My house of magical thinking
How could so many things have failed at once? (August 2023)
Great plans were afoot for the newsletter this month, but then Mercury retrograded all over the place and I was pulled away from writing by the need to find a new dishwasher, a new hot water heater, and a surefire way to get squirrels out of the soffits. That’s on top of the ongoing bathroom renovation downstairs, a malfunctioning toilet upstairs, non-working smoke detectors, and a clothes-washing machine that only works half of the time.
How could so many things have failed at once? Simple, really. Every single thing on this list has been in our sights to fix for months, if not years. The downstairs bathroom renovation was a priority project when we moved in seven years ago. We were told last September that roof replacement was imminent (but hoped to get “just one more year” out of it). The hot water tank hasn’t been insurable for some time and was on my list to replace this October. The dishwasher is just one in a long line of free second-hand appliances we got on the community bulletin board to save money. Ditto the washing machine.
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I had a plan for working on things one at a time (downstairs bathroom first, then laundry room, then roof), but the appliances and squirrels had other designs on the timeline. Forces of nature and collapsing machinery are not predictable, nor controllable when it comes to their fail points. By putting off the inevitable on all fronts, we now find ourselves dealing with everything at once.
Experts tell me that we procrastinate, even on our most important tasks, because we don’t want to be inconvenienced or deal with unpleasantness. According to some research, procrastination is linked to disordered emotional regulation, a deeper inability to manage our moods around something with negative affect. We bargain against our future selves for an immediate payoff in the form of rest, or at least not having to deal with the thing we don’t want to deal with right now. According to researchers, the momentary relief we feel from putting something off is part of what creates habitual procrastination. Essentially, we are rewarded by a tiny dopamine hit when we feel relief, and this sets basic behaviourism in action. We chase these tiny chemical rewards even if the overall behaviour hurts us in the long run.
In the case of my house, a lot of that bargaining with my present and future selves arises from the actual cost of doing things. Who wants to borrow $30,000 to spend on a new roof? That has got to be the least fun use of cash ever. Much better to throw another dinner party or even book a trip to see friends in New York, instead of spending $800 on a dishwasher. These are the classic conundrums of adulting. To convince ourselves that our choices are the right ones, we engage in a lot of magical thinking. In our putting off of things, we rationalize a future in which we have more time, money, skills and self-motivation, even if we change nothing in the present to make that so.
The whole credit system we are enmeshed in is emblematic of this. I can acquire what I want or need now, on some premise that money will appear in the future. Perhaps I will pay this debt on my next paycheque, I tell myself, or the next one. But I can’t afford to do that because I need all the money from each pay to live on, and if something happens like an illness or job loss then I will become forever behind, secretly hoping for some magic money to come (like an inheritance from a long-lost relative). Similarly with the house repairs, I think “if only I could set aside the time to do this” without actually taking out my calendar and setting aside the time. In some fantastical version of my life, extra hours are generated during which I am not exhausted or behind on other projects, and I suddenly become inspired to do house renos and repairs.
On a meta level we see this play out to devastating consequences. I hope the scientists are wrong, and fantasize that technology will save us when it comes to climate change. I project a future in which the right political party wins and takes care of our social problems without investing my time for those in need in my closest community. I wish for a return to a time of greater connection with others, but refuse to put down my technology and engage more fulsomely in conversation. We want the better world, but we don’t want the short term pain of giving up anything to get there. We think that in the future we will act differently, or perhaps we tell ourselves there is nothing wrong to begin with, acting as bewildered as the people of Fort Mac when our houses burn to the ground in a literal tornado of fire. (According to a friend of mine, even after the 2016 disaster, most of the people he spoke with there in counselling sessions were still in denial about climate change).
This isn’t entirely our fault. To some degree, we are captured by a biology that is very present-oriented. As psychologist Dr. Hal Hershfield explains, “We really weren’t designed to think ahead into the further future because we needed to focus on providing for ourselves in the here and now.” His research shows that to some degree our future selves are more like strangers than parts of us - and that our brain actually responds as though by putting off our present problems, they become someone else’s problem (the future self being perceived as an other by the current self). When stressed out, we’re even less likely to make good future-oriented choices, particularly if we feel a threat to our self-esteem or overall well-being.
I don’t want to overlook here the fact that for many people, financial or time constraints really do require putting off non-priority items until they require more urgent attention. If you work two jobs, or can’t afford daycare, or live on a disability cheque, then things are going to get put off as you get further behind because there is no rescue from this system.
These are not the issues I face, however, as I work through a list of tasks over ten days that could have been handled with less crisis over the last few years. Instead of writing during this period, I have fixed my dishwasher and also ordered a new one, swapped out our smoke detectors (and installed one in an outbuilding where people sometimes stay), bought a new water heater, and fixed the upstairs toilet. Together, my husband and I have ripped out a bathroom and are halfway to reinstalling it, and we have learned to work better together on each issue as it arises, adding to our store of knowledge about each other in addition to the way our home is plumbed and wired.
If procrastination is about managing negative emotions, then it stands to reason we can create a positive emotional feedback loop to encourage better habits. I find that by considering only the next task (as opposed to the endless list of tasks) it’s easier to tackle that one thing. Once I’m moving in the direction of the bigger project, other tasks don’t seem as daunting. It’s also true that by celebrating our small project advances, my husband and I are energized to continue onto the next item on the list. Making a “date” with each other and setting aside specific times to tackle discreet project components also seems to help move us along.
I don’t know that there is a corollary between fixing our household procrastination/magical thinking problem and the bigger ones we face collectively, even if I do believe the roots are the same, and upheld by the same structural forces. I’m certainly not up to offering simplistic answers just to close off an essay. But I do sometimes wonder if the doom-saying of our current cultural moment is demotivational. If I can’t see a positive payoff, even for future me, how will I ever manage my negative emotions to act in the present? If I believe that it’s all a garbage-fire, or worse - a lost cause - why should I do anything different right now?
Despite having managed my emotions around a number of chores recently, I have still not dealt with the squirrels in the soffits. That’s mainly because most of the advice out there suggests killing them and I am having a difficult time with the negative valence of that. Sure, they are in the soffits (and probably the attic) but how much damage can they really be doing? And again, my magical-thinking brain gives me all sorts of reasons not to act in the present to save my house in the future. Perhaps you can help me here - got any advice on the squirrels? Or perhaps you have thoughts on the tasks, big and small, you just can’t face. How do we break this cycle personally and collectively?
August recipe: Chocolate zucchini cake (with icing)
According to the people I served this to at an early August party, this is the best chocolate zucchini cake ever. I got only the smallest piece before it was eaten up, but fortunately there are still giant summer zukes everywhere and I plan to make this again before the end of the season.
2 cups sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
3/4 cup unsweetened Dutch cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups shredded zucchini about 2 small or 1 large
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
2/3 cup powdered sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 9 x 13 pan.
Whisk together sugar, buttermilk, eggs, and vanilla in a large bowl.
To the same bowl add flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt, and baking powder and stir until combined. Stir in zucchini.
Spread into prepared pan and bake for 50 minutes (or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean or with moist crumbs).
Combine cream, sugar, cocoa, and vanilla in a stand mixer. (Or use a hand mixer for this)
Beat on low until incorporated, then beat on high until stiff peaks form.
Spread over cooled cake and serve.
In the workshop
I have not had much time in the textile studio over the summer, but in addition to the flax project I wrote about last month I’m working with my “fibre pod” on a local wool project. Pictured above is the preparation of dyed wool for spinning. This involves a lot of teasing the felted locks with a comb and then using a drum carder to create roving. Once this part is complete, I’ll spin the roving into a worsted-weight, 2-ply yarn which will be knit into sweater to be gifted back to the farmer who raised the sheep this wool originated from.
Audio: For the Birds (also known as the Birdsong Project) | Started during the pandemic, more than 220 musicians have contributed tracks to this multi-volume work celebrating birds. Poetry, music, soundscapes. All donations and purchases of this project are received gratefully by the Audubon Society.
The Bear God, Revisited | In this essay published by Orion Magazine in 2020, Emily Sekine meditates on Japanese stories and disaster planning, and what the national approach post-Fukushima might teach us about building a culture of resilience in the face of disaster.
After this summer of fire, you might be thinking about putting together a Go Bag (or reviewing the one you’ve got) I’ve been using this BC government checklist to put together new ones for our household. Besides the pen and notepad, I also include a sharpie and blank paper, plus some duct tape and a small sewing kit, reading material and a knitting project for the interminable waits at evacuation centres.
I am putting together these last words during the August blue moon which I cannot see for the clouds tonight. Grateful for the rain of the last couple of days, our temperatures are definitely shifting towards the Equinox which is only three weeks away.
I’ve made a couple of changes on my Substack page, so if you go there to like this post you might notice the new layout and some recommended reading on the right-hand side of the page. Some of those are subscription reads, some are free, but they are the Substacks I read most avidly these days.
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