more limited manner, is not nearly as restrictive as abstaining from any clothing purchases at all. But it still generates complete astonishment in many people because they are so accustomed to continually satisfy their unyielding appetites for new things.

Admittedly, I could just be talking to the wrong people about this resolution. And maybe many people curb their purchasing behavior more often than I realize – after all, the cost of living renders it nearly impossible not to do so. But there is an alarmingly high value placed upon the ability to buy whatever we like whenever we so please, with little thought to the unseen repercussions of such frivolous activity. Sticking to my nothing new guns has offered me the opportunity to practice curbing my desires, to give greater consideration to the purchases I make before check out time, to do my small part to improve certain conditions in the world, and to appreciate nonmaterial things in a deeper way. Committing to a whole year may be a bit extreme, and it may very well be a challenge I fail to successfully complete (though I truly hope not). Nonetheless, it is a refreshing test that, when shared with others, at the very least gives them pause to consider our taken-for-granted cultural appetite for consumption. Trying to go nothing new for a month (why not make it February, a mere 28 days long?) may be just the thing to allow us to reconsider why and how we buy.