Sobriety Gets Weird Sometimes

Today marks 120 days sober and I don’t know how to do anything anymore. Being the only person in a group who doesn’t drink makes me feel like I’m Doing It Wrong no matter where we are or what we’re doing. In large part it’s because drinking is a very normalized adult activity, and that’s great – I’m not here to shame people for their hobbies or make out anyone who wants to drink into some kind of raging alcoholic with no self control. But even so, it is difficult for non-drinkers or sober people (that is, people who have decided to stop drinking alcohol) to feel normal because it is so normalized to be a drinker.

Deciding on sobriety was one of the most important steps in my self-care journey. I didn’t come from a family of alcoholics, and I didn’t grow up with an alcohol problem that got worse. I came to an alcohol problem late in life, after I finished grad school and figured that I was an adult who could finally let it all out and party hard as long as I did my job and paid bills. As with most, I didn’t think drinking was a problem until it was a problem, and there was no way that “taking it easy” or “taking a break” was going to work for me because I’d been down those reads before. I figured it would be easy to quit drinking because I was already tired of wasting time recovering from hangovers and being too drunk to function. I was also pretty sure that I would have zero issues with peer pressure because I’m over 35 and adults are definitely immune to peer pressure.

When you get past 30, the peer pressure becomes less overt. It’s not like a college kegger or sneaking beers at your friend’s house where someone’s handing you a beer and saying, “Drink up! You don’t want to be a loser, do you?” The peer pressure comes more from not wanting to seem like a buzzkill or an odd one out as people start questioning your decisions.

Are you pregnant? Did you get a DUI and have to go through a program? Is this a religious thing – did you give up alcohol for lent? Did you join a cult? Are you trying to lose weight? Have you tried just cutting back? What do you even do for fun now? Can you be around alcohol anymore?

I also get a lot of people asking me if they’re still allowed to drink. I’m not the booze police – you don’t have to stop drinking just because I’m there. Seeing booze isn’t going to ruin my sobriety, much like seeing a steak isn’t going to ruin veganism for me. I also hear a lot of comments like, “I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t have [beer/wine/gin/whatever],” which is actually borderline alcoholic, but I don’t think people mean it that way. (I hope they don’t, because it can be scary to have that kind of physical reliance on alcohol.) And honestly, I kind of don’t know what to do either.

If you look at any Mother’s Day display these days you’ll see more and more gifts with coffee and wine themes. “Not before my coffee!” or “Is it wine o’clock yet?” on shirts, bags, cups, mugs, lapel pins, pillows, decanters…. Moms using wine as a means of dealing with the stress and pressure of motherhood is both a cute meme and an expectation. I’ve been met with confused stares when telling people that no, I don’t actually have Wine Thirty at my house when my 6-year-old goes to bed. I don’t need wine to make it through homework nights, or parent-teacher conferences. But that’s normalized for moms, so when I show up and I’m not asking for wine or beer at other mom events I feel like the odd one out.

I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I write, and I play video games. But I’m also a high anxiety person trying to manage anxiety and depression while also managing a family and a high-stress job, and alcohol gave me a crutch for putting a lid on all the scary thoughts in my head. While I was drinking it was great – no anxiety! no depression! I’m almost good at socializing! everything is awesome! When the hangover came, though, the anxiety could be almost uncontrollable. So now I, a sober person, am having to re-learn how to navigate life without that crutch. It was a dangerous crutch, to be sure, because alcohol is contraindicated with nearly every psychiatric drug and adding alcohol on top of medication can be ruinous for your liver and kidneys, both of which you need if you want to live.

I have zero regrets about being sober, but the peer pressure is still there and it can be a struggle. It feels as though people have just noticed an extra arm jutting out of my shoulder and they can’t stop asking me about it. And it feels weird trying to justify it to other people when I’m telling myself that I couldn’t care less about peer pressure, but then also worrying about whether or not people are going to think I belong in their space. It’s the same space I’ve always been in, but now that I’m sober it feels as though people are suspicious of me. Like I’ve come back from a long vacation and my mob friends are trying to decide if I’ve become an informant. It’s hard trying to re-navigate these spaces and reassert my place, moreso when I don’t have the filter of alcohol to help me ignore the sense of disconnect that comes with having social anxiety.

The bottle is always there in the corner of my mind as an option, but I don’t feel like it’s hovering over me as a constant sense of temptation. It’s a struggle to figure out where I belong – or rather, where people won’t question my belonging – now that I’m sober. On the plus side, I got a lot of good practice at this when I was pregnant and dealt with the barrage of questions on every aspect of my life and how I was going to deal with having a baby. I just didn’t figure on sobriety being a controversial life choice.

Why do I need alcohol?

One of my long-time friends recently wrote on this topic and after a few days of musing I thought I’d post something similar.

I’ve decided to stop drinking. Period. Not just a Dry February, not just “holding off to lose weight,” but a Dry For The Rest Of My Life.

I have a complicated relationship with alcohol. I don’t like getting drunk because I hate losing control over myself. But I like beer. Sometimes. Liquor gives me acid reflux, wine give me a headache, but beer is different – it’s something I can tolerate.

I’m not supposed to drink alcohol because of the meds I’m on, but I keep telling myself I can drink as long as I keep it to once a week, or maybe just one or two drinks. My friends drink and I don’t want to be the sober weirdo. I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs, I don’t really have any other vices. But if I want to socialize it feels like I have to do some drinking – I mean, what else am I going to do, right?

But I occasionally let my drinking get out of control. I’ve been in situations where where I’ve had a dude take advantage of my inebriation – not to the point of being assaulted or raped, but being too inebriated to say no. I’ve driven home when I shouldn’t have. And when I drink, I get horrible anxiety attacks that can last a day or more, and I frequently get migraines as well.

I’m not good at saying no, or refusing things, even if they’re not good for me. I don’t like the idea of being rude, even if it’s just setting a necessary boundary. I don’t think it’s peer pressure – no one is forcing me to drink. I’m making that decision for myself. And it’s not the right decision. It’s been one of the worst things for my health.

So I need to stop drinking – not just cutting back, but not drinking at all. Given that my usual weekly socializing is a weekly running group with drinking at the end of the run, and that I work in a profession where mixers and busy season after-parties usually involve copious amounts of alcohol, I know that I’m going to end up being one of few sober people in the crowd. At this point I’m old enough that I don’t care about that. What I do care about is making sure I’m taking care of myself.

So anyway, I’ll be your sober ally if you’ll be mine.

YA Twitter Is Out Of Control

YA Twitter is eating one of it’s own. Again. I missed this the first time it came around because I was dealing with the flu, but luckily YA Twitter is the gift that keeps on giving so I didn’t have to wait long before this topic came around again. Last time, an angry mob came after an Asian woman dared to write about sex slavery in a society based on Asian historical/cultural ideas – apparently, it reminded them of African slavery and that was offensive, and the (mostly white, from what I can tell) Twitter mob attacked her until she pulled her book from publication. (An act for which she was praised for being “brave” and “doing the right thing.”)

Jesse Singal has posted a thread about the latest (unnecessary) debacle involving a person of color writing about an uncomfortable topic and being attacked for it because other people got upset because reasons. (He was the wrong ethnicity to handle the topic, or he wasn’t the right kind of marginalized person to handle it, or something equally ludicrous.)

As someone who paid for a BA and MLA in literature, I have a lot of feelings about this kind of behavior – excuse me, this kind of harassment and abuse. The Young Adult genre has a problem with diversity, but it seems like attempts to actually bring diversity into the genre are met with hostility from YA Twitter. To quote Singal:

Posing as urgent interventions to prevent the circulation of harmful tropes, the pile-ons are often based on selective excerpts pulled out of context from the advance copies of books most in the community haven’t read yet. Often, they feature critics operating on the basis of idiosyncratic ideas about the very purpose and nature of fiction itself, elevating tendentious interpretations of the limited snippets available to pass judgement on books before they have been released….

Further heightening the drama, these pile-ons are often accompanied by claims that those who have been selected for dragging or excommunication have not only sinned against social justice, but pose a safety threat to others in the community.

Tablet Mag, January 31, 2019

In Zhao’s case, a (white) author complained that the book contained “internalized racism and anti-blackness.” Then an American-Asian author complained that Zhao (excuse me, “Asian writers who didn’t grow up in western countries”) did not educate herself about the potential negative cultural context of the topic of slavery and how it would be perceived by Western audiences. Audiences that, it would seem, can’t seem to imagine a world that isn’t centered around American cultural contexts.

This new case involves Kosoko Jackson, a black, gay author writing a romance-adventure set around the Kosovo War. A review (written by a white woman) was put out on Goodreads that claimed it was “fetishizing gay men,” it was ignoring the cultural context of the Kosovo War, and the main characters’ ethnicities didn’t “fit” something…. In other words, the author of the review took a few sentences out of context, made a huge number of assumptions, and then told people it was too dangerous for anyone to read.

All I hear from this is the crying of white women trying to be gatekeepers for diversity by excluding actual marginalized people from introducing diversity into the genre.

This is a huge problem. Growing up, most of the YA books I read were written by white women about white kids. With the exception of Ursula K. Leguin’s books, I, an Egyptian-American, read books by and for white people. Don’t get me wrong, I loved all the books I read and I would never tell people to stop reading the books I grew up reading (pls go read all the Roald Dahl, Caroline B. Cooney, Lois Lowry, and Judy Blume). YA NEEDS diverse voices. It does not need white women gate-keeping the genre and encouraging their tens-of-thousands of followers to attack authors whose works make them feel uncomfortable.

There’s also a certain amount of irony in a reviewer saying, “Look. I’m not going to tell you what you should or shouldn’t read. I’m not one of those people.” AS THEY’RE TELLING PEOPLE NOT TO READ THE BOOK. I also think it’s ironic that the reviewer complained that the gay romance written by a black gay man “reek[ed] of women fetishizing gay men” – it is literally an LGBTQIA book written by someone in the community, but apparently it isn’t authentically gay enough.

I’m going to be honest here and say that I just don’t understand any of this. The absurdity of this level of gate-keeping and harassment boggles my mind. It’s as though cannibalizing one’s own is a feature, not a bug. It’s as though it’s designed to create controversy where there is none just for the sake of having controversy.

It also REEKS of the kind of virtue-signaling and censorship that bothered me so much about parents and religious groups demanding that school libraries “ban” books because books like “To Kill A Mockingbird” or “The Giver” or “Go Ask Alice” were “inappropriate for young people.” In other words, the adults in our lives wanted to closely cultivate the information in our lives to better control our minds so they could mold us into certain kinds of people. Groups wanted books about gays banned, books about sexuality, books with “bad language and poor role models”, books about rebellion, books with references to drugs (even if it was a cautionary tale), books with violence. (Just look at all of the stupid reasons people gave for banning these books! It all boils down to people being uncomfortable and wanting to hide the things that challenged their beliefs.)

It’s just the same kind of crap I grew up with, and countless generations before. The only difference is that we don’t have to wait for the five o’clock news to come on and tell us of a “dangerous new book” that might be in our schools, and the parents who are fighting it. Now we have YA Twitter to tell us that, based on one person’s opinion from an advance reading copy, these books and authors are dangerous, undermining efforts to correct social wrongs, and other horrors that must be eliminated!

In my opinion, this is outrage porn for bored authors, centered around gate-keeping for topics that make them uncomfortable, that also serves as an attention grab. It’s also dangerous in a genre that desperately needs diversity, that needs people to offer up new ideas for young people who need to have their beliefs and ideals challenged and who need to learn to challenge those ideals, and that needs to get out of the same tired tropes and characters.

And it sets the extremely dangerous example that when something does make you uncomfortable, when it makes you challenge your beliefs, that you have some kind of moral imperative to shut it down and attack the person who is challenging you. You can’t argue for social justice and then attack the very people you’re trying to protect.

Why should staff feelings matter?

I started this as an entry in my written journal (yes, it’s true – I still write a journal by hand), but this topic is near and dear to my heart and I felt it was important enough to write it out on my blog. I read this thread on Reddit and it made me think (again) about the nature of the profession and WHY being a CPA is so hard.

I’ve been an auditor for nine and a half years and being a CPA isn’t easy. It’s hard work, the hours are long, clients are difficult, and the rules seem to be constantly changing these days. (I’ve been hearing that US GAAP and IFRS are converging for almost 20 years and they’re actually finally getting close to it.) I’ve had good busy seasons and bad busy seasons. I’ve had busy seasons where there wasn’t enough work to go around and I’ve had busy seasons where there was too much work and too few people. The job cycles with the economy – when times are good, there’s plenty of work; when times are bad, there’s not much to do.

What I don’t understand is why we still expect our staff to work themselves to the point of exhaustion week after week during busy season. I don’t understand why we’re still expecting staff to “figure it out as they go along,” to “learn on the job.” I don’t understand why we still have the mentality that because busy season was shitty for us that it should be shitty for everyone who comes after us (and if we’re stressed out then everyone else has to be stressed out). It’s like the professional version of hazing – in the old days, I had to chisel my workpapers out in stone and send them to a partner in another state for review and if he hated them he’d call me up to yell at me personally and I took it and liked it! Y’all, I can’t believe that in the year of our Lord 2019 I’m still listening to people act like using Excel is “the easy way out,” and that leaning on technology makes you lazy.

The majority of the people who enter this profession are intelligent, well-educated people who can pick up new ideas quickly. A few become “super stars” and do so well that they’re able to take on harder work sooner than their peers. And a few of them are the kind that don’t do well for one reason or another and either linger until they’re fired or realize the job isn’t for them and they quit.

What I’ve noticed in almost ten years, based on my own experiences and in listening to friends’ experiences, is that a lot of the “pain” of busy season is self-inflicted. Partners and managers recall their own awful experiences and think that’s how it should be. Staff and seniors come to expect it based on the horror stories from their peers and their managers and partners. Firms are disincentivized to change because staff want the experience and the name on their resume. They’re willing to be put through the grinder for two or three years to get a big name firm on their resume and then move on to a better job.

What’s missing from the equation is stopping to ask yourself, why? Why does it need to be this way? For many firms, the most important thing is name recognition and a big bottom line. Investing in staff training and technology to make the work more efficient is hard and can be expensive in the short-run, so firms that are focused on today’s bottom line are not interested in doing so. They’re also more likely to expect (and demand) more out of lower levels to get higher realization rates – if a senior is expected to do manager-level work, the firm can get the same work at a lower rate than they would if the manager did the work.

While it’s true that expectations should be set high to provide an incentive to excel, the long-term impact of demanding that your staff do senior-level work, seniors do manager-level work, and managers do partner-level work, from day one is that your teams get burned out. They get to the point where they don’t care – the firm becomes a revolving door of kids who come in as interns and then leave as seniors because it’s too much to handle for too little payout. Then partners and managers will excuse it with the phrase, “Not everyone is cut out to be a CPA.” Well, sure, that’s true – not everyone WANTS to be a CPA either. The skill set and intellectual demand is a barrier to entry for people who hate numbers and don’t want to wade through thousands of pages of rules and regulations to do their jobs.

What I’ve seen over the years is that firms don’t want to change. End of busy season parties and summer golf events are seen as an easy morale booster for people who make it through busy season. Morning donuts are supposed to make you feel better for working 20 hour days the week of filing. Yet people keep leaving because the expectations are too high, because when they don’t meet expectations they’re yelled at, because if they’re less than perfect they get shuffled around, because yelling and verbally abusing people lower on the totem pole is normalized. Then I have to sit through lectures or read articles about how Millenials are lazy, disloyal, and don’t want to do “real work” blah blah blah….

David H. Maister writes in his book True Professionalism that “[t]he point of any business is to find ways to make money without working harder.”

“Increasing your utilization means you made more money because you (or your people) worked harder. This is certainly an accomplishment, but it still is primarily a short-term achievement.”

Maister’s point is that a firm has to earn respect, to get the market to place a higher value on the firm’s work, which will make clients want to pay more for the service. Firms earn respect by expecting professionalism from their people, from training their people to be professionals, and from leading by example. They earn respect by caring about both their clients and their people.

Instead, I see CPA firms trying to do more with less – giving clients a “bargain” so they feel good about a “necessary evil” (whether it’s an audit to maintain compliance with the SEC, or a tax return) and then demanding their teams do more with a smaller budget. That mentality will make clients see the firm as a vendor, to challenge the firm’s billings, and to continue to demand more for less. Maister goes on to say, “Working hard and cutting overhead costs are easier to do than achieving increases in your rate or leverage.” Which is true. A smaller bottom line is scary for people who care about today’s profits but not tomorrow’s.

In order to demand professionalism from your staff, however, you have to invest time, energy, and money into training – both technical skills and soft skills. You also have to invest in technology, look for better ways to do things. If your staff come in to work every day because they tolerate what feels like abuse so they can get a name on their resume so they can work somewhere else, you’re not building a healthy firm. You’re cruising on name recognition. And if your staff don’t like what they do, they’re not going to care about your clients, and your clients aren’t going to care about you. And if your clients don’t feel valued, if they don’t feel like you care about them, then why would they want to stay?

The main reason I hear companies say that they want to take their business away from Big 4 or other large firms is that they felt like those firms didn’t care about them, that they were being ignored or undervalued because they weren’t important to the firm. That’s exactly the reason I hear from people who leave those firms to go into industry or to a smaller firm – they were just a number, just a cog in the machine, they were expected to do more work with fewer incentives to stay.

I’ve heard people say that staff feelings don’t matter, that staff just want an easy job with a big paycheck, so why should we cater to lazy people who don’t want to work hard? But I don’t think that’s true. There’s a big difference between staff who legitimately don’t want to work hard, and staff who work hard and want to excel but don’t want to be treated like crap just for a paycheck. If you develop your staff, if you give them resources and coach them and train them, they’ll want to stay. They’ll want to do well. If you read down the thread you’ll see a number of horror stories from staff who worked for people who didn’t care, didn’t want to care, and just wanted to squeeze as much work from them as possible. But staff feelings SHOULD matter. Staff who are well-trained and care about the quality of their work and their clients turn into seniors and managers who care about their clients, and then into partners who have a good reputation and bring in clients who want to work with them, and who bring in staff who want to work for the firm. If your staff are failing and your realization rate sucks and your clients are shitty, then it’s probably a failing on your part – either from failing to train staff or from bringing in any old client just to make a buck or from treating your clients like they’re just a revenue source.

I’ve been a mentor or a coach for most of my career. I still care about my former staff who have moved on and I definitely offer to coach them through tough situations at work (or at home, if they want someone to give an outside point of view). Today’s bottom line doesn’t bother me as much as tomorrow’s or next year’s. If I want to have long-term productivity and profit, my staff’s feelings absolutely matter, and they’re going to continue to matter even after they’ve moved on. Treat your clients and teams like they’re actually people (because they are) and you’ll do well in the long-term.

By the way, if you haven’t yet read David H. Maister’s book, I highly recommend it. It has important advice for both the professional service firm and for professionals.

In Memoriam – Lee Billings

I met Lee Billings sometime in 2001, in the Cranky Editors group on LiveJournal. Lee was well-spoken, intelligent, and assertive; she was also friendly and genuinely cared about her friends, and while optimistic she was also a realist. She knew what was possible and what it took to make things happen. She was also unashamed to be a feminist, and didn’t care if people thought she was “outspoken.” She was also one of the few people I knew who would hold firm to her beliefs, but was willing to assess and adjust her beliefs when she had new information. She was definitely not rigid in her ideals, but she held firm to what she knew was right and just.

We met in person at some point that year and she invited me to the Sunday lunch group she attended, also known as “Bagels.” What struck me most about Lee was that she wasn’t afraid to be loud and to make her opinions known. I was accustomed to dancing around difficult subjects, hiding my opinions, and preferring to “be nice” instead. Where I was afraid of being seen as “too aggressive,” Lee was afraid of being seen as a pushover and having people trample her beliefs.

Lee was a positive example in my life when I needed one. She was always willing to give me good advice and listen to me, even when I didn’t want advice or didn’t think I needed it. Lee was practical in advising me through difficult situations, and was never one to merely say, “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.” We shared common backgrounds in family life, and she understood where I was coming from, and where I needed to be if I wanted to move my life forward and become my own person. Lee was one of the friends I needed the most, even when I was afraid to need people.

I looked up to Lee as a friend and a mentor, and I appreciated her advice. But I also appreciated her giving me a space to sit and unclench my jaw, relax my shoulders, unfurrow my brow. I expanded my circle of friends when I joined Bagels, I started being a little more open, I ventured out a little more. I started being more assertive and letting my opinions be known, even though I was still afraid of being “too aggressive,” but I wasn’t afraid of success and of reaching out for what I wanted and where I wanted to be. Life never turns out exactly the way you want it to, but I saw Lee and always thought to myself that I could change what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be, without worrying about what other people thought about me.

Lee had been a programmer by profession, but she was also a musician, a singer, and a dancer. She made jewelry when her programming specialty dried up and was replaced by a newer coding model, and turned it into her profession. She and her partner, Russ, went around the con circuit selling shirts and bumper stickers aimed at nerds, geeks, pagans, and anyone else who didn’t feel like they fit into the mainstream. I still wear jewelry I bought from her. I still have the Volde-Mart tote bag they gave me. Lee was a regular in the filk and contradance communities. She had friends everywhere, and it seemed like every person I met would say, “Oh, you know Lee? She’s great. I know her from….”

Lee had been diagnosed with and beaten breast cancer before. When she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer I figured she would beat this as well. Lee was strong-willed and independent. I suppose I always thought she could beat back any ailment or injury through sheer force of will. Lee passed away this year, on November 22. I don’t know that I can truly quantify the impact she had on my life, or that she had on other peoples’ lives. I do know that I am forever grateful for her friendship, and my life was better for having had her as a friend.

On Wanting to Serve

A little over 18 years ago, I enlisted in the US Navy. After 3 years of ROTC in high school, I was ready to go into the Armed Forces and serve my country. I loved ROTC. I loved everything about it, from the PT (well, maybe – I was kinda fat and it wasn’t the best part of ROTC), to the uniforms, formation, even the paperwork. (Wait, a future CPA loved paperwork? No way!) I even won the Daughters of the American Revolution medal for outstanding military service in ROTC. I was pumped for the military. My dad and I didn’t see eye to eye on it, though, and even having my recruiter come over and talk through it with him didn’t convince him. He wanted me to go to college, get a degree, and then enlist as an officer. I wanted to work my way up the old fashioned way.

So I signed up for the Delayed Entry Program and waited for my 18th birthday. In June of 2000, I flew to Great Lakes, IL to start my career. This was it – my chance to prove my worth, to be strong, independent, part of a team. I was going to learn a practical trade (Advanced Computers and Electronics), and be part of something bigger than myself. And thanks to three years of Army ROTC, I was going to start as an E-2 (my instructor recommended E-3, but the Navy was going to offer E-2).

One week (two weeks? a week and a half? I don’t recall as clearly now) in, at PT-0, I was tired and dehydrated and collapsed not quite at the finish line of a mile and a half run. I was devastated. How could I have let this happen? Two weeks later, I was developing an upper respiratory infection, but I ignored it because I wanted to tough it out and push through. I quickly developed a UTI after ignoring dehydration and trying to push through pain. I got a cold pack with cough drops to get me through the cough. Two weeks after that, the day my shipmates were getting their crisp Navy Whites, I was being handed paperwork on a medical discharge, and a bottle of antibiotics that looked like horse pills to treat the high fever that resulted from a sinus infection on top of a bronchial infection on top of a UTI that was threatening to turn into a kidney infection. A nice, well-meaning psychologist at the med center had suggested I needed to go home and get better. She asked me, “Are you sad? Are you feeling kind of depressed?” I said yes and she put “Major Depressive Disorder” in my chart, sent me to her superior officer where, in tears, I said, “Of course I’m depressed! How could this happen to me?” I went back to my barracks, gathered my things in the duffel bag they’d issued, and got a ride to SEPS (the separations facility), where I was sent home on a plane a few weeks later. It was devastating.

At some point in the process, I had given up on myself. Basic Training is more than physical training, it’s a mental training as well. That first incident was a crushing blow to my self esteem. I was so ready to be on my own, to prove myself, that I started to lose faith in myself and my goal. If you want to succeed in the military, you can’t do that. You’re part of a team, and Basic is there to break you down, to build you up as an individual and as a team. Your squad mates depend on you, and each other, to make things work. If you don’t believe in yourself, you can’t believe in your team.

Every now and then (usually on Veterans Day), I pull out my enlistment paperwork and wonder what I could have been, what I could have done. The kid in that paperwork was going to go places, do things, help people. That kid had dreams and goals, but they didn’t pan out. I’ve been beating myself up about that for 18 years – I considered myself a failure, and everything I did was tainted with that voice in the back of my mind, “But you couldn’t even make it through boot camp….” I could have tried harder, I could have done more, I could have fought my discharge and tried the Army or Air Force or gone back to the Navy. But I can’t change any of that now. I came home, I went to college, and now, a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees later, I’m a CPA with a family and my own home.

I’m not sure why Veterans Day hit me so hard this year – maybe the feelings of failure had built up to the point that I couldn’t hold them back any longer, or maybe it’s listening to my friends and family talk about their own military experiences. I pulled out my paperwork and started giving myself the same negative speech I give myself every time I look at those papers. “How could you do that? Why did you squander your future like that? What happened to you?” I realized quickly that I’ve been living in the “What if…?” of the past. I was feeling sorry for myself, when I could have been feeling proud of myself for dedicating three years of my life to ROTC and trying to serve my country in the Navy. I could have been thinking about the hard work and effort I put through to make something of myself afterwards. But all these years, the only words I could muster up when I thought about it were, “You’re a failure….”

ROTC taught me a lot of things – how to work as a team, how to support my squad mates, how to lead a group (even if I sucked at marching a platoon – I once marched my platoon right into a dumpster because my commands were off…). I learned the importance of hard work and dedication. The pride of wearing a uniform. It sure as shit didn’t teach me to feel sorry for myself.

So this year, I thought about what I wanted for myself. Whether I wanted to look back in sadness and feel sorry for myself for another 18 years, or if I wanted to feel proud of myself for what I’ve done with my life thus far. I decided that I wanted to stop looking at this paperwork and living in the past, to stop thinking of my efforts as a huge failure, to quit giving myself negative talks. I also decided that it was time to say goodbye to the paperwork. I kept my military training certificate, but I shredded the rest. I decided that I can’t move on, be proud of my friends and family who have served in the past, or who are currently serving, if I was going to keep hanging on to this paperwork and pulling it out to feel sorry for myself.

I also gave myself a different talk.

Dear 18-year-old self,

I can’t tell you that it would have been better, or that you could have tried harder and it would have worked out. I know you wanted this so bad. You tried – maybe it would have been different in the Army or the Air Force, or maybe it would have just been a different kind of bad experience. But you did what you thought was right for you, and that’s important. Your worth as a person is not contingent on whether or not you made it through boot camp. Your lack of service does not make you a lesser citizen or unworthy of respect. Your success is not tainted by what you think is a catastrophic failure.

36-year-old self

Maybe putting the past through the shredder was unnecessary, or maybe I could have tried turning those papers into a positive memory. Maybe I could have kept the papers and tried to turn this into pride, but it seemed like an empty kind of pride when I compared it to the people who made it through Basic, and through their enlistment. Regardless, I had to say goodbye to the past and my negative self-talk. I could be proud of my efforts and be proud of what I’ve done thus far, or I could continue to mope about it. I chose the former.

Post-Election Thoughts

It’s now the day after election day and current Democratic losses seem kinda grim if you’re looking at Texas – we didn’t flip a senate seat, we didn’t get governor or lieutenant governor, and we didn’t flip the whole state blue. Last night my Facebook feed was pretty bleak, with people feeling defeated and ready to call it quits. By “quits” I mean they felt that they had failed and lost, that there seemed to be no point to their efforts since the “Blue Wave” wasn’t as big as desired or expected.

My main concern now is that Democrats and first-time midterm voters are going to see losses, be demoralized, and throw their hands up and never vote again. Republicans rally around their party like the world will come to an end if they don’t vote Republican. What I’ve seen time and again is Democrats, Independents, and Liberals of one form or another vote, lose a race, and then say voting doesn’t matter and not only do they proclaim they’ll never vote again, but they tell other people to never vote because it doesn’t matter. (Sitting through political diatribes when you’re just trying to shelve books in the History section gets old, but at least I got to hear from actual people about these things.) This is a gross generalization, but almost a decade in college (with an undergrad and two graduate degrees) and several years working in a book store gave me insight into what people were thinking; my stint as a political blogger helped as well, but listening to people bemoan that they lost the presidential election meant that voting was meaningless gave me more insight than reading comments about how I was a GOP shill or a Liberal cunt (don’t miss those days at all. AT. ALL.).

My point is that politics is full of winning and losing, ups and downs. You don’t win if you decide that a lost race means everything hopeless. The gains made by Democrats last night are significant – Texas Democrats flipped several House seats, and Harris County elected several Democrats to flip the county to majority Democratic control. Of course, we also sent Ken Paxton (currently indicted for criminal securities fraud and failure to register as an investment adviser) and George P. Bush (aka That Guy Who’s Trying To Ruin The Alamo) back as AG and Land Commissioner, respectively. Why? Maybe Texans love felons and hate the Alamo, but I suspect it’s more that there was a huge push to Keep Texas Red.

Fresh eyes and minds keep things moving in the right direction. Keeping incumbents to “Keep State/District/etc. red (or whatever)” is a terrible idea and only fosters poor decision making and the worst in political BS. The idea that single-party control is best for the country and voters is short-sighed and foolhardy – the idea that yours is the only opinion that matters makes it difficult to effect real change, but I suppose that’s the point when the status quo is so comfortable. But if that’s the case, why campaign on changing? Why say you’re going to Make America Great Again and then do the same old thing over and over because being in power is more important to you than anything else? Running on obstructionism for the sake of obstructionism is another problem I have – there are things that must be obstructed (fascism, injustice, corruption), but running on a platform of obstruction because you don’t like that your party didn’t win the White House, or because you don’t like Democrats in general, isn’t sustainable in the long term. What happens when you fail to live up to peoples’ expectations? or when they start having expectations beyond just “sticking it to the Libtards”?

Anyway, I’m happy with the net gains made this time around, even if every incumbent wasn’t defeated. Giving up only tells your opponent that you don’t care and they can continue doing whatever the shit they want to do with no regard to opposing opinions. If you’re upset and disappointed today, turn it around and stay involved at the local level. National politicians always start local and work their way up, and if you want to influence the country on the national stage you have to start from the ground up. Get involved, vote in Primaries, and support your local politicians. They’re the ones you’ll be sending to Governor’s offices, the House and Senate, and the White House.


Full disclosure: I am friends with several “voluntaryists” and I’ve known many who don’t vote for religious reasons (“in the world, not of the world,” is their primary reason). I’m not speaking of them. I’m talking about people who get fired up and then decide that a loss means they should never try again. Another disclosure: I’ve historically voted as a Moderate Independent (neither Democrat nor Republican, but voting either one, or Libertarian, as I find candidates who seemed to be fit for the job). This year, I made the distinct choice to not vote Republican at all – the first election I’ve done that. My personal view is that too many Republicans either supported, sought support from, or were indifferent to problematic and harmful white nationalist ideologies and people that I couldn’t, in good faith, support the party as a whole. As Jim Wright at Stonekettle Station said, “I didn’t leave the Republican party. The Republican party left me.”


Edit 1: An additional thought is that we have a system of checks and balances built into the governmental structure in the US – the executive, legislative, and judicial branches are supposed to work together and provide a check to the other’s power. The other form of checks and balances comes from multiple parties and ideas working together. If you’re eliminating other parties from involvement, then there’s no effective check to power or corruption, no balance of ideas or power to keep the party on track. And if voters are incentivized only to Keep The State Red, rather than voting on a variety of issues and considerations, then it seems as though there’s no effective voter checks to poor decisions either.

Maybe Everything Isn’t Terrible

Checking in with social media recently, specifically Facebook and Twitter, has made me feel like maybe everything really IS terrible. Maybe we really are only 20 years away from the sudden and inevitable collapse of the environment. Maybe we’re on the cusp of an imminent thermonuclear war. Maybe Jesus has spurned us for the second coming and we’re all just going straight to Hell for all eternity.

So I was thinking on the way home that I really miss the days growing up before social media, when we could choose to ignore the whackadoodle ravings on AM radio, where Neo-Nazis were just a group of weirdos largely relegated to a few rallies in rural areas and Jerry Springer episodes, and the only thing I worried about was whether or not I’d get to watch cartoons after school. (Animaniacs and Tiny Toons were life, y’all.) The 24-hour news cycle and the incessant coverage of every minor thing ruined me for current events. I loved reading books on political theory and history and culture, and I even blogged for the Houston Chronicle for a while as one of the only (or maybe the only) moderate bloggers – mine was the one that had a dozen or more footnotes and links to sources, because you can take the blogger out of academia but you can’t take the academics out of my blogging.

But as social media became more social, and we traded our MySpace pages for Facebook and then Twitter, every damn conspiracy theory and minute incident got hours and hours of coverage online. Most of it fizzles into nothing and we never hear about it, but the internet is forever and every now and then the dreaded Necrothread rears it’s ugly head to resurrect some old issue and it’s argued again like it happened yesterday. Sometimes that’s a good thing, because it means that when people claim they never had any dealings with a foreign government we can just pull up old Tweets or blog posts evidencing otherwise. (And man, some of those Tweets do NOT age well.) But most of the time it just leads to people arguing over and over again about the thing and it still never gets solved.

I try to cultivate my social media so that I keep in touch with friends and family, but also so that I’m not in a bubble where I miss out on things that are going on around me. I don’t like being blissfully unaware of current events, but the nature of social media means that between the sarcastic memes and dog pictures I’m getting inundated with Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad news, and being a concerned citizen I want to do all the things and solve all the problems and be involved in local politics so that I can prevent Armageddon. But being just one person I’m probably not going to do all the things – realistically there are probably one or two things I can do and I should work on those. And even though I’m a realist and I (mostly) know my limitations, I still feel powerless and overwhelmed. I feel like I’m not contributing meaningfully, that I’m not doing enough, that taking any kind of break is tantamount to failure because EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE!!!!

Except everything is probably not terrible. I can list several things right now that are not terrible: I have a good job with health insurance, my kiddo is in Girl Scouts and is super excited about doing outdoors stuff, I found a ton of cool new books to read, and I have a supportive group of friends and family. I’m doing pretty good at winning at life – probably don’t have the high score, but that’s okay. It’s probably also okay if I don’t try to solve all of the world’s problems, because a) I can’t, b) I shouldn’t try, and c) no, really, I can’t. It’s probably definitely also okay if I step back and do self care, like spending 2,000 hours playing Skyrim (haha, just kidding, that’s totally not a thing I did…), or reading my ever-growing To Be Read list or turning off notifications on my phone and stop reading social media for a few days.

It’s important to do things that bring joy to your life, to remind yourself that everything is NOT terrible, to lift yourself up. If you don’t, the crushing weight of the world’s problems will consume you and you’ll shrivel into a hollow shambling husk and honestly shambling husks do not enjoy life at all. It’s okay to do something fun once in a while and not spend all day worrying about terrible things. And it’s definitely okay to stop following every news organization and political figure on Facebook and Twitter and follow all the dog and otter and cat accounts instead. Dog Twitter is 100% more enjoyable anyway.

“I Didn’t Know It Was A Problem” and other problems

I’ve been thinking a lot about Aziz Ansari, and the undercurrent of social training that enables men (and sometimes women) to sail past social cues and into the territory of violating another person’s space, or their bodies. Emma Gray writes, “I believe that Ansari didn’t realize in the moment that he was ignoring Grace’s cues, nonverbal or otherwise.” And it’s true – many men I’ve worked with, been friends with, or encountered in social spaces, have no idea they’re ignoring my cues to reject their advances. Many of them ignored straightforward rejections of their advances, and believed they had a right to say and do whatever they wanted to get my attention and achieve their goal of getting sex (either from me, an available target, or another woman).

There is a dynamic at play here, where many woman – most women, I think – are told that they have to care about other people’s feelings, that they are responsible for ensuring other people are happy and comfortable. They’re taught to be pleasers, to not say No, to be agreeable. It was certainly ingrained in my own upbringing, not just by parents, but also by teachers, religious leaders, other parents, coaches. Many women have a problem outright rejecting someone, and when they do they’re met with complaints that they’re bitchy, or catty, that they’re assholes. “Why can’t you be nice? Why are you so mean? I’m just trying to be nice!”

To be fair, Aziz Ansari apologized sincerely, and claimed he misread the situation. That’s all well and good, but the problem is that he didn’t know that what he was doing was wrong, that he was violating this woman’s space, that he should have stopped. Most men I know aren’t cued in to nonverbal cues to begin with, so when I read about this encounter all I could think was, “Well of course. Men just don’t know how to work around nonverbal cues, and some verbal cues are just confusing.” And that’s about when I stopped myself and asked, sincerely, “Why shouldn’t they? Why should men ignore nonverbal cues, much less verbal ones, because they’re too hard to work with? And why is this so generalized, as though men are just dumb about this kind of thing?” (It’s like those stupid laundry detergent commercials that indicate men are just helpless about housework and somehow the entire house would explode if they tried to do laundry without their wives stepping in.)

Gray’s article points to research that indicates men and women can and do understand verbal and non-verbal cues (Just say No?; If a Girl Doesn’t Say ‘no’…; Mythcommunication). It’s not impossible, and it’s not “a guy thing” that men don’t understand it if women say, “I guess I’m not into it,” or “I’m not ready for this,” or some other form of indirect verbal cues. It’s a cop-out, and claiming that men are somehow intellectually incapable of understanding such indirectness does them a disservice. It says that men are too dumb to understand their environments, and that women are incapable of communicating. Some women are afraid of making people mad at them, or they’re genuinely afraid for their lives in some cases, and they indicate their discomfort in indirect ways, in nonverbal ways. I’ve done so several times, and had male friends “rescue” me from people that ran the gamut from merely annoying customers to scary stalkers and ex-boyfriends.

To say that “men just don’t get it” is not just asinine, it’s dangerous. It gives predators a pass to say, “I just didn’t understand what she was saying. She wasn’t clear.” It does a disservice to boys who grow up thinking they don’t have to understand their social environments. Men can and should learn how to interpret indirect and nonverbal communication, just as much as women should learn the confidence to be forthright and direct. Many women will tell stories of men who were violent in their rejection, who beat, raped, or killed a woman who said, “No.”  Those encounters are extremely important, and they should be told, and we should be aware of them and work to stop them. But encounters like “Grace” and Ansari need to be told as well, because the non-violent violations are no less damaging than the violent ones.

On Regret

I’ve been thinking about regret lately, and how much regret I have and how it stems from deep-set shame over all kinds of things. I’ve managed to rack up regrets over every aspect of my life – how I walk, how I talk, how I eat, smile, laugh; everything I do is up for scrutiny and a certain sense of shame. At this point in my life, I’m not sure WHY I’m hanging on to so much shame and regret, but I doggedly cling to it like a bizarre life raft thinking that it will somehow keep me afloat.

Shame and regret can be useful tools. Humans and other animals learn from doing things wrong – if you never make mistakes, learning how to cope with challenges, and learning new skills will be difficult. (I have a pair of socks that say, “Screwing Up Is Part Of The Protocol” to remind me that making mistakes is part of the normal course of business of being human.) Being ashamed of or regretting something can be a useful reminder that what we’ve done is wrong, but shame and regret can also go too far and consume us.

On any given day, I probably think about a dozen or more things that I regret and I wish I had done differently or that had never happened. If I’m having a bad anxiety day, those thoughts might consume my thinking for most of the day, and my productivity and well-being. In the past (before I decided to seek help from a psychiatrist), I had severe panic attacks from thinking about something that happened 10 or 20 years ago and being consumed by the shame of my actions. It was a sense of regret that spiraled down into debilitating feelings of unworthiness, guilt, inferiority. Why? I took it for granted in the past, assumed I was supposed to feel that way, that the sense of shame and regret I felt was good and natural and that I SHOULD feel that way. But what does that actually do for me?

When I get consumed by those feelings, I don’t feel like I’m actually learning anything new, that I’m growing as a person. I realized in the last year or so that what I’m doing is beating myself down, that these self-conscious feelings are destructive. I don’t think I realized how negatively these exercises in regret impacted my life until recently, when I connected my internal “fantasy” life (mainly the fantasy of being able to navigate personal and professional situations without saying or doing the wrong thing, without being goofy or weird) with the feelings of shame and regret. Normally, an episode of being consumed by regret would be followed by episodes of escapism – here’s how this would have turned out if I was better at social situations, or if I wasn’t as awkward, or if I was more self-assured.

I still can’t answer why I regret so much, and I know logically it serves no purpose other than to further fuel my anxiety and give it something to latch onto. I started (re-started, really) meditating with the Headspace app and I noticed that even during meditation my mind naturally gravitates to something I did wrong and starts to focus on that. The meditation does help me push those thoughts away (the method is called “noting,” whereby you acknowledge the thought or feeling and move on), but I can’t answer why I should keep clinging to this consumption, other than that it’s a habit and I’ve lived so long like this that I don’t know how to live any other way.

I’m not one for resolutions, but I started thinking at the end of the year that I wanted to change this about myself. I want to stop pre-shaming myself and worrying about what I might do wrong or how I might fuck things up. I want to stop shaming myself during and after an event and picking apart everything I do. But mostly, I want to let go of all the regrets I have in my life. The burden of shame is great, and it can lead to a host of other negative behaviors (rage, anger, fear), and that it can be contagious in those around you. So this year, instead of having a resolution that I’ll forget about in a few weeks, I’m committing to letting go of this destructive shame and regret, to breaking a habit that’s become self-destructive.

Tiny Buddha has an article that provides a good starting point. But as with any project, breaking a bad habit requires a support system, not just will and determination, so the second part of this exercise is going to be remembering that I have a support system and actually using it. No one walks through life entirely alone.

No man is an island,  entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.  – John Donne, Meditation XVII

The alternative is continuing a destructive cycle, which will undermine all the other aspects of my life. I don’t want my life to be consumed by something so worthless as regret over things I can no longer control or change, when I could be working on literally anything else of value in my life.