Sunday, April 27, 2014

Ice Cream And Distressing Narratives

I mentioned in my last entry that I have a tendency to let my brain run off quite a bit, particularly late at night if I'm not careful.

My brain will go down crazy paths sometimes, with little provocation. I'll come up with intricate trains of thought. Build narratives. Reframe them as a conversation with imaginary audiences: friends, coworkers, relatives, people who've pissed me off in the past, maybe some others who I'd imagine would approve of what I'm thinking of. Sometimes I argue with them. Sometimes I just monologue. Babble away until even I get sick of my own voice (if you've read even slightly into my blog, you'll realize that's some feat).

It's sort of a self-reinforcing cycle. It's on my mind because it's on my mind and because it's on my mind, it's on my mind. I wind up talking myself into problems which don't exist. Or talk myself into making existing problems even worse.

If I'm lucky, it stays in my head until the next shiny thing comes along. If not, it boils over in strange ways, usually for the worst.

A long time ago, back when I still thought diets were particularly useful, I used to go on these long death-march type diet-marathons. I'd spend six months getting down into single-digit body fat instead of being okay at staying at my usual 12-15% range. I learned a lot about myself during these periods.

Your body controls you quite a bit more than you think it does. There's nothing more humbling than stumbling into a brick wall built by hormones and blood sugar and about five million years worth of evolution.

Inevitably one thing would happen. About two or three months into the diet, with another two or three to go, I'd bump into something minor. Perhaps a throwaway mention of an ice cream maker on a morning news show. Maybe I'd walk through the appliance aisle in Target, see an ice cream maker there. Or maybe I'd drive past an ice cream shop on the way back from the gym, come home to my supper of greens and marinated chicken boobs and think "Self, I bet making my own ice cream would be pretty damn fun."

And then, the thought is now A Thing. I've thought it once. It's in my head now. I'd get that small adrenal surge, endorphins would trickle into my brain and that tiny kick that hit my frontal lobe is all the positive feedback my brain needed. I'd grow obsessed with making my own ice cream. As the diet ground on, the dropping calorie levels making me stupider by the week, I'd obsess about ice cream makers. Look up recipes online. Dream about them at night. Debate with myself which was the best model and method:

Dry ice? Pre-refrigerated bowl? A full-on countertop machine, self-refrigerated just like the machines you see in the store? Do I go old-school, load up a big wooden bucket with brine and ice cubes, then crank the ice cream out by hand over the course of a long summer afternoon? Or would I cheat and use a food processor?

Which recipes would I use? Would I start out vanilla or get fancy right away? Go right to the chocolate and nuts? Could I cut corners? Were there any special life-hacks? Weird scientific methodologies which would let me turn a small raft of strange ingredients into frosty deliciousness without all the tedium and grunt work?

And on and on and on. The more I thought about it, the better the idea got. The weaker my body became from the diet, the more hungry I became, the more I craved sweets as my body-fat dipped into single digits. And the more that fucking ice cream maker became more and more appealing, a worthy replacement for all the junk food I wasn't eating.

And then I'd finish the diet. Get myself a pint of Ben & Jerry's a curtain falling after the show, I'd realize, holy shit. What a stupid thing to get obsessed with. The entire time, my brain kept spinning back and forth along the loop, propelled by nothing more than this obsessive narrative I'd built, with everything greased smooth and pushed along by the hormones released by my body as my chimpanzee-brain struggled to understand why I was starving all the time. Caught in the loop, I'd missed all the subtext as I obsessed over all the wrong things.

I wish I could say this level of crazy-brain only happens when I'm dieting, but it doesn't. All sorts of things set it off. Job stress, an unwillingness to pace myself in pursuit of life-goals, worry over friends and coworkers who are making bad life decisions. It happens all the time. I'll happily brood about anything going on in my life, no matter how trivial--brood until it gets big and I either forget it in favor of the next big shiny or it blows up.

I've discovered only a certain number of ways I can knock my brain out of these ruts.

I can remove the stress (i.e. stop the diet), for one. But there's only so many ways I can do that. Some stresses are simply a fact of life. Either you're working on them or you're not and that's that.

I can go for a walk. Change the scenery. That helps sometimes. Distractions are good.

The biggest, however, is "simply" train my brain not to do that. That's why I meditate every day. There is nothing better than meditation in learning to evaporate persistent annoying thoughts. If you can just sit down in a quiet place, smashing thoughts as they arise, one by one, endlessly, simply be still for fifteen minutes, then you can smash those thoughts anywhere.

And now I want ice cream again.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Brain, Shut Up

"Well, Mike," says my brain to me approximately five minutes ago. "You've finished that book you were reading, you've done your dishes, it's all smooth sailing until it's time to hit the sack. You've done your part to make the day totally awesome, you've done your one-seven-billionth share of making the world not suck. Time for bed, unless you've forgotten anything."

"Self, you're the best brain ever. I'm glad I--BLOG ENTRY!"

Well, damn. Time to crank this bad boy out. Problem is, I really hate writing things late at night.

There's a few reasons I could cite for this. One, usually I'm pretty fried by this point. I've done all my writing first thing in the morning, starting right around ass-thirty o'clock before work (today's writing went well today, thank you very much for asking). By the time the day ends, my mental coffers are empty, stripped clean like a Chevy left overnight in the more interesting neighborhoods of Detroit. I crank the ignition that I'd like to imagine is wired directly to my cerebral cortex and it just rattles and dies.

Two, all my creative creativity not taken up by writing before work was taken up with the various banalities of the day. By the time bedtime rolls around, the only things I have strong opinions on are pillow texture and whether or not my neighbors actually are having a loud conversation with each other in fluent Wookie.

But most of all...and by this, I mean "three", if you were keeping track of my numbered points, I have a hard time turning my brain off when I'm in the writing mode.

My brain is constantly a seething mess of imaginary conversations. I'm always talking with someone. Arguments, explanations, discussions. When I write a blog entry, I'm not actually composing something per se, I'm turning the fire hose loose on paper.

This is a dangerous thing. First thing in the morning, or otherwise earlier in the day, I'll get to a point where I wrap and then I'll do something else. Go to work. Go for a run. Go outside. Talk to someone. Fight a stranger in the Alps. Whatever. Eventually the voices get back under control.

When I try to go to bed immediately after writing, I usually find I can't. The voices are too loud. I'll try to fall asleep, but suddenly my brain will decide to pick an imaginary fight with a version of a friend which doesn't really exist. Maybe it'll decide that I really want to start pretend-talking to that pretty girl at work about whatever bit of hobby-writing I'm doing right now. Mike-brain will suddenly unspool an elaborate fantasy wherein I tell H P Lovecraft how satellite technology is used to navigate freight across the ocean.

Sometimes, I've actually managed to talk myself into a pretty angry/hateful state because of these imagined conversations. Silly, I know. Much worse than having a fight with someone in a dream and waking up angry at them for what they dream-did to you. I am, ostensibly, in control of my inner conversations. Or I should be.

It's annoying.

One of the hardest things about and one of the most valuable goals of meditation, I've discovered, is finding new ways of crushing these voices on command. Sometimes these conversational loops head off into destructive territory, such as now, when it's kind of late at night and I know that going off on a mental tangent will destroy my sleep, no matter how benign the topic.

So you have a paradox, sort of, assuming you have very low standards for the sorts of things you might call paradoxes. I'm tired, I'm burnt out, but if I start banging away, I run a real risk of actually waking up and getting kind of wired. So I do bad writing, which may or may not get better as I clank away at the keyboard, and then receive insomnia as a reward.

Thank you, brain.

The novel actually is going pretty well this week. The chemistry between the characters is picking up, the story's going interesting places. No real mystery before I sit down to write a chapter about where said chapter is going. It's nice. Damn, I need to go the hell to sleep.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Fiction: Hard Math

Today's a short story week.

This was one of those weeks where I wasn't really in the mood for anything in particular. Started in on another clone story, but it wasn't really clicking. I have the basic plot and what I want to cover, but it needs some more time hanging out in my subconscious to stew.

I started another story, but it was far too freezer-poetry-ish.* I'm in the process of blowing up my finances to hurry up some long term goals and reassembling my spending patterns is eating up quite a bit of gray matter. The story I abandoned was a little too much about that to make for good reading. Maybe in a few months I'll pick it back up again and make it awesome. For now, too close.

* Holy shit, I forgot my freezer poetry post was the day before I decided to give up most of my drinking. Weird how fast time goes.

So I skimmed through my list of ideas, found an entry which simply said "giant monster + random genre." Exactly what I was in the mood for. I found a random genre picker online and it gave me "rescue story". I hit another site which gives random character traits. It gave me a collision of adjectives which suggested a real asshole. And here it is: what it must be like to be an EMT in a world where Godzillas crawl out of the sewers every night.

Read: Hard Math

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Eternal Suffering Of Ear Worms Unrequited

For the longest time--years, in fact--I had a song stuck in my head.

It was one of those cases where I could remember a bit of the rhythm, but not well enough to hum snatches for other people. The music I could remember was layered heavily, not exactly something you could hum, precisely because it would have required thirteen vocal cords and a telepathic chorus.

And, frankly, if I had a telepathic chorus, I'd be too busy getting rich and taking over the world to worry about identifying ear worms. Anyway.

The snatches I could remember were just spitting distance from hummable. Close enough to encourage me to try to look for answers, but not close enough to turn the look of deep pity on the face of someone I was asking for help from into a look of recognition. Frankly, I have no singing voice, unless you're judging me from a position of very low to nonexistent standards. I'm known for my musical ability in much the same way as Michel Foucault is well-regarded for his best-selling series of Christian children's novels.

I could remember just enough of the words to attempt to google for it, but not enough interesting words to get useful results. Perhaps two or three in a row. A lot of hip-hop songs came up, for some reason. The song I had in my head was not hip-hop. It was a little folk, a little pop, maybe. I thought it sounded vaguely grunge, possibly like something from MTV's Unplugged.

After a few years, I was beginning to think I'd heard some unreleased Meat Puppets b-side.

The song refused to die. It would come back randomly, drift in and out of my life. The broken fragments of a dream would leave me humming it when I woke up, lasting long after memories of the dream itself would fade. The song would pop into my head as I was driving somewhere, in the middle of a road trip from nowhere to some other piece of nowhere. I'd catch a bit of it wafting through me during a flight to Denver, or while barbecuing with friends on some golden summer afternoon.

After a while, I became resigned to not knowing what the hell it was. It was just a part of me, inescapable and recurring. I figured eventually it would go away or I'd become that crazy old bastard in the retirement home who sat in the corner with a football helmet on, humming fragments of made-up songs about dicks.

One day late last year, probably right around the time I decided to mostly give up drinking, I was sitting on a friend's porch, waiting for the summer heat to die down enough that we could go inside into his non-air-conditioned house full of antique radios and cats and watch a movie about rock stars who karate-punch rubber Satans in the face.

Somebody made a joke about Gordon Lightfoot just as a friend walked by. My friend sang a few bars of MY SONG.

Holy shit! I jumped to my feet and yelled for him to repeat himself, probably wobbling somewhat due to pounding too many high gravity IPA's in direct sunlight. He did, and I asked him what it was.

Sundown, Gordon Lightfoot.

I went home. I googled the song. And it wasn't it, not quite. But I found out a band had covered it: Elwood.

Bingo. Three year ear worm solved.

It was a moment of immense satisfaction, like lancing a boil the size of a football or ditching a ten year train wreck of a relationship. It was the Hindenburg disaster filmed in reverse.

Sometimes you just can't give up on something, no matter how minor. You can back-burner it, but if you just wait it out, good things will happen. Except when they don't. In that case, pretend I wrote some equally uplifting advice here instead.

And here's that movie about rock stars who karate-punch rubber Satans in the face.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Jar Of Flies

Problems are a lot like fruit flies, I've noticed.

You've got flies which are easy to swat and flies which are harder to swat. If you swat the easy flies, the smart ones breed more, owing to natural selection. The resulting flies will be smarter, or at least more resistant to your personal style of swatting, and they will breed until you have just as many flies as before, only these flies are just that much more difficult to hit.

You swat the hard ones, though, and it selects the difficult flies out of the pool and the easy ones breed. You have a dumber flock of flies which you can beat down with relative impunity.


Problems are kind of like that. You've got good problems and bad problems. Good problems are things like having too many friends who want to take up your free time. Not being able to make up your mind which books to read. Maybe you've got too many interesting assignments at work. A good problem might even be something you technically should call bad, but is just relatively minor. Maybe it's just an irritation, like a single fruit fly buzzing around your head.

Bad problems are...well, you probably know the ones I'm talking about. They're the ones you don't want to think about: you eat too much, exercise too little, drink too much. Your work sucks because you do boring shit for a living. Maybe your relationships are a nest of toxic vipers. You don't want to face the hard problems because facing them is hard. Getting rid of them is even harder, and might take real sacrifice.

Swatting problems takes effort, after all. You have a certain amount of time and willpower each day to deal with them. Time you spend fixing shit which is minor (or even beneficial, if you look at it the right way), is time you're not spending on crushing the serious problems.

You fix the small stuff while ignoring the big things and the big things get worse and worse. You fix the big things and suddenly you have a great deal more energy and time freed up to think about the small things.

I've spent much of my life crushing big things in my life which stress me out. I'm finally at a place where I can prioritize on smaller things, mull over whether they're problems which actually increase my comfort zone or create the possibility of interesting things farther on down my life. Some I swat, some I don't, but I'm rather strategic about the whole affair these days.

Of course, a more reasonable person would simply call in the exterminator and have them deal with your fruit fly problem. Metaphors only go so far, I guess.

And now I want to haul out my copy of Alice In Chain's Jar Of Flies. Something about Sundays apparently makes me nostalgic for flannel and grunge, I guess.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


Story's going well. In fact, it's picking up speed. Something about Act II is really clicking, which depresses me because it means when I finish everything, Act I is going to get blown up. Again. Eventually! Everything will come together. Or maybe I'll just start the book with a page which says "skip ahead about eighty pages, please." I hear that's the in-thing with kids these days.

Strange how resistant I am to drafting and redrafting. I used to re-read books all the time as a kid, you'd think this would be a natural outgrowth. But no, doing editing is like pulling my teeth out and replacing them with angry badgers. Not fun.

My brain sets things in stone and pulling myself far enough away from my own work to see what the patterns are takes real sweat. It forces the gray matter to spin patterns it's naturally resistant to. When I write, I set things down, things that are, to me at least, kind of real. When I edit--just blow the hell out of my own writing--it's like I'm unmaking reality. Writers abhor a vacuum. Or at least I do.

Then again, I don't really re-read that much these days. Maybe there's a connection. When I was a kid, I lived way the hell out in the sticks. My nearest neighbor was a mile away. Twenty minutes walking, five or six on the BMX. The nearest town, an old train stop with a gas station, a small topless bar and no more than fifty people living within a quarter mile of the stop sign, was about six miles away: two dusty graveled hours on foot, a half hour or so on bike.

The nearest city with a library worth mentioning was Marquette, which was about forty-five minutes to the north. Sixty if you trusted my dad's reckoning, which you shouldn't because he'd always add the extra fifteen minutes padding to disguise a smoke break from my mom, who wasn't fooled in the least.

I was an avid reader and books were definitely limited in supply. I'd get more of them on birthdays and Christmas and as my allowance allowed. In theory, my parents were very much pro-library and -reading. If they had the funds, they would have built a house of books for me. In practice, it was a long drive to get to the nearest library or book store and we'd only be able to make it to town once a month or so, usually about the length of time it would take for us to empty out our various cabinets, freezers and refrigerators. When you live as far out in the woods as we did, even grocery shopping became a matter of strategy and tactics, like provisioning Napoleon's army or something.

We'd roll into town and it was like going to the fair: fast food! Shopping! People who are not immediate family members! Buildings which are built right next to each other instead of separated by miles of trees and swamp! Buildings with three or even four floors! I'd look forward to it days ahead of time, going over every step in my head, wishing I could live in Marquette like all the rich cool people who I imagined live there.

We'd get to the library, I would spend a couple of happy hours scouring the shelves and then I'd walk out with a pile of books higher than me.

The librarian would smile and ask me if I really was going to read all of those and then I'd look glum: at a reading rate of over a book a day with nothing much better to do out in the howling wilderness but read...the stack would usually last about half as long as the check-out period. Sometimes shorter.

So I re-read books constantly. Some of the better ones, or at least "better" with a twelve-year-old's conception of the word, I wound up reading dozens of times. Some of them were pretty great by anyone's standards: H. P. Lovecraft, Doc Smith, Tolkien. Zelazny and Asimov, C. S. Lewis, Terry Pratchett and Madeleine l'Engle, who you'd think I'd be able to spell more easily after constant re-readings, but apparently cannot. These were the bricks of my upbringing. At one point, I could probably quote any given Doc Smith novel word for word.

Others, I have to wonder about. I read a lot of Dragonlance novels as a kid. I was a little too fond of the ass-end of Heinlein's career. There were lurid pulps which I'm not entirely sure my parents would approve of, including one book about gladiators in ancient Rome which, in my memory, was nothing but stabbings and wall-to-wall fucking.

Sometimes I write something and I wonder which of these books it comes from. Do I get this bit from the good end? Are the bad books hanging out in the rear entrance of my mind smoking and gossiping and waiting for an excuse to screw up whatever I'm writing?

It's weird how technology has changed my consumption of media. I have to wonder sometimes if the modern embarrassment of riches vis-a-vis reading is thinning me out, preventing me from savoring the experience. I've turned reading into a chain-smoking experience. Finish one, light up the next. No retreads!

I guess I can't complain. I read books I'd never in a million years see in the middle of the Upper Peninsula. If I find an author I like I can read as much as they've written as I can bear, without having to pester librarians or scour distant bookstores.

Nostalgia hides any number of sins and flaws. On one hand, I miss a slower-paced time when connections with the greater world sighed past at the rate of once a month. On the other, I think I'd be bored silly living like that as an adult.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Mystic Art Of Strangling Gremlins

What is that I hear? A complete lack of demand for yet another post about coffee and lifestyle choices? Well, here's one anyway. One of the benefits of largely writing in an echo chamber is that I can pretend there's an endless hunger for these types of bloggery. Screw you, Chrome, "bloggery" is totally a word.


I was brewing coffee this morning and it struck me that I've learned quite a bit about life from learning to be better at making coffee.

The more complicated I make the coffee-brewing process, the worse the end results will generally be. Simpler process, fewer problems.

Complicated drip machines? Lousy coffee. Measuring everything out with instruments? Lousy coffee. Weird technology? Lousy coffee. Rushing the process? Lousy coffee.

The more complicating factors between me and my joe, the more there is to go wrong and the less happy I am with the end results. I get farther away from the essence of my morning routine and the process obscures the goal of the exercise.

After months of fucking around, trying every permutation, trying every hair-brained trick some idiot posts on the internet about the Real Ultimate Secret To Awesome Coffee, the more I realize that I really only need a few things: a glass funnel with something below it to catch the coffee (*cough* Chemex *cough*), a filter, quality ground beans, hot water and the right amount of time. That's it.

If I go by my gut the end result is usually pretty damn good. If I don't, it sucks. Period. The more I turn the process into one of Rube Goldberg's fever dreams, the farther I get away from the platonic ideal of coffee and the more miserable I make myself.

My process spits out about three cups of coffee at a time, assuming you use big cups as I do. I enjoy them and move on with the day, satisfied that I'll be able to do it again tomorrow and have it be just as good. I make a lagom amount of coffee, because to drink more will make me uncomfortably jittery and wired throughout the morning and take me on an annoying roller-coaster ride of dips and crashes throughout the day.

That's life in a nutshell. I move through the motions of making my morning brew pretty deliberately, because I've learned that by doing things in a certain way I can efficiently get through a lot of mildly annoying morning preparations before I sit down to write, in such a way that I don't even have to think about it much: dress, pack the gym bag, make my bed, etc and so forth. And at the end, I have a steaming cup of coffee and the knowledge that all the annoying morning stuff is finished and I don't feel rushed at all. I leave for work unhurried, knowing that half the day is already sorted out and my mind is freed from clutter so everything big I need to do has my full attention.

It's all very zen.

It's all about pacing and removing complications you don't care about.

I take the same approach with the rest of my life. Not the organization: I'm a complete fucking mess as far as that goes. I'm late all the time for social engagements, I don't always wear socks that match. I don't use lists or calendars or an intricate system of reminders to remind me of things. I couldn't even tell you where my car keys are at this moment. That way, somewhere, maybe. Crap, I should go look.

I'm back. They were on the kitchen table. Anyhow.

I'm a big fan of minimalism. Life is already plenty complicated as it is. You're constantly being bombarded with stuff that demands to be cared about. The more of these distractions that you can identify as simply that--distractions--the better.

It's hard work, though. As Edward Norton once said in a cool movie, "We buy things we don't need with money we don't have to impress people we don't like", but one of the things nobody ever makes clear is that the people we don't like is often our imaginary selves.

We have a ton of mental baggage in our skulls, all loaded there by an imaginary person inside of you which has a ton of things it feels obligated to do that nobody out in the real world actually cares about. You're doing things simply because you think someone, somewhere, must think it's important. Sometimes you can't even pretend that anybody outside your skull even cares about it but you do it anyway and for reasons you don't really understand. People are weird like that.

Let's take an example.

I live on the bottom end of Michigan. My parents live on the top end, in the Upper Peninsula. It's a long drive to get from one side to the other because you have to drive up the mitten, cross a really cool bridge and then drive west from there. I've measured the drive from where I am to my parent's house: it's roughly 430 miles, or eight hours in the car.

Most of the time I really enjoy the drive. During the summer, it gives me eight hours to myself with a good excuse to do nothing but gather wool and listen to stand-up comics on my XM radio. Sometimes I get lost on purpose and enjoy the scenery on the way up. It's pretty great.

During the winter, however, that drive turns evil. Sometimes I've had blizzards follow me all the way up, transforming eight relatively relaxing hours behind the wheel into a sixteen hour death-march of white knuckle driving and constant impending doom.

I can usually count on the drive being like this any time in December, January, February or early March. It might not hit me on this trip, maybe not even the next, but sometimes you hit the crap lottery and the next thing you know you're doing donuts down the Interstate in thick traffic, wishing you weren't an atheist because suddenly being able to pray to a higher power sounds like a fairly compelling ability.

I'm trying to say the drive sucks in winter here, in case you missed it.

I would dread the Christmas drive for months ahead of time. The thought of having to do it would darken a sunny day in July. When I did the drive, I'd get up early, watch weather reports for days ahead of time to see if I could plan an optimal path through the clouds so I didn't get nailed by a storm. Most of the time, I'd get beat up by the weather anyway, particularly up near the Gaylord region near the top of the mitt, where all the lake effect snow bands converge like some kind of meteorological prison blanket party.

I'd get there, spend a couple happy days with my parents, then do it all over again. And the dread of the drive back south was enough to screw up my enjoyment during the stay.

After a while, though, I realized one thing: I already go up to visit in November, for Thanksgiving, a mere 30 days earlier. My family and other relatives usually don't swing by, meaning it's just me, my mom and my dad. And I'm an atheist. The holiday itself doesn't mean shit to me. We're not even very big gift-givers. I could go up any time. Including....badumpbump...after the spring thaw.

So I broke the news to my parents, who expressed mild regret and then promptly started getting the hell out of the UP during that period of time. They really didn't care one whit as long as I stayed in touch and visited relatively frequently.

The only person who cared about all this misery I'd been putting myself through for over a decade was the imaginary gremlin in my head.

But it took me awhile and a certain amount of social bravery to admit that. By simply getting rid of that trip and being honest with myself and my parents, I removed a great source of stress in my year.

Slicing through illusions is hard work. Sometimes you have to ask some difficult questions about whether something in your life is worth doing and whether or not it actually matters.

And that's what I like about being as minimalistic as possible. Life throws you a baffling huge cloud of chaff all the fucking time. The more complicating factors you've got in your life, the less streamlined your process of living, the harder it is to focus in on the shit that actually matters to you.

The more stuff you have around, the more that stuff tends to be a prison. Lifting weight off of you gives you more mobility, more ability to identify and deal with problems. It's really that simple.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Zen And The Art Of Not Giving A Fuck

Every Sunday morning, I get up, brew a big pot of go-juice and update my budget.

It's one of the most relaxing things I do in the week, a numbers-nerd version of keeping a zen garden. I find making the numbers dance, making the financial side of my life make sense, to be profoundly relaxing. Even when I was in student debt up to my nuts, it was nice to realize where everything was coming from and where it was going to. It gives me a sense of control that often-times is lost in the hurly-burly of life. I might not be able to tell you whether I'll be sick in two months, or if I'll have a job tomorrow, but I can tell you exactly how much I'll need if I want to retire at 60.

I didn't always have much in the way of financial sense. I wish I could put a personal finance book in a time machine, send it back to, say, 1999 with a note pinned on it demanding I read it. I probably wouldn't, because personal finance really isn't about math or learning specific numbers--it's more about defining priorities and fixing your head. It would have been wasted effort, like teaching a cat how to play a piano. I just wasn't ready for it.

I never did anything particularly bad, no major credit card debt, didn't buy a time share in New Orleans pre-Katrina. No gambling, expensive cars, trips to Belize, making it rain at strip clubs, sports betting or anything like that. I just didn't track money that closely and I didn't keep an emergency fund.

It wasn't until I learned about money much later that I realized just how much of my youth I'd spent in a sort of haze of crises because my money was jerking me around. Sometimes I'd lie awake at nights paralyzed with fear that I'd lose a job. I'd worry about car repairs or if my television died, or about being stuck in an airport somewhere needing a cab and hotel fare. Basically, I worried a lot instead of getting on with my primary task of just enjoying being young and alive. I never had much freedom to live and it was primarily because of money. I thought I didn't have enough; instead I had a fundamentally flawed relationship with it. By not controlling it, it was controlling me.

These days, I have a good idea where everything is going. I have plans, long-term, short-term and otherwise. When I buy something, I know, in general, how it impacts my savings and various time-lines. I'm not obsessive about it, it's just that I've put a bit of thought into where I want to go in life, what's important to me, what isn't. I've realized that I don't particularly value having things, but I do value security and flexibility. I like never having to be in a position where my back is against the wall, not having to fear having all my shit get destroyed in a fire or a sudden job loss requiring me to sell body parts in a Bangkok chop shop to make ends meet.

Sounds like a lot to keep track of, but it really isn't. I've got some basic spreadsheets to take care of all the number juggling for me. I load them up, make some adjustments and, voila, my current financial position is displayed in lurid detail. If have a question I don't have an immediate answer to, I just make another spreadsheet or tweak a current one until it all makes sense. Once you have the basics it's embarrassingly easy.

Since I'm somewhat of a nerd, I like having stats to play with. It's simple enough: if there's a statistic which matters to someone, it's probably in there somewhere. Net worth? Retirement funds? Saucy little percentages? It's all there.

But my favorite section is a little block of numbers in the lower right-hand corner. They all average out to one big number, which I have in 32 point font, bolded and in bright red:

I call it my Fuck-It Number.

It is, simply enough, my best estimate of how many months I could go without having gainful employment before I need to find more gainful employment.

If it's going up, I'm in good financial shape. If it's going down, I've taken a hit for some reason.

The bigger it is, the happier I tend to be.

The name is a reference to the term "Fuck-You Money", which was coined, I believe, by James Clavell in "Tai Pan" but popularized by Neal Stephenson in "Cryptonomicon." It's the minimum amount of money you'd need where you'd be comfortable walking into your employer's office, saying "fuck you" to them and severing all lines of income. It's the sort of money where you'd have no worries about money ever after again, amen.

For most people that's a pretty big number. I'm nowhere near close to that, personally, and probably won't ever be unless some generous relative wins the lottery and gives me a chunk of it.

So, I use the Fuck-It Number. It's a metric of how well I'm doing. Sort of a measurement of how close my back is to the wall. If it's big, my back is very far from the proverbial wall. I prefer to keep it that way.

It sounds like a very negative thing to keep track of at all times. After all, you're focusing on bad things which might happen. Keeping track of it makes people think you're constantly looking over one shoulder because a bus might be heading your way at any moment. You might as well be tracking the number of seconds until you die, or keep a running tally of intestinal polyps you think you might have. It sounds morbid--or worse, miserly, like something Scrooge McDuck would have on a chart in his office. It sounds like a figure that, if known, would actually make you worse as a human being.

This could not be farther from the truth. It lends a wonderfully zen atmosphere to life. After all, barring horrible limb-dismantling, cancer-injecting trauma or similar acts of divine malice, there's not really a whole lot that can happen to you that a sizable emergency fund can't take care of.

It's very hard to piss off or worry someone with a high Fuck-It Number. Office politics? Job stress? Career boredom? Problem customers? The worst case scenario is I walk away from it all and take a long vacation somewhere ridiculous, simply to prove a point to the people trying to stress me out.

Oddly enough, I think it's made me a better worker over the years because I have a certain amount of objectivity these days that I lacked before. I don't fear job loss as much. I prioritize better since I'm not afraid to tell people when something is a waste of my time and abilities. I take more risks. I tend to negotiate like a god-damned Tyrannosaurus, because of the axiom that the one who cares less wins the deal. My lack of stress hopefully destresses the people around me, or at the very least doesn't contribute to the stress-cycle.

In my personal life, I'm much easier-going because small things just aren't a blip on my radar anymore and I have enough sense of what the big things are that I've planned for those, too, insomuch as big things can be planned for.

Formalizing my general lack of giving a fuck about things was probably one of the best financial decisions I've ever made, beyond the essential paying-off-debt-and-never-ever-ever-getting-back-in-debt thing. Having that metric is like a cold sudden slap of don't-give-a-fuck whenever you need it.