Category: advice (Page 1 of 3)

The Struggle

Whenever I feel anxious I look toward Belle for guidance. She never worries.

This week I submitted a major proposal at my day-job, ending months of long hours and stress. With that pressure off my shoulders, I spent all day yesterday feeling like I was on the verge of a panic attack.

It’s the worst I’ve felt in a while, so as you can imagine I haven’t gotten a lot of writing done. A little bit, sure, but not a lot. It’s actually been a struggle just to maintain this blog. When I’m not actively working, doing chores, or (perhaps stupidly) trying to buy a house (because my wife and I are now, of all times, in the market for a house) I feel stuck , anxious, and paralyzed. The words don’t flow easily through that sludge. Storytelling, world-building, character development are all huge tasks to accomplish when you feel this way.

I recognize that I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a job. I’ve worked from home since forever and a half. The changes to my life have been deep but minimal. My wife, on the other hand, is facing all sorts of uncertainties and, for the first time in probably 20 years, boredom. So we’re leaning on one another in ways we haven’t had to, before, which strains us in different ways.

It all got me thinking about why I’m feeling this way. See, with me it’s a negative feedback loop. I get anxious or depressed and can’t do anything but the basic tasks necessary to my survival, but then I feel bad about not being as productive as I should be. I feel bad about not writing, not working out, not reading, not doing anything I normally would. It leads to a constant stream of negative emotions until they release in some way–usually in a way detrimental to myself or my relationships. Understanding the causes behind my emotions, big or small, often helps me to alleviate them.

I thought about what I was feeling, specifically. And, it turns out, I miss a lot of things. I miss being feeling the freedom of movement. I miss playing hockey. I miss going out to eat. And then I remembered something my wife mentioned to me last week–the entire world is grieving right now.

Grief has many different forms, especially when we’re working through stages of loss. Grief may present as anger, or sadness, or restlessness. We need to be aware of that for ourselves and others and accept it. It’s ok to feel these things and it’s ok for others to feel them, as well. If we allow ourselves to feel these things without overanalyzing them or, like me, making myself feel worse for feeling them, the more quickly we can accept what’s happening and heal.

I remind myself that there are a lot of things we can do to feel better and regain some sense of normalcy. For example, there’s this video explaining how we can F.AC.E. C.O.V.I.D:

In times like this, when so much seems outside of our control, it can also help to remind ourselves what is in our control. For example, we can control our news intake. We can control how we treat those around us. We can control how diligent we are about following CDC guidelines to keep ourselves and those around us more safe. Focus on those things. Let the rest go.

It may also help to reframe our mindsets. In a newsletter shared among the Ursinus College faculty, staff, and students they recommend shifts like:

  • “I’m stuck at home,” to “I get to be safe in my home and spend time with my family.”
  • “I will get sick,” to “I will self-isolate and wash my hands. This will significantly decrease my chances of getting sick.”
  • “Everything is shutting down,” to “The most important places such as medical centers, pharmacies, and grocery stores remain open.”

We’re living through a strange, uncertain time. We don’t know how long it will last or what the final outcomes will be. More than at any other time, we need to be kind to ourselves. If you’re feeling like I’ve felt, and I suspect many of you are, hopefully some of these techniques help.

Bootstraps are Dumb

Not pictured: Bootstraps.

There’s this saying you’ll hear a lot if you follow politics: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” What we think it means is to come up from nothing to become successful. We hear it all the time to describe supposedly self-made people like Jeff Bezos or Donald Trump. Politicians like Mitch McConnell use it to justify preventing new social safety net programs, raising the minimum wage, gutting existing programs, or making these programs more difficult to access.

But, like the myth that most of our most successful citizens are actually self-made, that phrase doesn’t quite reflect reality.

Do me a favor before we continue. Put on your shoes, sit on the floor, and try it. Try to lift yourself using your shoelaces or the tongue of your shoe. I’ll wait.

*Makes a nice cup o’ tea while waiting.*

Did it work? No? You actually pulled a muscle? I’ll be hearing from your lawyer?

Well, this didn’t go as planned. Regardless, let’s push on.

As you likely realize at this point, the phrase “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is a load of horseshit. And it’s etymology shows a very different intent behind its meaning. The phrase seems to have originated in an 1834 newspaper article discussing a man who claimed to have created a perpetual motion machine–a famously impossible thing to do. In reference to this invention, the author of the article wrote that the inventor may have claimed to be able to lift himself “… over the Cumberland river or a barn yard fence by the straps of his boots.” In short, the original meaning of the phrase was sarcastic and used to tell someone they were full of shit.

The phrase was used sarcastically throughout the early 20th century. It’s unclear when the phrase began to shift toward a more positive interpretation, but by the 1970s it was an accepted part of the lexicon for “self-made men.”

There is a lot to be said for the way language evolves. Especially how idioms can switch meanings (as this article on the history of the phrase covers). But it’s worth knowing the history of certain popular phrases, and understanding their intended use. It can illuminate the veracity of rhetoric, which brings me back to its use in politics. When trying to spin something, politicians reach into the rhetoric grab-bag for anything they think sounds good, sounds “down home,” and illustrates their point. They may or may not know or care what the intended meaning was, which can pervert and then eventually subvert a phrase. We should all view these types of idioms skeptically.

And next time you hear someone say others should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” give them an etymology lesson and then tell them to fuck off.

The Life of a Telecommuter, Now That It’s Highly Relevant

You’re more likely to have to share your chair when you telecommute.

Strange times we’re living in. If I’m honest, things are bad. Like, real bad. As of this writing (for those visiting from the future… or past) entire countries are on lockdown due to an honest-to-gods global pandemic. A few American cities are also locked down, but mostly we’re practicing self-quarantine and social distancing.

Which means a lot of you are telecommuting for the first time. As someone that’s exclusively worked from home for nearly six years, I thought I’d share the wisdom I’ve gained in that time. Of course, I’m not nearly the first (or likely the last) to do so. Hello, Chuck Wendig already wrote about this. Pretty well, I might add. He definitely covers the major things to know.

So, in the interest of not covering ground already trodden on so delicately by others, allow me to help the transition with some random tips / thoughts on the life I’ve lived as a telecommuter:

  • Routine Helps: Even though I work from home I treat my job like I would any office job. I wake up, shower, eat breakfast, and then go to my home office and boot up. I have a set time to work throughout the day, partly because that’s when the rest of my coworkers are online and I need to talk to them to do my job, but also because it helps me keep a sense of normalcy. It’s easy to slip into staying up late, or working whenever the feeling strikes you, but that’s a slippery slope I personally try to avoid. I’ve had issues with work-life balance in the past and I still often find myself working weird hours because of deadlines. But routine keeps me cognizant of when my life is off-balance, which allows me to take steps to correct and maintain that balance.
  • Your Internet Connection and Computing Power is Everything: For those of you that normally work in an office and are now telecommuting, triple-check that your internet is fast and reliable. I pay extra for additional bandwidth because it’s literally my lifeline. I imagine that most companies that move to telecommuting will try to replicate some of the face-to-face they’re used to with videoconferencing. Well, that eats up a lot of bandwidth. If your internet or computer is slow, there are going to be issues with that.
  • Communication Changes: When telecommuting it becomes nearly impossible to read someone’s body language. If they have their camera on so you can see them (and often that’s a big if) seeing someone through a screen isn’t as intuitive as seeing them in person. When you’re with someone their body language is just something you pick up on without needing to try. Not so when communicating via video or, more likely, via chat. The nuances of communication change. This makes being open and honest about your thoughts and feelings that much more important. You won’t be able to guess what anyone is feeling and they won’t know what you’re feeling. So make it a point to ask or be forthcoming of your own emotional state. It’ll help everyone.
  • Loneliness and Cabin Fever Set in Quick: Expect it and prepare for it. I try to leave my apartment to get lunch at least once or twice per week. I often find myself getting antsy if I haven’t left in a few days. For me, playing organized sports helps a lot (although that won’t be an option during this specific time). It keeps me active, gets me out, and holds me accountable to others.
  • Somehow You’ll Have Less Time: I honestly don’t know what I did with my life when I was commuting two hours per day on top of the ten hours I spent at the office. You’ll find that even though you’re saving time no longer sitting in traffic, somehow that time gets filled. With chores. With work. With something. Be cognizant if you can and protect that time. Fill it with something for you. Or don’t fill it at all. Doesn’t matter. Just know that it’s there.
  • People Will Bother You: Sort of like being in an office, the hard part about telecommuting isn’t the working part, it’s the other people part. Except now the other people are your loved ones, roommates, family, friends–anyone that will interrupt your day with things not related to your work. My wife understands that I’m usually working from 730a or so until 5p, but still sometimes will call me during the day to ask if I can check the fridge for something or pick up a package that was delivered. Or one of my friends that are off that day will call me at 1p to talk for 45 minutes. They may barge into the office while you’re in a meeting. Or turn on the TV loudly while you’re trying to concentrate. In cases like these, be clear that you’re working. It’s no different than leaving for an office. Treat it as such.
  • Cleanliness is Important: I get anxious if the house is too dirty. Not like disorganized, that’s fine, but dirty. If I know there are lots of dishes, or we haven’t vacuumed in a few days, I get antsy. I need to clean before I can be productive. What I’ve had to do is set boundaries around when I clean and when I ignore it as best I can. Otherwise I would fall into a vicious cycle of procrastination. Do yourself a favor and make sure your workspace is clean and comfortable.

There are probably a thousand other small things that will be an adjustment. But these are a start. Good luck waiting out the pandemic, and good luck telecommuting. You’re going to love it!

Living Sustainably

Shirt from Kotn. Wooden watch from TreeHut. Handsomeness from my parents.

Around the New Year my wife and I decided to live more sustainably. We already try to live as environmentally-conscious as possible. We don’t live in an area with good public transportation, but we both have as fuel efficient of cars as we can afford. We do out best not to waste food or buy too many plastics. We’re not obsessive about it (although one could argue that maybe we all should be), but we’re definitely aware of the footprint our habits leave on the world.

One area we hadn’t thought about that, once we did and looked into it, is terrible for the environment is clothing. We already did out best not to shop at stores we knew had poor labor practices (which was itself a trial to learn about), but didn’t know that clothing in general had such a negative impact on the environment.

According to this Huffington Post article from 2016, non-natural fibers in clothing like nylon releases nitrous oxide during its production, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Even natural fibers like cotton have an adverse environmental affect due to logging, water consumption, and more. This article from November 2019’s LA Times states that “…the clothing industry is responsible for about 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and consumes more energy than aviation and shipping combined…”

That’s a huge imprint to leave. With this understanding, my wife and I decided to be proactive about it.

First, my wife decided to limit her clothes to a lower number. She loves fashion and, although we’re not huge clothes-buyers, she had collected a lot of items. So she decided to do a capsule wardrobe, limiting herself to only 30 items of clothing (not including undergarments). This first step got her thinking about how to mix and match clothing items to feel fresh, even if they were older pieces. Anything that no longer fit in her capsule wardrobe we donated. I followed suit, which was much easier for me because I don’t own a lot of clothing.

But how would we get new clothes when we needed them? Well, astute reader, it turns out there are a lot of options for the sustainable thinker. My wife found ThredUp, an online thrift store, that she quickly became obsessed with. ThredUp allows you to follow people with similar fashion sense to you, creating online wardrobes of things you may like. They also make it easy to purchase and resell second (or third, or fourth) hand clothing.

For new clothes, we researched ethical companies. Our favorites so far are tentree, whose clothes are all made from fairtrade cotton and plant ten trees for every item of clothing sold; Everlane, who operate ethical factories and are transparent about every aspect of their business; united by blue, who remove one pound of trash from waterways for every item sold, as well as has multiple initiatives around sustainability, like removing plastics from their workflow; and KOTN, who use ethically sourced Egyptian cotton for all of their clothing and help economic development of farms and schools in Egypt.

These clothes are more expensive than the articles you’d find at Old Navy or something, which is an understandable hurdle for lots of people, but they’re also much higher quality and are designed to last. With our capsule wardrobes we only need to buy a few pieces per year, and those will last us a long time, so in time we may actually save money in addition to doing something small to help the planet.

Doing this research sent us down a rabbit-hole of other ways to be sustainable. We now use sustainable cleaning products (Method, mostly). There are still lots of ways we can improve, but these small steps tend to snowball.

There is a lot to be said about companies being the largest polluters on the planet and the need to hold them accountable for the destruction they’ve caused, but in the absence of governments willing to do that individuals can use their money to support companies that are ethical. A good place to start is by finding those companies that are certified B Corps. If a company has gone through the arduous process of becoming a certified B Corp, they’re likely a trustworthy place to spend your money.

Bullshit Detection 101

IFLA infographic based on FactCheck.org’s 2016 article “How to Spot Fake News” in PDF format

With how easily misinformation is disseminated nowadays, there is a general sense that it’s easy to get duped. I see it all the time on my social media feeds: friends sharing things that sound like they could, maybe, possibly be true but often aren’t. Or, things that aren’t true but reflect their worldview. Or, things that are true but have a misleading headline they didn’t bother reading past.

There are lots of ways to avoid falling for the bullshit clogging up the tubes that Al Gore claims to have built*. I’m not going to link to lots of scholarly research about logical fallacies or anything like that because I don’t think it’s necessary. I have a pretty finely tuned bullshit detector (as described in my birthday post) that can be summed up in a few simple, common sense steps:

  1. How true does it sound? This is the first thing that goes through my head. I’m a naturally skeptical person, so when I read a headline on someone’s Facebook or am speaking to someone who is giving me information, I’m constantly gauging how true I find it. As I listen or read the information, I’m looking for logical slip-ups (“Wait, so while skydiving you were able to fly by flapping your arms? Seems like that violates physics.”), contradictions (“A minute ago you said flapping your arms was what made you fly, not swimming through the air by doing a breaststroke.”), or otherwise specious narrative.
  2. What is the source? This operates on multiple levels. First, who is the source telling me the information? Are they trustworthy? Do they have any actual expertise in the subject area (which isn’t the same as having expertise in a related but separate subject area–that’s an argument from authority and it’s something we fall for all the time)? Secondly, where are they getting their information? Is it a reputable source? Or did they read a headline on their aunt’s Facebook page that linked to an article that summarizes another article from someone who saw another headline about a study done as reported by an actually reputable news source?
  3. Do I know anything about the subject? If I do, is what I’m being told consistent with what I already know? If not, are there any questions I can ask now that can give me insight into how much the person I’m speaking with actually knows? Leaning on this requires being well-read and curious.

And that’s about it. Using this two-to-three step process will save you from over 90 percent of the bullshit floating around the interwebs**, guaranteed. It takes work to get to a point where you can confidently question the things you hear, but once you’ve primed yourself it becomes a reflex. When you’re ready to actually fact-check claims I recommend factcheck.org, snopes.com, and Politifact. Wikipedia is good to quickly get up to speed with a topic, depending on its popularity and how well the article has been edited.

Misinformation (or, as is the case now, straight up disinformation) is rampant online and in our daily lives. Don’t fall prey to it and don’t pass it along. Please.

*Al Gore did not claim to have built the internet. Although, it really a series of tubes. Did you not read anything I just wrote?

**Again, not true.

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