Skip to content

The Road Back Down The Mountain

June 28, 2011

At the moment, I don’t know where this blog or my life is going.

Retiring The Joy Project frees me to write about whatever I want. And right now, I don’t know what that is. What I do know is my days feel cluttered with to-do lists, leaving me yearning for free time.


My To Do list from last Sunday



At the same moment, our apartment is in complete disarray because we had the painters come last week, and Shelley’s been on a redecorating kick that is driving me bananas. She’s throwing out all her accumulated crap, which is fine, but now she wants me to do the same. “We live with all this clutter!” Tonight she explained that when she walks into a less cluttered or simply decorated home, she feels calmer. She’s become completely galvanized by this, and it’s all quite a blessing, really. But she wants me to get involved with her over decisions about colors, furniture new and old, wall decals, pillows, mirrors, rugs, and closets. Not exactly my thing, I tell her.

But she’s observed something about the two of us: “I like change and you don’t!” she said. And she’s right.

And while she’s decluttering our home, I notice that my mind is also cluttered, and that’s where I spend most of my time. Also cluttered are my days, weeks and life. 

It’s not all bad by any means. I’m still getting out of debt, and building up my savings and investments, and this gives me a definite sense of direction. I’m working like a dog, but I love it because I love my work.

But I keep falling behind with other things I want to accomplish, like to redo my website and fix up my office at home, which looks like it just dropped in from Joplin, Missouri. Summer’s here and I thought by now I’d have entered more of a relaxed mode, but there’s always so much more to do!

“When you die,” says that book Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff, “ Your in-box will still be full.”  

I practically missed April-May-June, my favorite months. The year’s half over (do you believe it?). Another two months, and it will start cooling off again. Time slides, and it’s falling like an avalanche down the mountain and taking me with it.

Here in New York City, where workaholism is displayed like a badge of honor, everyone expects that we’ll all keep this (ever accelerating) pace up until we drop, and I for one am starting to resent the expectation.

But this is interesting: As I age, I’ve become in some respects more capable – of synthesizing ideas and experiences and relating them for the benefit of others; of  appreciating paradox; of penetrating deeper into the nature of things, and allowing them to penetrate deeper into me. I embrace wider and wider tastes — from a rave to Astaire. I’m proud to competently perform more in a day today than I could or would at 25 or 35 or 45. I’m happy I can keep all the plates in the air, but it’s exhausting.

Plates in the air? If you ask, you’re not a boomer. Everyone I know over 50 has this image embedded deeply in their brain: On Ed Sullivan, the plate spinner trying valiantly to not let any of them fall.


This and “Beat The Clock” did more to prep us for what life had in store than we ever could have known.    

But at the same time I also yearn to simplify my life. Pair down. I’m suffering from a chronic case of what the Hopis call Koyaanisqatsi  – life out of balance.

Susan and Warren, Shelley’s aunt and uncle, were up from Florida and visiting us for the day last Saturday. They’re in their 70s, and they wanted us to show them Brooklyn. We thought we’d be playing tour guide well into the night. But after visiting DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights, Warren grew tired and by 3 was ready to pack it in. And herein lies a warning and challenge for Shelley and I, who love to travel: Do we work hard now and save our pennies and wait till she’s retired and we both have the time, or will waiting  be something we live to regret? There’s so much of the world we want to see – but the window of physical ability is slowly and inexorably closing.

But there was more to learn from these two: As we were all walking around, I noticed many stoop sales. “I’m getting rid of everything I can,” Warren told me. And this from a man who lives with his wife in a spacious condo overlooking a marina down there in south Fla. “Less is more,” he said. We passed several stoop sales with some items labeled “Free”, indicating that maybe he’s not alone in his sentiments.

Interesting how, as most of the world is still struggling to get up that big rock candy mountain of consumer goods that we live on, there’s a steady and perhaps growing stream of us walking back down, saying in effect to those we pass, “The view is not what you think.” We boomers, at least many of us from the middle and upper- middle classes, were the first to do this in a major way when we were young. They called us hippies, and as we ran down that mountain, those climbing it looked at us flabbergasted. 

Some of us gave up our privileged lives and panhandled for “spare change” down in the East Village. Now, like some kind of existential street freak, I feel like asking passersby for some spare time.

So I’m thinking perhaps my younger self knew a thing or two about what really matters. He was also awash in that free time I now crave. Wealthy, I’d say. 

Nowadays people pay for my time, but sometimes I end up feeling like I’m the one who’s paying. 

So maybe I need to slow down, before I’m slowed down.





9 Comments leave one →
  1. ernst Mohamed permalink
    June 28, 2011 10:53 am

    Don’t wait go on vacation NOW,otherwise you will be talking about the vacations you wish you had taken

    • June 28, 2011 12:50 pm

      I really like that sentence: “Nowadays people pay for my time, but sometimes I end up feeling like I’m the one who’s paying.” That’s deep!

  2. Roy Alexander permalink
    June 28, 2011 1:11 pm

    And, perhaps, something else you might get from Susan and Warren: maybe they don’t need to tour into the night; maybe they are happy to “tour” the spot they’re standing on and the people they’re standing with. And, Charley, please don’t ever stop writing. I just love your stuff and can’t wait for my love to come home so I can share it with her.

  3. June 28, 2011 4:45 pm

    I hear ya, Charlie! I am also trying to pare down my crap and free up my time so i can LIVE, LOVE and PLAY to the MAX!

  4. Diana Slattery permalink
    June 28, 2011 8:24 pm

    My favorite post. Do it now.

  5. June 29, 2011 1:13 pm

    Too much free time is as paralyzing as none. I am currently looking at an empty to-do list and a wide-open calendar and it fills me with anxiety. I’ve already traveled extensively in my younger days and don’t think seeing new places is any longer a valuable end in itself–Emerson said something like “you can travel much further from your armchair”–so I guess it’s balance we’re after in the end.

  6. murray permalink
    June 29, 2011 4:34 pm

    “I like change and you don’t”
    “Don’t sweat the small stuff”
    “Beat the Clock”
    “life out of Balance”
    Slow down. great advice for all us
    This piece proves reading your Stuff is worth MY Time.
    Just keep writing..

  7. July 4, 2011 8:57 pm

    Great post. I also appreciated the 99th Monkey’s alternative perspective. I remember being bored much of the time when I was young. Yeah, it was great having tons of free time, but as a child I didn’t feel empowered to do much with it. As an adult, I have many more options, but little time to take advantage of them. The main culprit is the 9 to 5 work routine, and that seems unavoidable, at least until retirement. Seems to me, though, that Shelley’s on the right track, there much that we can do even within the confines of our working lives to open up space, declutter, simplify, and free time.

  8. para permalink
    July 10, 2011 5:15 am

    ‘Things’ have 2 purposes… first, to cover your needs – food, water, shelter, company, security; second, to do so faster, more thoroughly, and more securely.

    The problem is that we forget what our needs actually are. The list above is the accepted truism on ‘needs’, but the things on it are abstractions… this is hard to explain. Have you ever studied proof theory? The investigation into the fundamental truths of numbers, operations, and mathematical law? The fact is that even something as simple as ‘one’, when you look deeper, is full of confusing parts and odd sideways paths.

    For basic needs, one of those confusing bits – call them the ‘subatomic parts’ of our basic needs – is our ability to remember what we need. Another is novelty, and a third is time saving. There are other parts, like mobility and durability, but those three are the ones I tend to think of as the most misleading, and the ones most prone to clutter. Getting back to your premise, this is where ‘things’ come into play.

    The memory is a tricky thing; it depends on the environment, on repetition, on circumstance, even our physical state. So we keep reminders around, but each revisit of a memory takes time. Maintaining the reminders takes time. Even remembering to remember takes time.

    From memory springs our ability to identify our other needs, however, so we can’t just abandon it.

    Nature has given us tools to choose what to remember, and clues on how to do it. Nostalgia, saudade, fear, hope, curiosity, even perversity exist to help us manage our mental time. The fact that ‘things’ trigger memories is probably originally based in direct use – see one thing, remember it’s food; see another, remember it made you sick. But that original directness has been folded into the methods that our minds use to manage our identities.

    Things become even more complicated when you add multiple people. Shared experiences, shared impressions, mean that owning a ’61 Ferrari 250 GT California MATTERS. Its value isn’t in how it can get you around, it’s in the story it tells. And *that* only truly matters if you have an audience that cares.

    The example doesn’t have to be that extreme. Imagine that you have five or six friends come over to poker night, and have for the past 4-5 years. Saving every chip from every game might be pointless; but saving that first deck of cards? That might be worth the time and effort it takes to preserve… so you can spring it on your poker buddies on a birthday, or anniversary.

    So that’s the use of ‘things’ that have nostalgic value: memories and shared experiences. If you can manage to remember something without keeping the clutter around – or if you don’t strictly need the memory to keep the sort of identity you want – then chuck it, I say. Otherwise, don’t.

    Novelty is the next confusing function of ‘things’. Perhaps novelty isn’t the right word, but it’s the closest I can think of at the moment – that feeling of cool, quirky attractiveness. It’s useful, again, in a social sense; unlike memories, that are the end of a story, novelty is the beginning of stories. And that gives us a clue on how to prioritize our novelties. If we never actually TELL a story about it to someone, or to ourselves… chuck it. If we do, then keep it, and see if the story grows. If it doesn’t after a while, then either fertilize it, or chuck it.

    Third is time saving. Kitchen gadgets, etc., etc. The key to time saving is twofold – first, does it actually save time, and second, what is it’s social value. Can you bring friends over to check out the widget? Does it have a steep learning curve? Does it have ‘network’ value – aka, the more people use it, the easier it is to use… or does it have diminishing value – the longer you have it, the less useful it becomes? Are you prepared to be adventurous with it, or do you need to wait until it’s not just a good idea, but a genuine need?

    Long story short, decluttering is hard. But ask the right questions, and it gets easier.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: