50 Things I’ve Learned in 50 Years

I’m older, but am I wiser? A half a century is a long time to be alive, but here I am. Given my massive boatload of life experiences, here are some things I think I have learned, or I’m still trying to learn.

1. Parenting is relative.

My parents were not good parents. This is not a judgment, it is just a fact. They were young hippies who didn’t even know how to take care of themselves, much less an infant. When I was born, my mom was on the verge of a downward spiral into mental illness that she would never escape. She had her first mental break when I was six months old and abruptly stopped breastfeeding. My dad left the family unit before I was three, and spent the next decade or so drinking a lot and working as little as possible. I would see him maybe every year or two. Thankfully, my Grandma was there to pick up the slack and make my breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day until I was twelve. Many kids with dysfunctional parents don’t get that kind of stability, and I now understand how lucky I was not to ever have to meet with CPS. I had a fun, safe childhood, despite not having the most capable parents. Families and parenting can take many forms.

2. Relationships are work, but not hard work.

My first marriage was a lot of work. It was almost always difficult, and I kept writing my future-ex-husband long letters explaining why it was so difficult and how he should change to fix it. It was hard for me to see my own role in the angst. I’ve had a few friendships that were constant strife and drama, and I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be like that. Yes, you do have to show up for relationships and work through conflict, but if working through conflict is ALL you do, then it’s OK to end that relationship. Everyone will probably be a bit relieved. My second marriage is (so far) easy. We might get on each others’ nerves now and then, but we’ve been trapped in a house together for two years (thanks, COVID) and still like each other. It doesn’t have to be that hard.

3. You can (almost) always find a new job.

I came into adulthood with a huge amount of fear and anxiety about finding and keeping a job. The working class survivalist ethic was deeply ingrained. Do anything you have to do to pay rent and feed yourself, it said. So I did, starting with a minimum wage job at a video store (which was fun, if not lucrative). Since that first day of work in 1990, I have had no fewer than 12 employers (14 if you account for mergers and acquisitions). I have been laid off during economic implosions thrice in this century, and during those periods of unemployment I learned to be scrappy and entrepreneurial. I used to live in deep fear of losing a job, but now I know I will survive and come out stronger on the other side. I know that I can find or make something better, even if the economy is in the crapper.

4. American exceptionalism is a bad joke.

Whenever I can, I get out of the United States. Since about 2003 (when I could first afford the airfare) until 2019 (thanks, COVID) it was pretty much an annual pursuit, either on my own or in recent years with my husband. No matter where I go, I often have cause to think that the locals are just doing life better than we are in the USA. Especially places with good, free healthcare and diets that don’t come wrapped in white bread and stuffed with corn syrup and toxic oils. Life in the United States is full of consumerism, junk food, and kooky belief systems (like: vaccines are a bad thing, and gun-toting is a human right). Americans are far from exceptional.

5. Consumerism is a shitty philosophy.

People of my generation were raised into peak consumerism. It started with the commercial breaks during Saturday morning cartoons, when Fischer Price et al pushed a cornucopia of plastic wonders on unsuspecting small brains. I was drawn to the creative toys—the Lite-Brite, Spirograph, and Fashion Plates—and I would run into the kitchen to tell Grandma about the things I simply had to have. She would add the ones that didn’t seem too extravagant to my birthday and Christmas wish lists, and I would have to wait until late November to find out which of my pleas had worked. On Christmas Day, after all of the wrapping paper had gone into the wood stove, I would assess my bounty and really try to squeeze all the happiness I could out of these inanimate objects. And then Boxing Day came and I was already bored. Like many folks in the consumerism boat, I have spent a lot of my adult life trying to replicate that Christmas morning feeling with more new things, and through many years of experiments I can tell you that it never lasts. Whatever brief excitement you get from a new car or TV or whatever is soon washed over by Boxing Day doldrums. An economy based on buying more and more and more is a great way to make people unhappy while destroying the environment to boot.

6. Being anti-racist is not a passive pursuit.

I learned about racists early. My home town in North Idaho was also the chosen home of the Aryan Nation, with its compound in the woods and Nazi parades down Main Street. My family and everyone I knew disagreed with these lunatics and welcomed people of color into our lives to the extent that it was possible in the whitest city in the country. I knew racism was a thing you have to fight against, but I did not realize it was still so prevalent outside of those fringe groups. I thought the civil rights movement had basically worked. Boy, was I misinformed. It took me years to understand just how far we have not come since Jim Crow. I thought the Rodney King incident was a horrible, isolated event back in the early 1990s. Now I understand that it was in fact “business as usual” caught on camera. Dismantling this kind of institutional, structural racism is not something we can accomplish by being passively “not racist.” We—as white people—need to stand up for what is right with our money and our voices and our privilege.

7. Exercise and sleep are the most important activities.

I used to drink a lot of coffee, and in high school I supplemented with No-Doz just to get through the day. I stayed up too late watching MTV or writing bad poetry or painting creepy acrylic hellscapes (I was a little goth). I never got enough sleep because I thought that music, creativity, and drinking coffee at Perkins with my black-clad friends were all more important activities than sleep. My diet was poor (French fries and Froot Loops), and I avoided exercise like the plague. At a time when I should have been full of vitality, I felt like shit. It took me years to start thinking of my own health and self-care as a priority, and it wasn’t until I got a breast cancer diagnosis in 2020 that I really made my health my top priority. Don’t underestimate the effects of consistent, adequate sleep and regular exercise. They just make the rest of life 1000x better.

9. Offspring are 100% optional.

Whenever my Grandpa Frank heard about the ills of humanity—war, poverty, disease, deforestation, rent hikes—he would proclaim: “Too many goddamn people in the world!” He was vociferously opposed to overpopulation and thought we should just slow it down a bit. It made me wonder, as a little girl, why I would want to push a human out of my vagina and just add to all the problems. I never did find an adequate counter-argument, so here I am turning 50 having never pushed a human out of my vagina. It’s not like I ever wanted babies. And I’m proud of my choice not to have babies. I agree with Grandpa Frank (to a degree), and I also recognize that I am not a nurturer. I’ve got infinite things I want to do that are not parenting. I’m glad to know plenty of good parents who are raising good kids. I can like kids without having my own, it turns out.

10. Practice makes progress.

We are ambitious, we humans. We always want to set big goals and reach them right now, and when we discover that it takes longterm time and effort we give up and decide we can’t do hard things after all. The secret to reaching big goals is not hard work for a short time, it is moderately easy work over long spans of time. Take learning a language. It’s a pretty lofty goal, that most people can achieve…eventually. You can’t study a new language for two weeks non-stop and speak the language. But if you practice for 15 minutes a day for a year, you might be getting somewhere. You can’t write a (good) novel in a month, but if do a little bit every day for a year…you get the picture. I have only been able to lose weight and get close finishing my memoir through moderate-to-easy, consistent work. I don’t even think about where the finish line lies, I just keep taking small steps in the right direction, and eventually I get somewhere.

11. Quality over quantity (do less, own less).

As a culture, we seem to value “keeping busy” almost as much as we value owning consumer goods. I have found that both things are ultimately harmful and not very useful. In school, I learned how to do well with the least amount of effort. I was not spending hours studying for exams, but I was learning tactics for retaining the right information and getting A’s on tests. This “work smart not hard” strategy has turned out to be a great way to do well at every job I’ve ever had. I don’t bother looking busy or doing a lot of meaningless tasks. I just deliver beyond expectations on what’s actually important—and I’ve never heard a complaint from any employer.

12. Meditation is not what you may think.

My mom taught me how to meditate and use creative visualization when it first came on trend in the mid-1970s. I liked the practice, but as a five-year-old it was not a high priority. By the time I was an adult, I had filed it away with the rest of my mom’s hippy-dippy stuff as something that was “not for me.” Later, I started gaining interest in techniques for improving my mood and focus, and meditation kept coming across my radar, until I accepted it as something I should probably try. Like most people, I thought that the essence was to sit quietly and stop all thoughts. I often hear “I can’t meditate” from people who think it means some sort of blank, Zen state. While the mind can sometimes quiet down for a few moments, that is not at all the point. What sitting with your thoughts for a few minutes allows you to do is to separate your self (the observer) from all the noise (the thinker). In that space it is possible to learn how to respond rather than react to thoughts and emotions. But the point is never to stop thought. I have been meditating every morning for more than a year now (thanks, COVID), and it has really helped me cope with a lot of stressors, including a pandemic, cancer treatments, and a new job.

13. Pet hoarding is a stressful hobby.

My ex and I started collecting pets in the mid-1990s. At first it was a Leopard Gecko, then a Green Iguana. Then a cat. And a hamster. There were a couple of rats in there somewhere. We impulsively brought home a cockatiel. We thought breeding bearded dragons might be a good idea and bought a pair of those. We didn’t have enough reptiles, so we acquired an Egyptian Uromastyx. And a skink. And another Siberian Dwarf Hamster. We were at the vet almost weekly. The cat had a urinary tract blockage and had to be hospitalized. The iguana fell and broke his tail, which required amputation. The female bearded dragon died in surgery after swallowing a button. It could be argued that a lot of the stress of my first marriage came from trying to run a small zoo. While I thoroughly enjoyed living with all of these creatures, I’m here to tell you: Don’t. Just get 1-3 pets if you want pets at all, and stop there.

14. A new outfit is not the answer.

I’m still learning this one. When I’m feeling anxious or dissatisfied, I think what I might need to feel better is the right outfit. I’ve never once felt like I’m dressed right. This complex started early, when a fellow preschooler told me “You can’t wear a dress with pants!” I wore a dress with pants almost daily as a three-year-old, and this seemed to put my whole identity in question. From then on, I rarely wore dresses at all, and stuck to gender-neutral Levis and hoodies until I went quasi-goth in high school. I could not afford mall store goth-wear, so I was stuck mixing and matching thrift store finds that never quite fit or worked together. I splashed out for some striped tights and pointy Fleuvogs. I discovered the versatility of black leggings and stretchy mini-skirts…and that pretty much describes what I’m wearing as I type this some 30+ years after I started wearing stretchy black things. And yet I keep looking for some new look that will be more cool or comfortable or just “me.” I have donated or consigned probably a shipping container or two of unwanted clothing over the years. I have wasted uncountable dollars on clothing items I never even wore. A couple of years ago I decided to go a whole year without buying a single item of clothing. And do you know what? I did it, and it was just fine.

15. Traveling and dining alone are wonderful.

Some single people bemoan their lack of a travel companion. They don’t go out or go on vacation because they “don’t have anyone” to go with them. I wish they would just go ahead and go on their own, because solo adventures are the best. I now have a travel buddy (my husband), but I’m still not sure if I prefer to travel with someone. It’s nice to have the shared experience, but solo travel is just so much more personal and flexible. For the years between the end of my first marriage in 2004 and meeting my second husband in 2015 I went on a solo international trip almost every year, and I LOVED it. I didn’t have to care about what anyone else wanted to do or eat. I could make impromptu changes of plans. I only went to touristy places if I really wanted to (pro tip: you can visit Paris without going to the Louvre). I took hotel naps without guilt. I spent hours staring at artworks. I sat at cafes and people-watched. I read novels on trains. I didn’t have to talk to anyone or discuss agendas or argue over maps. The same applies to dining alone. Want to try a new restaurant but don’t have a date? Just GO. There’s something very peaceful about enjoying a good meal without talking…And it’s fun to eavesdrop on the other diners.

16. Drinking alone is a bad idea.

I’ve developed my share of unhelpful habits over the years, and arguably the most harmful and dangerous is the (former) habit of drinking alone. I mostly don’t drink alcohol now, and I no longer live alone, but during the years after my divorce when I was living alone and drinking regularly I drank alone almost every day. Beside the fact that being inebriated and alone is somewhat dangerous (accidents can happen, friends), it sort of becomes a default activity that keeps you from even wanting to leave the house. I can see how the archetype of the sad, lonely drunk happens. Drinking just keeps you from living life, if you do enough of it.

17. Alcohol is not my friend.

On that note: Did you know that alcohol is a carcinogen and neurotoxin? Yes, even a “healthy” glass of red wine, an artisanal microbrew, or the craftiest cocktail is basically….poison. The power of the alcohol industry to downplay that fact is pretty impressive. Even some of the most health-conscious people I know don’t think twice about having a drink or three. It really is worse than sugar or gluten or fries or even most illicit drugs, but people seem very attached to it. Which is not surprising, given the cultural myth that has grown up around it. COOL people drink. They used to smoke, too, remember? Plus, it is highly addictive, so even social or moderate drinkers can build up a tolerance and have cravings. The best idea for everyone is to just avoid it altogether. But we are rebels aren’t we? I refuse to quit altogether simply because I don’t like absolutes.

18. Being bisexual is not a myth (or cop out).

I’ve known I was attracted to all the genders since I was a little kid. I’ve never really understood why someone would be attracted to one gender expression or set of body parts over another. Those things seems very superficial when it comes to relationships and sex. I am for sure just as attracted to women as I am to men (and also to non-binary types), but I’ve married two men…and only dated men. So does that make me straight? I don’t think so, but I also don’t go around announcing that I’m bi (or pan, or whatever). You might ask, why bother labeling yourself? I think it’s important to acknowledge that this kind of ambiguity is perfectly normal. I’ve always thought that most people are somewhere on the LGBTQ rainbow, but many are too repressed to even admit it to themselves. So here I am admitting it.

19. Death is inevitable, and sometimes sooner than you think.

The first time someone I really loved died in a tragic, early fashion I was twelve years old. Grandma had been going through a terror of cancer treatments for a couple of years, so it was not a big surprise, but it still felt sudden. She was only 57. With her death the bottom fell out of my life. Since that terrible cliff in 1983, I have known a lot of folks who exited early, including a handful of coworkers and a couple of good friends. It is the unexpected death that is the hardest to take. The heart attack, the suicide, the violent murder—I have known tragic victims of all of these. It really drives home the fragility of life. One day you are here, the next you are not…and often there’s not much warning of when that day will come. Memento mori.

20. Party is not a verb.

After the end of my first marriage I happened to fall in with a party scene. These folks were mostly about a decade younger than me, and highly motivated by drugs and secret after-parties. Having never “partied” at their age, it was kind of refreshing to be able to use that verb. For almost two years every weekend was spent in bars, clubs, and cramped hipster lairs until dawn forced my walk of shame back to my cold bed for a few hours of sleep. As a grown up, I knew this was not healthy or helpful behavior, but it was (literally) intoxicating. I developed deep FOMO if I didn’t get an invite for some Friday night shenanigans. Eventually the sleep deprivation and toxic substances caught up with me. I felt so awful and tired that I decided to quit the whole lifestyle and go sober for a year (which lasted about 8 months). After that break I had lost touch with most of my party people, and the few I stayed friends with started to grow out of the lifestyle. I don’t regret my party years, but I would never do it again.

21. Religion is not an answer.

Religion was not part of my upbringing. I absorbed some of the basic Christian mythologies just through various Christmas specials, and I knew a bunch of lapsed Catholics through an uncle, but I didn’t really understand the ritual of worship…or the point of any of it. Having later studied the historical contexts of many world religions, I can now understand why they have been so important—both for human culture and for individual contentment. It’s not for me, though. I don’t need to be taught the rules of morality (per ancient texts) in order to have morals and ethics. I don’t need a shared dogma in order to have relationships and community. I don’t need the promise/ threat of an afterlife to determine how I behave in this life. And I don’t need the certainty of faith. Not knowing is half the fun! Given the terrors still being inflicted in the name of one religion or another, it is hard for me to see any of them as a good thing for humanity as whole. That said, I know plenty of devout people who find a great deal of value in their faith and don’t use it to harm others. Live and let live, I say.

22. Walking is underrated.

Humans are walking machines. Early, nomadic humans walked from dawn til dusk without rest, and we are lucky enough to have the DNA and biomechanics that made that possible. But we usually sit. We sit at desks, in cars, on sofas in front of TVs. We circle the parking lot to find the closest possible spot. We take the elevator instead of the stairs. And then go to the gym or out for a run for 45 minutes of intense activity a few times a week (or don’t, as the case may be). We are not using our bodies as intended: perpetual motion machines). I love to walk. I’ve always loved to walk, for miles and hours on end, across town as a teen to buy a new book. I still love to walk, and in the past two pandemic years it has become the antidote to everything. I try to walk 3-5 miles per day when it’s not pouring down rain, and when I do everything is just better. I don’t listen to music or podcasts or audiobooks, I just walk and enjoy the birds and flowers.

23. You can be a functional adult without a car.

I had a car once. For three or four years I was the proud driver of a trusty 1985 Toyota Camry. In a way, I wanted to prove that I was an adult. I was getting divorced, living alone, and finishing my bachelor’s degree in my early thirties. Throughout my first marriage, my husband was the driver. I was dependent on him for rides to appointments and grocery store trips, so getting my license again—and a cheap, used car—allowed me to find some independence as my first marriage fell apart. Sadly, I was t-boned a few years later, and the car was totaled. I was over car ownership by then anyway. I had paid hundreds in parking tickets in my urban neighborhood, and the battery kept dying in cold weather. It was becoming more of a hassle than it was worth. My (second) husband and I live near a light rail station and have never owned a car in the six years we’ve been together. We rent cars for weekend trips, take Lyfts to appointments, and take the train to the airport. Our groceries are delivered weekly, and pretty much any other errands can be accomplished online. For us, a car would be more hassle (and money) than it is worth.

24. Good friends will usually stick around.

People fade in and out of your life. Sometimes they leave suddenly via death, marriage or relocation, but most often they just sort of slowly fade away into some other facet of life. Work, family, grad school, or weird sports obsessions might take them away from your sphere. Maybe they never really liked you, who knows? But the ones who know you and do like you will make an effort to be in your life in some way. Maybe you don’t talk every day—or even every week—but they always come back because there’s some love underneath all the vagaries of life.

25. Transformation is continuous.

Change happens whether you like it or not. Like everyone, I have always wanted to change something about myself, be it better fitness, more income, or learning a language. There has never been a moment when I thought “I’m done now.” But none of those transformations happen quickly. Getting fit isn’t a matter of working out a lot for six months or a year, it’s a matter of daily lifestyle shifts that add up over time. There’s no point in getting gung ho on exercise, because that motivation fades in about a week, while real change can take years. But even doing nothing leads to transformation. We are made by our habits, and a sedentary lifestyle will transform you just as much as an active one will, but in a very different way. Knowing that change is inevitable, you can either become a victim of entropy or direct the change toward…something.

26. Social media may be the thing that destroys civilization.

I love social media. I jumped on Friendster in the early aughts, obsessed over my MySpace page, and signed up for Twitter and Facebook as soon as they were publicly available. As soon as interaction mediated by a network of computers became possible, I knew that was the kind of interaction I wanted in my life. Always a loner and an introvert, I had finally found a way to feel connected outside of my insular bubble. Eventually, social media became part of my work life as well, and I had a front row seat to some of the mayhem that started around the 2016 election cycle. The trolls and bots and fake Russian accounts had been around for awhile, but now they seemed to be taking over. In the decade since the Arab Spring uprisings spread through social media I have gone from seeing these platforms as revolutionary to seeing them as agents for the collapse of civilization as we know it. Is that a bad thing, though?

28. If you want to be a writer, read.

I’ve been writing for a long time, and I am lucky to be able to list it as a professional skill as well as a hobby. One thing that I have noticed is that most people are not very good writers—even some of those who claim it as a professional skill. I didn’t get any writing degrees, and I don’t think I have some mysterious genetic talent. I’ve just read a lot. My mom and grandma both read to me as a child, and I was reading on my own before I even got to kindergarten. I was devouring novels by the fourth grade, and I’ve really never stopped devouring. When you read, your brain absorbs not just the meaning of the words, but also the structure of the language, which can be quite varied. No one taught me to write, but every author I have read has taught me something.

29. Life is full of surprises. Sometimes they’re good.

If the last two years have taught me anything, it’s this: Expect the unexpected (thanks, COVID). Other unexpected things in 2020 – 2021 have included a cancer diagnosis, the sudden death of a coworker, a new job followed within weeks by an acquisition of the company, and renewing my relationship with my estranged mother. Other than the new job, I did not ask or plan for any of those developments, but I’ve come to realize that that is just life. Unpredictable. Inconsistent. Often surprising, sometimes traumatic. But sometimes the surprises are actually good news, if we can stop to notice pleasant surprises amidst all of the things we don’t want. I have surprised myself by becoming an avid Peloton rider and semi-OK “paleo” chef. My employer has surprised me with some extra money as part of the acquisition (not much, but still). My marriage has surprised me by thriving in captivity (thanks, COVID). It’s easy to get stuck on the bad news, so you really have to pay attention to the good news.

30. Strong emotions are trying to tell you something.

I was a Mr. Spock fan as a little girl. I started watching Star Trek as a toddler and soon aspired to embody a Vulcan level of pragmatism and logic. This helped me navigate the chaos and emotional excess of my mom’s psychiatric disorders. She was intense and moody, and I was stoic and zen. My own strong emotions were like internal hurricanes that I would weather quietly with my nose in a book. I learned to ignore my own emotions, and it has taken me decades to understand that they are trying to teach me something. Alcohol is a useful tool for not feeling your feelings, and that was a crutch for me for many years. Now that I’ve more or less stopped drinking, I have learned how to listen to my emotions and to really feel them. I may still not be great at expressing them, but at least I am giving them some space to exist, and taking them as signals as to what is helpful and what is harmful.

31. Women are still basically treated like shit.

Life has been a big disappointment for children of the 1970s. We grew up in a fantasy of women’s rights and social justice. We saw women becoming executives and sexually liberated divorcees. We believed in a future where women could do everything men could do, only better. We thought the trajectory was all uphill. What a surprise it was for us as we became teens in the late 80s and adults in the 90s that sexism, assault, and dubious male behavior were still so prevalent. How demoralizing it was to get a job in a public place and have to endure unwanted ogling and sexual comments all day at work. How depressing to know that even if we learned a skill, most of those jobs were going to men, particularly the new, higher-paid jobs involving computers. We got trapped in women’s work, doing admin work and expressing ourselves through home decor and crafts. Not all women, of course. But the women of my generation who have achieved success in traditionally male roles have had to swim through all flavors of bullshit to get to the C-suites, and there they are still surrounded by men. Still the minority. Which is odd, because there are actually more of us. I guess the #MeToo phenomenon wasn’t a big shock for me, because literally all of us have endured some bullshit, abuse, stalking, unwanted advances, etc. So will that change now that it’s more out in the open? It’s hard not to be cynical.

32. The history of the nation that led to my existence is even worse than I first thought.

In the fourth grade, all public school students in Idaho take a section on Idaho History. In our school, it focused heavily on the plight of the Indigenous tribes of North Idaho, including the New Perce and the saga of Chief Joseph. I memorized his eloquent concession speech with the poignant closer, “From this day forward, I will fight no more forever.” At that point, I had a pretty low opinion of the overall Euro-centric approach to American progress. I knew about the horrors of slavery (partly thanks to my grandma’s annual viewing of Roots), and I understood that we weren’t really past all of the Jim Crow stuff that came after emancipation. I knew about the trail of tears and the small pox blankets (and generally the systemic genocide of Indigenous Peoples). As disappointing as all of that was to learn about, it was really the tip of the iceberg. I had never heard about residential schools and their horrors until a decade or so ago, and now we’re discovering hundreds (thousands?) of children were actually killed and secretly buried at those horrible places. I was well into adulthood before I knew of the Japanese internment camps during WWII, despite the fact that several of them were in the Pacific Northwest. I feel like history keeps revealing more horrific details, and it’s hard not to see the ways that I have benefited from this tragic narrative. My existence in this time and place was made possible by a whole slew of horrors and abuses.

33. If Planned Parenthood was around in the 1940s, I would not exist.

I wish my grandma had had access to more birth control options so that she might not have had three unplanned pregnancies by the age of 21. She had ambitions to move to San Francisco and become a professional illustrator. She had no desire to become a mother or a housewife, and yet circumstances put her in that role, and she spent her whole adult life resenting her fate. As the daughter of her third and final unplanned pregnancy, I know that this wish for her is to wish myself out of existence. A paradox? Well, since I don’t have a time machine, probably not. But it is true that if my grandma had been able to avoid pregnancy and have the life she really wanted, I would not exist. It makes me appreciate all of the strange twists of fate that had to take place for me to even be born.

34. Wherever you go, there you are (but go anyway).

This is a truism I got from my grandma, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Which is a way of saying that changing your location or life circumstances does not change you. You carry your own baggage, idiosyncrasies, neuroses, and quirks into any new situation. It’s tempting to try to change yourself by jumping into a new job or relationship, or hopping on a plane to an exotic destination, but it never really does the trick. I have found that my social anxiety and depressive tendencies still exist at sidewalk cafes in Paris and in the jungles of the Andes. But going to those places still expands my perspective and proves to me that all of my baggage is not heavy enough to keep me from new experiences. Travel expands my horizons, but it doesn’t turn me into a different person.

35. Eat real food.

I had the luck to grow up eating mostly unprocessed foods. My mom worked in a health food store for years, and my grandparents got meat from a butcher and milk and eggs from a small farm outside of town. Grandma cooked meals from scratch and rarely resorted to anything canned or packaged. So I knew about real food as I came into adulthood, but I still didn’t know how to feed myself without resorting to convenience foods. My early cooking attempts involved a lot of jarred spaghetti sauce and pre-made pizza crusts. Preparing meals from real, raw ingredients was just too much work for me, for years. In the late 1990s I realized I kind of enjoy cooking and learned how to make pizza crust from scratch. I still much prefer eating in restaurants to cooking, but over the past two years I have cooked nearly every meal at home (thanks, COVID). I’ve also discovered that I feel much better when I avoid gluten and sugar (bye bye pizza crust), and have veered into a Paleo-ish diet to support my overall health post-cancer. This means fresh veggies, pasture-raised meats, and very few grains or legumes (no gluten at all). In general, the closer food is to its natural state, the better it is for you. It can be hard to stick to an all “real food” diet in this culture of processed junk, but it is worth the trouble.

36. I have lived my whole life (so far) on stolen land.

Okay, so I knew that generally Europeans had fucked over Indigenous peoples in their Western expansion (see entry #32), but no one clearly pointed out that the land under the house I was actually living in belonged to someone else, rightfully. Sure, the wars and treaties had happened a long time before I was born, and theoretically the outcome was “fair” for everyone (it wasn’t). Growing up in North Idaho, we often made visits to the reservation south of town to buy fireworks or eat lunch across the road from a field of Llamas. I didn’t see the problem. Plummer was a poor and shabby little town, but it was hard to see the problematic history or current issues when just passing through. I never realized back then that the traditional hunting and fishing grounds of the local tribes had included the entire lake, and the whole town I lived in. There is no time in my life that the house I’ve lived in has been on land that I have an inherent right to rent or own.

37. Don’t take anything personally.

This is one of the “four agreements,” and the only one that I can ever remember. When you stop getting caught up in other people’s actions and (imagined) thoughts about you, it frees up a lot of mental and emotional space to live your life. If someone is trying to harm or attack you, it’s often best to move away from that relationship. No one should waste their time trying to fend off abuse if the abuser isn’t willing to change their behavior. But even in the midst of an abusive relationship, it is much better to not take it personally. At the end of the day, another person’s thoughts about or actions toward you are none of your business. It’s really about them, so don’t take it personally.

38. Don’t get “involved” with married men (or women).

I don’t have good boundaries in my relationships. This is probably a function of growing up with a mother who has no boundaries whatsoever. I’ve had to learn how to identify where a boundary should be and then try to cobble together some sort of emotional barricade so that I don’t accidentally step across it. But sometimes I have, and on a couple of occasions I got tangled up in what was for the other person a quasi-extramarital affair (I say quasi because these situations fell apart dramatically before any kind of consummation). In each case I can look back and say with the authority of hindsight: That was a terrible idea. But somehow in the moment those emotional barricades don’t hold up so well.

39. There’s a common humanity underneath all the conflicting beliefs.

The last few years have been really hard for Americans. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 was the cherry on top of a hot fudge shit sundae of divisive belief systems. The fact that his supporters have gone down so many delusional rabbit holes (QAnon! Baby-eating Democrats!) just shows how lost some people in this country feel. The Neo-Nazis and their brethren Proud Boys are suddenly popping up everywhere, while BLM protests have become battlegrounds over what exactly “America” is all about. Underneath all of the hate and fear are the tender hearts of human beings. If we can just remember that even our “enemies” are people with the same basic human needs for food, safety, and love, perhaps we can start to build some bridges. I hope so, but I’m not optimistic.

40. Gender is complicated.

When I was about five years old my mom started dating a woman named Terry. Though Terry identified as a woman at the time, she was actually a pre-op trans man. She planned to go through a series of transition surgeries as soon as she could afford them. My mom explained this situation to me to help me understand their relationship, as my mom was ostensibly straight. That was when I learned that gender is more complicated than the binary of male and female. Judging gender based on genital configuration is a bit shortsighted, especially considering how many people are born with “ambiguous” sex organs. I myself started feeling a bit ambiguous about gender norms as a teenager. Though I am definitely cis-gender female, I chose to lean more toward androgyny in my expression of gender. My male friends and I wore the same skirts and eyeliner, and that seemed perfectly fine to me. I’ve never liked girly things, and I’ve always been repulsed by the color pink. Why does gender have to be such a hard and fast rule for some people? The nonsense of gender-reveal parties seems like a sort of desperate attempt to reinforce a binary that probably never truly existed. Many cultures have recognized a third gender for centuries for longer, so it’s not like noon-binary is just a fad.

41. There is no cure for schizophrenia.

The first time my mom was hauled off to the state mental hospital I was twelve years old and thought that they could get her on the right drugs to manage her chaotic brain. Those drugs don’t work very well now, and they were pretty much useless in 1984. Every time she gets on a new medication, I get my hopes up. Maybe this one will allow her to function in a lucid and logical way. I used to want her to be able to work, or have some kind of productive life, but now I just want her to be free of the chaotic hell caused by her delusions, voices, and phobias. I know now that science doesn’t really understand much about how the human brain operates, and offers few good treatments for a disordered brain. I will keep hoping for some new treatment that truly helps her, but after more than thirty years of trial and error, I’m pretty sure the “cure” won’t come in here lifetime.

42. Cancer is almost inevitable.

From the time I learned that my grandma had cancer back in the early 1980s I wondered when it would come for me. Maybe it was an irrational assumption that it would eventually come for me, but it turned out to be true. Both of my parents have been through very serious cancer. My mom survived, my dad did not. I don’t come from an especially unlucky or unhealthy family. The sad fact is that close to 50% of Americans now get a cancer diagnosis at some point. That’s half of everyone! If you are in a couple, chances are, one of you will get cancer. If you have living parents, one of them may have a cancer hiding in them as I type this. My own first cancer was a tiny, early little cluster of breast cancer. Not big enough to to be visible without amazing magnification and good radiologists. This is how we are getting better at beating cancer: early detection. The treatments are still harsh and not very effective in the long run, but there is no cure, so they’re the best options we’ve got. Your best bet is to eat your broccoli and avoid carcinogens like alcohol, cigarettes, sunshine and household cleaners. There are other carcinogens you have little control over, so you really have to be vigilant about the things you can control.

43. I’m a little broken, but that’s OK.

I had a troubling and quasi-traumatic childhood (but who didn’t, right?). It took me decades to accept that the troubles and traumas had left me a little bit dysfunctional. You wouldn’t really look at me or my life and say, “She’s a hot mess!” Because I’m not. But I also struggle to feel OK most of the time, and I don’t seem to have the capacity for human connections that many people possess. I’ve got genes for mental health and substance use issues, but I also have the genetic snip of elite endurance athletes. I may be a little bit broken, but I’m also a little bit super-human, so it all balances out, maybe. I’ve tried many supplements and pharmaceuticals and therapists to try to feel more OK, but I never really get to stop being me. So I accept that I’m a little broken and learn to work around the things I can’t improve upon.

44. Time is both fast and slow. Is time even real?

The last two years of pandemic-times (thanks, COVID) have been like living in a temporal vortex of some kind. Days and weeks crawl by in slow motion, but years zoom past like a journey on the Tardis. It’s all a matter of perception. The more your days are like one another the slower they seem to pass at the time, but the faster they accumulate. When you’re doing essentially the same thing every day, your brain will squish all of those memories into one streamlined bucket. They only trick I know for lessening time slippage is mindfulness. You may be doing the same thing you did yesterday, but if you’re really present in each moment, you will start to notice differences. You will start to notice the little things that make each day unique (and sometimes beautiful). You will notice that your moods and emotions pass through like the weather. You will also notice the weather.

45. There’s nothing wrong with a little entertainment.

I like to watch TV. I grew up on Three’s Company and I Love Lucy, and I get a great deal of pleasure from watching a well-crafted television show. I love plot-driven novels in numerous genres, and I’m especially fond of a good murder mystery. For many years I tried to be above all that. I wanted to read hard, philosophically dense novels. I wanted to trade in sitcoms for French New Wave films. Here’s the thing: There’s room for both in life, and entertainment is good for you. (No matter how serious an intellectual you may be). I now embrace and seek out art that entertains. I want to laugh. I want to be caught up in a twisty thriller plot. I want to enjoy being entertained without having to think too hard.

46. Be thoughtful about food and nutrition.

You don’t have to eat a certain diet, but I do believe strongly that how you choose your food plays a big role in your overall quality of life. I was a vegetarian for years, but I was a lazy vegetarian who leaned heavily on pizza and pasta. I never paid much attention to how much protein I was eating, or whether my intake of nutrients covered the spectrum it needed to for good health. My diet probably looked healthy by many standards, but it was quite bad for my health at the end of the day. I was already interested in nutrition and had done a few detoxes and elimination diets to discover food sensitivities before I got a breast cancer diagnosis in 2020. I now understand that (pasture-raised, organic) meats are some of the healthiest foods for me, and I should steer clear of most grains and minimize dairy. I could not come to any of those conclusions without food tracking and experimentation. Every person will have a slightly different optimal diet, and it is worth the trouble to try to discover yours.

47. Music is life.

I grew up as a deeply invested music fan. My best friend Patrick and I spent our teen years rummaging through dusty bins at used record shops and special-ordering import cassette from our local record store. I invested most of my money and a good part of my identity in my music collection. As I got into adulthood I had less time and energy to devote to discovering new music, but I still spent a lot of time and money in record stores, until I was gifted an iPod in 2003. That little white lozenge became like a best friend in my pocket, and I’ve rarely ventured back to physical media since. I became much more prone to shuffle-mode than the intense album-listing of my youth. When Patrick died in 2014 it took some time for me to come back to music. I opted for TV shows in the background, to give my mind something to latch onto. Any old music reminded me of Patrick, and any new music made me depressed and angry that he would never hear it. I could never send him the odd “have you heard…?” text or Spotify playlist again. I all but gave up on music. Trapped in my house in 2020 (thanks, COVID), I started putting on KEXP during the day to give me some sense of connection to the outside world, and soon I was discovering new music and adding new bands to my Apple Music library. I still have the urge to text Patrick sometimes, but I’m finally finding my way back to music.

48. Drugs are fun.

I’ve tried a variety of recreational drugs, and I’ve rarely had anything but an amazing experience. People do drugs because they are fun! If you haven’t tried many drugs, you might question why one would want to partake in such risky and unhealthy behavior. And the answer is: because it is fun! But it is also risky and generally not very good for your health. Although I have tried a few drugs, I haven’t stuck with any of them (except alcohol, arguably the worst one). The drug economy is massive, so I would think twice before you judge someone for buying, selling or using illegal drugs. Everyone needs a little fun, right?

49. Anything that you can do, I can do better.

I’ve never had an idea that there are some things that I’m not cut out for. I think that whatever I set my mind to, I am equipped to accomplish. I have a brainy brain and a relatively strong body, so what’s to stop me from doing whatever I set out to do? Nothing that I can think of. Of course, I’m a little old to become an Olympic athlete at this point, but if I had had the inclination and opportunity I have no doubt that it would have been possible. Maybe not probable, but possible. I look at the parade of semi-competent American presidents and think, “I could totally do a better job.” Especially that last guy. In my own meandering career I’ve always taken the view that I’m at least as smart and competent as any CEO I’ve worked for. The only thing stopping me from becoming a CEO or C-level executive is the fact that it isn’t what I want to do. I don’t want to manage people or mitigate public relations. Could I write a great novel or make a movie? Sure, given the time and resources to do so. And therein lies the problem. I have never had the time or resources to pursue anything other than the job I can currently get. I am a serial-monogamy careerist. I excel in whatever role I take on, but I never seem to find the time and resources to break out of employer dependency.

50. Just start. See what happens.

There are a lot of things that I still want to do, and I hope a get a few more decades to do some of them. I’ve put a lot of things on hold out of fear and uncertainty over the years. I waffle about writing. I hesitate to really take on my health and fitness. I buy hoards of art supplies I barely use. I can’t seem to figure out how to decorate my house, even after three years of living in it. It’s the hesitation that keeps me stagnant. What would happen if I started writing a novel? Well, it might be terrible, but I won’t find out until I start. What if I started running again? My knees might not agree, but I won’t know until I start. Take a class. Plan a party. Design a tattoo. Life’s too short not to just start and see what happens.

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