Category Archives: know thyself

Leaving the boxes open: You might even be wrong about you

That looks too deep for one dive…

I spent my whole life thinking I was an introvert.  I had to be, right?  I stayed inside all the time, was terrified of new people and any kind of crowds, had panic attacks just trying to plan new experiences for myself, and spent time almost exclusively with other introverts.  

But while I was living as an introvert, I was also constantly bored, restless, and lonely.  I ached for new experiences, more friends, and more challenges.  

The fears, it turned out, were their own things, and with the help of a couple months of therapy, they went away — or to put it more accurately, they became possible, and eventually easy, to control.  Once they stopped being such a powerful motivator, I quickly realized how much happier I am with a greater degree of social contact than I'd ever considered before.  I began to seek new things to try, places to go, and group hobbies to learn.  I also realized that a key marker of introversion — feeling like I was being drained by time around others, and recharging during alone-time — was also due to the fears, and the effort that managing them took.  

That's not to say that I "am an extrovert" — on balance, I'm most likely somewhere in the middle (I'm somewhere in the middle on most things).  I do also like compliments, loud fast conversation, speed and heights, and physical affection, which are extrovert-y traits; but I've certainly got my quiet moments too.  The point isn't which box you fit in — it's that picking a box, especially as a blanket explanation for big chunks of behavior or thinking, is a risky move and should be done with one fingertip left on the chess-piece.

More plainly:  Watch what assumptions you make, and conclusions you draw, even (maybe especially) about yourself.  There may always be more information waiting to come to light; don't ignore it because you think you've already got the answer!

Hard Writings

Who are you?  How do you want to live?  Do you want to settle down or see the world?  Raise kids or stay in college forever?  Write books or become a CEO or earn your place as a pillar of your community…?

If you find somebody who thinks you're The Specialest Favorite, how far will you change to suit their lifestyle so that you can live together Foreverish?  And how long do you figure that is?  What if they don't agree?

What if you change?  What if they change?  How much priority can you, or are you willing to, give to staying in the same place as someone else Foreverish?

All of that depends on who you are, of course, which means that it depends on really knowing who you are — without that, how can you answer any of those questions?

Knowing who you are depends on having your EYES OPEN about who you are.  And that means having self-esteem, because convincing yourself that you're awful is just as dishonest as convincing yourself that you're Hercules (and has none of the potential benefits of the latter, either).

If you got past thirty years old, and made a bunch of huge life-decisions, all while having really awful self-esteem, then it's safe to predict that you will probably find yourself holding a basket filled with some pretty amazing mistakes.  I'm writing this to confess that that's precisely what I did, and that in the last couple months a good chunk of them came due — as mistakes do — and knocked down quite a lot of the life I'd been building for the last seven years.

So things have been unstable and uncertain and emotionally really difficult lately.  My near-term future holds more of that plus loneliness, financial difficulty, and an intimidating daily workload that, to be frank, I can't at the moment see how I'm going to pull off.  I'm sure it'll work out somehow — things do, after all, and panicking never helps — but I feel like I have to be honest with the people who read my blog and send me emails (which I haven't been good about answering lately *at all*, sorry) looking for advice that I'm not exactly lifestyle guru material lately.  I am, in fact, mid-lesson on some really useful shit that I'm sure will turn into some great advice I can give to others once I've figured it through…but the figuring-through is a long and tricky process, and while I'm in the middle of it I'm hardly a good example to anyone.

My idea of a "sleep schedule" lately is "try to stay awake until I'm tired enough that I can't lay in bed with my thoughts whirring unpleasantly, get up when I have to after probably far too little sleep, and snag naps if there's an opportunity when I get so tired during the day that I can't think straight anymore".  I couldn't even tell you when or how much I sleep, and there's no name for the schedule I'm on other than perhaps "yikes".

My idea of a "diet" lately consists of snacks, comfort food, restaurant food, coffee and beer.  I try to make healthy choices in the snacks and restaurant departments, and to drink at least some water every day, but that's about the level of attention I've been able to give it.

I do still get a good amount of exercise, thankfully — I've learned over the last few years that it leads directly to better mental health, and I need all the help I can get, so I've been sticking close to kungfu and swimming whenever time permits, and throwing in situps and simple workouts whenever I can steal them.  I also have no car, so I walk a lot, and I always do so quickly and while paying close attention to my form.  I still have visible stomach-muscles, woot.

BUT, and this is the important thing in my mind, I HAVE largely* fixed my self-esteem problems.  And that's a big deal for me…I'm not coming from "a bit of body-image issues" or something, but rather a background of full-blown self-hatred and self-harm.  The things that fell apart on me lately were things I'd built with "I don't deserve better" in mind, and so, difficult as it is to stand in a smoking field and try to contemplate a suddenly scary future, I'm hopeful because I know this is the right direction.

Path, not goal.  Follow proper principles.  Eyes and hands open.

All hail the fishes swimming up waterfalls!  ;)

 

 

*The necessary breakthroughs have been made, but as with all such things, there's a sensitive period afterwards — much like the second two weeks of an adjustment to polyphasic sleep — wherein one must be careful not to slide back into old habits.  That's where I am now.

great_salt_desert

Self-Esteem for Smart People (Part One)

This topic has been on my mind a lot lately for…various reasons, we'll say.  For background, I myself am a smart person (we can define that later if you like, but if you care about definitions then you're probably smart enough to qualify ;), and I'm pretty sure I've had every single self-esteem problem in the book, or damn close.  I've crawled my way out of bad relationships, bad habits (including outright self-harm), and bad situations all caused by my lack of self-love/esteem/confidence more times than I really care to admit.  But you don't do things like that without learning something, and if it's ok with you, Internet, I'd love a chance to share what I've learned.  I'm calling this Part One because I see a potential for a lot to talk about here, and depending on Life, the Universe and Everything I may or may not write it all [UPDATE:  I did in fact write Part Two and Part Three], but I at least want to have said some of this stuff — Ideally, I'd like to talk with some people about it, too, so feel free to chime in if this speaks to you.

Obviously I'm not a psychologist — you can take that as a detriment if you like, but personally I'm proud of it; and anyway if this advice doesn't stand on its own, then you should ignore it.  You're smart.

I.  Recognize what Self-Esteem is and Why It's Important.  Self-Esteem got a bad rap when people turned it into a bullet-point fix-all buzz-word bullshit answer to The Everything, but ignore all that and think about what it means:  It means not hating yourself.  Not experiencing your whole life through the filter of a constant buzz of negative thinking, the equivalent of having a whole roomful of people dissing and hating on you all day, every day, except that since it's you doing it to yourself, the dissing is amazingly pinpoint accurate and blisteringly hard to ignore by just gutsing your way through it.  Bad self-esteem is a handicap, a mental problem that not only prevents you from making the most out of your life, but that steers you inexorably into self-destructive behaviors and situations, and impairs your ability to make the kind of decisions you actually want to make probably worse than anything short of PCP.  (If that sounded overly dramatic, think about it again:  Would you rather be drunk and trying to make a long-term series of life-decisions in a positive way, or face the same decisions while possessed by demons that could trick you into thinking that you wanted and deserved what was worst for you?)

If you're smart, you are self-aware and therefore have a strong interest in fixing your self-esteem.  (Maybe you aren't convinced that you can fix it, but put that on hold for the moment; I'll prove it soon.)  If you're not sure whether you have a self-esteem problem, do this simple test:  Watch your thinking as closely as you can for a day, and note (with a mark on paper or something) how many times you think something negative about yourself, versus how many times you think something positive.  Doing this exercise will probably cause you to think extra positive things about yourself for that day, but that can be instructive too:  How hard is it?  How weird does it feel?  For me, for a long time even trying to honestly think something like, "because I'm awesome is why" was really, really hard, and I could tell I was faking it even while I did it.  You may not be (hopefully aren't) that bad off, but if you're not sure it's really worth watching and keeping track for a day.  This problem can be stealthy, since obviously it has a vested interest in hiding itself from your logical mind.  (And that's not an anthropomorphization or dramatization either:  It's a mental construct, and it's just as cagey as the rest of your mind can be.  Are you smart enough to lie not to get caught?  Then so is it.)

Self-esteem comes from two things:  Having accomplished things that you yourself are proud of, and having your basic needs met.  Think of this as the emotional side of the coin that "being physically fit" is the physical side of:  To be physically fit, you have to a) meet your basic health needs, and b) successfully accomplish some kind of physical exercise.  To have self-esteem, you have to a) meet your basic emotional needs, and b) successfully accomplish some kind of emotional growth.  

I'm going to start with basic needs, because as with the physical version, this often gets overlooked, and it's flat fucking stupid to overlook it.  You cannot be physically fit if you're fundamentally unhealthy:  Even if you manage to fake it for a while, it'll fall apart on you, guaranteed.  And being fit isn't about looking muscular; it's about strength, resiliency, and successfully being in the world in a positive way.  Same thing with self-esteem:  Faking it is not making it.  The basics are utterly essential.  

"OK," I can hear the DA in my head saying, "But it's a lot harder with emotional needs.  First you have to know what they are, and that's different for everybody, and and and…" –But I argue in return that it's not all that different, nor that much (if any) harder.  There are basic truths that apply in pretty much every case, and the process of finding out the specifics of what works for you is pretty much the same as it is with diet and exercise:  Try things that make sense, watch yourself to learn the results, keep what you're doing or change it based on the evidence, rinse repeat.  

However, we shouldn't overlook that we're talking about people doing this who already have bad self-esteem:  How do you figure out and meet your basic emotional needs when a part, maybe a large part, of your mind insists that you don't deserve to have them?  Well, you have some bad habits to get around in that case, but it's not impossible, and it's as worth doing as eating right and exercising is for the very physically unfit.  

This is long already, but I'll keep going for a bit, to discuss the first basic step in overcoming poor self-esteem enough to learn what your basic emotional needs are and how to get them met:

II.  First, recognize that your basic emotional needs are YOUR responsibility.  That's advice that most people like myself will find both easy and hard:  It's easy because it sounds unwhiny and self-reliant (or comfortingly self-punishing, depending on where you are on the scale of things); it's hard because it means that you have to admit that your own pain and suffering deserves your attention and effort to fix — and really fix, not just cover up well enough that you can function/behave for others.  

Funnily enough though, this easy/hard impression that you get from admitting that your low self-esteem is a problem that's your responsibility to fix is actually somewhat backwards from reality — and that's precisely because of the filters that low self-esteem puts over things like this.  In your mind, you're probably trying to "be tough" and "suck it up" and "not be dramatic" … but in reality, the effect of this is that you aren't getting your needs met, and this is causing you to lean on other people inappropriately, to "wait on" someone else to recognize what you need and make it a priority.  In essence, by absconding responsibility for identifying and prioritizing your needs, you wind up unfairly putting that burden on others — because the assumption you're making, that it's ok to just let yourself be trampled since you don't deserve better anyway, is a fallacious one; letting your own needs go unmet *isn't an option*.  You're a human being and you have needs, and your mind and body will seek to have them met even if you don't.  (That's why they're NEEDS.)  

It's easy to be ashamed of having needs, or to see them as weaknesses — I understand that urge, and I also don't think it comes from a bad place.  We want to be strong and independent.  But a strong person knows their limits and works with them:  We don't admire people who go hiking in the mountains with no food, water or gear and get themselves killed.  Some of your needs will turn out to be things you don't need all the time, or don't need very much of; and some of them will turn out to be like air.  That's ok; as long as you know which is which, you can make decisions accordingly.  And knowing that you need something and making decisions that respect that is a ton more responsible and "tough" than ignoring what you need and flailing all over the place because you're not able to breathe.

I won't lie:  You won't be happy about some of the things you need.  Especially if you have a life built, or partly built, already, you're likely to find that thanks to your lack of self-esteem, you didn't do a great job with some of the bits you built, and may have to make some uncomfortable decisions.  But remember that simply not having your needs met isn't an option:  Things you built that directly interfere with those basic needs will eventually fall apart anyway, so it's not like you're saving yourself any pain by not learning what you did wrong.  

Like your physical needs, your emotional needs will change over the course of your life.  Feeling bad about this is about as intelligent as apologizing because you no longer like to eat fistfuls of candy like you did when you were a kid.

So, let's recap:

1.  Self-esteem is important as hell, no matter how sick of the term we've all gotten.  It comes from the right kind of accomplishments, which we'll cover next time, and from having your basic emotional needs met, which we'll also talk about doing in more detail when my fingers uncramp.  ;)

2.  The first step towards getting your basic emotional needs met is to recognize that it's your responsibility to do so, and that if you don't do it, the problem won't simply go away.  (Think about people who think that they can just eat unhealthy food and sit on the couch all the time, and get away with it.  Same genius at work, there.)  Your emotional needs are needs, and if you don't take responsibility for identifying and meeting them, you will unconsciously ruin your life and probably all your relationships too, trying to get them met in other ways.  

Stay tuned for Part Two!

You know what I love?

I love that look you get when I've really crossed a line.  I love how your eyes go wide and how your breath catches for a moment.  Sometimes you muster, and give me a wry smile or shake your head; but sometimes I manage to stop you completely, make you mutter into your beer-glass and blush.  

I confess, I kind of live for those moments.  They're why I sometimes drop the c-word in casual conversation, and why I almost never let a potential filthy joke go by without at least a meaningful pause.  I take every opportunity to meet and hold your eyes while I say something outrageous, because I freaking love to see that reaction.  And I do it whether or not I think you like it, too.  There have been times that I was sure you would just walk away and never speak to me again if I "went there", but all that does is make me watch you extra carefully when I do — because if this will be the final rise I get from you, I want to make sure I enjoy it.

Is this a rather mercenary use of one's fellow man?  Perhaps.  And it's not that I don't value you, personally; but there are a lot of people in this world, making a lot of demands and being, by and large, a whole lot of boring.  If there's no burning practical necessity otherwise, I'll risk the continuance of our relationship in order to remember you as spectacular, as living, as full of flash and spark.  (And if you look at the people I *do* have long relationships with, you'll see that uniformly, they don't mind being constantly poked this way — and they probably do it to me, too.)  I believe in the value of "short and beautiful" over 'long and dull" any day.

Anyway, I wanted to take today to say thank you, if I've made you think WTF? and you've stuck it out, even a little.  I'm not actually, functionally, half as crazy as my love for blushes and stammering may make it seem — I just love to shock a little, to keep things uncertain and exciting, and I'm not very sympathetic to "but that's uncomfortable" as a reason not to.  Most things are uncomfortable.  The look on your face while you try to figure it out — am I hitting on you?  Did I just seriously challenge you to a fistfight?  Why am I buying you dinner? — is so, so worth it.  

Sorry!  ;)

Overly Honest

This, I think, falls under "Blogging nobody wants to read" — Sometimes I wake up and I'm not sure what to think, what to do, and then I sit down and write for a while and EUREKA, I HAVE IT!.  That's what happened today, and though I'm sure no-one probably cares about the process, I can't just throw that writing away…that would be like painstakingly determining your exact favorite color and then forgetting the whole process so you could go back to wearing read.  (BLACK, my favorite color has been black since I first could recognize the shades of it, and my favorite shade of it is the one I can stare at a moment and lose all sense of surface; it's a color that conveys depth, that makes it seem as though everything you paint it with can dissolve into infinity at a moment's notice.  What's yours?)

Anyway, overt honesty below the cut.  Perhaps if you need some of your own, mine will rub off?  Or perhaps you'll waste ten minutes reading about someone else's insecurities and life-pathness.  Time will tell!  ;)

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Better Thinking Gift Ideas

Here’s a fun idea to take some of the dread out of December:  Better Gifting. 

In this monster of a post are some discussions of what makes a "better gift", how to package intangible gifts to make them more impressive, and lots of ideas for meaningful gifts to give, for both big & small occasions.  My gift to you. 

What makes the best gifts?

 None of what I’m about to say is meant to diss the tradition of buying an item for your loved ones as a present.  But sometimes an item just isn’t the right thing.  Items can be expensive, impersonal and often just create clutter for your giftee.  Plus they can just be a pain in the butt, and for many people they take a lot of the fun right out of the holidays.  (As a former Catholic, I believe that only religions are allowed to take the fun out of holidays.)

A solution to those problems, if you’re having them, is to focus more closely on the people involved in gifting — you and the person you’re giving a gift to — rather than the item and the store.  This is a little countercultural, but trust me, it works great, and the theory ("think of the people, not the item") is convincing enough prima facie that most people won’t want to be seen arguing against it.   Which, I think we all agree, is a paramount consideration when it comes to family gatherings.

Better Gifts are:

  • meaningful and personal
  • send the message that your relationship to this person is valuable to you, and that you’d like it to persist and/or deepen (hint: if this is not true, then congratulations!  you don’t have to buy a gift at all!)
  • not necessarily huge or complicated, or involve travel or events — they can be big or small, the main present or the stocking-stuffer, complex and special or quick and easy, depending on your needs.
  • and as a huge added bonus, they’re often cheaper, or even free!

…Of course, if you’re like me, you often have to buy "small gifts", too, for people that maybe you don’t have a deep personal relationship with, but ought to (and/or want to) show your appreciation to with a gift.  Better Gifting can work there, too!  I’ll give more tips for "Better small gifts" at the end.

Better Gifts don’t all take a ton of planning or time; just some "Knowing Thyself" and thinking about the person you want to give a gift to.  In fact, it’s often surprisingly easy to think of something someone would like as a Better Gift, and that you’d like to give them.  Just think of the person’s hobbies, loves, life-situation, and how they relate to you (and how you’d like to relate to them), and something will almost certainly "present" itself.  ::ducks pun-tomatoes::

But sometimes, even if they have a great idea, people still don’t like to give intangible gifts because they don’t "feel right" — because in our culture, we’re conditioned towards boxes and paper, basically.  One way to make giving Better Gifts easier is to focus a little on the presentation.  Here’s how to make intangible gifts acceptable and painless to give:

  • Write it down:  If your gift comes with tickets, a brochure for a place or event, or can be formalized in some object (i.e. a golf ball for a golf-outing), then that’s easy; you can give it like a regular gift.  If it’s totally intangible, though, just write a nice description of it and give that as the gift.  This doesn’t have to look or feel cheap — in fact, it can be a whole other part of the gift, if you make it special.  If you’re a writer, use poetry or a short story to make your point; if you’re a musician, sing it; if you’re an artist or photographer, add some visual flourish. The more important the person and the occasion is to you, the better it will feel (for you and them) to put some thought into the presentation.  And even if it’s nothing big, a hand-folded paper box or package covered in photocopied family pictures can make any gift seem extra-special.
  • Wrap it up:  People like boxes with stuff in them (and boxes are reusable!).  If your gift is "big" (in the sense of quality), and your giftee likes surprises, consider wrapping it up really special, for instance, as though it’s a huge or complicated physical gift.  Some of my best have been things like "huge box with a tiny box at the bottom that has a note describing the gift"-type things.  The idea behind gift boxes is that your giftee can linger over the gift a while, wondering what it is, etc.  You can still use this (and other tricks, like hiding gifts or giving "hints") for intangible gifts!  Further, if you’ve spent no actual money on your present, you can drop a few dollars to get a really nice, professional wrapping job and still come out ahead!
  • Don’t apologize:  You’re not a kid who didn’t have time to shop; you put thought and effort into this gift, so act like it.  Sometimes people who receive intangible gifts are confused by the mixed messages sent by the gifter, who may say things like, "Well, money’s been tight this year…" –Money’s always tight; that’s not why you did this.  You took the time to come up with this personalized gift because a fruit basket or body lotion wasn’t good enough to show this person that you care about them.  You don’t have to say those things, but make sure you know them, so you can act the way that shows the giftee how you feel! 

 

And here’s my huge, evolving-as-I-think-of-things list of ideas for Better Gifts!  (By all means, if you have more ideas, add to my list in the comments!)  I’ve given almost all of these — having been both broke and creative for most of my life — except the ones that require cooking or some other skill I can’t do.  But they’ve all been very well-received, even by the parts of my family that are pretty materialistic. 

  • Has the person complained about something that’s broken or ugly in their home or car?  Offer to repair, re-paint, or replace it if you can.  A freshly-painted fence, un-squeaked door, or re-potted plant can make a very appreciated gift.  If the thing to be fixed is in a space you’re comfortable and welcome in, you can even "sneak gift" it — just leave a small, indicative-of-the-occasion gift-tag taped somewhere near the thing you’ve done, and voila.
  • For anyone who’s a parent with younger children, an offer to babysit for free for an evening (or even, if you’re awesome and normally one of their sitters, a weekend) is nearly always a welcome gift.  Make sure you’re clear about when you can do it, so that they don’t call hoping to cash in their gift on a bad night!
    • For a really special gift for parents with young kids, pair the offer to babysit with a gift certificate for movie tickets or dinner, or with something nice for them to wear out.
    • Turn a babysitting offer into a gift for the kids too, by specifying something fun you’ll do with them when you babysit, like going swimming, taking pictures of flowers or wildlife (something kids always enjoy, in my experience) or making art together.  Wrap it up separately from Mom & Dad’s gift, so they have a package to open!
  • If you do something for a living that your giftee might find useful, give it to them!  Often people don’t like asking for free work, but it’s a huge bonus for most people to get their carpets cleaned / website updated / furniture moved / hair cut / car repaired, etc., without having to pay for it.  Make sure you specify when you can do the work.
  • Give a flyer or brochure for a show or event coming to town, and a note saying you’d like to pay the way for your giftee and you to go together.  (Make sure it’s something they’ll like too, though in reality the chance to spend time with you is probably a good gift for just about anyone who likes you…NOTE, however, that you may know people who are introverts, and if that’s the case, remember that big crowds and long outings may not be their thing.  They may rather just have dinner at your place, or spend a quiet evening camping, etc.  Or they might really rely on you to drag them out to cool places.  People are crazy complicated, aren’t they?)
  • Pictures of yourself or your family (especially kids) make great gifts for some people, but here’s a twist I like:  If you know someone who likes to take pictures, give them a Photo Outing: arrange a trip to somewhere scenic (park, historic location, etc.), and promise to dress to the nines and pose for pictures.  If you have children and a parent or other family-member who likes to have pictures, offering to dress your kids up and come along for nice pictures is an especially nice gift!
  • If you cook — even if you can just cook one thing that your giftee likes — make it for them as a present, or give them a "dinner date" with you where they can come over and you’ll cook for them and visit.
    • Also, "tea party" invites are great for some people, and let you give a simple mug, or just a tea-bag, as the material part of the gift.
      • While that works great for some adults too, it bears special mention that there is no little girl on the planet who won’t squee over a tea-party invite for them and a few of their friends (or dolls), complete with grown-up tea and cookies.  I promise.
  • If there’s a charity someone is fond of, donate in their name, or buy them a membership if they don’t have one (most charities have memberships starting at reasonable prices, and you can get a membership card to give to them as a present).  Alternately, buy yourself a membership and give them a photocopy of your membership card as a gift — it’s a nice way to show that you care about helping them support their cause.
  • If you’re good with plants, grow some nice ones in any old pots at all, and give them as gifts.  Even better, grow herbal or medicinal plants that you know your giftee would like to have, such as lavender, rosemary, aloe, etc. 
  • If you live a distance away from your giftee and you don’t see each other enough, consider giving a "free room and board"-type gift, which is basically a formal invitation for them to come and stay with you for free.  Even if you think it "goes without saying" that they could do so, an explicit invite is always a nice gesture.  Pair it with an idea for something fun you can do together while they’re in town, and this gift is always a winner.
  • If you know your giftee has a regular chore to do that they maybe don’t like so much — mucking out the chicken-coop, or taking Grandma to church every Sunday, or what have you — give them an offer to do it for them!  You can offer to do it once so they can have a "day off", or to take over for a while to give them a real break.  Either way, they’ll probably really appreciate it!
  • Offer to help get things ready for winter — if you know how to winterize a car, hang storm windows, or compost a garden for next year, that’s work people are almost always thrilled to have someone else do! 

And before you go thinking that giving free work is a chintzy idea, let me assure you that it’s not:  free work = free time that someone wouldn’t have normally had, to do whatever they want with, and that’s a gift almost EVERYONE really likes!

On to some ideas for smaller, quicker gifts.

Better Small Gifts make great stocking-stuffers, just-because presents or additions to a big gift — but like the bigger Better Gifts, they’re still meaningful, and usually quite inexpensive.  Here are some ideas:

  • If you like to craft at all, make something small in quantity, to fill up stockings and to act as "back-up gifts" for unexpected people.  (This year I’m making chainmail keychains!)
  • If you write or draw, take pictures or scrapbook, or anything similar, make a sincere card with original art inside.  These work much nicer than bought cards, and for small occasions, long-distance holidays, apologies or "just because", they make an awesome gift.  Don’t forget to add your thoughts on why the person is special to you — trust me, people love to hear that stuff.  ;)
  • Cook something fun or healthy (depending on your giftee) and give it, or a sample of it, with the recipe attached — talk about a gift that keeps on giving.  That turns a dozen cupcakes and some index cards into 12 potential gifts!
  • Procure some art supplies for someone you know who likes to do arts or crafts:  These can be very inexpensive (paper!  wire!  discarded fabric scraps!  broken plates for mosaics!), and are almost always appreciated and used.
  • Give the gift of storage:  Any good, sturdy box or container you have, painted or covered in cloth or paper to make it look nice, will be appreciated by giftees who have stuff laying around.
  • Spruce up a simple, useful item, like washcloths, boxes of Kleenex, socks, or shoelaces, with your own personal touches –  besides being touching and useful, they won’t take up unnecessary space (since everyone has space for things like socks set aside already). 
  • Awesome-ify something.  Even if it’s a common, used, or otherwise un-special and un-gift-worthy item, your skills can make it amazing and appreciated.  If you like to gothify, steampunkify, cute-ify, or personalize things, get some together (or set some aside over the year) as gifts.  As my diplomatic yet plucky Grandma used to say, "at least it’s a conversation piece"!)

For more ideas on creative, special, homespun, frugal, and other badass forms of giftery, I highly suggest the finance blog The Simple Dollar.  They frequently have really solid advice for avoiding overspending and frugal but meaningful holiday stuff.

Of course, if YOU have a great idea for this kind of thing, don’t be stingy!  Give it to me in the comments and I’ll consider myself set for Xmas.  ;)

 

Abandoning Philosophy for the Hard Work of Being a Continuing Machine

Sometimes I say things, at night, to my partner, like, "I wonder if I shouldn’t have written off a career in philosophy so flippantly."

To which he answers something like, "Are you high?  You agonized for months about that decision."

To which I could answer, "Well, maybe that’s flippant for me," –but in reality it makes more sense to admit that it wasn’t the speed of the decision, but the fact of it, which consternates me still.

It’s hard to let go of things with which you identify.  But isn’t to identify with anything just another way of failing to know who you really are?  In the world of equations, 1=1, and the only thing you = is you. 

Know thyself or perish in mathematical hell, heh. 

In any case, we all have to let go of things we identify with, good and bad, because one of the fundamentals of the Universe is "shit changes".  Failing to get okay with that is one of humanity’s more potent recipes for agony and dissatisfaction, right?

Still.  I was "the little philosopher" since I was very young, and most of my life I’ve been defined in some way by my tendency to ask, chew over, and spit out some attempt at answers to, all kinds of questions that normal humans assure me they’d rather leave lie.  I laid awake at age eight for weeks because I couldn’t figure out why I’d ended up in the body I was in, and nobody at the Church (who, I was convinced, knew the answer on some level) would tell me.

Further, I was a damn good philosophy student.  My aptitude with written English combined with my natural fearlessness about scary questions and the consequences of their answers made me a darn good group-discussioner and paper-writer, and I spent my whole (lengthy) undergraduate career kicking ass and having my name taken by some very impressive people.  I was the pet of every professor I wanted to impress, and I would have had a lot of help if I’d wanted to go further.

In the end, I let it go for practical reasons:  My education was interrupted by ten years of "other stuff", and by the time it was time to get serious professionally, I was in a position that I could neither afford to move around chasing jobs, nor work stupid-long hours for chickenfeed pay.  (No amount of connections was going to get me out of that, sadly.)  I decided that, much as I love (LOVE!) a good philosophical romp, as far as careers go, I was actually better off chasing my dream (the only earlier dream than philosophy) of being a science-fiction writer.

Which was probably a good decision.  (How good will be determined by the success of my stories, I suppose.)

There was also the fact that my chosen philosophical forays are all geared towards a specific set of answers I desire to understand (not find or discover; understand and hopefully elucidate to others) during my lifetime.  Professional philosophy would have provided some tools towards that end (but few that I don’t have access to anyway, given some books and some time), but it would have also required that I do a lot of philosophy that didn’t aim in that direction.  Professional philosophy is about filling in gaps in human knowledge, ironing out kinks, publishing papers on how you think you got that wrinkle out.  There’s a lot of talk about Big Answers, but not as much work available to do with them.  I would have, I think, been like a lover of fine German auto-engineering who took a job on the line at Ford, at least for a while.  And components that I feel are necessary towards grasping the things I really want to understand, like kungfu and meditation, would have had little or no place in my "official" philosophical toolbox. 

So I opted to do, and read, a little philosophy that was specifically targeted to my personal goals; rather than make philosophy my living and possibly subordinate those goals in the process.  At least on the face of it, that still doesn’t look like a terrible decision.

And yet.  I no longer get called a "philosopher"; now that I’m an adult I don’t qualify (according to standard terminology) if I’m not a professional, or at least on the road to try and be one.  I’ve officially diverged from the path of "philosophy", a path I’ve been pretty well matched-up with for most of my life.  Ever since it happened, I feel a bit…unmoored.  Not in a bad enough way that I take it to mean I definitely made the wrong decision, but it is distinctly uncomfortable.  Part of me wonders if I’m a failure because I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stick with this.

I don’t know what to call myself anymore, I guess.  I’m not quite a writer, not just a wife and mother, not yet a guru, not really a technonerd.

But how important are labels, really?  We obsess about getting out from under the labels others impose on us, but aren’t our own impositions a thousand times more restrictive and just as artificial?

If I’m smart, I guess, I’ll take the opportunity to get used to just "being me", and get a little less hung up on how to put that in words.  My job is to live this life, not record it for posterity.  If someone else wants to call me philosopher, writer, nerd, whatever, then I suppose that’s their choice. Narrating the chase while you’re still having it is hardly a good plan:  Your attention is needed in the moment.  I think it’s the same with being alive.

Because really, that’s the answer to the question I had when I was eight:  You are the body, and the person, you are, because the Universe is all about things existing, exploring the possibilities of creation in a specific context, and then seeing how long it takes and what it does before it gets destroyed.  Essentially I’m a character-study for a writer with infinite time to play with and an imagination that mine is literally only a shadow of. 

My job is to play this form out, in this setting, and see where it goes.  Not to "be" an "X", where "X" is anything besides just me.  And in the end–Catholic upbringing aside–I feel pretty confident that my decisions will be viewed (if at all) with curiosity and sympathy, and not judgment or any negative sort of labeling.  Other humans may judge me, but that’s just them playing out their existence, and how I choose to answer them is part of how I play out mine.

As Mr. Vonnegut so brilliantly put it, you’re a Continuing Machine.  You were put here to go, and keep going, and see how far you get and what you do before you’re over-with.

From that perspective, any attempt to be other than the fullest expression of precisely what you are seems pretty misguided.*  What would I have gotten from "being" a philosopher anyway, other than ego-gratification?  I can still read philosophy.  I can still go to lectures and talk to philosophers and write down my thoughts, even publish them (thank you Internet).  The need to "be something" is nothing more than a type of resistance to what one already is.  Innit?

.

*Of course, this begs the question, "What if what I am is a miserable shithead, or a murderer?  Should I still be seeking to be the purest expression of it?"  –The answer to which requires an exploration of whether one feels that human beings are innately good, which exploration I just so happen to have been writing recently.  It’ll be up soon.  ;)

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Awesome picture (of Confucius and Machiavelli) by Helico

Down-Cycles

So, everything moves in circles, yeah?

There are high times and low times (and often both at once).  Times when we have a ton of energy, and times when "getting out of bed" is a major accomplishment.  Times when the Universe delivers building-blocks to our door, and times when it stomps through like a three-year-old and gleefully knocks down everything we’ve built.

The wise and happy person, I suspect,

has figured out the art of a) recognizing and b) accepting these cycles.  As you may know, I’m more than a little familiar with workaholism, which can be fairly (if not oversimply) defined as a "failure to be okay with down-cycles".  For the "Type A" person (not to get too jargony), it’s simply not okay to have a slow day, to be less than amazingly productive, or to fail at just about anything.

Many people (not all of them workaholics themselves) have told me that this kind of "can’t slow down, can’t fail" thinking is a way to maximize success — a form of the old "do your best, try your hardest" adages of our youth.

I disagree, though not too many years ago I wouldn’t have.  I used to openly adore "Either Extreme Is Fine" as a motto, and believed that working until near-death (like not sleeping for days, which I’m sure shocks you to your toes) was a virtue, including especially if it took medical care to recover from a project. 

If you ever read James Gleick’s book Chaos (which is awesome), you may remember that it includes the story of one of the founding mathematicians behind "chaos mathematics", and how he lived on coffee and no sleep for so long that he had to be hospitalized after making his great discovery.  I had those pages marked, so I could read them over again and drool to myself.  Oh yes.

But we Tao-addicts try to take our cues from nature,* and what would happen if the Oceans hung on to high tide for as long as they could?   (Or [fill in your clever example here]?)  

Besides the cosmological reason (and the medical ones), there’s also the fact that it’s a fallacy, I think, to assume that going full-bore as often as possible actually produces more or better results.  As I get older and gradually figure myself out, I’m definitely seeing that He Who Paddles With The Tides Gets The Farthest.  As a child, I didn’t have much admiration for the grownups who ate right, exercised regularly, and took the time to keep their mental and physical selves in good ticking order; it’s a lot easier, I think, to admire the guy who runs his wingtipped buns off and makes a million dollars.  But adulthood, for all its dubious gifts, does give one the ability to see things on a longer timeline…and the Type A guy who seemed so impressive at thirty is often, at forty, buried in debt, medicated for hypertension, and regretting missing out on his kids’ childhoods.

The thing is, Nature is a vast and unimaginably powerful thing.  Often its power is expressed in ways that don’t seem powerful from our point of view, because from the point of view of Nature, human beings think like children — we can’t imagine much past a few measely decades into the future with any clarity, so we don’t see the power and wisdom in dripping water on a rock for three hundred years rather than blasting it with a hammer now.  But even if we can’t see it, we can infer it (and behold, this is my inference). 

The personal lessons are pretty easy:  balance and flexibility will get you way farther, in the long run, than strapping the jet-engine of workaholism to your butt.  When you feel slow, rest.  When you start to redline, back off.  (Being from Detroit, I tend to think of the car metaphor: drive it nice, and it’ll still run awesome after 100,000 miles. Drive the heck out of it and you’ll have what we call a "beater".)

The bigger lessons are harder to grasp, but if you can accept the basic truths about Nature and cycles, then they follow easily:  Ups and downs are normal.  Sometimes things need to be burnt down, shaken apart or washed away in a flood, so that new things can grow in their place.  Everything moves in cycles:  Your career, your luck, your body, your family, your neighborhood, the economy.  The smart money works with those cycles, not against them.

 

(Yes, I know you’re probably thinking, "But you sleep, like, four hours a day!" –Yes, but I’m not just staying awake and wearing myself out.  In fact, the cyclic nature of polyphasic sleep is one of the things I like about it!)

 

 

 

*in which I include outer space, rips and anomalies in space-time, extradimensional aliens, and whatever the heck else happens to exist out-there or in-here — it’s all Nature; just some of it is easier to comprehend from here on our cozy little rock.  ;)

(Awesome image from kidsgeo.com)

Know Thyself: Stability or Chaos?

Waaaay back when, South Park –which I loved before its undercurrent of icky rich-white-kid politics became more of a riptide– aired an episode featuring then-new-and-popular band Korn.  ‘Twas a Halloween episode done in the style of Scooby Doo, and it was quite satisfyingly funny if I remember correctly.  At one point during this train-wreck of pop culture, the group (composed of SP Kids and Band) decides to “split up”.  Twisting the homage to Scooby, though, one of the band members suggests something along the lines of, “I know!  Everyone who feels threatened by change get in one group, and everyone who sees change as a positive force in their lives get in another group.”  To complete the joke, everyone joins one group or the other without fuss, leaving two equal-sized groups, and someone comments, “Wow, that was easy.”

Is it easy for you?

Chaosopher or Stablologist?

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In reality, both stability and chaos are truths:  Everything is changing all the time; but many things change so much slower than we do that, to them, we ourselves would seem to change and disappear in a blink.  On top of that, our own point of reference into the world remains fixed (I still feel like the same consicousness I was ten years ago, even though I’m vastly different physically and psychologically).

But how we perceive the world, by and large, is up to us (and our programming, howevermuch control we have over it). Ignoring the fact that, to everybody, the world must sometimes seem chaotic and sometimes stable, to the extent that you can choose which way your life feels, what do you prefer?

For me, it’s no contest, but this is one of those things that, were I writing myself as a character in a story (or “rolling myself” in a tabletop RPG), it would be completely obvious; but because I have to be myself–and darnit, it’s confusing in here!–of course it’s taken thirty years to come around to the real “oh yeah, duh” of it.

But all the signs were there:  The rabid Discordianism; the obsession with chaos mathematics and far-flung theoretical physics; the blood-feud with boredom; the claustrophobia; the thousand and one hobbies; even the give-it-to-me-straight-even-if-it-kills-me approach [to religion, then magick, then psychology, then philosophy, then Zen].

Yeah.  Duh.

But in spite of all the duh-inducing-ness, it still took a re-visit to the “Uberman state of mind”, this week embodied in a rather insane diet that has me parsing out how much cream I can put in my coffee, to make me realize that hey, I’m a LOT happier when I feel the metaphorical wind in my sails.  I have to feel like I’m growing, making progress, any progress, or I start to feel trapped. (In fact, an ugly side of my personality also makes sense here:  Feeling stagnant leads to feeling trapped leads to suicide-ideation; anything for a way out.)

I would, in fact, prefer a crazy storm-at-sea wind to a stall, any day. I suppose I ought to be grateful that I’ve avoided the common chaosopher traps of either a) manufacturing drama & crises or b) avoiding good things, like children and stable relationships, because they feel too restrictive.  I’ve certainly felt the urge to do both, but thankfully my (sometimes overenthusiastic) dedication to truth and logic keeps me away from going too far in either direction.  (The recent influence of Zen has probably guaranteed that I’ll stay away from them for good, now; drama and fear are both anathema to Enlightenment, y’know.)

Yet, in spite of my preference, life doesn’t always work that way, and it’s still easy for me to end up feeling trapped.  I have to work a job; have to maintain a stable household for my larva; and moreover I can get a lot more done in the way of writing and learning and studying kungfu when there’s something of a “base schedule” in play.

As I walk around this week sporting a familiar-feeling shit-eating-grin, it’s nice to remember, or reinforce, that this is my preference, and that I feel much better about life when the deck is rocking and the sails are snapping.  Sometimes all it takes to give me that feeling is to be working on improving my diet, a new writing project, or teaching myself to sleep less or like black coffee. Even when my life-situation is one that would look restrictive from the outside, I can stave off the anxiety and depression this perspective would cause for me, just by doing a little something to loosen the routine.

Know which “feeling” you prefer — smooth sails or the winds of change — and it’ll help you keep yourself happy, no matter what your outer circumstances are.

Part of why the temple and whatnot

It’s not that the logic wasn’t sound.

It’s not that the break from dogmatic bickering and silly literalism wasn’t nice.

It’s not that I wasn’t cool with being a religious minority (I still am one, unless you live somewhere that’s flooded with Chan Buddhists I guess).

BUT.

I saw this and thought, “Yeah, that’s part of why.”

Hey, I bore easily.  ;)

(thanks, PostSecret!)