Mental decluttering

I’ve done a decent job over the last year decluttering my apartment with guidance from my bible (more on that here). But now that I’m done distracting myself with tidying, I’ve found that it’s my brain that’s cluttered with minor annoyances that keep me from accomplishing anything useful. Usually this causes me to rant to anyone who will listen, and that’s even worse because now I’m wasting someone else’s time too.

Basically, mental decluttering is a formalized version of the Serenity Prayer. Here’s what you do.

First, identify pointless trains of thought. I know, easier said than done. For me, these usually come from minor annoyances throughout the day. For example: a double parked UPS truck blocking the road. I get irritated and start fantasizing about policy changes like meter maids following UPS trucks around and giving them a ticket each time they stop. If it’s a deep dive kind of day I even start pondering what the fiscal implications of this would be and how UPS might respond by producing ad campaigns showing sad children who didn’t get Christmas packages on time to sway voters. Right. So. How to identify a pointless train of thought? Ask yourself “Is there anything I can do to change this?” If the answer is “No” or “Only if I put in a lot of effort that I’m unwilling or unable to commit” then it’s a waste of your time to keep stewing over it.

Now that you’ve identified the pointless thought, you’ll have to find some way of distracting yourself from it. Here’s where it gets fun. You could try:

Having a to-do list. When you see that you’re obsessing over something useless, do something from the list.

Read. Read things from your reader, or keep a book handy. I don’t know about you, but I never regret time I’ve spent reading.

Treat yourself. Positive reinforcement for identifying and distracting yourself from going down the rabbit hole. Do this enough and you’ll associate positive feelings with breaking away from pointless obsessing.

Ignore. Sometimes it’s not a solo act. Maybe you have friends that you go back and forth with over politics or policy. Maybe they have opinions you can’t stand and you feel the need to “call them out” on it. It’s a waste of your time. You probably won’t ever convince that person they’re wrong. But eventually they’ll see that no one is responding to them and stop saying the same things over and over. Any response only lengthens the amount of time you’ll spend thinking about (and being annoyed by) it.

Screen saver. I like the idea of keeping a few pleasant thoughts or memories at easy grasp to function as “screen savers” of the mind. To free yourself from brain clutter, hold on to a few of these that bring you joy. When you find yourself getting worked up over something you can’t fix anyway, think about one of these things instead. Maybe it’s a memory of your last beach vacation. Or your cat purring on your lap. Or something completely made up involving vampires and unicorns. Is this a better use of your time? Maybe not, but at least it doesn’t take up as much mental energy and it’s not as bad for your mood. Plus, once you get bored of the beach, you’ll have distracted yourself from the annoyances enough to get on with something else useful.

Yeah, you should quit your job

Disclaimer: I don’t have a degree in life coaching and no, you shouldn’t be taking advice from a stranger on the internet who doesn’t know you or your situation at all.

Lately several friends have asked “should I just quit my job?” They tell me they’re unfulfilled, bored, frustrated with management. I always tell them “If you can afford to, then do it.” Note: I don’t ask them if they have plans. I don’t ask what they would do instead and whether they’d make the same money. I’m just an enabler. Here’s why.

There’s a guy I knew, let’s call him Ol’ Mac. He’s the father of one of my exes. Ol’ Mac was a responsible family man with two kids, so he stayed for years at a job he hated. He woke up every morning at 5am to drive about an hour to work and would get home pretty late most nights. He hated his job so much that his wife would sometimes find him staring at his socks in the morning. When asked what he was doing he’d miserably say “I’m thinking about which one goes on which foot.” He stuck it out until his official retirement day so he could get a full pension. (Yeah, I know this isn’t sounding like a story about quitting your job. Just wait for it.)

So, you’d think he’d be delighted with retirement, right? Well, after watching golf on tv and snoozing most days for a while, Ol’ Mac began to feel bored and restless. He took on odd jobs to get him out of the house. Then word got around that he was looking to come out of retirement, and he was offered a job doing the things he liked about his old job (hands on technical stuff) with none of the parts he didn’t (bureaucratic managers who didn’t know what they were talking about). It was a more relaxed schedule: one week on, one week off. It even paid better than his old job.

What can we learn from this one anecdote? We all know that the plural of anecdote is not “evidence” but that being said, I’ve heard variations of Ol’ Mac’s story repeatedly. People quit their jobs without knowing exactly what comes next, but they figure it out. And in all cases, they’re happier than before they quit. So if you’re miserable or frustrated at your job and you live for the weekends, save money until you can live without a job for a few months, then quit. You’ll figure it out too.

Getting United to pay out for EU-261

If you’ve had a flight delay originating in the EU within the past few years, you probably got a flyer with detailing your rights under EU regulation 261. Without getting into the details, it requires airlines to compensate passengers in cash for delays starting at 250€ and going up to 600€, depending on distance and length of delay.


Our flight out of CDG in January was canceled due to a mechanical problem and rebooked for the following day. We were given a flyer about EU-261, and so sent a message through the customer service form on their website that day. After about a month, I received a letter saying that unfortunately, our situation did not qualify for compensation but that I would be granted a $175 voucher for my next flight on United. I declined. I went back and forth with United a couple of times via snail mail and they sent a letter saying that the mechanical issue was “force majeure” (an act of god) and thus exempt from EU-261 payouts — end of story: “We consider this issue closed.”

I didn’t stop there. I contacted the FAA. They responded that they would investigate. N contacted the French equivalent of the FAA. He heard back that they agreed that United should pay out under the regulation, but that they would need to contact United. After that, we heard nothing for months, so we didn’t hold out much hope.

Change of CEO

In September 2015, Oscar Munoz was named the new CEO of United. With new leadership, I think they re-examined EU-261 claims and I was contacted out of the blue in October with a new offer: a $1000 travel voucher, 30K United miles, or 600€. I filled out the form and sent it off — I should be getting cash in the form of prepaid debit cards within the month.

How this affects you

If you haven’t yet received a new email from United about a declined EU-261 claim you believe is valid, it may be time to contact them again. Just send them the same information you sent originally through customer service messaging on and they will take another look at your case. I can’t be sure whether it was the CEO change or the FAA or the French FAA, but it’s worth a try! 250-600€ for 5-10 minutes of your time? Why not.

Citi AT&T Access More card with Sprint mvno

Citi has a credit card that comes with a $650 bonus after $2000 spend. The catch? It can only be earned towards the purchase of a phone directly from AT&T. So, if you were considering an iPhone 6s or something, getting this card would bring your total bill down to about $100+tax for the 16GB model. Not bad! But the cheapest plans on AT&T cost around $50 a month. What if you are on Virgin or Ting or RingPlus and you’re already happy with your service? Here’s what you do. Note: I have personally done all of the following, but used this Flyertalk thread as my guide. After buying the phone you want from AT&T, do this:

1. Immediately unlock it. Before opening the box or powering the phone on. Go to AT&T’s unlock request page. Once you agree to the terms and conditions, fill out the info from your phone on the next page, and for “customer type” choose “Non-AT&T Mobility customer” — it means you don’t have an account with AT&T. Now wait for the unlock email. Mine arrived within minutes of submitting the request. Follow the steps in the email to unlock your phone.

2. Activate AT&T service on it using a friend or family member’s account. To get the $650, you have to activate and keep service for 15 days. It’s ok if you don’t keep your friend’s SIM card in your phone for the entire 15 days*. Your new phone just has to be activated on AT&T’s network for it to count towards the bonus.

My network is Virgin Mobile. I already had a SIM card specifically for an iPhone 6s, but the website “swap a handset” functionality didn’t work. I kept getting “Invalid sim” or “No sim” or “Could not activate cellular data”. If you get these messages, it’s because your device is not on the Sprint whitelist. No amount of messaging Virgin Mobile through email, Facebook, or even calling them will help you. They will escalate to the tech department and tell you that they can only activate replacement iPhones directly from the Apple store, not unlocked phones. They will tell you that your phone is not in their database and that it’s impossible to add it. Do not deal with Virgin Mobile or any other Sprint mvno directly. Just do this:

3. Walk into any Sprint store and ask a manager “Can you put my phone into your system?” The manager will ask to see your phone’s info (IMEI/MEID/ESN, which will be in Settings > General > About on an iPhone), and enter it into their system which is called DNA 2. This will take about 20 seconds.

Now your phone will be recognized by any Sprint mvno.** Congratulations! Now your you can pay $9.99 (or less) for service on your shiny new iPhone that you got for $100!

* I don’t have proof of this, but there are reports that as long as service isn’t canceled within 15 days, you’re good to go.

** A similar process will probably work for Verizon mvnos but I have not tried it.

Velib in Paris

Velib (a bike rental service) is my favorite way of getting around Paris. You see so much more than by metro, and as a bonus there’s much less contact with the bodily fluids of others. It’s faster than walking, but I guess entering and re-entering a code and pin can get pretty annoying. Here’s how to get around that.

1. Show up at any city hall in Paris and ask for a “Velib Express” card. They’re free.

2. You can sit in the lobby of city hall and use their free wifi to access the Velib website (instructions on the back of the card) to subscribe to the service. Here are the prices:

  • 1.70 € for 1 day
  • 8 € for 7 days
  • 29 € for 1 year*

3. Visit any Velib bike station. There’s an app that shows you where they are, but usually you’ll find them near any metro station. Enter your information into the screen just the first time (to activate your card) and then you’re good to go! In the future you can just use your card to check out bikes by placing your card against the locking mechanism pictured here:

Now, time for a funny story. You are perhaps concerned that you’re not the best biker, and Paris is too busy and scary of a city. Believe me, you couldn’t be a worse biker than me. I never took the training wheels off my first pink bike with streamers at the handles. I didn’t see the need. The first time I tried biking in Paris, we had to stop at a red light and as I was wobbling to a halt, I crashed into a police riot van. With actual police officers in it. I took off again a moment later and saw the police officers staring out to window trying to see who was attacking. I gave them by best sheepish-sorry look and said sorry (yes, in English). The officers looked 2/3’s confused and 1/3 amused. Luckily, it was France. If it were America, I would probably have been shot for ramming a police vehicle.

* Important note: when I was sitting at city hall trying this, the 1 year option was only available on the French version of the website. If you choose English, it disappears. So pretend to be French, I guess!


The essentials for a new kitten

It’s been about a year and a half since I adopted my cat. I had no idea what I really needed. As it turns out, there aren’t a lot of immediate needs. I think there are maybe only 3:



I did too much reading beforehand and concluded that short of grinding my own raw meat and carefully measuring out necessary dietary additives not found in poultry, the best I could do for my cat was find her something grain-free. Things that sound tasty and healthy for humans and dogs (blueberries, whole grain) aren’t ideal for cats. At least, the first ingredient should be meat.


I tried both traditional clumping litter and pine litter. I prefer the latter. It lasts longer and is easier to clean because you only have to deal with solid waste (which can be flushed). It actually does smell better. I think I was allergic to cleaning the clumping kind. It doesn’t matter what kind of box you get, but the pine litter requires a special scoop with larger holes like this.

Nail clippers — (For an indoor cat). Nothing fancy. I hear the fancy things don’t work as well anyway. Kitten nails will get sharp within a week, so you don’t have to get these before you adopt, but you’ll need them soon.

That’s it. Here are some things I got that I didn’t need:

Carrier — When you adopt a kitten from the pound, they give you a cardboard box for transport. Later, you may need one for vet visits, or for travel, but you don’t need to have one before your meowface comes home.

Bed — Your kitten will find something she likes. Maybe your bed, or a fuzzy couch blanket. Or in the case of my cat, a plastic bag on the kitchen table. Or an empty shipping box. I bought her a bed and she liked it for a few weeks, but soon moved on to bigger, better things.

Toys — I got my kitten one of these ball track things, half a dozen jingle balls and feathered mice, a dangly stick toy with 3 interchangeable dangly parts and most of this just ended up underneath the couch. The most popular items have not been from the store. At least, not purchased from the store. She was best friends with a rubber band for a week. She’s spent half her life in discarded cardboard boxes. She loves the bits of plastic guarding the tops of pill bottles.

Bowls — You don’t need specialized pet bowls. Just opt for stainless steel or ceramic rather than plastic. Plastic harbors more bacteria so a cat rubbing his chin on a food or water bowl is more prone to getting an infection from a plastic bowl.

Collars — Unnecessary for an indoor-only cat, especially if also microchipped. You can get one eventually for trips outside the house. I guess they’re good if you let your cat outside — so no one else thinks they’re homeless and tries to catnap them. Of course, a safety collar is recommended.

Okay, I hope that helps. I spent way more than I needed to and all the shopping made it feel more daunting than it needed to be. You’ll see that you don’t need much to keep a kitten happy. Your trash, your hair, and whatever you’re doing in the kitchen will be endlessly amusing. Good luck!


Perhaps there is an argument to be made that I shouldn’t encourage dirty engineers and dirty French people to be even dirtier. But the no-poo movement is too good not to share.

First, what is it? The theory is that shampoo strips hair of natural oils, making your scalp produce more oil than it otherwise would. Which makes it necessary to use more shampoo, usually in a day or two just to keep that oily, clumpy feeling away. To prevent this, the no-poo movement advises switching to baking soda then eventually washing hair with just water.

I was also skeptical at first. But let’s be honest: I’m lazy and the idea of washing my hair once every two weeks instead of every other day or so was extremely appealing. I didn’t want to mention it until I was sure it was going to work for me, and now I’m sure. I’ve been doing it for over two years and I usually go 3 weeks to a month between hair washings. No one seems to notice. My hair actually looks better, if anything.

If you want to give it a try, there are many tutorials online, but I find that it’s not a fussy regime. For example, I don’t even measure. I just scoop what I’d estimate to be about 2 teaspoons of baking soda into a handy wash bottle like this (available for about $6):

Fill it up with water, shake it well, then baste my scalp with the solution. I then use a shampoo brush to make sure everything is thoroughly distributed. Mine is shaped like an octopus, but one like this I’m sure would also work (you can get it for $5):

That’s it! A standard box of baking soda costs less than $1 and lasts me over a year. I don’t have to wash my hair more than once a month or so.

Oh, and I also have a bristle brush to help distribute the scalp oils to the rest of my hair. Mine is ridiculously expensive, but I love it. A much more reasonable alternative sells for around $7.50:

Really, none of these things are even strictly necessary. They just make the experience more convenient for me. There are many resources online, and entire blogs dedicated to it. But if you’re sick of feeling forced to wash your hair every day, this may be perfect for you. Just try! I’m sure you’ve got a box of baking soda somewhere in your kitchen…