A Better New Year’s Resolution Than Weight Loss

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Losing Weight has been one of, if not the most, common new year’s resolutions, and as most of us are familiar, one of the most notoriously difficult to achieve. It’s one of those touchy topics that has garnered a ton of attention from journalists to scientists. Magazines obsess over it – their writers scrutinize celebrity waistlines, jabber about how to “get flat abs in x days” (and throw in a couple quotes from an MD to make their articles sound more credible). There is a constant influx of miracle products that make extravagant claims (some of which garner a loyal fanbase…like Shakeology) about weight loss. There are programs like Weight Watchers and calorie counting tools that try to simplify the whole process. There are societal pressures to “look like a dancer,” “get huge,” or “have an athletic body.” And it’s all very confusing, frustrating, and in my opinion, overwhelmingly complicated.

I accumulated 15 pounds of pudge in college, and spent the first  year out of college trying to work it off with a combination of Stepmania (known to most as DDR or Dance Dance Revolution, 90’s kids rejoice), skipping meals, and obsessive salad eating. I was never obese or overweight, but I felt pressure to conform to an Asian beauty standard. Asian women are frequently portrayed as more attractive if they are petite with skinny limbs, a teeny waist, a small face, and large eyes. Growing up, I was always encouraged to be, for lack of a better term, “delicate” and “ladylike.” It was never about taking care of my body – it was about being thin and pretty. Quite frankly, thanks to my work ethic and discipline, my efforts to reduce the pudge did in fact work, and I dropped the fifteen pounds I had gained in college after about 6 months or so. But it was never easy. I was never obese by any means, but I remember obsessing over the scale and the numbers. And to be honest, doing the same boring exercises every day gets old really quickly.

I was a weakling with a flat stomach. And I’ve gained it all back – in muscle!

When we talk about weight loss, we focus a lot on how we look. And when I think about women and the standard of skinny with a flat stomach, I feel discouraged by how misguided we’ve been and still are. At the gyms I’ve been to, women in general are still spending a disproportionate amount of time cardio’ing off their calories and doing core exercises to get rid of belly fat. Strength training tends to take a back seat – women don’t generally set goals to do push-ups or pull-ups because there is this perception that trying to do them will either bulk them up or simply not make them skinnier (the first is false, and the second is true, but hear me out). Now, fitness is a very personal journey and I would never flat out tell someone “you’re doing it wrong” or “your goals are bad,” but I feel strongly that as a society, the fact that women have been told to “burn off the fat” and that gaining muscle will make them look fatter and gain too much weight is misguiding us to excessive cardio hysteria and endless ab work. Sure, it’s better than vegging on a couch, but spending hours pummeling treadmills and doing a million sit-ups gets old, and well, it’s all rather inefficient and can sometimes work against you. For example, cyclists need a lot of sugar to get through their training (think energy gels, powders, Clif bars, and other sugar-heavy cycling foods) – all that cardio happens to make us crave the stuff.

Please note that I’m not saying cardio has no benefits at all – it does and I do it regularly too!

When I started my fitness journey – this was years before I started circus training – my goal was still appearance based. It was always about how I looked in the mirror. What I actually happened as I made my way through the 90 days of P90X (which I highly recommended to fitness newbies) was that I felt better. I didn’t lose weight, but I suddenly had tons of energy and it was affecting me in a very big way. I remember when I was still in school, I would constantly need naps. I struggled to keep myself awake in early morning. Focusing was hard and I dragged myself around a lot. After I finished the 90 days, the newfound energy I was feeling was exciting and I continued doing it. I realized that fitness wasn’t really about weight loss, or looking great, or having toned limbs at all. It was about feeling great, seeing what my body is capable of, and always taking the chance to be active, whether that’s biking to work or building a snowman instead of playing a video game or watching a TV show. Weight loss and being thin was largely a dietary side effect, and I learned that the hard way.

Being able to do things is a very different goal from simply losing weight. Having the ability to touch your toes, nail that yoga pose, or run that marathon. Having the ability to balance in relevé. Feeling energetic enough to not require coffee every morning. The more we focus on what our bodies could do instead of what they look like, the more naturally the aesthetic benefits will come, because when you are strong and active, chances are, you will feel more drive to hike a mountain than bog down inside with chocolate cake. Yes, we should all eat less slop, and reducing our body fat is still a formidable pursuit, but perhaps we should do that in the name of self care, getting stronger, and feeling better rather than trying to look like a supermodel.

Why a Peloton is not Worth Your Money

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As a cyclist, few things make me cringe more than a Peloton. I’ve seen the billboards, the TV commercials, and I just feel so let down when I see their ads. Like most other home exercise machines that gets aggressively marketed, I see it as an overpriced, heavy piece of equipment that will take up space in your house and every time you see it, you will feel guilt for not using it, because you spent a pretty penny on it and gosh darn it you’d better use it to get your money’s worth. Now, of course, there are exceptions. Perhaps you are senior or unable to get around easily, and having equipment at home is simply the most convenient option for you. Perhaps you’ve been using this piece of equipment at your local gym for a while and you really do need to have the same thing at home so in the event you can’t make it to the gym, or if you want to save on membership fees, you’d rather have it at home. Even if any of those things are true, please don’t give into the marketing and buy a Peloton – at least without reading this post first.

I don’t want to completely dismiss the idea of spin classes as a good form of exercise. For many people, the idea of sitting on a stationary bike and zoning out or watching a movie while pedaling is the easiest way to stay active. And heck, if that’s what’s going to get you off the couch, then all the power to you. I do it too sometimes! It’s just – I can’t resist saying it – there are so many better ways to do it.

First of all, let’s take a look at the price tag. It’s $2,000. Two thousand bucks!! They give you an option of a payment plan because it’s so expensive, and if you sign up for that, it nearly doubles the price. For comparison, my beloved Specialized Dolce Sport road bike – out the door – was less than $1,000. I’ve ridden several thousand miles since I bought it in 2016 – enough to pay off the cost of the bike in terms of train tickets saved and less gas mileage on my car. A real bike can get you places – and if you’re willing to fork out a couple thousand bucks, why not get a really really nice real bike? You could even get a carbon frame for that kind of money and it could be a bike that weighs less than 20 pounds! Then you can join the cycling community in your town and go on group rides or take your bike to a cool place like Portland and go on a cycling adventure!

Alright, I get it. You live in a city where biking infrastructure isn’t up to par, or it’s winter and you’re faced with icy streets and sub-zero temperatures on a daily basis. You know a solution for that? Buy a trainer and attach it to your awesome road bike. The Wahoo Kickr Power trainer runs $1,200 brand new and will measure your power output, or you could buy a Kickr Snap for $600. With a subscription to Zwift, which puts you in a virtual world with other cyclists, you get to ride with a smaller and lighter piece of equipment that you can detach from a real bike. Zwift runs $15 per month and the Peloton is over twice as expensive at $39 per month for its exercise videos. $39 per month is $468 per year. If you’re riding for 5 years, that’s $2,340!! Zwift is also not even the only option – you can also use TrainerRoad and CycleOps, if you buy one of their trainers, has their own virtual training app as well.

Then, when summer rolls around, detach your trainer and you can start riding around town with the muscles you were honing on the trainer. You’re getting basically whatever the Peloton is giving you, but you also have a real bike. With the Peloton, you’re locked in and committed to the system with hardly any flexibility for customization. It’s a money pit disguised as a fancy high end fitness product.

If spinning is your lifeblood and you want that spin class experience at home, then…after considering the long term costs, go for the Peloton or an equivalent system. I just wanted to make sure you’re also aware that there is this whole other world out there of real bikes that can get you outside breathing fresher air, get you moving – literally, and if you want, have the option to train indoors and measure the same metrics for less money and more flexibility.

Minimalist Shopping: Decisions & Considerations

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Faithful readers of my blog will be familiar with my past shopping struggle. A habit that, I’m ashamed to admit, has commandeered my free time – many hours I will never get back. And now that the holiday gifting madness has begun, I want to address this habit that has become more than just a chore, as businesses continue to enhance the shopping experience, making it an immersive, mentally engaging act that has captured the leisure time of teenagers and adults all over the world, no matter what financial situation they’re in. They start with commercials, enticing you with eye candy and personas that go beyond the product itself. Buy our clothing, and you will be more attractive, successful, confident, or healthy, like the person in this commercial. Buy this magic pill, and behold the transformation you will experience. Buy this car, and just look at how happy and safe your family will be. Buy this beauty product, and you will attract attractive people. This is no more evident than in perfume ads. Buy this massage chair because hell, you deserve it, and oh by the way, we offer a payment plan, in case you cannot actually afford it! Browsers store your shopping history, and that pair of boots you were drooling over suddenly follows you in other places – news sites, social media, blogs, and more, reminding you that the option to purchase is still there, until you finally cave and make the purchase.

All that aside, I am not going to be that strict minimalist who tells everyone to opt out of gift giving or shopping altogether (I do still buy things!). Some people have traditions they want to follow, or kids’ birthday parties to attend, and who’d want to embarrass their kid by not bringing a gift? And, we still have to buy things from time to time. Things break, become obsolete, and so on. And in many cases, a purchase or upgrade will save you time or significantly improve your quality of life. This post is meant to help you think through the buying process from the perspective of a conscious consumer and not a gullible buyer.

Let’s now move onto factors to consider in any purchasing decision.

Emotional Buying

“Retail Therapy,” as it’s commonly known. I like to think that most people know why they are out browsing things at a store, but when you ask them why, they answer that they don’t know, or have “nothing better to do,” or “why not.” It is easy to cultivate an addiction, too – the high that people experience after acquiring a new item can feel like a  physical reward from the effort of making money, and the excitement of getting to enjoy the new item is a pleasure, particularly if it’s something highly coveted.

Humans are not always logical and sensible creatures – otherwise no one would smoke – so we must at least learn to recognize if our shopping habits are emotionally driven. Without that awareness, we won’t be able to stop ourselves. Commonly, we shop in response to stress – at work, at home. We also shop in response to positive emotional events, like when we get our bonuses (anyone go out and spend their entire bonus in one piece?), or when we get a promotion, or when we just “feel rich.” Without a specific need in mind, shopping, just like drinking, can easily become something we do to distract ourselves, rather than something we do because we need something.

Lifetime maintenance

As seasoned readers know, stuff begets stuff – clothes need detergent, sometimes even special detergent; spare tables then require spare chairs; leather requires leather cleaner. A great example is owning a bike or car. Unless you plan to bring your bike to the shop every time something goes wrong, you have to buy a lock, spare tubes, degreaser, a pump, bike lights, and a helmet. More stuff, more time spent dealing with said stuff, more money spent. With a car, you have to deal with oil changes, gasoline, tires, brakes, fluids, storage, parking, insurance…have I mentioned that cars are ridiculously expensive? The same thing with a home – the larger your home, the more time and money you will be sinking into your living space to maintain it.

I’ve already talked a lot about the maintenance of certain types of clothing (dry-cleaning, removing pills, ironing…), but the same is true of anything you own. Everything needs to be stored and probably maintained to some degree, taking up space and time – time to maintain, organize, and clean.

Longevity

As people say, classics are for life – but what is a “classic,” really? I still think that some “classics” are just things that have been marketed really well, and that we should build our preferences and styles not around what other people deem as “classics.” There are many arguments for buying things that last – not needing to buy another one later (the poor man pays twice) environmental impact. For this reason, “disposable” or “temporary” items are to be avoided. Dollar store junk – anything that fills kids’ goody bags, party goods, particularly anything made of plastic – as wasteful as it gets, even if they are cheap and convenient. I don’t know about you, but walking around a place full of garbage sucks. It’s too bad I can’t make other people care about this – garbage out of sight, garbage out of mind, after all – but sooner or later, we are all going to feel the effects.

I also recommend, for this same reason – in some situations, buying the cheaper option is not always the right option – delaying gratification and buying only . A good example of this is buying a cheap mattress – it will cost you more in labor, money, time, and likely frustration than it would to buy one that will last and serve you well.

Resale value

Another thing to consider is resale value. As a long term eBay seller of used things, items of quality that retain usefulness over time will sell much better than cheap crap. I like to check eBay for approximate resale values of certain brands. Ideally, I shouldn’t need to sell what I buy in the long run, but sometimes, it happens.

Money

This one should be self-explanatory, but there are certain things where you are blatantly paying for a brand and not a higher quality item. I am skeptical of the quality promised by certain brands, when it is not always the case that you’re buying a higher quality item. Often times, a cheaper version could be better. One good example of this is clothing made by Abercrombie and Fitch. I have no reason to believe that their clothes are inherently better than clothes made by companies that make clothing sold at Target, but they’ve somehow built a brand where many people believe that that is the case – so much so that people will buy shirts that simply have the name of the brand on it. Seems silly – or brilliant, for the brand – to pay a company to advertise for them.

There is also the question of affordability. I like to calculate the number of working hours for each item, but it’s also important to recognize the power of compound interest, and every dollar that you spend today is lost capital gains over time. As a minimalist, working just to buy things seems like a rather unfulfilling, repetitive existence. The whole question of money is not something I want to discuss in this post in detail.

Sales

While we’re on the subject of affordability, I want to mention sales. Sales are just a clever way to entice people to buy. And they are great – if I am eyeing something for a while and I notice it is on sale, I am certainly more incentivized to buy. But buying just because it’s on sale, or just because it’s cheap – won’t cut it. Because you will have bought something – not because you truly wanted that thing, but because you found a bargain, and it is likely that you will then subconsciously undervalue it.

“Personal load”

I made up this term myself, but my fascination with the “living out of a backpack” has led me to wonder exactly how hard it would be for me to pack my bags if I needed to move. It is easy to avoid ever needing to assess the sheer volume belongings I have when I don’t move, or if I am not traveling frequently. This personal load then also translates to an “environmental load” of sorts. How much space am I needing just for my “stuff?” Everything I buy adds to that load burden, and that burden is not just physical, but mental too.

Intent

The question of “why” I want something is really what this whole post is about.

We buy things because we generally believe that these things will make us better, happier people, or they will help us in our quest to become better/happier people. The problem is, we are often awful at determining what truly makes us happy (hint: it’s not more stuff). Ever seen the people in poor countries, barely scraping by, yet somehow still wearing banana smiles and finding the joy in everything

When shopping for others, similar considerations apply, but most of the time, I simply ask what the person wants, and if I must purchase a gift for that person, I buy that exact thing. An unwanted gift is a burden and a lose-lose situation I’d rather avoid.

Happy Holidays and I truly hope that your holiday gift-exchanging practices only add happiness and ease to the holiday season.

The Tragedy of Losing Creativity

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Some time ago, I wrote about the tragedy of losing curiosity, where I lamented about a seemingly widespread lack of desire to understand the world around us. As kids, we are encouraged to try lots of new things and activities, fumbling in dance studios, playgrounds, and orchestra halls. The lucky ones among us got to try many extracurricular activities – music lessons, ice skating, dance, gymnastics, track, sports, summer camps, you name it. Throughout our teens and twenties, many of us continue to try new things as we bumble through adulthood – baking, cooking, knitting, miscellaneous-athons, make-up, yoga – or continue to hone what we learned as children.

As we get older and we become more adept at our areas of expertise, we start gaining confidence and feel less like we don’t know what we’re doing. Over time, though, we begin to get locked into what we know and are comfortable with. Our brains gradually lose their plasticity and we start to fear the unknown, preferring what we’re most familiar with. Seeing as I am still in my 20’s, I am merely speculating, but I have already observed a worrisome amount of reluctance in learning or trying new things or making positive changes. Like we are so convinced that we are “x” and not “y” type of person, that we find ourselves overly protective of our identities – a dangerous thing. Such as, “I am not a creative person, nor will you convince me I can be one,” or “I am not a technical person, and there is no point in trying.” You and I are constantly shifting, constantly evolving beings, and we are all ephemeral in the grand scheme of the universe. Worse still, people around us – at work, at home, even in harmless social gatherings, are constantly telling us what to focus on, and in the worst case scenario, dictating our goals, aspirations, and directions. When, then, can we be creative? When, then, is there an incentive to be creative?

I’m not talking about doodling in the margins creativity, or making a “creative solution” due to the presence of constraints. Creativity and artistry can only be achieved when all of our basic needs are met. That is why we don’t see a whole lot of famous artists, musicians, or dancers from poor countries – they are too busy struggling to make ends meet to remotely worry about artistry (though they may perhaps find it on a smaller scale). If little children are being shuffled from activity to activity to hone their creative abilities, why is it that we must end all that as soon as we hit 20, 30, or 40? Does all of our time need to be spent consuming and not creating? We consume to live, but also as a form of inspiration or support for those around us. I consume selectively, and only when the benefits make sense. It’s easy to follow others, but not easy to pave your own way. Over time, our ability to be original becomes muddied as we relax into a follower mentality. The internet has made access to other people’s creations a double edged sword. It is easy to access what other people have created, but also easy to feel discouraged when we realize that somebody else has already done the same thing, but better. The value of “figuring things out,” the process of innovation – not from necessity, but from intrinsic desire – fades over time as key ingredients for creative thought – time, incentive, and mindset – are squeezed out in favor of practical concerns.

Travelogue: 3 days in Athens, Greece (and why 1 day is enough)

Athens conjures up visions of ancient historical greatness. Thousands of years of history have left behind rich legacies studied in classrooms all around the world – Socrates, the home of the first modern Olympic games, origins of famous philosophers and scientists, and really old ancient ruins. From the “things to do” front, it seemed that there would be plenty to do – museums, ancient archaeological sites, and without a doubt, feasting on Greek food. So it was just terribly unfortunate that I found myself deeply regretting spending 3 days in the city in mid August, peak tourist season.

But I digress. If I could do it all over again, I would not spend more than 1 day here unless I was:

  1. An avid archaeologist
  2. Interested in old, abandoned, decrepit buildings
  3. A graffiti artist

Athens is filthy. Trash is everywhere, pigeons swarm the streets, and the city reeks of motorbike emissions mixed with choking cigarette smoke. Leave any area outside of the touristy zones and you’re met with an unrelenting display of struggle. Few buildings and walls were spared from splatters of graffiti. A haven for urban exploration, to be fair.

Walking to the Archaeological Museum

This is actually a university building. It was fenced off and the gates were covered in protest signs.

The city is sprawling and extensive, but areas worth exploring are concentrated to a small area. There was no point in taking public transportation – the most we had to walk was 2 miles, and that was to the National Archaeological Museum, which was located in a not so   nice area of the city. In the sweltering heat of Athens, walking 2 miles felt like an eternity. Water bottles were a must, and we took great care to get chilled bottles.

Acropolis is the only worthwhile archaeological site

…unless you’re an avid archaeologist or history buff.

The archaeological sites are really the only “attractions” in the city, save a couple of touristy neighborhoods and Lycabettus Hill. We stayed in the south side of the city, so we passed by the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch on our way to Syntagma Square to exchange some euros at Kapa Change. We didn’t know it at the time, but to actually go into the sites costs money. Hadrian’s Library, for example, cost 4 euros. The lady at the booth told us we could purchase a pass package to most of the archaeological sites (including the Acropolis, but excluding the Panathenaic Stadium) for 30 euros. It would be cheaper than paying for them individually.

What we didn’t know was that the bulk of the ruins could pretty much be experienced without actually paying the entrance fee – you could view most of the interiors simply by looking at them from outside the fence.

You can see this before going into the site.

Not a better view…why do I need to see ruins up close?

In the end, I decided that the only one really worth visiting was the Acropolis which was 20 euros by itself. The only benefit to buying the multiple site pass at Hadrian’s Library was skipping the long line to buy the entrance ticket at the Acropolis.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus, part of the Acropolis

Temple of Athena, Athens, Greece

Escaping the heat in the shade

Still, I felt like it wasn’t worth it. The Acropolis is the only site worth paying for; everything else is just the same thing with slight variations. We were so tired and hot that we didn’t even have the heart to go into our third archaeological site, instead opting to sit in the shade for a half hour just outside of the site. The 30 euros felt more like a donation than anything else.

Food

Walk around any of the touristy areas in Athens and if you just happen to glance at the menu (or even just literally be passing by), someone working at the restaurant will come out and practically demand that you eat there. The conversation would be more like “Are you hungry? We have kebabs, souvlaki…” or “Please come in and sit! Here is a table for you!” or “What would you like to eat?” These guys are unapologetically in your face about it – they will usher you in, go over the menu, and ask you where you want to sit, as though you had already made up your mind about eating there. Maybe it’s just part of the Greek hospitality culture, but it was a turn-off for me. I think that some of the waiters genuinely wanted you to feel welcome – in truth, the people were mostly pretty friendly, but I couldn’t help but think they were just trying to lure naive tourists.

That being said, restaurants in touristy areas definitely tended to be more expensive, but that didn’t mean the food they served was bad – in fact, I quite enjoyed the food there. I had some seriously good gyro meat. The food was truthfully the only redeeming thing about Athens.

3 euro gyro!

>3 euro gyro…best chicken I’ve ever tasted at Smile Restaurant

Classic Greek Salad

My friends and I really enjoyed the meat pies at Bougatsadiko Thessaloniki, which had outdoor seating and a friendly waitress.

Meat Pie, Athens, Greece

I’m not crazy about baklava, and traditional Greek dessert is basically a bunch of variations on syrupy, flakey, greasy stuff. I did have my fair share of Greek yogurt though.

Traditional Greek dessert

Lycabettus Hill

Other than the Acropolis, watching the sunset from Lycabettus Hill is the only other thing worth seeing in Athens. It’s a bit of an uphill walk to the top, but if you’re in decent physical condition, you should have no trouble. At the top is an expensive restaurant and a church where you can sit on the ledge and look out over the city. It was swarming with tourists, but the view from the top was spectacular.

On the way to the top…a mild climb.

Sunset

There was a huge crowd of people I had to swim through to get a view without people.

Lycabettus Hill is in the distance.

Weather

Checking the weather forecast, I knew it would be hot. Every day had a low of at least 80 and a high of at least 90. The Greek summer sunshine is no joke – I acquired many tans, and the UPF 50 hat I purchased from REI the day before my flight was one of the most useful items I brought. The heat was exhausting and made walking and exploring a greater endeavor than normal. If you’re a native Floridian or someone who has no qualms about hot weather, the weather will not bother you as much.

Other Thoughts

Honestly, I feel bad about not having much good to say about Athens. The city is old and decaying and I feel sorry for the people who are struggling to keep it alive and running. They really do try to make you feel welcome, but the economic depression is heavy in the air. Mainland Greece gets overshadowed by the allure of the Greek islands, and for good reason (Santorini will be covered in a different post).

My friend said it reminded her of China.

Decay and graffiti

More decay

Not sure I’d want to park a car in there?

That said, there are gems.

A pretty church roof…couldn’t get a great view of it though.

Hadrian’s Arch

If you’re a cat lover, you’ll find yourself enamored by the numerous strays. They probably help keep the rodent and bug population down.

Stray cat

Life is hard for strays, though.

Poor cat is probably overheating under the midday sun

Athens does have its prettier areas, but they are concentrated, and you can definitely hit most of them in a day.

Ancient Agora

All in all, if you’re flying into Athens, it’s worth a stop – just not a long one. Like I said, unless you identify with any of the 3 things I listed at the top of my post, your time will be better spent at the islands.

Writer’s Hiatus, Social Media, and Overcommitment

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It’s been a while since I’ve published a post. The whirlwind that was summer, all of the current events, work, activities…like everyone else, I had a lot going on. This post is an apology, really, but also a message about how minimalism does not solve all my problems.

There was many points during my hiatus in which I felt overwhelmed. Society expects a lot of us. We are all told to tough it out, put up with it, just deal, just do, grit your teeth and don’t worry about the outcomes. That our resilience will predict our success. Everyone gets through it, eventually, anyway, so why shouldn’t you.

For a while, I was worried that what I was writing was sounding like endless amounts of complaining. Our exposure to the media, which is getting increasingly good at riling us up, has given me an unhealthy dose of anxiety. Every time I log onto my social media accounts, even if it just to check on the status of events I’ve committed to attending or become aware of events I’d like to attend or catch up with friends, I’m blasted with political posts and emotion-mongering clickbait. The more time I spent online, the more dissatisfied I’ve felt with my life – a common problem, in fact. There is a natural tendency to compare ourselves to others, and hardly in a good way. I love talking about the practical benefits of minimalism and how it has saved me a lot of time and given me the time to do what I enjoy most, but when I am using that time saved to browse Reddit, Instagram, or Facebook, the time is still wasted.

Minimalism has freed up my time significantly, freeing me from silly pursuits like mindless shopping. Type A people like me always feel like there is something more to be done to better our lives, whether it’s learning new skills, career development, working out, fixing/upgrading things around the house, or maintaining relationships and friendships. Everything requires time and mental or physical tolls, and unless you are perfectly regimented, it is easy to slack. And then the circle of anxiety continues – slack off, panic about slacking off by mindlessly watching Youtube or browsing social media, repeat. I filled my schedule with activities and commitments, and the constant go-go-go took its toll, and I quit writing the blog for a while.

When you stop doing something that used to be a source of enjoyment, you start to question yourself. Could it be depression? Just personal change? In the end, it was an issue of overcommitment. There was too much to be done, and I couldn’t do it all. I still feel like I am in that mode. I deleted Instagram, going on it only once a day at most (instead of 10 times a day). I created Facebook events, but ignored most others, for my own sake. With the holidays approaching, it was time to slow down and enjoy the closing days of 2017. And with the first snow day yesterday, happy hot chocolate season, and don’t forget to enjoy the wintery merriment.

On Taking Better Care of Our Stuff

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Much of minimalism revolves around detaching yourself emotionally from your things. Declutter this, throw away that, donate what you don’t love, and so on. But what it does not preach so much is how to take care of or maintaining what you do have.

I learned a very expensive lesson when I dropped my camera on a recent trip to London. I was changing the lenses and forgot to wear the strap when it slipped out of my hands and onto the concrete ground. The impact ended up damaging the sensor and causing an ugly black mark to appear on all my subsequent photos , and for my readers who aren’t also photographers, sensors are extremely costly to replace. That incident reminded me of how I really need to take better care of what I do have – things do have a lifespan, but they can be increased with proper care and lovin’.

I’ve talked about the maintenance of things and how they can be burdensome. Things that require a disproportionate amount of care (such as luxury handbags) tend to not provide worthwhile returns. As I’ve settled into my new normal as far as quantity of belongings goes, I’ve been noticing the wear and tear on my things more as I mostly keep what I use every day or at least on a regular basis. I stopped using the dryer for anything other than bedsheets (which I only dry because I only have one set) and began hanging my clothes instead of using the dryer,  just like how I no longer dry my hair with a hair dryer. After all, it seems silly that we need to have these machines that cost  a few hundred dollars spin our clothes around and blow hot air on them – clothes are advertised to last x number of washes but who knows about the dry cycles. I hand wash all my knives, pots, and pans. I make sure that I don’t keep any messy piles around where things can damage each other from just bumping into other things (jewelry is a good example of this). I clean my bike regularly. I keep tabs on what I have in my refrigerator so I don’t waste food. The same can be said about our bodies. Our bodies are designed for movement, and I take great care to ensure that I am active every day. Long flights and train rides make me jittery (I have urges to do pull-ups on the safety bars). Exercise is a celebration of what our bodies are capable of, and it pains me to think that so many people never realize their bodily potential. The less time we take to take of our bodies, the more quickly our bodies will deteriorate over time. And we must use our bodies every day.

Things are responsibilities and I feel that I have a responsibility to take care of things that serve me. The fewer things that I own, the more attention I can devote to taking care of them. Chances are, some amount of the earth has been destroyed to create the things you own. We won’t be able to be perfect about it, but let’s take a little time to take care of what we do have, if at least not to need to buy replacements and require more resources from the planet than we’re already consuming.

How to Make an Active Minimalist Happy

via Pixabay

Why is it, that being “happy” remains an elusive thing – so much so, that it often attributed as a life goal? Like happiness is an end state – that once we attain it, it is forever ours?

Outside of survival needs (food, water, shelter), most of us desire the same basic things, like being loved and accepted by our family, friends, and greater communities; being safe, in good health, and free from worry; having the freedom to exercise our passions without judgment and consequence. Any sensible person also knows that these “basic things” can easily be taken for granted, and that in this day, having any of them is, unfortunately, still considered a privilege. There are many things outside of our control that can disrupt the balance and rhythm of our lives. And sadly, it is too often in moments when we confront our own mortality that we realize just what is truly important. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Minimalists, and especially active minimalists, tend to emphasize the importance of just “being” or simply “doing” what is natural. Becoming a minimalist is often a product of some sort of discontent, so stripping away the excess garbage allows us to discover our hidden values. The moments we live outside of work and social media are where the raw, unscripted parts of our lives emerge – the words and behaviors that expose our own humanity. The behaviors we exhibit outside of the job title, the family role, the caretaker, the provider, and so on. We are most passionate – most human – when we take off the mask with our titles and roles. And we all wear masks in most places, if only for society to function properly.

Unsurprisingly, it is in those moments when we’re true to ourselves that we feel most liberated. And when we are true to ourselves and accepting of that truth, we begin to feel that elusive thing we call happiness. Personally, I am happiest in an environment where I can naturally “be.” Not “expected to be,” not “supposed to be,” not “meant to be.” Some of you may wonder, what if to “be” is to also be toxic, violent, or condescending? Color me an optimist, but I believe that if someone is truly happy, that person would also be in a position to genuinely be supportive of others. Happy people don’t put others down.

Fancy gifts, money, and swanky dinners can be treats for just about anyone, but for a minimalist, genuine relationships cannot be beat. Shared moments, experiences, and passions can be cherished more deeply than new things, and they cannot be taken away from you.

An Interview with an Ultralight, Minimalist, Cross-Country Bikepacker

Today, I am extra excited to present to you my first interview with a real-life Active Minimalist, Sarah. Not long after she obtained her PhD, she packed her bags, put what few possessions she had into storage, and biked solo(!) for three-thousand miles from California to Florida.

Let that sink in for a minute.

The magnitude of her 55-day journey and inspiring stories touched me so deeply I just couldn’t resist asking her if she’d allow me to feature her story on this blog. I felt like a million bucks when she accepted!

A few weeks ago on a lovely Friday afternoon, I was doing as most office bees do – happily wrapping up work for the week, excitedly anticipating the sunny spring weekend in which I – in true minimalist fashion – planned absolutely nothing, which happens so rarely that I cannot remember the last time I didn’t have an obligation of some sort. In between emails and reports and phone calls, I fantasized about the books I would read, the food I would cook, the friends I would catch up with, and so on. Then, in the early afternoon shortly after lunch, a message popped up on my phone. She mentioned that she was in town and asked if I was interested in playing board games.

I hadn’t seen Sarah at all since she graduated and gleefully whisked her tiny self off to California, so I was super psyched that she was going to be in town during the one weekend I was available to host her. Back when she was still in the area, we often got together with friends to play board games and hang out. After a few back-and-forth texts, I found out that she was arriving the next day and would only be around for the weekend and didn’t yet have a place to stay, so I offered her my couch and an extra blanket. She spent the days catching up with other friends in the area, and I was lucky enough to hear about her most memorable moments and thoughts about her remarkable journey. As it turned out, she was on her way back to California and staggering Amtrak train trips. She burst through the front door with a glowing smile and I had never seen her happier. At that moment, I didn’t even know that she had been on the road for so long.

Credit goes to MMM for the interview format.

Trip Overview

Me: Thank you so much for letting me interview you! I am so lucky to have such cool people in my life. So, how did you decide that you wanted to take this journey?

Sarah: It was just a fun thing I wanted to do.

Me (aside): Ahh, spontaneity – one of the joys of a minimalist lifestyle. The freedom to pack your bags and journey wherever your heart desires – that is bliss.

Me: And that is the only reason you need! How did you decide the route? How many miles did you bike and how long did it take?

Sarah: I started in San Diego near UCSD, biked to the coast, and then mostly followed the Southern Tier route which ends in St. Augustine. It was about 3000 miles and took about 55 days. I started on March 1st and got to Jacksonville on April 26th.

If you’re ever interested in bike touring, I can recommend two websites – the Adventure Cycling Association which has lots of route maps and indicates where all the rest stops, campsites, grocery stores, bike shops, motels, convenience stores – and Warmshowers, the biker hosting website which also has an app.

There are also lots of bike touring blogs out there.

Me: About how many miles did you bike each day? Did you ever stop or did you bike straight from start to finish?

Sarah: I didn’t train for this, so it was difficult at first.  The first day, I only went 15 miles – it was all uphill and into a headwind. But I did get faster – about 2/3 through, there was one hill I went on, when I crested the hill, that I felt the weightless feeling.

I averaged about 50 miles a day – more miles in flat states and fewer in the mountainy ones. The most I biked in one day was 104 miles. I had forgotten my Kindle at the last place I slept.

And I got faster – the second day, I only went 15 miles! It was all uphill and into a headwind. I remember one moment when I was going up a large hill, and when I crested the hill, I got that weightless feeling – the kind you get when you’re on a roller coaster – and that’s how I knew I had gotten faster.

I did take breaks – I also took a couple days off.

Me (aside)The awesomeness of discovering how your body just adapts to the demands you place on it is a superb confidence booster. We talk about working out as though it was some annoying thing we have to do – but really, it’s just a celebration of the body’s miraculous capability of doing amazing things.

Gear

Me: (eyeing her bike – there was a rack in the back with 2 panniers…and that was about it): Is that really all you brought?!

Sarah: Yep (proudly pointing at her things) – that’s my entire life! I saw a lot of other bikers on the same route and I always had the least amount of stuff. Usually people had bags in the front of their bikes and along the frame. People like to pack a lot of stuff.

Me: Haha yes – people like to be prepared, and no one wants to be stranded in the middle of rural America. What clothing did you bring?

Sarah: 2 pairs of bike shorts, 1 pair of bike pants, 2 pairs of normal shorts, 1 pair of jeans, though I would have brought something else because jeans are heavy and not very comfortable to sleep in. A few shirts…1 biking jersey, but mostly t-shirts. A few tank tops. I didn’t bring gloves…that surprised people. A hat.

Me: What about sunglasses?

Sarah: I had safety glasses.

Me (aside): Sarah didn’t wear biking shoes – made sense – she then only needed one pair of shoes. She was also riding a normal commuter bike. Almost everyone else had clippy shoes. Also, if I were to do a trip like this, I would most certainly bring sunglasses to avoid damaging my eyes!

Me: Is your phone the only thing you brought? Did you also bring a backpack? How did you pack your things?

Sarah: Yes. I did also have my backpack. I had my phone and toilet paper in here.

Usually, I’d strap my sleeping bag to the top. When it rained, I wrapped it with a black garbage bag.

(pointing at the right pannier) In here, I had clothes and supplies.

(pointing at the left pannier): Food went in here.

Me (aside): She brought so little stuff that there was really no need to balance the weight.

Me: How and where did you sleep? Did you usually get up early?

Sarah: I mostly camped in my 20 degree sleeping bag and single-person tent (North Face Stormbreak tent). I didn’t bring all the guylines and stakes so the tent was only about 3 pounds. I usually woke up before sunrise, ate breakfast in my tent, went to the bathroom, and then got on the road. I often liked to get on the road before the sun rose so I could finish biking before the hottest part of the day.

Me: Did you bring any bike supplies?

Sarah: A pump, one extra tube (if I got a flat I would buy one at the next town), tire levers, a patch kit, a multitool, chain lube, and extra screws for my rack. It’s a good thing I had those screws because one screw did fall out.

Me: Did you get any flats?

Sarah: Yes – 2 flats – both in Texas. There were a lot of thorns – goathead thorns – and random debris like tire bits. It was like going through a minefield. Texas is very wide so it ends up being a third of the trip, so it’s not surprising.

Me (aside): I’d categorize Sarah’s setup unquestionably in the ultralight category. Ultralight is often thrown around as a marketing term in the outdoor gear industry and there aren’t any well defined “weight limits” for lightweight vs ultralight. But looking at her gear, I consider Sarah’s setup to be ultralight-minimalist. She didn’t splurge on anything very expensive and only brought what she really needed. She didn’t even bring a sleeping pad! She told me her puffy jacket was enough and that she didn’t feel the rocks underneath. I’m sure being young helped too.

Me: Let’s talk about food. Did you bring a stove? What did you eat?

Sarah: I ate normal food – vegetables, fruit. I mostly ate food that didn’t need cooking – trail mix, peanut butter, protein bars, avocado, cheese/salami/tortilla to go with the tortilla. I stopped at grocery stores a lot and also fast food places and restaurants. I averaged about 2 tacos a day. Sometimes 14, sometimes 0, but averaged 2.

Food tastes better when you’re biking, somehow! There was one day when I ate a liter and a half of ice cream. It was hard at first for my body to get used to, because – no exaggeration – I needed three times the amount of food I normally ate, which is only 1000-some calories. I was burning about 3000 calories a day.

That reminds me – there was one time when I saw these berries on the side of the road, so at the next convenience store I asked what type of berries they were. And they were blackberries! So the next time I saw them, I spent like 2 hours picking them. It was like winning the lottery.

Me: Did you drink anything besides water?

Sarah: I only drank water, but it was important, especially in the desert, to have enough water, so sometimes I strapped a gallon of water to my rack with a bungee cord.

Me (aside): She did make a full list of her things:

  • Shoes
  • 2 1-liter Nalgene bottles
  • 1 Camelbak bottle
  • Hat
  • Red and blue bags for clothes that double as pillows
  • Light jacket
  • Soft shell rain jacket (doubles as sleeping mat)
  • 20F sleeping bag
  • 1 person tent
  • Dish towel
  • Clothes (2 bike shorts and 1 bike pants, 2 normal shorts, 1 normal pants – jeans, ~6 tops, couple handfuls of socks/underwear)
  • Bag of food w/a few sandwich bags and a plastic spoon
  • Helmet with mirror
  • Safety glasses
  • Daypack
  • Kindle
  • Pen/paper
  • Wallet/extra cash
  • Smartphone/headphones
  • Extra batteries
  • Headlamp
  • Toiletries (toilet paper, pads, toothbrush/paste, deodorant, comb, shampoo/conditioner, soap, razor, tweezers, nail clippers, scissors, hair ties)
  • Bungee cords/panniers on back wheel rack
  • Bike tools (pump, tire levers, extra tube, patch kit, multitool, chain lube, zipties)
  • Trash bags
  • Reflectors
  • Sunscreen
  • Bike lock

Trip Details

Me: What kinds of people did you meet? Did you ever feel alone?

Sarah: Mostly retired people, and they were from all around the world. They usually tried to figure out what I’m doing. Everyone asked my age. Then they’d ask if I was alone. Then they’d ask if I was afraid of this, this, and this. They were always telling me what I needed to be scared of.

People are very, very nice. They offered to drive me to the next town, the next campsite, the grocery store. They would invite me to sit with them at their campsites and share stories by the campfire. There were a couple bikers that I met at the beginning of the trip, and then didn’t see them for about 1,000 miles, and then I saw them again.

It’s promising to see people in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, even a woman in her 90’s – still staying active and getting out there. I heard a lot about the legendary 90-year old biker. She would stop anywhere – even at the bottom of a big hill after losing all her momentum – and stop, just to take a photo. People would fondly tell stories about her, including one where they saw her bike lying on the side of the road, and, worrying that she was hurt, looked all around for her…and she had simply gone to lay down in a big field of flowers with a big smile on her face!

My goal is to be a cool old person.

I never really felt lonely. You meet a lot of people along the way – at rest stops, at campsites. I met new friends – people I would stay in touch with. Plus, I had my communication machine smartphone with me.

Me: Were there a lot of people doing the same route?

Sarah: Yes – a few hundred per year do this route.

Me: Were you ever scared?

Sarah: Not really. The people I encountered – when they caught onto what I was doing, they were like, “you’re alone? Aren’t you scared?” and proceeded to tell me all the things I should be scared of – the standard three.

I always felt safe at campsites.

There were a couple times when I was afraid that I was going to get run over…people not paying attention. The only time I was scared was when I got bitten by a dog. I got chased by dogs all the time but this one was waiting for me, and then as I passed, it ran up next to me and attacked.

There was one stretch near the sand dunes where there the road would go up and down, but you couldn’t see what was on the other side of the hill, and there was no shoulder. When I saw a car, I stopped and pulled over.

Me (aside): Fear is something that I struggle with more than I like to admit. We talk about biking being dangerous, and if you constantly put yourself in careless situations, it can be. Sarah assured me that people she met were very, very nice. I was tempted to do the finger wag of disapproval myself! Bad things can happen anywhere, wherever you are, even close to home, or even at home. All you can really be is as vigilant as you can and exercise good judgment. Bikepacking has its risks, as does careening down a highway at 70+ mph during rush hour.

Me: Did you have a favorite state?

Sarah: Arizona. I really like the rocky landscape – moreso than trees.

Me: What about least favorite?

Sarah: Louisiana…but not just because of the dog. The people, the love of guns. They had margarita drive-thru’s there! I once saw one that was attached to an ammunition store and a post office.

Me: What was your favorite day?

Sarah: It’s really hard to pick just one – there were so many good days! The prettiest day was when I visited the Tonto Forest in Arizona by the salt river. I also like the first day – the first day was nice because I got to see a couple friends in SD that I hadn’t seen in 5 years. I also took a short ferry on the day I made it to Florida and there were birds that followed the boat’s draft, occasionally diving into the water to catch fish.

Me: It was your birthday recently right? Happy belated! Did you do anything special on your birthday?

Sarah: Yes – I ate a lot of ice cream, went to a really cool aviation museum, and saw an air show. The planes flew super close!

Me: Did you take any days off?

Sarah: I took two days off – one after getting bitten by the dog, and once in Tallahassee. It was going to rain that day.

Me (aside): Pretty amazing – she had all the time in the world, yet she only felt compelled to take a couple days off. 

Me: Did you get a lot of sunburns?

Sarah: I got a light one and a few inches on my back because I missed a spot. Putting on sunscreen was part of my routine – I usually put it on in the morning. I became a connoisseur of sunscreen because I went through 4 bottles of sunscreen! I recommend Neutrogena’s SPF 70 sunscreen that comes in the yellow bottle which doesn’t smell as bad and isn’t as icky as other sunscreens.

I never had to reapply it throughout the day – they always tell you to reapply it on the back of the bottles, but not because the sunscreen degrades – sunscreen technology is advanced enough that that doesn’t really happen – it’s because people don’t apply enough and everywhere the first time. Also, some people sweat like crazy, but I do not.

Me (aside): I guess I get to stop stressing about reapplying sunscreen!

Me: What would you do differently next time?

Sarah: I would not bring jeans. They’re heavy and not comfortable to sleep in. I probably also wouldn’t bring my u-lock. Most people had cable locks.

Next time, I’d also like to bike tour with somebody. Being by yourself gives you freedom – but it’d be nice to be able to share gear and have someone to talk to.

Me: Are you looking forward to being back home? What do you miss?

Sarah: Yes. I miss my computer. I miss having a bathroom I can use at any time. I even miss cooking! I always thought of cooking as a chore, but I miss it!

Me (aside): Sarah has always been a minimalist in just about every way, but she didn’t realize there was a word for it. Back when she was still working on her PhD, she had explained to me why she liked Soylent, and her explanation told me right then and there that we were on the same wavelength, though I am not such a fan of Soylent. 

When she left, she left some bananas and a small bottle of Nutella on my counter with a note telling me that bananas and Nutella were an excellent alternative to energy gels. I told her that I would love to accompany her on her travels, but that 2 months was more vacation time than I had available to me at the current moment, and our trip would need to be shorter than that (unless I staggered it in December-January).

It’s easy to be swept up into the dreary monotony of routine and spend off-hours vegging on the couch or some picturesque beach. For many people, adventuring doesn’t really come to mind when we think about vacation and decompressing.

Sometimes, we look at people like Sarah and cast our net of judgment on them. She’s crazy! Who would ever do a thing like that? Think about what could have happened! How…cavalier! But the truth is, we need people like that. We need people to show us what we’re capable of. We need people to try crazy things. Otherwise, Everest would never have been climbed, planes would never have been invented, skydiving wouldn’t be a thing, and how on earth would we ever have gotten to the moon?

We need more people like Sarah to show us that there is more to our lives than routines, that we might as well be bold, explore the world, and show everyone else just how beautiful the world can be if we give it a chance.

The Lose-Lose Choice of Living in an American City or Suburb

Via Pixabay

Growing up, I considered myself a “city person.”

In retrospect, I now realize that translated to “I don’t know what to do with myself when there aren’t people and businesses surrounding me.” Then, when I did go to the city, the first thing I did was find a major shopping street, and let my pop culture insecurity-induced consumerist desires come to life. Ok – that’s not quite the truth – in reality I have so little awareness of pop culture (I become pretty clueless when people start talking about famous actors and other celebrities) that its impact on me is pretty minimal. But the part about finding a major shopping street is true. As a kid who stayed at home 99% of the time, I racked up plenty of insecurities over time and never quite figured out how to deal with them, and buying my way out was a coping mechanism that I had to get rid of. The idea of minimalism and simple living in classic keeping up with the Jones’s environment was not a concept I was ever really exposed to until much later.

I admit, cities have perks I enjoy immensely. Infrastructure is wayfarer-friendly, which means stores and services can be easily accessed without a car. There are more festivities and public events. There are more career and networking opportunities. The social scene is more diverse. Simply put, the availability of human beings you can interact with is just greater. It is tiring, though, especially as an introvert, to be out and about all the time. Fortunately, introverts can experience not-being-entirely-a-hermit by mingling in the city, with the option of talking to others.

At the same time, city-living has its limitations. It’s expensive. Really, really expensive, for some cities. You’re paying a major premium for the privilege of being in the middle of the action, and for some, it all gets old as priorities change. Approaching 30, my city-dwelling friends are starting to reach typical home-buying and family-rearing age, and more and more of them are starting to leave the city in favor of buying a home with a lawn and hosting large parties and barbecues on a back door patio.

This is where it gets tricky.

I have mixed feelings about suburbia. Or at least, the suburbs I’ve been to.

First of all, its ludicrous that every single American family is expected to own their own huge private dwelling – do we really need to eat up that much land and resources to support our already rich lifestyles? America is a huge country, with not great rail infrastructure. Thus, it was built on the premise that the vast majority of its inhabitants owned cars. And so, chances are, you are driving your car everywhere. To the grocery store. To the daycare. To Target. To the gym. To the yoga studio (I guess to make up for the stress of driving there??). To your kids’ dance practice. To the theatre. To work. All that time spent driving is time not spent walking, or cycling, or doing something else remotely active. So of course, we start losing our health, unless we become gym rats or runners, which is pretty difficult if you’re tired and run-down all that driving (it’s not exactly an energizing activity). Exercise and moving around is just not built into suburb life. Sitting on the couch, driving everywhere, and sitting at restaurants/movies/offices is, well, fattening. At night, walk around any neighborhood in a middle-class suburb and you’ll probably be 1. The only person walking and 2. See lots of flickering TV screens in the windows.

Ideally, being active should be easily baked into the day. We buy all sorts of fancy equipment for our houses, hoping that dropping that money will motivate us to work out. But it doesn’t help that suburbs are ill-equipped to handle bicycles. All sorts of sidewalk-riding routes (too dangerous to ride on the road, so the next best choice is riding on the sidewalk) and disappearing sidewalks (sidewalks that just “end”) next to 45-mph speed limit roads and the absence of bike racks at strip malls are not conducive to bicycle riding. Everything being so spread out makes it so the grocery store and the school are too far apart to realistically walk to.

So when I ask myself the question of whether or not I am a city person, I have to be frank: it’s hard to say. Neither is great. As a minimalist, I think I have an overall dissatisfaction with both. I don’t want to be surrounded by advertisements and businesses wanting money, and I certainly don’t like high costs of living. At the same time, I don’t want to be too far from people in general – feeling connected to our communities is a basic human need. I feel like I have this dream of living in a city like Copenhagen, where bicycles rule the road, people value their health, and the community is in god spirits.

Fortunately, there is hope – millennials in Seattle have recently reversed the trend – car ownership is finally starting to decline, thanks to the uptick in people cycling, car-sharing, or public transportation. For our health and for our environment, I look forward to a future where we are not boxed into car ownership should we choose not to live in an expensive city.

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