Monday, September 12, 2011

Relocation: A Love/Hate Story

The RowdyKittens August Creative Prompt: What are some of your favorite belongings, and why?

Moving sucks. This is a truth more universally acknowledged than Jane Austen's opening line about men of a certain stature. But moving also gives you a chance to evaluate that which is really important to you, and to find ways to restabilize yourself in a completely new place.

At least that's been my experience since relocating to Orlando this month.

After spending four years of college in the District of Columbia, a city with which I quickly fell in love, I was forced by my own inclinations and the quirks of the current job market to relocate further south-- a big change for this very thoroughly northern girl.

Putting my possessions into boxes in DC felt a little like packing pieces of my soul away. This may be a bad thing from a minimalistic perspective, and I can't deny that I felt throughout the process like I had way too many possessions. I even got rid of some of them. But I am a person who strongly favors the presence of order. I don't know how to be messy. It seems to be in my DNA to make my bed in the morning, fold my pajamas and put them on the shelf after I shower, wash the dishes after I eat, and keep a neat desktop. Even if I for some unusual reason can't make my bed in the morning, I have to do it before I go to bed at night.

Moving is an event that severely disrupts this preference (which is probably why I avoid packing until it's absolutely necessary).

On the other hand, settling in to my new apartment became an opportunity to recreate my equilibrium as I unpacked my possessions and found homes for them.

Unpacking was a multi-day event here, because it had to be mixed with shopping for furniture. I haven't personally owned any furniture larger than a small bookshelf since coming to college-- my desk and bed from high school and before remain at my parents' house (primarily for logistical reasons, including the reality of needing a place to sleep when I do go home). So the majority of the weekend was spent locating, purchasing, and assembling these new items with my parents.

I have to say, I vastly prefer moving into a place that's already furnished, where all I have to do is unpack boxes. It makes life so much easier.

Still, over the course of two days, everything important was assembled, and I was finally able to empty my boxes and settle down. Of that process, I discovered which of my belongings afforded me the most peace in my new home.

For those who know me, the items in the #1 spot will not be surprising. My books are a tremendous source of joy to me. As a confirmed bibliophile, a full and well-organized bookshelf has been the centerpiece of everywhere I have lived since I was old enough to chew on kiddie literary masterpieces. I don't know if librarians have their own DNA code, but if they do, I've got it twice over. Books are my single biggest obstacle in the path to minimalism-- or they will inevitably have to be the exception. College meant that my pleasure reading has been curtailed for the past four years, limited to summer and winter breaks; my summer of “funemployment,” which is now ended, has reinvigorated my love of the printed word.

So naturally, I didn't feel entirely right or at all at home from the time I packed my bookshelf on Tuesday morning to the time I unpacked and organized them on Friday night.

On the list of my favorite belongings after that-- and I should note, at the moment I'm categorizing my “favorite” belongings as the ones which help me feel most at home in a new place-- is my desk and desk supplies. As a writer and a thinker, I find that a well-organized desk correlates with a well-organized mind. So once again, I didn't feel wholly at ease until my new desk was assembled and set up.

And of course, how could my room be my room without some posters and pictures on the wall? My Casablanca movie poster. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster from my sister. My National Book Festival poster from last year. Photos of my family that sit on the window sill wherever I am, and have for four years. And my most recent piece of art, acquired at someone else's moving sale here in Florida: a magnificent large landscape painting of mountains and river and pine trees. This one reminds me of home.

There are other things here that helped me feel more at home too, but these three are the big ones, and I think that is because they are what help me find pleasure and find peace. They engage my creative spirit and give me a reason to pause in the course of a day or evening and reflect. They help me to relax and destress at the end of a long day. What more could you want from inanimate possessions?

My books alone are enough to ensure that I may never be a true minimalist. At least right now, I'm okay with that. Simplicity and minimalism are two different things, and I'm happy just keeping my life simple right now-- which means focusing on the things that give me real pleasure, not the ones that distract from the goal of truly enjoying life to the fullest. And those things are cast into clear, sharp relief in the hectic days of a moving and the exhausting days of creating a new home.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Eight Ways to Simplify Your Life Online

Facebook recently announced that they have passed 500 million users, making them larger than the population of Canada, the US, and Mexico combined, and sparking a new wave of articles celebrating, censuring, and critiquing the site and the "new world" it represents. Many of the articles have very legitimate points, in particular the ones that analyze its cost on our society. But as a young twenty-something whose primary communication tool is the Internet in general and Facebook in particular, what am I to do if I want to simplify my online life without losing track of my friends who pretty much only use Facebook to organize events and keep in touch?

At the bottom line, of course, it all comes down to self-discipline-- knowing when to say you have spent enough time online. However, simple steps abound by which you can get your life online back under control.

With that in mind, I have compiled a list of eight ideas for doing exactly that. The first five are directly related to how you use Facebook, the latter three are more broadly applicable.
  1. Hide and Seek. One of Facebook's most helpful new(er) features is the capacity to hide things in your newsfeed. If your friends are playing Farmville and the notifications keep showing up all over your feed, just click "Hide"! If you change your mind (you probably won't), you can always go find it and reverse the decision. You can also hide people that you are not interested in seeing in your newsfeed, but consider the following:
  2. It is okay to de-friend people. Really. If you are so uninterested in them that you hide them and never go to their profile page, consider a purge of your friends list. Chances are good that most of them won't notice, but if they do, they can always re-friend you later. Or, if removing someone as a Facebook friend is really too hard for you to do...
  3. Make lists. Another delightful new-ish feature on Facebook is the ability to make lists of your friends, creating an effective filter for whatever groups of people you choose. My favorite thing about the lists? You can make one of all the people you might want to talk to on Facebook chat, and set it up so that you appear online only to those people. Goodbye to hearing from that old classmate you've never really wanted to keep in touch with anyway.
  4. Cut down your use of applications. Seriously, are these games (FrontierVille, Mafia Wars, etc) really why you signed up for Facebook? Are the bumper stickers and quizzes and pieces of flair? If so, disregard this item. If not, go in to your applications list and remove them. All you need are the maybe one or two apps that you really enjoy, don't suck a lot of time, or otherwise enrich your online life (for me, those two are Scrabble and Selective Tweets; I've uninstalled everything else).
  5. On Notice. You can get a lot of different notifications on Facebook. Tagged photos, comments, wall posts, links, accepted friend requests...but you don't have to let them take over your regular email inbox. Unsubscribe.
  6. Feed the addiction carefully. Google Reader has become one of my favorite online tools. I set up feeds to it for blogs, entertainment, and general news. I love the ability to flip through it quickly, and to select particular articles that I want to read more in-depth. It's also a good way to share articles (as is Twitter). That being said, it is important to be very self-controlled with how many feeds you subscribe to. Set a cap and stick to it.
  7. Limit your time. This is the piece of advice given every time someone writes suggestions about using the Internet, but it's a good one. Set a limit on how much time you are going to spend on a given site. There are some instances where this is easier to pull off than others. For example, I generally limit myself to half an hour on my Google Reader at a given point in the day. This includes reading the posts that I select as worth a closer read. That's relatively easy to do. Facebook, on the other hand, is one of the biggest time-suckers on the Internet, and defining time on there can be much more of a challenge. This is why you have to learn how to know when to...
  8. Shut it down. I mean this in two regards. First and most important is to know when to shut off your internet or your computer entirely. If you need to focus, if you are getting a headache, if you know you've spent hours staring at a screen without getting anything accomplished, just power it down. If you have an extended period coming up where you are going to need to be very productive (final exams time in college, for example), it is also worth considering deactivating your online accounts like Facebook and Twitter, or getting a friend to change your password so you can't waste time on them.
As a millennial, I love all my various ways of connecting with people online. But I have also grown to recognize increasingly the importance of managing that online life in a responsible manner in proportion with the amount of time I spend with people in person and doing other important things. Self-discipline with the Internet can be hard to acquire, but it is well worth the effort it takes to develop.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Reposting from Zen Habits

Apologies again for the drought in posting. Striving to live simply is an ongoing battle, and this summer that has especially been true in terms of commitments. Working two jobs and seeing friends is a great thing but it does consume a good deal of time!

I just wanted to call to your attention this excellent guest post on my favorite simple living site, Zen Habits: How to Simplify When You Love Your Stuff. It aligns very nicely with my philosophy on purging vs purchasing items: if you have space and it adds to your happiness or helps you to follow your passions, then that's okay. The point of simplifying is to have more space in your life for the things you love, not to remove the things you love from your life. The link to the full article is here; excerpted below (all credit to the author).

Living simply and detaching from material things will make you happier. There is real research and lots of anecdotal evidence to support the truth of this. But is it possible that some material things can add to our happiness, sense of contentment and joy in life? If so, how do you go about deciding what’s good stuff and what’s bad?

Perhaps the deciding factor is motivation. Do the things that you own or wish to buy support your ego, or do they enliven your soul? Some material things can afford you a sense of warmth, coziness, beauty, fond memories, or comfort. There are other things that offer only that fleeting rush of acquisition.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Rain, Walking, and Other Musings

3 June 2010

It rained today.

Not the kind of gentle drizzle that lasts all day, nor the sudden skies-opened-up downpour that you know will last no more than five or ten minutes...nor still the off-and-on sun showers that serve only to confuse and tease you. No, this was the kind of storm that starts quietly and builds...the kind that you can watch as it grows, if you are fortunate, into a full-on thunderstorm that lasts for an hour or two.

I watched it build initially from my office window around 4:30. I watched the clouds roll in and turn a day that had been bright and sunny from the moment I woke up into a gloomy twilight. I say "gloomy" there-- it evokes an accurate image, to be sure, but when I left the office and headed into the open air, I did not feel an atmosphere of gloom at all.

The initial stage of my commute home is a 20-minute walk across the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which crosses the Potomac River and the C&O Canal, and then takes me through part of Georgetown's semi-famous M Street shopping district. Though part of me had hoped that the rain would hold off until I reached my bus stop, the drizzle was just beginning as I walked out the door of my building. I briefly contemplated altering my route so I would be inside on some mode of public transportation, but quickly decided against it and proceeded on my way.

I relate easily to this quote from Henry David Thoreau's essay "Walking":

"I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least-- and it is commonly more than that-- sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them-- as if the legs were meant to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon-- I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago."

You see, my job keeps me inside pretty much all day staring at a computer screen. It's not a bad gig overall, but I find it hard to be so sedentary-- which is rather strange actually, since I don't lead an incredibly active lifestyle to begin with. I find it hard to be trapped, so I have grown to relish my morning and evening commutes, particularly the walking component. And I have walked it-- and will walk it-- in virtually all types of weather short of a hurricane.

I don't find walking in the rain to be such a bad thing. Personally my main concerns are for the books, notebooks, and technology that I inevitably carry in my backpack; I could care less about what I'm wearing, although after a certain amount of drenching a dry pair of pants and socks become a highly appealing prospect. I have been caught in enough downpours to always carry an umbrella in my bag, even if it's sunny out, so I generally feel free to take it out and saunter along in bad weather, largely unconcerned with the precipitation around me.

I fell into a state of near-total bliss walking along this afternoon in the rain. As the world rushed by around me-- pedestrians running for cover, cars plowing through puddles and getting mired in traffic-- I strolled along, unhurried, looking down at the water below and absorbing the water falling from above.

Once I crossed into Georgetown-- at 5:00pm, normally a beehive of pedestrian activity, mainly tourists shopping-- I was somewhat startled to find that the sidewalks were as clear as though M Street had shut down (though the normal traffic snarl continued). My fellow walkers-- perhaps more ill prepared than I, or perhaps simply more sane-- had run for the nearest store, restaurant, or overhang to wait out the weather. I can't say that I blame them; at this point the rain was falling more heavily and thunder had started to rumble in the distance as the storm really moved in.

It's amazing how getting caught in a downpour can make some people friendlier. People see you in a similar boat and they are more inclined to smile and make conversation, if only briefly. It's a short respite from the usual bubbles that DC residents find themselves in for most of their lives.

The storm lasted about an hour. As I sit here drafting this post in a Starbucks near my home, sporadically nursing a hot chocolate, the rain is starting to slow. Knowing the weather here, in an hour or so it'll be sunny again, hopefully turning into a pleasant and mild evening. I have every reason to expect that it will be so.

The nature of DC in the summer is such that thunderstorms are virtually guaranteed at least every couple of days. They are necessary to cool the air and break the humidity, if only temporarily. Nature needs a respite; so too do we humans. Many of us dread getting caught in a downpour, but what I have grown to realize is that, looked at in the proper way, the rain can be a break, a necessary and not unpleasant interruption that reminds us to really be aware of our surroundings. I didn't have my iPod on while I was walking in the rain-- in part because I didn't want it to get wet but also because it meant I was more aware of my surroundings. Perhaps this is an overly poetic way to look at a drenching, but the opportunity to really be present in life and in the world around you is one that I admit I rarely take advantage of, so I was glad for this experience.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Age of (Dis)Connection

Certainly I am not the only blogger to note, with some degree of consternation, the increasing level of disconnect in our society. This was especially well demonstrated last week here in Washington, DC, where a man was found dead on a Metro train about five hours after he died, after the train had gone out of commission and was in the rail yard. As Petula Dvorak pointed out in her recent column in the Washington Post, no doubt hundreds of people passed him on the train without bothering to notice if he was still breathing, or report something amiss if they did note it. After all, train sleepers are common; why should we wake them?

As someone who rides the Metro or the bus on an almost daily basis, I often fall victim to this phenomenon myself. Though I seldom sleep, being a little paranoid about missing my stop, I am one of many riders who gets on public transportation and, despite being surrounded by people, falls into my own little world. Truth be told it's one of the things I like best about my commute-- the chance to be quietly inside my own head with little disturbance from other people-- but it does raise an interesting question: what human interaction do I sacrifice by spending my commute time in virtual isolation?

It really is *virtual* isolation, too. The people are there-- right next to me, behind me, in front of me-- sometimes too close for comfort (who among us who travels on public transportation has not been in a position where they are crammed together like sardines?). It would be all too easy to communicate and build connections. But instead of being present where we are and reaching out to the people around us, we retreat into our technology. Some people still use older models of "technology," it's true-- you actually do still see quite a few people perusing books and magazines-- but most have headphones in their ears connected to their iPod, or are cruising the Internet on their Blackberry or iPhone, or are immersed in their Kindle. I've even seen some people on the Metro with their laptops out.

Really? Listening to music I can kind of justify (granted, that's largely because I do it), but laptops and Blackberries? We really can't disconnect from work long enough to get home or to the office without needing to pull out our electronic devices to look at one more thing? It goes almost without saying-- clearly we are in an era that is simultaneously the most connected and disconnected in history. That means that we can't get away from work or any other part of our digital lives, and most of the time we don't even want to. Technology is our security blanket that helps us to filter the world down to where we really only let in what we want to. We'll communicate with our friends with various modes of technology and eventually find them in person, but the rest of the world? That's a scary place-- we've got to keep them out.

Leo posted a great piece over at the other day on "the beauty of a digital vacation," his day off from nearly all technology. I like to take them too every once in a while, although I call them a "digital Sabbath." I feel like I don't take them as often as I should, but it can be great to disconnect from technology and embrace the rest of the world as it comes, just being present where you are. Who knows? If more people took out their headphones and just looked around on the Metro, maybe something could have been done to help Rickey Van Hauten last week. If nothing else, maybe somebody would have noticed that he wasn't breathing before he was discovered in the rail yard.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Ups and Downs of Google

Full disclosure up front: I'm a huge fan of Google. I have used, to one degree or another, Gmail, Gchat, Google Docs, Google Maps, Google Calendar, Google Reader, Google Scholar, Google Chrome, and Picasa...and that's aside from the core search engine. I haven't tried a Google-enabled phone, but that is due to my resistance to "smart" phones (more on that another time). And if I had to pick a technology company to take over running the world, and the only choices were Apple and Google, at this point Google would win hands down. All that being said, I will readily admit that like any other technology, Google can both benefit and hurt efforts to simplify.

The benefits are, perhaps, the most obvious. Google creates very smart technology that can be tremendously useful as you attempt to streamline your life. Want a baseline of zero in your email inbox? Gmail's huge memory and "archive" and easy search features ensures that you can remove every message from your main inbox without losing them. Want a more streamlined web browsing experience, without the need for tons of add-ons? Google Chrome offers the capacity to search the web from your URL address box. Enjoy reading tons of news sources and blogs every day? Why click around to all your favorites when you can compile them in Google Reader and view them all in one place? ...You get the point. If you want to streamline much of your computing experience, Google has a lot of technology that can help.

...Or does it? By making condensing and streamlining so easy, Google has also created enormous temptations that work against simplicity. You will almost never need to delete an email because Gmail provides such a large memory for storage (don't be fooled-- 'archiving' and 'deleting' are not the same thing). The ease of skimming in Google Reader means that it is incredibly tempting to just keep adding more and more RSS Feeds. Gchat is a good IM program that will run in your email window as well as on your desktop, but that just makes it distracting in more places...especially the AIM syncing capabilities of the email window. If Google Calendar works well for you as an organizing tool with its ability to send you reminders on your computer and mobile device, mightn't that just give you more motivation to add more events to your life?

Bottom line: Like just about anything else, Google programs are best used in moderation. It is important to find the median where Google is helping you to streamline your life without overly complicating it. Remember to delete those truly unnecessary emails from time to time. Let the blank spaces on your Google Calendar remain blank. Sign out of Gchat and talk to the people around you. Pare down to just the core feeds you love on Google Reader so you aren't overwhelmed, and limit yourself to actually reading no more than a few articles at a time. Google programs can be a tremendous aid to simplification and organization, but only if used appropriately for that purpose, rather than becoming yet another distraction.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

We Are Sharks: Lessons from "Up in the Air," Part II

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a loner. Oh, sure, he enjoys the sporadic company of other people and rarely lacks someone to talk to, but he avoids any kind of extended attachment. He has more or less alienated his family, and is unmarried and decidedly transient. And naturally, like many commitment-phobes all over the world, he has rationalized this fear/life choice into a coherent philosophy:
Now I want you to fill it with people. Start with casual acquaintances, friends of friends, folks around the office... and then you move into the people you trust with your most intimate secrets. Your brothers, your sisters, your children, your parents and finally your husband, your wife, your boyfriend, your girlfriend. You get them into that backpack, feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.
It may surprise some of you when I say that I think he is right. Relationships are the heaviest part of our lives. They are demanding of our attention and resources and they can be very severe stressors. They may wish to prevent you from doing whatever you want to, or they may do this totally without intending to, because you deliberately factor in your relationship with this person or these people when you're making a decision. I can certainly verify from personal experience that this is true. I've made the decision to spend this coming summer in DC, but it wasn't done without giving some considerable and agonizing thought for what I would lose in time with my family and with my friends at home.

Does the weight of the relationships on our lives really make them a bad thing, though, as Ryan implies during his talk in the movie? There are arguments either way, I suppose-- Ryan makes a cogent argument above for why they are a problem. And certainly if you want to live a life like his, traveling almost nonstop, they would be a huge issue. I have to wonder if it would even be possible-- much less desirable-- to have a family and maintain that lifestyle. Probably not.

But for the rest of us, who are a little more anchored down in our lives, I would submit that in this talk, Ryan is wrong to suggest that relationships are inherently bad. On the contrary, relationships of any variety are the only thing that are really worth putting that much effort into. Done right, they can last a lifetime, and the security of knowing someone is there for you no matter what is worth the risks inherent in opening your heart to them. [Although my personal caveat to that is that you should be careful who you really trust, because not everyone deserves something that important.]

In college, balancing relationships and work can be just as tricky as juggling them in the work world. At my university, there are so many things to do-- part-time jobs, internships, homework, clubs-- that making time to build relationships can be hard. Personally, although I do work hard on academic stuff, I try to keep my priorities on the people around me, where I think they really belong. When work really needs to get done, it's going to get done, but it can be well worth it to spend a couple of hours talking to a friend and then stay up writing until 3am. As Tom Petty said, the work never ends, but college does. I've got a little over a year left myself, and some of my closest friends are leaving at the end of this year. I plan to enjoy every second with them that I can, because, as Ryan admits later in the movie, "Life's better with company."