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What is at the centre of [time] x [material security] x [zero waste] x [good health] x [woman]? Life on insane hard mode
Yet, here I am, trying to make it work. Am I crazy for trying?
Note: I’ll be talking about, among other things, menstruation issues, just FYI ♥️
I thought of this newsletter’s title as I was washing, by hand, my leak-proof period underwear, with a new laundry soap bar by a local soap maker that humbly promises that it diverts 4 bottles of plastic from the landfill.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the latest innovations on period-wear that helps women divert plastic from the landfill. I want my periods to be waste free, because they happen every single bloody month for quite a long time of a woman’s life. Imagine having one of your most natural bodily processes be closely linked to generating a huge amount of plastic waste that will not decompose in the next many thousand years unless incinerated.
But having a waste-free period is not without “side effects”. I now spend more time caring for my leak-proof underwear so they will last longer, because it is a lie that they come out clean from the washer. I usually pre-wash them by hand and then run them through two washing machine cycles, then air dry.
All the hand washing makes my hands very dry, so it’s become a decades-long hobby of mine to try new hand creams and the current cream that I like is from Iceland’s Blue Lagoon line with silica in it. I’ve been extra conscious of two things: 1. to force myself to use it because my immigrant-frugalness tends to want to “save” the things that are valuable and useful in case of a rainy day, even to the point of expiry, and even though I am well within my means to re-supply when needed, and 2. allowing myself to feel a sense of joy and delight when I use it, because if left void, it will be filled by feelings of annoyance and even despair that dry hands from washing too many period undies even is a problem that I have to deal with in the first place.
Having a period leak in bed is a huge deal in my brain, and when it happens in the middle of the night it involves waking up, ripping queen-sized sheets off, dragging and wrangling said heavy sheets to the sink, hand washing and dabbing with laundry soap, throwing them in the washing machine for the morning, remaking bed with clean sheets, and I may have to jump in the shower too and change clothes… yes, all this activity in the middle of the night, potentially happening once a month, when you’re literally at your lowest energy level. And yes, I know about the towel trick…
(Note: I am fortunate enough to have a super-duper supportive partner in life who now helps me when things like this happen, and I consider myself so lucky to have this and other supports in my life in the form of people who simply care to help me, but this should not detract from the fact that for the majority of my life I simply dealt with a lot of this on my own, without assistance.)
I’m not alone in this and for those of us who it affects, there’s no way around it: It simply sucks. When so much time and energy is going towards just surviving the aftermath of your body being itself, what’s left?
In our modern economy and workforce, we all need enough surplus energy to deal with having a career. Despite my body, I need to perform well for the sake of having a career in exchange for money because we individually need the purchasing power to buy the things we need to live, such as food, clothes, shelter. This is not a trivial matter: having a career that pays enough is now a matter of basic survival. And there are all kinds of advice (misguided and otherwise) floating out there when it comes to career management and excellence. Up until recently, I’ve been nodding along with traditional productivity advice which, I’ll be honest with myself, has largely been an echo-chamber of childless guys giving each other digital high fives and prestige. The advice they promise is so compelling and simple though, it is hard not to fall for the trap of liking their simplistic advice and wanting it to work for me. But alas, the complexity of life caught up and I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
In my 30s when my body started demanding more from me, I noticed I was failing at hitting my productivity “targets”. Fortunately, there had been a rise in questioning dominant biases (the “patriarchy”) and I benefited from this progress in thinking since movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. I can now label my anxiety around productivity as toxic behaviour stemming from bad advice that did not have someone like me in mind. It is finally clear to me that there is a lot of invisible work, done by predominantly women, that is never acknowledged, never recognized as traditional work, and thus never paid and accounted for in our capitalistic environment. Capitalism devours its workers, yet never pays for the work needed to nurture babies into decent humans to then become said workers. It’s the perfect gotcha, and the joke is on those who care enough to continue doing the good work, never expecting a dime from anyone.
Society’s move towards becoming zero waste has a long, long way to go. It used to be one of things that only the people who “cared” enough would do. We’re beginning to see economic arguments for going zero waste (“it’ll cost less in the long run!”) finally starting to take hold in boardrooms, but it is more than a little frustrating that something that is so intuitively right is so hard to argue for in “real” life. Because in “real” life, decisions can’t just be made based on gut feeling. You need numbers, facts, theories, and most of all, measurable results that can be plugged into that all-important tracker which apparently represents all that is important to know about a thing. If it’s not measurable, it cannot be tracked, and performance cannot be determined by the boardroom folks. Womp-womp.
Two weeks ago I spent a week in Norway with the Tana team, where we were setting targets for the next quarter, based on goals for the year. The team I’m on is fundamentally non-dev, so we are in charge of things like comms, community, and content. And I noticed it was markedly harder for our team to articulate our Key Results (OKRs anybody?) because it was hard to make them SMART… namely, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely. The nature of our work is nebulous, so it’s very difficult to find a number that makes sense to measure against. Does it matter how many people the Slack channel grew by in Q1? Does it matter if we commit to three pieces of content per week? Should we set our target to achieve X amount of new user in Q1, even though many of the factors that contribute to this are not within our team’s control? All the metrics we came up with were brittle, and frankly, felt like pure guesswork.
Had we been lazy, we could have pretended everything was fine, made up some targets and called it a day. But we didn’t. We went through very hard discussions, back and forth, endless iterations on the wording of Key Results which, when changed for the nth time, I imagined my poor teammates breathe out in exasperation. (I think I imagined it more than it actually happening because, you know, impostor syndrome.)
In the third iteration though, we struck gold. And it came in the shape of a bright yellow canary.
Miners used to bring a caged canary down into the shafts to determine whether it was safe to be in the mine or not. The invisible presence of carbon monoxide or other toxic gases would affect the canary first, so if the canary keeled over, it was time to evacuate the mine immediately. (RIP canary…)
Like the canary in the coal mine, what if we have a canary for each of our KRs that gives us something very concrete (has it happened, or not?), and is more tightly tied to a desired end situation, or the end of an undesirable situation?
For example, a teammate said: “If [name of founder] feels like they can stop worrying about X and sleep soundly at night knowing that everything is taken care of, that would be a huge success.” Huh. Yes, this is a canary. It is not a SMART goal because this could never be put in an investor slide deck matrix, but it is extremely concrete, and its unintuitive shorthand simplicity hides a rather complex set of conditions that need to be true in order for it to happen. It is a canary.
So, we invented the canary, and I can’t stop thinking about it since. We need to stop trying to put numbers to everything that don’t make sense. Instead, we need complex goal setting that measures a quality, a situation, a feeling, a meaningful impact on someone’s life… something that is more than just a number, or a discombobulated measurement detached from a quality of life that we’re trying to attain.
We need more canaries, everywhere.
I have been an avid reader ofwho has been so on point with her writing since she started in December. A particular post on domesticity, and her change of mind in how she framed chores really struck a chord with me. In her words:
I always had troubles with cleaning for the sake of cleaning, or for the sake of being a good person, but I can totally relate to cleaning that enables me to live a good life.
I read this piece (and the one linked in the quote) and something just clicked in my head. Sometimes I’d be up in twists about whether I was complicit in perpetrating the patriarchy if I cleaned the kitchen sink as a woman, it was such a ridiculous idea and yet so real for me. And Maria just set all of that straight for me and put my priorities in the right order. Fuck the patriarchy: I’m gonna clean, tidy and nurture my home because it contributes to me and my partner’s quality of life. This is aligned with needing to make some decisions about what is truly important in life.
Coming back to the Venn diagram, it currently represents the things I need to respect because they affect my quality of life the most.
[time-rich] x [materially secure] x [zero waste] x [health] x [woman]
Time-rich: I want a life where I have time to do the things I love. I don’t currently have this, but I know I want it.
Materially secure: Basically the bottom half of Maslow’s Hierarchy. I’m currently very secure, and I continue to invest a lot of time into making it so, but I still worry about the future.
Zero waste: I want to prove to myself that it is possible to live a life with low/no waste. I’ve been working on it for well over a decade. I’ve made many strides in replacing household and personal care products, and sometimes make questionable choices (such as eating foods well beyond expiry) but I still find ways to improve, so this work is far from done.
Health: All I’ll say is that things have been a struggle over the past two months, and it’s a blessing when I wake up without any pains and odd surprises in the morning. Health is truly everything.
Woman: It matters that I’m biologically and socially different from guys, because it shapes who I am, the options available for me, and my prospects in life.
Many of these things compete with one another. Being healthy, waste free, and materially secure takes time. Being waste free is difficult as a woman unless you take the time to research and invest in period gear that isn’t single-use products. (It’s also (sadly) a privilege to have waste-free periods.) Also, women are historically not the most materially secure without there being a guy in the picture, so whoever feels secure today are bucking a “trend” (if we can call it that) for the first time in history. Being healthy as a woman is also not easy; western medicine is too siloed, health is a complex and interconnected thing, and female subjects are historically under-researched compared to their male counterparts.
It seems that if I just nix the “woman” part of the Venn diagram, my life might be much easier…
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
— Jiddu Krishnamurti
Another way for me to think about it: Maybe our society has always been systemically hostile to women’s needs, and that’s no fault of my own. My ambition and struggle may sound like an insane mission, but I look at each individual thing and they are all valuable areas I want to nurture in life. I don’t want to deprioritize any of these things. Being time-rich will be the most difficult one to achieve, only possible once I set up systems to automate the upkeep and maintenance of the other areas of priority.
This brings me full circle to being uncomfortable performing domestic duties. I have to get over it. In fact, I’m over it. It is hip to be domestic. The only way I can free up more time is to be very disciplined in all other areas of life. And I don’t mean being militaristic about it; instead I’m seeking a “Minimum Viable Household” as Maria puts it, where a canary for the Health and Woman category is: I always have foods and supplements within reach that are good for balancing my hormones. I’ll need to do research on the items, and source the items, and make monthly shopping lists to keep stocked up, but without this labour of care my health will suffer.
For being Waste free, the tentative canary here is: Spare no time when doing the work towards converting high-touch household items to zero waste, chemical-free options that enable me to establish relationships with local makers. Also, make sure there is a sense of joy in using the new zero-waste options. This value is so important to me that I am happy to pour time and effort into this to get it right. Because once it’s right, I hope to set it on auto-pilot.
I’m still refining canaries for all areas, but one thing they all have in common is that they will embody the counter-capitalistic philosophy of “enough”.
At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have … enough.”
Enough. I was stunned by the simple eloquence of that word—stunned for two reasons: first, because I have been given so much in my own life and, second, because Joseph Heller couldn’t have been more accurate.
For a critical element of our society, including many of the wealthiest and most powerful among us, there seems to be no limit today on what enough entails.
—Morgan Housel, in The Psychology of Money
In identifying the important areas in my life, the beginning of this letter started with how impossible many of these things are for me to achieve if observed through the traditional capitalistic SMART frame.
But they seem infinitely less impossible if seen from the eyes of a canary.