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Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

I will be single on Valentine’s Day this year.

Actually, I did some quick math, and I’ve been single for about 70% of all the Valentine’s Days in my life, so this is actually nothing new or unusual.

In general I’ve always been fairly sanguine about Valentine’s Day. A few years ago I spent the evening with a friend of mine who was having trouble with their relationship; we talked about it a fair amount over sushi, and I felt kind of relieved I was single rather than being in a relationship that made me unhappy. Then we watched a silly action flick and all in all, it was one of my favorite Valentine’s Days. I mean, I wish my friend had been happier. But personally, I had a nice time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m also not anti-Valentine’s Day. I mean, it’s a weird holiday. If someone were proposing it as a new holiday, I don’t know that I’d be in favor. But since it exists, I am not opposed to putting aside a bit of time to feel happy and appreciate a significant other. Plus sometimes I get big bouquets of red roses for Valentine’s Day, and I like roses, so that can work out pretty well.

This year I might get myself flowers, but maybe not roses. I wonder if tulips are in season? I’ve been wanting some tulips ever since I saw this beautiful display of them at Pike Market, but I couldn’t get them then because I was staying in a hotel. And that was almost four years ago, so I’ve been waiting four years for tulips.

Whatever, they’ll totally be worth the wait.

Anyway, a lot of my Valentine’s Days blur together, and since it doesn’t have the strong foundation of tradition that, say, Christmas does for me, it’s hard to get too worked up over it. But I do remember both my best Valentine’s Day and my worst Valentine’s Day.

Worst one first, shall we? I was in college; it was in the first year after my mom died, and she always got me an adorable card for Valentine’s Day, and sometimes also a stuffed animal or sugary treat. Our last Valentine’s Day together, she’d given me a stuffed tiger I’d named Marmalade. So this Valentine’s Day wasn’t going to be good no matter what.

Also this guy and I had started showing a mutual interest in each other (actual concrete dating at Santa Cruz was not super common, at least in my experience), and I liked him a lot, and it wasn’t out of the question that we would spend Valentine’s Day together, but then it turned out he was having some issues with his ex-girlfriend that made it sound like she might not remain his ex-girlfriend. So no Valentine’s Day for us, which was disappointing.

And then on Valentine’s Day itself I got an email from my dad announcing that his girlfriend had moved in with him. This news came in spite of the fact that six weeks before I had told him I wanted to come home for the summer and asked him if he could hold off moving in with her until the following fall, and he had agreed. But now magically it was as if that conversation never happened. (I later found out on my graduation trip that she had actually moved in with him maybe a week or two after we’d had that talk, which made for an interesting graduation trip.) When I called up my best friend, I sounded so stricken he thought someone else had died.

Definitely my worst Valentine’s Day.

Now to cleanse our palates with my best Valentine’s Day. I’d taken the day off work to go look at an apartment in San Francisco. It was a great apartment with a bay window and a lot of character, and if I craned my neck enough, I could just barely see the ocean from the bedroom window. Two weeks later I moved in. And after the interview, I drove down to see the guy I was dating at the time. My memory is a little fuzzy on this point, but I’m pretty sure I beat him home, and he’d left all these Valentine’s Day presents for me to find: flowers, candy, a stuffed animal. And I was surprised and thought it was amazing. It wasn’t super elaborate or anything, but it meant the world to me, and really, that’s all that matters.

This year on Valentine’s Day I’m going to be thinking of my friends, and how grateful I am for you all. You shine, you really do. It’s not that I don’t want or value romantic love, because I do, but I find my friendships matter to me more than I ever would have guessed.

So then that’s what I wish for everyone on this Valentine’s Day. May you be loved by some great people. May you be appreciated. May you feel cherished.

I was going to post a photo with human friends, but then I didn't want to leave anybody out, so here is me with my best dog friend instead.

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I have always had a very strong sense of self. Admittedly, it has sometimes become somewhat buried under expectations or confusion or trauma, but even in the hard times, I have known on some essential level who I am.

But it wasn’t until a bit later in life that I realized not everyone has this same confidence in who they are. And once I did understand this to be true, this question both worried and fascinated me: Why? Why do I know who I am? What is it that forms that core sense of self that I am able to fall back on in times of stress and trouble?

And how can I be so very certain of who I am when I also believe myself to be constantly changing, when I enjoy learning and challenging myself? How do I know myself when sometimes my behavior changes, or my environment changes, or my interests change, or my opinions change?

I don’t know that I have a complete answer to this question, but this is what I’ve got so far:

My basic stories about myself are simple. We all tell stories about ourselves, and we start this at a young age. Someone does well on a certain art assignment at school, and then he has a story that he is an artist. Someone wins a competition, and the story of winning can come to define her. We tell stories about our physical and mental attributes, our personalities, our families, our love lives, our careers. And this is perfectly normal.

But I’ve always been clear on my basic story, and my basic story tells both who I want to be, and, because these stories can end up being self-fulfilling prophecies, who I am. I become who I want to be–not all the time, but quite often.

So what are my fundamental stories?

I love the world. I love being alive. I’m curious. I’m determined. I care a lot about resilience, and kindness, and joy.

Does this mean I am always resilient or kind or joyful or happy about what’s going on? No, not at all. But I always care about those traits, and I always come back to the sense of feeling lucky to be alive. Perhaps this is temperament, or a basic value system, I’m not sure. But these things have never changed for me, not over the long term.

I recognize my experience as part of my identity.

For many years, I taught music as a profession. So one of my identities was musician. Now I only do music for fun, and when I get busy, my practice falls by the wayside, sometimes for months at a time.

But being a musician has been folded into who I am. I spent over fifteen years putting huge amounts of time and effort into music. My skills, without so much constant practice, are no longer at their peak. But my thousands of hours as a musician shaped who I am today. How could it not have?

Experience matters. And just because it changes over time does not mean it automatically becomes lost. Experience ripples into the present, in both predictable and surprising ways.

I don’t define myself by comparing myself to others. I have never thought of myself as being the pretty one, or so-and-so’s girlfriend, or the geek girl, or the smart one. I can be all of those things, sure, but that’s not who I think I am, not in the essentials. In fact, when I was voted Most Intelligent in high school, I was completely shocked. And not because of modesty, but because it simply hadn’t occurred to me that being intelligent was the way my classmates defined me.

Who I am is not determined by others. I’m not in some kind of competition with the rest of the human race so I can define myself by whatever traits or skills of mine are better than average, or get more recognition. I’m not merely what other people see in me. And if I meet someone who is better at me at something that is important to me, that doesn’t change anything about me.

I determine for myself who I am.

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In the past, I have had people take advice I didn’t mean to give from this blog.

I rarely mean to give advice. When I sit down to write, I’m not thinking, “Now then, let me tell people how I think they should do x or how they should feel about y.” I’m generally talking about my own experiences, knowing very well that people are different and their concerns are different and what works and doesn’t work for me might have nothing much to do with you. I talk about things I find interesting and things I have learned, but they are all very much colored by me being me.

But advice, well, advice can be tricky. I was reminded of this fact by this post about advice, which contains many examples of two pieces of directly conflicting advice, both of which can be valid. It’s really illuminating to read so many examples back to back. I’ll give you just one here to give you a taste:

“You need to be more conscious of how your actions in social situations can make other people uncomfortable and violate their boundaries” versus “You need to overcome your social phobia by realizing that most interactions go well and that probably talking to people won’t always make them hate you and cause you to be ostracized forever.”

I know people for whom the first piece of advice is probably best, and people for whom the second piece of advice is probably best. I even know people who might benefit from both pieces of advice. So yes, advice is not simple.

Ultimately I think good advice depends a lot on context. Generalized advice is all well and good, but nothing can replace the insights of a therapist or a close friend or family member who knows the specifics about who you are and what your situation is. (This person must also be wise and experienced enough to have helpful insights.) Often situations have many factors at play, so one piece of generalized advice can easily miss a lot of nuance.

In learning how to better set boundaries, for example, I found it very useful to have people I call “sanity checkers:” people who know me and my background and who are very skilled at setting boundaries themselves, who I can get feedback from, run things by, or get help with wordings. I find I need their help less and less as I get more experience, but even so, it’s nice to know I can ask for their expertise if I need it. And sometimes I still definitely do!

The other interesting thing about advice is that you can’t force people to take it. It doesn’t matter if you do know them and their situation, if what’s going on seems really incredibly obvious to you, or how painful it is to watch them suffer. People do things on their own timeline. They’re ready when they’re ready, especially when it comes to accepting hard truths and making difficult changes. Sometimes they’re never ready.

Which means I always feel fairly wary of giving personalized advice. You have to find a way to do it that is gentle enough that it doesn’t alienate the two of you when they probably don’t take the advice. And I try not to give advice unless it’s actually been asked for. There are exceptions to this (oh, nuance!), and we all slip up at this from time to time, of course. Some people feel they need to give advice to be useful, which isn’t really true but can certainly feel true. And sometimes it can be really hard to sit and witness the suffering of someone who is simply stuck and has been for months or even years. That tends to be when I’m most likely to slip up.

Advice over milkshakes!

Advice over milkshakes!

In conclusion:

Generalized advice: can be helpful, but must be considered in context

Personalized advice: can be helpful, but must find people who are insightful and get you

Giving advice: can be helpful, but usually only if asked to give it and if not too attached to the outcome

So yes, these are my thoughts (but not advice!) about advice.

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Nala: Before and After

This is going to be one of my best posts ever. Are you ready?

Nala before her haircut:

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Nala after her haircut:

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You’re welcome.

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I got my first Kindle in the summer of 2009. It was a birthday present after seeing my first Kindle at Wiscon (my first convention) at the end of May. I loved the idea of being able to have so many books in one device, but I didn’t embrace it enthusiastically until a few years later when I had to move. Suddenly the idea of not adding to the volume of books to be moved seemed like the best idea anyone had ever had. And since then, I’ve read much more on my Kindle.

Fast forward six and a half years. In this day and age, that’s a good run for an electronic device, but this fall I began to notice my Kindle’s battery life was not what it once was. And then for Christmas, I received a Kindle Paperwhite.

I love my Paperwhite! I love it so much! I hated setting it up, and I hated learning the basic UI, and I understood that I always kind of hate those things, and then I was done with them, and it was LOVE.

What I Love about my Paperwhite:

  1. It is small and light! But the screen is the same size as my old Kindle. So I’ve lost nothing and gained something great. Maybe my purse won’t break so quickly this time around. (This is actually a serious problem for me. I break my purses. Mostly because of Kindles and books, which are heavy.)
  2. It has an automatic light! I can read it comfortably in any lighting situation, from bright to pitch dark. When I was on the plane this weekend, I didn’t have to bring along an extra light. I didn’t have to turn on the overhead light. I could be lazy and read my novels in peace.
  3. The battery life seems to be okay even when its wi-fi is on. This was not true for my old Kindle, so I always had the wi-fi off. But with the wi-fi on, it is even faster and easier to buy new books, and also there’s a little blurb when you open a new book telling me what it’s about, which is great because I can’t always remember why I bought the book in the first place.
  4. I can see book covers again! My old Kindle was all text, showing only titles, but now I see a beautiful display of book covers, which also helps remind me what these books are.
  5. There are options for measuring your reading! You can pick between page number, time left in the book, and time left in the chapter. I keep switching back and forth because I love them all. The time left feature is great because it allows me to plan my reading better, and no surprise, I adore anything that lets me plan smarter.
  6. Touch screens are cool. I understand we’re already kind of accustomed to them, with smartphones and smartpads and everything else, but seriously, they are cool.

My joy and rapture over my new Kindle has already convinced two people to buy one for themselves. Just as my joy and rapture over The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson has already convinced a few people to buy the book. (Because it’s so good! The buzz was actually true!) I don’t know if I’m being unusually convincing lately, or if these things are just so amazing, it’s hard to resist their allure. (I suspect the second.)

Anyway, here’s my new Kindle, and there’s Nala in the background pretending to be blasé. But don’t let her fool you; we are very excited about this! (You can tell by the liberal use of exclamation points in this post.)

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I know a lot of people who don’t have much self-esteem.

I used to be one of them, in fact.

Having low self-esteem can be a self-perpetuating cycle. You feel bad about yourself, and so you look outside of yourself to feel better. You look for validation from other people. You care a lot about what other people think. You are more easily suggestible. You worry that people don’t like you, and of course you’re worried because you haven’t learned to like yourself! In extreme cases, you let someone new in your life (a significant other, a boss, a close friend), and your identity changes radically because of that relationship.

(Note: I’m not talking about small changes and compromises. Those are normal. New people encourage us to try new things, to learn new things, to think about things differently, and that’s great. But have you ever known someone who got into a new relationship and then it was almost like they were a different person? That’s what I’m talking about.)

The problem is, getting external validation from other people is never enough. It never lasts. It’s like putting a band-aid over a large gaping wound that needs stitches. Maybe it stops the blood flow, maybe it keeps you from dying, but it’s not going to heal right. It’s probably not going to heal at all. And so then you just always have this inflamed wound, causing you constant pain, ripping open again at the most inconvenient times.

But it’s not so obvious with self-esteem. I’ve seen people who want more money, more advancement in their career, more friends, more compliments, more awards. And it’s not that wanting any of these things is inherently bad. The problem occurs because all of these things, if you achieve them, do make you feel really good for a short period of time. So it feels like they work, and you stay caught in the cycle.

Meanwhile, if you don’t achieve these things that you want, if you fail (because failure is, after all, a part of most successes) or even if it simply takes you a bit longer than planned, it can damage your already vulnerable self-esteem even more. Which also keeps you caught in the cycle.

Plus the genuine way OUT of the cycle feels…well, it feels corny. Corny and fake and maybe even a little bit embarrassing. It’s not something our culture teaches us is important. It’s something that’s easy to pay lip service to but a lot more difficult to internalize.

So what is the way out? It is in cultivating a relationship with yourself. A loving, kind, respectful relationship. A relationship in which you get to know who you are, and you take a look at all those wounds, and you learn how to love yourself anyway, in spite of whatever flaws you find, in spite of whatever has happened in the past, in spite of failure or disappointments or trauma or mistakes. Maybe even BECAUSE of those things, if you’re feeling especially ambitious.

Myself with myself!

Myself with myself!

This can be a difficult thing to do. Your jerkbrain has been getting a lot of practice saying mean things about you. So you have to institute habits to get practice saying loving things instead. You have to practice listening to yourself and learning who you are. You have to practice looking at your shortcomings and then being gentle about them. Meditation, affirmations, mindfulness practice, journaling, stopping and thinking before making decisions, catching negative self-talk and re-casting it, giving kind pep talks, taking care of yourself so you feel better: all these things can help.

And eventually the idea that it doesn’t matter what other people think is not just a thing you know you’re supposed to think. You actually believe it. Not that other people aren’t important, that’s not it, but that you are also important, and you are, after all, the main character of your own life, so you are perfectly entitled to be in the driver’s seat. Other people’s opinions still matter, and listening to the people you are close to is still important, but ultimately you will make up your own mind.

Your feeling of self-worth is no longer strongly tied to anything or anyone but yourself. It is yours and yours alone.

And just as you would do for a relationship with your significant other or a close friend, you keep working on your relationship with yourself. You keep giving it attention and love. Sometimes you might slip a bit, you might get busy and caught up in other things, but then you’ll come back and you’ll remember and you’ll do the relationship maintenance that will keep it strong and growing.

Self-esteem comes from yourself (hence the word SELF-esteem). No one else can give it to you. And in times of hardship, you will reach for that relationship, that core of who you are, and instead of bringing you down further, it will give you solace and strength.

My relationship with myself is the most important relationship I’ve ever had.

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What if you knew you were going to die in a year? Would you be doing anything differently?

I read a New York Times op-ed today on this subject. It’s always a little strange for me to see this presented as wisdom, even though I think it is. It’s strange because I’ve been living my life this way since I was nineteen. It’s strange to think that nineteen-year-old me got something so right.

I spent years thinking my mom was going to die imminently, and then she actually did die. This hammered into me the idea that time is precious. For me, it’s more precious than money. I’ve only had a few jobs that I really, really didn’t find worthwhile, and in those cases I was always planning how to make a change.

And for me, planning means looking at reality as clearly as I can. Not in order to discourage myself (luckily I am something of a natural optimist), but in order to prioritize based on the facts I’ve been able to see. And one of those facts is we’re all going to die someday. Transhuman hopes aside, so far the longest a human has lived is 122 years, and most of us live a lot less than that. We can ignore it, or we can prioritize with this basic fact in mind. I’ve always chosen the latter.

Having lived my entire adult life with my eventual demise in mind, I have the following observations to offer:

  • Living this way can lead to intensity, both of experience and of personality. And if you take it very seriously, as I have, one of the most important lessons to learn is how to both keep it in mind and chill the fuck out.
  • You become very, very good at figuring out what you want, figuring out how to get it, figuring out if you can get it, and letting go of the stuff you either figure out you can’t get or for which you are unwilling to pay the price.
  • The saying “there will be plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead” is only partially true. Time is not just about quantity but also quality, and if you don’t get enough sleep, a lot of that time will be spent in a less pleasant, less mindful, less productive way. Hence sleep remains a valuable use of time.
  • Building connections with people and animals and spending time with them is one of the most valuable uses of time of all.
  • But downtime has its place too. Not everyone can spend every minute of the day being social. Time to rest, to think, to nurture yourself and get to know yourself, even time to goof off, is also worthwhile. And it ultimately helps enrich social interactions, as long as a balance is struck.
  • You will be more likely to favor bold decisions. As long as you can balance those decisions with practicality, they will tend to be some of your favorite things about your life. Once in a while, one of them will go terribly wrong, but since the rest of them are your favorites, it more than evens out.
  • You are inspired to change whatever it is that is holding you back or causing you unhappiness sooner rather than later. Carpe diem, baby.
  • The cliché “It’s about the journey, not the destination” will ring true to you. You’re never sure you’re going to reach the destination, and you also realize so often the destination is a moving target, so you damn well better be enjoying the process.

If I were going to die in a year, here is what I’d do differently. I might choose a different vacation destination. I’d travel a bit more to spend some last quality time with loved ones who don’t live local to me. I’d maybe skip more conventions and opt for more intimate time with writer friends instead. I’d push a little harder to get Beast Girl out to publishers, and I’d think a bit more carefully about which novel I’d write this year. I’d have to do a bit of work to get my affairs in order. I wouldn’t care as much about things like going to the dentist or keeping my place within a certain standard of cleanliness or buying stuff for myself.

I'd still spend just as much time snuggling this shaggy one.

I’d still spend just as much time snuggling this shaggy one.

That’s it, though. I’d spend the bulk of my time the same way. And I can say that confidently for most of the years since I was nineteen. Of course, this is not entirely from the decisions I’ve made. A fair amount of it has come from being extremely lucky.

Still, for me, it’s the easiest way to tell the difference between what I think I should care about and what I actually care about. It’s why I studied music, why I moved to the UK, why I started a business, why I began writing seriously, why I adopted Nala. It is why I write this blog. It is why I spend time with you.

If you knew you were going to die in a year, what would you do differently? What would you keep the same?

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