The year I turned 40, I began a self study, tracking events, behaviors, and occurrences for 365 days. This experiment inspired Project 40 – my life in numbers and stories.
Don’t sit next to me.
Come too close and you might notice the sagging skin below my eyes, the constant yawning, my breath like the belly of an espresso machine. If you don’t happen upon me at my place of work or at church, I’m likely in gym clothes, still damp from my training run. If it’s a Saturday and close to a race, I probably just did 9, 10 miles. Check out my forehead and you’ll find it ashy with my own salts. The elastic of my headband surely isn’t strong enough to keep my frizzing do in check. Why haven’t I showered yet? Well, it’s likely my Unrealiosis is flaring up. We still don’t know much about the condition, but don’t worry – experts believe it not to be contagious. Still, best to keep your distance. Not that you’ll catch my disease but there’s good chance of you being forced to hear of my plights. Just give me the opening and I’ll surely find a way to bring up how occupied my kids keep me, how the job is non-stop. That I’m an unpaid Uber driver, racking up miles on my car as I run my brood around town. I’ll work in a plug for my blog (as I’ve managed to do here simply by mentioning that I have one. It’s dianderthal.com and there’s a good chance I haven’t posted anything for several weeks due to my illness). Casually, I’ll mention my second job, the home renovations, my volunteer position at church, my third job, the home remodeling projects.
Maybe Unrealiosis seems fairly common. Sounds just like a classic case of chronic busyness. But for a diagnosis of Unrealiosis, there’s an entirely special component to consider. It’s not just about being overscheduled – isn’t the country? What complicates me is that I happen to be a fanatical dreamer. Watching an awards show, I’ll consider what I might wear the evening when I’m finally up for a prize, who I’ll wear that evening, planning to remind the reporters that I’m thrilled just being nominated. I pick up a copy of Los Angeles Magazine and believe I’m reading the work of contemporaries. With an average of about three blog views a day (some from the US, a sizable chunk spread fairly evenly between Eastern European readers and people from Panama), I scramble and sweat and stay up late to get up a post so as not to let down my followers. At 43*, I have big plans for my life.
Just like any successful corporation, I have a vision for myself. Perhaps this part of me I don’t articulate to the masses (in fact, this might be the biggest share of my dreamer side ever); yet I operate always with my plan in mind, which is why people may not get me. My husband isn’t yet the biggest of my fans. Not that he’s unsupportive or indifferent. He’s simply a pragmatic type. A practical man. A person who felt that if I was going to return to school as a seasoned adult, which I did in my mid-30s, for another degree, it should have been for something with high return on investment; something with great odds for big bucks, like a JD or a medical degree. I enrolled in a creative writing program.
Woefully for him, he married a dreamer. An artist. A creative. He’s slept next to me for the past 16 years and shows no signs of disease. His sensibility makes him immune. Lucky bastard. If I could take a pill, get some sort of treatment to make me normal, I would do so just to keep our union more blissful. And to help me live as much of a conventional life as my friends, with their tidied homes, their sculpted Zen backyards, their weekend trips to Pier 1 and Cost Plus and Costco. To keep at least a semblance of sanity with my husband, I keep the dinners and the weekend breakfasts coming, do my best to put away laundry within a couple of days after it’s left folded for me on the couch, and complete my wifely duty 70 times a year. And while he naps, while he watches his beloved Knicks, while he dashes up and down the court with his referee side-hustle (everyone needs a side hustle), while he’s not looking, I attempt to do my thing. So he knows little about the blog; and surely not the costs of web hosting and the hours I’ve spent tutoring myself on WordPress design and plug-ins and search engine optimization; the investment I’ve made purchasing templates I’ve not figured out how to use. Nor does he have an inkling about the four short stories in various states of development I’m working on. Or my letter project, where I’m sending a snail mail note each week to someone in my life (and blogging about it) using different sorts of stationery and stamps. Little does he realize the plans for my newest novel, the one I keep notes on in a spiral notebook that rarely leaves my presence. He, along with nearly everyone else in my circle, knows not of the heartsickness that strikes each time I check my email and instead of finding a Yes! from the publisher whose been considering yet a another novel I’ve written, am forced to sort through messages from Bev Mo, from USC, from Eater LA or my daughter’s school or BlueHost.
He is aware of my second job as an online instructor for Long Beach City College (everyone needs a side hustle), but not how backed I am with grading, with reading 33 journal entries about my students’ progress on their health goals for the semester; or that because of my condition, my ratings on RateMyProfessor.com have plummeted over the last year as my students took a backseat to my delusional hopes (meaning my turnaround time on grading creaked along at a geriatric pace). My husband has no idea I said yes to my pastor when asked about putting together a video for the upcoming Sunday services, a project that I’ve only yet conceptualized – not filmed, not even scheduled filming, meaning that once I manage to squeeze in time to collect footage, my Friday night and Saturday will be spent editing whatever bits I picked up (rather than, say, sweeping the kitchen floor or grading papers or putting my laundry away); ignorant too is he to my need to one-up the last video I did for the church, this new one needing to be funnier, but more polished in its look with better effects and music.
My husband knows I go out to eat often, but he doesn’t realize that I am the president of my restaurant club, the Ladies Who Dine Long Beach, a position I take very seriously, researching locations, reviewing membership, and sending out pun-filled, emoji-laced group texts with details about upcoming outings. And too, I’m the lead organizer for the Ladies Who Dine spinoffs, Ladies Who Wine and Boozy Book Club.
I can’t hide from him the fact that I’ve been training for several races, but he believes my “running thing” is fleeting; little does he realize that, just recently completing my first full 26.2, I have dreams of triathlons in my sights. And how could he ever know the little things – the thoughts, the fantasies. That I’m listing journals to which I’ll submit the short stories that are unlikely to get finished. Or that I designed two courses in what I call Grown Up Home School (an unaccredited institution of structured do-it-yourselfness) – enrolled myself, followed the syllabus that I developed, completed several homework assignments, but ultimately received Fs (from myself) in both classes. That I maintain three different Instagram accounts – one personal, one focused on dining, another on fitness; that for a while, I felt compelled to design a daily graphic on the fitness Instagram for #6packMarch with toning exercises for the day (later came #6packJune, #6packJuly, and a failed #AprilArms).
And certainly, my husband had no idea that for one entire year – my 41st year (which would be the 365 days starting with and following my 40th birthday) – I entered into a research study on myself, documenting the many routine (and non-routine) functions of my life. I called it Project 40 – tallying, recording, counting just about anything I could think of that happened to me and that I happened upon. I’d gotten the idea years ago when, for work, I had to complete an analysis of my week, characterizing my time by the quarter-hour, then cataloguing my activities to see if assignments were worthy of higher pay. How awesome would it be to document the rest of my life this way, I thought at the time. There could be benefits to such an endeavor, surely; and certainly interesting to classify and catalog my waking hours. It stood as one of those ideas that I easily put away in a matter of minutes. I have a lot of thoughts and big ideas.
That particular nugget, however, returned again. Something my husband said one evening. He likes to speak in extremes – he’ll say ALL my female friends make dinner for their husbands each night or EVERYONE I know flosses before brushing their teeth (rather than after). At times he goes too far with his broad, wholly inaccurate statements.
“Di, you know that all Christians curse.”
I sat up in our bed the night he said this. “All Christians? All however many million Christians there are in the world? Or are you just talking about U.S. Christians?”
“Okay, all Christians. So how do you know this? Did you poll each and every Christian and ask them? Did you hand out a questionnaire, collect the data and run the analysis?”
He chuckled, nodded, pleased with himself for getting me worked up. “That’s a whole lot of people. Oh, maybe instead you surveyed a random sample. And if this is the case, how did you define ‘Christian’? Did you count Catholics as Christians?”
“Di, you know Catholics aren’t Christians.” This pushed us into a different disagreement entirely, one we’ve had for years, him not easily acknowledging my Catholic upbringing as that of a Christian.
But I eventually returned to my original point, poking holes in his declaration with just the reality that it was impossible to know his assertion to be true (or not to be true, I suppose). For as much as a dreamer I am, I also have a couple of right-brain skills, inheriting some of my dad’s mathematician-ism. And I enjoy analyzing. Better, I relish in overanalyzing, but that’s a different story. Really, I’ve spent many of my adult years as a semi social scientist, most impressive while in grad school (not the creative writing degree but a public health program) in my advanced research methods and my questionnaire design courses. I’m no biostatistician, but I get study design; I get data. So when my husband or commercial spokespersons or politicians or celebrities on soapboxes or anyone throws out generalizations, I turn into skeptic. Even so with myself. I’m such a lush, I often say to friends in jest (though if one considers herself a lush, she might know what she’s talking about). But am I really a lush, I’d ask myself quite seriously on a weeknight after work, holding the half-drunk glass of wine I’d sworn I could go without the day before when I pledged to drink only on the weekends. And I did that often, it seemed to me – commit myself to doing something only to toss that promise aside days, sometimes hours later, typically when it involved giving up a particular type of food or waking up early. Am I a flaky person? What made someone flaky? Did one instance of flakiness prove tolerable but anything more defining of her? Where lay that magical number that put someone over the top?
After years of just thinking about one, I decided to take an inventory of myself: To track my behaviors, my feelings, my life events. Doing so for a week would be informative. If I did it for a month, wow – the things I’d be able to learn. And that became my plan until month after month after month, I would forget to start (I really wanted to begin on the first of the month – it made sense to me, sort of like temporal feng-shui). Soon, I was 39.
Then came an enhanced version of the plan. I’d keep my “me” statistics for an entire year and then write about it on my blog – I’m always looking for topics to go on about other than my favorite: restaurants. My 40th birthday, marking the entrance to my 41st year, would be the perfect starting point. So right brain got to work, listing variables to be tracked, thinking up special projects to study during certain months, developing a system to document my activities on the down low, as this wasn’t something I wanted to tell my friends about. (Eventually, I told two people about my experiment while in the middle of it. One was a number-loving epidemiologist who totally appreciated my quest. The other politely changed the subject once I explained the idea.)
The year passed quickly and during it, I did no sort of analysis; no brisk review on how the numbers were lining up. By the time 41 came around, I was over it, happy not to have to log, not to have to remember and count and note and tally. It took some getting used to. I’d trained myself to glance at the clock and mentally note the time each day I woke and just before dozing off to sleep. And while after sex, some folks pick up the remote or light a cigarette, I conditioned myself to reach for my pen, the pad of paper kept on my nightstand. The note taking had become a normal process, just like putting on my casual Friday jeans or feeding the dog. But once I realized I was truly done, I was truly done, stowing away my logging sheets in a drawer. It took nearly a year for me to pick up the project again, to decide that this effort of mine might perhaps be useful to me. So it wasn’t until a year after the project finished that I started the data entry, the simple analysis. And even after that, nothing stood out to me as interesting. It seemed like a potentially rewarding endeavor turned foul. And there was so much information – where would I begin? With Unrealiosis, it all seems so simple but projects such as these get bumped to the back of the line, trumped by volleyball tournaments, dance competitions, paid jobs, dirty dishes, happy hours, sleep, bad television, trips to visit the parents, Instagram, and wine.
A few months into my 42nd year during a mini-argument with my husband (one of those playful ones where points are scored with smart, funny jabs rather than mean spirited ones), the issue of our sex life came up, him referencing his made up data once again in defense of his point that our bedroom time was not stellar, saying we likely did it only #, #** times a year or so.
“Actually, we do it an average of #. # times a week, which totals to # times a year,” I said. And how did I know? I explained that I’d kept stats on everything I did a year or so ago, including our sex life – I could tell him our average hump time, sex location, positions – it was all in these (I’d opened the drawer and pulled out my heap of pages) papers, entered into an Excel sheet on my computer. He was silenced, a dance of terror on his face, surely asking himself what kind of woman he’d married nearly 16 years before and likely questioning other major decisions in his life. It was evident there wasn’t a response to my revelation and that our mini-fight was done, so I eased us into the latest episode of Atlanta Housewives.
It made me realize, however, that there is no cure (aside from lobotomy) for Unrealiosis; that it’s a condition I’ll have to manage with prioritization and a little kick-ass will. Otherwise, all I’ll ever do is be miserable, sitting on a bunch of my inklings and schemes, my ideas, my half-baked projects. True, I cannot tackle everything on my list at once but, in addition to the have to dos, I could pick up one want to do. So even if it meant only diving in a little more to the numbers, finding out what seemed to be my priorities and how I could better manage my time, it would be worth it. And really, what better way for a frenzied, self-conscious overanalyzer to attempt to make some sense of herself than to partake in a little scientific self study? Not a simple dissection of myself – I’d done plenty of “my calves are too big, my split ends need help, why won’t my pores shrink away, I really should lose these frumpy clothes” whining. What I needed was a full examination, the research question being: What is this insanity called Diane?
The sunset of my 30s offered me the ideal opportunity for such an examination; for a compilation of numbers interpreted for my interpretation; perhaps, my betterment. And at the very least, my amusement. Beginning on my 40th birthday and continuing until the final day of my 41st year on earth, I attempted to track more than 250 personal variables – from the number of cards or letters I received via snail mail (3) to a count of times I gossiped (41) to how often I took money from my husband’s wallet (27). It was a secret life I lived – observing an event, then pulling homemade forms from my purse and marking down a tally, scribbling a name, an incident, a place. I kept these papers with me wherever I went. They slept in my nightstand so I could note to the minute when I woke and when I slumbered, and the start and end times of marital frolicking (I didn’t have to be all that sneaky with the husband as he typically passes out within three minutes of finishing the deed; though that average time is just a guestimate – I didn’t actually track that variable). My forms were carried to work, to meetings, to Hawaii, to Las Vegas. At times they were forgotten, but once I became familiar with all the things I needed to note over a day, a week, I started keeping track on my IPhone using the Notes app, on the back of receipts, on the pages of my work notebook, transferring the info at a later time. I often worried about getting caught, having to explain, as this was a covert mission. If anyone did see me taking notes, they didn’t care enough to ask about it.
That’s part of what I wanted to explore during Project 40. The [back]story continues here…
 A very specific number that I know because of my condition. I explain this later.
*Originally written in 2015.
**As much as I love sharing everything about myself to strangers from across the land, my husband does not. So in an effort to stay married, I’m keeping these numbers to myself. 🙂