Spiraling Towards Habit

The beginning of May caught me by surprise. Which, in retrospect, shouldn’t have been too surprising since I felt the same way about the beginning of April.

Really everything since mid-February has caught me at least partially off-guard.

We hear a lot about New Year’s resolutions shortly before December 31st and for a little while after January 1st. Well, we’re now a little more than four months into 2017, and it seems like as good a time as any to take stock.

On the plus side, I’ve been doing better about posting here over the last couple weeks, which wasn’t really a big part of the plan.

I’ve also been doing better about eating lunch at work since the beginning of the year, which was a goal.

Dialing back on alcohol has been a bit tougher, although I’ve been better about caffeine than I was for most of 2016.

My heavy bag finally made it from my parents’ house to the basement of the place we live now, and I’ve clocked at least a couple sessions a week with it since the move, which has been good.

The past week at work hasn’t been great in terms of my ability to log multiple 15-minute walks a day, but most of the last month has been pretty good on that front. The last couple weeks in particular have been good about spending the 15-minute walks with wordless music instead of podcasts, which has improved my overall level of focus after walks. Maintaining consistency with that will be a bit of a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

As always, there are challenges with building good habits and maintaining them while trying to build others. That, I suppose, is part of adulthood in a world filled with caffeine, alcohol, and several parts of the Internet clamoring for attention.

On the plus side, my supervisor at my day job just communicated their interest in helping me maintain a solid amount of deep work over the course of the week, which is very reassuring to hear. Especially in an organization which relies heavily on email and meetings, and where I’m involved in enough things that new projects get sent towards my plate with some frequency, it’s good to have an immediate supervisor who values my ability to focus. The rest is on me to make sure I’m (a) protecting my focus to the extent I can in terms of time management, and (b) letting my supervisor know when I need their help deflecting additional projects that would deflect from my ability to focus.

All told, the first third of 2017 has been quite a bit better on the habit front than the last third of 2016, which is good. Life is always a work in progress, and the last few months have afforded me the breathing space needed to begin building and sustaining the habits that 2016 disrupted with its combination of immediate issues and general societal crisis. Hooray for progress – now time to keep it going.

The Personal Canon

I’ve been thinking recently about personal canons. Most of us are familiar with some variation of “the canon,” or specifically “the Western canon.” Turning to our good friend Wikipedia, we get the following: “The Western canon is the body of books, music, and art that scholars generally accept as the most important and influential in shaping Western culture.”

Adapting this to the individual, I think of the personal canon as, “The body of media that have thus far proved most important and influential in shaping an individual.”

Some of these pieces of media – books, music, plays, movies, etc. – may have had a significant impact after only being experienced once or twice. Most others, I think, will tend to be the pieces that a person finds themselves turning to repeatedly over the course of their lifetime. Repetition, after all, creates patterns in the brain, and I think it’s safe to say that things we read, watch, or listen to over and over again tend to shape the way we think about and act in the world.

The personal canon is always evolving, of course. The most significant pieces from our childhoods may stick with us, but some may fade away or be actively challenged and replaced. Whatver forms our current personal canon will be subject to revision over time.

I think it would be a useful exercise to dig into some of the pieces that constitute my current personal canon. Some of these will be throwbacks to my childhood or teen years, and some will be more recent additions. They won’t all be at the height of critical quality, but I don’t think I know anyone whose personal canon would be composed entirely of “great” works by critical standards. Most are problematic in at least some respects, and the list as a whole is tilted towards the creations of white men. An intentional effort to broaden and shift this canon is clearly warranted. Most aren’t particularly original choices, as that isn’t the point. This isn’t an attempt to show off how cool or niche I am, nor is it a list of recommendations; I’m trying to think through which pieces of media I’ve intentionally or unintentionally let shape my thinking.

At a first take, here’s some of what I’m thinking of discussing (and interrogating when appropriate), especially in terms of the impacts I think they’ve had and continue to have on me:

Present Canon

  • Hellspark
  • Casablanca
  • Firefly / Serenity
  • Real Genius
  • The Rook
  • Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy movies, and the works of Guillermo Del Toro in general
  • The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Philadelphia Story
  • City of Stairs
  • The Fifth Season
  • Better Off Ted

18-Twenties Canon

  • The West Wing
  • Freedom Force and Freedom Force vs The Third Reich
  • Watchmen
  • Superman (the Richard Donner film starring Christopher Reeve)
  • The Maltese Falcon
  • Neil Gaiman’s writings (especially Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things, and American Gods)
  • Good Omens
  • Assorted Klingon-related arcs and stories from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • A New Kind of Christian

Childhood and Early-to-Mid-Teens Canon

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Les Miserables (the musical)
  • 1776 (especially its movie version)
  • Star Trek: Birth of the Federation
  • Star Wars, Episodes IV-VI
  • Stories of Robin Hood, as manifested in both the animated Disney movie and the Great Illustrated Classics book

Reading and Writing for Intellect or Sentiment

I recently had a conversation with my father about the CW’s Legends of Tomorrow. Now, there’s no question it’s a ridiculous show. In many ways, it’s a throwback to the comics of the mid-20th century, before The Dark Knight Returns drew a line in the sand against those same oft-goofy comics of yesteryear (a la Batman ’66). It’s a lot of fun if you know what you’re signing up for, though by no means the epitome of prestige TV.

There are many reasons for a person to dislike Legends of Tomorrow. For my dad, though, it came down to the implausibility of the time travel physics. This rankled me more than I expected. Upon reflection, it’s clear to me that one does not watch a show like Legends for the physics or the realism of the experience. Quite frankly, that’s not what comic books are for, and this is a particularly comic-book-y show.

The thing that gets me is that my dad seems more or less OK with Doctor Who, the time travel physics of which are only barely more plausible (if, indeed, more plausible at all) than those of Legends.

Then I remember that my dad enjoyed the movie version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen more than most. Then I remember that I used to enjoy The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie more than most. I rewatched it a few months ago, and found that my affection for it has lessened distinctly from a few years ago.

When I interrogate why my tastes have changed, the most immediate influence is clearly my spouse, who has more background in analyzing film than I do. Relatedly, I’ve spent much more time consuming media on my own or with my spouse than I have with my immediate family over the last few years. Somewhere in there, it would appear, the switch has flipped with respect to what has the most dominant effects on my appreciation for media. (In the particular case of LXG, it doesn’t help that Penny Dreadful has since come out and done a much better job with the same core concept.)

To be clear, my tastes are not wholly those of my spouse’s, either. I have a much higher tolerance for the live-action The Shadow movie from the ‘90’s, for example, even as I’ve grown more aware of its obvious flaws than I did when I was in college. I also enjoy the CW superhero shows more than my spouse does, even as they derive greater enjoyment from Supernatural than I do. I was the one to start us on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Teen Wolf, while my spouse introduced me to The Great British Baking Show and made sure we signed up for Hulu to watch The Handmaid’s Tale.

If there is such a thing as an objective measure of quality, most of what I’ve listed falls below the critical consensus standard (the exceptions being Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Handmaid’s Tale, both of which I recommend finding a way to watch, along with The Great British Baking Show which is delightful). That said, my spouse and I have both derived quite a bit of entertainment from the two and a half seasons we’ve watched of Teen Wolf.

What I’ve found as I think about these evolving tastes is that I now seek entertainment that’s more fulfilling at the level of emotion and sentiment than I used to. Growing up, I was more like my dad, leaning into the intellectual “interesting idea” factor more than the emotional “evoked feeling” factor. Given time to indulge my own tastes throughout college and be exposed to my spouse’s tastes, that’s begun to shift.

The next step is transferring this from consumption to creation. Some of my writing has occasionally jumped ahead of my evolution as a reader, but I’m generally prone to approaching writing first at the intellectual level, then at the aesthetic level, and only intermittently at the emotional level. In other words, I’m pretty likely to hit some combination of “interesting” and “cool” (depending one’s tastes and past experiences with respect to each of those terms), but much less likely to hit “moving”.

That’s OK on an objective level, of course. Nothing wrong with interesting and cool escapism that makes its way to moving every once in a while. I’m happy when my writing can hit even one out of those three.

Still, as a point of aspiration, I’d like to become more reliable at reaching that emotional level. The obvious catch is that doing so requires a greater degree of vulnerability and introspection than I’ve been comfortable with up to this point in my life. Finding a way to dig into vulnerability and discomfort, then transfer that to the page, needs to be one of my next steps.

Control and the Inner Monster

Fence
From Flickr user haru_q, https://www.flickr.com/photos/haru__q/14311443726/

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been prone to high levels of self-monitoring and self-regulation. Pretty much every action is accompanied by at least a modicum of premeditated thought (as best I can tell), and many by more than a modicum. I’ve also developed some pretty immediate internal feedback loops, taking stock of each action and doling out either congratulations or chastisement to myself.

This process is reflexive these days; as best I can tell, my particular habits of internal self-regulation are the result of external consequences when I was insufficiently effective at restraining my inner weirdnesses. Much of this comes from childhood, of course. I was always in (at least) the 95th percentile of height and weight for my age group. When young, if someone gets hurt, the first glance goes to the biggest kid in the vicinity. Cultivating a reputation for gentleness helped redirect the attention (not out of any cunning misdirection – I’ve never had much of a violent streak). That, plus lots of focus at home on politeness, has led to an adult mentality that’s heavily focused on not imposing myself on others. (The junior high years also stand out as a time of intense social policing by peers that led to strong self-policing of particular behaviors.)

I find variations of this are common among many of my friends and loved ones. It’s also possible they’re very common among humanity generally (or at least the parts with cultural backgrounds and guidelines like my own) — I just don’t want to project my experience, or those of my admittedly unrepresentative social circle, onto everyone else.

An end result of all this is that I have a hard time putting myself in the head of someone who generally doesn’t give a damn how they are perceived or reacted to by others. The punk, the James Dean-style “bad boy,” the true free spirit, the archetypal artist. Even within the realm of creative expression, the most comfortable forms for me are writing and Lego-building, and I think it’s not a coincidence that both are shaped by rules and clear parameters, whether socially agreed-upon or physical. Even at its most freeform, writing with any degree of intelligibility still has a clearly defined set of rules and relationships between words that are either followed or intentionally bent or broken within certain limits.

Given time and instruction, I’m sure I could pick up the underlying “rules” for music, painting, or even interpretive dance, but each of those strikes me as less defined – and therefore tougher to self-regulate within – than writing. There’s also no question that I don’t exactly push hard against the stylistic conventions that do exist when it comes to prose, and poetry is unquestionably more daunting. Ultimately, there is comfort in clearly understanding the externally maintained rules that can be violated in self-directed ways for particular effect.

The thing is, there’s more to life than comfort or effectiveness. Much of my life up to this point has been an exercise in constraining myself in the interest of comfort and effectiveness, and there remain without question parts of my life, such as my day job, that are best served by those principles. Outside of those areas, I think my life could stand to be less restricted, or at least less subject to self-imposed restriction. Certainly my writing would benefit from a little less self-regulation, at least on first draft, and my personal life would probably gain a little extra flavor if I could at least relax the boundaries I’ve created for myself.

Wolfman
From Flickr user xploitme, https://www.flickr.com/photos/45928872@N08/4216094720/

To return to the realm of the fictional, I suspect there’s a reason the werewolf remains my favorite of the classical monsters, followed by the…“aggressively eccentric” scientist. Werewolves explore loss of control in its purest form, and the aggressively eccentric scientist rejects the conventions of their field with far greater confidence than I feel I could muster right now. Recognizing that the boundaries I’ve created for myself are in many ways more restrictive than those suggested by ethics, morality, or society, I could probably stand to give my inner monsters a little more time outside of the dungeon.

Within reason, of course.

Balance in the Age of Easy Distraction

An explanation for my general absence: In the fall of 2015, I got a new job that almost immediately began drawing more time and mental energy than anyone anticipated when I was hired. It’s a great job – decent pay, meaningful work, reasonable hours even after accounting for the unexpected increase – but it does pull more out of me than what I was doing before it.

However, this is only a partial explanation for my absence. There have also been some health issues among my family that have reared their ugly heads, drawing additional attention and emotional energy. Everything has worked out pretty well for now, although one case is of a chronic illness that will likely make an undesired comeback in a few years.

And yet, that too is only a partial explanation. I’ve also been waging an on-again/off-again struggle to keep my own physical health under control, which has been made more difficult by the shift to a more traditional office-based job, the allure of easy-but-unhealthy options (especially when delivered) while caring for loved ones, and a move to place with a fenced yard for the dog that means I’m taking him for fewer walks. When the struggle is engaged, I’m focusing in particular on diet, which can be its own draw on willpower as I experiment with different approaches to getting only the calories I need while still feeling full. Combine all of that with the job and the family health pieces, and there have been a lot of draws on my attention and energy.

But plenty of other people prove able to get in time for some writing while balancing day jobs, family health matters, and personal wellness. (Also, it would be one thing if I was still getting some real fiction writing in instead of blogging, but that hasn’t been happening, either.) So what gives?

This is the long way of saying that writing has apparently become only intermittently a psychological need of mine. I still do story-related noodling with a pad every so often, and sometimes I even get around to outlining a short piece. Fingers to keyboard, though, just hasn’t been happening.

Nor should the pieces I outlined at the beginning of this piece be sacrificed in the name of fingers to keyboard. Day job equals ability to stay housed and fed, and it is emotionally satisfying and the good kind of mentally challenging more often than not. Helping out family members is nonnegotiable, especially when one is my significant other. And personal health has to be a long-term priority.

The one source of imbalance that I can control that I haven’t discussed yet is distraction. It’s not exactly an original observation to note that we live in a time when people are trying as hard as ever, and arguably more effectively than at any time in history, to capture our attention in the hope of placing some ads in front of us or otherwise making money. The catch is, many of the pieces I find myself giving time to are also entertaining and provide a useful escape…in moderation.

I find myself reminded of the concept of marginal utility from my econ classes of yore. The first unit of Netflix time, or podcast time, or whatever, carries high utility for me. By hour three, or when I’m stealing 15 minutes of podcast time between every hour and fifteen minutes of deep work at my day job (thereby derailing my brain for the next 15 minutes after I get back to work, instead of listening to lyricless music and capitalizing on those 15 minutes of walking as a way to help my attention shift to the next task), the utility has dropped or even gone negative.

Again, these aren’t original observations, but they are true for me and proof that even when I know where the trap is, sometimes I’m still lured by the bait. The answer, of course, is building alternative habits that satisfy the same limited need for escape before moving me to writing, which is ultimately more useful for my brain than that third hour in front of the television. Easier said than done.

Still, here’s one step down the path to better balance.

Sincerely, Your Mortician

MISSED CONNECTIONS

For my Lady Prometheus – w4w (last week’s Old Glassworks retro pop-up party)

You wore a navy Old Hollywood dress with Art Deco earrings and chestnut pincurls. We didn’t meet until the second band went on, and you didn’t recognize me at first because I’d changed outfits after the set. I wore a black pantsuit and white shirt on stage, and I’d traded it for that evil short red number that caught your eye by the bar. You bought my Manhattan (easy on the vermouth, heavy on the bitters) and I bought your next martini (gin, stirred, two olives).

You said I played sax like an angel who knew she was about to fall, and I made a stupid joke about the event’s organizer before I found out it was your brother. You laughed and were the very picture of grace; I stumbled over each word for the next two minutes. Until you kissed me, maybe just to shut me up.

We danced a bit, and we each took one of those pills you had with the little lightning bolts on them, and then you dragged me away from the main shindig. As you led me through the halls, you said you’d found this whole place and pointed it out to your brother, but I wasn’t listening too closely because as soon as you took my hand, happy static filled my brain. We left our empty glasses on the broken chair outside the special room you’d set up.

I made another joke, this time about mad scientists. You didn’t laugh that time. You had a whole speech about genius, eccentricity, and stereotypes of the mentally ill. Your other brother – the one who hadn’t organized the party – had schizophrenia, you said, and he was doing pretty well sticking to his schedule of DBT and antipsychotics. “All of this,” you said, with a particular smile that made me shiver deliciously watching you spin in the middle of the room full of weird machines, “has nothing to do with madness.”

And you were right, of course. Although it did freak me out when I found the corpse.

You teased me something fierce about that. I remember pointing out over and over that, even though the band is Jenny Casket and the Morticians, only Val on drums is actually a funeral director. (If it helps you remember me, I work for the county library.)

You explained that this was a volunteer, some guy who’d made a deal with you after his last chance at a transplant fell through. And we weren’t going to be bringing him back to life. You just needed one more gently used brain, and an assistant for the second step.

The first step didn’t look like much. You traded your dress for scrubs (and put on a good show for me as you did – thanks for that), and then you just up and cut the top of the guy’s head off. I think I should have gotten queasy around then, but your lightning pill had worked its magic nicely by that point.

The brain went into a case that was metal on the bottom, glass on the top so we could watch. Once it was all sealed up, little mechanical arms came up out of the metal half and started running all over the brain. I said something about the brain being ticklish and then had a giggling fit. Then the big machine behind me beeped, and I jumped half a foot off the floor. I broke a heel coming down, but all I could do was giggle louder.

You had to slap me out of it so we could get on to the second step. You checked the screen on the big machine, then gave out a happy squeal and kissed me again. For quite a while. That got me focused again.

You talked about how that was the last brain you needed for the modeling process, how the system had enough data now.

“Enough data for what?” I asked.

“Immortality,” you said. Then there was a whole lot of stuff about how this wasn’t really a computer program, not the way I think of it, and that the whole electromechanical metaphor for the brain was fundamentally limited (I think – mostly I was riding lightning-pill-buzz and afterglow from all the kissing). Whatever was in that big machine, what I got out of your little lecture was that it was totally new and could serve as a waystation between neurobiology and conventional electronics.

“I’ll always be in here,” you said, “but I’ll also be able to project myself digitally. I just need you to strap me in and work the controls.”

You’d made it really easy. Once you talked me through hooking you in and strapping you down, there were just three buttons I needed to press on the screen.

“Why me?” I asked, before I pressed anything.

You shrugged as best you could, given the straps. “You’re cute, and I liked your music. If everything goes wrong, you’ve still made it a good night.”

“Kiss for good luck?” I offered. You grinned and winked.

After the last kiss, I pressed the buttons. You took a deep breath after the second, and it came out in one long sigh after the third. It sounded kind of like you were deflating. Your eyes closed, and then I couldn’t tell if you were breathing.

The machine made a whole series of noises before going quiet. Suddenly, everything in the room went dark.

“What did you do to her?”

I looked to the doorway, and there was a guy there. Probably your brother? He had a big cord in his hand, which I think was the power supply. He started coming towards me, but I threw my busted shoe at his face and ran barefoot out of there, through the party and out to the street. When I was two blocks away, I broke down in the back of the cab.

My brain felt like an overcrowded disco by the time I finally made it through my door. As I brushed my teeth and the world writhed in my peripheral vision, all I could do was stare at my phone, not knowing who or what to call. I could swear that, just for a second, the background changed to your winking face. I blinked, and then I thought spiders were running up and down my spine, so I ran to bed and curled up in a ball until everything stopped.

The next afternoon, drained but settled down, I came back to see if it – if you – had been real. There was no evidence of the party, and no evidence of the lab. My shoes were neatly set in the middle of that room, though. Someone had even glued the heel back on. A small, handwritten note was tied to the strap on the other shoe: Stay away.

For a second, I thought I felt my phone buzz. A message from you? But nothing had come through.

Did it work? Are you out there somewhere? Or at least part of you?

Please get in touch, if you’re real. I need to know how much I can trust myself on this. It’s getting tough to sleep, what with the not knowing and the maybe-remembering and the phantom buzzes from my phone. Please?

Sincerely,

Your Mortician

A Hero’s Code

supergirl
From Flickr user Edward Liu

First and foremost, a hero is good. That goodness is expressed consistently, both inside and out. The occasional failing will happen, but the hero always returns to goodness. They make amends and do better next time.

 

A hero encourages the good in those around them. They know the world is better when everyone’s best selves have the space and support to shine. Those who already strive to be good deserve an ally. Those who have fallen deserve the offer of a helping hand. (Whether they choose to take it is up to them.)

 

she-hulk-and-wonder-woman
From Flickr user greyloch

A hero is strong for others. Sometimes this is physical strength, sometimes mental, sometimes moral. Whatever form the strength takes, it is always used to help others. The hero does not use their strength for their own advancement at the expense of others.

 

A hero pushes the limits of their strength. All heroes have limits, because every hero is finite and flawed. A hero knows their limits, but seeks to exceed them with cleverness or new strengths. When they fail, they rest and heal, and then they try again.

 

luke-misty-and-iron-fist
From Flickr user Pat Loika

A hero leads, partners, and follows, each at the right time. When the world or the country or the team has lost their way, a hero leads by example and encouragement. When others would benefit from the hero’s strength, a hero is a generous and respectful partner. When others can lead well, a hero follows their lead with cheerfulness and good will.

A hero is not alone. Each is defined in no small part by the friends they make, the comrades they join, and the people they love. When a hero falters, they accept the help of a friend, a comrade, or a loved one.

A hero is good. A hero encourages the good in those around them. A hero is strong for others. A hero pushes the limits of their strength. A hero leads, partners, and follows, each at the right time. A hero is not alone.

firefly-crew
From Flickr user JM Palacios