Ancestors, traditions, and relating with the present

I’ve been spending more time with my ancestors lately, hoping to establish more intentional and positive relationships with them. One of the ways in which I’ve been relating with my ancestors is by putting together a family tree, and really trying to understand the flow of my lineages through history.

And that’s gotten me thinking about tradition.

Tradition is kind of a loaded word right now. There are a lot of people leaning on what is “traditional” in order to justify some quite frankly miserable behavior. Some of this comes from a sort of misplaced nostalgia for a half-imagined past which never really existed, but most of it comes from the desire of those in power to stay in power.

I could go into specifics here, but unless you’ve literally been living under a rock for the last six or seven years, you probably already know what I’m talking about.

There’s another way to look at tradition, though. There’s a way to see the past–the real past–not as a perfect blueprint to follow uncritically, but as a source of inspiration when dealing with the present and preparing for the future.

Gardens come to mind.

My father was born in 1946, the youngest of fourteen children. His mother was born in 1904, and his father was born in 1900. These dates may seem incredibly remote to those of you born around the turn of the millennium, but my grandparents are part of my living memory. And when they were getting their family on, everyone had a garden–especially if, like my grandfather, they were trying to support a family of this size on a mill-worker’s salary.

I’m told that pretty much every square inch of my father’s childhood yard was used to grow something. Whatever they didn’t eat fresh, my grandmother canned for the winter. My grandmother also made bread, not just to feed the family, but also to give and sell to neighbors, other family, and friends. Every resource they had at their disposal was used to help themselves, or it was traded with those around them.

We can find a lot of inspiration, here.

The most obvious flash of insight is that, not too long ago, people did much more for themselves than we do. Today, most of us buy our vegetables and bread from the grocery store. This is fine, I suppose, so long as the grocery store continues to have what we need, and we’re able to pay the price they’re asking.

Those are big “ifs” right now.

Unless you’re still living under that rock we talked about earlier, grocery stores have become both less reliable and much more expensive. I have a loaf of white bread sitting on my counter which cost me $4.29. And last week? I had to get a different brand because the store was wiped out of the brand I usually buy.

When I’m able to bake my own bread, it costs me about $1.00 a loaf, and it’s a far better product.

I’ve written about this sort of thing before, in a post I called Home economics, wherein I linked to a video on the Townsends YouTube channel. You could do a lot worse than going back to that post and watching the video again. It talks about looking at your home as a “little factory,” and not just thinking of it (or relating to it) as a place to sleep and store your stuff.

There’s another bit of inspiration we can glean from the way in which my father’s parents related with the world around them, which is touched on by this video, also from Townsends.

In case it’s not glaringly-obvious, I love this channel, and I spend a lot of time not just watching the videos there, but also trying to find ways to re-contextualize the traditions they cover for life in the present day.

My parents, grandparents, and all the generations before them spent a great deal of time establishing and maintaining relationships with their neighbors, and their local community as a whole. The further you go back in time, the more vital these connections become.

Remember: thirty years ago, there was no World Wide Web. Fifty years ago? No Internet at all. A century ago? Barely anyone had a phone.

Not only were the people in your immediate community likely to be your only social outlet apart from family, they were the only help you were going to get should you find yourself in real trouble. The safety and prosperity of your neighbors was, in a very literal sense, your safety and prosperity.

So what does this have to do with today? More the point, what does this have to do with magic (seeing as that’s what this blog is supposed to be about)?

To my way of thinking, these two questions are basically the same: What might this traditional way of living tell us about relating to and in the present?

I see magic as a tool (or set of tools) which allows us to more easily live in right relationship with the world around us. It allows us to better understand our place and function, and gives us ways to restore ourselves to that place and function when we’re off-base.

Proximity is a critical consideration when relating with others. By which I mean, it’s easier and more fruitful to think and act locally, first and foremost.

Something you might not be aware of is that, if you live in the United States, almost every dime you pay in “taxes” goes to your city, county, or state government. Property tax (or your landlord’s taxes, which you pay in the form of rent), sales tax, water bills, parking fees and fines–all of this is obviously collected by city or state officials. But even a good portion of your federal income tax ends up being paid out to states and cities in the form of grants, or federally-funded programs such as Medicaid.

What’s more, most of the laws you’re required to obey are set at the local or state level. Which streets you can park on, where you can open and operate a business, when you can buy alcohol–the buck for all of these ultimately stops at city hall or your state house.

Who decides where your polling place is, and how long it’s open on election day? That would be town clerk. Who decides if your local library is going to get funding next year? Your town council.

Like it or not, more and more political power is being handed off to the states and cities. It isn’t the feds that are going to decide whether or not you can have roommates to help you pay for a home, it’s going to be the people in your local government–and lot of those people are landlords.

I’ve already shared these thoughts privately, with friends and family. And it’s long been my belief that we should be spending most of our time and attention not on what’s happening at the national level, but at the local level.

To be blunt, I think if you can name your U.S. Senators, but can’t name your city councilors, you’re doing it wrong.

But it’s more than that.

Look again at that video I embedded above, and think about not only what it would take to become more deeply-involved in your immediate community, but also how much further any effort to improve upon it is likely to go, compared to your chances of changing anything at the national scale.

It’s a lot easier to live in right relationship with someone when you can shake their hand.

Have a blessed day!

Summer

You might have noticed a lack of posts here for, oh, the better part of the last few months. I’d apologize, but it’s really the weather’s fault. It’s been pretty gorgeous outside in my neck of the woods, so…I’ve been in the woods.

Or on the water.

Or in my yard.

The point I’m making here, if you haven’t already figured it out, is that I’ve spent nearly every possible moment I could outside and as far away from computers and the internet as I could get—especially social media.

My approach to all things magical tends to lean pretty heavily in what I might as well call an “animist direction.” I see the world as profoundly haunted. We’re surrounded by spirits—among them trees and stone, rivers and lakes. And a big part of my magical practice these last few years has involved establishing and growing relationships with these spirits.

Doing simple magic like hiking in the woods, fishing, and working in the gardens has taken priority over sitting in front of a screen writing about magic. I’m still open for Tarot readings, of course. And I’m truly, truly grateful for the people who have reached out to me for consultations. But the blog and my Twitter have clearly been filled with crickets.

That’s probably not going to change very much until October or November rolls around, but I’ll try not to go so long without dropping an update here.

No promises, though. My friend owns a boat!

I hope your summer is going at least as well as my own.

Winter silence

It’s almost spring, and I’m more than ready for it.

You might have noticed that I took more or less the whole of winter off from writing and posting on the blog. I also did my best to post very little on social media, apart from silly memes on Facebook, or comments on friends’ posts.

Winters, to be blunt, really suck for me. I don’t enjoy them at all.

I live in New Hampshire, so winters are full of freezing temperatures, ice, and snow. This means I frequently go days without venturing outside unless it’s straight into a freezing car. No walks in the woods or about town, no hanging out on my porch or working in my yard.

This lack of sunlight and fresh air is truly horrible for a number of reasons, but the most pertinent one here is that I have very little energy once the weather turns cold.

Getting anything done from December to April requires a massive effort on my part, and usually leaves me utterly drained by the end of the day. So, for this winter, I decided to pull back from work and quietly, peacefully spend the days sitting with friends, family, and myself.

That worked out pretty well! So well, in fact, that I think taking winters off is probably something I’ll do in the future.

At least until I move to a nicer climate.

Frustration/meditation

I’ve been a wee bit frustrated this last week, which more or less accounts for how little I’ve been active on the socials, and why this post is going up several days later than I would have liked. I have a low tolerance for frustration, and a tendency to say “fuck it, let’s watch Netflix” when things go pear-shaped.

For most of the last month, I’ve been focused on two things: a large writing project, which I hope to share with you next spring; and a mundane, work-a-day freelancing gig which pays poorly but fit my schedule too well to say no to.

The writing project, while fun and exciting, is going very slowly. Normally, when I get into the writing groove, I can crank out two thousand words a day without breaking a sweat. With this project, I’m lucky if I make half of that total, and it’s hard getting even that much.

As for the freelance gig, last week brought about some technical issues beyond my control. They’re supposedly getting fixed, but for now they’ve dropped my productivity (and my pay) down to about a third of what they were the week before.

When I add in the health-related challenges my family and I have been dealing with…yeah, I’m not the happiest camper.

Still, I’m feeling pretty good, all things considered. Mostly because I’ve been curling up in bed around six o’clock every evening, and letting an audio book read me to sleep.

This is quite frankly awesome in and of itself, but by going to bed so early, I’m usually up no later than four the next morning. This is even more awesome, since it gives me a solid hour or two of quiet in which to wake up, do my morning prayers and rituals, and settle into my day.

I think magic is everywhere, but there’s something particularly magical about the pre-dawn hours, where in my neck of the woods everything is silent and still. The only things speaking are the owls, the wind, and my tea kettle.

I’ve needed that more than I usually do.

Taking this time—especially over the last several days—to just sit with my thoughts and feelings has been tremendously helpful and healing.

It’s a form of meditation that goes largely ignored, at least in Western magical circles.

For the most part, when a magician goes about “meditating,” they attempt to either focus their mind on a single thought, or else remove all thoughts from their mind. In both cases, judgment is implied. In the first case, it is the one and only thought which is good. In the second, no thoughts are good.

Contrast this with mindfully and purposefully setting your mind to the task of sitting with whatever thoughts may arise, without judgment. This isn’t the same thing as daydreaming or letting your mind wander. Rather, it’s giving yourself the space to allow what is really going on in your head to take the reins.

Or, to use another metaphor, it’s giving the salad dressing time to separate into its component parts.

Try it sometime.

Season’s Suckage

I’ve been putting in a lot of ten-hour days recently, which means I’ve been quite productive, but also very, very tired. I’m not quite at Bilbo’s “butter scraped over too much bread” levels of exhaustion, but I’m certainly “burning twice as brightly.”

Come for the magical mutterings, stay for the nerd quotes.

I think I’ve spoken before about how Halloween is my favorite holiday, and this is true for pretty much my entire immediate family. It’s partly a magic thing, partly a goth thing, but also there’s something just inherently joyous about dressing up however you want and getting free candy.

What I don’t think I’ve talked about is how much the rest of the holiday season not only isn’t my bag, but I kind of dread it.

Thanksgiving, in particular, inspires a special sort of loathing within me. I like the food, and the fact that it’s the only day where it’s socially acceptable to eat so much that you fall unconscious in front of the television later. Beyond that, though, it’s just too full of bad memories.

Every family has its pitfalls, but for mine the most challenging pitfalls all seem to strike around this time of year. Last year, for instance, my father was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He was treated, and ultimately recovered completely, but at the time things were beyond stressful.

This year? He went in for a hernia operation the day before Thanksgiving. Things seem to have gone well, but he’s had a rough couple of days trying to recover.

These are just the two most recent examples of how Thanksgiving has sucked for my family. My mother passed away around this time of year. Two years before that, our power went out for twenty-six hours over the holiday and totally destroyed all of the food and fixings in the fridge.

The hits roll on and on, making November the least favorite month in our house. That’s probably why I tend to spend a ridiculous amount of money on Christmas presents. After all, what is Christmas but the one-month anniversary of Thanksgiving fucking off?

It’s a shame, really, because November tends to have some pretty nice weather. Temperatures are cool enough during the day that I can wear my comfy black hoodie most of the time, and at night I get to curl up in all of the blankets. Any time you can spend the first hour of the day cozy in a warm bed, letting your eyes explore the frost on the window is a good one in my book.

I guess “conflicted” is the word to use here, at least as far as how I feel about this whole month.

Where was I even going with this post? I’ve been making excellent progress on a number of projects, but can’t really talk about them yet.

In my last post I wrote about the last thing I wrapped up, my Spring store, which you should totally buy a t-shirt from. Seriously, it’s Sagittarius season, so grab some suitable swag.

Other than that, though, everything’s still a work in progress—either being actively under construction, waiting for things to settle into place.

That’s probably the best description of how this and the next couple of months are going to be around here. We’re doing what we can, preparing for the long winter, and making plans for the spring.

When you think about it, isn’t that what we’ve all done, pretty much forever, around this time of year? The productive days of summer are behind us, the last work of the harvest is wrapping up, and all of our efforts are focused on settling in (and surviving) the winter.

And while my family does have a kind of shitty history with regards to this time of year, I’m honestly feeling rather optimistic. Despite the expected challenges surrounding my father’s surgery, the various other challenges I’ve written about in recent weeks, and still more challenges which I’m not at liberty to write about because they’re not entirely my own, I feel like corners are being turned and roads are opening up.

That said, I’ll feel a lot more at ease once winter has come and gone.

Reloaded

Well, it took about twenty hours, but now I have my Linux laptop set up mostly how I want it. There are a few tweaks I need to make, of course. And kind of the whole point of this exercise is to slowly migrate more and more of my daily work over to it from the Windows machine.

But progress!

I realize that the title bar of this site describes it as a “blog about tarot, astrology, and magic,” and it’s been nearly two months since I’ve written anything of the sort. One reason for that, of course, is the avalanche of work I wrote about in my last post.

The other reason is that, I kinda have been writing about magic.

Magical = Mundane

I’ve written too many times to link to that I see no distinction between the magical and the mundane. And if you were to take an even casual survey of cultures from across time and space, you’ll see that almost no one ever has. For most of the human beings who’ve ever lived in this world, it was haunted as fuck, and they acted accordingly.

My view of the world is much the same, or at least similar enough that I don’t sweat it when I can’t find the time to meditate, or go journeying, or “properly” observe a feast day or what have you. And it’s because I know that everything I do is magic.

“Perspective fuels performance,” is a phrase I think about a lot. I honestly can’t recall if I read that somewhere years ago, or if it’s some I came up with (or something which came up with me). Either way, I like it.

You could say that I spent twenty hours over the last week writing and re-writing configuration files, installing software, copying data from one machine to another, and entering barely-remembered commands at far too many shell prompts.

You could also say that I spent those twenty hours using arcane formulas and barbarous names to channel lightning through stones and crystals engraved with incomprehensible patterns.

Believe me, since I do not like fiddling with computers, it was only by leaning heavily into that description that I even got through it.

Perspective. Try some.

It’s not all sweetness and light

As I was writing last week’s post, I thought carefully about just how much I wanted to relate concerning all of the bullshit I’m dealing with. I wanted to explain the increasing delays between posts, as well as share at least some details about the projects I’ve been working on. But as I wrote, I realized that it wouldn’t be a fluffy and happy post.

Mostly because I was not—at the time, nor now—feeling particularly fluffy and happy. And that’s okay.

I think I’ve written before that I don’t have much truck with the relentless positivity you see pretty much everywhere in “new age” or “spiritual” circles. I mean, I get it, and I get where it comes from. “Co-create your universe,” and all that.

But, as I see it, that sort of unyielding, “love and light” at all times thinking doesn’t just feed into whatever universe you might want to “co-create.” It also feeds into a lot of other people’s universes in the form of making them feel wrong, or unworthy, or broken.

Whenever I read someone talking about how such-and-such a person’s illness or misfortune was caused by their own “negative thoughts” or “bad projections” I get more than a little angry. This is because it’s not only wrong, it’s wrapped in just enough truth to sound right in the worst possible way.

Does positive thinking come with benefits? Absolutely. Even materialist medicine has admitted that, all else being equal, patients with better outlooks and attitudes have better outcomes. On the economic side, people who are enthusiastic and confident tend to succeed more often in the workplace and in business as a whole.

“Optimism is a spell.” That’s a phrase that’s been going around the occult community for a few years, now, and I’m not sure who first said it, but it’s very true. Vitally true. And isn’t every spell an optimistic act, in a way? Doesn’t the very fact that you’re doing it imply that, somehow, no matter what you’re going through or how dire your circumstances may look, you still have the ability to change things for the better?

I think so. Which is why I embrace a lot more “New Thought” material and practices than you might expect given what I’ve written here.

But, as true as it is that it can change your world, optimism only works as a spell if you’re willing to acknowledge when your circumstances are dire. You have to be able to see the world, and your place in it, for exactly what it is right now if you’re to have any hope of navigating through it.

Or, said more crudely, if you never admit your ass is filthy, what reason is there to wash it?

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen “love and light” their way straight into massive debt, medical emergencies, and shattered relationships. And it’s all for the same reason: they confused “acceptance” with “acceptance.”

When I look at my bank and credit card balances, and then scan over my receipt from the grocery store, I accept (acknowledge) that I’m in a tight spot. I similarly accept what my bathroom scale tells me, as well as the rate at which I’m going through anti-inflammatories to deal with the various and persistent aches and pains my middle-aged, out-of-shape body delights me with.

However, what I don’t do is accept (embrace) these facts. Seeing them, and admitting them as present truths, does not mean I’m handing them any power. Rather, it’s quite the opposite. By acknowledging reality in its present form, I, myself, am better empowered to change it.

This is one of the reasons I advocate divination as the first step in any practical enchantment work. In order to get to where you want to go, you need to know where you are on the map.

It’s not me, it’s you

Back when I first started this blog, I had a number of intentions for it. The biggest one, though, was that I wanted it to be honest. An honest account of what it’s like, for me, to be a full-time wizard. The good and the bad, the easy and the challenging, the wonders and the clusterfucks.

There were (and are) enough people who carefully curate their online personas to the point where, if all you saw was their Twitter or Instagram feeds, you’d think they were living their perfect dream lives one hundred percent of the time. I didn’t want to add to that noise.

In general, my life’s pretty good. But there are also times when it really, really sucks and I wonder what the fuck the point of everything is.

Like many of the people you see and read on the Internet, I write for an audience. I like to imagine that audience not as an amorphous cloud of demographic statistics, but as a single individual. My “ideal reader” as I think Stephen King called it in his book On Writing.

My ideal reader is someone, magically-inclined, who does not have all their ducks in a row. Who is not living their ideal lives. Who is not happy all the time. Sometimes, they’re perfectly miserable.

Yet, they do magic, with all of the optimism that implies.

I write about my financial struggles because I know a lot of magicians who are broke. I write about my health challenges because I know a lot of magicians who have disabilities. I write about the random, tedious, mundane crap that annoys me because I know a lot of magicians who spend a lot of time being annoyed. Probably more time than they should, present company included.

And I do it so that this ideal reader knows there’s at least one other wizard out there who experiences a lot of challenges, but is somehow managing to do mostly okay, most of the time. On average. Usually.

Reloading

I debated whether or not ending this post on a “positive” note would undercut what I wrote above, but no. I don’t think it will. In fact, I think it’s almost hilariously fitting.

As I write this, my back hurts. I think I tweaked a nerve in my left shoulder, and the nagging buzzing, tingling pain in my left butt cheek is almost certainly a sciatica thing. But here I am, sitting at my kitchen table in the one chair which doesn’t feel like it’s trying to kill me…and I’m legitimately happy.

Ever since migrating everything over to Emacs and org-mode, I’ve been more on top of my to-do lists and daily activities than I’ve been in months. I’m doing all the thing, and I haven’t felt the least bit stressed while doing them. At some point I might write a page about my setup, sparing none of the nerdy details, but for now I’ll just say that I’m using the right tool for the right job.

With that lack of stress, I’ve actually taken better care of myself physically. It’s only been a few days, and my body needs a lot more of them before it’s back where I need it to be, but this feels like a pretty good start.

And in case you missed that “I’m legitimately happy,” line, my mood has significantly improved as a result. I still see what has to be done, still acknowledge that my reality isn’t how I want it to be, but those facts aren’t weighing me down today. I examined the inventory, made a plan, and took the time I needed to reload and be ready.

Optimism is a spell. Try some.

Less than ideal lives (and laptops)

I planned to spend this morning getting one of my many projects finally banged into shape and sent out into the void, but now that I’m here…it’s probably not going to happen.

Due to a host of factors—some beyond my control—I had a very crappy night of sleep. Also? There’s a weird sound in my house, a kind of cross between a car with a bad starter and a hard drive thrashing itself to death. I can’t seem to narrow down where it’s coming from, despite spending half an hour stalking through my home one step at a time and listening for the source.

I’m guessing at this point that it’s coming from my daughter’s room, which means two things…

  1. A dying hard drive is the most plausible explanation, which would seriously suck if that’s the case. Her desktop is starting to get a little long in the tooth, and I don’t have the time, money, or inclination to get elbows deep in that situation just now.
  2. I can’t do anything about the sound until she wakes up. In, like, a couple of hours.

So…yeah, that’s just a thing I have to be distracted and annoyed by, I guess.

Then again, it’s not like annoyance is a new emotion for me. In fact, I spent a good portion of the last few days annoying myself deliberately.

You know what? Fuck it. Let’s have an long rambling,, sleep-deprived post filled with mundane details and nerd shit no one but me will ever care about.

Ideal life? What’s that?

Over a year ago, I wrote a post about how I used to work in the computer programming and IT fields, and how leaving that industry was one of the best decisions I ever made. And if memory serves, I’ve brought up that thought several times since.

To clarify again, about a year after I left the shit-show, I ran across a post from another former denizen of that industry and saved a quote from it.

“If you made a Venn diagram, there would be two non-overlapping circles, one of which was labeled, ‘Times when I am truly happy’ and the other of which was labeled, ‘Times when I am logged in as root, holding a cable, or have the case open.'”

https://www.jwz.org/gruntle/drama.html

If there’s a neater summary of my feelings, I’ve never seen it.

Anyway, I’ve spent most of the last month working on a collection of programming projects with a friend of mine, and spent most of the last week finally setting up a laptop to run Linux and be my primary machine.

So what the hell happened? I mean, beyond the fact that I make horrible decisions?

In it for the money

As it turns out, global pandemics suck for a whole lot of reasons. There’s the illness and death, of course, as well as all the fear and anxiety which comes from said illness and death. Then there’s the supply chain breakdowns, shuttered businesses, massive unemployment, etc. etc. I’m sure none of this is new information for you.

What might be new information for you is that I tend to have a pretty stable (read as “fixed”) income, which is mostly fine since my expenses are generally also fixed as well as relatively low.

Unfortunately, two pandemic-related things have kicked me in the balls over the last year and a half…

  1. I bought a lot of things to help myself and my family deal with the mental and emotional clusterfuck. My philosophy at the time was: “We’re all maxed out on stress. If fifty bucks of takeout makes this shit even a little more tolerable, it’s worth it.” At the time, I figured this was “safe” since (as I wrote above) my normal expenses are pretty reasonable.
  2. However, inflation has gone totally off the rails. When you’ve already let your credit card balance get a bit higher than you should have, seeing your once-modest grocery bill double isn’t exactly awesome. At a guess, my total, normal monthly expenses are about fifty percent higher now than they were back before the plague.

I’m sure many of you are in are in a similar boat. And, unfortunately, my own personal boat is finally taking on enough water that I have to resort to somewhat-desperate measures to bail it out.

One of those measures involves making an inventory of every one of the weirdly-diverse skills I’ve picked up over the years, looking at them one at a time, and asking the question: “Can I use this to make money?”

I said I’ve spent most of the last month programming, but that’s not strictly true. That’s been a major focus, but I’ve also had to start writing “professionally” again, as well as dust off my marginal graphic design skills for another project I’m not ready to talk about yet.

If you’ve been wondering where all of the woo-woo magical blog posts have gone, well, you have your answer. I’m still doing magic, I just don’t have the time to write about it here. I’m working somewhere between ten and fourteen hours a day, taking maybe one day off a week, and spending the rest of the time exhausted.

I’m forty-four years old, not twenty-four. The days when I can work sixteen hours at a time for weeks on end are far behind me.

Okay, so why Linux?

Given the fact that I’ve swamped myself with work, why in God’s name would I subject myself to working with an operating system notorious for being a high-maintenance pain in my ass? There are many reasons, and one or two of them are actually good ones.

Back in July, I wrote a post about how I was spending less and less of my time in front of computer screens (ha!) and I was growing ever-more-angry at social media and the “Big Tech” companies we’ve handed our civilization over to. When you combine those thoughts with those I’ve already expressed about the computer industry, it should probably come as no surprise that I despise companies like Microsoft.

And if you’ve read and understood the other thoughts I’ve expressed here, it should also not surprise you that I’ve just been trying not to give a fuck and running Windows and other propriety software for most of the last few years, because I have a life and am (ostensibly) trying to run a business here.

There’s a balancing act to be found between “I shouldn’t support or use the products of companies which are Bad,” and “Life is too short to spend staring at a shell prompt.”

Well, for better or worse, in early August I decided that my act was unbalanced and I needed to do something about it. I bought a new “desktop-replacement” laptop with Windows on it, and wiped my slightly-less-new laptop and loaded it up with Ubuntu.

The intention here was to use the Windows machine only for those things which are at least fifty percent easier to do on that platform and with proprietary software. So, software such as Photoshop and Illustrator lives over there, as do the majority of the tools I’m using for all of the programming projects I’ve mentioned.

The Linux machine? That’s for anything I can do using open-source software with relatively little hassle. That includes the majority of my writing and web-surfing, as well as a few odds and ends.

That was the plan, anyway. However, by the time I got the new Windows machine and installed Ubuntu on the “old” one, I ran headlong into the project-related weeds I spend the first half of this post talking about.

The Linux system gathered dust while I spent most of my waking hours using Windows.

Until last week, that is, when I needed to get a bunch of writing done quickly, and I also needed to organize the whirling vortex of notes and to-do lists I’d been trying (and failing) to stay on top of.

Ever since I first used it back in 1993, Emacs has been the text editor I’m both most comfortable with and the my productive in. And ever since the mid-2000s, an extension to Emacs called “org-mode” has been my go-to note-taking and planning system.

I’ve fallen in and out of using this software over the years, but whenever I need to do some serious, distraction-free writing, or whenever my life gets well-and-truly busy, it’s the only thing that works for me.

And I’ve only ever been happy with the software when I’ve run it under a Unix-like operating system. Using it under Windows? In my experience, it only barely works—at least for my purposes.

Am I happy?

So, how happy am I with all of this? The financial anxiety, the workload, the technical bits—am I in a good place or a bad one?

I honestly don’t know.

I’m in a productive place, which is good. Over the last few days, I’ve managed to get more or less every task and note I need shoved into Emacs and “.org” files. I’ve also managed to write an average of 3,000 words a day. So I’m getting things done.

But that’s just the thing. It’s not that I spend my life sitting around all day doing nothing. Rather, I’ve generally been spending it doing more or less only what I want to. Being a full-time wizard is work, even if it doesn’t look like it to the straight crowd. And as I wrote way back in the first post I linked to, that’s basically my ideal life.

Now that I’m back doing my version of the Freelance Grind-A-Thon?

That’s…less than ideal.

Anyway, how’s your week going?

Solve one problem, then the next

These last two months have kicked my ass.

Which is probably obvious considering that it’s been over a month since I’ve posted anything here. And that post was little more than me whining about how busy I was then.

It hasn’t gotten much better.

I’m writing this at seven thirty in the morning. I’ve been up since four, and working since five. The plan for the rest of the day? Get this update wrapped up by eight, wake up my teenager (ha!), take a shower, then be back working by eight thirty. I have a video meeting/work session from ten to noon, then–assuming I haven’t fallen into a coma by then–I’ve got about another two to four hours of work that I should really get to.

Somewhere in there I need to do laundry and maybe try to clean something. Oh, and I still have about half a garden full of potatoes that I should do something about.

I mentioned before that I had taken on a lot of projects, far more than I could reasonably handle. One thing I’ve tried to do over the last couple of months is both prune that list, but also organize it in some way so that I could keep my bearings.

Roughly, I can lump each of my projects into one of several piles…

  • One-and-done things which can be done in less than a day if I focus on them.
  • Long-term/persistent projects which I can handle given an hour or two a day, or every other day.
  • Big projects which will eventually be completed, but will require an hour or two a day for weeks and/or months.

There’s also another division: some projects I’m doing on my own; and some projects I’m working on with a partner.

It doesn’t seem like much, but thinking about the work I’m doing in this way has helped me dial into my priorities, and it’s really the only way I’ve managed to stay remotely sane.

  • “Okay, this thing will take me four hours and it will be a giant pain in the ass while I’m doing it, but once it’s over I never have to think about it again.”
  • “Alright, this project is going to take several hundred hours, but I don’t have to do all the work myself, and that work that I do have to do can be done an hour or two each day.”
  • “Oh, wow. I don’t even know how long this is going to take, but I’m not on a deadline so…what’s the easiest, most reasonable first step to take here?”

That last statement is one I find myself repeating a lot.

Several of the projects I’ve taken on are both large and also at least a little beyond what my current skill set can handle. That means I often struggle to figure out where to even begin the work. Rather than sit there and be stuck, I end up telling myself that yeah, I have no idea how to do the whole thing, but there has to be something I know how to do. Some single, relatively-simple step which will get me moving in the right direction.

Last night, I watched one of my favorite movies again. The Martian. I’ve probably watched that film twenty times by now, and my enjoyment never wanes.

And one of my favorite parts of the movie is a short monologue which Matt Damon’s character makes toward the end of the film. Part of it I’ll quote here:

“At some point, everything’s gonna go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now, you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

I’ve been thinking about that scene a lot lately.

Stop the boat

The last few weeks have been exhausting. Partly this is because my sleep every night has been pretty evenly split between “Awesome” and “Non-Existent.” I have no idea why this is happening, but I do know that getting roughly eight or nine hours of quality sleep every two days is…less than ideal.

The bigger reason though is that I’ve once again taken on more projects than I should have. I have no less than three major writing projects that require daily attention, a few projects of the “domestic arts” variety that I’m doing my best to deal with, and there’s some unrelated family stuff thrown in for good measure.

Oh, and I may be getting involved in a programming project with a friend of mine.

Late last week, I actually broke down and wrote up a list of the things I needed to make continuing progress on. Not a task list or to-do list, but a top-level list of the projects which I either need to complete Real Soon Now, or otherwise need to spend no less than an hour a day on.

There are fifteen items on that list.

I’ve been trying to remember the last time I screwed myself this bad, scheduling-wise. As far as I can tell, that time was “never.” I’ve also been trying to remember the last time I was even half as screwed and managed to get everything done on time and done well. That answer is also “never.”

Good job, Jeff!

Anyway, this obviously isn’t a real post, due to the situation I described above. So here’s a video a friend sent me the other day…

Travelling around with a handful of sheep and a tricked out wagon sounds pretty much like Life Goals to me. Especially this week.

I hope your week is going better.

Screen time

Once again, I’ve somehow gone two weeks without a blog post here. And you know what? I feel pretty good about that. Over the last month or so I’ve been setting more and more restrictive limits on my screen time, a result of which is that my laptop has spent most of the last week powered down and laying on my bedroom floor. Out of sight, out of mind.

But let me back up…

Physical and emotional pain

A few months ago, I was spending a lazy afternoon reviewing some of the more recent research regarding the brain and dreams, as well as generally taking note of the current state of science as it pertains to the “hard problem of consciousness.” You know, like ya do.

It was during this perusal that I stumbled upon a study from 2015 which seemed to suggest, among other things, that the brain has trouble differentiating between physical pain and emotional pain. Further, it’s arguable that when a person experiences pain, the experience doesn’t end with the individual, but rather the pain spreads itself outward along social connections.

There’s a fair summary of this and similar research to be found in this Forbes article from last year. A quote:

Although the brain does not process emotional pain and physical pain identically, research on neural pathways suggests there is substantial overlap between the experience of physical and social pain. The cascading events that occur and regions activated in our brains – and therefore our reactions to the acute pain – appear to be similar.

So that’s neat.

Even more neat, though, is that our brains also appear to be hard-wired to seek out and prioritize emotionally-painful information when trying to make sense of the world—a phenomenon called “negativity bias.” Here’s a quote from the abstract of a 2008 study on that…

There is ample empirical evidence for an asymmetry in the way that adults use positive versus negative information to make sense of their world; specifically, across an array of psychological situations and tasks, adults display a negativity bias, or the propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.

This study was brought up in a 2018 article published in Time titled “You Asked: Is It Bad for You to Read the News Constantly?” Here’s a fun quote from that piece…

More than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, and many report feeling anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss as a result, the survey shows. Yet one in 10 adults checks the news every hour, and fully 20% of Americans report “constantly” monitoring their social media feeds—which often exposes them to the latest news headlines, whether they like it or not.

Given the tech trends over the last three years, I’m willing to bet those figures are way below today’s averages.

Regardless, though, my major takeaways from all of this meandering online were that…

  1. The effects of emotional pain on the human brain are similar to the effects of physical pain.
  2. Our brains are more likely to seek out and absorb emotionally-painful information.
  3. The extremely-online world around us makes finding emotionally-painful information really easy.

With these points in mind, I decided to reduce the amount of news and information I consumed. I set limits on which news sites I would visit, prioritizing local news over national or world news, and I also set specific times of day to check in with them. I look at the news once in the morning while having my coffee, and once in the mid-afternoon after I’ve had my lunch.

Problem solved, right?

Anti-social media

It’s almost a cliché now to criticize social networking apps like Twitter and Facebook for being terrible hives of scum and villainy, but they’re actually worse than you think. Not only can they be safely lumped together under the “easy sources of emotionally-painful information” umbrella, they’re also intentionally designed to be addictive.

Here’s a BBC article from 2018, wherein they talk with the fellow who invented “infinite scrolling”…

Infinite scroll allows users to endlessly swipe down through content without clicking.

“If you don’t give your brain time to catch up with your impulses,” Mr Raskin said, “you just keep scrolling.”

He said the innovation kept users looking at their phones far longer than necessary.

Looking for more? Here’s an article from Business Insider published last year, which claims that social media apps like Instragram are deliberately built so that the human brain experiences them like addictive painkillers. A quote…

“Three criteria are required to form a habit: sufficient motivation, an action, and a trigger,” says Mezyk. The three-pronged approach, which is now standard among app developers, is based on the Fogg Behavior model, established by Stanford professor B.J. Fogg.

A certain feeling or motivation is a prerequisite for opening an app at all. This could be, for example, the anticipation we feel when our mobile phone vibrates but it can also be the fear of missing something.

In addition to motivation, an action is necessary that pulls us into the behavioral loop — such as clicking on the app or tapping a “Like” button. The hurdle should be as low as possible.

Whether an action takes place also depends on the trigger. It’s the trigger that pulls us into the app, like our phone vibrating or the screen lighting up with a new message.

After I had pared down my news consumption, I figured the next step in improving my digital health would be to begin to set limits on my use of social media. Now, to be fair, I don’t do a whole lot of posting on apps like Twitter, but I do spend a pretty good chunk of time scrolling through my timelines and seeing what other people post.

“I should probably do something about that,” I thought.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. I attended an online lecture about digital privacy and online habits, much of which pointed to some of the material I wrote about above. Specifically, the lecturer brought up the brain’s “mixing up” of emotional and physical pain, and the fact that in order to drive engagement, social media platforms are actually built to prioritize “incendiary content.”

Here’s an article which appeared in Nature last year, titled “Angry by design: toxic communication and technical architectures“. Here’s a quote…

Based on engagement, Facebook’s Feed drives views but also privileges incendiary content, setting up a stimulus–response loop that promotes outrage expression. YouTube’s recommendation system is a key interface for content consumption, yet this same design has been criticized for leading users towards more extreme content. Across both platforms, design is central and influential, proving to be a productive lens for understanding toxic communication.

And another…

Just as the design of urban space influences the practices within it (Jacobs, 1992; Birenboim, 2018), the design of platforms, apps and technical environments shapes our behavior in digital space. This design is not a neutral environment that simply appears, but is instead planned, prototyped, and developed with particular intentions in mind.

Anyway, I sat through the hour-long lecture, thought once again that I should probably do something about my social media consumption, then went to have myself a sit in the bathroom.

I pulled out my phone, fired up Twitter, and started doom-scrolling.

Delete, delete, delete

Once I realized what I was doing, I deleted all of the social media apps from my phone, then set some hard and fast limits on when I would visit their respective sites on my laptop. I mean, theoretically I’m trying to run a business here and promote this blog as well as my consultation services, so completely ridding myself of social media probably just isn’t going to happen. That said, I can easily get away with being on these much, much less frequently.

I also un-installed a number of “time-wasting” programs from my laptop, including a game or two I tend to play a bit too much.

And, and…I decided to kind of do a “cold turkey” thing this past week and kept my laptop mostly off, and my phone mostly sitting on its charger inside while I spent the week reading out on my porch whenever possible.

The result of all this digital sanitization? I’ve been a lot happier and more productive this past couple of weeks than I’ve been in months. And yeah, you wouldn’t know it from the sound of the crickets on this blog, but trust me. I’ve been knocking a lot of things off my to-do list, and felt much better while doing it.

Might I suggest you try the same?