Friday, January 9, 2015

Living a Common-Sense Life: On Brilliance, Balance and Money

There is something about us science nerds. We spend a lot of time with our heads in the clouds. We might think we are different from other people but I think we have a lot in common with artists, writers and other creative types. Like them, we often lose ourselves in our thoughts. Several hours go by without our noticing them. This is not an entirely bad thing. Such passion gives our lives pleasure. But, as I admit, it is also an escape from the everyday world, and this can have consequences. It is easy to become too comfortable in this niche we create. I remember reading about the life of Paul Dirac (a book called "The Strangest Man"). He was an absolutely brilliant theorist. He was responsible for setting up much of the foundation I rely on in my articles, but much of his personal life especially the early part, to put it bluntly, sucked. He was socially awkward as hell and had few if any of what I would call good friends. Most historians think he fell somewhere on the autism spectrum disorder.

Don't get me wrong. I think the world desperately needs these brilliant minds more than ever, but it can't be a picnic being the one living that life. Luckily for me I don't. I am not remotely brilliant enough to think like Paul Dirac did. I do, however, notice that ordinary folk like me with our head-in-the-clouds minds, are also vulnerable to developing a skewed and unhealthily unbalanced life. Sure some of us nerds might be able to understand something of quantum mechanics but commonsense we ain't. We get lost and sometimes it feels like we're drowning in ourselves. I found some solace and inspiration in Thomas Moore's books (he wrote "Care of the Soul"). He is an ex-Catholic priest whom I would describe as kind of a new ager. He too describes himself as a head-in-the-clouds mind and I found his personal efforts, advice and wisdom both comforting and challenging. His writing is also exquisite and it is what inspired me to write.

I also went through a Zen book reading phase a few years before that, and there is something therapeutic about Zen practice that sticks with me to this day. As I understand it, it embraces the idea that the everyday mundane world we all live in – all the daily chores and routines – is itself practice. These chores offer us rich material to deepen and broaden our personality and develop our minds. The trick is to perform them mindfully and with a sense of respect for what we are doing. So when I peel carrots for supper, for example, I focus on the job I am doing. If I really embrace that moment, it becomes a form of meditation. All I am really doing is paying attention to what I'm doing. Seems so simple but in my experience it is tough as hell and almost impossible to keep mindful day after day. There are constant relapses but the Zen masters say it is the effort that refines us. I find it especially challenging to sit down, get lost in some theory or other for three hours, then get up to the kitchen, wash my mind of that, wash my hands and start supper (and try to get my mind on that now).

If I let it, I can start to resent the intrusions of life into my "real" work, including the actual paid work I do, which is the real work. This is a mistake because all those intrusions are my very real life happening at the same time, and it is the contents of these "intrusions" that ground me and give my life some depth of meaning. I remember a Haiku poem from my Zen time that basically read: "In the springtime I eat cucumbers." Again, so simple. That phrase always struck me as a lesson in grounding oneself. Whether I think of it or not, I am part of this earth, its dirt and sky, its seasons. I have to eat and poop and sleep and exercise and shower and pay the bills and earn money and cook and connect with my loved ones just like everyone else does. In the spring when cucumbers are in season in Japan, what should you do? Should you go out and seek designer watermelon? No. You should eat what is there before you. Here in Alberta, I should not expect the world to bend for me; I learn how to bend to it by being in its moment. Even Paul Dirac, hopelessly shy and awkward, learned how to bend toward life. He later married and stayed happily married for fifty years, having two kids along the way. Here's an article that tells his romantic story beautifully. For a nerd like me, it's divine.

So why am I writing about this today? Because I am in the process of relearning this important lesson of mindfulness and bending once again. Another whack to the head and this time it comes with a financial twist. I am not a money-person. For the most part, I am perfectly content to slide along and let hubby deal with the dirty business of our finances – more time for me to escape to my nerd hovel. I have found over the years that very few 'cloud' thinkers do like to deal with money. Luckily for hubby and I, our incomes slowly increased, the kid left home and got married, and savings started to build. We always seemed to be 'in the black' so I never cared about money much. Then the husband of a friend at the greenhouse where I work in spring suddenly died, leaving her and their four kids with a mortgage, no life insurance, no savings, and few skills to turn into a good-paying job. Friends did some fundraising for her but it was only a temporary stopgap. She was suddenly in the deep end with sharks circling and it hit me hard. It could have been me and while I would be in a better position at the start, I am hopelessly financially stupid. That's when I started watching "Till Debt Do You Part," a personal money management show (on Global TV here at 11:30 am), with sudden interest. I love that show and I've got to admit sometimes I felt smug sitting there watching couples reveal their embarrassing financial goof-ups. But this smugness was also stupid because my hubby was almost totally responsible for our financial position while I rode along oblivious.

Over the months the money lessons started to sink in. Meanwhile we were in the habit of not having anything you could call a budget. I thought, hey we eat breakfast out at A&W on coupons from the flyer, so look at us! We are money-savvy! This past Christmas we went nuts and spent like there was no tomorrow. As we were stuffing bags of stuff into the car trunk yet again something struck me. It's too much. That thought continued to needle me so I went through our statements and made up lists of fixed and variable expenses for the past year. This doesn’t come from my head by the way. I didn't even know what fixed and variable expenses were until I started watching Gail Vaz-Oxlade's excellent show. Once I finished I threw up in my mouth a little and shared the information with hubby who did the same thing. Then we set up an expense binder just like the show. By the way, you can get all the information you need, and worksheets, at her equally excellent website, which I just discovered. I started reading her blogs too. I would characterize her as Canada's den mother of personal finance.

I look back on the past few years and feel a bit of a twinge: A lot of money got spent and I can't honestly say we've got much to show for it. Yes, we have managed to stay in the black for these past years but how much of that money could have gone to a better retirement? And what about a sudden disaster? I pondered this: Bills from various stores for the most part reflect a blur of semi-conscious afternoons getting out of the house and shopping – a leisure activity that has become a mixture of bad habit, a poor choice of therapy, a reflection of a lack of creativity in life, and ultimately a big fat time and energy waster. Where the hell was this mindfulness I've been cultivating?! And why wasn't one coffee date, one lunch and one shopping trip for groceries/necessities per week together enough? I noticed spending occurred almost every day of the week – shameful!

We've been doing things the "new" way for just one week now – recording every expense and thinking first before saying to ourselves, oh just let's just buy it - and I've already noticed some interesting things. First, we've got all this time! We are reading more, talking more, having more "kitchen parties." There is time for board games and video games and even for going through other things and taking stock. There is a sense of a load off because now I'm starting to know what's going on with the money. I took over bill-paying too – a big step for an airhead! If I keep up with this I can give hubby a load off too.

Second, all of the sudden we are coming up with new creative ways to cut spending or to spend better. Hubby's been coming up with new ones everyday. It's actually dare I say it kind of fun. The automaton thing is dropping away. Before this, I told hubby we need to buy a new mailbox because the "old" one's newspaper holder thingie is all rusty. By not rushing to the store I had time to mull over it a little. Hmm, I can take it off and spray it a new colour in the spring, and it will be fun! I've written a few articles on this site about being kind to and respecting Mother Nature. Now Captain Obvious whacks me firm on the noggin: shopping wisely and consuming less is a huge boost to the environment.

Third, we are starting to getting away from the TV with its advertising and its shows that tell us what we are supposed to be wanting and buying. That advertising is starting to look like a lot of hard-nosed sophisticated manipulation. We don't actually have to be rats on this treadmill. This could be the start of a dangerously good way of life . . .

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