Tag Archive | life

You mean the world to someone

“Watch your step. You mean the world to someone.” (click to embiggen)

“Watch your step. You mean the world to someone.” (click to embiggen)


 
G’day11931!
 


Footnotes:
Read More…

Bubbles and misinformation (going way beyond confirmation bias)

A so-called American Patriot tries to explain to my Senator that repealing Obamacare has nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act.

A so-called American Patriot tries to explain to my Senator that repealing Obamacare has nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act.

A bunch of people are sharing a Facebook conversation from a guy cheering the repeal of Obamacare while a bunch of acquaintances and strangers try to explain to him that the Affordable Care Act, which is where the guy’s health insurance comes from, is Obamacare. And him not believing them. And many of those people sharing it are asking if this could possibly be real.

Let me answer that for you definitively: it is very real.

I have had the exact same argument with a number of my relatives for years. It doesn’t matter how many times I tell them that their ACA health care is Obamacare, and that if Obamacare is repealed they will lose their health insurance, they don’t believe me. It doesn’t matter how many articles I show them about it. It doesn’t matter if I get other people to explain it, they keep listening to the Obama-hate spewed by friends and acquaintances and Fox News and start talking about how Obamacare must be repealed because it’s a failure.

It’s like the whole birther thing. I don’t know how many times I have explained to my sister that 1) the Obamas aren’t muslim, they’re Methodist, 2) even if they were muslim, what part of religious freedom does she disagree with, 3) Obama was born in Hawaii, it has been settled and proven many times… she falls back into listening to the rantings of the Fox News echo chamber and feels the need to tell me again how much she is looking forward to the day that the Muslim pretender is out of the White House so real Americans can have their country back.

When people talk about how we all live in bubbles, what they’re usually referring to is either confirmation bias or the groupthink effect. We tend to hang out with people who agree with us on many things, we get our news from sources that tend to reinforce our beliefs, et cetera. Recently I linked to an article that showed even which shows we watch for entertainment have polarized: people who tend to vote conservative watch different comedies and dramas and such than people who tend to vote liberal. So our pop culture, presumably, subtly reinforces those worldviews. The notion is that these folks who are voting against their own self-interest are doing so because they never hear information that challenges or contradicts their beliefs, hence the term “low information voter.”

But it isn’t a lack of information.

Some of it is the backfire effect. If your deeply held beliefs are challenged with facts, you hold the beliefs tighter. You rationalize reasons to dismiss the new information. You talk about bias or lies. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information is given to you unsought, when it challenges you.

There’s a related phenomenon, sometimes referred to as “rumors are sticky” or a subset of the availability cascade effect. In order to debunk a misconception, you have to repeat the misconception as you explain whats wrong with it, right? The repetition of the falsehood actually reinforces it in the mind of the person you’re trying to enlighten. They heard the rumor from several sources, including you, the person who usually disagrees with those sources. Never mind that what you said was, “vaccines don’t cause autism, and here’s the proof” the part that sticks is the part that aligns with information the person already had “vaccines… cause autism.”

Then there’s something some people call the just world hypothesis, the belief that this world is fundamentally just (because, for instance, god is in control) and therefore anything which appears to be unjust that happens to someone must have been deserved. That same notion has a lot of corollary effects, particularly if the religious beliefs underlying the just world hypothesis are of a fundamentalist nature. Because then everything that happens in the real world is seen as proxies for the “true battle” between good and evil happening behind the scenes. And once you’ve gone down that rabbit hole things get really weird. To come back to our original question about Obamacare: they’ve been told again and again that Obama is a tool of the dark forces, so anything associated with him must be evil. Obamacare is obviously one of these bad things, otherwise it wouldn’t have his name on it, right? They don’t have to know what it actually is, so long as they know it’s his.

And that’s how they get people who depend on the Affordable Care Act to vote for and cheer for its repeal.

Living in a bubble–more thoughts on social media

“Broadcasting: The fastest, simplest way to stay close to everything you care about.”  (Vintage Social Media Twitter parody © 2010 6B Studio

“Broadcasting: The fastest, simplest way to stay close to everything you care about.” (Vintage Social Media Twitter parody © 2010 6B Studio)

Lots of people have been talking about bubbles, lately. People who lean left politically are accused of living in an elitest bubble out of touch with hardworking ordinary folks. People who lean the other way are accused to living in a faux news echo chamber devoid of information about the real world. I’m not going to argue that both of those perceptions are equally incorrect. I’m sorry, I can prove statistically that one side ignores more facts than the other. But it is true that everyone has blind spots, and everyone is susceptible to confirmation bias.

But there is a difference between an unconscious blindspot and willful ignorance.

For example, there’s a complaint I’ve heard a million times from many people, most recently it is usually directed at social media, but I remember as a kid hearing it directed at newspapers: “I already know the world is full of bad things, I don’t need to read/view/listen to {fill-in-the-blank} to be reminded.” Another popular variant is, “How can you look at {fill-in-the-blank}? It’s just a cesspool of hate and drama!”

So, for instance, not too long ago I was commenting about a really wonderful comic series that I had discovered thanks to Tumblr, and several acquaintences felt compelled to explain why I shouldn’t look at Tumblr because everything they saw there was inter-personal drama and hate and outrage. And they didn’t seem to understand when I said, “You must be following the wrong blogs, because I never see that?”

Okay, so never is a slight exaggeration. There have been a couple of blogs that I followed because the person running it posted several cool things that I really liked, and then later the blog devolved into the person posting angry rants about people I’d never heard of, but you know what happened next? I unfollowed that blog. Similarly on a lot of other internet services. I make liberal use of blocking, muting, and unfollowing functions.

On social media that is sometimes a tricky thing. But social interaction always has the potential for awkwardness. We meet someone in a particular setting, have a wonderful time chatting about something we’re both enthusiastic about, and everything seems wonderful. Then, after we’ve known them for awhile, sometimes an incident happens and we discover this person we thought was the life of the party is actually just another version of that awkward uncle that everyone tries to avoid getting stuck sitting next to at family gatherings because he’ll spout off his embarrassing racist or sexist or religious opinions, right? And just as you can’t simply tell Uncle Blowhard he’s not welcome at the next Christmas Eve get-together without upsetting a bunch of other family members, you can’t always block a social media contact without experiencing a little blowback. So sometimes there is a trade-off to be considered.

That’s not the only kind of trade-off you have to consider. While I am a firm believer in making choices about how you spend your time, I’ve always been frankly baffled at people who make the blanket decision to never pay any attention to the news. Sure, no one wants to hear about bad things all the time… but blocking all news altogether is like putting on a blindfold before you drive somewhere because you don’t want to see any of the bad drivers. You’re exponentially increasing your odds of having not just an unpleasant experience, but a disasterous one!

And before you say my analogy is flawed, remember: humans are social animals. Working together and taking care of each other is a survival trait of our species. Unless you’re living as a hermit in some distant part of the wilderness and not using any resources ever produced by another person, and never interacting with another person, you’re taking part in society. You’re on the road, behind the wheel.

Does this mean that I think you are an irresponsible member of society unless you pay attention to as much news as I do? No. A responsible driver doesn’t just watch the road, they also take pains to eliminate distractions. Just as I unfollow blogs that I don’t find valuable, I try to exercise some discretion in what news and politics and science and other types of information I do pay attention to. And I think other people should do that as well.

But I do know that it’s unwise to blindly ignore entire swaths of the world. And it’s a mistake to pretend that ignorance is a virtue.

More social media thoughts

© 2010 6B Studio

Vintage Social Media. © 2010 6B Studio

One of the things I listen to semi-regularly is The Blabbermouth podcast sponsored by Seattle’s own snarky weekly alternative paper, The Stranger. In my most recent Friday Links post I included an article from the Stranger about former Stranger contributor Lindy West’s decision to leave Twitter, as well as linking to Lindy’s article written for the Guardian explaining why she had decided to leave Twitter. Lindy’s writings for various publications have appeared in many editions of my Friday Links over the last few years. She’s funny and insightful and writes about topics I like.

She was on the Blabbermouth podcast after writing about her decision to leave Twitter, and one of her comments there hit on a topic I’ve found myself thinking about a lot. “One of the things that makes Twitter so useful is because it’s the place everyone is.” I made a similar observation about LiveJournal last week. It was so useful for many years because it was the place everyone was. To different degrees and Facebook and Twitter have supplanted that particular aspect, but they’ve done so in very different ways.

Facebook has become, for many of us, a place we’re obligated to be on if we want to have any hope of getting news from family members. Facebook in particular has some serious drawbacks in this regard. A few years ago I missed my niece’s wedding because rather than send out invitations of any sort, my niece mentioned the date on Facebook. And she expected everyone who she wanted to be there to see it and attend. When I tried to explain later that Facebook only shows some of the things you post to some of your friends, she didn’t understand, because other people saw it and showed up. One of the professional writers I follow on Twitter recently pointed out that her official Facebook author page has 8000+ followers, and those followers have lately been sending messages asking when a particular new book is coming out. But the announcement answering the question which she put up on that page was only shown, according to Facebook’s own states, to 136 of those 8000 followers. If she wants more of them to see it, she needs to pay Facebook to promote the announcement. And maybe for something you’re trying to sell that’s a not unreasonable expectation, but the same sort of distribution algorithms are applied to people’s announcements of deaths in the family, weddings, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And both Twitter and Facebook have issues of mixing all of our communities together, so we wind up offending each other whether intentionally or not with various political and religious comments.

Not that this is something new because of social media. We have a tendency to blame the new technology for dysfunctional behavior that are simply manifestations of human nature. For instance, two times recently things have come up that reminded me of a particular instance of dysfunctional family communication:

Back in the late 80s, when I was still mostly closeted as a queer man, I was informed by at least three relatives (one of my grandmothers, an aunt, and my mom) that one of my cousins (specifically, a first-cousin-once-removed1) who I hadn’t seen in years (but we had spent a lot of time together as kids) had died. Which was a bit upsetting on its own, more so because we were the same age, so he was in his late 20s. But the other upsetting bit was that both mom and my grandma told me, in very hushed tones, that they had heard it was from complications of AIDS, which of course we weren’t supposed to mention to anyone outside the family2. My aunt went much further, telling the lurid tale of how the cousin had been incommunicado and secretive for a few years, and then how his mother (who lived in northern California) had gotten a call from a hospital in San Francisco, and she had barely made it to his death bed before he died, and isn’t that a horrible scandal?

As if I needed more reason to be worried about how my family might take the news that I thought I might be gay, right?

Over the years, any time I happened to mention a story from my childhood involving that particular cousin, various family members would either say what a tragedy it was he had died so young, or change the subject, or in at least one case act as if they didn’t remember his existence4.

Then a few years ago this same aunt posted an old photo on Facebook of a whole bunch of us cousins from a big family get-together that happened in the 70s, and she tagged all of us that were in it with our Facebook accounts. Including D–. To say I was confused is an understatement. So I sent a friend request to this person with the same name as my supposedly dead cousin. And he accepted and the next thing I know I’m looking at photos of him and his husband, along with recent pictures of a holiday get-together with some other members of that branch of the family, including a few who had talked to me personally about his tragic death years ago.

What actually happened? (You’ve probably already guessed.) He came out of the closet back when we were both in our 20s. His immediate family did not react well, at all. At least one of his parents begged him to essentially go back into the closet. When he refused, a decision was made to disown him and treat it as if he had died, and some of the family members went along. Others thought he really had died (and since many of us lived far away and hadn’t been in touch for a while, it was easy for us to believe). He lived his life maintaining contact with those few immediate family members who were supportive.

As time went on and attitudes shifted, less effort was made to maintain the ruse. Until now another form of denial has set in, where almost none of the family members (who are still alive, anyway) who went along with the original ruse wants to even admit it happened.

I came out of the closet in my early 30s, and so far as I know no one on this side of the family told people I had died5. But there was a period of about six years or so when I was estranged from most of my closer family members. The main parallel to my cousin’s situation is that a narrative has been adopted with a bunch of the family that I’m the one who cut everyone off for reasons none of them could fathom, and it was only after my first husband died and I became involved with Michael—who many of them now adore6—that I came back.

Cousin D– and I have had some interesting conversations since all this. It’s been particularly weird this last year during all the election hype where some family members have been saying and sharing extremely homophobic things, while expressing shock and dismay that we don’t feel loved or safe around them because of it8.

All of which is to say: it isn’t just social media algorithms that hide information. It isn’t social media that makes humans react irrationally to news or opinions or decisions we don’t agree with. It isn’t social media that makes some people gaslight others by insisting something we experienced together never happened, or didn’t happen the way we remember it. It isn’t merely because of social media that we put ourselves in bubbles where we never see information that challenges our assumptions. Social media and modern communication in general can make some of that happen faster and have further reach. But our tools have these sorts of functions (hiding information, proliferating misinformation, et cetera) because those are things that we humans sometime chose to do to ourselves and to each other.

And when I say “we” I am very intentionally including myself. There’s more to say on this topic, but I think I’ll try to tackle that in a separate post.


Footnotes:

1. I was lucky enough to have all four of my great-grandmothers live until I was at least in my teens (one actually lived until I was in my 30s!). And all of my great-grandparents had rather large families that tended to try to keep in communication. So I knew most of the siblings of all of my grandparents, as well as their kids and their grandchildren. Some family gatherings when I was a child were huge!

2. The reasoning being that because dying of AIDS meant that he was probably queer, and having a queer family member was something to be deeply ashamed of. There was also an uncle who died of complication of AIDS in this same time period, but anytime that Uncle B– was mentioned after that, someone was quick to point out that he had contracted the virus through intravenous drug use3, which was also a shame and a tragedy, but clearly, since we were allowed to talk about Uncle B–‘s death and the drug use, but not this cousin, not nearly as shameful.

3. At least that’s the family story. Uncle B– served time in prison more than once in his tragically short life, and he was a much smaller than average man, and if you know anything about prison rape culture, you know there was more than one probable vector for B–‘s infection.

4. There was one particularly weird moment about 15 years back when we were going through great-grandma’s photo albums that had been in storage for a long time. We happened upon a picture of the cousin and someone asked who that was, and I said, “so-and-so’s youngest son, D–” and my aunt listed off the names of all of the cousin’s siblings and said, “That’s the only kids they had! They never had a son named D–.”

5. On that side of the family. On my dad’s side of the family people weren’t allowed to mention my name within earshot of several family members. I had this confirmed by multiple sources, but mostly just ignored it for a variety of reasons, not the least being that I was already persona non grata long before I came out for the incredible betrayal of telling the judge overseeing my parents’ divorce that I didn’t want to live with my physically abusive father.

6. I honestly don’t understand why their brains don’t explode from the cognitive dissonance. They do genuinely seem to love my husband, and claim to love me, but they actively pray that we’ll somehow magically be cured of our queerness and leave each other to marry nice christian girls. They also mention us by name as proof they aren’t homophobic while explaining how we’re going going to burn in hell for eternity and deserve any hate crimes that might befall us7

7. That was literally the last post I saw on Facebook from one relative before I blocked her in November—not even being metaphorical.

8. I understand the concept that we can disagree about things and still be friends. But that depends entirely on the nature of the disagreement. When the disagreement is whether I get equal protection under the law, or whether I’m allowed to get health care or any other service, or whether it is okay for me to be the victim of hate crimes, or even whether I have a right to live9, then no, you aren’t my friend.

9. When you post or endorse statements that homosexuals are deserving of death, or if you claim that merely allowing us to live openly and enjoy some legal rights is going to cause god to destroy the nation, you are giving encouragement to gay-bashers to kill us. And then when juries refuse to convict our murderers (which happens a lot) on various flimsy grounds, that just proves my point.

What’s wrong with enjoying sleep?

I'm fine here, thanks. CatsAnimals.com

I’m fine here, thanks. CatsAnimals.com

“There are two kinds of people in the world…” is a setup for a number of jokes. One of the conceits behind that particular setup is that there exist certain almost unbridgeable gaps between people: those who like mayonnaise and those who don’t, for instance. Some years ago I realized that one of those vast chasms of that divided humans are those who are morning people, and then the non-freaks. And I learned this the first time I mentioned just what a wonderful feeling of joy it is to wake up in the morning, roll over to squint at the alarm clock, and see that it’s going to be at least ten more minutes before the alarm goes off.

It really is almost a transcendent joy—that moment when you know that you can safely roll back over and go back to sleep. Even those mornings when I wake up, look at the time, shuffle to the bathroom, then hurry back to the bed to collapse back in it and fall asleep for just eight or nine more minutes is so profoundly delightful as to leave me grinning an hour later.

Years ago, as I alluded to above, I happened to mention my enjoyment of such moments during a conversation with a friend, and her reaction was less than accepting. She could not understand why in the world I would roll over and go back to sleep. “If you get up, you have more time to get ready. You could have a fun, leisurely start to the morning instead of rushing around in a panic.” I pointed out that when I get out of bed when the alarm goes off, I don’t rush around in a panic. Going back to sleep until the alarm sounds is not the same thing as oversleeping. The bliss I was describing is that moment of knowing that I’ve still go time to sleep.

She also expressed a lot of skepticism about whether I actually slept during those few minutes. “You’re just laying there awake with your eyes closed! What’s the point?”

I knew, then, that the chasm between morning people and non-morning people is truly vast, and possibly insurmountable.

She was by no means the last person I found myself in this argument with. And it is an argument. She wasn’t just perplexed at the difference in our perception, she got more than a bit irritated. It really seemed to anger her that I would want to sleep for a bit longer, that I would go back to sleep for as little as a few minutes, that I would enjoy it, and that I would describe it as a wonderful thing. I think she felt that I ought to be ashamed of myself for not leaping out of bed the moment I realized that I had woken up before the alarm went off.

Since finding myself in this particular discrepancy of viewpoint on a number of occasions over the years with various people, I’ve developed my own definition of a true morning person which includes that intense belief that a proper response to waking up early is to embrace the wakefulness and leap into action.

When I say that I fall back to sleep for a few minutes, I mean it. I don’t always fall all the way back to sleep, of course. Sometimes I do lay there with my eyes closed, just enjoying the feel of the blankets. Other mornings I sort of doze, drifting along the edge of wakefulness, not really asleep, but definitely not awake either. But many mornings I do fall back into sleep. I’ve looked at the clock, saw that I had less than four minutes before the alarm goes off, and then fell back into sleep deeply enough that I started dreaming again before the alarm sounds.

Now, not everyone who doesn’t feel as I do about enjoying every last second of my allotted sleep time is a morning person. I’ve met plenty of people who don’t get that same thrill of satisfaction for falling back into bed for a bit longer in the morning who also don’t insist that the only normal or natural reaction to waking up a few minutes before the alarm goes off is to jump up and get an early start on the day.

So I know that there aren’t merely two kinds of people in the world on this particular topic. As with most things, people fall on a spectrum, and we probably all slide up and down that spectrum over time. While there is some science out there about chronotypes (a technical term for classifying people based on their natural circadian rhythm), it’s a mixed bag. A lot of the articles one finds talking about the “science” of morning people vs night owls are simply citing surveys, which isn’t very rigorous. Most of the more scientifically rigorous information is actually from studies of people with insomnia and sleep apnea and the like, which yields a lot of information that may be useful for treating sleep disorders, but doesn’t actually tell us much about healthy sleep patterns. All we can reliably infer from the science we do have is that people do have natural sleep patterns that vary from person to person.

It’s just as natural to be a night owl as not. And it isn’t productive to try to talk someone into being the other sort of person.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not claiming that I’m physically incapable of getting up early. Some mornings I wake up before the alarm goes off, and I decide to get up rather than roll over and get a little more sleep. Some mornings I sleep like a log right up until the alarm goes off. And yes, some mornings I hit the snooze alarm a time or two (snooze alarms are another source of bewilderment to a True Morning Person).

I like sleep. Even more, I like it when I get enough sleep that I feel rested and ready to work in the morning. As part of my taking-care-of-myself routine for some years, I keep track of bed times and make efforts to keep my sleep schedule from getting too far out of whack on weekends or on vacations. And part of that routine is letting myself enjoy, from time to time, those moments of voluntary sleep before the alarm.

One last Chubby and Tubby Story

In December 1991 Ray and I were spending our first Christmas living in our own place. It was a tiny studio apartment whose windows overlooked an alley behind a bar. I was in the middle of getting divorced. Ray had had a recent significant job change that was complicated by the involvement of one of his exes. So we were both broke and most of our personal property was at least temporarily in someone else’s custody.

His mom or his sister had given us a small artificial Christmas tree that had been boxed up in a garage for some time. Ray came up with a few old strings of Christmas lights somewhere. We had bought a single box of very cheap glass ball ornaments in multiple colors, and a similarly cheap tinsel star tree-topper with a cluster of lights. So we had the small tree perched on a chest of drawers. It’s the kind of first Christmas stories lots of couples tell. One of the things I really liked about that silly star treetopper is that it looked exactly like one my parents had bought when I was a baby, and had been my childhood treetopper until sometime in grade school when they replaced it with an angel.

One weekend a couple weeks before Christmas, we helped one of Ray’s friends, Miss Lee. She was an older woman that Ray had met when he had worked as a nursing aide a few years before. She had only recently moved from a nursing kind of facility to a sort of assisted living apartment. It was the first time in years that she had had more than a single room of her own, and she had recently gotten a bunch of her things that had been in storage at a relative’s house, including a box of Christmas ornaments. She had been told she could have a tree and that the maintenance staff would take care of disposing of cut trees after the holiday. So she needed someone with a car to take her to buy a tree, and then help her set it up.

Miss Lee lived in the south end of Seattle, not far from one location of the former Seattle institution known as Chubby and Tubby. Chubby and Tubby started as an army surplus store run out of a tin shed in the Rainier Valley neighborhood of Seattle by two friends after they came home from serving in WWII. They moved to a bigger location in Rainier Valley in the mid-50s, then opened at least two other stores (the one in north Seattle being the one I shopped at most often), before the owners passed away, then eventually their heirs sold the locations and closed down the stores in 2003. Chubby and Tubby was a strange store that’s really hard to describe. They sold blue jeans and tennis shoes and fishing poles and tools and gardening things and… well, just a whole lot of weird stuff. Always cheap.

And every December, each Chubby and Tubby store offered Christmas trees for sale, cheaper than you could find them anywhere else. In the 80s and 90s the price was alway $5 a tree, no matter what size. I’ve talked to people who remembered during the 70s when Chubby and Tubby trees were only $3. The owners sold the trees at a loss. They said they wanted to make sure that people who couldn’t afford a Christmas tree could have one. The trees were usually Douglas Firs, and they were… well, they were never very symmetrical. They were never as scraggly as the proverbial Charlie Brown Christmas tree, but they were always unique. I had purchased at least a couple of Chubby and Tubby trees in the years before this particular December. We hadn’t bought one ourselves that year in part because I didn’t think we’d be able to dispose of it easily afterward. Also, the loaned artificial tree was even cheaper.

Anyway, Miss Lee wanted a Chubby and Tubby tree, in part because she had fond memories of getting trees from Chubby and Tubby when she was younger, but also because you can’t beat the price. Before we’d gone to the store, we had untangled her strings of very old lights and determined that at least one of them was probably a fire hazard and shouldn’t be used. So she also hoped to find a cheap string of lights or two at Chubby and Tubby as well.

It was less than two weeks until Christmas, and Chubby and Tubby was absolutely packed. It took Miss Lee a while to pick out her tree, mostly because she wanted one small enough to fit in the spot she’d chosen in her living room. And then there were strings of lights and ornaments to look at. There was one particular string of Christmas lights that Ray was very taken with. A string of a couple dozen lights with plastic teddy bears wearing Santa hats. It was at Chubby and Tubby, so it was cheap, but even cheap was out of our own budget at the time. Miss Lee wanted something simpler, with multicolored lights for her own tree. She offered to buy Ray the string of Teddy Bears, but he told her very firmly no.

At each check-out line they had a bucket of odd little brass keys. There was a contest. Every customer could pick a key out of the bucket, and then try the key on this Treasure Chest at the front of the store. If the key opened the chest, you’d get a gift certificate good for certain items in the store. Miss Lee told Ray to pick a key and give it a try. The key he picked unlocked the chest. Ray asked her what she wanted to use the gift certificate for, and Miss Lee said, “It yours.”

My late husband won this string of teddy bear Santa Christmas lights 25 years ago. Photo © 2017 Gene Breshears.

My late husband won this string of teddy bear Santa Christmas lights 25 years ago.

And yes, the string of Teddy Bear lights was one of the things he could redeem the gift certificate for. So we took home the string of teddy bear lights.

We got the tree back to her place, got it set up, helped her put her lights on the tree and hang her ornaments. She told us little stories about each ornament as she unwrapped them. It was a fun day.

When we got home that night, Ray hung up the teddy bear lights in the window over our bed. That silly string of teddy bear lights hung either in windows or on our tree every Christmas for the rest of Ray’s life. Ray died mid-November of 1997, not quite six years after that first Christmas living together.

For Christmas 1997 I barely did any decorating. Ray had only been dead a few weeks at the time we would normally start pulling decorations from the basement. I knew if I started unpacking our ornaments and such I’d break down sobbing and I wasn’t sure I would stop. I barely felt brave enough to open the storage closet in the basement to pull out one of the smaller artificial trees that I knew I could get to without opening other boxes. I decorated using some ornaments and a string of lights Ray had purchased on sale somewhere a week or so before he died, thus they were already upstairs and they didn’t have a history of Christmases with him.

In 1998, as I unpacked boxes of ornaments, I broke down crying several times. Ray had loved Christmas so much, and so many of the ornaments evoked memories of when he had found that particular decoration and showed it to me in the store. Or times he had fussed with where to hang it to best show it off, et cetera.

Yes, one of the times I broke down was when I pulled the teddy bear santa lights from one of the boxes. I hung them in the bedroom window that year. The next several years I put the teddy bear lights up. At least once on the tree, but usually in one of the windows. The last few years I’ve gotten them out and looked at them, debating whether I should put them up. They’re more than 20 years old. At some point old electronics, even something as simple as strings of mini lights, break down and/or become fire hazards. So I would plug them in, look them over, and some years I’d decide to put them back in the box. But most years I have still hung them up.

Our building, which was the last home Ray lived in and has been my home for a bit over 20 years, has been sold and the new owners want to do major renovations. They’ve given us advance notice that everyone’s going to be evicted sometime before 2017 year is over. So this was my last Christmas in the place that was Ray’s last home. I’ve been… moodier than usual this holiday.

I put the teddy bear lights in the kitchen window. Every evening they turned on and shown their silly light until the wee hours of the morning. I checked them frequently, but they never showed signs of problems.

But when I took them down out of the window, I noticed that several stretches of the wire are stiffer than other sections. The plastic doesn’t actually crack when you bend it in those locations, but clearly 20-some years of use is taking its toll.

While we were packing things and taking the tree down, I was looking at all of our decorations with a critical eye. If we have to move, it would be silly to move old ornaments and lights we know we’re never going to use again. I now have a couple of big boxes of old light strings and the like to recycle, and a big pile of other decorations that I think are in good enough shape to donate, if I can find a place that will take them.

And those teddy bear lights (or at least the string itself) shouldn’t be used again. No one wants the lights to start a fire some December in the future. So its time to says good-bye to Ray’s teddy bear lights. 25 Christmases later, they’ve earned a rest.

My New Year’s Wish for You, 2017

Stand.

Stand up. Stand up for yourself. Stand up for your friends. Stand up for your neighbors. Stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves.

When you get knocked down, stand up. The old aphorism is it doesn’t matter how many times we fall, as long as we get back up and keep striving after. And it’s true. But the thing we don’t always remember is, no one said you have to do it alone. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to ask for a hand when you’ve fallen. And when someone has fallen and needs a hand-up, don’t be afraid to reach out and help them. When we help someone else stand up, we’re helping ourselves.

Stand together. Stand beside your friends, neighbors, and the people who feel alone. Stand together against the cynicism and greed and hate which we all have to face from time to time. Stand together. Lean on each other if you have to, but the most important thing is to stand up together. We’re stronger together.

Because when the forces of bigotry, fear, greed, and ignorance gather together and try to overwhelm us with hopelessness and despair, our only defense is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and say, “We will not be divided. We will not retreat. We will not give in. This is where we make our stand. Together.”

Stand.

Freaks — caffeinated or not

“You know how you just wake up some mornings and you feel so refreshed and cheerful, you’re like ‘I don’t even need coffee’? Me, either. And I don’t trust anyone who says they do. Uncaffeinated freaks.”—Nanea Hoffman, SweatpantsAndCoffee.com

“You know how you just wake up some mornings and you feel so refreshed and cheerful, you’re like ‘I don’t even need coffee’? Me, either. And I don’t trust anyone who says they do. Uncaffeinated freaks.” — Nanea Hoffman, SweatpantsAndCoffee.com

One time my husband and I were discussing sleep schedules, and specifically how I much I regret it if I stay up too late on weekends, because it is so difficult to get up and going on time come Monday morning. He didn’t quite understand what I was getting at, and made a comment along the lines of, “Maybe since you don’t drink coffee during the work week, you shouldn’t drink coffee in the weekends.”

I stared at him open-mouth for a moment then asked, “What make you think I don’t drink coffee during the work week?”

“I’ve never heard you say you’re going on a coffee break.”

So I had to explain to him that in the software industry (at least the places I’ve worked) people don’t take official coffee breaks. You get to the office, you hang up your jacket and so forth, boot up your workstation, grab your coffee mug and head to the kitchen. You then bring your full coffee cup back to your desk and sip it while you work. And you go back to the kitchen and refill your coffee cup whenever the heck you want to, and bring it back to your desk.

Yeah, sometimes you wind up hanging in the kitchen chatting with co-workers. And some folks prefer to have a specific time they leave their desks for a break, but most of us take a lot of mini-breaks throughout the day. And, of course, folks whose jobs involve answering the phone (tech support, customer service, sales) don’t have the flexibility to get up and go refill coffee whenever. But for the rest of us, particularly since most of us aren’t hourly and wind up putting in more than 40 hours a week anyway, don’t really worry about rigid break times.

I do block off lunch time. I used to not do that, and work while eating at my desk like a lot of my co-workers. But some years ago I had a boss who really believed that one of your responsibilities is to take care of yourself so you can do a good job. I still eat at my desk, but my work computer is logged out, and I spend the time writing on my iPad or catching up on the news.

At the time we had this conversation, I was drinking on a typical workday at least six mugs of coffee a day.

The other reason he thought I didn’t drink coffee during the week is that I seldom made pots of coffee at home during the week. I’m a cheapskate, son of cheapskate, grandson of penny-pinchers, et cetera. Of course I’m not going to make extra coffee for myself if I can get it free at work! Which proves that I’m nowhere near the caffeine fiend that I sometimes talk like, because I can muddle through the morning get ready for work routine without several cups of coffee.

Note, however, that I didn’t say without caffeine. See, on a typical Monday morning, for instance, there is coffee in the pot left over from Sunday. And yes, I will stick a mug of that in the microwave and heat it up on Mondays. And other days, well, before I had the fancy electric teakettle thing, I would fill a mug with water, drop a teabag in it, and stick it in the microwave. Just a little caffeine to start the day, right?

On a typical work day, then, I have a mug of some caffeinated beverage early in the morning, then a couple of mugs of office coffee once I get to the office, and then four or so cups of tea in the afternoon. I betray my cheapskate heritage on that, because the office tea selection is often pretty boring, so I have a few of my favorites (double bergamot earl grey, aged earl grey, jasmine green, lavender earl grey, blackberry oolong, green & black earl grey… that sort of thing) in a drawer at the office.

So, yes, I need my caffeine. It gets me through the day. And some of it is in the form of coffee. And I sometimes make disparaging remarks about people who don’t indulge. And I know that I shouldn’t. Some folks have medical reasons to avoid caffeine. Some people have religious objections. And some people just don’t like coffee or tea. I am boggled at the last, but try to remind myself that lots of people are completely baffled at just how much I hate the taste of raisins.

So I try to live in peace with the decaffeinated freaks around me, even the ones who actually like the satanic fruit in muffins or cookies or whatever new kind of food someone has decided to ruin with raisins. And I hope that they will be equally accepting of what a weird caffeinated freak I am. Because on the whole, all people are strange. If there’s someone who doesn’t appear to be weird in some way, that just means you don’t know them well enough.


It’s December, and that means I’m trying to write yet another original Christmas Ghost Story to read at our annual holiday get together. But as is often the case, I have too many plots and can’t quite settle on which one to write.

Which is where you can help!

If you haven’t already, go to Which Christmas Ghost should I write? and take the poll. Seeing which things interests people does help. I may not wind up finishing the story more people vote for this time around, but just seeing people voting gives me at least a bit more motivation.

Thanks!

Emotional swings and misses

“Coffee is a drug... a warm delicious drug.”— BrainlessTales.com

“Coffee is a drug… a warm delicious drug.”— BrainlessTales.com

December (and the latter half of November) in the office is always weird. People take vacation time. A lot of people take vacation time. Business slows down. Even the tech support lines get quieter. At the same time, any issue that comes up always seems to be urgent. I think the increased urgency is in part a consequence of the people being gone in our company, and the vendors’ offices, and the customers’ offices—either the person who knew who to call when something goes wrong is out, or the person who was covering for someone else who was out didn’t recognize the seriousness of a problem, or there are just longer gaps of time to get approvals so by the time a go-ahead comes through it was needed last week.

So it’s always weirdly quiet, some days to the point of making you wonder why you bothered coming into the office, with random moments of frenzied activity, leaving a lingering hint of impending calamity in the air. It’s just fraught.

For the last twenty-eight years I’ve worked in the telecommuncations industry, and in the early years some more experienced co-workers said it was typical for our industry in particular and tech industries in general. I don’t know if it’s really just us or not. But I have gotten a lot better at not getting as discombobulated when a director or veep calls me directly to tell me to drop everything and work on this, or to ask why this thing that I have heard about only seconds before the call isn’t done, yet. But knowing that the stuff I’m already working on is due at a date that is not realistic, and that some of the people who I need to get information from are not going to be available for significant stretches of time during that interval, and then getting a call from a Senior Director saying he needs help with this thing—that uses up a lot of spoons.

Which is a long way to get to saying that I haven’t been in a good place mentally at lunch time to get writing done for a few weeks. And while it never seems as if the amount of writing I get done at lunch is that much, I recognize that spending that fifteen-twenty minutes thinking about the current writing project in the middle of my day goes a long way toward getting me to a productive space by the time I get home.

Because I usually walk home from work (it takes just a bit over an hour), I’ve gotten used to having that time to think and process. When I’m in a good writing groove, most of the walk will consist of characters in my head having lively discussions about things. I’m noticing that if lunchtime writing isn’t good, then the walk home doesn’t involve those character conversations.

I don’t know how to fix that, right now. I’ll just have to keep muddling forward.

But you can help. If you haven’t already, go to Which Christmas Ghost should I write? and take the poll. Seeing which things interests people does help. I may not wind up finishing the story more people vote for this time around, but just seeing people voting gives me at least a bit more motivation.

At least we’ll have pie…

(Maxine created by John Wagner, © Hallmark Licensing, LLC)

(Maxine created by John Wagner, © Hallmark Licensing, LLC)

We’re spending Thanksgiving at Mom’s, which is a very small space for the number of people who will be there, and the kitchen is even tinier. So coordinating holiday dinners is always a little difficult, particularly since we are driving down the night before and staying at a nearby hotel (by the time this posts, we should be there, obviously). If we lived a lot closer, we’d be able to cook some things here the morning before, but that isn’t an option. The other extended family members who live nearby have various restrictions on their space and facilities, as well. A few years ago, Mom and I collaborated on ordering dinner from a local store which I picked up that morning. But it was… well… it wasn’t good. And the small town she is in doesn’t have any better options.

Which isn’t to say that the dinners haven’t been good and enjoyable. And as crowded as everything gets when we’re all crammed in at Mom’s small place, if we had more (shall we say) elaborate food, it would be even more difficult. It’s just that there is a part of me—primed by memories of epic childhood holiday dinners, plus a boatload of pop culture expectations, and memories of elaborate holiday dinners I’ve cooked as an adult—that keeps wanting it to be more. It’s emotional baggage, rather than any actual shortcoming of the event, right?

Which means that I have to spend a certain amount of time before the holiday psyching myself out to not be disappointed, and (perhaps more importantly) to not act as if I’m disappointed.

This year I’m responsible for the relish tray, a salad (specifically Mom wants me to make the salad my hubby dubbed Foofy Salad), and pies. All are things that are easy to transport and don’t need to be cooked or heated when we arrive. And it has the upside of leaving me certain that there will be pie. Later this weekend, we’ll be cooking a dinner with some of the traditional holiday dishes that we don’t get on the actual day.

Before I queue this up and finish packing, I want list some of the things I’m thankful for; if for no other reason to remind myself that there is still a lot of good in the world:

  • my wonderful, handsome, sweet, smart, talented, and sexy husband
  • purple
  • people who love
  • kittens
  • people who make art, stories, music, and other creative things
  • mousies
  • radio and other wireless technology
  • coffee
  • people who help other people
  • my friends—wonderful, talented, nerdy, loving, and some of them nearly as crazy as me
  • people who make things work
  • puppies
  • books
  • otters
  • my wonderful, talented, hard-working, handsome husband who inexplicably puts up with me (who absolutely deserves to be on this list more than once!)
  • people who sweat the details
  • flowers
  • tigers
  • people who don’t sweat the details
  • science
  • my job
  • raspberries
  • satellites and space craft and telescopes
  • my extended chosen family, which yes overlaps with several other times on this list (not just the third)
  • technology that lets me carry my entire music library in my pocket, access the world’s libraries from the palm of my hand, read silly things people say halfway around the world, all while standing in the checkout line at the grocery store
  • my family, yes even the most exasperating, because they’re part of what made me who I am, and I’m sure that I drive them just as crazy as they drive me
  • electricity
  • people who clean up after disasters
  • readers
  • pie
  • pi
  • good food, drink, and opportunities to be merry
  • my sexy husband who keeps me sane, fixes things I break, finds things I lose, and perhaps most importantly, inspires me to ignore my worst impulses and go high when others or the world goes low

Thank you, everyone who reads this. Whether you are celebrating Thanksgiving, I hope that you are surrounded by love. I hope your life contains more blessings than troubles. May you find joy, and may you know that you give others reason to be thankful.

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