When Really The Most Perfectionist Thing to Do Is to Be Less Perfectionist

I mentioned the other day that one of the contributing factors to my depressive dip was what we might term a mini-breakup. There may be more entries about this, as it has been an overall confusing experience that is requiring some processing. I will say that though the experience hasn’t been exactly enjoyable, it has reinforced my confidence that I have good taste in partners. Pretty much all of the communication and emotional processing that has occurred between the girl in question and myself has been incredibly practical and mature.

In any event, the long and the short of the story is that we briefly experimented with a casual thing, and there were some Complicated Emotional Responses that caused it to end fairly quickly.

There is a part of the conversation we had when it ended that I keep thinking back to. I was expressing some frustration, and while I generally think I did it well, and without placing blame, I don’t feel like I can be absolutely sure of that. As a result, that part of the conversation has been sticking in my brain, and I’ve been analyzing it for signs that I in any way spoke in bad faith or with intent to pressure. I don’t tend to assume, in circumstances that are emotional, that I always have a complete understanding of my motivations for saying or doing any particular thing, and consequently these sorts of analyses are not uncommon for me. In the grand scheme of things, though, I’ve decided that I probably shouldn’t be focusing on it.

I’m slowly getting better at recognizing the difference between Conscientious Mitch doing the self-analysis that’s necessary for being a decent human being, and Absurdly Perfectionist Mitch berating himself for maybe, possibly not being 100% perfect all the time. Absurdly Perfectionist Mitch is the type to spend way too much time on, “But what if there’s something I did that I should be feeling bad about that I’m TOTALLY FAILING AT FEELING BAD ABOUT?!”

Which, when you say it out loud, it becomes a lot more obvious how stupid a mental pattern it is.

Relentless perfectionism is a difficult affliction to combat, but in cases like these I’ve come up with a thought pattern that does the job decently well. My motivation for being hyper conscious of everything I could ever have possibly, maybe done the slightest bit wrong is that I want to be a good person, and a good friend to people. Being this obsessed, though, isn’t really mentally healthy, and effectively contributes to depression when it gets out of hand. In light of this, I try to remember when I’m obsessing that looking out for my own mental health is also a vital part of being a good friend, and it’s a much more important part of it than making sure that I never, ever make the slightest mistake.

It’s possible that in the conversation the other day, I didn’t do everything perfectly. However, if my goal is to be an excellent friend to people, I have to weigh the Good Friend Value in focusing on that against the Good Friend Value in the maintenance of my mental health that comes from not worrying about things like this so much. I’ve come to understand over the years that I generally overestimate the value of the former at the expense of the latter, and that this is probably not a good thing. I think a happier, less obsessively perfectionist me is probably a better friend, on the whole, than a more depressed me who maybe makes one or two fewer mistakes. After all, not making my mental health a high priority counts as a pretty big mistake in and of itself most of the time. This perfectionism thing is a Monte Carlo problem where I’ve been accepting too much cost for not enough increase in certainty.

Food for thought.

The Value of Rational Friends

As predicted, I’m feeling significantly better today than I was yesterday. I had a long talk with a friend, played Wii Zumba with a housemate, and got a full night’s sleep last night. I’m still incredibly full of anxiety — I can feel it bouncing around inside of my skull right now trying to find an idea to latch onto to be anxious about, and I can’t say for sure that I won’t be back to how I felt yesterday tomorrow – but for now, at least, I’m out of the everything-is-hopeless headspace I was in yesterday, and hopefully one step better armed against it than I was before.

I want to talk, at least briefly, on the incredible value in having friends who are capable, realistic thinkers. I’ve talked about having insecurities with respect to my depression being too heavy to handle before. It’s a significant issue, so I’ll probably end up talking about it again in the future. When I originally wrote the first “Needing People” post, partially about that, a friend of mine volunteered to have every-other-weekly get-togethers to check up and see how I was doing and offer support if necessary. A decent portion of those get-togethers, I’ve been dealing with some stressful life event or another. In spite of the fact that, as she, herself, reminded me a couple of times, the idea of implementing these get-togethers was specifically about giving me support, I still found it easy to be apprehensive that by needing that support during most of them, I was going to be too heavy a friend.

We talked about this again yesterday, and I expressed that same fear, and she responded by telling me that this wasn’t something she had decided to do blindly. That she had considered, in making the offer, that the worst-case scenario was that it would consist of nothing but giving me support every single time we did it. That she had considered that, and decided that it would be handleable for her.

I believe her. What’s more, I don’t just believe that that’s what she did, I believe that she almost certainly did it well, that she did it cognizantly, with full awareness of what it meant.

I can’t think of a better example of what it means to be a mature adult than this. To be sufficiently aware of, first, the fact that that kind of worst-case-scenario assessment is important to make when offering this kind of support, and, second, to be sufficiently aware of how many spoons that commitment may cost you to make an accurate assessment of whether or not that worst-case scenario would be a manageable commitment to make. It’s a combination of self-care and care for others that I see most often in the people that I most respect.

It makes trust so much easier. It’s so much easier to trust someone who says they can offer you something when you feel like you can trust that person to know whether or not they are offering something that they are genuinely capable of following through on. It’s one thing to want to be able to offer something, and another to be able to rationally assess whether you really can. It’s a nice thing having friends who care about me, who want me to do well, and who worry when I’m doing less-than-well. Even in having that, though, I don’t know what I would do without friends who can think clearly and well about what that caring means and how to act on it in the real world.

I’ve talked about reason as a moral obligation before (usual credit to JT Eberhard at WWJTD for the original post on this). I think reason is absolutely vital for acting morally in the world. On this smaller scale, I think it’s just as vital in interacting with the people we see day-to-day. Knowing yourself, knowing others, and seeing the world as it is doesn’t just mean that you act better in a grand, making-the-whole-world-better sense. It means that as one person interacting with one other person in whatever simple way is needed right now, you make that tiny but no less meaningful world better, too.

Days Like These

Warning: depression. Seriously, do not read this if you don’t feel like looking at the inside of a brain on serious depression.

Depression is evil. The matter how long I manage to keep it at bay, when it comes back I always feel like it’s been here the whole time; like I’ve never felt any way other than this.

This week has been full of stressors. My tendinitis doesn’t seem to be getting any better, and I’m getting tired of trying new things. I’m exhausted from trying new things and having them not work. Yesterday I went through what we might term a mini-breakup, which as it so happens was perfectly aligned with the other things going on in my life to trigger a number of different fears and insecurities all at once. Last night, for the first time in quite a while, I woke up in the middle of the night with back pain — the kind of back pain where it feels like someone snuck in the room in the middle of the night and set your body on fire.

I know this is a response to stressors. I know there’s a good chance that in a few days I won’t feel quite so bad, but knowing that doesn’t mean I can fast forward to it. Right now I just feel like life is determined not to give me a chance to feel happy. I’m tired of trying to make things work. I’m tired of having a body so determined never to give me a chance to live a life without some sort of daily pain. I’m tired of those pain issues preventing me from being able to work like a normal person, and contribute to the world around me like a normal person. I’m tired of asking for help. I’m tired of doing everything I can feel better, for myself, and for the people around me, and having it not work.

I’m good at this. In many ways, I’m good at staying rational in the midst of dealing with depression. I know the things that I need. I know the things that have an effect on feeling this way. But I don’t know how to get them. I know I need to find things I can do that feel good, but given the physical issues of struggling with there’s almost nothing that I know that I can do that doesn’t have some chance of aggravating the chronic pain symptoms I’m experiencing. There is almost nothing I can do that, while it might make me feel better in one way, will increase my anxiety that I’m doing something that will worsen my physical issues at the same time. I can talk to people. Talking to people usually helps. But I’m tired of asking this of people.

There’s a scene in the West Wing where Leo McGarry comments about being an alcoholic:

Leo: I went to rehab, my friends embraced me when I got out. You relapse, it’s not like that. “Get away from me.” That’s what it’s like.

I know I should ask people for help. I know I should call, I know that whenever I talk about worrying that people will get tired of having to help, they tell me I’m wrong, or at least that it’s never happened yet. I know that. But I can’t help but think that at some point enough is going to be enough. At some point I relapse and, “Get away from me”, will be what it’s like. And I wouldn’t really blame anyone for that. At some point, after a certain number of times at a certain frequency of needing to ask for help, I just start to feel like it’s never going to make any difference. This will happen a few more times, and then there’ll be one time where I know all the things that I know right now about how it will get better, or at least a little bit better — manageable — if I just wait it out, but I just won’t be able to.

The turn of phrase is, “Rearranging the chairs on the Titanic”. At some point, you just start to feel like asking people for help is like asking them to say supportive things to the chairs on the Titanic. If it’s going to go down anyway, better sooner rather than later, so they don’t have to waste so much of their time talking to a sinking ship.

In a life that puts me in this place on what feels like such a regular basis, I don’t know how to stop thinking that. I really don’t.

I will call, and as frustratingly invalidating as it feels to say, there’s a good chance I won’t feel this bad in a day or two. We’ll see. But for now, I just wish there was some way I could see my way through to not having days like this happen anymore. Or at least to not having them happen so frequently as they do. The longer you deal with depression, and the more things you try that end up not working, the more you start to wonder if every new solution you come up with isn’t just another way of rearranging the chairs.

It doesn’t make sense that yesterday had this much of an impact on me. It doesn’t make sense, and if I had to explain the full story to someone, I would feel, well, crazy. I don’t mean to overreact in this way. It just happens. It makes me feel so stupid every time it does, but feeling stupid about it doesn’t keep it from happening. It doesn’t keep me from needing support again. It doesn’t keep the depression from resurfacing. I don’t know, I guess I’m just a really poorly made ship.

It’s Okay To Be Tech

“You can be anything you want if you put your mind to it.”

“You can grow up to be an astronaut.”

“You could grow up to be president.”

“You could grow up to win a Nobel Prize.”

I think that there is a huge problem with the way that our culture talks to people, children in particular, about success. I think of it roughly as the, “If you really put your mind to it, you can grow up to be an astronaut”, problem. I think that the spirit in which people say, “You can grow up to be an astronaut”, is admirable — inspiring kids to reach for their dreams is a noble cause — but I think the implementation has some serious problems. Two serious problems in particular.

First, as with all, “You can do it if you really try”, messages, saying these types of things implies that if you don’t reach particular goals, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough. While it may be true that there are people who could have been astronauts if they just studied a little harder, that’s certainly not the case for everyone who ever wanted to be an astronaut and didn’t make it. Plenty of people who may have dreamed of being astronauts probably have mental or physical limitations that prevent it from being possible. Plenty of others were probably raised in contexts where they didn’t have access to an educational system sufficient to the task of preparing someone to pursue a career as an astronaut. Others still may have had the pursuit of that particular goal derailed by debt, traumatic life events, personal disasters, natural disasters, etc. The simple reality is that not everyone can be an astronaut, and it’s not just because everyone who doesn’t make it is lazy.

The second problem is that we don’t talk enough about how it’s okay to be an accountant – not just okay, but vital. We focus on telling people they can be the star of the show. The astronaut: the star of the show of human exploration and discovery; the president: the star of the show of government; the Nobel Prize winner: the star of the show of the pursuit of human knowledge. If the world’s a stage, then we spend our time telling our children that they can be the leading woman/man* on that stage. What we don’t say is that it is just as important, just as vital, and just as noble to be on tech. Without stage crew, no show would go on; without accountants, NASA wouldn’t have the money to send people to space. What we don’t spend enough time saying is that it’s the sides of the mountain that hold it up, not the top, and that is absolutely as vital to the ongoing progress of the human race that we have accountants as that we have astronauts.

We should tell kids that wanting to be a great astronaut is a worthwhile pursuit. We should also tell them that wanting to be a great accountant is a worthwhile pursuit, that wanting to be manager of the worlds finest run Best Buy is a worthwhile pursuit, that it’s not whether or not you play the leading role that matters, but whether or not you play whatever role you decide to pursue with competence and care. We shouldn’t tell them this just because some people can’t play the leading roles (though that would be a good enough reason), but because the seemingly mundane roles are just as vital to a successful production as the leading ones are. We should also tell them this because people should pursue whatever role they decide to pursue as a result of being inspired by the role, and not by the prestige associated with it.

I code for a business right now. I’m not going to space, I’m not saving the rain forests, I’m not leaping tall buildings in a single bound, and I’m not the only one I know who finds themselves disappointed by this type of reality. We were told we could and would all be superheroes when we got out of college, and against that promise, seen from that perspective, most of our lives don’t really measure up. For the most part, it’s a problem with the perspective, though, not with us. Most of the people I know who I’ve talked to about this kind of disappointment are incredibly competent at the things that they do. They are smart, responsible, diligent, and they do good work. So do I.  No matter what profession we’re talking about, people who are diligent, responsible, and competent tend to be rare, and one more person who is diligent, responsible, and competent is, in any field, good for their field and for the world. While there are certainly still other goals that I would like to pursue, I consider it a failure of the society in which I was raised that I have such a hard time thinking of what I’m doing right now as contributing something of value to the world.

I work on a good team of people, I contribute good work, I communicate well, the team provides a useful service that makes it easier for businesses all around the world to operate, and we provide that service in a reliable, ethical way. Why I have so much trouble feeling good about that I have difficulty understanding, but I think one huge contributor is the fact that I was told I could be an astronaut thousands of times, and I was never, ever told, “You know what? It’s okay to be tech.”

*Is there a similar, but non-gender binary way of saying this? Leading role works, sort of, but it doesn’t really have the same rhetorical weight as leading woman/leading man feels like it has.

By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

Thinking About How I’ve Changed

Lately, I’ve had a lot of moments where I have suddenly become conscious of how different I am now from the person I was sometime in the past. It’s been really interesting and neat to realize the things about me that have changed. There are so many things that have changed about me over the last decade or so where the new version of me has come to feel so natural that I’ve managed to forget I was ever different.

There was a time when I had an enormous guilt complex about watching porn. I periodically tried to stop ever watching it, and failed every time. That ended something in the range of 5 to 8 years ago. These days, I love watching porn, and I don’t find anything wrong with that.

There was a time when I was completely incapable of having casual sexual relationships or casual sex. That started changing maybe three or four years ago, and finished changing completely sometime within the last year. The first time I ever hooked up with someone I had never had a serious relationship with was maybe 2008 or so, and there is a long, analytical LiveJournal post from around that date where I talk about having a bad emotional reaction to it and trying to figure out the reasons why. In retrospect, I think it was probably because I used to have a huge complex about being shallow or doing things for shallow reasons, at least where sex was involved. These days, well, I recently started hooking up with a friend of mine, and I keep having moments of being conscious of how completely unconcerned about it I am, at least in the sense that I used to be concerned about doing casual things being wrong or destructive or shallow (I mean, maybe it is shallow, in a sense, though I’m not sure I would put it in those terms, really, but either way, if it is, I don’t see anything particularly wrong with that*).

There was a time when I had trouble believing that anyone could love me. If I had to pinpoint, I would guess the turning point for that was something in the area of 10 years ago. These days I tend to think that the type of person I could fall in mutual love with is fairly rare, but I don’t think of that as being because I’m unlovable, I think of it as being because the type of person I can have that type of chemistry with is pretty fucking rare.

There was a time when I was a staunch pacifist. I’m going to say that ended something in the range of 5 to 9 years ago. These days I tend to think that violence, both the verbal and physical, is used way more than it should be, but that ultimately there are situations where it is a reasonable, if regrettable, solution to a problem.

There was a time I would’ve said I had absolutely no idea how to flirt with people. I would say that changed over the course of the last five years or so. You can see where a couple of the changes around that happened in my conversation about not finding sexy to be sexy.

I very often forget how much I’ve changed over the years. I often find that I don’t feel like I am particularly different from the person I was 10 or 15 years ago. I want very similar things in many ways, and there are times when I feel like the difference is nothing more than that I am the same person, but filtered through the lens of having collected more data about the world, and changed my ways of interacting with it accordingly. But then, maybe that, in and of itself, is more than sufficient to, for all practical purposes, become a completely different person. Either way, I keep having these moments where I have experiences that Past Mitch wouldn’t have had, or would have reacted to completely differently (most frequently, recently, this has been in the context of doing casual sexual things with people and being 100% comfortable with it, and remembering how I used to be essentially 100% uncomfortable with it). It’s jarring, but often in a very positive way. Though occasionally, also, in a slightly frustrating way (“Think of all the awesome sex you could have had, Past Mitch, if you had just gotten over this whole casual sex thing sooner!”).

Yesterday, I talked to a friend of mine that I hadn’t talked to in a while who may be visiting me sometime early next year. If/when that happens, there will probably be some hooking up, which we are both excited about. I spent a lot of the conversation talking excitedly about conferences and about finding out that there are awesome people I know who think I’m cute and attractive and other nice things. After I hung up, I went to hang out with a friend of mine, and we ate and had pie and had drinks and talked about how our waitress was incredibly attractive and made out. For me, it was an afternoon that highlighted just how different I’ve become from the person I used to be. Comfortably, casually, ethically slutty Mitch is, in reality, a relatively new person in the world. He didn’t exist in this form even a year ago. I constantly forget that, and then on days like yesterday I remember how much I’ve changed.

* How much do I love commas? A WHOLLY UNREASONABLE AMOUNT!

Depression and Extrapolating From Too Little Data

One of the things I’ve noticed about dealing with depression and chronic pain is that my brain is incredibly talented at extrapolating from tiny amounts of data (“By the third trimester, there will be hundreds of babies inside you!”). When I feel really depressed, I feel like I will always be really depressed. When my pain symptoms are getting worse, I feel like they’re going to keep getting worse until I can’t handle it anymore. When they’re getting better, I often feel like they’re going to keep getting better. I realized recently what the common thread is in these cases.

I tend to extrapolate my present experience out to the future when I don’t know how to change how I’m feeling right now. If I’m depressed and I can’t snap myself out of it, I assume because I can’t change it now that it’s not going to change. If I’m experiencing pain symptoms and they’re getting worse and I can’t get them to stop getting worse, I assume they’re going to continue along the same trajectory. This is in spite of the fact that both depression and pain symptoms, by their nature, tend to fluctuate both up and down. They do this all the time in my own experience, and yet I still have trouble remembering that when things start to go bad.

Maybe it’s because I’m catastrophizing, and the worst-case scenario when depression or pain is ramping up is that it will keep ramping up, so that’s what my catastrophizing brain focuses on. Maybe it’s just that my brain is bad at statistics in general (this hypothesis is easily reinforced by the ways that I know my brain tends to extrapolate about other things, e.g. “This feels terrible, and it will always feel terrible, and I will never date again!” after my first relationship ended). Either way, I find that identifying a mental habit problem and talking about it explicitly tends to be a very useful step in changing the habit, so here is a blog post.

Problem identified: When things, like depression, or chronic pain symptoms, feel like they’re going to last forever, it’s usually just because there isn’t something you can do immediately to make them stop, and your brain is being bad at prediction again.

Snapshots: A Bad Moment and a Good Moment In Dealing with Chronic Pain

A knock at the door. I open it, greet the delivery guy, sign for the package, and take it to my room.

I didn’t expect to have to buy this. It was one of the things I was worried about, but I told myself I was being stupid. My old computer was operating just fine, as far as I could tell. My old computer that I purchased way back when, partially for the purpose of not aggravating repetitive stress when I had it before. It was working fine, and there was no reason to think it was going to suddenly fail on me now that I genuinely needed to be using it for work. No reason to think I would have to shell out the obscene amount of money it would take to replace it before I got over the tendinitis.

Yet here I am, a couple of weeks after the hard drive crash that I told myself would not happen decided now was the time to happen. After the thing I kept telling myself I was being stupid to worry about stupidly happened. I am opening a snazzy new computer that cut deeply into my savings; a purchasing decision that was made easier, if not less stressful, by the fact that if I didn’t end up purchasing it and my symptoms consequently worsened, I would lose a lot more money than even this thing cost. I try to be excited about having a new computer in the first place. It sort of works.  The nerve-racking thing is that if I get worse even using this machine, then I’ve cut into my savings to the point where I will have a lot less time available between ultimately deciding to take time away from work and running out of savings completely.

I’ve actually gotten by better than I expected while waiting for this thing to arrive by cobbling some ergonomic computer accessories together into a relatively non-aggravating setup. I wonder if the purchase was a mistake, and I could have kept getting by indefinitely, or even gotten better just on the setup I currently have. I remind myself that if I get better, I’ll be able to work more, and this expenditure won’t particularly matter in the grand scheme of things.

I set it up and test it out. The setup is nerve-racking, because it requires the typing and other movements that I’m trying to minimize throughout the day. Will this mean I’ll feel worse today than other days, or will the symptoms be fickle and stay constant? After a basic setup, it seems to work well. It is much faster than anything else I own at the moment. Now to install the work software, and get it ready to use. We’ll see how this goes…

I’m reading my blog stats. I see a single hit on a very, very old post documenting how my back was doing about a year ago. I read it out of curiosity. It talks about how I’m slowly working up to sitting for longer periods of time, and I remember that when I started this blog, I could barely sit still for half an hour without agonizing back pain. These days, I don’t generally think about how long I sit unless it has been a very, very long period. I reflect on the weirdness of the idea that I can have come this far in terms of back pain and forgotten about it. I reflect on the fact that in spite of all of the physical therapy that I went to for my back, the single most important thing in terms of my improving to the point that I’m at right now was learning that the pain that I experience did not indicate any actual physical injury located in my back. I still experience back pain, sometimes severe, but it doesn’t scare me like it used to. I endure it, because I know what it is, and I know, roughly, what it is and isn’t indicative of.

My shoulders are doing better, too. Again, not through any particular physical activity, but through the realization that the pain I was experiencing in them was almost certainly not a result of injured tissues. I started working out with weights again, called the pain’s bluff, and in the five or so weekly workouts since, have had little to complain about.

There are, it seems, at least a couple of physical ailments I’ve managed to relatively triumph over.

No, You Are Not “Totally Honest”

“My partner and I are totally honest with each other.”

I give this phrase so much side-eye every time I hear it. I find that the more people I hear it from, the more wary of the phrase I become. It doesn’t seem to ever come from people who are mature about their relationships. In my experience, it most often comes from people who have a Dunning-Kruger-level understanding of honesty.

Richard Feynman is widely quoted as having said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” This is roughly the stance that I take on “total honesty”. If you think you’re “totally honest”, then I tend to suspect you don’t understand how complicated being honest actually is, and I tend to suspect that your lack of understanding probably means you’re a lot worse at being honest than you think (which isn’t difficult if you think you’re perfect that it).

Being honest is complicated. It’s almost never as simple as telling the literal truth. It’s a marriage of truthfulness, compassion, context sensitivity, timing, phrasing, and framing that no human being could possibly ever be perfect at.

It’s about truthfulness, e.g. being honest about it when you started to become interested in a new partner.

It’s about compassion, e.g. communicating this new interest in a way that is understanding and respectful — “So I think I’m becoming interested in this new person, and if you want to talk about any feelings you or I might have about this at any point, let me now”, and not, “So New Person and I are serious now, okay, gotta go!”

It’s about context sensitivity and timing, e.g. understanding that the best time to talk to someone about your feelings is probably not when that someone is drunk, overwhelmed, in subspace, emotionally triggered, etc., and yet also recognizing when the issue is important and immediate enough that even if someone is pretty overwhelmed, there’s nothing for it, and you have to have the conversation anyway.

It’s about phrasing and framing, e.g. saying, “Yes, that was difficult to hear, but I’m grateful that you were honest with me about it, since I’m sure it was a scary thing to say to me, and I really appreciate that you made the effort to say it anyway”, instead of just, “Well, that’s a shitty thing to hear.”

Being skillfully honest is complicated. As important as it is to strive to be honest, it’s just as important to realize that it’s not a thing that you decide to do one day any more than you can just decide to win every game of chess you play from here on out. It’s not a question of flipping a switch or of having at least 17 points of willpower. It’s a question of really thinking about how to be compassionately transparent in every new situation your relationship presents you with. It’s a muscle you exercise, and that you always have to keep exercising, and it makes no more sense to say that you’re “totally honest” than it does to say that you’re “totally fit”.

Don’t ask yourself whether you’re “totally honest” with your partner, ask yourself whether or not you’re doing your best to be compassionately honest, and whether or not you’ve arranged your relationship and your life in a way that makes being honest as easy as possible — open lines of communication, understanding friends to talk to, the elimination of the stressors that it is feasible to eliminate, etc., etc. Make a commitment to exercise the honesty muscle, but be wary of ever assuming that you’ve gotten to the point where you’re “done”. Though there may at times be situations where the hardest thing to do is simply decide to tell the truth instead of lie, situations are rarely that simple, and the work of being honest is rarely finished at the point where you decide to tell the truth.

The Importance of Talking

One of the philosophies I try to stick to with blogging is that it’s generally better to write something that’s not up to my occasionally-absurd standards than it is to not write because I’m afraid I won’t say something perfectly. This is a post that I’ve had in my head for a long time, and I decided it’s time for it to be written whether or not I’m going to get it perfect.

I’m going through a shitty time right now. It’s the same stuff – tendinitis is freaking me out about employment and money and being able to do the things I want to do, etc., etc. I don’t feel like I have a whole lot of control over my life, and I don’t feel like I have a whole lot of options to try to regain that control. It’s stressful, and it’s depression-triggering, and it sucks. I get nervous about talking about it, because I don’t want people to get tired of just reading me whining about life all the time.

That said, I’ve been following the Twitter feed of a secular activist who’s been going through some horrifying health issues lately. In light of those issues, their feed has consisted in large part of the kind of expression of exhaustion, frustration, and general difficulty coping that I’m apprehensive to indulge in, myself (particularly given that my health issues, in many ways, don’t really compare). Yet, in following this person, rather than finding myself bothered by it, I find myself taking comfort from it — I find myself feeling like I have some company. Which brings me to the post I’ve been wanting to write:

I do my best, when all I feel like talking about how things are feeling really shitty, and I’m afraid to talk about that, to remember that even that can be useful. I try to remember that if there’s something I’m afraid to talk about, that there are probably other people who are uncomfortable talking about it, too, and that probably the best thing I could possibly do for those people is to be one of the people to talk about it anyway. I try to remember that the more intimidating it is to talk about something, and the more that I feel like I’m the only person who may feel a particular way, the more valuable it will have been for me to have talked about it for that one other person who may feel similarly and stumble across my blog. I try to remember the many, many times that I have read something by a random stranger online, and seen a part of myself in what they wrote, and felt, for the first time, like that part of me had company.

Given the option, I would give up all of my physical health issues in a second. Not having been given that option, however, I try to remember that the more difficult my personal situation is, the more good I can do by talking about it. It’s not about the people who may or may not get tired of my complaining about things being difficult, it’s about that one person for whom things are just as difficult stumbling upon my blog and experiencing the relief that can only come from suddenly realizing that you have company, and that maybe it’s okay to complain. If nothing else, maybe future me will stumble across past me’s writings and feel that way at least a little.

In a nutshell: the more intimidating something is to talk about, the more likely it is that doing that talking can do a lot of good. The more difficult the situation is, the more good is done by being the person to put it in front of a world full of other people who may just need to see that one other person say what they’re feeling to feel okay about it. This is one of the reasons why I try to make an effort to talk about things even when I’m just feeling shitty, and why I think, for everyone, it’s worth thinking about this kind of sharing not just as something that you do for yourself, but as something that can do an immense amount of good for others.

Skep-tech Retrospective

So let’s talk about Skep-tech, shall we?

I was pretty nervous about this trip, overall. Since the effort to spread out my computer use means I’m working seven days a week, making the trip meant I missed out on some income, in addition to paying for travel. Also, as much as I ended up enjoying Skepticon, there was about a day and a half in the beginning where I was mostly really socially stressed out, because I didn’t know anyone, and felt awkward shoving myself into the social groups of the people I was most interested in meeting and spending time with. At the end of the day, that worked out alright at Skepticon, and I ended up meeting some excellent people and having some excellent conversations, but that first day and a half was still in the back of my mind going into Skep-tech.

As it turns out, the nervousness was pretty much for nothing. Lots of people were happy to see me, and I them, and I got to have a lot of conversations with some of my favorite people in the movement, and the talks were amazing, and the panels were amazing, and getting a picture drawn by Zach Weinersmith was amazing – pretty much everything was amazing.

I arrived in Minneapolis on Thursday and spent the afternoon visiting an old friend and sharing anecdotes about incompetence in the tech industry. In my more cynical moments, I’ve grown fond of saying that sometimes it feels like my life is one long process of discovering how thoroughly incompetence pervades every field of human endeavor. The most excellent people in my life are very rarely extraordinary in the sense of being supergeniuses – much more often, I find that they’re extraordinary in the sense that they are generally fairly smart, thoughtful, conscientious people. It just so happens that that’s enough to put them far ahead of the curve when compared against most of the people working in any of the industries I’ve worked in over the course of my life thus far. And for the most part, that means industries like software development, biophysics, and bioinformatics; the kind of industries you’d think would be full of people who have their shit together.

In any event, I had a wonderful time catching up, and my friend wished me a good time at the conference, after which I got picked up to be taken to the place I was actually staying.

I stayed with a friend of a friend for the weekend, which started off the Skep-tech experience on just the right note: her picking me up and us having a thoroughly enjoyable conversation on the drive to her place that reminded me how much I enjoyed talking to everyone I met at Skepticon. There’s just something about the community that fits in the overlap of skepticism and social justice that I love. Conversations are always intelligent and thoughtful, whether they are about serious issues or random, meandering conversation. To be surrounded by that for an entire weekend is indescribably refreshing.

The next day I got to see Miriam of Brute Reason, Kate Donovan of… a list of blogs that includes but may not be limited to Ashley Miller’s Blog, possibly one of the Skepchick blog groups, and the Gruntled And Hinged tumblr (seriously, what the fuck, Kate?), and Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds, all of whom I had met for the first time at Skepticon, and all of whom are awesome. I also got to meet Jason Thibeault of Lousy Canuck, and Chana Messinger of The Merely Real, who I had been looking forward to meeting ever since I learned that she was the awesome poly person on the marriage and skepticism panel at Skepticon. Honestly, I think my favorite part of cons is just spending time with people like this. As much as I enjoyed the panels, I’d give them up for the people.

I honestly don’t remember a whole lot of the talks on that first day of the conference, with the exception of Zach Weinersmith’s talk on comic books and censorship, which was fantastic. I hadn’t realized until seeing that the guy is as intelligent as he is funny. The talk had exactly the type of intelligent analysis that I love to see. For example, he talked about how when widespread censorship of the comic book medium was first instituted, juvenile delinquency rates actually went up – precisely the opposite of what those who were in favor of censorship had predicted. Zach did not, as is so common with people dealing with statistics like this, assume that this meant that censorship had directly caused the rates of juvenile delinquency to go up, but did argue that it made a compelling case that censorship did nothing to cause them to drop. Overall, the talk made a very compelling case that artistic censorship limits artistic expression, while causing no demonstrable benefits to society.

The second day of the conference started out with the Sex in Cyberspace; Porn, OkCupid, and the Internet panel, which was awesome, and I spent the entire time wishing that I had been down there on the panel, because I had strong opinions about every single question that was asked. After that panel I watched Brendan Murphy’s talk on the neuropsychology of quitting, which was more or less about how quitting is often an advantageous decision, much more so than our society tends to teach us. I’m hoping to get a blog post out about things that I have decided to quit and the reasons why I think those decisions were good ones. I also watched Stephanie Zvan’s panel on the uses and abuses of psychometrics, about which I find it hard to find any comment more coherent than “Yes, I completely agree”, and PZ Myers’ talk on trans-humanism, about which I had conflicting feelings — there is a lot of naivety in trans-humanism, but I think his level of confidence that essentially none of the ideas central to trans-humanism will ever become reality has something in common with the confidence that some people had a century ago when they said that mankind wasn’t meant to fly. We may be very far away from the types of advances that would make, for example, reviving someone from vitrification possible, but the fact that the technology is primitive now doesn’t, in my opinion, have as strong a bearing on the potential for the future of the technology as he seems to think. There was a time when the closest we were to flight was paper airplanes, but that certainly wasn’t the closest we were always destined to be.

For lunch on the second day, I got to spend time with a bunch of my favorite bloggers, including Greta Christina, one of the first atheist bloggers I ever followed. In spite of being around so many people I have so much respect for, I found myself feeling significantly less awkward than I did at Skepticon, probably because there were at least a few who I had spent time with before this conference. Dinner was similar, and hanging out with the people I was staying with and playing Cards Against Humanity after that was great.

The last day I didn’t see any talks, since I had to leave around midday, and wanted to make sure I had time to chat and say goodbye to people. I did, and it was good.

I’m back home now, and thus far, my near complete lack of sleep over the last two days of the con doesn’t seem to have resulted in too much angst, which I’m going to have to try to remember in the future – the awesomeness of hanging out with awesome people seems to have negated the usual problems I have with lack of sleep and depression. The four days without work doesn’t seem to have helped all that much with the tendinitis, which is disappointing, but not altogether unexpected. I’m looking forward to the next Skepticon, and feeling like I want to get a little bit more involved in this movement in ways that go beyond blogging. Hopefully, as soon as the tendinitis clears up, I’ll find some ways to do that.

Also, on an entirely-superficial-but-no-less-awesome-for-being-so note, I have learned that there may be one or two awesome social justice-y people who think that I’m cute and stuff. Which is, you know, pretty neat.

I’ve got a few posts in the pipeline as a result of the conference that I’m hoping to get out within the next week or so, ideally. The quitting post, and also a post I’ve been wanting to write for a very long time about how blogging about personal experiences is valuable in its potential to normalize those experiences for others who struggle with similar things. One project which may come to fruition fairly soon is in the pipeline also; details to follow soon, hopefully.

About halfway through this conference, I found myself watching a talk and grinning, and realized that maybe the thing that I was happiest about was that I had spent the entire conference up to that point without anyone saying a single thing that was blatantly wrong or irrelevant to whatever conversation they were having. It may seem like a weird thing to be happy about, but in a world where half of my frustration with talking to people in general is that I feel like people just aren’t very good at understanding the concepts they’re talking about in the first place, being somewhere where everyone constantly seems to have an understanding of the concepts they’re talking about and the important issues to address is, well, really nice. If that were the only thing I ever got out of this community, it would still be pretty fucking fantastic.

Particularly nice moments:

Coming up with and suggesting the term “henchstaff” to Greta Christina as a gender-neutral alternative to “henchmen”. Seeing all of the people I had seen at Skepticon and realizing that they were as excited to see me as I was to see them. Meeting Chana Messinger for the first time. Sitting at “the cool bloggers table” at lunch (okay, only I was calling it that, but that’s totally what it felt like). Sharing the Punnett Square-style comment policy graphic on my comments page with other bloggers, including Greta Christina, and having them like it. Seeing JT Eberhard again, and being invited to have a drink with him after I mentioned that it’s sort of his fault that I have a blog (he promoted the blog of a friend of mine who then became the impetus for me to start my own blog last year). Some awesome moments of flirtiness. Very apprehensively asking about flirtiness comfort levels with someone and getting an enthusiastically flirty response. Jason Thibeault seeming approximately as excited to meet me as I was to meet him (SERIOUSLY THIS DOES NOT COMPUTE). Getting an offer to talk if the post-con depression that I anticipated hit and I needed an ear.

I worried that I’d be intensely frustrated with myself if this con didn’t turn out very well, since, even though it was free, it was a fairly expensive decision, overall. At this point, I think it’s reasonable to say that it turned out to be more than worth it with a lot of room to spare.