Please stop telling me to make this time count

There’s plenty to be anxious about these days. Am I going to catch this virus? Do I have it already, and have I passed it on to anybody? With the aides at my 89-year-old mother’s home allowing visitors this week (despite the California governor’s order not to allow such things at nursing homes), will my mother catch it? What about the rest of my family? And what if Trump still manages to get re-elected, no matter how incompetent he has been during this crisis?

Now I’m starting to see more people online telling us to “use your isolation time wisely,” “make the most of your time inside” and “make that idle time count.”

I know the whole idea of cultivating a “memento mori” mentality, as I was starting to do this Lent before it became coronavirus season, is to develop a sense of urgency in this life. We are to live fully aware that life is too short to waste time. Yes, I get that, perhaps more than ever with this pandemic bearing down on us all.

And yet being told to be productive when I’m so tensed up and paralyzed with fear just leaves me wracked with pressure and guilt. I mean, I’d really like to be productive and make the best of things. But can I have please some time to somehow relax and figure out how to manage this anxiety first?

My Ten: Favorite things I can't live without

I’m a sucker for a light regular feature. The New York Times’ Sunday Routine is an example of this: a weekly feature that profiles New Yorkers and how they spend their Sundays. The Times also puts together an irregular feature, My Ten, that asks celebrities about the 10 favorite things they can’t live without. It’s not an original concept; I’ve seen it in other places, usually as an excuse to work in overpriced merchandise links.

(My Ten is so irregular that it doesn’t have its own page yet; examples include lists from Questlove, David Chang, and Emma Thompson.)

I’ve been wanting to write a Sunday Routine of my own for a while, but it takes time for me to figure out. (Besides, if I wrote one now, it’d be basically a whole lot of sitting around steeped in cabin fever and chronic anxiety.) Right now, a My Ten is easier to slap together.

PEPPERMINT GREEN AND “TURMERIC BLISS” TEAS. I can’t drink coffee as much as I used to, but I still need my caffeine fix. I’ve largely weaned myself off diet soda (except for the occasional diet root beer, which isn’t usually caffeinated, or diet Cheerwine, which is), and I wanted something relatively healthy. So, I found myself turning to tea. I started with peppermint tea, which is not caffeinated, but found several green tea blends with peppermint for my caffeine; Traditional Medicinals and local retailer Nuovo Tea produce my favorites.

I also get my favorite turmeric blend, Turmeric Bliss, from Nuovo (the blend is actually produced by Adagio Teas, not to be confused with a Tazo Tea product with the same name): turmeric combined with ginger, peppercorn, mango, apple, and other fruit and floral ingredients. I credit my daily two cups of this turmeric blend with helping me break my dependence on ibuprofen for pain management, and it’s become a tasty way to wind down my day after dinner.

PILOT G2 PENS, BLACK BOLD (1.0). Austin Kleon turned me onto these. I used the 0.7 fine point version of the G2 for a while, but I find the bold tips much smoother to write with.

INDEX CARDS. I carry around a small Field Notes-type notebook, but I rarely use it for reasons I can’t quite explain. I also carry around index cards (usually of the 4-by-6-inch variety), usually in a small plastic holder intended for photos, that I do use for lists, doodling, and notes; they especially come in handy when I need to give my tween something to draw on during Mass.

MAGNIFICAT and HANDBOOK OF PRAYERS. As I’ve been in Catholic re-entry mode over the past year and still haven’t fully memorized the order of the Mass (I still stumble over the “consubstantial” thing in the Nicene Creed), having the Magnificat to follow along with has been absolutely essential. Paired with my monthly Magnificat, the Handbook of Prayers – produced by Midwest Theological Forum – complements it perfectly with a robust set of prayers and practices, including Marian devotions, the Stations of the Cross, and a good confession guide.

WORKS BY ST. JOSEMARIA ESCRIVA. St. Josemaria’s three books of maxims – The Way, Furrow, and The Forge – provide me with inspiration and encouragement in my spiritual life.

ROSARY. I think the red glass-beaded rosary I carry around was a freebie from one of the numerous Catholic orders or charities that received donations from my mom when I was growing up. But for a freebie, it’s been pretty durable. More importantly, Bp. Joseph Perry kindly blessed it for me when I asked years ago after a Tridentine Mass at St. John Cantius parish in Chicago. It’s been a constant companion the past few years.

“WAIT WAIT … DON’T TELL ME.” I wake up early on Saturdays to listen to the first airings of this NPR news quiz program on the Internet, then download the podcast to listen to it during the week. Some shows are better than others; I’m a little weary of the new hit-or-miss (mostly miss in recent months) panelists that it’s been rotating into the show in recent years, and I miss original panelists like Charlie Pierce and Sue Ellicott. But “Wait Wait” is still a huge part of my weekends.

“LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT.” Colbert’s show is a tonic of sanity in the cultural and political hellscape of the past three years.

SPALDING BOOTLEG YOGA PANTS, BLACK. This $20 wardrobe essential of mine is no longer on Amazon, for some reason. (I just ordered a similar product, at the same price, and I’m crossing my fingers that it’s wearable.) I was smart enough to buy two pairs, but I wish I had ordered more when I had the chance. It’s the closest I get to a uniform item a la Steve Jobs’ turtleneck, especially now that I’m working from home full-time. Comfy and durable.

CROCHET BERETS. This item has become another essential part of my daily uniform. I started wearing these as a head covering for church (chapel veils don’t work on me), and ended up wearing them to work and anytime I had to go out. My hair has been thinning for years, to the point where no amount of gel, volumizer, or other “product” will make a difference in covering bare scalp. These are light enough to wear in warm weather, work in casual contexts, and can class up an otherwise blah outfit.

Welcome to my sandbox

As is his wont, a former colleague of mine likes to create Facebook posts noting birthdays of people in the media. For some inexplicable reason, he posts mine every year. I appreciate it, but I’m not a “media figure,” but somebody who worked in the business for almost 3 decades. Most of us news industry veterans are not famous, and don’t aspire to be.

Anyway, he posted a link to this site, which is fine by me, but chances are it’s not compelling enough to create a following. And it’s not built to have a following, except for friends who might want to know what I’m thinking about or what I’m doing.

I know about my former colleague’s posting because for the first time in a while, I actually put something on Facebook today. Nothing exciting, just the photo of my kid’s delightful birthday card. I used to get scores of birthday wishes – a lot of them, if not most, seemingly rote and gratuitous – when I was active on Facebook, and it fed a weird neediness that bothered me after a few years. Even though I effectively dumped the site from my routine a few years ago, that neediness for birthday attention hasn’t completely gone away; in a way, it’s helped ruin birthdays for me. Last year’s particularly depressing natal day led me to decide to use that day for retreats, and then I forgot about that decision for this year. Maybe next year, God willing.

Fortunately, except for some mild health issues and crankiness related to other matters this morning, today hasn’t been that bad. And I got to thinking that, all in all, I have not missed Facebook, and that having this modest little site as a “sandbox” (to use a college friend’s term for Facebook) is infinitely healthier for me and more fun for a number of reasons:

  • This place has no metrics. Websites, including blogs, typically have ways to gauge readership. Micro.blog, the platform I use here, does not. Attention is not quantified here, so I’m not checking every 5 minutes to see if someone has “liked” a post or provided some witty comment or remark about how brilliant I am. Birthdays aside, I’m grateful to simply have a place – a “sandbox” – to play in.

  • No faceless, corporate social media behemoth is monetizing my content. Hell, I’m not even monetizing my content. That takes the fun out of creating “content.”

  • No comments. I don’t care about replies. I don’t care about opinions of my site. Perhaps more accurately, I don’t want to care about your approval or disapproval. And I am not obligated to provide you a platform for replies, opinions, approval – or especially mansplaining (even from some female friends), which has been a pet peeve of mine long before the word “mansplaining” became a thing. (Users of Micro.blog, which is infinitely more civilized than most social media platforms, are welcome to comment if they like when entries from this site are posted there, but I don’t always engage there, either.)

  • I’m not exposed to others’ political rage and anxiety. Sure, one can mute or unfollow people on social media who won’t shut the hell up about politics. But many of the friends I love the most are the biggest culprits when it comes to such noisemaking.

  • I’m not exposed to others’ annoying social media habits. This includes sharing of memes, lists of “my 100 favorite movies/albums/books/etc. of the past 24 hours,” lengthy hot takes on the news of the day, and personal oversharing.

Granted, I have been guilty of many of those annoying social media habits, and I have learned from my mistakes with them. On my site, I write longer posts occasionally but relegate myself to sharing links and photos and short remarks. Still, I try not to get overly personal; for instance, I no longer share full-face photos of my child (except on Instagram, where I have a private account, and even there I ask for her permission first), and if I’m going through a rough patch, I will turn privately first to my close friends and my God. That is what, in part, they are there for.

With all due respect to those who have found solace and support on Facebook or other platforms, I’ve learned that for me, life and family are too precious to squander in their entirety on the Internet. This site is plenty of space for me.

News consumption sanity: There's steps for that

I live with a lot of panic. Not just because I have lifelong issues with mild anxiety, but because I live with a man who likes to talk a lot about all the crises involving climate change, Donald Trump, and the coronavirus – sometimes as they relate to one another.

Although I share his concerns with all of these topics, I generally cope with it in part by trying to minimize my exposure to news. This is anathema among my former colleagues in the news industry, I know. But even when I worked in news, I recognized how toxic constant exposure in the name of being informed could be to my mental health. Being freed from my journalism career gave me license to avoid news at last.

If I have to choose between being overinformed and being sane, I’ll choose the latter.

Austin Kleon, one of my favorite writers and online life coaches (my term, not his), tweeted this morning: “Honestly, you’d probably be just as informed and much, much saner if you stuck to reading news produced for kids these days.” The New York Times, for instance, produces a monthly news section in its Sunday paper just for kids – that is, probably for kids up to their early teens – and now I read it more than the Styles and Review sections I used to read religiously.

These days, I try to rein in my media exposure for the sake of my peace of mind. Here’s a few steps I’ve taken that seem to help.

  • Use Feedbin. This feed reader allows me to follow Twitter accounts without actually being on Twitter. It effectively isolates me from the toxic back-and-forth that comes with replies. Also, I can subscribe to newsletters and good old-fashioned RSS feeds.

  • Avoid Twitter. See above. I still go there occasionally, but not as much as I used to. If you have to turn to Twitter, turn down the noise by turning off retweets from others and mute freely. That helps me a ton. (The same could be said for Facebook. I didn’t mention it because I’m rarely on it now.)

  • Turn off notifications on the phone. Unless you’re an actual journalist, avoid getting news alerts on your damn phone. The worst part about a lot of these so-called news alerts, at least with Apple News, is that half of the alerts are of dubious value and not really “news.” A 10,000-word thinkpiece on Trump’s disregard for the Constitution might be interesting but it is not breaking news. (This brings up the danger of leaving news decisions to inexperienced nonjournalists and AI and algorithms, but I digress.)

  • Narrow down news sources to reputable, non-aggregator journalism sites. This means no Google News, no Drudge, no deliberately right- or left-leaning sites like Breitbart or RawStory. (Don’t @ me, as the kids say today.) I subscribe to The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times; for the sake of time and sanity, I try to limit myself to those daily. But I also go to NPR and sometimes the BBC, CBC, Politico, even Vox. Also, the Atlantic is producing some of the most thoughtful long-form work online; I’m thinking about subscribing there, too.

  • Select thought leaders carefully. By “thought leaders,” I mean sources of thoughtful analysis and ideas rather than reactive, impulsive “hot takes” on the news. There’s a handful of cultural/political journals I like to check out online: The Bulwark (which can sometimes get into “hot takes” territory), Hedgehog Review, New Atlantis. Also, there’s several thinkers I like to follow on social media: Alan Jacobs, L.M. Sacasas, the aforementioned Austin Kleon. I probably should also count Stephen Colbert, whose nightly monologue is the closest thing I come to TV news. (Also, if you disagree with my choice of journals or thinkers, that’s fine. But in this toxic day and age, I can see people disregarding this advice just because I don’t visit, say, Daily Kos or Salon or Daily Caller. I’m just saying don’t overwhelm yourself with a zillion sources for analysis.)

  • Read real books. Yes, Kindle books count.

There is a certain wisdom in the old rhythm of reading the newspaper in the morning – or the afternoon, back in the really old days when afternoon papers were a thing – and then going on with your life. The 24/7 news cycle that came with the Internet, especially in the age of Trump, has left us beaten down and broken, just as the rising of the seas has eroded shorelines.

Given that, my next goal is to turn off the news spigot more often during my day; my compulsive checking of headlines during work breaks or on my phone – first thing in the morning, while I’m waiting in line, after dinner, and just before I go to bed – is unhealthy and no way to live.

So, to quote another great thought leader, Douglas Adams: Don’t panic. And don’t worry about being uninformed or “woke.” Limiting your news exposure – creating a little silence around yourself – doesn’t leave you uninformed. It’s a means of survival and sanity.

Regrets. During this political cycle, I've had a few.

I was dumb enough to contribute to one presidential candidate who washed out early after demonstrating little substance for all her flash. Then I compounded my stupidity by contributing to another who clearly states there’s no room for people with my views in his party. My deep disappointment with the latter candidate is immeasurable. (And I wish I could get my money back, frankly.) I think I’m done with wasting money on political campaigns.

Although I am not a single-issue voter, the Democrats’ insistence on abortion availability without limits keeps me from being enthused about any of the existing presidential candidates. I don’t see any of the candidates being willing to make room for pro-lifers in their party, except to dismiss them as “anti-choicers” who don’t belong.

I can say unreservedly that I will not vote for the White House incumbent in the fall. Whether I can say for sure that I will vote for the Democratic candidate remains to be seen.

The old “make abortion legal, safe, and rare” stance from the Clinton era doesn’t quite align with my beliefs, either, but at least I could appreciate the “rare” part. Sadly, even “rare” is not acceptable anymore in the Democratic Party.

"He didn't want to be like everyone else. He just wanted to be Neil."

He was in many ways like an outsider — the guy who was often different from everyone else. But that was okay with him. He didn’t want to be like everyone else. He just wanted to be Neil. He loved being a rock drummer, but he also loved literature. He loved poetry. He loved the outdoors. He didn’t care what society thought a rock star was ‘supposed to be’ — he wasn’t afraid to be himself, and he didn’t really care about fame. He just wanted to be good at what he did — and he was! — and he just wanted to share his music with the fans.” — Donna Halper, media historian and former broadcaster credited with getting Rush their U.S. record deal, to NPR News (italics above mine)

I’ve never been much of a Rush fan; I could never get past Geddy Lee’s vocals. But I can understand why so many rock fans are saddened by the loss of Neil Peart. (I watched this unbelievable, nearly 9-minute drum solo twice yesterday and realized that yeah, this guy was kind of a big deal.)

Even more, I find myself admiring his intellect and sense of self as I read more about him. And the outsider thing I emphasized above really, really spoke to me. Even in situations when I was vaguely an insider, I have felt like an outsider. Only now, at this point in my life, am I truly okay with that.

Godspeed, Mr. Brilliant Drummer and Writer I Only Learned About Yesterday.

My 3 Words: Healing, Perseverance, and Silence

Been thinking about Chris Brogan’s recommendation to come up with three words to guide their upcoming year. (H/T again to @Ron on Micro.blog for writing about it!) It wasn’t hard to come up with words – but it wasn’t easy to zero in on which ones to use. I changed them around twice before settling on this year’s words.

Healing. The husband recommended this rather than “Health.” I forget why, but I kind of like this word instead.

“Healing” encompasses the usual diet and exercise intentions, but it’s broader than that. I’ve been dealing with chronic pain – mainly abdominal and menopause-related, but lately spreading to my back and hips – that I handle with multiple doses of ibuprofen a day. (I suspect my doctors are so skittish about opioids that such medication isn’t even an option in their view.) Also, my knees are grinding and probably will require surgical attention. My hunch is that immediate attention to my eating habits will help, followed by a few more breaks from the ball-and-chain work habits I have. And yes, a doctor’s appointment or two are in order.

This word also covers other areas beyond physical health, like mental/emotional and spiritual. All of these areas – physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual health – certainly tie into the next word.

Perseverance. I am generally a lazy sort, which explains my utter lack of physical fitness and desire to retire at age 53. (That, of course, is not going to happen.) However, as I head into my 54th year this spring, my sense of mortality has intensified considerably. I preface any plans these days with “God willing,” and I begin 2020 with a heightened sense of urgency. It saddens me to realize not only how much time I’ve wasted in my life, but how much time I threw away because I dwelled on mistakes made through the years.

As much as I hate football now, I have a favorite player: Philip Rivers, the longtime Chargers quarterback, devout Catholic, and father of 9. He lives by the Latin motto Nunc coepi – Now, I begin. The motto didn’t originate with Rivers, but with Catholic figures such as Ven. Bruno Lanteri and St. Josemaria Escriva. The point, reiterated in Catholic tradition that goes beyond Lanteri and Escriva, is this: Begin again, pick yourself up, no matter how many times you fall. Keep beginning – in all you do, with God, with family, with friends – despite whatever stumbles you’ve made. Nunc coepi.

Perseverance is also a big theme in Catholic tradition and theology. There is “final perseverance,” or the preservation of the state of grace until the end of life. This certainly will play a part in this whole 2020 pursuit of perseverance in my own life, especially given that sense of mortality I mentioned. But perseverance in faith also means imitating God’s perseverance and patience with us; this, Pope Francis has said, strenghtens us not only to keep going, but to help those around us.

All this leads, in a way, to the third word.

Silence. I have spent hours upon hours of my life distracted with time wasters, particularly news media, social media, and other digital dalliances. (I even have a folder of apps on my iPhone called “Time Wasters.”) Largely removing Facebook from my life freed up a lot of brain cells, but that leaves other sources of noise, including Twitter and news websites.

My hope is that this word will guide me to step away from the digital noise, both on a daily basis and with periodic digital “fasts.” There are other ways to observe silence: turning off the car radio, keeping a regular Holy Hour at a local adoration chapel or church, occasional retreats. After seeing how much my anxiety and depression subsided with the end of my Facebook habit, I look forward to pulling back on Twitter and – even, or especially, during this election year – news media.

Here’s to a healthy, peaceful, and sane 2020, friends.