The Power of No

The most powerful word I know is no. I have determined to embrace its elegance to urge the bright and positive from its deceptive negative.

No to My Phone

My phone is a tool that has too often made me act like one. I shake my head at couples in restaurants tapping phones while ignoring each other and at teenagers huddled as pet shop puppies but engaged with others elsewhere that they probably don’t even know. But then I feel that drip of dopamine when the thing dings. No more.

When in a restaurant it will remain in the car. When with friends and family it will remain in my room. When in a meeting it will remain in my office. I will still use it to read news in the morning and tweet things I find funny, interesting, or infuriating, to bank, and, like now, check Facebook once every other day or so. But I will stage my coup d’état and conquer my phone by saying no to its addictive lure.

No to Coffee and Wine

 This one hurts. I sing in a little pop band and about a year ago I noticed that some notes were getting harder to sustain and some actually hurt. I was dreadfully hoarse the day after rehearsals and gigs. I felt like there was always something in the back of my throat. The doctor said, as doctors often do, that it could be nothing or it could be cancer. Great. Three months later (living with those options made days interesting) a specialist said that I had laryngopharyngeal reflux. Great again. I’ll live but can’t pronounce my ailment.

It means that stomach acid has been heading up the esophagus and, without causing the usual heartburn, damaging tissue by my vocal chords. After a discussion of my lifestyle and habits, he recommended that I continue running (that’s good), cut songs at the top of my range (rats), and say no to things that cause the acid reflux (good God!).

For four weeks now I have said no to snacks after 7:00 pm, no to red wine, and no to coffee. The snacks and wine were easy. Cold turkey on coffee rewarded me with three days of booming headaches. I had been an addict. Every morning I still have a dreadful yearning for that old jolt which is, I guess, like an alcoholic passing a bar. But I’m proud of my no.

the-power-of-no

No to Stuff

Last summer my brothers and I emptied my Dad’s house. He had lived there for over 40 years and we had been children there. It was hard. Most fascinating was the four of us transitioning from smiles over sentimental keepsakes to throwing junk in the dumpster. We gave a lot to a committee supporting two Syrian refugee families and more to charity. We took a few things and sold others but most went into the big steel box in the driveway.

I have always believed, as minimalists do, that you should love people and use stuff and not the other way around. The summer experience reinforced that notion and led me to attack the relatively small amount of stuff I have. There were trips to the dump and to the charity drop off. Old records, dozens of books, old clothes, and much more went out the door. Dumping stuff was made easier by my wondering what was in the back of my throat.

Last summer reminded me of time’s ruthlessness, life’s frailty, and what truly matters in the end. It confirmed the belief that the last thing I ever want anyone to say about me when I’m gone is that the guy sure had a lot of nice stuff.

No to Negative

The Enlightenment tricked us into thinking that progress is linear and things will always get better. Last year reminded us that time moves not in lines but circles. Recall that Germany gave us Beethoven and then the Holocaust. Trump and Brexit and those now selling the same anger, fear, and misinformation and flat out lies remain distressing. But all tyrannies, whether of people or ideas, all of them, fall. Always. Think about that. Always.

It is better to celebrate the best of us than despair the worst of us. I will say no to impugning motives and being enraged by the dopy and dangerous incuriosity of others. I will do it secure in the belief that the pendulum will swing as it always does. Darkness, after all, is defenseless against light.

No to Gremlins

We all have them. They are the negative thoughts that haunt us; the little voices in our heads that remind us of mistakes and say we’re just lucky or not good enough. I have another book coming out in April. The gremlins will be shouting. Like every author I have read good reviews that make the gremlins laugh in disbelief and bad reviews that have them waggle their crooked little “I told you so” fingers. When I hear them whispering about my book and other aspects of my life I will steal their power by saying no. I will do so by acknowledging their existence and then telling them to bugger off.

So, I’m off for another trip around the sun in a year I will need to play by ear. I’ll travel confident that the power of no will bring the rewards of yes to the happiness I seek for myself and those I love.

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Business Beware – Stuff Stinks

Betty Friedan and George Carlin had it right. Friedan observed a problem with no name. Women of the early ‘60s had shiny new gadgets that filled their homes but left their lives empty. Carlin asked, “Have you ever noticed how your shit is stuff and everybody else’s stuff is shit?” We are now at the crossroads of Friedan and Carlin where all stuff is shit.

We have the millennials to thank. They are the cohort born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s. Its first wave is now sloshing into peak earning years and we baby boomers are learning that they don’t think much of how we did things. It’s a little disconcerting for those of us born between 1946 and 1964 because we have ruled the roost for a long while. Our expiry date, however, is in the rear view mirror. Businesses not adjusting are sinking.

While hearing us enjoy Abbey Road for the millionth time and laugh through M*A*S*H* re-runs yet again, the millennials have been watching. They saw devotion to jobs at the expense of families leave too many families shattered. They saw the work-life balance teeter-totter grounded at down with life delayed until retirement. They saw loyalty to companies betrayed by loyalty unreciprocated. They saw us falter and many fall when the insatiable greed and arrogant maleficence of the 2008 Great Recession stole so much and left shaky all that had been certain. They saw the bad guys win.

They also saw us gather stuff. In fact, they saw us gather so much stuff that we became stuff’s slaves. We went into debt to buy stuff and kept jobs we hated to pay for stuff. We read magazines about stuff and made a leisure activity of going out to look at stuff. The saw us accumulate more and more stuff while measuring ourselves and judging others by stuff’s quantity, quality, and flirty trendiness.

Business Beware - Stuff Stinks

(Photo: adventure-journal.com)

Truth be told, I was never pro-stuff. Three experiences, though, made me anti-stuff. I once enjoyed three weeks in Japan including two days at the home of a very nice family. They asked about a typical Canadian household and, among other things, I explained how our refrigerators were larger, as theirs resembled a bar fridge, and that many homes, including mine, also had a big box freezer. “Why?” the Mom asked, “Are grocery stores far from your home or do you often get frozen in?” She was right. Shortly after returning home we got rid of our freezer.

Second, for years my dear wife owned and ran a successful flower shop. One day I accompanied her to a Toronto trade show. As we strolled into a gigantic warehouse bursting with items for florists to sell I felt gobsmacked. After a few minutes of wide-eyed wandering I whispered, with great respect for the tertiary part of her business, “There is not one thing here that anyone needs.”

Finally, amid mourning the death of a member of my wife’s family and then mine, we witnessed harsh words, hard feelings, and the cutting of wounds yet to heal – and all over the distribution of stuff. I also watched the packing and dumping of a lot of stuff once thought precious.

The three experiences led to a clearing of personal ballast. Trips to the reuse and recycling centre and county dump became causes to uncork a bottle of red. One new thing into our house necessitated two things out. Second hand became better than buying new and the second car was sold. Things are better now but could be better yet. If I won the lottery I would not buy more stuff but hire three strong men and a dumpster for a final purge.

And that brings me back to the millennials. We baby boomers crammed our houses with stuff and then began filling rented storage spaces. A tenth of all Americans now rent storage space – more than any country on earth. Canadians are second. North America now has 2.3 billion square feet of storage space. Think about that – it’s the size of Manhattan! I don’t get it. The millennials don’t get it.

While boomer-led companies continue to market to stuff-addicted baby boomers, millennial-run companies have been starting anti-stuff businesses. Consider Zipcar that rents cars by the hour, allowing more people to get around without ever buying cars. Consider companies that organize the downloading of music and books that allow folks to listen and read without owning books or CDs. Consider Netflix and its clones that are rendering anachronistic owning DVDs. Consider the website that allows people to rent rather than buy power tools that would otherwise spend nearly their entire lifespans gathering dust.

A millennial friend of mine, a professional man, was on to this years ago. One day he told me that he would no longer buy new clothes. Everything he has worn since has come from second-hand stores. We have several neighbours in our little Village that, like him, could easily afford to buy new clothing, but don’t.

How will businesses adjust? Costco, Walmart, and the other Chinese distribution centers are continuing to base business plans on the boomer mentality of buying more than we need, storing it when our homes burst their seams, and then coming back for still more. Home Depot, on the other hand, is now renting tools as well as selling them. Uber allows people without cars to text people who do for a ride. Taxi and car rental companies are screaming at Uber like King Canute thrust his palm to the sea.

Will other companies adjust like Home Depot or invent like Uber? Will more companies understand that disposable income can be spent on only two things: experiences or stuff. Experiences enrich and stay with us forever. Stuff inevitably wears out, is thrown out, or argued over. Will more companies sell reading and not books, or music and not CDs, or transportation and not cars? Will more companies sell experiences to millennials eager to do without the latest stuff in order to enjoy life with someone they love rather than buying stuff to impress people they don’t.

So I offer an insincere apology to the old school businesses and, for that matter, to the entire consumer-driven economy that need me to keep buying stuff. I’m not going to do it. The millennials are not going to do it either. Something has to give and changes need to be made. But I’m not going to worry about that right now. I’m off to gather more stuff to throw away.

If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others through your social media of choice, consider commenting, or even following my weekly blog. And for baby boomers – check out what Paul McCartney says about this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAQHhWbImyY