Category Archives: Self Improvement

A List

Bucket lists tend to be big things (“see the Taj Mahal” “go diving in the Great Barrier Reef”) and tend to betray a desire for the list maker to want to achieve greatness, or be connected to greatness. This is not a bucket list. These are not great or lofty goals. These are small things to achieve, dumb little flourishes I’d like to add to my persona and portfolio of experience for no other reason than to be mildly more interesting to myself and others.

-Learn to juggle four balls, not just three.

-Completely memorize Yakko’s World (despite it being out of date) and perform it flawlessly.

-Actually read Finnegan’s Wake.

-Learn to crack an egg one-handed.

-Beat Super Mario Bros. 3 in one sitting without using a warp whistle.

-Get a perfect score at a pub trivia night.

-Run one of those goofy obstacle course runs like the Warrior Dash or Tough Mudder.

-Reliably be able to make risotto.

-Memorize the order of U.S. presidents. (I’m good on the twentieth century, and the early ones, but the late 1800s always messes me up.)

-Learn to say the alphabet backwards.

-Appear as an extra in a movie. (I’ve already done so with TV. It was interesting.)

-Successfully perform a handstand.

-Successfully perform a kip-up.

-Get an okay grasp of physics so I can talk about it without sounding like an idiot.

-Participate in some kind of fun run, perhaps while wearing an impractical outfit not suitable for jogging.

-Actually eat frog legs and then attempt to evaluate them as fairly as I can, taste-wise.

-Learn to juggle five balls, not just four.

-Achieve existential fulfillment.

On Running

At the behest of my father, I ran cross country in high school. He demanded that I do some kind of sport, and I chose distance running mainly (I think) because it meant that I didn’t have to really cooperate with a team or do anything complicated. I didn’t have to learn to hit or kick or pass or anything subtle. I just had to learn to run. I thought it would be simple. I was right. Running is very simple. That does not mean that it is easy.

Since high school, I have only rarely jogged. When I lived in Narita I regularly biked through the rice fields and bamboo groves near my apartment, but seldom jogged. Last year, I went to a gym on a regular basis (before said gym went under) and worked on a number of exercises and weights a few times a week. I did not run, though. Bicycling, jumping jacks, push-ups, weights- these were all well and good. Anything but running. Running was the only exercise that I actively did not want to do.

I’ve started running again. I hate it. It feels great.

Jogging is at once an act of punishing self-abnegation, and also a source of great satisfaction. It does hurt. When I run, I huff, puff, and feel various parts of my body buzz and twist in pain. Or, if not pain, then some other feeling that is certainly not pleasure. I’m steady, but I do not go particularly fast. Every moment is a moment in which I have to tell myself “I have the capacity to withstand an additional moment of pain.” Every pace invites the next, and every unit of distance screams “we will withstand more.” Running is an act of passing through pain in order to get to other, additional pain, and more pain after that. Lots of life is like that. Running makes it explicit.

It is satisfying, though. I’ve only started running again recently, but at the end of a jog (or during it) I pause and realize that I do not need to be passive. Also, I realize that even though I create difficulty for myself (such as jogging arbitrary distances) I can also overcome such difficulties. Running is a visceral reminder that a human can take action and self-create both challenges and solutions. We can act. We do not wait to act or simply get acted upon, we do not just observe or stew or bide time. Running (such a simple activity) is a reminder that we can dramatically do. Also, it’s good for you, so that’s a nice bonus.

I would not say I like like running. I do however, enjoy it. I would not describe myself as a masochist, but knowing that one can both create (and subsequently crush) a given challenge using only the power of one’s legs makes for a worthy satisfaction, and a good pain.

Ordering Tea in Bars: My Month of Boozelessness

It’s the last day of January. Tomorrow evening I’m planning on going to a pub trivia night, and I might order a beer. It will be the first alcohol that I’ve imbibed since New Year’s Eve.

Like almost everyone else in the Western world, I woke up groggy and hungover on January first, wondering why the hell I’d decided to punish my internal organs with so much damn booze. There were also a few times in December when, after going to some holiday party or another, woke up hungover. I’m now thirty-one years old and thought, virtually every time that this happened, “I’m too old for this shit.”

So, in kind of a moment of pique on New Year’s Day, I announced to Facebook that I would give up booze for a month. I thought it would be an interesting experiment, and, looking back on the experience, I’m glad I did it. It was sort of weird to do- I like to think of myself as something of an experience collector, and generally look down on vegans, nondrinkers, and other abstainers. However, after giving up alcohol for a month, I kind of get it. A few things I’ve learned:

-Unless you’re physically addicted to alcohol, giving it up is very, very easy. I don’t drink soda, so beer is often just the thing I’m sipping on when I’m in a restaurant or social situation, and in Portland, there’s always an interesting or novel new beer to try. However, sipping and such is more about the social ritual, and tea or mocktails (yes, I actually ordered a mocktail at one point, and was mildly embarrassed to do so) also accomplish the same task. The drink in your hand can be anything. Beer has just been what I default to.

-The hardest thing about giving up booze isn’t missing booze, it’s refusing people’s generosity. Last night a friend offered me a shot of saffron vodka that I refused. Earlier this month I was at someone’s home, got offered a beer, and said no. Declining people’s attempts to be generous and nice is more difficult than not drinking.

-Giving up booze is a great way to lose weight. I put on a few pounds in December, but those are pretty much gone now. Cutting beer out of my diet entirely nixed a substantial amount of caloric intake.

-It’s also an excellent way to save money, but that’s pretty obvious. The biggest thing I learned from this little exercise in self-denial, though was:

-Abstinence is easy. Moderation is hard. I think I can now understand the mindset of people who ascribe to ideologies like religion or the Atkins Diet where given things are entirely proscribed. If you simply walk around with the mindset “such-and-such is forbidden,” then you don’t have to do any difficult thinking or exercise any judgement. You simply don’t indulge, and that’s that. Moderation (which I try to strive for in pretty much all things) is much more difficult, in that you actually have to assess ever situation and then do a bunch of possibly difficult thinking and deciding. Abstinence, though, relieves you of responsibility. The abstinent person does not have to think or decide or judge. They simply have to follow. Making myself simply obey was very simple, and made me kind of appreciate (in a perverse way) why people choose to bind themselves to a specific dogma.

But, anyway, it was a nice experiment, and I’m guessing that tomorrow evening I’ll probably try a nice non-threatening stout or porter. Beer, after all, is too wonderful and delicious to give up entirely. However, it was nice to take a bit of a break.

Break That Cycle: Why I Gave Up Pasta

I am jonesing badly.

It is an unpleasant feeling. I keep thinking about the object of my desire/addiction, the thing that I want so badly to enter my bloodstream. I’m antsy and I wonder how long this self-denial will last. If it’s for real. I keep thinking how easy it would be to go to my hook-up, how simple a task it would be to trade cash for what a really want, and make all of this energy and anxiety go away. I keep telling myself that I’ll make it a month. Yes. At least a month.

I’m talking, of course, about how I’ve given up pasta.

I love pasta. Noodles are, bar none, my favorite food in the entire world. They are my ultimate, super, desert-island megafood. Ever since I was a little kid and I was making fresh pasta with my mom, I’ve loved the stuff. Loved it. Right now, if I could have my way, a bowl of fettucini alfredo with salmon would show up right in front of me.

But, that’s not going to happen. I’ll admit it- I almost bought the ingredients for fettucini alfredo at the store, and didn’t. I bought some eggs, veggies, and a bottle of wine instead. (With that bottle of wine, at least I’m indulging myself a bit…)

I gave up my very favorite food ever as an exercise both in vanity and self discipline. On one hand, I’d like to get rid of my gut. Having a 36″ waist was not a pleasant truth to face, and, being quite nearly thirty, I need to admit that stuffing myself with carbohydrates and fat (i.e., pasta covered with cheese) has consequences. Time to give up the food that I most often pig out on. So far, I have noticed some results. Hopefully, this will be the one and only time in my life that I fill out my current pants…

The other aspect of it, though, is more ephemeral. It is very useful to give up something that was so normal, so expected. Pasta was what I made for myself when I could not think of anything else to make. It was a default food that required no thinking, no planning, no real cognizance of any sort. Giving up something that was so much a part of my normal schedule has required a great deal of presence of mind.

The result of this is that I’ve thought far more about what I eat than I previously did. I think about the composition of my meals, what I’m actually putting into my body, what is necessary and what is not. I broke a cycle that was not necessarily healthy or useful, and it feels great. I just finished eating chicken and asparagus for dinner, and I know it was sufficient. That knowledge is extremely nice to have, comforting in an immense way.

I don’t generally endorse puritanism or self-denial for it’s own sake, but I do think that testing oneself in small ways is usually a good idea. Seeing how much of something you can do, or take, or go without. Seeing how much of a given thing is necessary or not. Power over others or over situations is all well and good, but it is quite rewarding to feel power over oneself in tiny ways on a regular basis. I gave up pasta. Probably not forever, but I banished my favorite food from my life. The results have been amenable.

While it has a rap for being associated with things like puritans, the military, and religious types, when done right I really do think that self-discipline can benefit people in very non-fucked-up ways.

I’m still jonesing. Hopefully I’ll stick with this.

Verbing "Placebo"

About twenty minutes ago, I had a headache. I took some pain relievers, and it’s gone now.

But I know that’s bullshit.

I know that pain relievers take longer than that to kick in, and the only reason I really feel better is because of the placebo effect. I don’t mind the placebo effect. It’s great, it tends to work okay, but I wish that I could get the results without the placebo.

Take, for instance, tea. I love tea. Every morning, I make a cup of it and drink it with breakfast, and I always feel way more awake with that initial sip of tea. But I also know that caffeine takes upwards of 45 minutes to really get going in your system, and that that little sip does nothing, really, to my body chemistry. Yet it works.

What I’d like to be able to do is tap into that feeling, that phenomena, whenever I like. I’d like to be able to trick my brain into getting the placebo effects of, say, caffeine or pain relievers without having to lean on the psychological crutch. Ideally, I’d just be able to “placebo” myself (to coin a verb) out of no where. If there is no real change in body chemistry, then you could theoretically summon up the effects without the focus, right? Could we placebo ourselves by sheer force of will?

If someone hasn’t done science about this, then they really ought to. I want to hack my brain to instantly get that “first-of-tea-okay-I’m-awake-now” feeling. It would come in handy.

Advocatus Diaboli

Last night, I got into a rather inconsequential argument with a friend of mine, the details of which are not worth repeating here. A few minutes into the argument, I realized that I wasn’t truly behind my position. Intuitively, I knew my friend was absolutely right. I didn’t want to prove her wrong though. What I wanted, was this: I knew that she was right in an intuitive matter, but that didn’t satisfy my curiosity. I wanted her to explain her position in a more convincing and intellectual fashion, and to do so I was pelting her with a series of questions and accusations that sought to test her contentions. She did, finally, explain herself to my satisfaction, and throughout the course of the conversation I had the thought goddammit, I’m doing it again.

I am a skeptic. This is not just a facet of my character- I sincerely believe that skepticism and inquiry make us into better humans. Believing something for muddy, emotional reasons, I think, has a certain whiff of irresponsibility about it. We all do it, yes, but I believe that we have a responsibility to ourselves and others to believe things that are true, and the truth can stand up to scrutiny.

This is all well and good, yes, but sometimes it can really annoy the shit out of people. An example from my own experience: drop handlebars.

I love drop handlebars. Riding a bike without them seems a little weird, actually. But, a little over a year and a half ago, I remember railing against them, asking all kinds of questions about their utility and ergonomics and such. I was out with my ex, an avid cyclist, and I was in the market for a road bike. I said that I found the handlebars awkward and wondered why anyone would prefer them. I pelted her with questions about them, tried to poke holes in her argument about them and she, rather understandably, became extraordinarily angry with me.

What she didn’t understand, though, was that at no point did I actually disagree with her. I wanted her to prove her point. I didn’t want to get a new kind of bike just because it was “better.” I wanted the reasons for its superiority outlined to me in a coherent manner. This, however, occasionally had social costs. “Why do you always argue things that you don’t believe?” was an exasperated question often levied at me.

I try to moderate it. I really do. I know that such concerns, accusatory questions, and general poking and prodding are not everyone’s idea of a good time, and many people seem to regard my persona of a devil’s advocate as something hostile or nihilistic. It’s not. I’m not skeptical because I want to tear down people’s beliefs. Really. I’m skeptical because I want people to have a coherent outline for their positions, because I believe that such rigor improves the quality of people’s arguments and principles. My questions and criticism, I hope, are forces for good. I also play devil’s advocate with my students on a very regular basis, with great results. In the classroom, though, such a thing is more anticipated.

It’s difficult, though. Mind you, I’m not asking for pity or pats on the head as I explain this. This isn’t a fucking livejournal. I just felt compelled to shed a bit of light on this sometimes (perceived) obnoxious aspect of my personality, in light of my conversation last night. I advocate for the devil, yes, and do so with all of my abilities. But it’s not because I want him to win.