This Great Society - Writing


Illustration: Joel Bentley

Lauren Thompson and Linette Schut: Personally Challenged
Illustration: Joel Bentley



I was standing at the counter of Zippy’s Java lounge in Everett, Washington. It was the first day of July, and I’d come to the tiki-themed coffee shop in search of free internet. As my hand held out two crinkled dollar bills for the Italian soda, I realized –


I paid for the soda. It was the first failure of many.

The Zippy’s incident happened on the first day of Buy Nothing Month, during my first summer after graduating college. I was living in a seniors-only trailer park with my grandparents, working one day a week copy editing at a local newspaper. I had no money, a lack of direction and an idea: challenge myself to spend nothing for the month of July.

I drew up a document of rules. I’ve always loved rules, guidelines to keep me grounded and structures in which to feel safe. With my new life not yet created, a feeling of uncertainty had begun creeping behind me like a shadow. I sent the Word document (my first since graduation day) to my best friend Linette. She still lived in British Columbia, from where I had just moved. I missed her.

She was in.


When Lauren sent me the document, I didn’t realize what I was signing up for.

I was sitting in my kitchen in my new apartment above Jim’s Pizza, taking a break from a long afternoon of TV-watching and sun-tanning on my deck. I’d recently come to the realization that my casual job at a group home for developmentally disabled adults wasn’t fulfilling my dreams and expectations of life with a university degree. Just weeks before, while writing my Honours thesis and managing the school newspaper, I’d had ambitions. Now I was bored.

Lauren and I had been friends since our first day of university. We had achieved a lot of goals together over our four-year friendship. So with that document open on my computer, I felt I had purpose. Or at least something to do.


Despite the primary failure of Buy Nothing Month, it was an overall success: I had achieved frugality, another of my core virtues (along with rule-following). The potential promise of personal challenges began to form in my mind: we could become healthier, more spiritual and all around better people one month at a time. There was nothing else to do with ourselves but improve.

The next few months, Linette and I took on challenges with enthusiasm. By late summer I was finally outfitted with full-time work and about to move out on my own, but time for personal challenges — now called PCs for short — meant time with Linette. During Four Weeks, Four Gospels month, I’d call Linette and we’d discuss how we both forgot how long Matthew was. We’d video chat as we did our thrice-weekly pushup workouts for the 100 Hundred Pushups Challenge, me still wearing tights from my day at work, her roommates yelling encouragements to me on the screen. (By the end of that challenge, we could each complete 50 consecutive pushups, which was almost like doing 100.)

In March, Linette and I each read a Giant Russian Novel during the breaks in our ever-fuller adult lives. We were learning again; we were growing again. We loved PCs.


When first we started personal challenges, it was really just something for me to do, but surprisingly enough, they were soon affecting our real lives. I began viewing them as a tool for self-improving or, at the very least, a motivator for things that I had always wanted to do.

Enter Vegetarian Month. I had toyed around with the idea of giving up meat for a long time, and reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals convinced me that I should give it a try. Convincing Lauren, on the other hand, was difficult – one of the first things I learned about her was how much she loves a good carne asada taco – but she agreed, and in April I had a partner to help me embark on my newest ambition.

I was surprised at how easy it was for me to go without meat. Unfortunately, Lauren’s experience wasn’t quite the same. One night I got a call:

“Linette, I have a confession.”

“Uh oh,” I said. “What is it?”

“I ate chicken pot pie,” she said. “I didn’t even remember while I was making it. I didn’t remember until the last second, when the fork hovered at my lips. And then I ate it.”

Our friendship survived – along with my aversion to meat – even though Lauren’s vegetarianism didn’t.


That next month, May, Linette went on her dream trip: two months in the history and hostels of Europe. She made her own personal challenge – to read a book of national origin in each of the eight countries she visited – but it was just that: her own. I spent the summer on more lonely PC projects, tackling problems Linette doesn’t worry about, like attempting to keep a clean car, giving myself a digital curfew, and forbidding sweets on weekdays.

In her absence, I ended up recruiting others to live summer challenges with me: my sister, old hometown friends, former travel buddies. It wasn’t hard to convince people. At this point, the idiosyncrasies of our project had begun to seep into our greater communities. Family informed us of challenges they were taking on for themselves; friends began asking us for updates and using “to personally-challenge” as a singular verb.

But without my dedicated partner, the person to whom I could daily take my obsessions, confessions of failures, and victories, personal challenges just didn’t have the same spark. I needed Linette.


That fall, back from my big trip, I moved from my shabby Langley apartment to a real house in the city. Commuting from Vancouver to Langley, I once again found myself playing License Plate Scrabble – searching for license plates with letters that add up to high Scrabble scores. I got especially excited when I saw XFV 565, because the letters and the numbers both add up to the same score.

The unfortunate thing about this new fun game was that October was Silence in the Car month – a month we’d specifically set aside to have extra quiet time to think about where we were in life and who we had become. In the end, we only helped prove that our generation’s attention span is pitifully low and that we are no better.

But determined not to let this small failure get us down, we went into November with renewed vigor: our first writing challenge. As we’re both writers, we were surprised it had taken us this long to do one. Our simple goal was to write for 10 minutes every day without stopping.

After one week of writing a creative non-fiction story I had been itching to get onto paper, I began to feel uninspired. I started missing days, and then a whole week went by with no words on paper; Lauren reported similar results. Instead of creative, we felt burdened. We discussed what this meant: Why was it so hard to do something we love? Was this a sign of the end?


After our failure, we chose something easy for December: drink eight glasses of water a day. It was something we both almost did anyway. But in our minds it became more than that. In a month of excess and activity – and a year and a half of attempts at achievement – we chose a challenge for purity, an action of cleansing. By the end of the month, we were aiming to be refreshed.

Eight-glasses-per-day Month had another purpose, though. It was time to decide if we were ready to be done with (or free of) personal challenges. Done with how they constrained us and what they brought us. Our university years had begun to blur into the rest of our past and we were now acquiring the definition we longed for when we first stepped out on our own – apart from personal challenges, apart from each other.

But without PC’s, who would we call to share tips about the best way to only pay with cash for 30 days, or complain to when we tried to go a month without complaining?


Linette? Can we continue doing Giant Russian Novel Month into eternity? I really loved that.


Yeah! Oh, and I really want to try the pushup challenge again in January and February.


I’m in.



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