Tag Archive | life

Confessions of a penny pinching packrat

Every single penny accounted for…

A recent Tumblr post reminded me of one of the reasons that people who aren’t packrats don’t understand packrat behavior. Packrat behavior is sometimes clinically defined in terms of controlling anxiety. The biggest anxiety in question, and the one we mention least often, is economic anxiety. And the thing about economic anxiety that is most misunderstood is that it is not irrational.

Tumblr user Ignescent explained it really well:

This really locked into my brain when I was reading one of the declutter your space things and it suggested getting rid of duplicate highlighters and pens. /Pens/. It suggested that you needed one or two working pens, so if you had extra you should get rid of them. That was when I realized minimalist living was /innately/ tied to having spare money, because the idea was, of course you just went out and bought the single replacement thing whenever the first thing broke. You obv. Had the time and money to only ever hold what you needed that moment, because you could always buy more later.
—ignesecent.tumblr.com

There were several years of my life when every single dime of every paycheck was already allocated before I got it. This wasn’t because I was bad at money management or because I was living above my means (at least not the way that people who like to throw that phrase around use it) or because I was lazy, it was because I made very little money, period. I was attending college part time and working three jobs (three jobs). My mom was working full time (when for health reasons she shouldn’t have been working at all), lived in another state, and was trying to support my younger sister. My parents had been divorced for years at that point and one of my dad’s least awful behaviors was that he absolutely refused to even fill out financial aid forms for any of his five children, let alone send any support that wasn’t ordered by a court.

In that situation, any unexpected expense—no matter how small—meant skipping at least one meal during that pay period. I’m not exaggerating. At least half of my meals at the time were things like cheap boxed macaroni and cheese. Not the “expensive” kind with a picture of orange sauce-slathered pasta on the box. I’m talking the plain white box with black block printing that sold for 20-cents a box (and about four or five times a year would go on sale for 10 boxes for a dollar, so you’d buy five bucks worth when it did because that meant you had a cushion in case of an unexpected expense later).

And a good portion of my childhood was spent with our family living like that. I talk about the bullying in school, but that wasn’t the only horror that school sometimes visited upon me. You don’t want to know the terror and humiliation that comes over a kid from a struggling family if you are informed that this next assignment requires your parent to buy something unexpected. Or that there is a $10 fee required for this class activity that is part of your grade.

So, yes, when Michael and I were loading the last of the Christmas decorations out of the storage space at our old apartment this weekend and I discovered yet another old monitor that we had wrapped up and stashed when we replaced it years ago, I felt a bit of embarrassment, because that meant we had a total of six old monitors to get rid of, instead of the two that we had thought just a week ago.

But another part of me knew why it was there. Because things break. You have the money now to buy that new monitor you’ve been pining after for months, and you’ve double-checked, triple-checked, and quadruple-checked your bank accounts and all of your bills for the next few months before spending the money (because you always do that before spending money), and it’s nice and pretty and so much better than this old thing you probably should have replaced a year ago.

But you do not, repeat, do not dispose of the old monitor. You don’t donate it to charity. You sure as heck don’t throw it away! You put it away, because if some disaster happens and your shiny new monitor gets fried when lightning strikes your building (it happened to my ex- years ago, one lightning storm and half of her electronics were fried) or whatever, you can pull that old monitor out of the basement and keep working for however long it takes to save up to buy a replacement.

Yes, sometimes when we replace an appliance or a computer part or accessory, we will pass it on to a friend we know needs it. But the reason we are able to do that? Is because we know that we still have the older one that we replaced four years ago in storage, so if something goes wrong for us, we have that back up.

It doesn’t matter that for years I’ve been lucky enough to have relatively stable employment and the wherewithal to cover my bills without worrying about skipping meals if a tiny unexpected expense comes up. It doesn’t matter because I know I’ve had to live that way before, and I know that it could happen again. It isn’t about an irrational fear or lack of planning.

It is planning.

There are checklists in the back of my mind all time: do we have enough food in the cupboard to make meals for the next couple of weeks? Do I know which bills I have to pay in the next two months and the approximate total to cover them? Is the gas tank on the car full? Did I pay up the Orca card so my bus pass will work for the next two weeks? If the microwave or stove break do I have an alternate/backup means to cook until we can get something replaced or repaired? And yes, if my pen runs dry when my rent is due, do I have backups so I don’t have to make time to go buy a replacement before I can write the rent check and hand it in on time?

Those aren’t silly, or paranoid, or stupid fears. My living spaces haven’t been cluttered my whole life because I have a sloppy mind.

I understand that there are hidden costs to the packrat behavior. I know that storing all these extra things is using up space that could be used for something else. Packing items super tight into every available nook and cranny means you have to spend more time later looking for something. It can mean that you aren’t aware of a physical problem with part of the house because you can’t see that back wall over there and don’t know that some water damage happened because the neighbor tried to fix a sink themselves rather than call a professional, and they cleaned up their side, but not before some seeped through to your wall.

And I right now I’m am hyper aware of how much extra time, effort, and money it takes to move (or sort through and dispose of) all that extra stuff that I’ve been storing all this time.

Knowing this makes it a little easier for a time to tamp down that chorus in the back of my head that speaks in the voices of my grandparents and great-grandparents about not getting rid of things that we might need some day.

The truth is that the chorus isn’t wrong. We might need that some day.

I say this because I don’t want my recent self-deprecating comments about my packrat tendencies to be taken as justification to upbraid anyone for being a packrat. It’s one thing for me to decry my own issues, but it’s important to remember that the “ideal” uncluttered minimalist lifestyle is a product of economic privilege that not everyone has. Scolding someone for not being able to achieve it is just as wrong-headed as blaming young people for not owning a house on the occasional purchase of avocado toast.

(Click to embiggen)

Who are you going to believe?

One night in the 90s my phone rang with the Caller ID showing a number I didn’t recognize. The area code of the number was for the region where my grandparents and several other relatives lived, so thinking that it was either one of my relatives are about them, I answered. The voice on the other end asked rather hesitantly to speak to me, by my old name (before I legally changed it). This made my heart race a bit, because if something awful had happened to my grandparents, I would expect anyone trying to contact next of kin would use that name.

I said, “Speaking. Who is this?”

“I don’t know if you remember be, but I’m —– ——-, I was one of your teachers at __________ Middle School?”

“COACH! What a surprise to hear from you!”

It is true that he had been one of my middle school teachers, but more importantly, he had been the coach of one of the team sports I mostly flailed at and specifically he was the coach who had taken time outside of school time to get me to a weight room and try to turn me into someone who wasn’t picked on so much at school. It was great to hear from him, but also a bit confusing. We hadn’t talked in decades.

He had gotten my phone number from my grandmother, and he’d been wanting to talk to some of his old students, specifically the ones he felt he hadn’t done enough for. I tried to argue that he had gone above and beyond for me, but he interrupted and told me to let him say his piece.

“We knew,” he said, “all of us knew which of the students were being mistreated at home. Some of you had the disturbing recurring bruises and such, others had less severe signs. We all knew, and we talked among ourselves about how we could help. But the law was different, then. If a teacher accused a parent of abuse, the teacher almost always lost their job, their career ended. It was our word against the parents’ and usually the kids would deny it, too, because they were too scared of the abusive parent…”

He went on for a bit, and I tried to assure him that I understood. I was well aware of how laws that protected teachers and doctors and so forth if they reported suspected abuse didn’t become common until years later. I also assured him that he had helped. “You believed in me. You talked me out of quitting. You showed me I could do more–could be more–than I believed I could. And that’s part of the reason a year or so later I was finally able to stand up to my dad. You’re one of the reasons I’m still alive to talk about it.”

As I said, he arranged for me to have work out time at the weight room up at the high school. That part that I haven’t mentioned is that he set it up so that the other kids didn’t know I was getting extra help. He made it clear that he understood that if my bullies knew I “needed extra help” it would make their bullying worse. He didn’t manage to turn me into a winning wrestler. But I got better, and discovered that I was actually good at running, so I joined the track team and later cross country. I was never a champion, but I stopped being the team member who always came in last. It didn’t make everything else in my life wonderful, but it made some parts better.

He still felt the need to ask forgiveness for not doing more. As we talked, I was able to put a few more pieces together. His wife had passed away less than a year before, so he had been rattling around their house with nothing but his memories and regrets. As he said, I wasn’t the only abused kid that had been one of his students. He mentioned a few who had died early deaths, from alcohol or drugs or suicide, and clearly he felt that their abusive childhoods had played a role. “I ran into your grandmother in the grocery store earlier this week, and she told me you lived in Seattle, doing something with computers. I was so glad to hear that you’re well.”

I tried to assure him that he had done good for me, and I knew he had done right by many others. “If it helps, I’ll say ‘you’re forgiven’ even though I never, ever felt wronged by you.”

It was an emotional night. I still tear up writing about it.

Domestic abuse is a complicated problem. So many forces in society enable the abuse and silence the abused. Abusers are good at presenting a respectable, reasonable facade. They are even better at casting doubt as to the reliability of any of their accusers. They are really good at teaching the abused to doubt themselves.

There is no simple solution to domestic abuse. Coach thought that if he made me into a better athlete, since my dad had been a champion in school, that maybe Dad wouldn’t abuse me as often. That’s not how it works. Abusers want control, and no success is ever good enough.

Yeah, Coach’s efforts to make me less of an athletic loser helped in many ways, but even more, his willingness to offer his time and ecouragement–to be a loving positive adult presence in my life–did far more in making me into a person who could make my own life better.

A few years later I learned from my aunt who still lived back there that Coach had died. I hope he believed me when I said he was one of the reasons my life had become better.

Thanks, Coach Clemens. Thank you for believing me. Thank you for believing in me. And thank you for teaching me to believe in myself.

They’re just things, that’s what we keep saying…

Picture of my tacky christmas ferris wheel decoration

Silly, tacky, with tinny music — and I Ioved it!

Humans form attachments to other people, to animals, to possessions, to places, et cetera. This tendency to become fond of things has been shown in various contexts to actually have survival value. But we don’t just form these attachments for practical reasons. Emotions are, by definition, not rational. And we can have conflicting feelings about things. Take, for instance, my tacky Christmas ferris wheel. It was a gift from my friend, Kats, who shares my fondness for certain types of kitsch. Her wife, like my husband, does not share this particular interest, and they both do a lot of eye-rolling at our taste in decorations.

The plastic ferris wheel is battery powered, and it had two modes: it could light up and the wheel would turn slowly. The ferris cars rock on the wheel, and the wheel has always been a little bit jerky in its motion, so the little plastic snowmen and penguins and beers and reindeer seemed to be waving cheerfully as the wheel turn. In the other mode you got the lights, the rotating wheel, and you got tinny versions of Christmas carols. It was like a dream come true for me, and my husband’s worst Christmas nightmare all in one!

I’ve had it for years. Every Christmas season since Kats gave it to me, I’ve unpacked it along with the ornaments we’re using that year, put batteries in it, turned it on to listen to the music at least once through its medley, then put it somewhere in the living room where I could see it. I would turn the ferris wheel on silent mode a few more times (since the music really annoys my husband). And I would turn the music on at least one more time before taking the batteries out and packing it away with the other ornaments.

Over the years there have been a few glitches. Pieces have broken off and had to be glued back on. One bit of fence broke off several times and eventually I had to admit that it was more glue than plastic and it couldn’t really be put back together. (Side note: in a testament to how awesome my husband is, he did spend some time trying to scan the broken bits to see if he could 3D print me a replacement.) One time a few years ago when I turned it on the ferris wheel wouldn’t turn. My husband fiddled with it and got it working again, but it was always with a more jerky motion than before. The motor was always loud enough to hear from across the room even when the music was playing. And over time the motor sound has gotten louder.

Then this last Christmas, when I put batteries in and turned it on, the lights came on, the motor made its usual sound, the wheel turned jerkily… and the music started to play, then glitched, then played a bit more, then glitched, and started to sound a bit off key. I thought maybe the batteries I put in were nearly dead, so I swtiched them out. Nope. The sound chip was definitely dying.

I set the ferris wheel up, because it’s still cheerful looking, and put off the decision of whether to keep or dispose of it until the end of the Christmas season.

Then we got the first official notification from the new owners of our building that they weren’t going to be raising anyone’s rent, no, they were going to evict all of us. They were applying for permits to do a major renovation to the building, and needed everyone out. They have a guesstimate it would be May or so when they would need everyone to go (once they got the permit process going, we got more official communication and a somewhat more certain timeline). That’s why, when I put the Christmas decorations away this last year, I pulled out all of the containers of decorations (we have way more than we can use in a given year), and went through them selecting stuff to get rid of. I reduced our collection by a bit (though we still have way too much). The ferris wheel, clearly, needed to go.

Except I wasn’t ready to let it go, just yet.

So, I didn’t pack it away nor throw it out. I moved it to the bookcase over by my favorite chair. It’s not Christmas time, but I don’t care. The ferris wheel gets to stay until we leave, I decided. Then it will be retired for good.

We have professional movers scheduled to come deal with the heavy furniture and whatever else we haven’t moved ourselves in about 10 days. So the ferris wheel’s end is looming. It’s just a thing. And as I recall, Kats said she bought it at a second hand place, so I’ve definitely gotten her money’s worth out of it. And my poor, long-suffering husband has already told me he’s going to buy me a new tacky Christmas thing to replace it this next year. So I shouldn’t feel too sad about it going. I am a little amused at myself to realize that some of my anger at the new owners (evicting everyone regardless is the least annoying thing they’ve done; there will be catty snarky blog posts about it eventually, but not now) has become focused on a few weird possessions.

The truth is that I probably would have gotten rid the the ferris wheel once the chip died even if we weren’t trying to reduce our hoard before me move. But I find myself blaming its demise on the new owners of the building. And maybe it’s a good thing to have something concrete to focus the annoyance on, you know? The ferris wheel, the tacky hanging lamp (I’ll talk about that after the move for… reasons), the rose trellises, and so forth are better ways to expend that kind of negative energy than some of the alternatives.

Right?

Confessions of a guy who likes the rain

Cat with coffee mug

I’ll be fine if you just give me my coffee… and my snacks… and my allergy meds… and… and… and…

So one of my co-workers had been working for the same employer in an office on the east coast, and decided to move to Seattle and work in our group. She’s been here since mid-summer, and it’s been quite an experience trying to explain Seattle weather to her. Yesterday she was asking why summer hasn’t already started, because a daytime high of 48ºF with lots of drizzling and some rain with sun breaks in April seems absurd to her. I hadn’t realized that each of the times she had come out to work in our office for several days over the last few years had always been in August. I tried to explain how our summer doesn’t really start until about July 12, and so forth, which seemed to astound her. I think maybe she thinks we’re all pulling her leg or something. I mentioned that I like the rain, and really don’t like our typical August weather at all.

My walk home later that day was fun and weird. It was raining, but the sun was also out, so I had to put on my sunglasses. When I got to the corner, where our office building was no longer acting as a wind break, I found out it was really windy. At the next corner I swear a whirlwind touched down on me and threatened to sweep me away. The rain got much more intense as I walked the third block… and then it turned to sleet. I had sleet for about three blocks, with the wind buffeting me from many directions. The wind is particularly weird now because of my new hat, which has a much broader brim than my old broad-brimmed hat. So the amount of lift it was putting on my head was disturbing.

And I should mention that even when the rain and sleet were coming down hardest, the sun was still shining right in my eyes, since it was close to the horizon and there were blue skies visible there.

The sleet let up to just a light drizzle by the time I was at about the 11th block of my walk, and the wind shifted to a fairly steady breeze coming straight out of the north—right in my face.

The rest of the walk home (about 4 miles total) was breezy with occasional drizzles. The sun was just dipping below the horizon (but the sky was still lit nicely) when I got to the house.

The new hat, by the way, didn’t let any water reach my head. Some of my previous hats would have been soaked and my head would have at least been damp by then.

Seattle weather is like that a lot—by which I mean, weird mixes of things that change quickly throughout the day or that just change from one neighborhood to the next. One of the consequences of this is that I own several different coats and jackets. This was another part of the co-worker’s disbelief: she’s used to owning one heavy coat for winter, and a light jacket for the fall. She was freaked out at how many different types of raincoat she tried (and returned) before she found one she liked last fall. And now neither of her three coats work, because it will be too cold for the light coat or rain coat when she leaves the house in the morning, but too warm for the heavy coat when she goes out for lunch in the middle of the day. I and several co-workers said (almost simultaneously) “That’s why everyone in Seattle wears layers.”

I have several coats. My heavy winter coat, which is leather and has a hood and that I waterproof regularly (and also has a removable extra liner) gets me through several months from the late fall through winter. I start wearing it without the liner mid-fall, add the liner about a month later, then take out the liner around the end of January. Then I have a medium jacket, which is puffy and insulated and looks like it might be for colder weather than the coat, but because it only covers my torso is inadequate for winter. Well, not totally. It gets worn on weekends a lot during the winter when I’m only out of the house to go shopping or visit friends and mostly driving rather than walking and busing. The jacket works for part of fall and a bit of spring. Then I have a lighter jacket that still has some insulation. It tends to take over around April and is the jacket I wear until about June. And then there is a light windbreaker style jacket with a hood that gets carried around in my backpack starting in late May or June and usually through September because you often need a jacket for part of the day during those months.

When we were out looking at apartments (again) on Saturday, I wore the medium coat, and regretted it because it was too heavy for how warm it was. So I switched to the lighter coat Sunday, when I ran out to buy a money order because the property manager of the apartment we put in an application for called and asked us to bring the deposit the next day. Finding a place to sell me a money order using a debit card on a Sunday was more of an adventure than I expected, in part because of that switch in coats. When I switched, I wasn’t diligent about moving things from the medium jacket to the light one, so my emergency granola bar I always carry in case I have a glycemic crash wasn’t in my pocket. Because I’m on timed-released or long acting insulin, I have to have small snacks of meals every couple of hours, or my blood sugar drops too low and I have a glycemic crash.

For me, glycemic crashes mean my mood gets weird, I usually get a headache, and my brain just doesn’t work right. The problem is that the low blood sugar headache feels just like a hay fever headache, so if I don’t realize it’s been longer since my last snack or meal then I think, or notice that my fingers are trembling if I hold my hand up, I don’t realize what’s going on.

I won’t go into all the details of finding out I couldn’t get a money order from debit at the first place I went, or the rude customer in line in front of me, and so on. But what should have been a clue was that once I had the money order in hand, there at a counter at the second place, with my wallet in my other hand, I had this thought that I shouldn’t put the money order in the wallet because I might lose it if I didn’t keep my eye on it. So I walked out to the car clutching the money order very tightly in my hand, and only when I was inside the car and needed both hands to operate the vehicle, did I decide I should put the money order in a pocket or something. All of the pockets seemed like a bad idea, and I finally remembered I could put it in the wallet. Which I did.

When I’d left the house, Michael had asked me to pick up a very specific brand of juice. Instead of stopping at the grocery store on my way back with the money order, I drove right past it and was just pulling up in front of the house when I remembered the juice. So I went back to the store, parked in the garage under the store, grabbed a shopping bag from the bag of the car, and ran upstairs. It was while I was having trouble finding the juice that I finally realize that I was in the middle of a glycemic crash, so once I found the juice, I grabbed a cold bottle of thai iced coffee, which would give me both caffeine and some much needed carbs, and headed to the front of the store.

All of the registers were open except the express line, and they all had really long lines. So I ran down to the self serve checkout. I’d scanned my items and was feeling around in my pockets for my wallet. Which wasn’t there. I had to cancel my transaction, which meant the clerk monitoring the whole section had to scan her card in and authorize the cancelation. I told her that I seemed to have left my wallet in the car. She said, “It happens to everyone. You want me to keep these up here for you?” I thanked her and ran down to the car.

And I couldn’t find the wallet.

The wallet with all my usual wallet things plus, today, a very large money order. I was trying not to panic. I pulled out my phone to fire up the Tile app and ping my wallet, hoping that it had just fallen on the floor of the car and rolled under a seat or something. I hadn’t quite gotten the app up when, because I was leaning into the car slightly differently, I saw where the wallet had bounced when, apparently, I had tossed it at the passenger seat after putting the money order in it. I hadn’t slipped it back into my pocket because by that point I had strapped myself in (don’t ask me why after pulling the wallet from my pocket while sitting in the car but before I put it back I had decided to put my seat belt on, making the pocket inaccessible; my brain wasn’t working right, see above). I grabbed the wallet, ran back upstairs and only when I got to the clerk did I realize I’d left my shopping bag behind.

I paid for my purchases and was on my way out when I saw another clerk who had helped me earlier and I had seen dealing with an unreasonable customer, and I stopped to thank her for her help before and hoped she was having a better day.

Back at the car I drank down the coffee drink so I would start to get my blood sugar back where it ought to be. I strapped in, turned on the car, checked all my mirrors, looked over both shoulder, and put the car into gear. I heard an immediate crash and the car jolted funny. I stomp on the brake, put the car back in park, and looked around. There was no other vehicle. No sign of anything that I had hit or had hit me. I turned off the car, suddenly remembering that I had seen someone walking by as I was starting the vehicle, and had a complete panic that I had actually hit a person who was currently trapped under the car.

So I jumped out and ran around the car.

Nothing.

I took a deep breath and squatted down to get a better view under the car. I slowly circled the car again, looking under at several locations. Nothing and no one was under the car, thanks goodness. I circled again looking for scratches or dents on the fenders and such. Still nothing.

I took another deep breath and held up my hands. My fingers were still trembling, but not as badly, so my blood sugar was coming back up. I climbed into the car. I opened up my Breathe app on my Apple Watch and went through a cycle with it. Half of the reason was to just not move for a minute and let my blood sugar keep improving. I started the car, foot firmly on the brake. I looked carefully around. And then I hurt the crash again. I turned up the volume on the stereo. We keep an old iPod (really old) in the car plugged into the car stereo set to random play. It is loaded with a bunch of my music and a bunch of Michael’s music. There’s a particular They Might Be Giant’s track that has a lot of these dramatic orchestral blasts that sound a lot like a crash.

I remembered that sometimes, if I take the Subaru out of Park and let my foot slip from the brake before it gets all the way to reverse, that the transmission does this little thing that makes the car wiggle just a bit, once. I had apparently managed to set off the wiggle at exactly the same moment that one of the musical crashes happened, when the stereo was turned down so that I could hear only some of the music, and not realize what was happening. So I hadn’t run over anyone or hit something.

I drove home. I told my hubby of my misadventures while he had juice and I ate a yogurt. When gathered things up, I swapped laundry loads, I tested my blood sugar and made certain I had a granola bar in the jacket pocket.

And then we headed out to pay our deposit and get on with the day.

I didn’t make as many runs to Value Village as I would like, but otherwise, the rest of Sunday was great.

Confessions of a guy who cries…

This little guy made me cry...

This little guy made me cry…

My husband and I have to move, and we’ve been going through our stuff, hauling things we don’t use any more to Value Village and the like, boxing other things, et cetera. It’s a long, boring, tiring process. It is also sometimes grueling emotionally. I’ve always been someone who cries easily—tear jerker moments in books, movies, or TV shows always get me, for instance. There’s an old idiom I don’t hear very much that captures it well: “I cry at card tricks.” There are a lot of moments while packing things when I find myself a bit surprised at the emotions things evokes. One reason is because we just have a lot of stuff so that every book case in the house as shelves where there is a second row of books behind the books you can see. And it isn’t just books that have been put away like that. So I keep finding things that I haven’t looked it in a long time and were hung onto for sentimental reasons.

Not everything that has hit me like a stab in the heart has been stuff that was hidden away.

My late husband Ray passed away 20 years and 5 months ago. It wasn’t a surprise, and yet it was. Almost four years previously doctors said he probably had less than two years to live, you see. There had been so many doctor visits & tests, then surgery and chemo and more tests and so forth. But, like that line from a Buffy the Vampire episode, when Tara is asked, regarding the death of her mother, “Was it sudden?” she answers, “No. And yes. It’s always sudden.”

It was mid-November when he died, and everything in my memory for the next gets a bit jumbled from that moment when they turned off the breathing machine through the next few months. There are some moments that stand out for different reasons. One day probably right around the beginning of February, not quite 3 months after Ray died, I walked into the grocery store that’s a few blocks from our place. I had grabbed a hand basket rather than a cart, because I was only planning to pick up a few things. Just inside the door they used to have this sort of miniature gift shop? It had a small variety of greeting cards for many occasions, some gift bags, and a few tiny toys, trinkets, and/or small plushies. The sort of thing you could grab as a last minute present because you didn’t have time to go elsewhere. I was walking past this thing when something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention.

I stopped, glanced over, and there was this cute little stuffed brown mouse holding a red heart. I picked it up, a warm feeling washing over me with the thought, “This would be perfect as a little surprise Valentine’s present for Ray!” The sort of thing I would attach to the outside of a gift-wrapped box with something bigger in it.

Before the thought had completely articulated itself in my head, I crashed right into the recollection that Ray was dead and I wouldn’t be sharing any of our usual Valentine’s Day activities with him. It wasn’t the first time that I had that particular momentary internal dissonance. Those moments were among the worst: for a second I would forget that he was dead, and have a normal thought about something I would tell him when I got home for instance, then the realization, which was a shattering moment reliving that first wave of grief when the doctors convinced me that Ray was brain dead and I needed to let him go. It really felt as if I had lost him again. And then, a moment after that, an equally devastating stab of guilt—how could I possibly forget that he was dead?

So there I was, standing in the grocery store suddenly sobbing my eyes out. And when I say standing that’s being generous because I had to lean against something to keep myself upright for a minute. A complete stranger asked if I was all right, and I shook my head, then nodded my head and managed to stammer out something about “I’ll be okay in a second.”

I put the mouse in my basket, because damn it, I was buying it for Ray, anyway!

Ray's current resting place.

Ray’s current resting place.

Ray’s ashes are in an urn that has been resting on a shelf in one of the bookcases in my current living room for 20 years, 4 months, and 2 weeks. The urn is attended/guarded by three of his tigers, two of his teddy bears, and the little mouse that had me sobbing in the store three months after his death. This is just one of the reasons I don’t want to move. This was the last place Ray lived. Of the three homes we shared, this was the first that he really loved (because when we first got together we were both coming out of messy break-ups that left us both in bad financial shape, so we first lived in a really crappy studio, and I was still digging myself out of the previous relationship’s debts a few years later, so we moved to a slightly less crappy 1 bedroom, before finding this place). Ray loved having a yard, even though it was very small, and being in a neighborhood that felt much more like a small town than part of a city.

I know that we shouldn’t get too attached to things. And life is about change. I’ve lived in the same place for a long time, maybe too long. And we’re never completely ready for change when it comes. Even though Michael and I have known that this was likely to happen since September, and that it was definitely going to happen since December, it still feels like it’s too soon. It’s not sudden, but…

Not fooling around with my goals this year!

“Keep Calm and Achieve Your Goals”

When I set my goals for this year, I pledged to do monthly updates. Mostly because I’ve done a better job achieving those goals during the years that I did the updates. So, how did I do in March?

My specific tasks for March were:

  • At this point it’s time to just pack everything, so pack! We’ve been packing. There are boxes stacked everywhere.
  • Get the new living situation sorted. We’ve contacted a number of property managers, but haven’t gotten a place nailed down.
  • Make reasonable progress on writing/editing knowing that the above is going to eat up most of our available time.I got a small amount done, but not much.
  • Disconnect from the internet at least one night each week. I managed to do this every week!
  • Write at least two blog posts about things I like. I gave myself a lower number for this month because I figured with the packing and trying to find a new place I wouldn’t have as much time to write or blog. I still managed to beat this number by writing four posts about things I like!

My overall goals for the year, where I’m trying to follow the idea of replacing bad habits with better ones:

Don’t get mad, get busy. My tasks are: write about about things I love; listen to music and audiobooks more and podcasts less; spend at least half of my lunch break writing; set specific monthly writing/editing goals in each check-in; write at least one blog post a month about organizations we can donate to that are fighting the good fight.

I did fairly well on this one.

Reduce, pack, and prioritize. We now officially know that we have to find a new place to live this year. We have lots of stuff to go through and decide what to discard and what to pack.

Packing, hauling, getting rid of stuff continued apace. My hubby found a great charity to ship a lot of our books to. That helps me feel better about getting rid of them.

Take care of us. My initial tasks are related to some specific medical things that aren’t urgent, but need to be dealt with. I am going to remain vague on the details of this one.

My husband had his surgery and I tried to play nurse. He’s recovering, and it’s a great relief to get this taken care of before the move!

Submit and publish. Initial task was to organize how I’m going to find calls for submission and set reasonable targets for the novel revision/finalization.

I worked on three submissions. Got one done. I’m frankly amazed at the amount of progress I did make this time given everything else.


Finally, my specific tasks for March are:

  • Pack and move!
  • Pack and move.
  • Squeeze some writing time in somehow.
  • Remember to have fun at NorWesCon (whether we attend the whole weekend or not).
  • Write at least two blog posts about things I like.

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.

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