Monday, January 6, 2020

Making One Car Work, and the Hidden Happiness in Small Challenges

Making One Car Work, and the Hidden Happiness in Small Challenges
Our Matrix looks remarkably like this, but with terrible, chipping paint.
One of my recurring internet distractions is looking at vehicles online. I've written about my car lust in the past, and it keeps coming back no matter how many times I tell myself that, since I work from home, we don't really need a second vehicle.

My favorite tool is Search Tempest, a site that runs your search through all the craigslist sites across the nation: an invaluable feature when you look for weird vehicles like I do. Wagons with a stick shift, or an imported Japanese Hiace camper, ideally with 4WD, diesel, and sure, while we're at it, why not throw in a manual, too. 

When I'm not searching for unicorn cars (Why do Americans love automatics? I'll never understand.) I find myself settling for something more reasonable and popular, like a Toyota Prius V, the large, station wagon model. True to form, even this has been discontinued. It seems that whatever cars we like are bound to be unpopular.

Each of these searches ends the same way. I catch myself for a second, close the lid of my laptop, and tell myself, "We don't need two cars." Since cooler heads eventually prevail, we're sticking with one car, even as Mrs Done by Forty takes our 2006 Matrix to work every day, and I'm stuck at home without a vehicle. 

Well, this isn't entirely true. We have multiple other vehicles. We have two, two, Yamaha 125cc scooters in the garage that haven't been ridden in over a year because, well, Baby AF is relying on us staying alive. They're fun vehicles but there are just too many people driving while staring at their phones. 

And, I have two bikes.

Still, the lack of a car has made simple things like running an errand
 just a bit more difficult. I need to either get on my bike, which is nice but takes a while because I take weird, long routes to avoid major roads, or take the scooter (not happening) or I can take an Uber or a Lyft.

Simple things like running to the dentist for a cleaning is a bit of a hassle. It's a bit too long for a bike ride if I'm going to make it back for work meetings later in the day. It's tricky 
to predict exactly how long it'll take me to bike to the next city over in Scottsdale, get a cleaning and hopefully no fillings, and then bike back to Tempe. 

For my last visit to the dentist, I ended up taking a Lyft there and back. But then there's the nagging feeling about cost, which is a silly thing. The cost round trip is less than the cost of one month of insurance on a second car, not to mention, you know, the five figure cost of the vehicle itself. 

Want to know the really weird thing? We have something like $500 of free rides with Uber or Lyft thanks to having a bunch of Capital One Venture points, we're about to get another $500 in points to use, and I still try to avoid using these ride share services when I can. No one ever said our personal finances were rational.

So most of the time, I take my bike. It's free, sure. But mostly I just like riding my bike. It's exercise, it's fantastic riding weather right now, and it gets me out of my house and into my neighborhood.

Instead of being more tied to the house, I found that I'm actually getting out more now that I don't have a car than I did when Mrs. Done by Forty was finishing her dissertation at home and I had the car every day. Now, I'm leaving the house on my bike to go work at the public library every day for a couple hours in a study room. Depending on the route, it's maybe only two miles each way; but if it's enough of a bike ride that I feel good for having done it. And I get different types of work done, and maybe even more work done at the library than I do in my home office. I think it's just nice to have a change of scenery.

The experience reminded me of maybe my favorite blog read of 2019, David Cain's excellent post, "How to Make Life More Pleasurable". If you haven't read it, and you should, the gist of the post is that if we engage in luxuries and pleasurable activities too often, they ironically become less likely to give us happiness. If we eat a gourmet meal every day, it becomes a bit mundane. If we drink champagne with every meal, it's no longer a special treat. From Cain's post:
"In this strange bubble, enormous marketing departments have had many decades to figure out how to deliver as large a volume of pleasure-inducing substances and services into our homes and routines as we will accept. This relentless pressure to take on treat upon treat, year upon year, has pushed the typical level of pleasure-consumption to a point far beyond what is actually most pleasurable for most of us."
Put another way, there is something as a life that is too comfortable: so filled with luxuries and conveniences that it gives us less pleasure than we had before. Sometimes, it's better to go without: to challenge ourselves a bit.

Not having a car for eight hours a day inserts a little challenge into my life. It's a very little challenge, but needing to hop on my bike, ride a few miles, chain it up while I try to Jenga my groceries into a backpack, when I'm short on time and have to get dinner started can all be a pain in my ass.

It can also be something I need. As an American living with an absurd amount of wealth in our cushy little corner of Arizona, my life is really easy. Many of the problems I face (gaining weight, sometimes feeling a bit isolated from working at home) are probably due to having too few challenges in my life, rather than too many. 

My psyche would not tell you this. My problems are very close, so of course they seem big to me.  Everything's relative. But from a somewhat objective standpoint, my life seems much easier than the global average. 

When Mrs. Done by Forty finished her PhD program and got her new job, I thought for sure the changes would make life more difficult. If we found life stressful with just one of us working full time, wouldn't we be more stressed with both of us working full time, adding a commute to the mix as well? 

Instead of spending all day with Baby AF, now we'd have to put him in daycare, missing out on time with him as well as bearing the cost of daycare itself. 

And instead of having the car available for either of us to use, since both of us were at home, now I'd have to find a way to get my ass around town again. 

Wouldn't all these negative changes negatively impact us? Our stress levels? Our relationship?

The opposite has happened. Since Mrs. Done by Forty has started work and Baby AF has started daycare, it's really been one of the happier stretches in our relationship. Mrs. Done by Forty is digging her new job and getting to work in her field. Baby AF is flourishing in daycare and, while there are still tears when we drop him off, he's actually excited to get in the car and head to daycare each morning. And despite it being far too busy at work, I find that I'm in a good stretch with my career too.

I'm happier, and maybe we're all happier, it seems, when we up the difficulty level a bit.

Which probably holds a lesson for these early retirement plans of ours. Work is certainly stressful, without a doubt the most stressful thing in my life at the moment. Eliminating that stress would seem to make my life easier. But does that mean that would make my life happier, too?

I'm beginning to think it would not. There are studies that indicate that people are less happy, often much less happy, once they retire, especially after the initial sugar rush of leaving work wears off.  Perhaps it's because even though work involves some heinous stress, bullshit meetings, bosses who don't know their asses from their elbows, and takes up a lot of time you could be doing something else, work does at least provide meaningful challenges to your life. 

Even work that might not necessarily be that fulfilling from a career standpoint, probably adds some fulfillment to your life just due to the fact that it inserts adversity that you must overcome on a regular basis.

As our financial independence plan involves me leaving my current job, and perhaps Mrs. Done by Forty leaving hers, too, we should be intentional in finding ways to insert selective hardship into our lives again. 

Maybe raising Baby AF and MC Baby does that all on its own. Maybe it involves writing more on the blog, or creating a podcast. Maybe it's a part-time job, or getting back into the classroom as a substitute.

Whatever those things are, I want to make sure I don't accidentally slip into playing life on easy mode. I'm not sure anyone's happy with that.

*Photo is from Chris Yarzab at Flickr Creative Commons.

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  1. Congratulations on getting to the sweet spot in life. Enjoy it while you can because life always change.
    You know, I think I'll try going without a personal car for a while once our vehicle stops working. The only thing we really need it for is to drop my son off at school. Once he goes to high school, he'll be able to walk or bike. Then we won't really need a personal car. In 5 years, there will be a lot more transportation options.

    As for retirement, I think it's really up to the person. I'm so much happier without the work stress. I still blog and do some other stuff, but I can go at my own pace (slow.) Life is so much better for me. This might not work for a lot of people who get fulfillment from making a lot of progress every week.
    Good luck in 2020!

    1. Good point about enjoying it while it lasts, Joe. We never know when life is going to throw us a curveball.

      Love the idea of going carless altogether! I think society's going to rethink this idea of personal car ownership. There are just so many ancillary costs on top of the initial car purchase. Without a commute to work, I really like your idea here. Baby AF's schools, kindergarten through high school, are all in walking distance: we might copy your idea in a few years.

      I hear you on the lack of work stress being a big driver of happiness. Even since publishing the post Sunday night I've had two very stressful days at work and, friend, there were plenty of moments I was not all that happy. It changes day to day!

  2. PiC loves staring at cars we won't be buying too! I get it, window shopping is fun.

    I never became proficient at driving manual, and the key years when I would have gotten good at that muscle memory where the years my pain being ultra impossible to manage so I couldn't drive, so that's my love for automatics, anyway. PiC drove manual until a few years ago.

    I'm in the phase of removing and fending off hardship from our lives but I know I'll add back complication before I know it. I can't help it, I trend towards entropy ;)

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one window shopping, Revanche!

      I could see driving manual being truly painful for you, friend. I would definitely buy an automatic in your case, and might in ours, too. It's just so hard to find a stick shift these days.

      I hear what you mean about entropy. I think you're in good company there. The whole dang universe seems to be trending that way. ;)

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  5. I find this topic really interesting and relevant, especially because I've recently been dealing with my old car. It's amazing how even vehicles that have served us faithfully for years eventually reach the end of their road. Old cars, though they might not be as flashy or high-tech as the new models, have a certain charm and sentimental value attached to them. They hold countless memories of road trips, family outings, and everyday adventures