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What If We Don't

I hesitate to publish something that interrupts the flow of our ongoing serialized novel, but this has been a pervasive thought for some time now and I don’t think Facebook or any other social media is the best place for it. Please allow me this one indulgence as I momentarily direct our attention to more urgent matters.


Anxiety has risen around when we’re going to break free of the COVID-19-related shutdowns and “get back to normal.” While the US president is pushing for an unrealistic May 1 date for business to reopen, other experts are projecting much longer time periods. One bioethicist predicts it could be autumn of 2021 before large crowd gatherings such as concerts and sporting events can be resumed. The underlying question on everyone’s mind is, “When are we going to get back to normal?”

But what if we don’t?

What happens if “normal” as we knew it on January 1 of this year never returns? What could that look like? Could we create a better society for everyone if we don’t allow normal to come back? I don’t think anyone would say that our world we perfect before the pandemic struck. There’s absolutely nothing in the world that says we have to go back to the way things were. This is our opportunity to build something new, something better.

What if we don’t return to a society where people are segregated socially, financially, opportunistically, educationally, perceptively by race, religion, gender, sexuality, or any other arbitrary denominator base on traditions of hate, jealousy, and outright stupidity? 

What if we don’t return to an education system that is demonstratively better for those in some neighborhoods, cities, and towns than it is others, leaving many undereducated and lacking the skills they need to survive and/or hopelessly in debt for the majority of their adult lives?

What if we don’t return to a financial system that preys on the poorest of the poor, denying credit to those who need it most, charging fees to those who can least afford them, and rewarding those who hoard the most wealth with opportunities and resources the majority can never achieve?

What if we don’t return to a workforce that undervalues people we now see as critical to everyone’s survival: grocery store workers, food service employees, delivery drivers, postal service workers, first responders, pharmacy technicians and assistants, warehouse workers, and others?

What if we don’t return to a healthcare system that can deny care to anyone because they don’t meet a list of arbitrary and unnecessary qualifications such as insurance, or pre-existing conditions, or ability to pay, or where they live, or their chances of surviving, or their age, or the gender by which they identify?

What if we don’t return to a political system that denies anyone over 18 the right to vote because they don’t live in the right place, don’t have the right ID in their wallet, can’t physically get to the poll, were once in jail, didn’t meet a deadline for registering, or haven’t jumped through all the restrictive hoops?

What if we don’t return to churches, synagogues, and mosques that teach divisiveness, elitism, racial separation, retaliation, warmongering, theocracy, bigotry, sexism, xenophobia, disregard for science and medicine, authoritarianism, and complete disregard for the entire LGBTQ+ spectrum of people?

What if we don’t return to a disregard for climate and other evidence-based sciences, underfunded medical research, the obliteration of our natural resources, complete destruction of entire ecosystems, willful ignorance of climate change, underfunded science education, and pay-for-play publication systems?

What if we don’t return to an entertainment industry that makes its fortunes by exploiting the worst qualities of humanity, finding humor in our ignorance, celebrating irrational stereotypes, greed, corruption, nepotism, class warfare, racial disparity, injustice, and blatant misrepresentation of history and people groups?

What if we don’t return to a music industry that steals songs from songwriters, exploits performers, promotes live-or-die competitions, makes live music inaccessible for the masses, creates profit for labels over musicians, minimizes the role of women, and replaces talent with gimmicks?

What if we don’t return to an art industry that relies too heavily upon a system of corrupt curators and collectors hoarding art and controlling access to galleries and museums, diminishes the role of indigenous arts and gives unwarranted preference to eurocentric elitists, denigrates illustration and graphic design to lesser class status, and blocks access to financial stability for artists?

What if we don’t return to a world where more than 700 million people are food insecure, where 78% of workers live paycheck-to-paycheck—struggling to provide basic necessities, where as much as half of the world’s population does not make a living wage despite endless hours of work, and where workers’ rights are continually diminished?

What if we don’t return to a world where taxes are imposed on those with the least to give while billionaires escape with no taxes at all, where the efficacy of representation depends on the size of one’s political donation, and the voice of corporations dominates over the voice of individuals?

What if we don’t return to a world where any form of sex is illicit, where nudity is prohibited, where personal forms of pleasure are shamed, where professional sex workers have no legal protection, where protection against sexually-transmitted infections is arbitrary and optional, and where individual choice is superseded by antiquated laws based on unjust morality?

What if we simply refuse to return to the dysfunction that previously defined normal? What if we refuse to participate in something that is broken, inept, and unsustainable? What if we say no? What if we consider the possibilities of our own actions, collectively and individually, to change the world and create a new normal?

What if we take this opportunity to disrupt the political systems of the world, to demand more open and honest elections for everyone, to destroy the very concept of party restrictions and the misrepresentation inherent to their existence, to recognize the interdependence and cooperative necessity of every individual on this planet?

This is our opportunity to take control. We don’t have to accept the ineptness of our politicians. We can say no. We can demand resignations where resignations need to happen. We can refuse to support an economy built on corporate greed. We can demand more. 

We can create a new normal—something better, something lasting, something sustainable. All the cards are on the table. What do you choose to do?

The Old Man in the rain

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Reading time: 5 min
old man talking

A lot of my morning time is spent reading. The first 60-90 minutes of every day are spent perusing countless articles while consuming infinite cups of coffee. Fortunately, I read quickly so I am able to consume a significant amount of material within that period of time.

Since the majority of that reading is done on a digital platform, however, everything I read becomes a data point that is then used to push ads back at me for products and information that, mathematically, I should find interesting. Occasionally, those algorithms are frighteningly accurate, such as when I mention, out loud, that I need more socks and suddenly there are ads for socks in all my news feeds. Most the time, however, the algorithms miss the mark, feeding me ideas and concepts that I’ve either already exhausted or find boring and unimportant. The most common of those ads are for websites that want to sell me 300 new writing ideas.

“Inspire your readers with these exciting topics!” they scream at me in the most uninspiring of ways. Then, they’ll try to entice me with sample writing topics such as “Spending An Hour Alone In A Forest,” or “Better Living Through Flatbread.”

What those sites assume is that I am ever at a loss for words. I’m not. I have to do a tremendous amount of self-editing to keep each of these posts under 10,000 words, which is more than anyone is ever going to read outside of book form.

They also are choosing to ignore how many thousands of articles already exists about personal experiences traversing nature or the presumptive benefits of changing one’s eating habits. We’re talking thousands upon thousands of articles written by thousands of writers trying to achieve the exact same goal: get your attention. Obviously, not everyone is going to be successful.

Inspiration is not always a pleasant experience

Old Man Talking

Where I am most bothered by those ads, though, is the challenge that it is somehow my responsibility to be inspiring to my readers, as though this might be the only source of inspiration to enter one’s life—ever. I know what my readership demographics are and they lead me to believe quite strongly that most everyone is finding plenty of inspiration through other sources.

Being “inspirational” has never been my goal with any of my writing. Intentionally attempting to inspire or motivate other people assumes that the writer has already found inspiration or motivation through whatever they’re writing about. My problem: I am overwhelming uninspired by anything.

Okay, so that last statement isn’t entirely correct. What I should say is that I’m not inspired by the type of classical things such as a young cancer patient’s enthusiasm for a particular sports team or someone else’s bicycle trek across a continent. If those things make them happy for a short while, great, but they’re activities don’t inspire me to emulate them in any way or try to be “better” through similar methods.

On the rare occasion I am influenced to do something it is likely to occur through an extremely personal encounter that is somewhat painful. For example, I am motivated to improve the quality of my black and white imagery because of the times the legendary Horst P. Horst literally yelled at me (typically in German) for producing photos lacking depth.

While I have the greatest respect and admiration for the late photographic genius Horst posessed, my typical encounter with him was far from pleasant. Was he inspiring? No, he was frightening. Did he influence my inspiration? Yes, because his criticism was wholly correct and he could take the exact same shot and it would come out a masterpiece. He did nothing, however, that produced the smarmy feel-good emotions that we now expect from being inspired.

I’m going to indulge in a bit of brutality by stating that if one thinks they’re finding “inspiration” through a warm and fuzzy emotional experience they’re most likely going to need to be re-inspired again tomorrow. Emotions don’t last long enough to get anything accomplished. If one is looking for a warm and fuzzy experience then perhaps they would do better to find a dog and give it a hug. Dogs are wonderful and warm and fuzzy.

Being inspired isn’t something that comes and goes. Either the inspiration is there or it’s not. To help you better understand that, I want to share some things that claim to be inspiring and explain why they’re not, and then follow that with ways to find what is inspirational if one is truly up to the challenge.

Secrets of Happiness from the Oldest of the Old

Old Man Talking

This lovely gem is a long-form ad for the book Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old by John Leland lightly disguised as an interview with Kiplinger Associate Editor Mary Kane. The goal is to inspire readers to find happiness by buying this book encouraging us to hang around old people.

Before you get all up in arms, I have no problem with one being encouraged to spend time with old people. I am an old person and I rather enjoy the company as long as one doesn’t stop by unannounced or interrupt my nap time. We old people are cool.

What I don’t appreciate, besides trying to pass off a blatant ad as an interview, is the encouragement from Mr. Leland to find happiness by making choices that include stuffing our emotions, trying to “forget” bad things that happen to us, and flat out ignoring things that caused us to feel uncomfortable. In short, what Mr. Leland encourages is finding bliss through willful ignorance and psychological avoidance.

I have always had a soft spot for the oldest among us. They have great stories from which we can learn valuable lessons. Talking with those who survived involvement in World War II was largely what shaped my fervent attitude that war is immoral and governments are not to be trusted. Old people have the ability to provide a perspective those younger than they cannot imagine on their own.

I’ve not met too many, however, who would have ever said they were especially happy. Some would have said they were content, but most offered warnings more than encouragement. Their stories were lessons learned in the hardest of ways passed along in hopes that we would not repeat their mistakes. Happiness was something they felt when grandchildren came to visit because their own existence was validated in the lives of those young ones.

There is much to learn from listening to the stories of those who are among the oldest but don’t expect to find happiness in their tales. Happiness is something one still has to discover and define for themselves.

Become A Better Photographer With This 52-Week Challenge

Old Man Talking

Photography challenges have become a staple among amateur photographers, especially those who desperately want to quit their boring 9-5 jobs and spend their days doing something more creative. I get dozens of email and article prompts similar to this every January and I delete every one of them.

This particular article on LifeHack.com thinks that Dale Foshe’s photography challenge is sufficiently inspirational. This is the fourth year Mr. Foshe has responded to the question of, “How do I become a better photographer?” by giving amateurs this list that includes items such as: “Your inspiration this week is to simply take an amazing Black and White photograph of any subject you want,” “This week’s inspiration is Anonymous. Interpret this how you wish.” and “Work, let it inspire you this week.” Anyone else get the feeling Mr. Foshe had some problems filling all 52 slots?

Challenges like this are good at doing one thing: taking up a lot of time. They don’t actually help the average photographer get any better because they lack focus and precision. The very format keeps them from zeroing in on what a person needs to improve.

If one wants to become better at what they do, no matter what that is, there are three primary steps to follow:

  1. Don’t try to do everything. One of the biggest mistakes made when a person is just starting out in a field is trying to do everything. Stop. Focus. Figure out what you enjoy and do best and do that. Let everything else go. For example: I don’t do weddings (not often, at least). I dislike them. I don’t have a good time. So why would I try competing in that field?
  2. Know your weakness(es) and work to improve them. Rather than running all over the place with random challenges, look at specifically improving the places that provide the biggest challenges. Make it elementary: learn to put the shoes on the correct feet before trying to tie them. Start at the basics and work until that area is mastered before moving to something else.
  3. Get honest feedback from someone who knows the field a lot better than you. Getting advice from a peer or someone only marginally better is limiting because they cannot provide the difficult and honest feedback we need to improve. I was extremely fortunate to know two of the best photographers ever: Horst and Helmut Newton. Horst, as I mentioned, could be extremely abrasive in his criticism; it hurt but it moved me forward. Helmut was a touch more gentle in his approach (depending on the size of the error) but no less brutal in his honesty. People who fudge on criticism to save one’s feelings are limiting one’s growth.

When one has a passion for doing something, let that passion be the inspiration that drives one forward, not some external misdirection that cannot address specific needs. If that passion is not strong enough to provide inspiration then perhaps one needs to consider whether the passion is there at all.

Facial Exercises May Make You Look Three Years Younger

Old Man Talking

Gretchen Reynolds wrote this piece for the New York Times of all places, based on researched published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Dermatology. In response to claims that non-medical activities such as “facial yoga” might affect one’s physical appearance, a clinical study was done to determine whether there is any validation to such claims. There is, but it is only moderate.

Three years. That’s pretty much the limit of facial restoration one can expect from performing facial exercises alone. Using some moisturizing creams might help extend the benefit a bit more, but at the end of the day if one is hoping to look 10-15 years younger then facial exercises are not going to provide the bump one wants.

Three years, and that’s the maximum mind you, means when one is 60 years old they look like they’re 57, as if there’s really that much difference. While that three-year gap might have a minimal influence when one is 30, beyond that looking three years younger is not a significant difference.

What upsets me about articles like this (and there is a ton of them out there right now): there’s nothing wrong with looking the age you are! Let’s stop with the age shaming, shall we? Take some pride in the fact we have survived multiple rotations around the sun and that our bodies might be reflective of the challenges of our journey.

People over the age of 40 are already having difficulty dealing with a youth-oriented society that devalues one’s experience and ability to contribute to the workforce in a meaningful manner. Telling us that we need to look three years younger is depressing and insulting, not inspirational. For all the talk about inclusion and accepting one for who they are, that rhetoric needs to extend to those who are being pushed out and marginalized simply because of a number. If we appear worn and haggard and perpetually tired, consider that we’ve worked hard, probably longer than those in management have been alive, and we wear on our faces and our bodies the scars, the wrinkles, and the stretch marks of having fought the battles that make today’s marvelous successes possible.

Taking The Mystery Out Of Finding Inspiration

Old Man Talking

Being the silly humans we are, we tend to make things a lot more difficult than they need to be and finding inspiration is high on that list. When we reach the point where we’re needing inspiration, our first impulse too often finds us looking in the most ridiculous and extreme places, taking on absurd lifestyle changes, and ultimately being disappointed when those extreme measures eventually lead us right back to where we started.

Part of that difficulty stems, I am convinced, from the fact we don’t necessarily understand the word in the first place. We hear/see media tell us that something is inspiring, someone’s adventures or success is inspiring, the courage with which someone is fighting a disease is inspiring, and we falsely assume that we all should be inspired by those or similar nouns.

Considering the etymology of the word Inspiration might help a bit and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary has some potentially helpful insight:

Inspiration has an unusual history in that its figurative sense appears to predate its literal one. It comes from the Latin inspiratus (the past participle of inspirare, “to breathe into, inspire”) and in English has had the meaning “the drawing of air into the lungs” since the middle of the 16th century. This breathing sense is still in common use among doctors, as is expiration (“the act or process of releasing air from the lungs”). However, before inspiration was used to refer to breath it had a distinctly theological meaning in English, referring to a divine influence upon a person, from a divine entity; this sense dates back to the early 14th century. The sense of inspiration often found today (“someone or something that inspires”) is considerably newer than either of these two senses, dating from the 19th century.

Condense that down and what we find is that inspiration is that breath, that divine spark if one chooses to believe in such, that gives us life. Inspiration is personal, intimate, and perhaps even involuntary to some extent. When we consider what inspiration really means then it becomes much easier to understand how we might find it.

Inspiration Personalized By The Universe

Old Man Talking

Life in the 14th century centered around religious belief and orthodoxy. One didn’t have much choice. The Inquisition was in full effect and failing to adhere to the religious tenets imposed by the Roman church was a good way to lose one’s head or be burned at the stake. In this environment, the words, “God told me …” carried a lot of weight, especially when being said by an Inquisitor. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that creative inspiration, that motivation to do something different, was attributed to the divine. To claim anything else would have been fatal.

Not everyone today feels so compelled to attribute new ideas or concepts to a divine source. If doing so helps one justify something genuinely helpful then there’s no reason to object. Whether one believes in deity or not, though, it certainly seems at times as though the universe has the ability to feed one thoughts and concepts that are inspiring.

While there is plenty of room for legitimate skepticism, explaining such things as a culmination of experience, exposure, and creativity, when such moments do come, they are always personalized. One cannot take such events and impose them upon anyone else except the person who originally experienced the moment. “Spiritual” inspiration comes with an engraved plaque that defines ownership.

For example, some might claim that Michelangelo’s statue of David was divinely inspired.  Such a claim makes sense given that the Inquisition was still in full force in the early 16th century. However, one cannot impose the artist’s allegedly divine inspiration on anyone else. No one saw the artist passing out flyers offering to teach new sculptors his “inspirational” method. There weren’t a thousand copycat statues littering Rome. Whatever spark inspired Michelangelo was unique to him.

I’m willing to admit that sometimes creative inspiration seems to arrive out of the blue. Psychologists chalk that up to an accumulation of influences coming together in a synchronized manner. Others may claim the stars have something to do with the influence. Still, others are convinced there’s a deity at work. No matter what the source might be, it is personal to the one who receives is and not something that can be spread around like soft margarine. Remember that the next time someone tries selling you a class or a book offering to teach you their “inspirational” method. Inspiration is individual, not crowd sized.

Inspiration Begins Within Ourselves

Old Man Talking

If you taking absolutely nothing else away from what you’re reading today, please latch onto this: you are enough; you can inspire you. We don’t need to look to someone else, we don’t need some special event, we don’t even need to change our diet or buy a new wardrobe, as interesting as those things might be. Inspiration doesn’t come from watching someone else score the game-winning goal. Inspiration comes from the belief that one can score that goal themselves.

One of the biggest challenges to our lives is the notion that we are not enough. We pick up on this self-defeating attitude early in our lives and have difficulty letting go. We are told we need to be richer, smarter, prettier, fancier, dress better, have a different body shape, be a different gender, love only the right people, go to the right places, have the necessary experiences, and achieve greater success than anyone else.

All of those things are wrong. Each person is born with the very thing they need to find inspiration within themselves: breath. One doesn’t need a minimum bank balance or IQ. One doesn’t have to look a certain way, wear certain clothes, or have certain experiences. None of those things matter one damn bit. All that matters is that we breathe and the more we breathe the more opportunities we have to believe in ourselves and find inspiration not in every breath someone else takes but in every breath one takes on their own, for the benefit of their own life.

Let me spin this a more personal direction. Like many people, I have made some really stupid decisions in my life, choices that left me broke and homeless. There were times when it was really tempting to sink into a “woe is me” pity party. What allowed me to survive through those most difficult times was the fact that I never stopped believing in me and what I am capable of doing. Books didn’t inspire me. Someone else’s story didn’t inspire me. Changing my diet damn sure didn’t inspire me. I inspire me.

That doesn’t mean one doesn’t sometimes need some help here and there. Even the most successful of people, those who never seem to have a worry in the world, benefit from extensive networks of influence. Sometimes, that help is as simple as a phone call or message that confirms, “Yes, this person can do that job.” Other times, that help may be more substantial, such as a safe place to sleep or a warm meal.

Accepting help doesn’t stop us from being our own inspiration, however. This goes back to what I said earlier about identifying our weaknesses. Life doesn’t play fair and sometimes we’re saddled with illnesses that make us dependent on assistance from others. We cannot always control whether we can get out of bed on our own or walk down the street on our own. When faced with such challenges, asking for and accepting help is absolutely the right thing to do. Even then, however, every breath has the potential for inspiration.

To some extent, I suppose I’m wrong in ever saying I’m uninspired. As long as I’m breathing, there is inspiration in the most real sense of the word.

What’s important is that we don’t need to go looking to other sources for our inspiration. The extra push, that creative spark, that motivational edge, is already within us. Life is inspiration and it’s waiting for us to grab hold and change the world. Many things may influence our inspiration, from Horst to fashion to football. Nothing happens, however, until we let the breath within us take over and unleash what has been hiding inside us all along.

No one is getting their breath from me. Nothing I say is going to inspire you. I hope everyone is okay with that.

Reading time: 17 min
Surviving mornings when you're not a morning person

I am not a morning person. Not even close. If it were up to me, my day would start somewhere around 10:00 and ease into work mode somewhere around noon. I start slow. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually been able to follow that schedule, though. Real life doesn’t care what my body’s natural rhythm is. There are deadlines to meet. People want answers now. Contacts over in Europe would really like me to respond before they close up shop for the day, which, coincidentally, is about 10:00 AM Eastern Standard Time.

Add to that schedule the fact that we have school-age children who dominate the early morning. Currently, they get on the bus right at 7:00. That means they need to be on their feet no later than 6:15 if we want them to catch that bus. They’re not old enough to responsibly get themselves ready every morning, so we have to be up and awake and in charge. We control how their day starts, which subsequently relates to whether they have a good day at school.

In an ideal world, we would all be able to follow our body’s natural circadian rhythm. For those in the back who haven’t been paying attention over the past 40 years, circadian rhythms are “physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle [source].” If we were as smart as we pretend to be we would adjust our schedules and routines so that we’re working during the times when our bodies are most inclined to be productive, exercise when our muscles are best toned for stretching, and sleep when our bodies tell us. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Without question, we would all be healthier, get more done, and live happier lives if we were to follow our body’s natural timing.

However, one of the downsides of the industrial revolution is that corporations need everyone in the same place at the same time in order to get things done. Despite all the advances we’ve made in distance and remote working, there are still too many instances where we need people in an office, or a boardroom, looking at each other face-to-face. That means we have to put aside out circadian rhythms and follow a unified schedule. More often than not, unified schedules mean being in an office by 9:00 every morning, a time when many people’s bodies would much rather be sleeping.

Forcing ourselves into schedules outside our circadian rhythms has its downside. Not only are we likely to be less healthy, we are also more prone to making mistakes [source]. Errors may not be a big deal if one is in a dead-end job where their efforts are duplicated a couple of dozen times, but it can have devastating effects if one is, oh, a brain surgeon or something really important like that. So, when we find ourselves in a schedule that is oppositional to our natural circadian rhythms, we have to make some adjustments to keep everything around us from exploding (hopefully using that word in a metaphorical context).  I’m about to give you some life hacks. Pay attention.

Prep your morning before going to bed

There are certain things in everyone’s life that we just know we’re going to have to do before we walk out the door in the morning. Things like getting dressed, personal hygiene, and probably coffee. We know we’re still going to be half asleep when we do those things, though, so the best way to combat potential areas in this department is to prepare for them the night before. Go ahead and decide what you’re going to wear and set everything in a safe place where you can find them literally with your eyes shut. This avoids time lost and mistakes made when we go searching for clean clothes when our brains have yet to start functioning. Set out a towel and washcloth. Prep the coffee so that all you have to do is turn things on (better yet, get a coffee maker with a timer).

When we do this, we make morning life a lot easier for ourselves by reducing the amount of actual brain activity required before our brains are ready to be active. Give yourself some space where you’re able to reasonably function on auto-pilot until you’re fully awake and aware of what’s going on around you. Don’t force yourself into a position of having to jump out of bed and start making decisions before your eyes are even open.

Nix the bright lights

Our brains respond to light in a very interesting fashion. Bright, cool light tells our brains that it is time to be awake and productive. Warm, soft light tells us that it is time to chill, relax, and prepare for sleep [source]. Having super-bright lights in your bedroom makes zero sense because that is the one place where you need your brain to take it easy, not try and keep you up all night. This means you’re probably going to have to make some adjustments like leaving your cell phone on a nightstand turned face down and changing the wattage of the bulbs in your bedroom from 100 watts to something more in the neighborhood of a soft 40 watts. Most importantly, make sure the room is as dark as possible when you go to sleep. Even nightlights disrupt your sleep pattern and keep you from resting as well [source].

Non-compensated plug here: GE makes a special bulb called C-Sleep that is designed to fit our natural sleep patterns. These are LED bulbs controlled by an app on your smartphone. You set the times at which you need sleep light versus wakeup light and the bulb adjusts to give you the right kind of light for the time of day. The bulbs are a little pricey on the front end ($75 on the front end when ordered directly from GE) but only use 11 watts of electricity so they’re likely to save money on your electric bill. Most importantly, they give you the right light to help you rest and get your morning started off well.

Eliminate distractions while you sleep

This is a big one for me and one that, quite honestly, I don’t do well enough. I’m a light sleeper. I grew up in a family where the phone was likely to ring in the middle of the night and when it did it was never good news. Depending on the severity of the situation (whether one or both parents were needed), we could find ourselves getting dressed and having to jump in the car at 3:00 AM without any warning. That uncertainty set up a life-long habit of constantly listening for sounds that might indicate an emergency. Sure, I no longer have to worry about my phone ringing at 3:00 AM, but my brain won’t turn off that switch. any noise and I’m up and assessing the danger level. It doesn’t help that I have a dog who is even more sensitive to sound than I am.

The general recommendation to help us get a good night’s sleep is to listen to white noise, such as the sound of waves crashing, while we’re snoozing [source].  Generally speaking, I rather like that idea with one exception: we have children. Those of us who have children know that we have to keep one ear open all night in case one of the kids wakes up and needs attention. The younger your children are the more critical this factor.

While we may not all be able to enjoy falling under the spell of white noise all night, we can do other things to minimize distractions. Things like taking down wind chimes, keeping pets sequestered outside the bedroom, and using sound-reducing shades to block out external traffic noises can all help. We may not be able to eliminate all the distractions but we can minimize them enough to help our sleep be more effective.

Establish a morning routine

Just because our eyes are open and our body is out of bed and mobile doesn’t mean we’re actually conscious just yet. This whole waking up thing takes a minute, you know? If we have a routine, though, we can allow our bodies to operate on auto-pilot as long as we have a routine that is safe and efficient to get us through the first five-ten minutes of our day. Mine is pretty simple. When my feet first hit the floor, the first thing I do is let the dogs out the back door. I can almost do this with my eyes shut because the dogs flank me every step of the way. They won’t let me deviate from the appointed path. While the dogs are out, I put food in their bowls and check the cats’ food supply as well and then fill the community water bowl. By this point, the dogs want back inside. Making coffee and pouring my morning cereal (necessary for taking morning meds) are next in line. The first 20 minutes of my day are a set routine that never deviates even on weekends (the animals don’t care if it’s Sunday or Tuesday, they still want out and to be fed).

There’s no right or wrong to what one puts in their morning routine, simply that it be consistent. Personally, I like things peaceful and quiet so my brain and slowly ease into gear before the children get up and start demanding that I think. Those whose existence is more solitary might find benefit in turning on music and there are even some crazy people who find an early morning run to be helpful. The nature of your routine depends largely on your circumstances and the rhythms in which your body wakes up. Find what works for you and stick to it. After a couple of weeks, muscle memory takes over and the routine becomes automatic.

Give yourself plenty of time

I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to leave the house to go to work. My commute consists of turning my chair around and looking at the computer. For most people, though, going to work means getting in a car, fighting their way through traffic, and struggling to make it into work on time every morning. I’ve been there and know that it’s not easy. One is tempted to wait until the last possible minute to get out of bed and then rush to work like a bat out of hell. The problem with that approach is that it increases our stress levels and makes it much more likely that we will make mistakes and even leave things at home, such as the notes for that all important meeting you had right at 9:00.

Give yourself some time before you have to put on your super suit and be an action hero. I set my alarm at 5:00 every morning not because I’m a morning person but because I’m not and I need that hour and fifteen minutes to mentally prepare myself for children. On the very rare morning something happens and I don’t get up well before the demons, their morning doesn’t go well. I’m crankier than normal (and that’s never a good thing), I’m more easily frustrated, and my blood pressure meds haven’t had time to kick in yet so I’m more likely to yell and scream over insignificant things like why no one can find one of the 50 million combs and brushes I know we have in this house. Your time may vary, of course, but waiting until the last minute isn’t helping you. Get out of bed a little earlier and give yourself a chance to start the day better.

Avoid the negative

I cut my adult teeth on the news. Working first for a local newspaper and then a major news syndicate, the news is in my blood and something that will never leave. The news is rarely a positive starting point, though, and having the Internet at my fingertips only makes the obsession worse. I have aggregators that assemble all the important stories that have accumulated overnight and place them in my inbox for my convenience. What I have learned, though, is to not start my day by opening those email. As tempting as it is, I leave those alone until I have found something, somewhere, to make me laugh. Not a big, loud guffaw mind you. I want everyone else to stay asleep for a while. Just something that makes me giggle on the inside and maybe turn up the corners of my mouth for a few seconds.

Our lives are filled with enough negative things. The instant that those emails are opened I’m going to go from smiling to concerned or worried or angry. If I can put off all that negative emotion for a bit I’m less likely to let that negativity spill onto the people around me. Sure, there are days when the news is so bad and so unavoidable that the people around me are affected; there typically isn’t anything I can do to stop that from happening, especially given the current state of chaos. There is a lot I can do to reign that in, though, and much of that starts with making my own morning as positive and upbeat as possible. When I wake the little ones, the first voice they hear should be cheerful, not angry.

There is no perfect solution

Lives are different and everyone’s circadian rhythm is different so don’t think that what works for me has to work for you. If you are one of those people who work third shift and has to sleep during the day, there are different precautions you have to take to make sure you are not disturbed. Those of us who work remotely from home can be much more flexible in our morning schedules than can those who are slaves to a corporate taskmaster who doesn’t care what’s going on in your personal life.

What’s important is that you find what works for you and don’t let anyone interrupt your flow. If you need to be in bed by 9:00 at night, don’t let someone shame you into staying up later. If you need your first cup of coffee to be stronger than what you drink the rest of the day, know that you’re not alone. You can make this work.

We have been born into a society that doesn’t really work for the vast majority of people. If it did, offices probably wouldn’t open before 11:00 in the morning and we’d all take a nap around 4L00 in the afternoon. Since corporations dominate a third or more of our lives, those schedules are not likely to change. We have to find solutions that help us fit into that routine in the best way possible. Hopefully, these tips work for you.

Abide in Peace
The Old Man

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surviving mornings when you're not a morning person

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

Reading time: 12 min
better writing

Entertain, don’t be afraid of a bit of filth, but be cautious with your XXXs – the essential guide to getting your message across while avoiding the pitfalls of communication

Source: Don’t press send … The new rules for good writing in the 21st century

Writing is an essential part of my life, the primary reason this website exists, and critical to how we all present ourselves online. While writing has always been a bit of a big deal for me, though, for many of the dudes (using that word in a non-gender-specific manner) I know are what we might call “reluctant” writers. That is, they write because they have a need to do so, not out of any desire or passion for writing. The younger the dude, in fact, the more likely they are to take shortcuts, use emojis, and pay absolutely no attention to the grammatical rules we all supposedly learned in primary school.

As a society, we’ve been writing online now for over 20 years. Yes, I realize that’s longer than some of you have been alive but for everyone, this whole online communication thing still hasn’t taken hold the way English majors would like. Shortcuts that were developed back when we were paying for every second we spent connected to a modem have made their way into the popular vernacular without everyone being educated as to what those shortcuts mean or when they should be used. Emojis, which take written communication all the way back to the days of the Egyptian Cuneiform, are so popular that a lousy animated movie was made about them [When my seven-year-old thinks it’s stupid, there’s a problem with the movie.]. We are constantly looking for ways to make our online communication shorter and in doing so we’re sacrificing comprehension. Too many people don’t have a clue what we’re talking about.

All across the Internet one can find a gazillion or so articles about better writing tips. They typically have titles that start with a number, such as, “5 tips for …” and “8 ways to improve …” Blah, blah, blah. Most of them are repeating what the author read somewhere else, far too short to actually help, and fail to actually address the problems we have with writing in the first place. I know this because I click on every such link that comes tumbling across my Twitter feed. I want to know what other writers are saying about writing. So, I read their article, then typically curse the waste of time and close the tab.

Every day, I read through my various newsfeeds and come across an argument containing the phrase, “That’s not what I meant.” That phrase sums up what is wrong with our writing. We’re saying things, some of us are saying a lot of things, but not everyone understands what we’re trying to communicate. We might have a thousand people reading but it’s irrelevant if there’s no comprehension of what we are trying to say.

Why does comprehension matter? Dude, the whole plot of The Big Lebowski hinges on a lack of comprehension. They got the wrong Lebowski, man. They beat him up and pissed on his rug because of a miscommunication and you, presumably, know what happened from there.

Back in 1988, the English band Mike + The Mechanics recorded a song by Mike Rutherford and B. A. Robertson that contains the following lyrics:

You say you just don’t see it
He says it’s perfect sense
You just can’t get agreement in this present tense
We all talk a different language, talking in defense

Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

When the song was written about the lack of communication between parent and child (specifically father and son), the Internet as we know it didn’t exist. I find it a bit eery, though, that one can take those lyrics and apply them to almost any online argument today and they fit. If you’re not familiar with the song, take a quick listen (five and a half minutes):

If we’re going to go through what remains of this life abiding in peace, if we’re going to take a “fuck it” attitude and let external matters just blow over us, we have to get better at saying things online. We have to find ways to minimize the misunderstandings, eliminate the chances for someone to misinterpret what we’re trying to say and write in a way that increases reader comprehension. Let’s talk about how we might do those things.

“This isn’t Vietnam. There are rules!”

Let’s be real, painfully honest here: most of us were not paying a lick of attention when our teachers were trying to instill upon us the wisdom found in diagraming sentences and the proper order of how words flow together. Those of us who were already adults when 1995 rolled around didn’t think we would ever actually need those written communication skills, or that they would matter at all. We were going to do great things that didn’t involve sitting behind a desk, which is where one gets stuck if they have to write a lot.

Yeah, we totally blew that one. Now, not only are we writing things more often than we anticipated, we’re doing so while on the go, from our phones, even illegally while we’re driving (which is a stupid thing to do; stop it). Since we don’t remember the rules, we end up saying things like this:

“Great dat today. Back home chilling out. My son is so funny. Bedtime”

“HARD WORK&TIMING IS EVERYTHING,TRUST IN GOD NOT IN MAN,I WILL MAKE THE HATERS BELIEVE,ITS TIME 2 INTRODUCE DIS GENERATION 2 DA ICE CREAM MAN”

” Like the turkey with extra mayo they’re gooder than mug.”

“I make smoothies son. Das jus what I do. This is a mix of strawberry and banana. A lil concoction I call Stranana.”

“every1 congratulate puff 4 bringn music bacc 2 tv !!”

We’re keeping those quotes anonymous to protect the guilty, but every one of them is from someone who is a public person and should know better. This is the point at which sane people blink twice and ask, “What the fuck is that shit?” Even if one had context for those quotes we still would raise our eyebrows because they are an outrageous example of bad writing.

Does any of this actually matter? Can we not just say, “fuck it” and let it go?

Perhaps. The follow-up questions would need to be, “Do you ever leave your house?” and  “Do you need your reputation intact?” If you answer “no” to either of both those questions then perhaps you are one of the few who can let their online word usage slide. For everyone else, though, how we say things is as important as what we’re trying to say. People fail to understand what we’re trying to communicate when the words are put together wrong.

Recently, during an off-the-record moment, while interviewing someone for PATTERN magazine, a person of some prestige and importance told me he absolutely judges people he hasn’t met based on the grammar they use on social media. He even went so far as to question how much worse people’s writing would be if there wasn’t spellcheck of some form built into almost everything. This comes from a person who makes significant hiring decisions—the kind that can dramatically improve the quality of one’s life. He’s reluctant to hire people who not only cannot write well but don’t seem to mind that they appear ignorant online.

How does one combat this problem? Short of going back to school or keeping an English major on retainer, I encourage using some form of online service to help guard against not only spelling errors but basic grammar and punctuation mistakes as well. My tool of choice is the Grammarly plugin for the Chrome browser (this is not a paid endorsement). I’ve used the free version of this plugin for at least a couple of years now and find it absolutely invaluable.  I tend to type rather fast and do not always look at the monitor while I’m typing. Mistakes happen frequently. Grammarly not only points out spelling errors the moment they happen, it picks up on basic mistakes such as when I have two spaces between words instead of one or if I’ve used the wrong version of there, they’re, or their as well as punctuation usage.  In fact, Grammarly can be a bit militant at times regarding comma usage.

While Grammarly doesn’t catch every error, it prevents most of them from reaching your delicate eyes. Once the plugin is installed, it works with just about any text field in any social media application as well as WordPress (unfortunately, it doesn’t work on Google Docs). They have a premium version that gets hardcore about correcting tense and voice and subject/verb agreement. I’ve not splurged for that extra service because I worry that taking all of Grammarly’s suggestions could leave to a very academic-sounding set of articles. Still, it’s great at what it does and has gotten better over the time I’ve used it. I strongly recommend adding the plugin to your browser even if you’re not at all serious about writing. You have one less thing to worry about once it’s in place.

Be clear about what you want to say

Twitter is the only place on social media where one has a 146 character limit forcing us to be efficient with our words. Almost everywhere else (at least, among the apps I’ve encountered so far) lets us use as many words as we want. Yes, there are times we want to be brief, especially when communicating with our phones. Still, one should never sacrifice clarity for the sake of brevity.

Here is where a number of online misunderstandings have their inception. We want to write in the same manner as we talk and more often than not that approach doesn’t work well for us. Those minor inflections in tone, those facial expressions we always make, the hand gestures we use with certain words in our vocabulary, none of that translates over into written communication. We want to think that people who know us will catch our “drift” or our meaning, but frequently even our best friends are not sure when we’re being sarcastic or kidding when we make a statement.

For example, let’s pretend I’ve written something like, “The president made a really good host for a reality game show.” Now, how are you going to interpret that statement? Whether one knows me or not factors a little bit, but I’ve given the reader very little to work with. So, one might assume any of the following possible conclusions:

  • I’m a fan of The Apprentice US version.
  • I’m not a fan of The Apprentice US version.
  • Being a good game show host qualifies one to be president of the United States
  • The president should have stuck to being a game show host and not run for president.
  • The president is using The Hunger Games as a blueprint and we’re all fucking doomed.

There’s nothing in how I originally wrote the statement that would let you know the last interpretation is the correct one. Neither sarcasm nor subtly play well in digital communication. Even in face-to-face communication, those aspects can be difficult to convey. When writing, they don’t exist at all unless one takes the time to fully explain what they mean.

We can’t take anything for granted or assume that our readers are so incredibly plugged into our communication patterns that they’re going to automatically understand everything we type. How many times have people use LOL, for example, thinking it means “lots of love” when its actual definition is “laugh out loud?” That has been a common point of misunderstanding and subsequent embarrassment. Any acronym one uses needs to be spelled out the first time. That’s the only way we’re going to know if ADA stands for the American Diabetes Association, the American Dental Association, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or a small town in Oklahoma.

A final example: You’ll notice that when I use the term “dude” for the first time in an article that I typically include a parenthetical statement explaining that the usage of that word is not gender-specific. Is that parenthetical statement really necessary? After all, many of our core audience are fans of The Big Lebowski and understand the usage of the word. I also mention on our home page that my use of the word throughout the sight is genderless and why. With both those elements in place, why would I need to bother repeating myself in every article?

Absolutely! Most of our readers do not approach an article through the home page. In fact, many never see the home page. Most of our readers click on a link on social media and go directly to the article. I have no assurance that they have any context for my usage of the word “dude” in any form. Therefore, it is up to me to explain exactly what I mean so as to avoid any confusion.

Are we clear enough on this point? If not, please leave any questions in the comment section below. Yes, we have a comment section. Not everyone knew that.

Chill a minute before pushing that “post” button

Here, the fundamental question we have to ask is this: Are you sure you said what you think you said? Many people have gotten into the habit of firing off quick one- or two-word replies and not checking to make sure they’ve said what they intended to say. The Internet is full of examples of how this careless approach to communication can go terribly wrong, especially now that we have autocorrect on most of our smartphones. If we think our phones are sending the exact words we typed, or swiped, we’re often surprised when our friends receive a very different message. This has happened so many thousands of times that there is a website devoted to autocorrect fails.  I pulled a few favorites as examples.

Have I made my point by now? No matter what software we have loaded to help prevent mistakes, they still slip through with frightening ease. We may think we know what we wrote but unless we take a moment to chill and then double-check we’re likely to be surprised when someone gets an entirely different message from what we thought we were sending.

This rule applies double if we’re writing anything about which we are passionate. If we are angry, the rule applies triple. The more emotion we have invested in what we are writing, the more likely we are to make errors while typing. Even if we don’t make any grammatical errors, the words we choose may not be the ones that best communicate what we need someone to see. We frequently create problems we didn’t want or need, or make a bad situation worse because we hit that “post” or “send” button too soon.

Trust me when I say that I know how challenging it can be to apply this rule. By the time I finish this article, I will have spent several hours here in my chair drinking coffee and trying to not fall asleep. When I finish the actual writing part, there are a number of behind-the-scenes factors that I have to check or fill out. I’m always anxious for you to read whatever I’ve written so I want to hit that “publish” button as soon as I can.  Years of experience have taught me the value of waiting, having a cup of coffee, and then going back and proof-reading the whole thing before letting it go public. Do I actually do that, though? Nope. Not even most of the time. As a result, it’s not uncommon for me to get a private message from nice people who look out for me, saying something like, “I don’t think you really meant to say “effect” did you?” or, “You know you totally misspelled Mississippi …”

Sigh. Take the time. Go back and proofread. Let your temper cool a bit. Think through what you really wanted to say and make sure you said it. Yes, it’s an effort but it beats having someone get mad at you because they think you’ve been masturbating all afternoon rather than meditating.

Concluding thoughts

No one ever thought we would do as much writing as our society demands. We certainly never thought it would be something that would keep us up until the wee hours of the morning, “chatting” away with that person we’ve never met but their profile picture looks totally hot. We only have to look as far as the Twitter account of our frequently ridiculous president to see just how chaotic things can become when we’re not careful about how we communicate. If anyone ever needed to exercise that third rule above, the president does. He may also need an advisor with access to a delete button.

As much as we want to keep a chill attitude toward all aspects of life and let matters take their natural course, we must realize that how we communicate, especially the things we write, whether in an email or a comment on social media, can upset our ability to abide peacefully. One word misinterpreted can send folks looking for the wrong Lebowski and when that happens all hell can break loose. No one is chill when hell breaks loose, not even the devil himself (assuming the devil has any chill).

Follow the rules, be as clear as possible, and then chill before hitting that button. Do that and abiding gets a lot easier, dude. We like it when life gets easier.

In fact, if you’ve got this, I’m just going to lie down here on my rug and take a nap, man.

Abide in Peace,
The Old Man

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to pass the hat.

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Reading time: 15 min
Whiner in chief

Among all the character flaws one might attribute to the 45th president of the United States, one of the most annoying is that he is a chronic whiner. Almost every time he takes to Twitter it is for the express purpose of whining and complaining about one thing or the other. Here are a few recent examples:

These next three have to be taken as a single statement:

But wait, we’re not done yet. There are still these:

And those are just a few from the past month! Gripe, gripe, complain, whine. Rather reminds me of a three-year-old who needs a nap, doesn’t it?

Normally, we would compare/contrast this president’s actions compared to his predecessors to see whether such an attitude is normal. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama was the first president to use Twitter and that wasn’t until he was into his second term. However, what we can do is compare recent tweets from previous presidents. I’ll admit, though, I had difficulty finding anything that might be considered a complaint.  Here’s what I came up with:

That’s it. Just the one. Mind you, I checked accounts for George W. Bush (43), Bill Clinton, and George H. W. Bush (41). Neither of the Presidents Bush have accounts outside their libraries. I looked through Mr. Clinton’s account all the way back through October of last year, before the election, and found nothing. Well, almost nothing. There was this:

I don’t think many people would exactly consider that a complaint. More like poking fun.

So what, exactly do we do with a president who seems to do nothing but whine?

First of all, let’s admit that it just seems as though he whines all the time. He says a lot of things that begin with phrases like, “Honored to …” and “Thank you to …” and even, “It was my pleasure to …” There are a lot of those in his Twitter feed. Those aren’t controversial statements, though (well, most the time), and statements relating to policy are a different bucket of worms. We have the perception that the president whines a lot largely because we were not witness to the others whining at all. We never heard President Obama’s frustration with the whole birther issue (which the current president fueled). He produced his birth certificate then joked about the issue from there on out. President Bush (43) received tremendous criticism from almost every possible corner of the country and it would be unreasonable to think that didn’t bother him a great deal. Yet, those gripes and complaints were never made public. We don’t have a guide book for dealing with this president because none of his predecessors have been such public cry babies.

Back in June of 2012, F. Diane Barth wrote an article for Psychology Today that had the following recommendations for dealing with people who whine a lot:

1 – Acknowledge to them that you understand both the distress and the feelings of helplessness and frustration. With a colleague, this may mean saying something like, “I know how you feel. And it’s worse because there’s really nothing we can do about it.” With a toddler and/or a dog, it may mean offering physical soothing.  A pat on the head for the animal, a verbalization and physical contact for the child: “I know you’re hungry sweetie, but I don’t have anything for you right now. Can you hold my hand for a few minutes till we get home?”

2 – Recognize that you cannot change their feelings. They are trapped in a painful situation, and your advice – and even your soothing – will not be enough to change their experience. They will continue to whine until they develop more of a sense of competence and internal strength, which will not happen overnight.

3 – Try to let them know that you know that it is not their fault, or at worst, it is not completely their fault. They are already silently, often unconsciously, blaming themselves for their difficulties. But because they are feeling guilty, they are going to keep asking you for the absolution they cannot give themselves. In the end, it is not you who can let them off the hook.

4 – Set firm, clear limits on how long you can listen and what you have to offer. With an office mate, for example, you can say, “I know this is really bothering you, and I’m so sorry about it. But unfortunately I can’t sit and talk any longer. I have to get back to work.” With a friend or family member, limit the amount of time you can stay on the phone. Introduce other topics. Tell them about something that is happening in your life. In other words, distract them (which, by the way, is often one part of my advice for parents and dog owners as well). Paradoxically, by setting limits you are also letting them know that you believe that they can deal with a little frustration on their own – and as long as the frustration is not overwhelming, this will help them begin to develop the internal strength they need to stop whining.

Now, Ms. Barth’s recommendations are designed for people we deal with in person on a regular basis, people with whom we have a daily relationship. Most of us can’t say that we have that kind of relationship with the president. Therefore, we need to adjust her recommendations somewhat. Here’s how I would apply her statements to the president:

  1. Someone needs to pat him on the head regularly and say, “I know you’re hungry. Here, have a Snickers® bar.” Be sure to stand ready with a wet wipe, though. You know he’s going to have chocolate all over his tiny hands.
  2. Recognize that the candy is just a temporary fix. He has to develop more of a sense of competence and that may not happen in the next four years.
  3. Let him know it’s not completely his fault that he’s president. Blame the Electoral College; it’s all their fault.
  4. Turn him off. Stop listening. Let him know we’ve had enough and we’ll start paying attention again when/if he starts making sense. Or he’s impeached, whichever comes first.

One thing on which the majority of psychologists now agree is that whining is often the result of giving someone too much attention and sympathy, such as often happens in psychotherapy sessions. Back away. Let him know that we’re still interested in what he’s doing, especially when he’s breaking things, but that we’re not going to indulge his tantrums. Don’t reply to his tweets. Don’t indulge his apologists such as Kelly Ann Conway. Just shut the metaphorical door and let him cry it out.

And maybe show some sympathy. Old people really are a lot like toddlers after all, and if we don’t die first we’ll all one day likely be just as fussy. We just won’t be in the embarrassing position of president of the United States. Hand him a candy bar so the grown-ups can get back to running the country.

Abide in Peace,
The Old Man

Whiner In Chief

Photo: charles i. letbetter

Reading time: 8 min
Old Man Talking Candles

 

Source: (38) #StupidQuestionsForJesus hashtag on Twitter

Twitter games are an interesting and often fun way to pass the time, especially when this Old Man is between some of the most boring fashion shows he’s ever seen. Seriously, New York Fashion Week blows chunks in just about every direction this season. So, since I still have about an hour and a half before things get interesting over at Ralph Lauren’s place, I thought I’d share some of the better options with you.

What gets me, though, is why we always see silly games like this involving the Jesus, with whom we’re told to not mess, but never Shiva or Buddha and especially not Mohammed. Geeze, some people get really touchy about those guys. So, what I’d like to see in the comments, if you think you’re witty and brave enough, is stupid questions for the deity of your choice, whomever that may be, from Zeus to Baal. I really don’t care which one you pick. Have fun with the mythology for a moment.

Now, here are some ideas to get you started:

There you go. That should be enough to light a thought or two in your brain. Go ahead, share. I promise I won’t judge.

Well, not too much.

Reading time: 1 min