A Celebration of Thinking Twice

Red is my favorite color. I have olive skin, so according to color theory or whatever, it looks nice on me.

My old red tank top is becoming faded, so I’ve recently bought myself a new one. Tank tops are also my favorite. I wore the new one once and then put it in the hamper.

The day I did laundry, as I was throwing everything into the machine, I glanced at the new red tank top lying there on top of the pile and I paused. It’ll probably be fine, I thought. Stuff doesn’t bleed like it used to, right? But instead of giving that red top the benefit of the doubt, I decided to play it safe. I pulled it out of the machine and put it aside.

Today I hand washed it. And as I stood there, my hands immersed in pink water in my bathroom sink, I celebrated. There are so, so many times in life when you do the thing that makes you kick yourself. Where you’re too preoccupied to even notice that you’ve thrown a new red top into your laundry. Or worse, where you think about whether you need to take it out and you decide, Nah, it’ll be fine, and then it’s not. There are so many times when, after the fact, you just cringe deep down wishing you could go back in time before you messed everything up and make one very tiny adjustment that would make things not be messed up.

But today was the opposite of that. Today I won. I made the right decision, and I didn’t make my entire wardrobe my least favorite color, pink.

washing-machine-wash-cold-water-red-clothes-photo

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Winning

It has been a year since I stopped commuting every day to an office for work, and my life is better in pretty much every way. I no longer have panic attacks, or constant anxiety—I don’t take anxiety pills anymore. I’ve lost all that weight that I gained, and I’m active every day. I’ve lived in three new cities that I hadn’t been to before and have seen so much more of this enormous country. I’ve started my own freelance business that, at this point, allows me to make ends meet and avoid dipping into my savings, and it seems to be growing healthily into something that could potentially give me a comfortable income.

But possibly the most obvious indicator of the change is this:  Yesterday there was a drawing for a 1.5 billion dollar Powerball. My boyfriend and I bought a couple of tickets because, why not? But the interesting thing is that when we were imagining, in the day leading up to the drawing, what we would do with our windfall wealth, we realized that our lives wouldn’t be all that much different than they are now.  They would be roughly the same, but slightly easier.

Back in the old days, I would latch onto the idea of winning a sweepstakes as some deus-ex-machina escape from the boring and unfulfilling story arc of my life.  I would fantasize about the day after winning, when I could go into work and tell them I was never coming back. And then I would fantasize about all the incredibly basic things I would do with my freedom—like exercise and eat well, regain my mental and physical health.  Aware of the odds, I would still hope with a sort of crazed desperation that something would save me from the situation I was in and that I did not know how to extricate myself from.

But I did know how. I was just terrified to do it. I just didn’t realize how little one actually needs to be happy and comfortable. I knew that the price I was paying was too high for the illusion of security my job and lifestyle gave me. But now that I have freed myself and see that I can survive and maybe even thrive on my own, that’s so much more satisfying than a dumb stroke of luck doing it for me. So when, naturally, I did not win the Powerball last night, I did not fall into a morose panic, retreating to the state of learned helplessness wherein I was sure that I was trapped for life. I laughed, and shrugged. I already have all those things that I thought winning would give me.

A Work-from-Anywhere Sick Day

I’m currently experiencing my first real sick day as a freelancer and digital nomad.

It was inevitable, really. After so many months of warm weather and sunshine–I spent last winter in LA and the whole summer outside Houston, TX–my body is getting its first taste of cooler weather up here in Montreal. It’s not freezing yet; it’s just fall. And fall, for me, means head colds.

When I was in bed this morning, mouth-breathing and tossing around in an attempt to find a position in which my noodley muscles and aching joints could find some rest, I was thinking about what a sick day really means for me now.

If I wanted to, I could lay in bed all day. Or I could relocate to the couch, put the little cat under the blankets with me, and intermittently read, doze, and drink tea until I don’t feel like hell anymore.

But the thing is, I could do those things any day. So I don’t really feel the need to do them now.

I think part of the allure of a sick day when you work in an office is the mental rest you get from staying home. Many of the times I called out sick, it was because I woke up with physical symptoms–horrific congestion, or a fever–but deep down I suspected that it was my body telling me that my mind needed a rest.

Aldous Huxley once wrote, “Too much consistency is as bad for the mind as it is for the body. Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life.”

Going to the same place and doing the same exact thing every day was terrible for me; I’m much more suited to this kind of work, where every day is different and I have the freedom to work wherever I want to. I don’t have the mental burnout that I used to have at my old job, because I can control my schedule in order to avoid becoming burned out on any one task–and make sure I’m doing my best work.

The implications for businesses here are interesting. There’s been plenty of press lately about how allowing employees to have flexible working hours and locations increases productivity. But what it also does is significantly lower the amount of sick days taken by employees.

For much of the population, work means sitting in front of a computer. Unless you’re being demolished by a serious stomach virus or flu, you can probably still do your work when you’re sick. I’m doing it right now and I can’t breathe out of either nostril! When people call in sick, it’s often because they are too sick to make the commute, to remain in the office all day in uncomfortable clothes without access to the comforts of their home, or because they do not want to infect their co-workers. All of those issues are obviated when you already work from home.

I’m waiting for the tipping point when employers start to take note of all this literature. One obviously can’t expect corporations to care about things like the health and happiness of their employees, or that elusive, mythical creature called “work-life balance,” but how long can they ignore data that shows they will actually make more money by allowing employees to find their own ways of incorporating their work into their lives?

Nomad Necessities: Exercise

dyspnea-485935117-resizedIt’s in the mid-70s on this Canadian Thanksgiving Day, so I jumped on the chance to go for a run on what will probably be the last warm-enough day to do so.

This summer, I was running just about every other day. It was around 100 degrees in Texas during the day a lot of the time, but when the sun went down around 9 pm, it would be perfect night-running weather, warm and balmy with cool breezes stirring over the lakes. I’d watch the mama ducks with their babies sleeping huddled underneath them, listen to the turtles slipping into the water around the edges with barely a sound and dodge errant toads that hopped in my path. Toward the end of the summer, there was a great blue heron that I’d watch as he stalked around in the dark, seemingly looking for someone he’d lost.

Although for most of my life I’ve not been big on running (read: I hated it), this last year I was able to build up enough stamina to make running not only not horrible, but actually kind of wonderful. I felt my pulmonary system get stronger and more efficient, and I could also feel the structural muscles in my upper body that hold up my posture firming. I learned to stop panicking about how much I wanted to stop and gasp for air and how to just settle into a rhythm and keep going.

The last time I ran was probably about a month ago, and today on my run I learned something distressing: a month without cardio exercise is long enough to get completely out of shape again.

At the beginning of the run, I felt amazing. My leg and back muscles were so happy to be moving, stretching out. It is perfect weather and I was running along the Lachine Canal with all the leaves changing color and the light dancing off the water. Simply idyllic. But about ten minutes into the run, I got that old, familiar wannastopwannastopwannastop
…GOTTASTOP feeling and bent over, gasping for air. The whole way back, I couldn’t go more than a couple of minutes without walking.

In a way, I’m glad this happened, because it has alerted me to an area where I need to pick up some slack. I’ve been making time for exercise since we got here: doing yoga, doing calisthenics and circuit workouts in the apartment. But I haven’t had access to real, pushing-myself cardio like I had in Texas and I haven’t had access to weights.

This may be one of the hardest things about being a digital nomad: finding the time and finding a place to exercise. Living in a city for a short time, it does not often make sense to pay for a gym membership, if one is nearby. In our immediate area, there don’t seem to be any gyms, just some CrossFit places and a space where you can have private trainer sessions. I don’t need anything fancy–just a treadmill and some free weights.

Luckily, there are two promising options: a pretty nice-looking yoga studio about a 4 minute walk away that also seems to offer classes with weights and cardio. It has a free 5-day unlimited trial for new members, which I plan to take advantage of this week.

The other thing nearby, just down the street a short walk, is a beautiful, brand-new-looking community fitness center. It has a huge pool that is open for free swim most of the day. And the amazing part is, it’s free. Apparently there used to be a membership fee of something ludicrously cheap, like $20 for the year, but, according to the girl at the front desk, “they’ve just stopped doing that.” Sometimes I think, “Canada is amazing!” but then I have a perspective shift and am reminded that it’s not really that amazing that a country would provide benefits and services in order to help its people stay healthy; it’s actually amazing that our country doesn’t do those things.

In the last-minute packing cull, I removed my sport swimsuit, my swim cap, and my goggles. I could get a good workout just out of how much I’ve been kicking myself for those choices. I think because of how annoyed I am at the thought of them gathering dust in Texas while my heart and lungs are apparently gathering dust up here in Montreal, I’ve avoided doing something about it and just buying cheap ones to use while I’m here. I realize, after today’s run, that it will be necessary to do so. If this is how out of shape I am after only one month, I’m not looking forward to how I’ll feel after the second month here and then the holidays before I can reliably get back into the gym.

It also makes me realize that in future travel, I need to make access to a place to exercise a bigger priority. It’s something that all digital nomads should consider when deciding where to say and incorporate the  expense of into travel budgets.

Many years of sedentary life taught me this: You can’t do your best work without consistently working out.

Rainy Day

rain-slovensky-water-51106-lWhen you’re on vacation, a rainy day is almost always an unwelcome bummer. People plan their trips meticulously in advance, reading guidebooks, getting recommendations from their friends and websites. The weather is a unpredictable variable that can throw a wrench in those plans.

But a rainy day when you’re staying in a place for a couple of months is a different thing, revealing a cozy sense of home.

Even with having two months to explore Montreal, I feel compelled to get out and explore in every free moment. There is so much to do here; so many parts of the city we haven’t walked through yet, so many restaurants to try and so many exhibits and performances we want to go to, not to mention getting out of town to see the natural beauty of the area.

A rainy day is an excuse to stay in and enjoy our apartment. Anticipating our disinclination to try to get into a crowded restaurant on a cold, rainy Friday night, yesterday we went to the Atwater Market and bought some food for me to cook up at home tonight.

Atwater Market is sort of unreal. It’s a huge, indoor/outdoor market with many stalls selling fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, flowers, and other specialty foods. There are cheese shops, several butchers, fish mongers, and sweets shops. It’s like a foodie’s wet dream. I’m certainly no foodie, and I want to eat everything there (except maybe the fish).

Not only does the market have everything, it’s all nice. All the fruits and vegetables are fresh. The butcher shops have row after row of mouth-watering cuts of meat. And, shockingly, it’s all rather inexpensive. At the first stall we went to I got the following for $16 (and that’s Canadian dollars, which is about $12 USD): a large bag of carrots, a bag of parsnips, a bag of mushrooms, a bag of brussel sprouts, a butternut squash, and two large sweet potatoes. And when we went to ring up after the butcher weighed our pork chops and informed us the price was around $8 (~$5 USD), we were shocked to realize that that wasn’t apiece—that was for both of them.

The wonderful thing about renting an apartment on Airbnb is that it probably has everything you need. Our kitchen has all the pots, pans, and utensils needed to cook whatever we want.

I’m looking out the window now as the mostly-still-green, but fading leaves sway in the rain, some battered into releasing their now-tenuous hold on their branches and fluttering to the wet ground. I’m looking at people walk by on the street, hunched under umbrellas and walking briskly to get home.

But I am already home, luxuriating in the feeling of knowing that I don’t have to go anywhere and that everything I need is here. It’s nice to slow down and take a break, let the mind be comfortable in the familiar after experiencing so much new.

Who Are You Working For?

I’ve been incredibly irritable this past week.

Since I’m currently living with the love of my life in a lovely, comfortable apartment in a beautiful and interesting city I’ve always wanted to go to, I’m wondering why exactly that is. What is there to be irritable about?

With a little bit of reflection, I’ve been able to figure out the problem. This morning I meant to get up early and Get Stuff Done. But I didn’t do that. I slept until 10:30 and then exercised, took a long shower, and now I’m writing this and some other thoughts about stuff that’s been on my mind.

The wonderful thing about freelance work is that because you’re your own boss, you get to make your own work schedule. The difficult thing about freelance work is that it’s easy to get caught up in feeling like you have to work constantly. Although I’m not spending all those hours riding the subway and sitting in front of my computer when there isn’t any work to do like I did at my old job, that doesn’t mean that I have a ton of free time. I work more hours now than I think I ever have, because all the time I’m working I’m actually doing work, not just pretending to do work or drag out a small amount of work to appear busy.

The problem—and the irritability—stems from the fact that over the last week, I’ve been a shitty boss to myself. I’ve been stressful, negative, micromanagey. I’ve been on my case about getting things done faster than they can realistically get done. I’ve been making myself feel guilty for taking legitimate breaks for things like eating. And because I’ve been so up in my own grill, I haven’t been able to do the things I enjoy in my free time to refresh myself, including reading and exercising. I haven’t taken the time to enjoy myself.

bad-boss-megaphone-yelling

Since all of the above are reasons why I don’t want to return to an office job or corporate environment and I’m sacrificing a significant amount of money in order to avoid those feelings, it’s pretty stupid that I’m doing it to myself. But habits are difficult to break. I worked that way for over a decade, so it’s not surprising that it would be easy to fall into those patterns again.

So today I told that jerkface boss of mine to kindly fuck off. I know that I have a handle on my projects. I know that they’ll get done and that I’ll do good work. I don’t need The Man breathing down my neck for that to happen.

 

 

Freelancing is Hunter-Gatherer Work

evolutionI recently read Go Wild: Free Your Mind and Body from the Afflictions of Civilization by John Ratey, a professor in clinical psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The book proposes that while civilization has evolved very quickly, our bodies have been unable to keep up, resulting in a number of “diseases of civilization” that also happen to be all the diseases associated with the highest mortality rates worldwide. Diseases like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke, asthma, cirrhosis, arthritis, and osteoporosis are not only preventable, they are things we are largely causing ourselves through our lifestyle choices.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about lifestyle choices, particularly over the last couple of years. Back in NY, when I was coming home from the office every day exhausted and suffering splitting headaches, I started thinking about all the choices that we make—individually and collectively—that are fundamentally antithetical to anything resembling a healthy, sane, balanced life. When I gained fifteen pounds in a period of 8 months and started having panic attacks in the subway, I had to think seriously about my lifestyle choices because I somehow felt like I had aged thirty years in only 2 years and I figured at that rate I was significantly shortening the years in which I would enjoy good health, if not life itself.

I knew what was not working: a long commute underground, lack of daily access to natural light, a sedentary job, restriction of mobility and lack of intellectual variety. And compounding these was the feeling that I’d never be able to make a living outside of these circumstances—that I was trapped (hence the panic attacks).

So what’s the alternative? If our lifestyle is estranging us from our biological needs, how do we change that? (And even more fascinating, why have we set up a civilization that would do that? We have created with our minds a reality that is physically harmful to us, the reasons for which I devote an inordinate amount of time speculating about—but that’s another post altogether). Ratey takes a look at pre-civilized hunter-gatherer societies, including a few examples still in existence today, explaining how the organization of their lifestyles around movement and adaptation contributed to societies entirely devoid of the afflictions that a huge percentage of our society is currently plagued with.

If what we need for health are essentially these things: fresh air, regular (preferably outdoor) exercise, unprocessed seasonal food, and a full-night’s sleep—all things I was not capable of regularly attaining in NYC and suffering mightily for that—what lifestyle would allow for those things?

For me, the answer has turned out to be freelancing. Working for myself means that I get to dictate the priorities of my own life, which are mental and physical health above all, including making a lot of money, or even having security. The amazing thing I’ve learned is that security (beyond a feeling of immediate safety from harm and access to the basic needs of food and shelter) is not required for good health—and too much of it can even be detrimental.

My experience with freelancing got me thinking about the nature of this kind of work in comparison to that of a steady job, and prompted me to realize the analogy, in regard to mental fitness, to Ratey’s hunter-gatherer research on physical fitness.

Freelance work is hunter-gatherer work. A traditional office job is agricultural work: you get up early every day, you tend your plot. You’re tied to that land, but—barring any catastrophes—you can expect it to reliably yield sustenance in the form of a steady salary and probably benefits.* As a hunting-gathering freelancer, however, you do not possess a steady source of sustenance (income), and must constantly be on the hunt for new work. It can be exhausting and stressful at times, but it’s never boring. You are constantly encountering new information, experiences, and people.

This simultaneously keeps you mentally sharper and also requires you to keep yourself healthier in order to be equal to the task. It means you’re driven to exercise, eat more nutritiously, and get enough sleep—and since you’re able to decide your schedule, you’re able to do those things.

As an office worker, you’re paid for your time. They pay you to sit on your butt in front of a computer for however many hours they can pressure you to remain there, no matter if you’ve completed all possible assignments by noon and are reading Buzzfeed and Facebook the rest of the day. Combine that with the amount of time you are spending getting to the office in either a car or a train, plus the amount of time you spend in the morning getting yourself presentable to the standards of your office’s culture and the amount of time you need to decompress when you get home in order to be functional for hobbies and recreation or meaningful interaction with your loved ones, and you’re looking at almost all of your non-sleeping hours taken up.

Supposedly, hunter-gatherers had to work only 3 to 5 hours per day in order to complete adequate adult food production. They did just enough to have just enough. Working longer hours to store food wouldn’t have made any sense; it would go bad and/or they’d have to lug it around with them, ultimately making them less effective at their lives and work. If you’re working intelligently as freelancer, you can also work much less than the traditional 40 hours per week, but that comes down to perhaps the whole point I’m trying to make, and that is the ability to recognize what is essential. What do you need, really? Not that majority of things that our society values and promotes. Having money is nice. Nice things are nice. But not when they are at the price of the essentials.

Do I miss the security of a steady paycheck? Of course. Would I sacrifice the feelings of mental and physical well-being that I have attained since becoming a hunter-gatherer freelancer? Absolutely not.

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*Unless you are one of the millions of “contract” workers who, like their full-time counterparts, go to the office every day, work the same hours and do the same kind of work, but are classified differently in name only so that corporations can avoid paying for the basic human need of health coverage, all while being treated as inferior, second-class citizens by managers, which I would like to make clear is UNACCEPTABLE and emphasize the need for immediate legislative action to be taken to prevent this bullshit from continuing.