Monday, December 30, 2013

On Gratitude

You see it a lot, the phrase 'an attitude of gratitude'.  Over November, many people I know were doing 'thirty days of gratitude' across various social media platforms, taking some time each day to offer a general acknowledgment of something or someone for whom they felt thankful.

Here lately, I've also seen a lot of people wrapping up the end of the year with "I'm so glad for all I have!" posts, talking about wonderful communities and wonderful friends and the support they receive every day.  They gush, in glowing terms, how lucky they are to have made such wonderful friends.

I think I'd like to ask them a couple questions.

You've acknowledged your general gratitude for the things and people in your life, but have you specifically thanked and acknowledged the people who have helped you?  How often do you sit down, and instead of throwing a general thanks 'out there', seek out some person who's done something to support or empower or protect you, so that you can say "I see what you did, and I honor what you did, and I could not have achieved what I have if you had not?"

That's the thing, you see.  In the US, we glorify the culture of the 'self-made man'.  And in the culture of the self-made man, there is no room for specific gratitude, because it suggests that another person's work and love had some impact on who you are, that you are not wholly self-made.  So long as you keep your thankfulness general, you don't have to admit that there was some part of that self-making that you simply did not and probably could not accomplish on your own.

It's OK to thank God (or the gods) if you're a 'self-made person' because you can subscribe to prosperity doctrine or the law of attraction, that says that if you have the right faith, belief, or mindset, that's all that's needed for divine or universal blessings to be given to you (see also magical thinking).  You can couch your acknowledgment of what you've been given with vague gratitude so that the credit still really rests with you, for 'keeping positive' or 'being a good person'.  It's karma, you see, that your previous good deeds have put a down payment on the world rewarding you with help when you need it.  If this friend hadn't chosen to help  you, someone would have, because you deserved it.

Same thing with being grateful for your community.  Sometimes people say "I'm grateful that I have such good friends," and I hear "Congratulations to me for choosing friends who will help and support me regardless of whether I have helped and supported them!"  Keeping gratitude general still lets you, on some level, claim credit for foresight or good judgment in ensuring that community would be a resource to you.  (it is fine to be grateful that you have good friends, as long as you understand that you should probably also occasionally acknowledge why, precisely, they ARE such good friends)

When it comes to specifically looking at your life, and recognising that an individual made a deliberate choice he or she was not obligated to make, to benefit and support you, that can be very daunting for some.  To admit to real and specific gratitude to another person's free choices is to swallow your pride and acknowledge that your identity as 'self-made' is a convenient fiction.

None of us is self-made.  We must all own our decisions, and we are all in control of how we will respond to what happens to us, but we all owe gratitude to someone, somewhere.  Maybe it's as small as 'stopped to help me change a tire on the way to a job interview' or 'stayed on chat with me all night when I was stressed about my sick cat' but it's there.

So I challenge you, when you practice your attitude of gratitude, to examine your life, and pinpoint those choices that others have made for you, out of no obligation other than love, empathy, or compassion.  Then seek out those people (if you can find them) and personally thank them, not 'for all you did' but for 'that moment in time'.

Thank you for reading my blog, by the way.  Every time I see clicks or comments, it inspires me to keep writing.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

On the Longest Night

Tonight is the Longest Night.

As they do every year, the days have become shorter and darker, the nights longer.  And as it does every year, a tiny but visceral fear has taken root in my mind:

What if it never gets better?

What if the days just keep getting shorter and darker, until the light is gone forever?

What if this is the last winter, the forever winter, that will never ever go away?

That's a bit like what living with episodic depression is like.  Every day a little darker, every day a little harder to get out of bed, and you keep telling yourself, because your rational scientific brain KNOWS IT, that this will have to get better, that the world is a circle and life will spin back to long days and lazy afternoons someday.  But that Traitor Brain in the back of your head says, "What if?  What if it never gets better?  What if the happiness becomes more and more fleeting, less and less powerful, until the long darkness just...stays?  What if this episode is the one that kills you?"

It's no coincidence that most of my serious depressive episodes happen in the winter.  Though it's not quite SAD, there's something about watching the sun go that speaks to an inexorable creeping darkness.

Yule has special meaning for me, because it is a defiant night, when you stand in that darkness, and you watch the sun go down, and you throw faith out into the world and tell yourself that this, this is the darkest of it.  And you put all your faith, everything you are, into the certainty of the coming sun.  You burn so brightly into that darkness, because you know you're halfway there, and you throw a little extra into the fire because you know that somewhere out there is someone whose faith may not be strong enough to see them through to sunrise, but they can get there by the light of your burning.

This has been a good year.  Traitor Brain has been driven back to her cave, and holds little power in my daily life.  Last winter was much harder, much colder.

I know that the worst of winter lies before me, the bone-deep cold and the hard frozen earth and the creeping frost death that strikes even in the heart of Texas.  But I am armed against that whispering chill, with a sword to batter the walls of ice and a shield before me that shines like mercy and wonder.

I believe in the sun, and I will it back with the joy of my heart.

Blessed be, my loves.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

An Extrovert's Guide to the Care and Feeding of Your Introverts

My 'extrovert' post is far and away the most-read thing I've ever written in my life.  It's still turning up, over a year later, on websites and facebook and everywhere.  It makes me really happy that so many extroverts have said, "Thank you, so much, because I thought I was alone, and now I don't feel alone."

In the comments for it, someone suggested, "Why don't you write a piece about how to manage healthy relationships with introverts, from an extrovert's point of view?"  A lot of the 'how to deal with introverts' advice seems to come from the sorts of introverts whose position is "Go away unless I want you there, and don't disturb my precious, precious personal space except on my terms and don't disrupt me with your inanity."  That is not helpful.  I'm not discounting that some of the advice out there, particularly advice about how to approach and interact with introverts who are not already your friends, can be very useful, but "don't bother me unless I want you to and don't expect me to communicate when I want you to," isn't very helpful in a long-term relationship where both people have needs and expectations.  So I sat down and thought about "How do I maintain my friendships with the people I love and respect, who also happen to be very introverted?"

Keep in mind, this is NOT written from the introvert's perspective and contradicts a number of those 'how to deal with an introvert' tips.  Please understand that I've been navigating relationships with introverts (I am an extrovert nerd and/or geek, so I am seriously outnumbered in my community) for over 25 years, and if you want to disagree with me, please read the companion piece linked at the top of this article first.  This is an extrovert, writing for fellow non-introverts, about what has consistently worked for me.  So, here we go!

1.  It is NOT about you.  This is the big one.  Your introvert friend didn't come to your party, or left it early.  Unless there's some drama within the friendship that you're conveniently ignoring, this has nothing to do with you at all.  Introverts find varying levels of human interaction wearing, and have to choose the energy they spend carefully.  Let your friend know, "Hey, I missed you and I'm sorry you couldn't make it."  No guilt, no recrimination, just "you were wanted, and you were missed."  The important thing is that you should never take it personally unless your introverted friend is rude, flat-out stands you up, or deliberately makes you feel unwelcome and unwanted (more on that below).

2.  Introverts don't 'all hate people' and it's kind of rude to make jokes about that.  I've known a few introverts (and dated one) who were self-proclaimed misanthropes.  The misanthropy is separate from being an introvert.  A lot of introverts really like people and enjoy their company in reasonable doses.  If someone is a misanthrope, call him a misanthrope, not an introvert, and call out people who tease or pester introverts about not liking people.  Your introvert friends will appreciate that you understand the difference.

3.  If an introvert comes to your party, that IS about you.  If you're an extrovert or an ambivert (most people are neither extroverts nor introverts, but ambiverts), you look at a party invite from a casual friend, or a co-worker, and you think, "I'll check it out.  Maybe it will be fun.  I haven't been to a party in a while!"  Introverts almost never go to large gatherings just because 'maybe it will be fun'.  They go because they have to (professional or familial obligations) or because they genuinely want to.  If your introverted friend is standing in your living room with fifteen people, drinking a beer and making small talk, it's because she LIKES YOU.  She made a conscious decision to spend time and energy doing a thing you invited her to do.  Think about that.  Value that.  Make sure during the evening to engage in conversation with her directly beyond general social chatting.

4.  Introverts frequently leave social events early.  You may look around and find that the introvert hasn't actually been in the bathroom for half an hour; he quietly got his coat and ducked out while you were chatting with another friend.  Nothing happened, he's not mad, he wasn't avoiding you.  Likely he just hit his critical limit of 'dealing with groups' and didn't want to have to get into a long explanation of why he was leaving abruptly, or make a long and chatty round of goodbyes.  Most introverts, having had the "no, nothing's wrong, I just want to go home now, I promise," conversation several dozen times, will tend to avoid it if possible.  If you make it clear that you understand the concept of that threshold of social interaction and respect "I have had enough and am going now," your introverted friends will stop just vanishing and quietly come to tell you, "Hey, I'm done.  I'm headed out now.  Thank you for inviting me."  Say "OK.  I'm glad you came!" and not "But you can't leave now!" (letting them know "we are cutting the birthday cake in three minutes if you'd like to stay for that" is OK, but they still might leave anyway).

5.  Introverts want to be included.  So you send your introvert friend invitations to every party, and invite her out to dinner frequently, and she only accepts one invitation in ten.  Keep inviting, and accept refusals graciously.  A lot of people respond to introverts' lack of social participation by assuming they don't care to socialize, or they say, "You never come out when I ask you!  Don't you like me?"  Consistently maintain a posture of "Hey, you are always welcome but not required," and you'll find that your introvert friends feel more comfortable with you.

6.  Give personal invitations to small events.  If you haven't seen your introverted friend in a while, and you'd like to get together, call him up and say, "Hey, honey, I miss talking to you!  I'd love to have lunch, just you and me.  Is there a time that's good for you?"  Choose a restaurant that's quiet, so you can have a nice long deep conversation and really catch up.  Most introverts prefer one-on-one interaction so they can really connect, because it's not as draining *and* gives them a chance to open up and interact.  Don't just say, "Man, I haven't seen you in forever.  We should hang out more," because introverts hear that a lot, but the follow-up invitations are not always forthcoming.  Lead with the follow-up invitation.

7.  You don't have to excuse clear rudeness as 'introversion'.  I have a few introverted acquaintances who also have no social skills.  They cut over others in conversation because 'you were just making dumb small talk and I wanted to talk about something interesting', they make people feel unwelcome in their presences, they make comments about 'not having time for stupid social shit' because they have important things to do, and in general they create a clear impression that they resent being out in public and consider people who enjoy social interaction shallow narcissists.  You don't have to put up with that, and it's not 'being an introvert'.  It's 'being rude'.  Privately address rude behaviour with anyone, introvert or extrovert or ambivert, and explain that you would rather someone stayed home instead of making others feel dismissed.  The gracious and socially skilled introverts among your friends will appreciate that you don't consider rudeness and abrasiveness hallmark traits of their personality type.  Some of the offenders will try to haughtily explain to you that 'introverts are thinkers, unlike extroverts.'  It is appropriate to tell those people "I don't need to be friends with someone who thinks I'm stupid or shallow."

8.  As with all relationships, remember to respect others' boundaries and communicate your needs.  If you're romantically involved with an introvert, this can require negotiation so that both your needs are met.  Remember, your need for social interaction is equally important to the introvert's need for solitude.  Never allow anyone to dictate that you have to forego getting your own needs met because it's not convenient for them.  An extrovert or ambivert dating an introvert may need to establish a way for the introvert to say "I don't feel like going, but you should go and have a good time," and *mean it*.  Ambiverts and extroverts need to hear that as it is, and not interpret it as "I hate your friends and the things you enjoy are stupid."  Introverts need to trust their more socially-focused partners, and not assume that wanting to go out when your significant other would rather stay in is anything other than "I need to be around people right now, and I know you don't want to go so I'm going alone and I'll give everyone your love, then come back and tell you all about it."

9.  If you really need an introvert to be somewhere where there will be a lot of people, give plenty of warning.  If you want your very introverted friend to be a groomsman at your wedding, tell him months in advance, let him know there will be a lot of people there, and DO NOT plan eleven thousand social gatherings the week of the wedding that you expect him to attend.  If you're throwing a big birthday party for your best friend, let his very introverted wife know in enough time that she can scale back social activities around it and manage her own needs.  Also, when planning large gatherings to which you've invited introverted friends, it's helpful to have a smaller, quiet area (a back patio, a library or study with just a few comfy chairs) where people can step away and get a little quiet time if they're feeling overwhelmed.  Don't make a big deal out of it; people will find it if they need it.

10.  Remember that you're not responsible for maintaining your friends' emotional health, just respecting it.  Ultimately, it's up to people to manage their own needs and boundaries, and it's perfectly reasonable to expect your friends to communicate those needs and boundaries.  You're only responsible for basic courtesy and empathy, not for anticipating the possible feelings of everyone you interact with, assessing the exact correct level of human interaction, and bending your own needs to fit around theirs.

A lot of these are just 'good tips for dealing with people', but they're especially helpful if you find that you work or play in a mostly-introverted community and you're 'the social one'.  It's also important to remember that extrovert/introvert is not a be-all-end-all defining personality trait, so what works in relationship with one person may crash badly with another.  Most of all, be aware and respectful of the differing social paradigms that we all find most healthy for us, and do what you can to make sure everyone around you feels most at ease and comfortable in your friendship.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Winter Driving Tips for the Uninitiated

As we head into our first winter storm weekend here in the lovely People's Republic of Austin, I hear many of my native Texan friends talking about how they have no idea how to drive in ice or snow.  People who cannot drive in ice but insist on doing it are a danger to everyone else on the road.  Therefore, your Friendly Midwestern Badger would like to give you some driving tips.  Here are the rules for driving in ice and snow:

1.  Don't.  Before you leave, ask yourself, "How much do I REALLY need to be there?"  Ask yourself if what's at stake is worth a couple grand of damage to your car or a hit on your insurance, because even if you're being really careful, someone can still hit YOU, and even if you're not hurt, accidents are expensive.

2.  Plan ahead.  Consider your route.  How many bridges and overpasses does it contain?  How many of those long curving flyovers Texans love so much?  How many times will you come over a hill to find a sharp curve or a stop light at the bottom?  These are all accidents waiting to happen.  Once you have considered your optimal route, revisit question 1 before proceeding.  If you still must proceed, double your expected trip time.

3.  Go slow.  Like really slow.  Like ten or fifteen miles below the speed limit slow.  Yes, your buddy who grew up in Wisconsin will laugh at you, but he learned to drive 60 in a blizzard at age 18 in a car made entirely out of cheese; you did not.  Allow an extra carlength above and beyond your usual caution between you and the car in front of you.

4.  You have no brakes.  Do not use them, do not touch them.  They are a trap.  Control your car as much as humanly possible using changes in direction and acceleration; if you slam on the brakes, the terrorists win.  Brakes will just add fuel to the fire of a skid.

5.  Steer into the skid.  Everyone says this, but if you've never done it, it's a really difficult thing to explain to you.  Basically, when you feel your car start to slip, you'll have this impulse to fight it.  Don't fight it.  Zen that bitch out, embrace the skid, and pull your car *through* it instead of *against* it.  If you have sufficient room, you'll be fine.  Just pull over for a few minutes to regain your composure, because that first-ever skid is very alarming.  To practice, Midwestern parents take their children for a day known as Shopping Mall Donut Day.  On the first snowy day, large parking lots (like those at shopping malls before they open) are often full of helpful parents and friends teaching new drivers what the hell 'steer into the skid' means.

6.  Aim for the ditch.  If all these other rules fail you, and you find yourself in an out-of-control car, your only option is to *aim* it.  You can't steer it, you can't stop it, you can't regain control, but you can *point* it at something.  Point it at the ditch, point it at the grassy median, point it at the bushes.  Having to wait two hours for a tow truck to pull your happy ass out of a clump of rosemary in your neighbor's front yard is vastly preferable to having to tell him you slammed into the car parked next to his driveway.

And above all, remember your manners and be aware, because not everyone has a Friendly Midwestern Badger.  Remember that someone spinning through an intersection probably didn't have time to use his turn signal (and which way would he signal, anyway?).  If you bump someone or someone bumps you, try to work it out without being a jerk about it.

Know what the inclement weather reporting rules are; in some states, during weather events you can report an accident for up to 24 hours afterwards instead of calling the police, if everyone involved agrees and no one is injured and the damage is minimal.  Take advantage of that, because waiting an hour for an irritated cop to get OUT of a warm car in 30-degree weather to sign off on your scuffed bumper is a near-guarantee that you'll be ticketed for whatever the officer can find, while filing a walk-in report (if that's legal) usually means that *if* you're ticketed, it's purely for the 'failure to maintain safe speed' or 'failure to maintain control of your vehicle'.  Just don't forget to report it, because if the other driver reports it and you don't, there can be trouble.

Be safe!

(seriously, if at all possible stay home and drink some damn cocoa instead.  Light a fire in the fireplace you never get to use.  This is Texas; it'll be 65 degrees in a day and a half)