What would you replace?

Three hours before my flight was due to leave for Jakarta, my car was broken into and the carry-on bag I’d packed for the flight was stolen. I lost my laptop, work badge, e-reader, paper notebook and pen, favorite headphones, makeup, phone charger, international plug adapter, hand sanitizer, makeup remover, toothbrush, hairspray, scarf, eye mask for sleeping on the plane, extra socks, and antibiotics in case I got sick while traveling.

For a moment I thought, am I still going? But I still had my wallet and passport and phone, and because my suitcase was too big to fit through the car window the thieves had broken, I still had most of my clothes. I’m a big believer in momentum and at this point, the momentum of things said go. I called the security office at work to deal with the work side of things; my husband called the car insurance company to deal with that. And then we headed for the airport. My husband dropped me off – this was a work trip, not vacation – and I headed inside to check in for my flight.

This was when things got interesting. I’d expected that I could replace anything I really needed once I was inside the airport and past security – but the shops at SFO close at midnight, and by now it was 12:05 a.m. No paperback book or phone charger for me.

This was an odd feeling. I hadn’t realized how accustomed I was to having a large handbag with me most of the time, and I kept double-checking my wallet to make sure I still had it. It was attached to a loop handle around my wrist, so the odds I’d lose it were low, but still. I wondered if I was more shaken up by the theft than I realized. Maybe?

I sent my husband a text message saying everything was fine, then settled in to wait for the flight. Thirteen hours and I’d be changing planes in Taipei. In Taipei, surely there would be a place I could at least buy a phone charger.

I tried to figure out the odd feeling. Was it the lack of a backpack slung over my shoulder? (I’d liked my backpack!) The inability to write anything down, to think through what had happened or what to do next the way I do it best, on paper? The lack of anything to read? I’d turned my phone off to save battery; just in case I couldn’t get a charger in Taipei, I wanted to make sure I still had power when I landed in Jakarta. Supposedly someone would meet me at the airport to take me to the hotel, and I’d be meeting up with work colleagues once I was there, but still. The ability to look something up or call someone if something went off-kilter seemed worth maintaining.

What do you do on a plane flight with no book, no music, and nothing to write with? I don’t usually watch in-flight movies, but this time I did: I Feel Pretty and Deadpool 2.. Meh. Then I slept.

Taipei: the flight landed so early that the shops weren’t open yet. I paced up and down the hallways, stretching out my ankles. The layover was nearly three hours. There was plenty of time.

Taipei airport is interesting and to me, uncomfortable-feeling. The ceilings on most of the concourses are relatively low; most of the places to walk feel very closed-in. There’s a central area with the airline lounges and food court that’s much taller, two stories, but the lighting is dim and as you look up at the ceiling, everything fades to darkness and girders. I saw almost no exterior windows. The whole thing feels post-industrial, or like a setting for a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. On the other hand, there’s an orchid display and a Hello Kitty store and a small lounge with hand-carved wooden furniture and potted plants.

By now the stores were open, and I had to decide: what am I actually going to need? I don’t love shopping, and airports are pretty expensive places to buy most things. I wanted to keep my purchases minimal – but I also knew our agenda in Jakarta was packed full, and I didn’t want to count on having time to shop for anything specific while there. If I was going to need it during the trip, this was my chance.

I settled on:

  • A charger, cord, and portable battery for my phone. This was a work trip; I had to have some way to make my phone work.
  • A scarf. Indonesia is a majority-Muslim country, and I might need to cover my hair.
  • A notebook and pen. I just feel too weird if I don’t have something to write with.
  • A small, professional-looking backpack. The trip would involve being out all day, and that meant being able to carry bottled water, the scarf, and so on with me.

It took me an hour and a half to track it all down, partly because while there were a lot of electronics stores, they all had slightly different options and the plugs in Taipei are different from the plugs in Jakarta, so I had to find an adapter, and then I balked at how much it cost. Happily a store clerk helped me figure out a cheaper option that still worked, based mostly on knowing which items had cables included vs needing to buy them separately. I am also pretty picky about backpacks. It needed to be a backpack for comfort, but again, I wasn’t up for spending a ton of money, I wanted it to be lightweight, and it needed to look more work-appropriate than hiking-appropriate. I would have bought a book, but the only English-language books I found were travel guides for places I wasn’t going.

At the end, I settled into one of the lounge chairs next to the potted plants and used my phone’s data roaming plan to purchase and download a couple of e-books. Now that I had a battery and charging cord, I could use my phone as something to read.

And then it was time to board the flight.

Jakarta was great – maybe a topic for another post – but the whole experience of first losing things I’d carefully chosen to taken with me, and then needing to quickly replace just the items that were most critical, based on a limited selection of things available, was also interesting. It’s easy to get pretty meta about minimalism, and do we really need all the things we carry, and at first I wondered if maybe this wasn’t some great life lesson about needing less. Did I really need a backpack, for example, or was the wallet I already had enough?

Then I thought a little harder about my role – professional woman on a business trip, intentionally going to learn about this part of the world – and what I was hoping for from the trip, and what would make that easier. And I realized that most of what I’d packed in the first place really was likely to be useful.

Maybe the lesson is more that sometimes, we’re already doing just fine.


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about momentum. The momentum of people, of places. Of attitudes. Of projects. Of things done, and not done, and planned, and not planned. Of happiness and sadness and satisfaction and even stock markets.

I don’t think we give enough credit to momentum.

Think about it: why is the market up (assuming it is, by the time I finish writing and post this)? At some fundamental level, it’s up because a lot of people decided to be optimistic. And those people’s optimism fueled other people’s sense that they should get in before it’s too late, and that in turn drives the market up, and that fuels more momentum upwards …

… until somebody gets nervous, and then a group of people get nervous, and the momentum begins to turn, and the market shifts downward, prompting pessimism and a sense that it’s time to get out, and …

… momentum.

But the thing is, I think momentum applies at a personal level too. Think about what it takes to start a project. The initial idea is easy, right? Maybe the initial plan is even easy too. Then there’s the setup, and that’s when things get tough. The initial doing of whatever it is, whether it’s buying a house or finding a new job or starting a new project or getting into exercise, is often incredibly difficult. It’s easy to think that that difficulty comes because these things are new, or because they are inherently challenging activities, but I think there’s another factor involved – and that’s the momentum of whatever we were doing before. After all, you weren’t just sitting around in a state of limbo doing nothing. You were doing something before you decided to pick up this new thing, or found a reason or a need to change your path. And whatever that existing something is, it has a momentum to it. To get the new thing going, you have to displace the momentum of what you were already doing. You’re essentially climbing up a big rock while also trying to shove another big rock out of your way. No wonder it’s tough.

I wonder about momentum in the context of a lot of the current political and otherwise painful and/or challenging situations going on in our modern US world right now. Political anger. Shootings. Trade wars. Income inequality. Fear in all its flavors. The potential for huge and overwhelming distraction caused by all of the above. What if we’re on the downhill slope of pain and angst, where it all just keeps accelerating?

(Then I take a deep breath, take a bite of this delicious brownie I’m eating and a sip of my coffee, and set that line of thinking aside, and go back to projects. Because projects are a thing I can do. And as one of my favorite quotes says: “A better goddamn zoo is still a better goddamn zoo.” I don’t remember what that’s from, but. Words to live by. Anyway.)

So. Momentum and projects. Or to make it a little broader, momentum and doing new things.

Right now I’ve got a bunch of projects:

  1. remodel house
  2. a bunch of work stuff
  3. that whole writing thing (essays)
  4. that whole writing thing (poetry)
  5. personally hand-landscape the backyard, because fun! and do I want to grow eggplants this year? maybe?
  6. various things about family
  7. clean up the giant stack of mail in the kitchen that I’ve been ignoring for… a month? six weeks? gaaah.
  8. something about seeing some friends sometime
  9. wouldn’t it be fun to travel somewhere?
  10. I would like to weigh 8 pounds less, and also be able to do pushups

Within some of those categories are still more projects. At work, for example, I work on about four different areas of stuff, with a fluctuating number of projects within that. Same thing for family.

So this is a lot of stuff. Okay. It’s all stuff I signed up for and all stuff I want to be doing at some level or other. The question is, how do I actually do it?

I thought for a while that this was a willpower problem, or a doing things faster problem, or a priorities problem, or a scheduling problem. And that’s all kind of true – there are only so many hours in a day, multitasking is a myth, etc etc. But there’s something else in play too.

The single biggest predictor of whether I do something is whether I recently did it.

For example, on the house remodel, we needed to hire a structural engineer (long story). And I find hiring people super stressful – I have trouble even imagining anything more stressful than hiring someone. So I am inclined to procrastinate. I procrastinate looking for a list of people to call. Then I procrastinate calling them. If they call back, I may even procrastinate answering the phone. I certainly procrastinate replying to any emails they may send. And making the actual decision?! Awful.

But. At some point, I decided that the only thing I was going to do other than work was try to hire a structural engineer. I was off the hook for everything else. I just needed to do this one thing.

This seems like it’s all about prioritization, and yes, that’s part of it. But the side effect of the decision was that I wound up doing something about hiring a structural engineer every single day. The first day was horrible. The next day, still horrible, but at least I knew what I was in for. The third day, I was still dreading it, but less.

By the end of the week… routine. Within another week, I’d hired someone. She’s great. And she wrote me an email yesterday, and I actually answered it today. I waited that long only because I wanted to time to read it carefully, because the engineer we hired is a person who writes relevant and useful emails that merit close reading. But I didn’t procrastinate as such.

I got momentum on my side.

On the other hand, this morning I went to yoga class, for the first time in about a month. I almost didn’t go. Arguably the only reason I did go is that my husband assumed I wanted to. (The power of positive peer pressure.) Having gone this week, however, I am confident it will be easier to go again next week. The memory of enjoying yoga class is fresher in my mind; the sense that putting clean clothes in a gym bag is really not that much effort is also fresh in my mind. I have a sense of what it’s like to start my day with a yoga class. And that momentum ups the odds for next week.

This evening, I’m writing. It’s been a week; it was hard to get myself to start.

I am still thinking about what else this means, for my work, and for everything else I’m doing.

Tomorrow… who knows?