I’m a Complex Fellow, Unlikely to do Anything Twice

Little girl trying mom's lipstick. Growing up concept
Copyright: Alina Demidenko

When we come home from vacation, I am fifty percent likely to unpack right away, put everything where it goes and start a load of laundry. The other fifty percent…I leave my bag on the floor of the bedroom for a week and a half where I paw through it every time I need something. Either thing is just as possible.

I am wildly inconsistent about most things. (I can’t say “all things” because I’m not even consistent at being inconsistent.) I’m obsessed with Facebook until I decide I hate it and ignore it for three weeks. I exercise regularly until I decide life is too short to spend it working out and my running shoes start to grow cobwebs. I like routine very much until I start to get bored and want something novel until I feel overwhelmed and crave routine again.

Jason says I’m a complex person. I’m starting to think this isn’t a compliment. It’s confusing, even for me. Especially when I plan something when I’m in “do all the things, be with all the people!” mode but the actual plans fall in a “people suck, I don’t like to shower phase.”

My mother-in-law once asked me if I liked to shop, which seems like a simple enough question. My answer (Yes, when I’m in the mood to, but a lot of times not because of capitalist bullshit, you know, and it can be soothing to wander through a store but stressful when you feel you just HAVE to get a birthday present for someone and it can be overwhelming when you can’t decide what to buy and just end up putting everything you picked out back and leave the store in tears.) is stupidly complicating.

Today I think, You know what’s wrong with me? I need to be more social. Tomorrow it’ll be, You know what my problem is? I don’t have enough alone time. I need to be busier; I’m bored. I’m overwhelmed; I need more downtime. Like seriously, could I land at just one end of the spectrum of a problem just once? Like for more than a few days at a time?

How is it that I can be equal parts people-pleaser and stubborn, “You’re not the boss of me, I don’t have to if I don’t want to even if I know it’s good for me”? How can I have BOTH of those feelings inside me simultaneously?

I need every day to be a choose your own adventure book, so I can adjust my life on a dime. Do you, A, go to the meeting? B, take a nap? C, drive to Mexico? Take a random day like next Tuesday, and given the option, I might pick any one of those. You can’t predict it. More importantly, I can’t predict it.

I’m going to go upstairs and read now or maybe play Rocket League badly with my family. Or perhaps I’ll invent a time machine so I can go back and talk to Einstein about the theory of relativity and hope that, in person, he can explain it to me. Really, any of that’s pretty likely.

When I Grow Up…

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photo credit: Stock Photo, copyright, yarruta 

When I was a kid, adults always asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I knew the answer was supposed to be a paying gig, so I shrugged my shoulders noncommittally and hoped they’d just move on. The truth was, I didn’t want to be anything when I grew up, at least nothing that qualified as a valid profession. After all, no one was going to pay me to make up dances in my living room at my own pace and only when I felt like it.

As far as I could see, being an adult sucked. They got up and went to work eight or nine hours a day, got only two weeks vacation and didn’t even get summers off. They were obligated to stay at their place of business until quitting time. They paid bills and did responsible things like washing dishes, mowing the lawn and paying for car insurance.  Screw that, I thought as I spent long summer days roller skating up and down our steep neighborhood driveways with friends or sprawled across my bed with a book by myself.

I liked to make up stories. I wrote down the rambling thoughts in my head in the form of poetry or barely-legible prose. Not a practical career choice, that of a writer — may as well decide I’m going to be heavyweight champion of the world. NOTHING I liked to do was marketable.

I went to high school with a lot of high-achieving teenagers, and in college, my friends found their places. They were pre-med, pre-law, civil engineering. Being a writer didn’t fit in with my family culture nor my school cohort unless of course, I could make myself a noteworthy best-selling author. No pressure. So I spent most of my college years making out with boys and figuring out where I could get my hands on some beer. I graduated from college because that’s what was expected and because I was tired of people telling me what to do.

I didn’t know there were other roads to adulthood, and indeed, there weren’t as many options as our kids thankfully have today. There are young entrepreneurship programs now that have kids developing their own marketable products while still in high school, for example. That’s awesome, but here’s another thing to think about:

What if we widened the definition of “successful?” We heap praise on the ambitious, but is being content where you are such a bad thing? Is wanting “just enough” really worse than aiming for the stars? Why did I have it in my head anything less than “best-selling” was a failure? Why wasn’t “pretty good writer who ekes out a living” a viable option if it made me happy?

I’d like to see us continue to support the kids and young adults who have ideas and goals and want to run with them to the top, make all the money and/or change the world. But let’s also remember it takes more than wild idealism to make the world go around. Some of us don’t want to be millionaires or develop the next life-altering piece of technology. Some of us don’t want to be all-star athletes or biomedical engineers. Some of us just want to be allowed to do our art, share it with people, and be left alone.

 

 

On Bullshit

71a1389c36241bbd665383365c83fb45I was listening to NPR the other day and heard a definition of the word “bullshit.” I’d never thought of it as more than a careless epithet meaning something was definitively untrue, but it turns out the word has real application in its own right beyond a synonym for “lie.” The gist was this:

Bullshit is speaking with intentional disregard for the truth, usually in order to convince someone of something you wish them to believe. It’s not necessarily a lie; the bullshitter just isn’t interested in whether it’s true or not, as long as the rhetoric serves their interest.

Bullshit is all around us. It comes in the form of commercials, internet ads, billboards, salespeople and even friends. It is people who speak to us as if what they say is undeniable fact. They may quote “scientific” studies or use anecdotes as evidence their thing works, whether their thing is a car, a skin care product, a retirement plan or a parenting approach.81a628562b688c04c4f7ccb1efa63513

Some of these people are intentionally bullshitting us. They know they are pulling purported facts out of their ass (goes nicely with “bullshit,” doesn’t it?) but they do it to make commission. Other people, the ones harder to spot, do it subconsciously. They are bullshitting themselves and want us on the bandwagon too.

The most pervasive piece of bullshit of this latter group, of which we have all probably been a part from time to time, is that this product/procedure/service is something EVERYBODY needs. There are a few things all living people need: air, food, water, shelter from harsh elements… That’s about it. Notice what’s not on that list? Just about everything else: a financial adviser, yoga, a college education, essential oils, a full-time job…

Bullshit does not belong to just one industry. It is pervasive, from the salesperson at your door trying to sell you a vacuum to the gym membership rep who seems genuinely disappointed in your unwillingness to sign a three-year “commitment to a healthier you.” This is partly how our lives get so disorganized. We get talked into an MLM where we have to order things every month, a gym or spa membership we never end up using, a BNI that promises to grow our businesses exponentially but doesn’t deliver. Then we are stressed. We have to spend time and energy disentangling ourselves from those obligations, not to mention money.

15c92fe827e19d69e641e8a8e00edca2I’m not saying some of these things can’t be good. Remember, bullshit isn’t about lying, it’s about disregard for the truth. If we’re able to look at what’s being offered with a discerning, impartial eye, we might determine it’s something useful for us.  But remember, the one, fundamental truth being disregarded much of the time is that it’s possible this thing or service isn’t the best fit for us. Some people give lip service to that truth; fewer actually mean it.

This is one way bullshit can be damaging; the bullshitter talks us into commitments — commitments that, had we been able to examine them more candidly, we’d have known right away weren’t a good fit for us, saving us time, energy and money.

One of my favorite quotes is from the introduction of Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd. She humbly prefaces her account of her own feminist and religious awakening with this: Take what seems yours to take, and leave the rest. She’s not selling; she’s offering. That statement is what allowed me to learn from a woman whose journey overlaps with mine, but is still far from similar.

This post may be totally irrelevant to you. Perhaps you have waded through the bullshit already and are no longer taken by it. Perhaps you have some other thing going on in your head, about which I have no idea. I don’t delude myself into thinking anything I write is universally appealing (though at the beginning I very much tried to be). But if this does speak to you, I hope it’s given you the resolve to rely more on your own intuition about what you need and less on the bullshit of others.

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Where Did 10,000 Steps Come From?

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Photo by Clique Images on Unsplash

Ten thousand steps. That’s how many we’re supposed to get. But did you come across that article about bodybuilders who conserve their energy all day (take the elevator, drive the car to the mailbox) so they have plenty of fuel for their high-intensity workouts? Did you read that bit about high-intensity exercise being bad for your joints? Did you see the one that said weight-bearing exercise is optimal for bone health? It’s a wonder we don’t all throw our hands up, go home to binge-watch Game of Thrones and eat ho-hos. (What are ho-hos, anyway? I’ve never had one, but they seem to be the ambassadors of junk food.)

According to one Guardian article, the ten thousand steps thing was originally an arbitrary figure used by a Japanese marketing campaign to promote the first wearable fitness device in the mid-sixties. The “research” was based on the fact that most Japanese citizens took 3,500 to 5,000 steps daily, so 10,000 seemed a good round number to shoot for.

Since then, there have been more robust studies about step count. Indeed, taking 10,000 steps versus 5,000 per day is correlated with a decreased risk of heart disease amongst other morbidities. But what about 6,000 steps? Most studies to date only compare 5,000 versus 10,000.  Maybe 6,000 steps would be enough to improve some people’s health. This is important because telling people who are basically sedentary they have to take 10,000 a day or die of heart failure trying is intimidating. Why try? ‘Might as well fire up Game of Thrones and order pizza. More realistic goals might be more successful.

Another thing these step studies don’t take into account is intensity. A running stride is generally longer than a walking stride and takes more energy per stride. This means 10,000 running steps takes more energy than 10,000 walking steps, but you didn’t need science to tell you that; your burning lungs give you all the info you need on that one. What if your steps are uphill versus on a flat surface? That takes more energy too. The 10,000 steps target is more about marketing gadgets than a useful application of hard science.

Speaking of hard science, a recent Scientific American article referenced a study of our early human ancestors which found they (and we) need exercise to stay healthy, unlike our ape predecessors. They estimated how far early hominins traveled in an average day, and guess what they came up with? At least 10,000 steps or approximately five miles per day. This is largely based on observations of modern, hunter-gatherer societies in Tanzania.

Modern innovation has allowed us humans to be lazier. And it’s in our nature to rest when we are able. It’s part of what got us this far — the ability to rest when we could and conserve energy for the next hunting or gathering session. Now that we aren’t motivated to work hard by the sheer need to survive, we sit around a lot more.  Our bodies have evolved to need exercise, however, so in modern times, we are healthier when we make a concerted effort to get it. Ten thousand steps, however, which may be an admirable goal in some situations, is a gross oversimplification and overgeneralization of what our bodies need. In those hunter-gatherer groups in Tanzania, there are lessons for us beyond mileage and steps:

Beyond the copious amounts of exercise and whole-food diets, daily life for these cultures is full of fresh air, friendships and families. Egalitarianism is the rule, and economic inequality is low. We do not know exactly how these factors affect the health of hunter-gatherers, but we know their absence contributes to chronic stress in the developed world, which promotes…disease. (Pontzer, 2019).

It’s not useful to develop specific requirements (10,000 steps) and then apply them to every human on the planet. We are more variable as individuals than that, but we can make some generalizations that apply to most people. As a whole, we feel better when we move more, connect with friends and family in quality ways and go outside some. If counting steps helps you do those things and you don’t get obsessive like I do, go ahead and count. But remember, you don’t HAVE to. Your body, by and large, knows what it needs. If you listen to it, it will tell you when it’s time to get up from your desk and walk around. You’ve got a built-in step counter right there in your body. It’s free and won’t coerce you into the latest upgrade.

Sources:

  1. Cox, David. “Watch Your Step: why the 10,000 daily goal is built on bad science.” The Guardian September 2018. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/sep/03/watch-your-step-why-the-10000-daily-goal-is-built-on-bad-science.
  2. Pontzer, Herman. “Evolved to Exercise.” Scientific American January 2019: 23-29. Print. 
  3. Williams, PT. “Greater weight loss from running than walking during a 6.2-yr prospective follow-up.” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health April 2013. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23190592.

I’m Going for It…No, Really This Time.

old-school typewriter

I tend to beat myself up, periodically, for not being a better person.

I’ve been saying I’m going to write a book for…well, most of my life, and it has yet to happen, which is embarrassing.  For a long time, it was just that I lacked the confidence in my abilities, and then I had little kids, which took up too much space in my brain for anything longer than 500 words. Oh, I have started a book plenty of times.  I’m in the running for an award: “Most half-books on a hard drive ever.” I always get cold feet and quit, though.

Why?

Unfortunately for me (and for you) the “why” is a complex mess. I’m writing, creating story like crazy, then… I have a few days where the creativity is flagging. I feel like I should be doing something more productive or lucrative. Read “lucrative” as something that makes more definitive money, since that is the measure of success in a capitalist society such as ours. But money is a personal thing, too. Jason stresses about money, and I would like to relieve some of that mental burden he carries because I love him and we are partners.

Then, I write a book, self-publish it, no one buys it, and I lose money on the deal. Jason loses his job, we’re in danger of living in a cardboard box on the street and end up in a flophouse in Duluth. Jason hates me because it’s all my selfish fault for wanting to do what I love instead of making a living to support our family. You see how quickly I can get from publishing a book to homelessness?

So then I stop writing the book

and go back to my piddly freelance jobs that don’t make a ton of cash either but at least make it more quickly. And then I don’t want to sit in front of my computer writing a book (or anything else for that matter) in the evening because I’m tired, both body and brain, and I want to hang with my family or read or go to bed early.

All of these thoughts stemmed from my getting pissed off at advertising this morning

for taking up too much of my time and attention — popup ads in front of articles I’m trying to read, junk email, junk snail mail. I swear I recycled a whole tree after leaving the mailbox this morning.

The junk mail led me to all the other things that are distractions from writing a book. There are a lot of them. Some of them are forced on me like door-to-door solicitors and pop-up ads, and some are tempters like my phone games. Some are guilt inducers like volunteering at school.

I’ve tried to cut the cord so many times,

tried to simplify my life. I go on an “unsubscribe” rampage, but I always get sucked back in. Now though, I think I’m ready. It still feels scary, but I can do it. I’m going to stop writing for other people, stop accepting the distractions, and focus on writing my stuff — my blog, my book — and have the confidence that, even if the book is a flop, we’ll figure something else out before we end up in an actual flophouse.

It’s time for me to belong to myself,

to belong everywhere and nowhere. (Thanks, Carrie Harper, Brené Brown and Maya Angelou for that idea.) Deepak, a friend of mine who took the leap to quit his existing, comfortable career to start a business about which he was passionate told me he knew, in order to be successful, he couldn’t have a “way back.” He cut the cord completely with his old company so he would HAVE to make the new business work. It was scary, but it’s working. That’s been rattling around in my head since he said it to me, so it must resonate with something inside me. Yep, I’m going for it.

New Year, Same Great You

I’m going to talk about New Year’s resolutions. I know…yawn. There are probably thousands of articles bopping around the internet right now on the topic. But, I feel the need to express my alternative view of goal-making. This is not about “new year, new you,” which is a terribly overused title. What’s wrong with the old you? “New you” implies that the old you isn’t worth keeping around.

Sure, there may be some things you’d like to focus on, and January 1 is as good a time as any to take stock and plan ahead. I shied away from resolutions for…well, my whole life, because it all seemed like too much pressure. But last year, I realized there were some aspects of life I wanted to focus on: simplicity and listening to my intuition.

Taking stock now, I see that I accomplished the goal of focusing on those things. My life is simpler; I keep it in mind when accepting/declining new responsibilities, but I haven’t totally got a handle on it (I may never). That’s okay; the point is to be mindful about it.

This year, my focus is nurturing my relationships with my family — making time for Jason and me to connect, play with the kids, hang out with my parents and sister. I don’t have a set number of hours, but I know if I keep it at the top of my mind by writing about it, meditating on it, at the end of the year, I’ll feel good about it. I don’t want to make some brand new, unreal version of myself; I want make my life more satisfying and enrich the lives of the people around me.

If you want to make your focus being more active or eating more intuitively (one of my last year’s goals) go ahead. It’s all about mindset. You have to ask yourself, “Am I doing this because it’s what I’m ‘supposed’ to do or because it’ll improve my quality of life in a way that I want.

That last bit, “in a way that I want,” is important. You are under no obligation to make the choices society say are healthy. You want to eat cake and donuts for breakfast? Good for you. You want to smoke, spend a bunch of money or drink a whole bottle of wine? Fine. The point is to not kid yourself; don’t spend your energy rationalizing your behavior. Just decide to do them or not do them.  We all know what the possible consequences of these behaviors are, and sometimes we choose to do them anyway. That doesn’t make us bad people; it makes us humans who like to enjoy life.

I am not talking about addiction here, which generally tends to make people miserable; I’m talking about the choice to binge on cookies on a Friday night or spend 11 hours watching Star Wars movies. It may your stomach feel terrible and give you a tendency to reverse your sentences like Yoda the day after, but maybe it’s worth it to you every now and then. Or maybe it’s not. Either way is okay.

So when you make your resolutions or goals or whatever you like to call them, don’t make them for other people and don’t be too rigid about them. Think about what would truly make you feel more satisfied with your life — just one or two things, not a whole list of 10 — and focus on that. Or don’t make any resolutions. Maybe you’re fine with everything how it is in the moment. If so, cheers to you.

Which Came First, the Chicken or the Meds?

ashkey.001Several weeks ago, I discovered my days go a lot better if I start them with writing instead of with email. My general thought process has been “let’s just bang through these emails real quick before getting down to write.” Two hours later, the emails have sent me off into a flurry of activity to find, investigate, file and respond, and I am too tired and scattered to start the hard work of creating anything.

Thing is, getting through those emails doesn’t give me the same gratifying sense of accomplishment as writing, or creating anything, does. I love the intense focus I feel when putting pen to paper (or pixels to screen). I love that, when I’m done, I feel a sense of completion — closure, if you will.

So many of the things I do these days don’t have that feeling. They don’t promote focus, and they are never truly finished. There will be thirty seven more emails tomorrow, no matter how empty I get the inbox today. There will be more dishes in the sink five minutes after I get the kitchen clean. It leads to frustration and a lack of sense of accomplishment.

So now, I start with writing on the weekdays. I blog here, write for the magazine or do a freelance piece. I’ve also cut down on my freelance work, as much as it pains me, because between work, freelance, volunteering and parenting, I was beginning to feel like I was trying to cram three full-time jobs into the space of one, and I was scattered — doing a little of this and a little of that all day long, rarely finishing anything to satisfaction.

I hate the feeling of doing so much stuff I’m not doing any of it particularly well. The principal who went out on a limb and hired me for my teaching job back in the early 2000’s once said of our curriculum it was “a mile wide and an inch deep.” It rang really true with me, because I felt like I was being asked to cram more and more stuff into the children’s heads, without really getting into the meat of anything.

That metaphor can be expanded to everything we do. So much stuff is trying to grab our attention, it’s easy to run around all day long and never give your full attention to anything. Meditation helps with this problem, but it is truly a practice. You might not feel any differently the first time you do it, but if you keep it up, you start to notice better focus and more calm “off the mat” as well.

There are a few free meditation apps that really help me. I have several, because I refuse to buy a subscription, so I just use the few free ones in each app. Even just three or four minutes per day seem to help. I don’t meditate on the weekends, though. Weekends are for kids’ sports, birthday parties, cub scouts and sleeping.

So, I’ve cut down and prioritized, and I’m feeling calmer and more satisfied with my life now. Oh yeah, and I also went up on my meds, so I can’t take all the credit for the new, chill me. I never know which comes first; do my habits start to slip, so I get depressed or do I get depressed and so my habits start to slip? Either way, they feed each other. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend it was all lifestyle change when I’ve had a fair amount of help from chemistry.

I can’t seem to end this post; I just keep rambling and no clever one-liner is bubbling to the surface, so I’ll just stop. The point is, if you feel crazy/depressed/dissatisfied, maybe try simplifying your life, and if you try that and it doesn’t help or if that seems like an insurmountable task, maybe visit your doctor.