We’ve now confirmed that our assignment will end in three months.  This is what we expected, so although we would have loved to stay another year, we’re excited to begin another adventure.

Living in Japan has prepared us for things we wouldn’t have considered before and I’m looking forward to testing how we might translate back in the states:

One-bedroom living: We’ve had a two-bedroom here in Japan but the second bedroom has functioned as a closet for DH and a pass-through to the balcony (which is located off the bedrooms rather than the living area).  In the states, most apartments I’ve looked at have much larger closets and balconies off the living area, so it’s foreseeable that a one-bedroom will meet our needs and save us money to allow for …

Airplane travel: living on an island has meant that wherever we go requires a flight.  I used to much prefer a road trip — even a 12-hour one — to a flight whenever possible.  Part of that is the TSA process and part of it is the discomfort of the coach seats.  I’ve discovered in my year of foreign assignment that I love airports and even after logging about 100,000 miles, I still love flying — even in coach.  I’ve now acquired global entry ID along with the pillow, socks, eye mask, noise-cancelling ear buds, and foot hammock that make even the most uncomfortable flights tolerable even for long-hauls.  (Everywhere I’ve flown has been at least 6 hours, most in the 10-12 hour range, and some as long as 18 hours.)  I’m looking forward to testing my flying chops in the states for weekend adventures.

Biking: parking and driving are both expensive in Japan and although the trains are magical, they’re below ground.  We’ve really loved having bicycles and use them every weekend to head out on adventures (or just to run errands or visit friends).  Electric bikes here are very common and very affordable, so even a really long or hilly ride is quite doable.  We’re planning to take our bikes back to the states (if we can figure out how to transport the batteries).  We’re looking forward to finding a bikeable neighborhood to drive less and see more.

Walking: Whether driving, biking, or taking the train to your final destination; you’re going to be walking in Japan.  Our town (actually all of Japan) is built around pedestrians not cars, so sidewalks and footbridges are part of the design process.  Our current walk-score is 99 out of 100.  One of our main criteria for our next apartment location is walkability.  The US lags in this area (definitely a country built for its cars) but there are pockets of walkability in almost every city we’re looking in.

Simplicity vs. [semi]minimalism

Walking home from work, I was listening to a podcast from Art of Simple on Tech and Family — a topic I’m always interested in as a self-avowed tech-geek and a mom.

Whether you have children or not, I believe that use of technology should be intentional. That’s true whether the technology in question is your smartphone or the internet, but also the television and the microwave. In fact, I did some research for a paper a couple of years ago on disruptive technologies throughout history (including the printing press, the printed book, the refrigerator, and don’t get me started on the automobile) and the answer is always the same. Technology should be a tool you use and not a tool that drives your behavior.

But that’s not what intrigued me.  The discussion later in the podcast turns to how one of the casters had found that she could simplify her life by leaving her smartphone behind and taking her digital camera instead.  And that if she wanted to take notes, she would carry a notebook.  And I thought to myself — why would I want to start carrying (and buying) extra things to replace some functionality I already have on my phone?  In fact, I’ve worked to minimize the amount of things I have to carry with me so I make my phone do a lot of things — take pictures, take notes, read, watch, talk, chat, plan, schedule, record.  And I realized that this is really where my values of simplicity and [semi]minimalism can diverge.

Or maybe it’s a difference in perception.  To me, having fewer items that can multi-task (whether it’s my phone or a kitchen appliance) means I have fewer things to care for and fewer things to learn which simplifies my life.

So what are your thoughts?  Does simplicity to you mean going “analog” or is there an overlap between your definition of simplicity and minimalism?

Friday Favorites

Listening: Tsh Oxenreider has a passion for playlists and I’ve been enjoying this one while working this week: They Make Me Cry

Reading: Longform … it’s a curation of 2,000-word-plus articles published freely across multiple platforms and publications. I like the availability of non-fiction but I still view it as work to get through a 30-minute read. I am trying to improve my attention threshold to counterbalance most of my consumption (which is 1-minute or less).

Watching: Jane the Virgin season 5 — we became big fans of this show earlier this year based on a recommendation from a friend. I didn’t expect to like it — it’s pretty fluffy and outlandish on the surface. Don’t let the surface fool you. This article explains a number of the reasons it became a favorite in our house.

Lessons from my not-so-[semi]minimalist vacation

Just got back from a full seven days at the “happiest place on earth.” (Technically, that’s Disneyland’s slogan, although we regularly use this term to refer to all Disney properties and specifically Disneyworld in this case.)

We went as a family every other year to WDW when the kids were younger and both of my kids have made short trips there separately.  We all still love it — it’s part of our family DNA.  (My husband and I grew up going to Disneyland as kids. Our kids had Disney-themed nurseries. My oldest’s first word was “Mickey.” You get the idea.)  We are already planning our next trip in two or three years depending on where we are.

How can a family enjoy Disney while also valuing simplicity and [semi]minimalism?

Lesson 1: Don’t get sucked into the consumerism of it all.  Japan has a love for all-things-Disney which means I was able to find Disney-themed merchandise very easily and inexpensively before I left for the park.  I worked hard to limit my purchases but still ended up taking four official-Disney-themed baseball hats with ears, six embroidered sweat rags, three hand fans, and three character-themed cooling towels.  We used some of it during the week, but — with few exceptions — didn’t use what we brought and won’t use any of it in our normal life.   I discovered I did like the cooling towel and could definitely use one in my daily life in Japan (during the summer) but the Cars-themed print limits its usefulness. (Grade: C+)

Lesson 2: Don’t succumb to FOMO (fear of missing out).  Because we’ve been to Disney several times and still have plans to go, I have no fear that missing something this time means I’ll never see/experience it.  I chose a few highlights (as did each member of the family) and made sure to enjoy those while passing on things that either had long wait times or were otherwise inconvenient. (Grade: A-)

Lesson 3: Know yourself (or your family in this case).  This is always evolving as my kids are now adults.  At this point in our lives, the dining experiences are a much larger part of the fun than they were in the chicken-nuggets days.  (Grade: B)

Lesson 4: Find the Middle Way.  I struggle with honoring my values of simplicity and environmental concern when we vacation regardless of how we vacation.  Because I’m not an eco-adventurer (I’ve mentioned before that I’m an “indoor cat”), it’s often difficult for me to be 100 percent comfortable with my vacation choices.  I appreciate comfort, thoughtful details, all-inclusive pricing, and family-friendliness.  One of the lessons I’m learning in many areas of my life right now (vacationing included) is that something (or someone) can be less than 100 percent of what you want and still be valued.  (Grade: B-)

[Semi]minimalism — whether vacationing or in life — continues to be about identifying what is really important to keep, while letting go of what no longer sparks joy.  Our lesson from this vacation: keep the Disney, let go of the t-shirt.

Friday Favorites

It’s still Friday here in Japan as I’m getting ready to board a plane to spend time with my family.

Favorites this week:

  • Good transit options: Every time I leave my house for an adventure, I walk ten minutes to the central city terminal and I can get anywhere in the world. Today, we arrived at the bus terminal just in time to catch the next bus to the airport. We handed our luggage to the handlers, paid using a train card once we got on the bus, and settled in for a comfortable ride to the international terminal. I marvel at the efficiency and comfort of transit options in Japan and I’m grateful for the lack of planning required for that part of our trip. I know when I get back to Japan at the end of the week, I’ll easily grab a return bus that will be another short walk from my apartment.
  • Child-friendly cities: Although we live in a high-rise apartment, there is a park downstairs and many children live in our building. I love my walk through that park on my way home after work and nothing makes me happier than to see all the kids playing. The children in my building — as young as three — are learning English and like to practice on us. My favorite is the elevator departure, when I hear them laughingly call out, “see you!”
  • Disney movies and music to start my vacation early: I am especially in love with the new live-action version of Aladdin and the soundtrack is a favorite.
  • Airports and airport lounges: Even after more than a year of frequent travels, I still love airports with few exceptions (I’m looking at you Manila). I love the sense of adventure, the people-watching, the cultural fusion, and (if I’m lucky) the comfort of an airport lounge.
  • The anticipation of fun: In her earliest blog posts related to her Happiness Project (and book by the same name), Gretchen Rubin wrote that part of the fun is the anticipation of fun. That has stuck with me, and I try to make sure to have things on the calendar to anticipate and then spend some good time enjoying the planning and anticipation.

[semi]minimalist self-expression

Something's Gotta Give movie beach house Erica's bedroom

My favorite office from “Something’s Gotta Give”

Once upon a time, I expressed my creative self through my objects.  Usually clothes and accessories — I’ve long been a fan of excessive personal style — but also my home, my car, my office space.  I felt the need for all of my spaces to reflect my own style.

This is still true.  My home is my sanctuary and includes my favorite objects (even here in Japan) as does my closet.  I think the real benefit of refining and curating my belongings more rigorously is that these things are even MORE an expression of my personal style.  In fact, I would argue that my home and closet are THE expression of my creative self outside of work.

This is no longer true in my work.  I used to have an office with framed artwork, lamps, plants, music … decor.  Today, I share a 20-foot bench with four of my co-workers.  The only things on my desk are a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and computer glasses.  No pictures, no posters, no plants.  Nothing to differentiate my portion of bench from my co-worker.  Now, my work IS the expression of my creative self.  I solve problems.  I develop roadmaps.  I design and build tools and templates.  I tell stories.  I create all day.

Perhaps someday I will find a personal expression of creativity that is so all-encompassing that I can reduce to 100 things and truly be a minimalist.  If not, I think it helps to recognize that the objects I keep serve to spark joy AND express my creative self.

Garbage in, garbage out*

GIGO garbage in garbage out - definition and illustration

I’ve long been a fan of what I call self-censorship.  I believe in feeding my brain regularly, but I am conscious of what I feed it and how it will nourish me.  I like to practice [semi]minimalist concepts for what I give my attention to.

I avoid most “news”.  Some of this came as a result of studying journalism in college where we spent a year reading and comparing two different newspapers to identify bias (Cliff Notes: they’re all biased).  Some of this came from Andrew Weil’s “8 Weeks to Optimum Health” where I learned to become comfortable with “news fasting” to maintain my overall health.

Mark Manson recently posted his suggestion for an Attention Diet which likens informational consumption to food consumption and shares a process to reduce “junk” consumption from your diet. (Caution: NSFW – Mark is very liberal with profanity which I appreciate and which scientists have deemed to be an indicator of intelligence but I understand his writing style may not speak to everyone.)

I had already done many of the things that Mark recommended (unfollowing virtually all social media content that wasn’t an absolute yes, limiting sources of news, etc.) but I learned a few new tips as well that I’m incorporating into my own attention diet.

Here is what my current attention diet includes:

Create before I consume.  I journal or blog before I view anything else.  (Note: this has worked well when I am up before my husband, less so when he is distracting me.)

Curate my consumption: I liked Manson’s idea for news and have saved Wikipedia’s current events portal on devices where my previous news source used to be.  It’s straightforward, simple, and a broader worldview.  For blogs, I use Feedly (for personal and professional sources).  For podcasts, I use Spotify.  My criteria for subscribing to a blog or podcast is whether it nourishes me or provides information I need for my profession.  (I’ve long-avoided celebrity magazines and reality TV, so in this case only looked at my digital consumption.)

Cultivate screen-free time: I work in IT so I’m attached to a screen most of the day.  I’m also an “indoor cat” by nature which means that my favorite hobbies involve my couch and a screen (reading, playing games, watching Netflix with my husband).  Manson recommends using tools to reduce screen time and I may try those, but I fear they will trigger my rebel-self.  I already deploy some of the same artificial limits to my screen time that I use for my [semi]minimalist pursuits and will expand those limits to include areas where I think screen time is excessive.  For me, mealtimes are the worst — I always feel sad when I see a family sitting at a dinner table each individually on their screens.  My family created mealtime screen limits early on and still live by those today.  I’ll pay attention to my attention over the coming days and see where else I may want to reduce my screen time.

*GIGO is an IT principle that applies much more broadly in my life.

Simple pleasures

I loved Tsh Oxenreider’s latest post (while she’s on summer break) about what’s making her happy.  Several of her items might be on my list at any given time as well, but it’s the practice of noticing the simple pleasures in my daily life that I’ve neglected lately.  I value a gratitude practice and have for many years — in all varieties — but what’s been missing from my practice lately is giving thanks for the simple pleasures.

My current simple pleasures:

  • quiet mornings at my kitchen table with a cup of London Fog (Earl Grey tea with vanilla and milk)
  • watching the water in the bay shimmer outside of my window
  • spending time (almost) daily capturing my thoughts on living more simply and gratefully
  • breakfast with my husband when he gets up
  • weekly face chats with my children on the other side of the world
  • the little coffee shop on the 6th floor of my building
  • being “regular” enough at the expat club that they know our preferences
  • riding my bicycle on the sidewalk (it’s standard here in Japan)
  • watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries with my husband
  • seeing children play in the park outside of my apartment building (especially when they play baseball)
  • watching the ferris wheel light show at night from my living room window
  • my husband walking me to my office in the mornings
  • Clorets gum (it’s a crazy mentholatum-tasting opener that clears the throat and the sinuses  and then eases into a standard mint-flavor)

[semi]minimal vacationing

We’re taking our first family vacation this year.  Now that our children are adults with their own significant others, this has become much harder to plan but even more rewarding.

When they were living at home, it was easy enough to know when everyone had a free week and make a plan.  We also had lots of mini-vacations throughout the year (and for that matter spent most of our free time together anyway with school activities like marching band) so if one destination didn’t meet everyone’s vacation dreams, we could remedy that quickly enough.

Now, we want everyone to get what they want from a single vacation.  We want to have fun, we want memorable experiences, we want good food, we want time to catch-up, and we want everyone to be able to relax.  This has always meant for us that we need to pre-pay as much as possible and we need a (flexible) plan.

My perfectionism kicks in at the planning stage.  I visualize the whole family with all the perfect items to make our vacation better.  Ponchos for the (inevitable) rain?  Matching hats?  Fans for the heat?  Perfectionism and [semi]minimalism are not friends.  How do I balance what I think will make a vacation better (we were all scouts and preparedness is our motto) with the desire to not end up with disposable landfill at the end of this trip?

Even without buying souvenirs (none of us has a great affinity for tchotches) these “useful” items will end up with little use in our daily lives where we have umbrellas and air conditioning.  Keeping them for the next vacation seems equally impractical.

Other than individual sweat rags (which are ubiquitous in Japan) I ended up selecting a few things that can be shared among the six of us.  Four hats, three cooling towels, two fans.  It’s probably still overkill but I acquired less for this vacation than I have in the past, so I’ll count that as progress.

essentialism for the soul: family

When I practice gratitude, the first (and sometimes only) thing I give thanks for is my amazing husband and daughters.  I’m white, from Southern California, so I grew up outside of “cousin culture” described by Damon Young in one of my favorite posts of his, “Do White People Have Cousins?“.

My family exposure growing up was mostly limited to my maternal grandmother and her husband, a crazy aunt, and two uncles (who both married the same woman at different times — but that’s a different story).  That exposure was limited to major holidays and lasted only until my grandmother passed away.  The last time I saw the majority of my mother’s family was in 1989 at her funeral.  My parents were divorced when I was three so I saw even less of my dad’s family.

My own little nuclear family is close, though now that my children are grown, we have to make a concerted effort with weekly family video calls to remain so.  They’ve both come to Japan for a visit this year, and they’ve taken a couple of vacations together, but we haven’t been together as a family since last Christmas.  Next week, we’re taking our first family vacation of the year (to one of the least minimal places on Earth but also the happiest) and I am treasuring this opportunity to reconnect even more now than I did when they were living at home.