Put On a Happy Face

“Doctor, you have to help me! I’m feeling sad and depressed and I don’t know what to do!”

“Well, there’s not a magic pill to fix that, but I do have a suggestion.”

“Anything, Doctor! Anything will help!”

“You’re in luck! The greatest clown in the world is performing tonight. I suggest you go see Pagliacci at the opera house. He will cheer you up and everything will be OK.”

“…but Doctor…I am Pagliacci!”

Everybody gets sad sometimes. Usually it’s a short-term thing that we work through, and life goes on. Hills and valleys, good feelings followed by bad feelings followed by good feelings again and the cycle continues. Occasionally, many people get stuck in a valley and merely being sad is beyond their wildest dreams. I don’t think I’m depressed, but I’m definitely feeling sad right now. It may be SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder—that’s getting me down, but the valleys lately have been more frequent and lasting longer as the darkness has descended on the northern hemisphere.

I am Pagliacci!

In my life, I feel I’m often cast in the role of the famous clown. Not in the sense that I’m supposed to be funny or entertaining, but more in the sense that I’m the tentpole that keeps the whole circus from collapsing in on itself. The even keel that keeps the boat from tipping. The normalizing filter on the audio track that keeps the waveform smooth. And all the other metaphors that mean the same thing. To be clear, nobody is putting me in this role besides myself. It’s part of my sheepdog nature to always try and keep the flock together and headed in the right direction (whatever direction that may be, it had better be orderly). Even though the pressure comes from within, I still feel it. Something for me to work on.

Keeping with the theme, I’ve been thinking about how we all wear masks; there are smarter people than myself that have expounded on this idea. Everyone puts on a different face to the world than they have inside their head. Some would argue that if you don’t have a different face which you present to the world, then you are, in fact, a sociopath. I don’t think I’m a sociopath, so I change and modify my mask to fit the situation that I’m in. The effect of trying to always wear the Pagliacci mask is that I get worn down. Mentally, physically, even spiritually. Parts of me seem to just shut down, and I struggle to find the light. I know this isn’t something unique to me, and other people have it way, way worse. But everyone has their own experience, every one of them valid, and this is mine.

The same thing we do every day, Pinky.

So what do I do about it? Mostly, I just keep going. Just keep swimming, as Dory would say. Most of the time there just isn’t an alternative. Bills still need to be paid, the house still needs to be maintained, people (and pets!) still need to eat. In purely practical terms, I can’t afford to let the day-to-day grind prevent me from meeting my obligations.

I’m one hundred percent aware that my own mental health is important, and I can’t constantly ignore what’s going on in my head at the risk of making it worse. I’ve been taking this just keep swimming approach for awhile, and so far it’s been working out. Since I started this blog post almost a month ago, I’ve mostly worked through the downward swing and I feel like I’m on my way up again. I feel incredibly privileged and hyper-aware of how my experience is easier that the experience of others that truly face the spectre of mental illness, and depression in particular. In my case, it feels like I’m doing OK most of the time, and I’m thankful for that.

HONESTY I AM BOOB

Screen capture of Scrabble tiles from the film Sneakers spelling the words SETEC ASTRONOMY
What does it mean?

Language is a lot of fun. English, in particular, can be a real hoot when you really dig into it. I may be biased, since it’s the only language I know, but I think it’s obvious that English has a bunch of inscrutable rules, non-rules, and conventions that make it entertaining. Among those idiosyncrasies I enjoy are collective nouns. Those weird names for groups of things (usually animals) that sometimes make sense and often make us scratch our heads about “How did they come up with that?” I’m not talking about the boring ones like flock and litter or even a pod (as in whales). I’m talking about the ones that have an opinion and actually describe what they’re collecting. Classic example: a murder of crows. It just evokes something about a group of black birds that gather to fight over the scraps of french fries and discarded corn nuts we leave all over the parking lots and sidewalks. Another, just as well known: a gaggle of geese. It’s perfect. I even had a minor brush with geek celebrity1 when I solicted input on what a group of mephits should be called when working on a writing project:

A pest of mephits is perfect! It says something about what a group of mephits would be like, which a boring word like herd or pack just wouldn’t capture.

Why am I going on about collective nouns? I found myself in need of one the other day, as I considered topics about which I could write. I know! I told myself. I can write about all the hobbies I don’t have time for! In the process of pulling those threads together in my head, I realized I needed a word that could refer to them as a group, and evoke the feelings of abandonment and wistfulness I imagined them to have. I couldn’t find one on the internet (thanks for nothing, Internet) so I started to brainstorm my own. I never really found anything that felt perfect, but I decided to settle on neglect. A neglect of hobbies. Neglection? See, I can’t even decide right now. Neglection is actually a noun already, so let’s go with that. Bonus that it bounces off of “collection”.2

Introducing my current Neglection of Hobbies

In no particular order of preference or importance, here are all the hobbies I can’t find or make the time for, including the things I haven’t even made the time to start but I find interesting enough to think about:

  • Miniature painting
  • Playing video games
  • Playing board games
  • Playing tabletop roleplaying games
  • Writing
  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Watching movies
  • Watching TV
  • Talking about TV and Movies
  • Reading
  • Knife throwing
  • Camping/backpacking
  • Podcasting (not including the one that comes out every Monday)
  • Woodworking (ish? I mean, building some things, but nothing fancy.)
  • Cross-stitch
  • Any sort of general model-making or crafting
  • Making music/playing an instrument

One might argue that some of these things aren’t proper “hobbies”. I mean, is watching TV a “hobby”, per se? It can be. Especially if you want to share your thoughts about it and publish those thoughts. I don’t want to get into the weeds discussing what the actual definition a hobby is, but in general I think of it as a activity that interests and occupies my mind without being relied upon to put food on the table. It also usually involves developing some kind of skill, some sort of expression or art.

Time is the fire in which we burn

Where am I going with all this? Nowhere, and fast. Time is a finite resource, and portioning it out to my neglection is a zero-sum game. If I spend time on drawing, I’m not writing. If I’m writing, I’m not out in the backyard throwing knives at the target I haven’t taken the time to build yet. I get hobby-locked and end up doing whatever is easiest: usually sitting on the couch with my iPad watching YouTube.

I’m not getting any younger, either. Every day, every hour, every minute I’m not spending on developing skills in one of my hobbies is time I’ll never have again. Wow. Way to keep things nice and light, right? I thought we were just chatting about hobbies and stuff, not contemplating our mortality and the futility of…everything.

It’s cool, though, because the realization that time is precious is a gift. I don’t sweat it too much if I don’t draw or write or paint today. We have the time we have, and we use it the best we can. I acknowledge and embrace the fact that I’ll never have the time to do everything. Do I think it would be fun to do these things more regularly? Sure. But sometimes there just isn’t time or room in my stack of obligations to indulge myself. Maybe tomorrow, maybe not. It’s fine. The low stakes of a hobby are part of what make them fun.

Ultimately, I still try to squeeze in time to make things, because I believe that’s one of the reasons we’re all here to begin with. Nature is full of beauty, but people make beauty. Even a small amount of time spent creating something that didn’t exist before has real, tangible value. So I’ll keep struggling to motivate myself, and do my best to add value to the world in a way that there wasn’t before.

TOO MANY HOBBIES

  1. Mike Mearls is the co-creator of D&D 5th edition, and D&D franchise creative director. 

  2. Is a “negelction of hobbies” a good collective noun? Let me know what you think. Or just, you know, let me know that you’re reading this. I get tired of broadcasting myself out to the world and (what feels like) begging to be noticed. So if you’re reading this, and I’m touching on anything interesting to you, send me an email! Or tweet me! Say “hi”. 

Atrophy

I kind of hate writing, but I love having written. I would rather do almost anything than sit down and write a scene. But having written it, then reading it back? Pure gravy.—John August, writer

Two years can be a long time, or a short time. It all depends on your point of view. From my point of view, two years is a long time to not have anything published on this site. As it turns out, not writing for an extended time is much like not using muscles for a long time. One’s ability to achieve a meaningful result is diminished. I have atrophy of the writing muscles, which are a real thing I promise.

Just like physical muscles attached to my skeleton, which I also haven’t been working out, writing muscles need to be used and exercised to maintain their vigor. I have a lot of reasons excuses why I haven’t been wrting here for two years. I’ve been busy at work, so I feel more tired at the end of the day and don’t feel like writing. I’ve taken on more responsibilities outside of work, so I don’t have as much “free time” to write. All of my writing efforts have been directed at an attempt to focus and monetize them over at Maps & Tales. I have a long list of other hobbies1 that each take their own time (perhaps I will expound upon how those interests are all neglected, in their own right) and thus prevent me from writing while I’m doing them. Life events and random day-to-day things have prevented me from focusing on anything outside of what I need to do in the moment. Baby Yoda takes up all my waking thoughts and daydreams. I could go on.

I should also qualify what I mean about exercising my writing muscles. I can’t stop the process of writing, of telling stories, any more than I can stop myself from breathing or, to some extent, moving altogether. It’s similar, I would imagine, to how some people feel about exercising. They have to go to the gym on a regular basis, or run, or bike, or play that sport that fulfills their passion, because it’s part of who they are and it’s essential to their mental as well as physical health. I’ve never really tried force myself to stop breathing or writing, but there’s always going to be a point when my body, my very existence, will cry out and force the issue. Breathe, stupid, or you will die. I’m reaching that point with writing. I have to write. I have to eject these internal thoughts and ideas and release them into the world.

That’s really what I’m getting to here. Technically, I’m always writing. I’m always thinking about things to write about, constructing stories in my head, turning over ideas and examining their nature and how the words that could realize them fit together. But I don’t put them down on the page, literal or metaphorical. They remain trapped inside my head. I had a discussion with a fellow writer not too long ago2, wherein I posited that my tinnitus (and boy do I have it) could just be an expression of all the ideas buzzing in my head waiting to get out. It was a moment of frustrated poetry, but it’s not a bad metaphor. The arguably difficult part of writing is always happening, against my will and without prompting or invitation on my part.

What remains, then, is the mental pressure to let these ideas out. That’s where I’ve fallen short. That’s where I’ve failed to realize my potential. Doing the work. I don’t get to the gym, and I don’t get the to the keyboard. Whatever excuses reasons I have for not getting there, I’m just not getting there and making it happen. Almost every writer I admire has the same advice: you have to put your butt in the seat and do the typing. You have to pick up that pen and make the words real in the notebook. Otherwise…what’s the point of being a writer?

I’m a writer. I am a writer. So here I am typing.

  1. What’s a good collective noun for a long list of hobbies that interest me, none of which I make time for? I’m thinking maybe a “neglect of hobbies”. What do you think? 

  2. That was a good chat, Amy. 

Forty-Three (and Change)

Black and white photo of the author at forth-three years old
The author on the forty-third anniversary of his birth.

You’re only as old as you feel.

I used to say “I didn’t feel old until I had children”. That’s because until I was a father, I never really felt the burden of adulthood or responsibility in quite the same way as being wholly responsible (in partnership with my wife) for the education, health, and spritual growth of freshly-minted human beings. So, in a sense, I’ve “felt old” for nearly fourteen years. The forty-third year of my life, however, has been—from my perspective—especially challenging.

“How was it challenging,” you may ask. “Did you lose your job?” No. “Did one of your children fall seriously ill?” No (thank you, God). “Has your marriage fallen apart?” No. Stop. Everything is fine. The worst case scenarios that one might conjure up to make my life seem challenging are all still fears and possibilities, not realities. In the words of one of my favorite authors, I’m still living my life on the lowest difficulty setting1. To be absolutely clear, I am thankful and happy with my life.

But…I still feel old. And I feel like life has been more difficult. When I stop to examine why, I come back to the realization that my brain lies to me. It tries to push responsibility and causality for undesired outcomes in my life to outside sources. When I really force myself to look at the reality of my life, I know that it’s nothing but me. My own dumb self imposing limits and making excuses. I give in to my fears. It’s so easy to be lazy. And I like easy.

“Tell me I have led a good life.”

Easy, though… Easy doesn’t get you as far as you might think. And while I have been living my life, have I truly lived? It’s a cliché, but I suppose this is what a mid-life crisis is about. You look back on what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve done with what you’ve been given, and assess how you measure up to whatever scale has meaning to you. For some it’s money, cars, or real estate. For others, fame. For me? I can’t help but think of old man Private Ryan when he looks at that gravestone and says “Tell me I have led a good life.…Tell me I’m a good man.”

Have I led a good life? I like to think so. And hopefully it’s far from over and I’ll have plenty of time to live it better.2 The general wisdom in our culture, though, is that when you hit your forties and fifties, you’ve probably already hit your peak and your “best” years are behind you. Your timeline for living a good life is much shorter. It’s also a complicated question to answer because as a Christian I believe my entire existence is sort of working ever closer to achieving unattainable standards, and that’s OK. Always learn, always improve. Always know that Jesus loves me no matter how many times I fail and start again. Ultimately it’s not up to me to decide how good a life I’ve lived. The important part is that I try, that I make the sincere effort to be the very best version of me.

Do more. Do better.

Why push yourself, why try and do better, when just coasting along doing what you’ve always done seems to work just fine? Whether it’s something that is inherent in our physical wiring or implanted by divine providence in our ephemeral, eternal soul, I think the answer is dissatisfaction. Beyond the basic instinct to keep ourselves fed and sheltered, I think humans have an intrinsic dissatisfaction with whatever their current circumstances may be. Laziness can and often does override this feeling, but I don’t know if it ever goes away. It gets squashed and festers, maybe becoming resentment and shame at not doing more with the gifts we’re given.

So how do I shake off these feelings of oldness and dissatisfaction, and get back on the path of becoming the best version of myself? That’s the very nature of this mid-life crisis-ish mood I find myself in, these several days after turning forty-three. I’ve been rolling it around in my head for awhile, and the best answer I’ve come up with is to do more and to do better. Do more new things, and when I do the things I’m already doing, do them better. Rather than dwelling on the idea that my life may already be half over, with the “best” already behind me, I’m going to focus on what I can do right now, from this moment forward.

  1. He follows it up with more thoughts here and here 

  2. Or live it worse! Choice is wonderful and frightening. 

Bieradventskalender 2015, Day 5

I haven’t had an advent calendar of my own since I was a kid and we had the green felt wall-hanger adorned with yarn ties to which my parents attached Brach’s peppermints or—appallingly—butterscotch candies. Every year now we buy advent calendars filled with chocolate for our own children. They open a little cardboard door each day and eat a piece of candy shaped like something Christmas-y. But I haven’t gotten my own, because I don’t really have a huge sweet tooth. Finally, though, as Mikey Walsh might say, now it’s my time.

Please welcome to the stage: BeerAdvent® Calendar 2015!

Photo of Beer Advent Calendar 2015
Possibly available now at your local CostCo.

Huber Weisses Original

http://www.hofbrauhaus-freising.de

Can of Huber Weisses Original

As much as I love dunkel beers, I also love wheat bears. And back-to-back with the Irish-style ale I had yesterday, this one was definitely refreshing. There was a crisp, sweet bite, with a lot of the citrus that I normally associate with wheat beers. It was light in both color and taste. It was a very nice contrast to its predecessor, and the proximity to my presiding favorite on the list made it a challenge to rank. Mostly, I’m just glad that these beers haven’t been on a straight downhill slide in quality as I move through the calendar. Because if the frankly mediocre Alpen Stoff had been the high point, I imagine by December 24 I’d be taking a sniff, pouring out the cans, then drinking something else entirely.

So what do the nerds say? maxwelldeux gives it a solid 3.2 on RateBeer, with commentary like “Nose is a bit yeasty…” and “…a hint of clove in there…”. I guess I can see that. Bieradventskalender “cheater” chinchill drank his Huber Weisses Original way back on November 5, and says “Primarily yeast and wheat with banana” among other things to justify his 3.4 rating. I don’t remember a banana taste, but he probably knows more than me since he’s posting on a website for beer nerds.

I haven’t really been saying much about the websites for these

It was a tough decision, especially with them coming back-to-back in the order, but I had to give the edge to the dunkel for first place so far:

  1. Day Four—Publiner Dunkles Exportbier
  2. Day Five—Huber Weisses Original
  3. Day One—Alpen Stoff
  4. Day Three—Hernnbräu Tradition Festbier
  5. Day Two—Grandl Helles Lagerbier

Next up is a hell of a beer…

Do you have questions about the BeerAdvent® Calendar 2015, or have issue with my commentary? Tweet me (@scotticus)!

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