Blogging Break Because My Body Hates Me

Sometimes you feel like your body is just trying to find as many ways to suck as possible.

I am, at time of writing, still dealing with repetitive stress issues with typing. As such, there may not be posts here for a while. I have a lot of things I want to write about and do plan to come back when I can, but for the moment, I’m prioritizing giving my forearms and wrists a bit of a rest from all this typing.

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Thoughts on Pompeii and Impermanence

1/15/13

I saw Pompeii the other day. It was neat. I learned a lot of things and thought about time and life and death and history.

Sometimes I find it alarming that everything is so ephemeral. The people who lived in Pompeii all died almost two thousand years ago, and as cool as it is to think about what their lives must’ve been like, I’ll never really know. No matter how much I learn or how hard I imagine, I’ll never come close to understanding what life back then was actually like. Sometimes that makes me sad. So many people have existed and then not existed again, and then there were only the people who remembered them. The Pompeiians existed, and then died, and all that was left was people’s memories of them. Eventually, the generation that remembered them died and all that was left was the stories that that generation had told. A few tiny snippets of a full, rich history. Then that generation died, and all that was left was the few stories that had been passed down that far, with details lost or distorted in each retelling. At that point, the world’s memory of Pompeii was so distant. Yet we are now, unfathomably, maybe fifty times further distant. We have no idea who the Pompeiians were.

Someday I will die, and if I’m lucky two thousand years from now some pieces of me may be left. But in all likelihood no one will know who I was, and none of my stories will be left. No one will really understand what the world I lived in was like. There may be ruins from today’s world left behind—half-remembered, half-understood remains of a time so different that no one could hope to really comprehend what made it the way it was. Old black-and-white photographs of a time full of sharpness, color, and life.

Sometimes, I think about all this and feel lost—meaningless and alone against the vastness of space and time. If the Pompeiians existed so long ago, and there is so little of them left, what does it even mean that they existed? What will it mean that I existed after another two thousand years have gone by? Lately, though, I’ve been thinking on a new perspective, one that has made me happy. That’s why I wanted to write this post today. I wanted to talk about why all of the above is kind of cool. It’s not a completely new idea, but it’s new for me, and it’s made some of the moments I’ve had recently a lot sweeter.

Yesterday, I kissed a girl in front of the Colosseum, and I thought about time and life and death and history. In two thousand years, probably no one alive will know that kiss ever happened. Even if they do, they won’t know why or where or when. Not really. They won’t know all the little things that made me up at that moment, that made up the world as it was and put me at that particular place in it, that made all the thoughts I have had in the my life coalesce into the moment where I asked a beautiful girl if I could kiss her.

No one will ever know that again. That kiss will always be mine.

Pompeii is really cool, and I would love to know how they lived, but no one will ever know that again. The knowledge of how they lived is amazing, and it’s entirely theirs. It always has been, and always will be, only theirs.

Yesterday I kissed a girl, and that kiss always has been, and always will be, only ours.

Pain Notes from Traveling

I recently went on a vacation with family. It was an excellent trip, and there’s some related writing in the works, but for now, I’m taking pain notes, because I want to make sure to have records.

Average level of pain on the trip was higher than my recent usual. No one obvious reason for this, but several possibilities:

  • I didn’t have the usual furniture I have at home that I’ve picked out specifically because it seems to work best for my back
  • Traveling is stressful
  • Jet lag affected me more than my reasonably solid amounts of sleep would suggest
  • Wasn’t doing usual PT/workout routine, which is more comprehensive than just walking around all the time

I was significantly more sore than usual as well. Not a pain-y kind of sore, just a normal, recovering-from-normal-exercise soreness. They feel noticeably different and the latter can be quite pleasant, really. This was expected because I was getting way more exercise, mostly in the form of walking, than I usually do. I’m a little surprised I didn’t get more sore, actually, because my own experiments have suggested that a top limit for exercise every day for me is somewhere between 30-45 minutes of biking and a bit of walking thrown in. I was walking for hours most of the days I was on vacation, and while I spent a lot of time pretty sore, I definitely held out doing way more exercise than usual without much adverse effect. I would really like to think that’s something I could keep up at home without adverse effect, but I’m not sure if that would work, because I’ve tried it a number of times before and it’s generally seemed like a bad idea.

I’ve been dealing with a repetitive stress flare-up for the past month or so. I’ve been hoping this would blow over like it has done at times before, as ratcheting down the typing hasn’t really been an option lately due to school stuff. It hasn’t yet blown over. Very frustrating, given that I just started a job that requires lots of typing. I suspect that may have been the catalyst. My computer use hasn’t changed much lately, but the percentage of computer use I spend actively typing has definitely increased on account of the job. Nervous about how this might impact my work.

Verbally Expressing Error Bars

One of the things I most value in other people is uncertainty. That is, one of the traits I most value in people is a keen awareness of how easy it is to be wrong, of how little we actually know about everything we do, everything we see, and everything we are, and how easy it is to miss crucial details in any situation.

I try to be very careful with my words. I suppose you could say I try to be scientific. A good scientist, when writing up experimental results, will rarely draw hard and fast conclusions from them, because rarely can hard and fast conclusions be drawn about anything. There are always confounds. A good scientist keeps track of everything that could possibly be wrong with whatever hypothesis they are testing, and with whatever tests they are using to evaluate their hypothesis. This attitude, it seems to me, is just as important outside the scientific arena as inside it.

A lot of my most commonly used phrases are things like “I think…”, “It seems intuitive to me that…”, “X seems suggestive of…”, “I don’t remember [contextually important point] very well, so I could be misrepresenting Y”, and the ever-useful “I could be wrong”. I try to frame the things I say so that it’s clear how much I know, what I feel certain or uncertain about, and how certain or uncertain I feel, and why. To show my error bars, so to speak. I think that this is incredibly important. I don’t so much think of it as trying to be scientific—I just think of it as trying to be truthful.

One of the things that most affects my opinion of people I talk to on a day-to-day basis is how much they share my proclivity for always expressing their error bars. I very easily become mistrustful of people who seem certain too often. I can’t help but think that if people aren’t expressing their error bars, it’s because they aren’t aware of them. If you aren’t aware of your margin of error as a scientist, you’re a poor scientist, and by the same token, if you’re not aware of your margin of error in life, then you’re going to be hard pressed to get me to put that much faith in any of the conclusions you’ve drawn about life. Also, I’ll probably find you annoying.

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

When Good Advice is Bad Advice

I had a series of interesting conversations with Stephanie Zvan after the Marriage and Skepticism panel at Skepticon. One of the things we talked about was relationship rules.

The Marriage and Skepticism panel had briefly addressed making relationship rules that are designed to proscribe situations that might tempt partners to cheat. Rules against getting into certain situations or doing things with people that might lead to fuzzy sexy romantic brainpatterns.

I find the idea of such rules silly. In a way it’s exactly the opposite of what I would do, personally. If I were tempted to do something that I knew would damage my existing relationship(s), to me that wouldn’t be a signal that I should avoid that thing, it would be a signal that I need to understand why I don’t intrinsically want to avoid that thing. Why would I want to do something that would damage a current relationship unless (a), there were unacknowledged issues with that relationship, and some part of me wanted to escape it, or (b) I didn’t realize the potential for damage?

I assume that if the relationships I’m in add joy to my life that I won’t want to do things that damage them. Therefore, an impulse to damage them (by, for example, doing something that qualifies as cheating) either means I’m not confident my relationships are adding value to my life (and either I’m wrong and need to reflect or I’m right and the temptation is telling me that I’m not in a good relationship in the first place), or that I don’t understand how the impulse would damage them. Either way, that’s a problem with me. The temptation is only shining a spotlight. And frankly, I want those spotlights to shine as bright as possible. I want the information that a temptation would provide me, because knowing is the first step to fixing an issue. To me, the reality is that if I have constant problems with being tempted to do destructive things, the problem is either with me or my relationship or both, and the temptation is telling me that. Destructive impulses don’t just appear out of thin air. They are caused by the people we are and the situations we are in. They are red flags, and red flags are a source of information. I want to see red flags, not hide from them.

I talked over the above with Stephanie after that panel, and she said something that, although it was a simple, offhand observation, has been sticking in my head ever since: that maybe part of the reason the advice on not getting into tempting situations doesn’t make sense to me is because it isn’t really meant for people like me.

It’s been sticking in my head because it applies to a lot of mistakes I’ve made over the years. I read the advice of a lot of really intelligent people on sex and relationships and a host of other things. Some of the mistakes I’ve made have been because there are times when I fail to realize that I’m not the intended audience for the advice. The best example I can think of for this phenomenon is in the context of advice on being honest. It’s everywhere. Every blogger who writes about sex and relationships writes about the importance of honesty.

In truth, this pattern of advice-giving has not been particularly kind to me, because I’ve always been rather good at making myself be honest. What I haven’t been good at is intelligently choosing when and how to do it. You might call me a recovering Radical Honesty practitioner. I never really applied that label to myself, but in practice, my habits with respect to honesty have historically had a lot in common with it. I put literal, explicit honesty on a pedestal at the expense of the compassionate, Highest Truth (seriously read that link, and this one while you’re at it) style of honesty that is, I think, far healthier. But when I used to read Be More Honest advice columns, I would assume my problem was not being sufficiently honest, rather than not being skillfully and compassionately honest. As a result, I focused even harder on pushing myself to be “radically” honest, which was not at all what I needed to be doing. As above, the mistake I was making was assuming that the advice being given was for people like me when it wasn’t. Not really.

I don’t know if this kind of thing happens to other people much, but I’m realizing that in many ways it’s something important for me to be aware of. I tend to assume that advice that is written by thoughtful people in a way that doesn’t explicitly exclude me as a target audience implicitly includes me as a target audience. Sometimes this means I follow advice that is really good for some people, but not at all good for me, personally.

Anyone else have this problem?

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

Shitty Conventional Wisdom on “Real Security” and “Loving Yourself”

“Real security comes from within” is an old trope, and I think there’s something wrong with it. Mainly the thing that’s wrong is that it’s wrong.

The problem with the trope is that all too often in context it implies that self-respect is something that only you build. Something that only you can give to yourself, and if it has any relation to what others think it isn’t real. I think that’s wrong. I think the input of other people can be an invaluable resource in building self-respect. I know it has been for me. I didn’t find self-respect within myself on my own, and frankly I’m not sure I could’ve. I had a lot of help. I still have help, and I still need it frequently.

I don’t think there’s anything better than the help of other people for developing real security. Being secure is something you continue to work on throughout your life, both in and out of friendships and relationships. You know what’s helped me develop a sense of self-respect more than anything else in my life? Talking to good friends and partners. Self-respect is something you build. Like a house. It exists within you, yes. It rests on foundations within you, yes. But in my experience, it gets built a lot faster and a lot better when you let other people help with construction. When that help is good, and the structure is built well, that self-respect you built together may stay around long after the friendships do.

“You have to love yourself before others will love you”, is another trope I dislike. First off, no, you don’t. Look around, there are zillions of people who are loved by others who have trouble loving themselves. Second off, the same as with self-respect, sometimes experiencing the love of others is exactly the thing you need to learn to love yourself. I understand that both of these tropes are often about, “Don’t let your self-esteem rest on what others think of you”, and I think that’s decent advice, but all too often it disregards the fact that learning to love and respect yourself is something that others can play a tremendously positive role in. And rather weirdly, I think there are few things better for learning to not care what others think than learning from others how to not care what others think.

I think some of the best things for self-love, and self-respect are getting to know people who love and respect you, and learning to see through their eyes until you learn to look at yourself in the same way. That takes other people. And that’s okay. And you don’t need to be all finished building self-respect before being close to other people. In fact, sometimes it is just that closeness that is the best thing to help the self-respect along.

Avoiding Suicide: My Mental Tools for Fighting Back Against a Brain on the Edge

Trigger warning for discussion of suicide and suicidal thoughts.

I’ve been suicidal a few times in my life. I’ve never actually made an attempt, but if I’d had more reliable resources for doing so during those dark periods, it’s entirely possible I would’ve.

I want to talk about the thought tools I use to stave suicidal impulses off. I haven’t needed to use them in a while, but I think they’re important to talk about, both because they illustrate the kind of headspace someone has to be in to consider suicide, and because I know I’m not the only person to turn to thoughts like these when nothing else will convince you to go on living, and I have, at times, found them good for that. I hope I never have to resort to these again, and I may not. But chronic pain is at times an unpredictable thing, and to end up in a dangerous mental headspace, all it really takes is a prolonged period of a certain level of pain. That’s a lot of what got me close to suicide the last time, and if I were in a similar level of pain today without any realistic ways to keep it at bay, I suspect I would be in the same place now.

I suspect so would you. A sufficient level and duration of pain can put anyone in this place. If you don’t believe that that’s true, then you haven’t ever come close to it. Be grateful for that ignorance.

For the record, I am dealing with my pain pretty well at the moment. I don’t see any reason to expect it will get worse in the near future. I’m talking about what that could do not because I expect it to happen, but because I think it’s an important reality for people to recognize. I think it puts suicide in a more appropriate, realistic perspective. I am not suicidal now because I haven’t been experiencing the level of pain, physical or emotional, that is necessary to put me in a suicidal place. If I had, I would be in that place. The same is true, I think, of everyone.

When I am in that place, these are the kinds of things I’ve tried to consider to keep myself among the living:

The number one most useful thing to contemplate, when I’m feeling suicidal, is the possibility that I could fuck it up.

I could fuck it up, and then I’d still be here, and everyone would know I’d made the attempt, and that would be a worse place to be than where I am now.

Not only that, I could fuck it up in a way that makes my life even worse. I could jump off a building and end up crippled, but alive; I could swallow pills and end up with a damaged brain, but alive; I could shoot myself and end up the same—damaged, physically or mentally in some way that made things even more difficult, but still alive to experience that pain on top of all the rest.

Suicide becomes an attractive option when it promises an end to suffering. In the throes of suicidal depression, the single best way I know to stave off the impulse is to consider the ways in which attempting suicide could end up making that suffering worse.

The second tool is, paradoxically, knowing that suicide is always an option. If I don’t do it today, I can always do it tomorrow. Sometimes I’ve known that what I needed more than anything was to convince myself to reach out, to talk to someone, to ask for help, or to see a doctor. The problem is that when I’m in a deeply depressive state, that’s just one more thing, one more responsibility, one more way to fail, to be disappointed, to fuck up. If I need to convince myself to take that one step to reach out, it helps to be able to say to myself, “Well, you can still kill yourself if it doesn’t work out, so the worst the could happen is you do what you’re already thinking about doing anyway one day later.”

The third tool is keeping in mind that I haven’t tried everything, and that every year our understanding of the things that cause me pain are getting better. Drugs are getting better, chronic pain science is getting better, understandings of depression are getting better, our cultural support systems are getting slowly but surely more understanding of how these things really work and should be dealt with. Or, in short: knowing that even if nothing I’ve tried has worked, there are still things to try, and that even if nothing at all works, there may be drastically better solutions to the things I struggle with in a year or two. There may be things that will work better than I can possibly imagine, and if I can hold out a little longer, I’ll be around for them.

[Author’s Note Added March 31, 2013: I’ve recently written about a fourth useful mental tool in this post]

It can be scary thinking things like the above. I find that even when I am in the midst of dealing with suicidal ideation, with things that are this morbid, it isn’t easy to talk about them out loud. But sometimes these conversations with myself have been necessary to get me through a day. Sometimes, talking about these things out loud with others has been what I needed to get through, even if it has felt overdramatic. It’s intensely strange that I can feel like having these conversations is being overdramatic when I’m trying to use them, literally, to stave off suicide. It’s a sad reflection of the culture we live in, and of how deeply I’ve absorbed that culture that I’m capable of being that deep into depression and still even considering the idea that it might be better to just go on with the suicide. That suicide might be better than to talk openly about these things with someone and risk being “overdramatic”.

I imagine this entry might be strange to read for someone who hasn’t dealt with depression personally. I am essentially explaining how I fight against my own brain about whether or not to kill myself. If you think of depression as a simple choice, this might seem like a strange idea. But for me at least, the experience of depression is a lot like a war between different parts of my brain. One side that will do anything to end the suffering, up to and including suicide, and another trying to stave off that impulse until the depression lifts (or at least lifts enough). I hope, if nothing else, this entry helps provide a small window into what it’s like to have a brain that dysfunctional.

Link Roundup 3: Conversations About Communication Across Power Gradients

There have been a lot of conversations lately about communication between people with privilege and people without. This link roundup is going to be largely (though not entirely) centered around those, as I think it’s a very important thing to talk about and a lot of good things have been said. Anyone know other good posts in a similar vein?

The Distress of the Privileged: Maybe the best piece I’ve read about understanding both sides of a power dynamic. Complete with a brilliant analogy from the movie Pleasantville:

“So I think it’s worthwhile to spend a minute or two looking at the world from George Parker’s point of view: He’s a good 1950s TV father. He never set out to be the bad guy. He never meant to stifle his wife’s humanity or enforce a dull conformity on his kids. Nobody ever asked him whether the world should be black-and-white; it just was.

George never demanded a privileged role, he just uncritically accepted the role society assigned him and played it to the best of his ability. And now suddenly that society isn’t working for the people he loves, and they’re blaming him.

It seems so unfair. He doesn’t want anybody to be unhappy. He just wants dinner.

George deserves compassion, but his until-recently-ideal housewife Betty Parker (and the other characters assigned subservient roles) deserves justice. George and Betty’s claims are not equivalent, and if we treat them the same way, we do Betty an injustice.”

Aesop to the Right: Why I Believe Bristol Palin: Cited in the Distress of the Privileged piece, and also containing a brilliant analogy that explains why not including the underprivileged is so hurtful and damaging:

“I don’t think you hate me. I certainly don’t think you’re afraid of me. Neither is Bristol Palin. She probably even has LGBT people she calls friends. She just disagrees with them about whether they should be invited to the party (the party, in this case, being marriage). But here’s the problem: the basis of that disagreement is her belief that her relationships are intrinsically better than ours.”

Certain Propositions Regarding Callout Culture (in two parts):

“Not silencing people is not an option. Not silencing people is a great plan; I am totally okay with everyone being able to speak out. But not silencing anyone is not going to work. If you say “no, you have to stop yelling and insulting people,” you silence some of the people who are angry! about! INJUSTICE! On the other hand, if you let people yell insults whenever they like, you are silencing the people who are afraid that if they speak up they’ll be yelled at. And the second group is not going to loudly spew insults about how they’re being oppressed; they’re just going to be quiet and stop talking and censor themselves and eventually leave the movement altogether.”

How to Argue: Call Harm, Not Foul: The brilliant piece that spawned this post.

“The last generation of social justice warriors, anti-racists, feminists, outspoken atheists and activists of all stripes made the -isms and intolerances so abominable, that everyone has successfully convinced themselves they’re not it. Now, being called those things (racist, sexist, bigoted, etc) is so terrible that we end up arguing only about whether or not the label applies . And that’s a damn shame, because I have a lot of other things I want to talk about.”

Three Tips to Handle 500 Comments Landing in Your Inbox: An excellent piece by The Ferrett on dealing with shitty commenters. Required reading for any blogger.

“Once you get to a sufficient level of popularity, there is literally no avoiding people hating you.  Go on, seriously.  Name a celebrity.  Then Google up some haters.  Sure enough, someone fucking abhors them.  Why do you think you’re going to avoid this?”

Just Shut Up: A piece about the value of feminist media criticism, with Beauty and the Beast as an example.

“Gaston loses but stabs the Beast anyway before being thrown to his doom, the Beast more or less dies, but Belle loves him, which breaks the spell keeping him trapped as the Beast and saves his life. They, in theory, live happily ever after.

The film ended, and my professor flicked the light on. She passed out a handout we’d already received, a list of warning signs for domestic abusers. This list included things like, “Isolates partner from support systems—tries to keep them from family, friends, outside activities.” It included things like, “Attempts to control what partner wears, does, or sees.”…The Beast meets almost every criterion on the list, and those he doesn’t meet (“Was abused by a parent,” “Grew up in an abusive home,”) are only unmet in the sense that we have no way to know, from the narrative given to us, whether he meets them or not.”

Can Versus Must: a piece on confirmation bias and ways to manipulate your brain. Including the best one-sentence summary of how confirmation bias works I think I’ve ever seen: 

“It is, he says, as though we ask ourselves “CAN I believe this?” when we want to believe something and “MUST I believe this?” when we don’t want to believe it.”

How to Make Your Social Spaces Welcoming to Shy People: What it sounds like, a very good list, and something a lot of event organizers could take a lot from.

A picture of one of the best protest signs ever. Though it should be noted there could’ve been better word choices than “stupid”.