Wednesday, 18 August 2021

This Meme Is Not What It Seems


I've seen this photo floating around on the internet and popping up in my Facebook timeline. It's the kind of thing anti-vaxxers are posting and pointing to as a proof/argument that vaccines are not necessary and should be a personal choice. I'd like to take a critical look at this photo and its claims, and lay out the case for why this photo is neither proof of nor argument for anything.
In the photo, we see a woman in scrubs holding a sign that says,

573 DAYS FACE TO FACE WITH COVID PATIENTS WHILE UNVACCINATED
NEVER GOT COVID
I HAVE AN IMMUNE SYSTEM
DON'T MANDATE MY CHOICES!

I was unable to find a source for this photo or any reliable information about it. We don't know this woman's name or where she works or what her professional role or credentials are; therefore there's no way to verify that anything on her placard is true, or that the text on it hasn't been photoshopped. She's wearing scrubs, but that doesn't mean she's a medical professional. She might be someone who simply dressed up in scrubs to create an anti-vax meme. She might be a veterinary assistant. She might be some sort of medical professional, but not one that works directly with COVID patients. After all, she doesn't claim she provides medical care for COVID patients, only that she's "face to face" with them. She might a hospital employee who does intake, and only sees COVID patients "face to face" from behind a plexiglass shield and in full PPE, in which case the shield and PPE would have protected her, not her immune system.
Even is she is a bona fide healthcare worker who works directly with COVID patients, we can't be sure she never got COVID. Was she tested for it? How often was she tested for it? Even if she never actually became ill, unless she is tested very regularly, it could be that she got it, remained asymptomatic, and infected others without knowing it.
Then there's the claim that she's been face to face with COVID patients for "573 days". Dating back from today, August 18th, 2021, 573 days ago was January 23, 2020. COVID existed at that time, but the pandemic wasn't declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization until March 11, 2020, and there weren't that many known cases in late January 2020. Where does this woman work that she has been "face to face" with COVID patients ever single day since January 23, 2020, or even before that, since this photo was posted earlier than today? And is she really claiming that she's never taken a single day off in 573 days? That claim, at least, is almost certainly not true, so we know this woman lied about, or at least exaggerated, one of her claims, and if she lied about or exaggerated that claim, what else might she have lied about or exaggerated?
Even if everything this woman's sign says is true, even if she is someone who has been face to face with COVID patients every single day since before the pandemic really began, and has been tested regularly and has test results proving that she never got COVID, her experience is still not proof that vaccines are not necessary. She is one person. One person who has had the extraordinary luck to avoid infection without being vaccinated does not constitute proof that vaccinations are unnecessary. We need to look at the bigger picture, at the infection rate among the people who are at risk for COVID19.
Let's look at how it's affecting health care workers. According to the Ontario Hospital Association, there have been 23,772 health sector workers infected with COVID19 in Ontario alone to date. I've been unable to find up-to-date numbers on how many Ontarian or Canadian health care workers have died of COVID19 to date, but according to the Canadian Institute for Health, as of February 25, 2021, 24 Canadian health workers had died of COVID19. Those 24 workers were unlikely to have been vaccinated by February 2021, so their immune systems and even their PPE didn't protect them, just as they haven't protected the countless number of healthcare workers who would have become infected and died worldwide. The experience of one unvaccinated healthcare worker who escaped infection (and again, we don't know if she is a healthcare worker, or actually had contact with COVID patients, or wasn't infected) does not prove that vaccines aren't necessary when we know for a fact that so many, many unvaccinated health care workers have become infected and even died of COVID worldwide.
This woman is one person whose claims cannot be verified, and it would be foolish of anyone to rely on her opinion. If you had cancer, and you visited 99 actual doctors who gave you nearly identical advice about how your cancer should be treated, and then you saw a Facebook photo meme of someone claiming to be a doctor holding a sign with advice on how to treat cancer that's completely at odds with what the 99 doctors say, would you follow the advice on the sign written by someone who may not even be a doctor and whose advice may not even have been tested on anyone, or would you follow the medical advice from actual doctors who have been known to successfully treat cancer patients?
The science, the statistics, are clear. Everyone who can be vaccinated should be, and healthcare workers, who are especially high risk, should be vaccinated or they should find something else to do for a living. They have no right to risk other people's lives out of ignorance and carelessness, and frankly, I would never want medical care from anyone who is supposedly medically trained and experienced and is still so pig-headed, so ignorant, and so irresponsible as to deny accepted science and objective reality regarding vaccines. If this woman is indeed any kind of healthcare worker, and this message is actually one she intended to send and not photoshopped, I hope she gets fired for having disseminated dangerous misinformation, as what she is doing is a violation of professional medical ethics.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

On Productivity

I'm a long-time fan of The Onion, and some of its articles are special favourites and a never-failing source of amusement to me, generally because of their almost painful acuity as to human foibles and frailties. "Plan To Straighten Out Entire Life During Weeklong Vacation Yields Mixed Results", originally published in 2001, is one such article. It's a hilarious blow-by-blow account of how 31-year-old data entry operator Derek Olsson intended to get his life organized during his one-week vacation from work, but instead pissed away the entire week, getting next to nothing done. 

Back in 2008, while on a week's visit to a friend in Raleigh, North Carolina, I showed him the article "Local Girlfriend Always Wants to Do Stuff". Prior to my flight to Raleigh, I had emailed Tim a carefully researched list of sightseeing activities we might enjoy, and during the visit peppered him with requests to do this or that, while he generally preferred that we just hang out in his apartment, enjoying each other's company, so the article was very much our bag. He laughed out loud a few times while he read it, and "Local House Guest Always Wants to Do Stuff" became a running joke between us for the rest of my stay with him. I thought he'd enjoy the Derek Olsson article too, so I found it for him and left him to read it on his laptop at his desk while I did needlework on the couch. Tim read the second article in silence, without so much as a smile, and then shut down his laptop. I said, "You didn't laugh... didn't you think it was funny?" He said, morosely, "It's too close to home." It is indeed, and I've reread it perhaps half a dozen times since then, each time wincing over how well I relate to Derek's hapless efforts to take charge of his life.

Productivity and self-discipline are things I struggle with. I have chronic fatigue issues, and on the average day I have about four good hours when I have the physical and mental stamina to actively work and focus on whatever tasks I have to do, which is a very significant handicap, but even before I developed chronic fatigue in 2007 at the age of 33, I had a tendency to muddle through life in an introspective fog, hampered by a number of bad mental habits and dysfunctional behaviours. I could do quite well at things when I was able to focus and put the effort in, but my performance has always been, to put it euphemistically, uneven. I'm the kind of person who has to use every organizational trick and scheme in the book to get herself moving on anything. So, as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how to get more done with limited resources, I've written this post as a way to explore some of my ideas about productivity, and how to improve it, as much for my benefit as anyone else's, and using our executive function challenged friend Derek Olsson as a case study. 

According to the article, Derek's planned tasks for his time off included finishing unpacking the remaining boxes from his move into his apartment three years before, buying his two months' married friends Steve and Kim a wedding present, paying his gas bill, having his car serviced, picking up a new computer desk from Staples (and, presumably, assembling it as well), and "a thorough cleaning of his apartment, laundry, re-ordering of checks, buying a bigger CD shelf, signing up for a T'ai Chi course, cashing in a large jar of loose change at the bank, updating his resume, looking for a new job, and 'figuring out the whole Melanie thing'." It seems to me that, unless his apartment was an utter disaster, he could have gotten all those things and quite a bit more done in nine days if he'd planned better and put in a reasonable level of effort each day. 

I think productivity can be boiled down to certain key components, and here's my working list of those components:

  • Know what you want to do.
  • Devise a plan/strategies for how you will do it.
  • Do what works for you.
  • Keep track of your data and organize your space.
  • Try journaling.
  • Have realistic expectations and a healthy locus of control.
  • Don't get sidetracked.
  • Engage with and enjoy whatever you do.
  • Talk yourself through frustration and discouragement.

Now, let's look at how these tactics actually work.


Know What You Want to Do and How You Will Do It 

When you want to get stuff done, it's important to know both what you want to do and to have a plan and strategies for how you'll do it. Some tasks require pre-planning type steps, such as making appointments and doing internet research, that you'll need to do in advance. You'll need to figure out what to prioritize and what to postpone if necessary, and to plan to do the preparatory things first when tasks are interdependent. 

Derek's first mistake was that he didn't know what he was going to do. He made an incomplete to do list on Saturday night. He ought to have made a comprehensive to do list on Friday night, if not sooner, and then he ought to have done some thinking about how he could accomplish as much of his list as possible during his nine office-free days. For instance, he might have decided that, over the next week, he would spend the mornings working on tasks at home, his afternoons running errands, and his evenings relaxing or with his girlfriend, friends, or family, or perhaps doing the kind of low-key things he could do sitting on the couch, such as internet research or working on his resume. He might have decided he would begin his housekeeping efforts by first unpacking the boxes in the basement and putting everything away, then doing a preliminary household tidy with the goal of making sure everything was at least in whatever room it was supposed to be in, and with that done, he could then clean and organize one room each morning. Or he could decide to keep working one process at a time: to first unpack, then tidy, then clean the bathroom, then dust/clean surfaces, then vacuum, then begin organizing one compartment at a time (i.e., closets, drawers, cupboards, the fridge, etc.), or one category of his belongings at a time (i.e., clothes, documents, kitchen equipment, etc.). 

I'm not a big believer in multi-tasking, but there are some tasks that can be done in tandem. Laundry is a task that combines well with others as it has lots of down time, so Derek could have combined that with his unpacking, or, if he doesn't have ensuite laundry in his rental apartment, he could have taken his planner or device with him to whatever laundry facility he uses on Friday evening, and worked on getting organized and making his plans while the washer and dryer were running.  

He might also have made a separate list of errands he had to do, and then figured out how he could do them as efficiently as possible by subdividing them. For instance, he could have figured out which things he could buy at the mall, and gotten them all on one trip. If he had to take his car to be serviced, he might have planned to take it to a garage within walking distance of a mall, so that he could do his shopping while his vehicle was being worked on. He could plan to reduce the amount of running around he had to do by doing online research/shopping or making phone calls, and he should have made whatever appointments he needed to make very early in the week, if not before then. My dermatologist is always booked up months in advance, so, as I see him twice a year, each time I visit him, I make the next semi-annual appointment before I leave the office, which saves me time and the hassle of not being able to get an appointment slot that works best for my schedule. 

Once Derek got his place cleaned and organized, it would have been a good idea for him to create a housekeeping plan that he could use to make sure that he can keep his living quarters in shape and his life in order going forward so that he never again had to use his one-week vacation to play catch up. I have a housekeeping schedule myself. I'm not one of those people who can just automatically do housekeeping things as they need to be done, with the exception of tidying, which comes very naturally to me. I'll notice that something needs to be cleaned, and think, "Oh, I don't feel like doing that now," or "I don't have time to do that now." When I have a housekeeping schedule, my mindset becomes, "This needs to be done, and this is the time I've set aside to do it." 

I dust and clean the bathroom on Mondays, vacuum on Tuesdays, grocery shop on Fridays, and cook for the week and do laundry on Saturday mornings. Sunday is my day to work on me -- I'll do my nails, and my hair if it needs it, and do things like polishing my shoes. On Wednesdays and Thursdays I do the "extra" tasks that don't need to be done every week, such as scrubbing the kitchen floor, or cleaning out a closet, or working in the garden if it's summer. Some weeks there's nothing extra that needs doing on Wednesday or Thursday, which means I get the time to do something else. If I stick to this schedule, I always have nice nails, clean clothes, food in the fridge, and a house that's clean and orderly enough for unexpected company, and it doesn't feel arduous at all. 

I'm not recommending my plan as some universally suitable housekeeping regimen, but rather as an example. I batch cook once a week because I don't like cooking and absolutely cannot stand having to cook every day, and because it's very cost efficient. I live alone and don't mind eating the same thing for several days in a row. Batch cooking every Saturday morning therefore works really well for me, but it wouldn't work for someone with a family, or who is a foodie. It can take awhile to develop a housekeeping plan that works for you, but I think it's a good idea for most of us.

Then too, such routines can have a very stabilizing influence on us. I have found that, while the pandemic took its toll on me and made me somewhat less productive, my basic daily routines have mostly held firm despite the extra stress. 

As to Derek's plan to decide what his future was with his girlfriend Melanie during his time off, all I have to say regarding that is that, given that Derek apparently never spent any of his one-week vacation with his girlfriend, his feelings and intentions towards her have manifested themselves and it's time for him to bail -- if she doesn't dump him overboard first.  


Do What Works For You

When organizing your life, it is crucial that you use whatever systems and techniques work best for you. Organizing strategies are like diets: however much everyone else might laud them, if you can't stick to them, or if you find them onerous and painful, they are useless to you. I'm always trying new hacks and methods and routines to get more done, and probably nineteen out of twenty of those new ideas fall by the wayside because they don't work for me, or stop working once the novelty wears off. But perhaps 5% of the time whatever new strategy I've tried works so well for me that it soon ceases to be a rule and simply becomes how I function. I will never find some magic formulation that will make me the super producer I want to be, but given that I sometimes find techniques that help a little, it's worthwhile for me to keep trying new ones. 

I read years ago that one should make one's to do list for a day the evening before, because one's unconscious mind will work on it overnight. When I tried it, it did seem to work, so I've been doing it ever since. I find I often wake up with ideas for how to do something on that day's list better or more efficiently. I'm not ever conscious of getting these ideas -- they are simply in my mind when I awake, when they weren't there the night before. In another example, I aim to be up, breakfasted, dressed, and to start work by 9 in the morning, and I used to stop for lunch at 12, try to go back to work at 1, work until 6, and then have supper, exercise after supper, and have the rest of the evening free. (That is, theoretically. The reality is I often have to stop work somewhere in there to go back to bed for several hours, and some mornings I oversleep for hours.) That 3-hour morning was usually fine, but I was finding my 5-hour afternoon such a slog that it basically wasn't happening, and I was always too hungry to wait until 6 for my supper. So, several years ago I decided I would change my routine, and stop for lunch at 1 p.m. instead of noon, which divided my working day neatly into two 4-hour segments: 9-1, and 2-6. It worked very well, the only drawback being that my cat was Very Outraged by the fact that I'd also moved his lunch time from 12 to 1 p.m. without consulting him, but Trilby accepted the new order of things. (Eventually. Mostly.) Then there was the time, soon after I moved to my present (and very walkable) neighbourhood, that I resolved to combine my errand running with the daily one-hour brisk walk I take for exercise. I had been someone who could never get her library books returned on time, and that simple resolution immediately transformed me into someone to a person who was very much on top of her errands. Besides library book drop offs and pick ups, I do my banking, take my shoes to the cobbler, get a few necessities at the dollar store or drug store or Home Depot or Staples, mail parcels or buy stamps at the post office, scout out new restaurants and coffeeshops and other businesses I might use, and probably some other things I'm not thinking of at the moment. Now I actively look for errands to run before going for my walk, and am disappointed if I can't think of anything that needs doing.       

You need to become your own efficiency expert, to develop an understanding of how you function, and to work with your own natural tendencies rather than against them. If you are, say, definitely either a morning or an evening person, you will need to structure your day around your best times. My best times are the morning, so I schedule things that take the most energy or are the most high priority for then. I don't have the stamina to do physical work all day long, so I plan it in increments of one or two hours. Setting up any sort of reward system doesn't work for me, as I tend to just give myself the rewards anyway, even when I haven't reached my intended benchmarks, so I just set my living standards and treat myself in a way that seems reasonable and is affordable, and do my work for its own sake.  


Track Your Data and Organize Your Working and Living Spaces

In The Onion article, Derek reports that on the Friday of his beleaguered week off, he tried to pick up a desk he had on layaway at Staples, but as he didn't have his receipt with him instead wound up "arguing with the [poor Staples employee] for almost an hour". He also managed, during the course of his week, to lose his gas bill while on his way to the mailbox. He should not have left his house without knowing exactly what errands he was going to do and making sure he had whatever information or items he needed with him to do that, such as measurements for the space for the CD rack he wanted to buy, or his friends' wedding registry details. A planner of some kind would have helped him collate that information, and possibly also given him a secure place to keep his gas bill until he could put it in the mailbox. 

I use an old school paper-based planner for my to do lists, and to keep track of other information. Again, thanks to my chronic fatigue issues, my short-term memory is terrible, my memory for numbers and other hard data such as addresses and names, which has always been poor, has only gotten worse, and it helps enormously to have everything documented. I have a dark brown ARC junior-size notebook that I've been using since 2013. I was so thrilled when I first discovered the ARC line of products at Staples, feeling that I'd finally found the planner I'd been looking for since I was in my late teens: a good-looking, durable, customizable, reusable system I could refill from year to year, which made it much less environmentally wasteful than most bound planners. I ran into a snag when I realized that Staples Canada doesn't stock the annual calendar inserts that make the notebooks useful (seriously, what the hell, Staples Canada), and every November for seven years, I made arrangements with one of my American friends to buy and ship me the coming year's refill. Then in late 2019, I became the happy owner of an ARC hole punch, made myself a set of durable laminated monthly tab dividers, and learned to create and print my own calendar refills for my ARC notebook, which makes the cost of a refill pretty negligible. 

I love my planner and hardly leave the house without it. For that matter, I barely go from one room in my house to another without it. In it, I not only write my daily to do lists, but also keep lists of the projects I want to do and other goals, lists of the things I want and need to buy, my gift list for the year, list of the books I want to read and movies/TV shows I want to see, lists of the addresses and other contact information for family, friends, and useful professionals, and track my deadlines, appointments, and Zoom meetings. I usually keep recent receipts and/or documents I have immediate need for in the front cover's inside pocket, and a zippered insert at the back holds my samples (fabric, yarn, paint, etc.) for convenient colour matching when shopping. 

The above may come across as some sort of ARC advertisement, but it is not. I have no dog in this race. I know a lot of people are using their phones for nearly all of the above these days, and I know people who have other paper-based systems. My 82-year-old parents use a calendar that hangs in their kitchen to keep track of their engagements and coordinate the use of their one vehicle (and the monthly calendar is usually a mass of ink as a result, because they are extraordinarily productive and active people for their age). My sister uses a desk planner at the office, and a kitchen calendar to keep track of her personal life. Do have a planning system of some kind, but use whatever planning system works best for you. It may take a process of trial and error to find out what system that is, and you may never be done refining your system, but by all means try some different methods out, and go with whatever organizational methods make your life go more smoothly and easily. 

Having an organized work and living space is even more important than having a planner system. Years ago when I was doing a interior decorator's certificate program at George Brown College, I remember our instructor telling us, "Everything in your home should have a home," and it's a solid maxim. When you have a designated place and/or maintenance system for every object you own, it makes it easy for you to use it. I have a rule that my email inbox can't have more than ten emails in it. I have a folder in my filing cabinet for warranties and user manuals. I have a special folder for paper receipts. I have wardrobe planning strategies (and have written at length about them). I keep my keys either in my coat pocket or in one particular zippered pocket in the handbag I use for daily use. I have a hook on my hall closet door where I hang that handbag. There's a little notebook in the odds and ends drawer in my kitchen that I use for my grocery lists -- I can add items to the list whenever I run out of things during the week. When it comes to basic supplies, my rule is usually "buy one ahead" (i.e., there is one opened bottle of shampoo in the shower and a second unopened one in the supply basket in the linen closet, and the same goes for conditioner, dental floss, moisturizer, cold cream, deodorant, etc.). I very seldom waste time trying to find anything -- if I own something, I very reliably know where it will be in my house, even if I haven't needed it in quite some time -- and it's very rare for me to lose anything, or to have to make a special trip to the store.

In general, I try to be aware of "pain points", by which I mean those tasks that are a pain in the ass, that are a waste of time, that I hate doing, that I can't seem to stay on top of . Whenever I become aware of these pain points, I try to do some thinking about how I can resolve whatever issue I'm having rather than simply assuming nothing can be done about it but soldiering on. Soon after buying my house, which needed a huge amount of work, I became frustrated with my inability to keep track of the samples and information I needed for the renovations, and one day I spent two hours setting up a home renovation binder in which I could keep all my fabric samples, paint chips, quotes from tradespeople, diagrams of the garden, measurements and other specifications, lists of things that needed to be done, etc. Each room/area of the house had its own plastic sheath in which the relevant info was kept. When I described this binder project to my mother, she started going on about how much time it would have taken me to assemble it, her implication being that it was a useless waste of that time. I pointed out that I had been regularly spending much more time on protracted and exasperating searches for a particular sample or piece of information than it had taken me to put the binder together. 

Setting up systems to keep your information or physical objects organized does take time and effort, but it's an investment in your quality of life going forward. Once you have organizing methods that work for you, and routines that will help you keep them that way, they will save you time and frustration over the long run. Such rules and systems can seem a tiresome nuisance at the outset, but paradoxically if you implement only those that work well for you, they will be freeing, helping you to get necessary and/or formerly difficult tasks done as quickly and easily as possible, and maximizing the time you have left for more fun or fulfilling activities.   


Try Journaling

I have found journaling can help a lot when I'm working on an ongoing project, or trying to make life changes. It gives me an outlet for all the feelings and thoughts that might otherwise interfere with what I'm trying to do. I've also found that writing down what I planned to do on a given day, then writing an account of what I did do, and comparing the intended agenda with the actual course of action, is a useful exercise. Seeing what I did that day set down in black and white makes it easier for me to look objectively at how I function, and can help me spot self-sabotaging behaviours or logistical issues, and identify ways to manage my time better. If you're struggling with productivity -- or for that matter any issue in life -- I recommend journaling as a coping strategy.  


Have Realistic Expectations

I have one mantra regarding the quality of the work I do, and it is "Aim for excellence, not perfection." The first is achievable; the second isn't. 

As to the quantity of the work I do, it's one of those time management tips that, after writing a to do list, one should estimate how much time each thing will take to make sure it's a realistic list. This is a tip that was a revelation to me when I first came across it years ago, because it made me realize that I was hopelessly over optimistic when it came to estimating how long things would take and how much I could get done in a day. I'd write up a to-do list for the day, then duly estimate how long each thing would take... and realize that I'd planned at least fourteen to sixteen hours of work. I'm still overly optimistic in this regard, but now I'm aware of it and guard against its effects when I'm planning my work. If I'm not sure how long something will take, it usually goes on my to do list in the form of "work on X for two hours" rather than "do X". When Derek Olsson was planning his week, he should have estimated how much time each thing on his complete to do list would take, and then, if it really was too much to accomplish in nine days, he should have figured out which items he was going to prioritize and do on his vacation, and then made a post-vacation plan for how he would do the rest. 

It's also important to not expect oneself to work too hard, and to make time in your schedule to relax, have fun, and spend time with those who matter to you. Fourteen hour work days aren't sustainable. I think it would be reasonable for Derek to have planned to do 8-9 hours of work each day, which with the addition of 8 hours of sleep would give him 7-8 free hours a day. He'd need to use some of that time for meal breaks, a shower, getting dressed and groomed, and exercise, of course, but that should still have left him with a mostly free evening. 

Derek should have planned to have fun and to spend time with the people in his life during his free evenings, but he also should have set some sensible limits on his recreational time to make sure it didn't derail the rest of his agenda. Derek went out to a local pub for its "Rocky's Sunday Night Record Jam" on Sunday evening, something he said he didn't ordinarily didn't get to do because he had to get up at 6 a.m. on workday Mondays. I think it was fine for him to go to the pub, but he should have decided in advance on how many drinks he would have, and what time he would come home and go to bed, and then stuck to that, so as not to impede his ability to work on his projects on Monday. 


Have a Healthy Locus of Control

Not every problem can be resolved by individual effort, and it's important to take a step back and make sure you're distinguishing between the things that are realistically within your control, and the things that aren't. Sometimes your problems are going to be larger than you can cope with alone, and you'll need to turn to your family and friends for support, or avail yourself of professional help. Sometimes problems are systemic, and will require collective effort, or even a major societal shift. Things like neurological issues, substance abuse, personality disorders, eating disorders, depression, grief, or other psychological problems can also interfere greatly with your ability to function. If you've been having a protracted struggle with some problem that's impacting your quality of life, and you've been unable to overcome it on your own despite your best efforts, do reach out for the help you need. If you don't believe that anything can help you, think of it as exploring your options and finding out for sure whether there is or isn't help out there for you. If you're a member of a marginalized group, you may be dealing with the fallout from bigotry or oppression. I'm not going to try to tell you how to deal with that, because it's not your responsibility to overcome other people's hate or institutionalized discrimination, but I will say I hope that you have a support system you can turn to for help.  

Right now most people are struggling with the emotional stress and practical hardships caused by pandemic conditions, and with the fear occasioned by the looming climate crisis. These are terrible times, I know, and having every horrifying detail of every thing that's especially fucked up about our messed-up world seared into your brain every time you go online or look at the news is not making matters easier, but all we can do is try to keep calm and carry on, and do the best we can to make things better. Look about you, take stock of your skills and resources, identify the things that you can reasonably do to help yourself and others, and then do those things. Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can. Keep in mind that sometimes your efforts will position you to take advantage of future opportunities and solutions that aren't even on the horizon right now. And, whatever happens, you'll know you did whatever you could do. There's a lot of comfort and peace of mind to be found in that feeling. 

When I look at Derek's situation and assess it for possible larger issues that are too much for him to deal with on his own, or are systemic, I find it would probably be a good idea for him to consider whether he has ADHD or some other neurological issue that's interfering with his ability to get anything done, and have himself assessed for it. I also think it's utterly ridiculous that he gets just one week's vacation a year. That is simply not enough time off, and unless he can get a better job with a better compensation package and/or move to a region with better labour laws, that is something he can probably only play a small part in addressing through some sort of political effort (i.e., voting for political candidates who will work towards better protections for labour, or supporting union organization). 

But that said, Derek's locus of control is set much too low, and he should be taking more responsibility for his problems. He's a young, straight, white, and apparently healthy and able-bodied man, which is the easiest setting in North American society, and if he can't keep his living quarters clean and tidy and do his laundry, that's on him. He needs to expect more of himself. Resolving to use responsible language and nixing such phrases as "if the whole universe hadn't been against me" would be a good start. Losing his gas bill payment on the way to the mailbox was a boneheaded move, but Derek didn't "have to wait until a second notice" to pay the bill as he claimed, especially when that will probably mean he'll have to pay interest charges/late fees. He could have searched for the missing envelope, or written and mailed another cheque, or better yet, set up automatic payment for that bill and whatever others he can, in order to save himself the time and effort of doing it every month.

Sometimes our problems will be too much for us, and we will need help... and sometimes we simply have to give ourselves a shake and get moving. If you're feeling frozen and overwhelmed (this is something I struggle with), take one action, even if it's only a minor one. That one action will probably help you do another, and another after that. 


Don't Get Sidetracked

Once you have a plan to do whatever needs to be done, don't get sidetracked into off-list trivial tasks that might be fun or easy to do but that won't have any actual pay off in terms of your quality of life. Derek spent most of the second Saturday of his vacation re-alphabetizing his CDs. For the record, this is actually something I have some sympathy with. All my books and CDs are alphabetized. When you have a lot of anything, such as books, CDs, or DVDs, it's wise to put them, and keep them, in some sort of order so you can find a particular book or CD easily without a time-wasting search, so I would say it is worth doing. But it's a low priority task, and Derek should have focused on more consequential to do list items first. I also note that the article says Derek was "re-alphabetizing" his CDs, which suggests that the CDs were already in alphabetical order, and well, dude

I have my own off-list pitfalls. I've noticed I often get sidetracked into planning, researching and shopping for the supplies for some future project when I have so many projects planned, researched, and shopped for already. Or I start a new project when I have so many already on the go. I find the planning and preparation part of a project, and starting a new project, easy, fun, and exciting, while putting in the actual work of doing a project can be frustrating and tedious. I try to be aware of this and to draw a hard line against prepping for new projects, or starting a new project instead of working on an unfinished one, unless it becomes genuinely necessary that I do a particular one right away. 

I will add here that sometimes the trivial and/or fun tasks have their uses when it comes to getting yourself into working mode. All those time management books tell us to do the most important tasks first, and while that is sound advice in a general way, I find that sometimes when I can't get going, it can be helpful to start with a quick, easy item. My day usually starts with a few such routine tasks: making my bed, washing up the few breakfast dishes, cleaning the litter box. Getting one or a few such things done gives me a sense of accomplishment and momentum, and helps my brain transition from "Oh No I Have To Do Boring and Unpleasant Work Now And I Don't Wanna" mode to "Yay I'm Getting Things Done" mode. 

Be aware of the kind of flabby pleasures one lets oneself slide into in an effort to avoid doing something worthwhile, as when Derek spent the Tuesday of his vacation re-reading a Harry Potter book in his bathrobe. The Harry Potter books are no temptation to me, but I have my own work avoidance black holes to steer clear of. I often spend too much time re-reading an old favourite book or mindlessly browsing the internet, and one of my 2021 resolutions was to stop playing video games, though this specifically meant "stop playing online solitaire", since that is the only one I was playing. I deleted all the games on my 2012 laptop years ago, but in an evil moment in 2020, I discovered I could play solitaire online for free. And I'd often find myself getting sucked into playing it for hours out of inertia -- despite my better self's reminders that it was an idiotic waste of time and I wasn't even really enjoying it -- because my tired, overwhelmed brain found it easier than dealing with the level of effort and frustration involved in doing something worthwhile. Mindfulness is key when it comes to these treading water activities, as it's easy to stop oneself early on or before you begin rather than after one has gotten completely sucked in. These days I try to make it a rule that if I am genuinely too tired to do anything active or focus, I must take a nap rather than do something mindless, as sleep is the constructive option, even if it means I won't get anything done right away.  

If you should get some overwhelming urge to play hooky from your working agenda, at least make it count by doing something that you can really enjoy and will be glad you did afterwards. Life is too short and precious to spend doing something stupid that you're only doing because it helps you avoid doing something that you don't want to do. 


Engage With And Enjoy Whatever You Do

Try to enjoy whatever you do by engaging with it fully. Mindfulness techniques can help with this. Keep in mind that you needn't enjoy everything in anticipation or wait until you feel like doing something before you do it, because the act of doing something usually generates the appropriate feelings for it. I think I hate to vacuum and dread it, and always have to remind myself that the reality is that once I get going on the vacuuming, I don't mind it very much, and that it's so rewarding to have a clean house afterwards. 

As for the things that are impossible to enjoy, or are even miserable, I have read that in Alcoholics Anonymous one of their slogans is, "If you're white knuckling it, you're doing it wrong." This advice seems to me to apply to far more of human experience and endeavour than sobriety, and even though I have never done drugs or been a problem drinker, I try to live by it. There's no virtue or sense in torturing oneself. If we make our lives and our work harder than they really have to be, we're setting ourselves up for a relapse, or outright failure. If something you have to do is time or labour-intensive or otherwise difficult for you in a way you find unbearable, it's time to rethink it. Maybe there's something you could do to make it more pleasant and enjoyable. Maybe there are hacks or techniques that will help you do it faster and/or more easily. Maybe you need better tools or equipment or there's some sort of technological solution. Maybe it's worth hiring it done. Maybe there's another alternative to doing it at all. Maybe the task isn't even your responsibility and someone else should be doing it.

If you are still finding an absolutely necessary task too tedious for words, look for physical ways to make it enjoyable. Playing music or an audiobook or a podcast while you work could be an option, or talking on the phone, or singing while you work. (I seem to be unable to vacuum without also simultaneously belting out Lady Gaga songs.) Or change your environment. Once when I had a skirt to hem, it wasn't happening because I find hemming boring and that skirt seemed to be a mile around. I decided part of the problem was that, when I tried to do it at home, I was surrounded by so many other more interesting/fun things to do that I'd invariably ditch the hemming to do something else. In an impulse born of exasperation with myself, I packed the skirt, scissors, thread, and my pincushion into a tote bag and went to the park. There I had nothing to do but hem the skirt, and while I worked, I could also enjoy the fresh air, sunshine, the sight and sounds of children playing, people watch, and chat with the half dozen or so children or adults who came traipsing up to me see/ask what I was doing. It was all very pleasant and I worked non-stop on that skirt until it was done. I've kept this life hack in mind and have often taken other portable tasks to the park since. Libraries and coffeeshops can also be good places to work (pandemic or post-pandemic conditions allowing) if you can't focus at home or wherever you're "supposed" to be working.    

 

Talk Yourself Through Negativity

Some people have excellent physical and mental stamina and/or naturally stable, positive, direct minds, and they seem to find it easy to forge ahead with whatever needs to be done. I admire and madly envy such highly effective, super productive people, as I have neither attribute. My energy levels have been crap since I developed chronic fatigue issues in 2007, and my bizarre brain has always been a sort of neurological minefield. I am high-strung and irritable, and am very prone to ruminating, fantasizing, distraction, frustration, getting overwhelmed, discouragement, and despair, and it's extremely difficult for me to keep myself on an even keel mentally. I have gotten somewhat better at controlling myself as I've grown older -- my tolerance for frustration has certainly improved immeasurably since I was a teenager or even since my twenties -- but it's still a constant battle. 

I can't do much about my physical energy levels, but I live in hope of getting better at managing my mind. I look to the kind of incredibly effective super producers I admire -- some illustrious ones like Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Stacey Abrams, as well as other people I know personally  -- and try to analyze how they do what they do, and to apply those insights to my own life. My friend Christine is one such person. I have known her since I was sixteen and she was seventeen, and she has always been the kind of person who could map out a course of action and carry it out in incredibly efficient, no-fuss, matter-of-fact way, whether it was as a co-editor of our high school newspaper as she was when I first met her, or as the senior-level civil servant she now is, or while planning her wedding, or renovating her kitchen during her pregnancy with her first child, or selling her house and moving to a new one while pregnant with her second child. I've learned so much from her over the years, both from observing how she functions, and from her repeatedly giving me timely and specific advice on how to translate my own pie-in-the-sky ideas into realistic plans in which the nuts and bolts are all lined up. 

One thing I've noticed about super producers is how good they are at not being bogged down or boxed in by negativity or other such mental roadblocks. They're good at cutting through all that self-defeating mental crap, at separating the useful from the useless, at inverting dysfunctional paradigms, at remaining focused on what can and should be done and what process and resources it will take to do it. No matter how carefully you plan or how hard you try, things will go wrong and you will make mistakes, and you'll get frustrated and discouraged, and that frustration and discouragement can become difficulties in themselves. It's important to develop the mental tool kit for working through mistakes and setbacks, and to talk yourself through moments of frustration or negative thoughts instead of letting them derail you.

For instance, in The Onion article, Derek became exasperated with himself because he found a box labelled "magazines" actually contained socks and a pencil sharpener, and then gave up unpacking the boxes and went upstairs to watch TV, which was only going to lead to him being even angrier with himself in future for having still not unpacked those boxes. What he should have done was remind himself that, mislabeled or not, that box still needed unpacking, that the socks and pencil sharpener were of more use to him than magazines that would have been over three years old, and then unpacked that box, and moved on to the next one. Derek also spent the entire last day of his vacation berating himself for having wasted an entire week, instead of deciding to focus on at least using that one remaining day wisely. There's no point in wallowing in regrets or other negative feelings. Whenever I find myself in an "eleventh hour" situation, which happens all too often (and for that matter is basically status quo for me, given how I've spent my life), I try to think, "What can I do right now," rather than chastise myself for what I should have done hours or days or years ago. Whenever I find myself getting upset about a situation, I try to remind myself that I can either uselessly emote and carry on about it, or make a plan to resolve or at least improve the situation, and then choose to do the latter.   

The mental tricks we can use to overcome negative thinking and get ourselves moving can be amazingly simple. My father is a woodworker, and one time some years ago a customer of his had ordered four grandfather clocks from him. It was a huge, complex project and one which Dad probably found intimidating. He told me that at one point when he realized that time was getting on since the order and the clocks weren't getting built, he resolved that from then on he was going to work on that clock project every single day, even if he didn't get much done. He kept that resolve. Some days Dad would work on those clocks for hours, and some days he would work for as little as fifteen minutes, but with progress being made on that job every day, those clocks got done in good time. (And to stunning end results.) Whenever I've used that tip to get moving on a big project, it has worked well for me too.   


Getting a Handle on Things

When I began writing this piece, I originally thought I could polish it off in three or four hours (this would be an example of the characteristically hopeless over-optimism that I referred to above). The resulting essay, which is over 7,800 words long, took much more work and far longer than my initial expectation. We live in a messy, complex world and we are messy, complex beings. It can be very, very difficult for us to get ourselves and our lives in any kind of order, and that order will always be limited and fragile given how much shit life can throw at us. But learning, and being mindful of, the basic principles of productivity can help a lot. 

When one carries a heavy load, the task can be brutally hard, or even impossible, if all the weight is in one big box that one's arms can't comfortably reach around. Carrying that weight can become much easier when the contents or the box are transferred into packages that can be stowed away in a backpack and a few tote bags, or into smaller boxes carried on separate trips, or if one uses a dolly to move the big box, or has someone to help carry the big box, or if one can even add improvisational handles to the big box using packing tape and a couple of small plastic bags. The weight of the task remains the same in all cases, but strategy and method can make it far easier for us to bear. 

Monday, 2 November 2020

Style Dissected


The Power of Styleby Annette Tapert and Diana Edkins, published in 1994, is a book that I checked out of the Toronto public library system more times than I care to count in the ten or so years after I first saw a copy on display at my local branch. When, circa 2007, I came across a $5 copy of it at Value Village, I snapped it up at once. I was quite sure that I'd paid out more than $5 in overdue library fines for this particular book.

The Power of Style contains well-written essays on, and wonderful photographs of, fourteen different uber-stylish women. Who are, for the record: Rita Lydig, Pauline de Rothschild, Daisy Fellowes, the Duchess of Windsor, Millicent Rogers, Mona Bismarck, Coco Chanel, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elsie de Wolfe, Diana Vreeland, Slim Keith, Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, and Gloria Guinness. With all its beautiful photos and fascinating biographical details, The Power of Style is a pleasure to read and peruse, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in style, but I find myself tempted to schluff over any actual review of the book and get down to musing about my fascination with it. I am deeply interested in style and have a treasured collection of 30-odd books on style and fashion history. Style does fascinate many people, probably because it is so elusive. We know it when we see it, but it can never be quite defined, and as motion attracts the eye so does the ever-shifting, chameleon quality of style attract the gaze. The act of making the messy business of living look effortless and elegant awes and inspires. Being stylish is an accomplishment; perhaps not the most worthwhile accomplishment, but an achievement nonetheless. And though being conventionally attractive and wealthy can help one be stylish, it's not something one is born with nor can it be bought. 

There is a companion book to this volume by the same authors called The Power of Glamour, but while I enjoyed reading that one too, it never captivated me the way The Power of Style has. Being glamourous never seemed like an attainable or even worthwhile pursuit to me -- glamour is an illusory, ephemeral quality, dependent mostly on youth and beauty, and no one's life is glamourous up close. Style, on the other hand, is somewhat more concrete, and is the fruit of concerted originality, discipline, verve, confidence, wit, and resourcefulness. Several of the women profiled in The Power of Style weren't beautiful in any conventional sense. The Duchess of Windsor, Elsie de Wolfe, and Diana Vreeland were all undeniably plain, but they all learned early in life that while beauty is a gift of nature, nearly anyone who is willing to put in the effort to become well-groomed and well-dressed can be attractive, and such were their learned skills of self-presentation that their very names are bywords of style. 

I used to read this book again and again, as though it held the key to becoming a woman of style if I could only find it. How could I be more like these women? I suppose I did eventually unlock their secret, when it dawned on me that these fourteen women were icons of style because they weren't imitating anyone else. These women created unique look for themselves and their homes and entertained in a way that suited their unique physical looks, their tastes and interests, their era, their particular milieu, and their means, and while they drew inspiration from others and the world around them just as I do from them, they always transmuted whatever ideas they got from elsewhere into something truly their own. 

This principle of evolving my own style, of making an educated choice as to what I really wanted and what suited me and disregarding the rest (as Diana Vreeland said, "Elegance is refusal,"), has imbued all my own efforts at dressing and decorating since, and has not only made me much better at both but has also been incredibly freeing. Though I loved fashion magazines in my teens and twenties, I almost never read them anymore, as I find they are mostly about conspicuous consumption and passing trends and a very prescriptive idea of attractiveness, when what I'm interested in is choosing and often making beautiful, good quality clothes that I can enjoy for years until they're worn out. Often some timeless fashion photo from the past can be of more real use to me than pictures of some ridiculous of-the-moment $1200 purse. What little real information fashion magazines offer (i.e., tips on makeup application, organizing or exercise) can be found for free and in greater detail elsewhere. Pinterest especially has become a replacement for magazines for me (despite my issues with its search engine), as it is both an amazing research tool and a way to create a visual file of ideas and plans for any design project. The concept of self-directed style has also been an essential part of my editorial slant on my knitting blog, The Knitting Needle and the Damage Done, where I try to encourage knitters to take a critical approach towards the process of selecting knitting patterns for their projects, and to be their own designer when it comes to wardrobe planning.  

Even though my study of this book did teach me how to be a woman of style in theory, I have relinquished whatever hope I may have had of ever actually becoming one, as it takes resources and a level of energy I will never have. This book makes it plain that being a woman of style requires not only originality and verve and self-discipline, but also resources. Being a style icon is incompatible with holding down a full-time job and doing all one's own housekeeping, not to mention caring for small children. Very few of these women had a job with regular office hours, and none did all their own housekeeping. Diana Vreeland did work 18-hour days as editor-in-chief of Vogue, but she also had a household staff, including a maid who polished the soles of her shoes and ironed her dollar bills. Most of the fourteen women either had no children or were lacklustre mothers. Daisy Fellowes met her four young daughters in the park one day and didn't know them. 

Then too, the pictures in this book and the anecdotes related in the essays are highlight reels, not the backstage view. There are no pictures of any of these women taken just after they had woken up in the morning, or in the act of grooming, or weathering a bad case of the flu, or while they were in an advanced or even middle stage of pregnancy, and there are no pictures of Slim Keith after she had ceased to embody her nickname.

That isn't to say their lives were all exquisitely arranged floral bouquets. These women experienced financial difficulties, married men who mistreated them, struggled with poor health, or sometimes were so consumed with appearances that they didn't accomplish much else, as in the Duchess of Windsor's case. But throughout their lives, whatever happened, their style was a tool and a mainspring that they used to earn a living, to attract partners, for social entrĂ©e, to inform or even become their life's work, and to define and sustain themselves. Their lives are worth study and a continued source of inspiration, because one needn't be an icon of style to use style in one's own life in much the same way. 

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Sometimes David Can't Stop Goliath, and Shouldn't Be Expected To


Everyone's praising Gayle King for keeping her cool in the face of R. Kelly's abusive lies and rage during her CBS This Morning interview with him, and rightly so. There's no denying that her steely composure is admirable. But it should never have come to the point of a woman having to sit in a room with an abusive man and remain calm and professional despite his garbage behaviour in order to do her job. R. Kelly should have been imprisoned decades ago.

When I see situations like Gayle King interviewing R. Kelly, or Christine Blasey Ford testifying against Brett Kavanaugh, or Hillary Clinton debating Donald Trump, or Lucy DeCoutere testifying against Jian Ghomeshi, it always hurts me. Yes, they all showed great fortitude in the face of abuse, stayed calm and resolute, did what they had to do. But the fact is that they should never have been put in that position, and that, heartbreakingly, when they were, their gallant best efforts didn't do much good.

We're asking too high a level of individual effort and sacrifice in our society, and not enough of ourselves collectively. We need to become more effective at curbing abuse and bigotry and corruption in their early stages.

No amount of wealth, success, or fame, or other privilege should ever insulate anyone from the consequences of abuse. No one should ever get away with decades of crushing others under their feet. And no victim should ever be left unheard or without recourse. When we don't listen to victims, when they are left to struggle with their abusers on their own, powerful abusers become only more powerful, more emboldened, more destructive. Over time they become leviathans whom it's impossible to stop by any amount of individual heroism, though we keep throwing people in the line of fire anyway.

It's time to level the playing field as much as we can socioeconomically, and especially in our criminal justice systems, to keep the Donald Trumps from becoming the juggernauts that they are, and to safeguard us all, both from the damage they can do, and from anyone having to make Sisyphean personal efforts to get justice.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

On the Care and Feeding of Single People

Lately I came across Aimee Lutkin's excellent essays, "When Can I Say I'll Be Alone Forever" and "I Did Everything You Said and I'm Still Alone", and reading them was an exercise in painful self-recognition that brought tears to my eyes. I could have written them, though not nearly so well. In those two essays, Lutkin nailed two very painful and frustrating facets of being unhappily single: no one who isn't single wants to listen to a single person talk about it or even seems to understand where they're coming from; and a single person can do everything everyone and every advice book suggests and still never find that right person or even a satisfying substitute for a romantic partner.

But this post isn't an essay on the trials and tribulations of a solitary life, and it doesn't offer tips to single people on how to meet the right person or cope with singleness. Single people get lots of that sort of advice, and I think that as someone who, at 44, has been single for basically her entire adult life, that maybe it's time for me to turn the tables. Maybe it's time for me give some advice to partnered people on how to treat the single people in their lives. Because, partnered people, we single people love you, but holy shit you do not get it sometimes. Before anyone gets all "not all partnered people", let me say that while there are partnered people who don't need advice on what to say or not to say to single people, there are many who do, because every single "don't" in this article is based on something hurtful or exasperating that at least one well-meaning but clueless partnered person has said to me.

So, if you're partnered up, here are some suggestions on things not to say to the unhappily single people you care about:

1. Don't blithely assure single people that they're going to find someone. Unless you're the only person in human history who can predict the future, you don't know if they will or not, and maybe they won't. Some people never do. It's an empty, baseless reassurance that does nothing to help them cope with the reality that they are currently lonely, and is often used to callously cut off the conversation they're trying to have with you about that loneliness. What you need to do is hear that they are lonely and to try to help them cope with their solitary walk through life while it lasts.

Years ago I had a married friend who was struggling with fertility issues and who was anxious that she'd never have children. In the three and a half years it took her to become pregnant, I never once told her, "Don't worry, you'll be able to conceive!" because I had no idea whether she would or not. Instead, I'd remind her that her fertility doctors believed that they thought she and her husband would succeed eventually. When she was upset that one option had failed her, I'd tell her to remember that there were still a number of options to work through. Since the process was going to take time, I suggested that she mentally reframe the problem from "Will I ever become a mother?" and/or "When will I become a mother?" to "How do I want to spend whatever childfree time I have ahead of me before I either have a child or adopt one?", because the first two questions were the kind of unanswerable questions that can leave one howling at the moon, while the last question gave her agency over how she felt because it was a question she could answer, and act on, herself. I also did some googling and reading on the topic to inform myself, and sent her links to essays and articles about infertility that I thought had helpful insights. In short, I put a lot of thought and care in what I said to her, and my suggestions did seem to help her manage her anxiety and make the best of the situation.

Meanwhile, whenever I tried to talk about my grief over being single (and also childless, like her), all she ever did was say things like, "Oh, you'll find someone! You don't believe it but someday you'll see I was right!" and then turn the conversation back towards her own problems. She expected me to listen to her carrying on about her fear that she was infertile before she and her husband had even started trying to conceive, but at the same time she took the attitude that the problem that I'd already been struggling with for years was a non-issue because it was likely to be resolved any minute now. Guess what? She was not right. And not the least bit of help. And shocked and outraged when, after her first child was born, I decided I wasn't interested in keeping in contact with her anymore because our friendship was far too one-sided in general. When a friend is struggling with a problem, you need to hear them and do your reasonable best to help them rather than casually and falsely telling them that it's temporary.

2. Don't tell single people that "having a partner isn't everything" or "you won't be any happier with a partner", or go on about how happy you supposedly were when you were single five or fifteen years ago. People who are unhappily single are lonely and hungry for intimacy and companionship, and you, who regularly enjoy intimacy and companionship and support with your partner and may never even have known what it is to go without it for years, let alone decades, are effectively telling them you think it's a non-issue that they're going without what you're enjoying. You're the equivalent of someone with a mouthful of food and a full plate in front of you and a full-stocked pantry behind you telling someone who has been going hungry for months, years, or even decades that food isn't everything. While it's true that, like food, romantic companionship and physical intimacy aren't everything, you need to remember that it's easy to take it for granted when you're getting plenty of it. You need to understand that romantic companionship and physical intimacy are very basic emotional needs and it's really difficult and painful to go without them on a long-term basis, and you need to be careful not to be dismissive of that pain. After all, if you were so happy when you were single, why didn't you say, "Oh, no thanks, I'm perfectly happy on my own!" when your current partner wanted the two of you to get together? If you think being single is so great, why don't you leave your partner and go be single for the next ten years? If you are not willing to give up what you have in order to be single yourself, don't loftily tell other people that they should be contented to be single. It's going to come across as, "Got mine; fuck you."

3. Don't draw non-existent parallels between your life experience and theirs. If your single friend is single in their thirties or later, don't go on about how you felt about being single when you were 23, and how things worked out great for you and you're sure it will for them too! Being single in your thirties or later is nothing like being single in your early twenties, when there's a much larger dating pool, your friends are also mostly single and childless and have time for you, and you don't have to worry much about your biological clock.

4. Don't tell single people that they should just be happy to have the other good things they have. Sure, your single friends might have a thriving professional career, a good education, a nice house, and the time and money for travel and/or elaborate hobbies, and I'm sure they do appreciate their good fortune and take satisfaction in their accomplishments. But those things aren't a replacement for a relationship, and it's human nature to want a full complement of life's good things. Would you trade your partner and the children you've had with your partner in for any of those things? Would you want to be told that you should just be happy with your partner and children and not want a career or a nice house or a chance to travel too?

5. Don't give pat advice or pep talks that your single friends don't need. If they have a dozen hobbies, don't tell them to get a new hobby. If they're already reasonably active and social, don't tell them they "just need to get out there!". If they're reasonably confident about their looks or self-worth, don't butter them up. If your single friend is depressed or never seems to do anything with their spare time but watch TV, then, yes, it's appropriate to gently suggest some self-care and new horizons.

6. Don't give your single friends lectures on how they "don't think anyone's good enough for them". I've had "friends" berate me because I turned down a man who was ten to twenty years older than me, or had substance abuse issues, or was thrice divorced (and blamed everything on his ex-wives), and they were way out of line. Most of the single people I know have very reasonable expectations: we want to date people who are age-appropriate, who have their act together, whom we enjoy being with and are physically attracted to, and who will treat us with care and respect. We might also have a silly little checklist of "nice to haves" (I know I have one that's too embarrassing to share), but that frivolous checklist will go right out the window if we find someone who really does it for us and meets critical mass on our really important requirements. Telling a single person that they think they're "too good" to go out with someone they don't find attractive or age appropriate or together enough or whom they just don't enjoy being around is obnoxious and inappropriate. You're effectively telling them they don't deserve someone with whom they can be happy or even contented.

That's not to say that chronically single people don't sometimes have higher standards than many partnered people. I have observed that the people I've known who were never single for long, who went easily from one partner to another until one worked long-term, weren't very selective. I'm not saying their standards were too low, but rather that their mindset was different, that they were more willing to try a relationship on for size, or that they were willing to live with certain things that I wouldn't, or that they were the sort of people who meshed with others more easily and didn't need their partner to be as compatible with them as I do. And if that works for them, the more power to them. However, if you are someone who has always found it easy to find a significant other, you may need to realize that sometimes other people are "harder to fit" than you, that this need for high-level compatibility may not be a need they can compromise on, and that it's just as offensive and inappropriate for you to chastise others for their high standards as it would be for them to criticize yours for being too low.

7. Don't take the attitude that partnered people are more together or in any way superior to single people. A friend of mine, let's call her Lynn, was once asked at a wedding if she was seeing anyone, and before Lynn could answer, the bride interjected, "Oh no, Lynn hasn't found herself yet," which was so supremely obnoxious that Lynn's first (though suppressed) instinct was to go to the gift table, pick up the beautifully gift-wrapped box containing the blender she'd given the bride, and go home to make herself a margarita or three. In case this needs saying, a single person can be very self-aware and know exactly what he or she wants out of life, and still never find the right person to be with. While it's true that some single people have personal issues that compromise their ability to form relationships, finding a partner is neither proof of functionality nor a measure of overall success in life. I've known plenty of very abusive, irresponsible, narcissistic, or otherwise dysfunctional partnered people who were so busy controlling their partners, blaming their partners for everything that's wrong with their lives, or desperately clinging to a shitty relationship, that they'd never developed any awareness of or worked on their own issues, or even figured out what they want to do with their lives in terms of career or other personal goals. And yet so many of these very same people preened themselves on their achievement in being in a relationship, brandished their partnered status as though it was a proof of superiority, and condescended to single people. Don't be one of those people.

8. If your partner is away for a few days or weeks, don't carry on about how alooooone you feel to your friend who's been single for years. Seriously. By the same token, if you're thinking of complaining about a lacklustre Valentine's Day present to a friend who received nothing at all for Valentine's Day, maybe think again. Complaining about a relatively minor issue to someone who's dealing with a comparable issue on a much larger scale is tactless and insensitive.

9. If you are in a happy relationship, please watch the rhapsodizing over how ecstatic you are in your life with your partner. I'm not saying you can't talk about your relationship or happiness at all, and a good friend will always be genuinely happy for your happiness and ready to do a reasonable share of listening to your feelings about your life even when they don't share your good fortune, but do try to be sensitive about it. If you owned a large, beautiful home and your friend lived in a junior one bedroom rental apartment, would you make continually make comments about how much better it is to live in your house than it is to live in some sad rental? On the flip side of this coin, please don't assume that your friend envies your particular partner/relationship. They may not exactly admire your partner or your relationship and be too diplomatic to say so. So don't say things like, "Someday I hope you find someone as great as Sweet Lumps!" because they may very well be thinking, "I'd rather be dead than be with anyone remotely like your Sweet Lumps."

10. If you are in an unhappy relationship, don't tell your single friends that they should just be grateful not to be with a bad partner. Yes, you have a problem, but so do they, so don't make it all about you and expect them to be there for you when you're dismissing their issues as being less important or less difficult than yours. I have a close friend whose marriage... isn't good ... and the two of us have been able to support each other through years of her contentious marriage and my loneliness because we both understand that our two very different problems are equally heartbreaking and tough to live with, and because we both listen, really listen, to each other and are consequently able to offer apt advice or insights, and to recognize when we have no advice to give, instead of projecting.

11. If your single friends complain about the lack of sex/physical affection, don't tell them to just go out and get laid unless you know they're the type to be okay with hookups. Yes, some people can handle casual sex, but some can't. Some people need to have a sense of genuine connection with another person in order to have any desire to be physically intimate with them, and/or they can't bear being discarded afterwards. It's really insensitive to tell such a person to "get over" such niceties and go bang someone they don't really know or even like much, or who is very likely to disappear on them the next day. If we're wired to care about such things, that's how we're wired.

12. If your single friends are anxious that they will never get a chance to have children, or grieving because they know they will not, don't be dismissive. That is one major grief that they are dealing with. Also, don't blithely assure them they can have or adopt a child on their own. Single parenthood certainly isn't for everyone, and it's financially impossible for many.

Now that we've more or less covered the "don'ts", here are some "dos":

1. Listen. Don't assume that you know how your single friends feel. Don't assume you have the answers to what may be an irresolvable problem. Just listen to whatever they have to say, and then when you're reasonably sure you understand where they're coming from, you can perhaps trying weighing in with some realistic suggestions or comfort if you can think of any. Yes, it can be depressing to listen to someone talk honestly about how lonely and unhappy they are. But you know what? It can be hard for us to see you enjoying things we don't have and perhaps will never have, and if we rise above that, we deserve to have you do the same for us. The last time I visited a friend and her new baby, I took a handmade gift and a homemade cake, cuddled and fed and admired the baby, joked with my friend's partner, and was interested in a guided tour of the nursery decor. Then when I got home I flung myself across my bed and cried because I'll never have a baby. I'm genuinely happy for my friend, I really enjoy knowing and spoiling her darling little girl, and the contrast between our respective situations hurts me, but I do what I do anyway because that's what a good friend does. If your single friends are there for your happiness in that way even when it's painful for them, be there for them in their loneliness even when it's a downer for you.

2. Make an effort to keep in touch and spend time with your single friends. Part of the reason it's so hard to be single in westernized society is that so many partnered people cocoon into their romantic relationships and don't bother nurturing their friendships with single people. I've had quite a few friends disappear completely on me once they got a partner, only to breeze back into my life once the relationship was over, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they'd disappeared from my life for months, and confidently expecting me to support them through their breakup as though nothing had happened. If you care about your friends and want your friendships to last, find time for them. They won't expect you to have the same amount of time for them as you did when you were single, but you should be fairly reliable about answering phone calls/emails and see them at least occasionally. If you are simply too busy to see them individually, invite them to one of the things you're busy doing, such as having dinner with your family.

3. Introduce your single friends to other people in your life, and include them in any gatherings you host whenever you can. Single people usually need to expand their social circles in order to increase their chances of meeting someone. Do try to avoid inviting a lone single friend to a gathering that's otherwise all couples. Yes, they'll be adults and make the best of it if it happens, but it's not going to be much fun for them to be the only odd one out. It's much more considerate to invite a mix of coupled and single people to your parties -- and will also probably make for a better and livelier party, because people who arrive alone are more motivated to mingle.

4. Try a little matchmaking if you can think of particular single friends who would be a good fit and everyone's up for it. Setting friends up on dates is considerably easier than it used to be now that everyone's used to online dating, and sending both parties photos and online links to give them a sense of whom they're meeting makes the date much less blind and awkward. But don't just throw together any two random single people and expect it to work. Try to match up people who live in the same region, are relatively close in age, and who have similar I.Q.s, tastes, interests, and world views. Don't be pushy about it, or over-involved in the mechanics, or take it personally if the match doesn't happen. If they don't want to meet, or if they did and it didn't work out, you'll need to respect that it's their choice. Do be prepared to try again -- after all, if finding the right person was easy, your friends wouldn't be single. Also, be self-aware about your matchmaking abilities. If every would-be couple you try to set up proves to be mutually repulsed, you may not have the knack of predicting whether two people will prove compatible, or much understanding of what your single friends need in a partner, and it's probably a better idea to host dinner parties or movie nights and hope something eventually gels between some of your assorted single friends.

5. Try to keep gift-giving reasonably even-handed between you and your single friends. If a good friend flew to your destination wedding, spent megabucks on whatever tux or bridesmaid dress your attendants wore, bought you engagement, shower, and wedding presents, and now gives your kids birthday and Christmas presents, maybe you should have more concrete and active plans to balance the scales than entertaining vague notions of someday buying them a beautiful wedding present when/if they ever get married. If, after thinking back over the course of a friendship, you realize that a single friend has been and continues to be much more forthcoming with gifts than you have been, I'd suggest that you take steps to make the situation more equitable. You can create gift-giving opportunities by sometimes marking a milestone in their life with a present: when they finish a degree after years of part-time studies, move to a new home, run a marathon, get a promotion, or finish some important personal project. Or give them a gift because they're feeling down, or just because. By doing this, you're demonstrating that you don't thoughtlessly and selfishly expect them to be the source of a one-way stream of presents because that's "just how it works", and that you believe their lives are as important and worthy of celebration as yours.

Looking back over my dos and don'ts, I see a lot of the advice I've given is simply a matter of being a self-aware and considerate friend, taking the time and making the effort to really see and listen to your friend, being sensitive to what they needs are, and making sure your relationship is truly equitable. It's what good friends do, whether single or partnered, if we wish to have healthy and lasting friendships. I am sure there are lots of partnered people out there who could come up with their own list of advice for their single friends. But in any case, if you're partnered, thank you for taking the time to read and consider my list, and if you decide to act on some of my advice, your single friends may thank you too.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Pinterest & Me: A Dialogue

Pinterest: Here are 100 new fall outfit ideas for you!

Me: They're all photos of long-legged twentysomething models in oversized tops and/or sweaters, skinny jeans, boots, and a tote bag.

Pinterest: Here are 150 more fall outfits in exactly the same vein for you to copy!

Me: Maybe I'll just start searching for crafting tips instead.

Pinterest: Okay, but I'm going to include some more photos of the oversized top, skinny jeans, boots, and tote bag look in your search results just in case!

Me: You need to learn some self-awareness, Pinterest. I'm going to search for closet organization tips now to help me figure out how to make the most of my 5' x 2.5' bedroom closet.

Pinterest: Here are some articles recommending that you put furniture, rugs, and artwork in your closet for that relaxed, homey, magazine photo shoot feel!

Me: No, I need ideas for how to organize a closet of very modest size, Pinterest. If my closet were big enough to hold freaking furniture and rugs, I wouldn't be asking for help.

Pinterest: Here are some lovely photos of Oprah's closet, which is larger than your bedroom and has custom-built oak cabinetry!

Me: Look, forget I even asked about closet organization tips. I'd like to see some ideas for making simple bead necklaces.

Pinterest: Here's a stunning Art Deco diamond choker!

Me: Oh, I give up. This is like trying to discuss fashion and decorating with Gwyenth Paltrow [navigates away from Pinterest].

Pinterest: Would you like to see some oversized top, skinny jeans and tote bag outfit ideas with *strappy sandals* instead of boots? Or how about 105 ideas for things to do with mason jars combined with self-tanner ads? And I see you pinned a recipe for cinnamon rolls, so here are 200 more nearly identical cinnamon roll recipes that I'm sure you'll be eager to see! Hey, is this thing on?

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Mything Facts: Some Thoughts on Naomi Wolff's "The Beauty Myth"


Yes, I've only gotten around to reading the 1990 opus The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolff, recently. As a feminist I have to say it is definitely worth reading and that I wish I had read it earlier, but as an editor I must say it reads like a PhD thesis that has the potential to be excellent but needs a lot more work. The book is poorly written in a graduate student style (read: dense, clunky prose that's a chore to get through), and Wolff makes a lot of sweeping generalizations and uses statistics with an inexcusable sloppiness. According to her "the majority of middle class women in the United States suffer from some version of anorexia or bulimia"; the actual facts are that anorexia affects 0.9% and bulimia 1.5% of American women at some point in their lifetime. Her predictions for the future are, well, hysterical (i.e., she claims poor women's breasts may be transplanted onto rich women).

Her scathing comments about Retin-A and insistence that is a dangerously untested product aroused in me a guilty consciousness of the prescription tube of Retin-A in my bathroom cabinet. I googled the matter to find that while it is true that there have been no long-term clinical studies done on Retin-A, it has been in widespread use since its invention in 1969 and thus far there is no indication it is not safe for long-term use.

Still, this is an important work, and Wolff's central thesis of an artificial societal ideal of beauty that is being imposed on women in order to keep them poor, shamed, distracted, and powerless is one that should never be allowed to fall off the political progressive's radar. If you haven't read The Beauty Myth and aren't planning to read it, I recommend that you at least check out the GoodReads list of selected quotes from the book.