There’s a bit of wisdom going around in social media circles: that the real New Year doesn’t begin — here in America, at least — until Jan 20 (not incidentally the day we have a new president). I like that and I need that, because so far, 2021 is delivering no relief from the constant, unrelenting pain 2020 wrought.
I mean, we’re still losing thousands of people every day (more than ever, in fact). And less than a week ago, our actual capitol was literally assaulted by people who somehow think that our soon-to-be-ex-president actually won re-election, despite zero evidence in favor of their argument and piles and piles of evidence against it. And, oh, by the way, they plan to come back in greater numbers in capitol cities across the nation in a week’s time. No big deal!
As is no great surprise, the turning of the page on the calendar offers little in the way of change for things in the world. These numbers and assignations are all made up, of course… January 1st, 2021, could just as easily have been Hunsplith the 89th, 86742, for all the care the universe has for our resolutions and the new year.
And I know some people out there and even our own backyards have managed to be productive and to make forward progress despite all this turbulence … but it’s been nigh impossible for me. To have any awareness of the news at all is like listening to ambulances, fire trucks and police vehicles blasting down a residential street at three in the morning … all the time, every day.
Can we improve ourselves in times like these? Or is surviving, making it through one day to the next, all we can ask of ourselves?
I made the mistake of listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast this morning.
I say mistake because, as is often the case when I read or listen to something by Tim it tends to take over my brain, the way the moon drifting in front of the sun turns day into night for a few minutes. The difference is instead of lasting for minutes, the effect tends to last for days or weeks.
The problem with listening to Mr. Ferriss, or with any so-called “productivity porn”, is that it tends to create a feedback loop, a sort-of hyped up fugue state. You read this thing and you think “HELL YES, this thing is going to change my life” and your brain drowns in the dopamine flood caused by the visions of success, and while you’re high on that you notice that the thing you just read references this other thing and hey, you’ve got a few minutes before you have to get back to real life, so why not check that out while you’re at it, and wouldn’t you know it the new thing hits you with the “HELL YES” effect again and the cycle repeats. (Full disclosure: when I started writing this post I visited Tim’s site — for the first time in months, I might add, because I know what happens when I do it — and fell victim to the same cycle. I also signed up for his new newsletter. And may or may not have copy/pasted some material onto my desktop. Stop judging me.) Point is, you have to be judicious with this sort of thing, which is why I’m probably not going to dip my toes into Tim Ferriss land for several months again. Still, this morning, I think, was beneficial.
The material in question was a recent episode called Tea Time with Tim, which covers a lot of ground but left me with a couple of things clanking around in the ol’ noggin: something he calls “fear-setting” and a few quotes from ancient Greece.
First, fear-setting. You’ve heard of goal-setting, where you set down your goals, enumerate the steps to the achievement of said goals, and more or less plan your vision for success. Well and good, but for us anxious types, who dwell on fears perhaps more than we should, there’s a tendency to let those fears paralyze us to the point of inaction. (See for example my writing productivity over the past several months.) Fear-setting is designed to take the positive visualization of goal-setting and turn the full artillery of that framework on the anti-action fear center of the brain. In a (woefully inadequate) nutshell, fear-setting entails writing down all the things that could go wrong and enumerating the opportunity cost if all those things did go wrong, then weighing those costs against a (harshly conservative) estimation of the possible benefits if the things don’t go wrong. For the anxious sort like me, it seems like a good way to short-circuit the “thing is scary so maybe just pretend it doesn’t exist and it’ll go away” paralysis I tend to fall into over stuff.
Then, quotes from Greek guys. First, this one:
Which is one I’m going to share with my classes today, because my students tend to be sick with the germ of “well I want this thing really badly, and things tend to work out for me, so on performance day it’ll all just come together”. You and I, of course, know that kind of thinking is what makes starving artists waiting tables for their whole lives, or worse, a phalanx of creatives who never took up the dream at all because a single performance didn’t live up to the hype in their head. So I’m going to remind them, today, that their training, today, matters for the performance a month down the road, and, well, for most of ’em it’ll bounce right off but at least I’ll have done my part for the day.
It applies for me personally, too, of course. Suffice it to say I’m not particularly well trained-up at the moment in a number of domains, and, well, that needs some attention.
And, yeah, Seneca was Roman, not Greek, but the Romans were basically Greeks with better tech, so let’s not get too hung up on the details. I’ve actually seen the quote more often with the first clause as “we are often more frightened than hurt,” but I prefer this one with fears and dangers. The important part, at any rate, is the second part. The thing we’re afraid of is always worse in our minds and the reality is almost never as bad as we build it up to be. For evidence I offer the example from Louis C.K. (and yeah, quoting Louis C.K. is problematic these days but his personal faults don’t change the poignancy of his words) of the average description of a trip by airplane. The person is likely to complain about the length of delays or the slowness of service or the lack of wi-fi and less likely to dwell on the fact that they literally FLEW THROUGH THE AIR and crossed the country in a matter of hours. We make things out, in other words, a bit worse than they really are in the scheme of things.
So, yeah, my brain is basically on fire this morning.
Did you know that Google now has a tasks window that opens right next to your gmail?
(You are using gmail, right? If not, fix that first.)
This is the doohickey that my productive life didn’t know it needed.
I have to keep Outlook open during the day for my work-related e-mail. And Outlook has reminders, which are all well and good — but tedious to set up. Gmail’s window (I think it may be its own separate app, too? Maybe? Haven’t investigated that far?), on the other hand, just sits there next to your inbox and allows you to jot things down as they come to you. Basically a scratchpad right there in the window.
And of course, I always have gmail open in addition to my work e-mail. Which I am always checking. And since I’m always checking my e-mail, by extension I’m also always checking my to-do list. And since it’s right there in the inbox, it doesn’t float to the bottom of a list of unclicked windows. It rises like Old Faithful to the top every time I sit down to work.
Which means it’s always there to be seen. I’m using it for my daily to-do list. Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I tend to get a little scatterbrained when I’m doing lots of things at once (which, as a theatre teacher, is pretty much every minute I’m at work). So every day when I sit down to work, I start my list. Make copies. File paperwork. Enter grades from quiz. Meet with admins. And, because Google is the dark master of regulating our dopamine levels, every time I click a thing off my to-do list, I get a little spray of confetti and color, and then the task vanishes forever.
I’m in another creative slump lately (I know, when am I not) and I haven’t been able to put my finger on why. There’s been the show and the end of school drawing closer, but that doesn’t feel like it — for the last few weeks I’ve had as much time to myself at work as ever. And the slump started before I got really keyed up over that stuff. It started right around the time I started takign time out each morning when I first got to work to write a page-a-day.
Why should that be? I’ve read about journaling dozens of times over the years, and virtually everything I read about seemed to suggest that a bit of unstructured morning writing would be a great way to prime the pump, creatively speaking, to clear out the lines for the juices to flow later in the day. But here I am, flagging on my novel, and — well — just look at the dearth of posts around the blarg of late. Pitiful!
For that matter, I’m not really sure what the journal is doing for me, if anything. Most of what goes into it is irredeemably trite, absolutely worthless, and not fit to be read by anybody but myself, and even then, only at my most masochistic. It’s just me driveling on about any old thing and, a lot of the time, I end up boring myself until I don’t know what to write about. Which, I thought, was why I was journaling in the first place — to kickstart my ideas!
I dunno. It’s only five minutes, after all, and it seems hasty to scrap the practice; with writing, I’ve learned, things sometimes take time to take root, and you don’t always see the benefits right away.
The funny thing is, I wrote most of this post as part of my five minutes yesterday morning. Which is to say that when I turned my attention to my frustration with my creativity and my process, suddenly the thing I was doing to help my creativity and my process actually worked, and I scribbled out a pretty good rant in those five minutes.
So maybe instead of reflecting, I just need to use my morning pages to tear myself a new one each morning.
So this week has been … well, it’s been something, hasn’t it? One of the weirdest and perhaps most depressing weeks in recent memory.
But I can’t wallow in the pain, the uncertainty, the massive, all-consuming doubt that the imminent Trump presidency carries with it. Maybe it’s my unbridled optimism. Maybe it’s the fact that I have faith (how? where did this faith come from? I hate everything, after all) that, though it will certainly be bad, it won’t be that bad. Maybe it’s that I can’t stand being in a pain- and griping- and complaining-spiral.
Trump’s presidency will either be a total cock-up, or it won’t. And I know people are protesting in the streets, and I know the petitions are swirling and people are social-media-sharing that there are still things we can do to stop it, but … sorry, I don’t have that much faith. The electoral college is not going to negate itself just because the country has heartburn. Trump isn’t going to resign because he sees the protests and all the #notmypresident-ing. (By the way, you won’t catch me saying such ridiculousness. For better or worse, Trump is our president. That doesn’t mean I endorse him, but it does mean we get to hold his feet to the fire. We have to be good skeptics, as I said the morning after, and that means giving him a chance — even a short one — to not be a total scumbag as the leader of our great nation.)
We have to get on with our lives.
And yeah, I know, I speak this from a place of privilege. I know that I have the benefit of being allowed to get on with my life, as a middle-class white dude. And a part of me is more than frustrated with myself on that account. You can’t just move onlike that, I hear myself insisting. Others can’t move on; that’s why this is so important.
But he’s only one man, and our country is bigger than one man.
I just … I can’t stay here, in this state of mind where the election of the orange nitwit is front of mind every day, for too many hours in the day. I’ve lost too much productivity and too much mental energy down that black hole (and a black hole it is; it sure as hell doesn’t give anything back for everything I’ve poured into it over the past several months).
He’s the president-elect, now, and in January, he’ll be the president proper. I think that sucks. I think it’s an embarrassment. I think we (and by “we” I mean basically the entire USA, even those of us who voted against him — because we couldn’t stop it) have made ourselves something of a joke on the world stage.
But I’ve got books to write. I’ve got students to teach. I’ve got kids to raise up into something resembling decent human beings. And miles and miles to run.
I’ll keep wearing my safety pin for solidarity, as long as that’s a thing. I’ll stay informed and vote in the 2018 elections, and I sure as hell urge everybody out there to do the same. And I’ll certainly be keeping tabs on our new president as he creeps toward office.
But — and I realize I’ve said this before, but now that the election is over, it feels more final — I’m not going to be posting about it as much around here. It’s tiresome to me, and I’m sure it’s tiresome to my readers. This is supposed to be a blarg about writing and running and parenting and other lighthearted sharknado like that, for fargo’s sake.
I’m not going to be thinking about it all the time. I’m not going to waste my mental energy worrying about a thing that’s out of my control.
I’m going to co-opt a bit of religious wisdom (without the religion) in the form of the Serenity prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
You don’t even have to believe in god to see the wisdom in that. Any good meditationalist (is that even a word?) will tell you that serenity comes from within.
For me, at least, it’s time to turn away from Trump and the noxious cloud that surrounds everything about him. It’s time to turn inward.
It’s time to get back to work.
This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.