How to Cope with a Scary, Scary Government

I offer no defense for this country in light of the election results last week. I’m wrestling shame myself because I can’t help but wonder where else I should have spoken up or acted to change the outcome. No one is ever happy to see their candidate lose, of course, but when the winning candidate has been endorsed by a hate group, chooses a known hate-group leader to lead the building of his cabinet, and is supported by full-party control of the house, senate, and inevitably Supreme Court majority…well. The worry goes beyond fear for the strength of the economy. Everyone who is not a cis-gendered straight white male of moderate prosperity is justified in being afraid for their civil rights and their safety in the world this government could conceivably shape.

None of this is breaking news. I’m saying it here only by way of laying the groundwork for what I hope is useful to my friends who have been expressing a sense of helplessness and despair. “How do we stay informed as citizens without going crazy?” That’s what I’ve been hearing in the middle of everything. “How do we get through this?” I don’t have a definitive roadmap, but I’ve been listening hard over the last few days, and I have gathered a small collection of ideas from wiser people. Here they are, for what they’re worth.

Say “We’ll stand together,” but please don’t insist “It’s going to be okay.”

Unless you’re the above mentioned white dude, it just might not be okay this time. (Remember the Trail of Tears? The Japanese internment camps? Bad administrations can literally kill their own citizens and legal residents.) If you are a white dude, or anyone who is in a decent position to potentially weather the oncoming storm, be an ally, not a tranquilizer. Listen to why people are afraid, and in the course of listening, keep an ear out for things you can do to help people know that they’ve got support. The immediate fear that’s been emerging for many folks is personal safety, and I mean right now, not in some hypothetical worst case doomsday scenario. Here’s how you can help:

Let’s take a moment to consider non-complementarity.

The anti-harrassment guide linked above is based on the idea of non-complementary behavior having power to shift an interpersonal dynamic dramatically. When we, as humans, meet violence, the complementary (and instinctively easy) response is to push back in kind. This pattern tends to escalate confrontations, making a bad situation worse. If someone comes at us with aggression, however, and we have the strength of will to not react with fear and anger, we have a better chance of finding a peaceful path through a confrontation. Some ideas to get the non-complementarity thought process churning:

  • When you want to rage at a family member for voting for bigotry, instead, try to figure out what they’re afraid of that led them to think voting for Trump would be in their personal best interests. Remember: people who feel safe and well-fed are a lot less likely to lash out against those around them, so there might be some genuine basis of fear behind the willingness to either endorse bigotry or pretend it’s no big deal.
  • When you see stupidity and violence in the media, don’t react with angry Facebook posts. Instead, figure out what can be done to help the victims or prevent a repeat of the incident (whether it’s finding out which non-profit is set up to make a difference or writing to your representatives or showing up to form a supportive wall around someone who is at risk), and then talk about that on social media instead of spewing forth more angry fuel for the rage-fire.

Look for the helpers.

You’ve all seen this before, I’m sure, but let’s take a beat and watch it again:

Whether you’re watching the news in shock during the aftermath of a disaster, or whether you’re bracing yourself for a possible fight to simply maintain civil rights at the current level, this advice is good. Don’t waste your precious self on shouting insults down on the people whose actions infuriate you. Instead, look for the people who are doing good work and sing their praises loud and wide. Support them as you can. Emulate them as you can. Take heart and take hope from good actions. Yes, you need to be informed of what’s going on, and I’m sorry that sometimes being an informed citizen is painful, but you can make the situation a little better for yourself and others by putting as much energy as you can into hunting down the evidence of the helpers and shining light on them. Here’s one concrete idea:

  • Christmas time is here: the annual season of spending every last penny and (for some folks) borrowing a few to make the holiday special. Is there a better way to give hope and shine light on the helpers than to save a human life from terror and deprivation in the name of a loved one?

Speaking of shining lights on folks…

There’s no wrong time to champion beauty. Everyone’s day is made better when we share wonderful art, music, literature, humor, anecdotes of human goodness…you get the idea. Minorities always have to work harder to be heard, even in good times, so why not show support and solidarity by making a point of looking for great art, etc. by threatened minorities? When you find work you love, don’t be quiet about it–signal boost the evidence that these people who are in danger of being kicked to the curb are people who make the world around them better. They enrich our lives. Be the shoulders they can stand on to let their beautiful voices be heard.

How do you stay sane while staying informed right now? Be an ally. Practice the hell out of non-complementarity. Focus on the helpers. Amplify the voices of the vulnerable. A complete solution? Of course not. But I’d bet good money that you’ll feel a little calmer and a little more empowered if you work some of these ideas into your coping strategy.

Enlightened self-interest, people. It all comes back around to enlightened self-interest.

#FinalElectionThoughts

I’ve been light-handed with how much I talk about politics online this election cycle because I don’t want to get into the mud with complete strangers on the internet, but before the Election Day, here are a few things I’ll take a stand on.

You’re voting for more than the president, folks.

Laws and policies that impact you are set by your town, county, district, and state. Folks who enter politics at a local level and do well can go on to be elected for jobs with more widespread influence. Don’t half-ass your voting decisions for the small potatoes.

The information age makes educating yourself easy.

If you still don’t know what’s on your ballot, you should educate yourself: http://www.vote411.org/

If you don’t know where or when you’re voting, you should educate yourself: https://www.rockthevote.com/get-informed/elections/find-your-polling-place/

If you’ve been relying on click-bait headlines to shape your opinions, you should check the key facts informing your vote: http://www.politifact.com/

And now, for my soapbox.

I am a firm believer in what I’ve taken to calling the church of enlightened self-interest. The single pillar of my belief is that we all do better when we help one another do better. Compassion warms the giver and the receiver alike. This is not a revolutionary concept, but it’s not an intuitive one for our lizard brains, which want to see life as nothing but a zero-sum struggle for resources. Even so, I think it’s the most important belief to cultivate in ourselves, so I’ll just ask you to run your voting choices through the filters of “Who might this hurt?” and “Is this the most compassionate choice I can make?”

Finally: VOTE.

That is all.

Free Speech and Consequences

A friend of mine came under attack by a few of the dumber donkey butts of the internet. This friend had the audacity *gasp* to point out that, even if you’re not pro-Clinton, calling her a bitch is not an effective way to sell the feminist angle of your candidate’s platform. And of course, a number of trolls used this microscopic excuse to start calling my friend (and Clinton) a bitch (and worse). As if that wasn’t obnoxious enough, they then started whining about their first amendment rights being violated.

*eyetwitch*

I’m not going to touch the toxic masculinity issue with a ten-foot pole here, but with election season ramping up, I KNOW I’m going to see a large number of these mud-slinging-followed-by-first-amendment-slinging conversations popping up from people all across the political spectrum. So, for the sake of sanity and civility for all, here’s a little PSA reminding you that there is a difference between having your first amendment rights violated and being called on your aggressive bullshit.

Let’s review, for thirty seconds, what the First Amendment says.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

If we focus, for the purposes of this little case study, on only the speech aspect as it applies to making vicious comments on social media, this little piece of language can be simplified to mean something more like, “The federal government can’t stop you from talking like an asshole.”

Let’s also simplify, for the moment, the complexity of how free speech rights play out in the context of social media user agreements with different companies. The first amendment does not meant that Facebook and Twitter (who are not, surprise!, part of Congress) are necessarily required to let you shoot your mouth off, making their platforms toxic environments for the rest of the users, but they also aren’t great about kicking out the assholes because it’s not always profitable for them. You may very well be allowed to be a verbal bully by the people who are actually in charge of the rules that determine whether you’re allowed to play with the other kids on any given internet playground.

BUT…

That doesn’t mean you won’t face consequences for your actions. The same loose oversight of speech that lets you throw around words like “bitch” and “cunt” means that private individuals (also not covered under that peskily specific “Congress” label) who think your language is shitty have the right to tell you as much. If you use words in ways that identify you as ignorant or a misogynist pig, you might just get called ignorant or a misogynist pig. Surprise! If you don’t want to wear that label proudly, maybe start taking a few seconds to think about what you sound like before you post something.

You could have just thought it.

Even when you have a legitimate disagreement with someone’s statement, you may always choose to deal with it in an intelligent, thoughtful, constructive fashion. If you choose to use language aggressively and unkindly in order to force a person out of the conversation, you’re an asshole and you’re making the world just a little worse.

You don’t have to be an asshole to make your point heard, and if that’s the route you choose to go, there might just be consequences. People might point out that you are contributing slightly less to the conversation than a massive pile of excrement. They might unfriend you. They might publicly shame you for your words. And guess what? Not one of those consequences comes even close to violating your injudiciously exercised first amendment rights.

tldr; if you can’t take it, you are more than welcome to stop dishing it out.

Worry: The Salt of Imagination

There’s a quotation floating around the internet in the form of various inspirational memes, and I feel the need to respond to it.

“Worry is a waste of imagination.”

On the surface, it seems like a sweet piece of sentimental encouragement, but I’m going to take a strongly oppositional stance: it’s not only wrong, it’s toxic.

Why is it wrong?

From an evolutionary perspective, worry is one of the fundamental functions of imagination, if not the wellspring that makes the ability useful enough to survive in a population over time. Worry is, by definition, a state of anxiety over actual or potential problems, right? In the context of survival, worry is a thing of beauty. The ability to imagine everything that could possibly go wrong is a valuable step towards preparing a functional response that will keep you alive.

And while you can make the argument that the original problems that worry helped us anticipate (tiger attacks, for example) might be less pressing, you’d have to be a fool to think our world is functioning so beautifully that we have no use for solutions that spring from the imagination’s worries.

Worry might lead us to imagine living in abject poverty, which we might respond to by showing up for work on time consistently or being sensible about the debt we take on. Worry might lead us to imagine the return of smallpox, which we might respond to by getting our shots and advocating for good vaccination policies. Worry might lead us to worry about triggering World War III, which we might respond to by working really hard to keep the Drumpf from getting elected.

Far from being a waste, worry is one of the critical tools of imagination.

Okay, fine, maybe the quotation isn’t completely accurate. But toxic? Really?

Yes, really. Even if you brush off the worry about what it would be like to live in a world run by irresponsible adult-children who are incapable of applying forethought to situations that might be beneficial for us to avoid, shutting down the people who are good at worrying is just mean.

In my observation, social groups are more effective when you’ve got a good balance of naturally negative people and naturally positive people. Not necessarily a 1:1 ratio. 3:1 might be closer to the mark. If you look at “negative” people as “problem seers” and “positive” people as “problem solvers,” you can see how that balance might be useful. Three people whose primary talent lies with fixing things for every one person who’s primarily good at noticing what might need fixing could mean good odds for fixing those identifiable problems.

The difficulty is that “positivity,” being a trait that is useful in larger quantities, becomes “normal,” while “negativity” becomes seen as less desirable. (And let’s face it: negative people are not often the ones who are good at helping to foster group cohesion, which adds to the perception of negative thinking as inherently bad.) So instead of recognizing that these two habits of imagination (problem seeing and problem solving) are complementary skills that need each other, there’s a tendency for worry and negativity to be seen as something that has to be fixed by the positive people. And to treat negativity as something that needs to be fixed is to treat people who are better at seeing problems as if they are broken.

Labeling people as broken for the habits of mind they were born with is a toxic behavior, and that’s exactly what this quote is doing.

Come on…you’re not saying worry is always a good thing, are you?

I’m not. Really, and truly, I get where that quote is coming from. Worry can drag people down without serving a purpose. Just like blind enthusiasm.

Any trait that’s too far out of balance is going to lead to problems. In a world that’s a lot safer, statistically speaking, than the world in which worry was initially useful (i.e., Tiger Attack World), our imaginations are certainly capable of latching onto ridiculous scenarios to fret about and spiraling into obsessive panic attacks. That’s not good. That specific variety of worry is a waste of imagination. But if you lump all worry into the same category of wasted brain power, you will accomplish exactly two things:

  1. You’ll make the habitually positive people feel smug and self-congratulatory about their own lack of worry, leading them to feel justified in further telling negative people how broken they are.
  2. You’ll make the habitually negative people feel more broken and give them something else to worry about.

That quotation does both of those thing. I do hate to deprive the internet of a pithy conceptualization of a rampant topic, of course, so here’s a suggested alternative:

Worry is the salt of the imagination: too much could give you a heart attack, but it’s still essential to life.

How to Format eBooks (Like a Boss)

I recently ran a workshop on formatting ebooks for the Lewiston Public Library and promised to share an electronic checklist and the presentation slides on my site. So…here they are!

How to Format eBooks (Like a Boss): Slides
How to Format eBooks: Checklist

After the presentation, the librarian showed me her demo version of PressBooks, a service the library is considering subscribing to. It’s a WordPress-based tool for making properly formatted, quite lovely ebooks with a lot less labor than the DIY process I describe above, so if you’re daunted by the more technical process or want some a wider variety of spiffy pre-made styling options, you might find it worthwhile to shell out the $20/book.

Maine authors:

Once you’ve got your book up and published, one way or the other, don’t forget to consider submitting to…

  •  Self-E – This will eventually get you in their module for subscribed Maine libraries with a chance at being added to the national module. Right now, this is pretty much the only workable path for library exposure for indie authors.
  • ReadMaine – This is a work-in-progress, but once enough authors have sent in their info, you’ll have a free listing on a site meant to help Maine readers find and support Maine authors.

Happiness, Placebos, and the Beliefs of Others

Because I need one more thing in my life to distract me from actually making progress on any of the other things in my life, I’ve picked up a new hobby recently: wire-wrapping. To be honest, at this point, picking up the hobby mostly consists of watching hours of video tutorials. Something about them is just mesmerizing.

I have gone so far as to pick up some wire and rocks for the wrapping, which involved a trip to the Rock & Art Shop. I loved the Rock & Art Shop before I ever set foot in there, because my nephew has been buying all of his Christmas presents for the family there for a few years. He always finds the neatest things, so I was excited to have an excuse to pop over while I was in the area for a class with my mom.

My mom, against any odds I would have given you, fell in love with a hunk of polished fluorite. It was pretty, all purple and green, and her encomiums drew the attention of an equally enthusiastic clerk. “Oh, I love fluorite,” the young woman said. “It’s so good for you.”

The clerk then proceeded to spend several eternally long minutes exclaiming on the metaphysical virtues of fluorite, on its ability to soak up the positive ions emitted by technology in order to prevent them from throwing off our balance, on its ability to inspire creativity, and a number of other things I didn’t quite catch because I was trying to figure out how to get my mother out of this conversation before her religious aversion to all things mystical overcame her general politeness. Fortunately, about the third time that my mother said, “Yes, well, it is a very pretty rock,” the clerk picked up on the negative charge of her words and stopped attempting to talk the store out of a sale.

I have a tough time interacting with folks around such topics myself. I grew up in a pretty religious home and went through a difficult transition when I left home and realized that my particular beliefs were not just rationally hard to justify: they were actively harmful to people I cared about. I’ve managed to find a place where I feel stable, which includes a general skepticism of all things without any scientific support and a default moral position of trying (not always succeeding, but trying) to default to kindness in my actions to others. Anything more codified or mystical tends to put me at yellow alert, because it strikes me as just another skin for the same lack of responsibility for one’s behavior to others that drove me away from the church in the first place.

But…one thing that I do believe in is the placebo effect. While I very much doubt there’s any rigorous data supporting the ability of fluorite to improve one’s creativity objectively or any clinical trials to test whether or not Mercury being in retrograde actually makes the world go haywire, there are people who put stock in those ideas, and I’m sure that their belief plays a role in their ability to cope with what life throws at them. Coping mechanisms don’t need to be rational to be valuable, and having people who don’t take value from your particular mechanism cut it down is only either going to polarize you into a stronger belief or chip away at the placebo effect that makes your belief useful. So I try very hard to mostly keep my own baggage under wraps when other people wax poetic about their rocks and stars and prophets and just live and let live unless I see someone being hurt by someone else’s belief-motivated actions.

And then, there’s this: a qualitative study based on self-report around some admittedly squidgy emotion words. When you look at the vast numbers of people who cling to some sort of belief system, though, it’s not hard to accept the notion that the ability to engage in awe might actually be valuable to our well-being. Awe isn’t something I’m great at: experiencing wonder doesn’t so much go hand in hand with habitual cynicism as it does hand to hand. I’ve been stuck in a rut of “That’s cool if it’s true, but what’s the flaw?” habit of mind for a while, and it’s a rut that has some legitimate usefulness.

So here’s the question: how do you balance useful skepticism with a bit of healthy awe? Is it possible to experience the benefits of wonder without getting swept out to sea in a riptide of nonsense?

I had an extended conversation with a friend awhile ago about this article. I read it when I was at the bottom of a particularly unproductive slump of negativity, and she took me to task for doubting my own ability to wonder, because I do have a tendency to get a bit carried away by things that spark my interest…like watching people turn bits of unremarkable rock and wire into shiny jewelry. Or how knitting and trigonometry go hand in hand. I tend not to think of those sidetrips of fascination as awe, though, which is where the squidginess of emotion words in qualitative studies becomes problematic. If awe is not operationally defined, how am I supposed to look at my interest in dendritic limestone and judge whether or not it’s meeting my recommended daily dose of awe?

There are, obviously, no perfect answers that will suit everyone, and it’s not a scientifically well-defined problem, but it is something I chew on from time to time. What is the difference between faith in the ionic properties of rocks and joy at the process of turning them into art?