Put Off

Procrastination is a curse of the gifted.

That may not always be the case, but it was for me. I’ve always been one of those infuriating people who could turn in a paper late and still get an A- or B+ on it, or omit a project entirely and still comfortably pass the class. I can remember procrastinating as early as the first grade. There was an assignment to write a story about a picture of a castle and to color that picture. I fretted so much over the fact that my stories about castles (of which I certainly had many) were too full of violence to include in a first grade Catholic school assignment that I didn’t leave myself enough time to actually color the picture. A few years later, I dawdled over a book report to the point where I ended up writing my assignment against just the first few chapters. In neither of these cases did I end up suffering much repercussion for my heel-dragging.

High school and college were no different. In Psychology 101 I even facetiously wrote a paper about procrastination at the last minute, in which I describe the phenomenon as a kind of conditioned emotional response. The thought was that anticipating critique on one’s assignments created a kind of performance anxiety that would lead a person to seek distractions instead of the work itself. There may be some truth to that, but in my case it’s a bit disingenuous; bad marks were seldom a concern.

In addition, my natural flow of work was described in a personality test I once took as “bursts of energy powered by enthusiasm.” I can be extremely prolific with effort on a project at its outset, when interest is high and its newness makes it novel. But in the hard dull work of the later phases of a project, or if the project was never terribly intellectually stimulating to begin with, motivation is hard to find. That applies whether it’s a work assignment, an area of responsibility, or a game design.

In the adult world this sort of nonsense won’t be tolerated forever. Bosses ask for explanations when deadlines are missed, even if the work is top-notch (besides, if done last-minute, there’s no guarantee it will be; some things have a lower limit on time to complete). And the procrastination mindset begins to seep into other areas of life, too: debt spirals can be thought of as “deal with it later” on money matters, and waking up realizing that you’ve put off your dreams until your deathbed is the very picture of end-of-life regret.

Slackerdom is so at odds with my self-image that I beat myself up every time I get into a put-it-off slump. My bookshelves commemorate every wake-up moment of the cycle: Eat That Frog!, The Now Habit, focus, etc. But habits this old are exceedingly hard to break free of. Will I manage to turn the ship around?

Maybe tomorrow.

Archive and Simplify

One of the hallmarks of 21st century culture, particularly here in the States, is deep commercialism. And I say commercialism in what’s almost a religious sense. We are taught, from every angle, that buying things will improve our lives. Everywhere you turn, there’s a new book, gadget, or service purported to make us happier, more organized, healthier.

Not only does this have the tendency to put us into a spending and debt spiral, but when combined with the natural human tendency to fear loss, we end up with the “hoarding” phenomenon. Our commercial education does not include instruction on how to get rid of things. We leave books on our shelves as status symbols or reminders of our education, despite having no intention of ever reading them again. Obsolete or highly specialized gadgets sit unused for years. Sentimental tokens of our youth and mementos of long forgotten events pile up in boxes seldom opened. We laugh at the people on the reality shows, but almost everyone participates in the phenomenon to one degree or another.

The digital age affords us some tools to get out of at least some of this, however. Storage of photos, videos, and text is so cheap that archiving the whole of a life’s accumulated paper junk could fit on a device costing $100 or less. (I’m not unaware of the irony in that, but bear with me.) Imagine you have a box full of miscellaneous stuff: letters, birthday cards, programs from special occasions and theater events. It takes up two or three cubic feet of space in a closet somewhere. It’s moved from one home to another over the years, never opened except to peek inside to get the general idea of its contents. It would take time, but not much difficulty, to scan those articles into digital format and dispose of the old paper.

These techniques can apply to some more bulky objects then paper miscellany, too. For example, I still hold on to little crafted gifts that an ex-girlfriend gave me back in college. It’s awkward whenever I stumble across them: they’re reminders of bittersweet memories of old hurts, and for my life partner, they’re reminders of a part of my life she wasn’t present for. I cling to them for the sake of those bittersweet memories and out of appreciation for the hard work that went into making them. But I don’t need them. Why not, then, photograph these objects, write down my thoughts about them, and then gently dispose of them?

To take the ideas still further, I picture a 21st-century memoir, in the form of a wiki. Memorable events from one’s life live on pages, linked to one another in a network of hyperlinks not unlike the odd connections already present between our memories. When hooked up with the archives of documents and objects described above, it would become a library of a life, enduring as long as the Internet does. Attics worth of detritus reduced to electrons? The idea appeals to me.

I might give it a try, in fact. Probably starting with those crafty gifts…

(This, too, was transcribed: first spoken into a digital voice recorder, then uploaded and automagically translated to text. Cool, huh?)

Somnolence

The school year from 2004 to 2005 was perhaps the most stressful year of my life. I was in a volunteer teaching job that I was not by any stretch of the imagination good at, I wasn’t getting along with my roommate, and my romantic relationships were rocky at best. It was in this environment that I first experienced sleep paralysis. I woke up in the bright morning unable to move, with a sound like rushing water filling my ears and the strange sensation of my homunculus being stretched and compressed beyond the normal confines of my body. To complete the eerie experience, I had the auditory hallucination of the words, “the world is coming to an end.”

Thus began my now long history of grappling with sleep disorders. The next symptom to appear was a kind of panic attack that occurred when I was first falling asleep. Just as I was drifting off and beginning to lose a sense of time, my mind would fill with the existential fear of death, and I would wake up with a gasp or a scream. This happened only a few times in that first year, but as the years went by, it became a much more common occurrence. When at last I sought treatment, it was happening nearly every night.

As if that weren’t enough, it turns out that I have always suffered from at least a mild case of restless legs syndrome. When confined to a space with little legroom, I would feel a sort of muscle twinge, like a little inch long wedge burrowing into the back of my thigh. To relieve it, I would need to find some space, stretch my leg out, walk around a bit. I always thought that this was a common complaint of anyone with long legs, but as I researched my other conditions, I found out that this was a syndrome of its own. Moreover, when my fiancée moved in with me, she reported that I would kick my legs up in the air while sleeping in a repetitive, rhythmic motion.

I approached my doctor, first about the panic attacks. We tried clonazepam first, then zaleplon, and finally paroxetine. That cleared up the panic attacks almost entirely. Unfortunately, it also exacerbated the restless legs. So I went on clonazepam in addition to that medication. That blunted the condition for a while, but eventually I had to increase it to the maximum prescribed dose, and even then I would have episodes of kicking in the evenings.

It all began to pile up. I would start a given day off all right, but by mid day I would crash, feeling groggy and unable to focus. If I indulged the feeling and took a nap, I might go under for three or four or five hours. I read up on polyphasic sleep, and attempted a siesta schedule for a while. It helped, but as soon as my schedule was disrupted by a trip or an ill-timed meeting, I would be right back where I started. I went back to my doctor one more time. My case had escaped his expertise; he referred me to a sleep specialist.

That brings us to today. At the specialist’s direction, I’ve stopped taking the clonazepam, stopped donating blood since that can cause an iron deficiency that exacerbates restless legs, started taking iron supplements, and started doing my darnedest to get to bed and get up at reasonable times. It’s not an easy road. Discontinuing the clonazepam has led to the restless leg feeling spreading out, no longer a localized twinge but a tingling that surrounds both of my thighs and sometimes proceeds into the day. I grapple with bouts of insomnia, and need to pursue odd remedies like lying on the floor to relieve the tingling.

But I have hope that it’s getting better. It’s getting easier to get out of bed in the morning. My head feels less foggy during the day. And I’m beginning to beat back the tide of lost productivity that this whole lengthy episode has occasioned in my work life.

I’m not sure what point I have been putting this into a blog post; perhaps I mean only to warn my readers to appreciate their restful sleep. We live in an always on society, where entertainment can be had to every hour of the night or morning, and it’s easy for even a morning person (like me) to stay up late surfing the Internet or playing games. But the impact this has on our quality of life cannot be underestimated. While I’ve been suffering from these symptoms, I’ve been less creative, less ambitious, less patient. At times it could be said to border on depression. Don’t do that to yourself. Choose a lights out hour and turn off the electronics then. Take a refreshing nap when you can. Ease up on the caffeine. Your body will thank you for it.

(As an aside, I dictated this post using voice recognition software. It’s fun! I highly recommend giving it a try if you have a few bucks to drop on something like Dragon.)

Social Network Unplug

This past week, I engaged in a counterculture experiment: I disconnected from the major social networks (Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter). I didn’t deactivate my accounts, but I did uninstall the apps from my tablet, and implemented DNS blocking to make the sites impossible to access from my desktop PC.

I wanted to try this for several reasons. A favorite blogger of mine, Leo Babauta, recommended disengaging from these sites as a way to reduce distraction and make room for more fulfilling activities. Recent uproar about the strange psychological engineering Facebook engages in has made me wonder: is the obligation I feel to keep up with the feed, too, artificial, engineered by advertisers rather than necessary to my most important relationships? I’ve long steered clear of discussion forums, because of how easily conversations in message threads can become toxic; the same is often true on social networks. Not only do such acrimonious dialogues frustrate me and torpedo my mood, but they tend to bring out the worst in me: sarcasm, uncharitableness, and so on.

How did it go, then?

My capacity for self-distraction goes beyond any specific site or activity. It was nice not to indulge the urge to go check networks, but I only made good use of a fraction of the reclaimed time. Instead I got hooked on “Epic Rap Battles of History,” played entirely too much “Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014,” and went on a Wikipedia spree reading articles about quantum physics. If I want to improve my motivation and productivity, social network disconnection is likely to be part of the picture, but not the whole.

The networks are insidious in their methods. Google and Facebook want to be indispensable parts of our lives, and they employ some sly tactics to achieve that goal. I found that I couldn’t use “Google Hangouts” to meet with people, because it employs the plus.google.com domain. Viewing YouTube videos put me back in the G+ sphere as well, because the comments system there is intertwined with the G+ post infrastructure. Tch!

I am indeed better off without (most) online discussion. Even a brief foray back to G+, occasioned by the Hangouts issue mentioned above, exposed me to some nasty Internet name-calling from people I know. There are more than a few folks I get along with great in meatspace, but as soon as we converse online, my interactions with them sour. And that goes both ways–my own online persona is harder to live with than my flesh-and-blood identity. Keeping things face-to-face whenever possible is likely to help preserve the peace.

Important news travels by word of mouth. Sure, I didn’t hear about the latest as fast as before, but I didn’t miss anything entirely. Conversations tend to start with “hey, did you hear about X?”, and if I say “no”, folks go on to fill me in. If I explain why I didn’t hear already, I may get a funny look, but that’s all. It’s seldom necessary, in any case; people already know that social-network news feeds are unreliable in delivering what you really want to see.

There are a few things I do miss out on. I’m involved in a handful of G+ communities, particularly some used for organizing local game get-togethers, and one for development on and support of HabitRPG. The conversations there don’t take place anywhere else, or if they do, it’s fragmentary and incomplete. Because I care about these projects, I noticed this particular absence quite a bit.

What’s next, then? Do I intend to stay unplugged? In part, at least, yes. I’m going to make a few tweaks and extend the experiment from a week to a month. I’ll use email and this blog for the majority of my online conversation-space needs, with broadcasts on Twitter to direct people here. I’m also considering how I might reclaim access to Hangouts and those few Communities without activating the whole G+ fire hose. If I can pull that off, I feel I might manage a good equilibrium, getting the principal benefits of social-network avoidance while mitigating the notable downsides.

Late to the Party: Blade Kitten

Concept: Pink-haired catgirl Kit Ballard fights robots and armored stormtroopers with her big remote-controlled sword in this spunky but glitchy hop-and-bop sidescroller.

Gameplay: An unusual specimen outside of Nintendo titles, Blade Kitten is a platformer in the Super Mario tradition. You run, jump, and climb around mostly-linear levels, fighting enemies and picking up scattered money and collectibles. There’s not much precision involved; though there are special moves you can execute, you can get by with button-mashing, and few jumping or timing puzzles take any notable finesse.

A lot of polish is missing here. Kit frequently makes or misses jumps without clear indication of why, and mounts up her Chocobo-like “Noot” when you try to move past it. Enemies block and counterattack seemingly at random, giving no cue as to the correct timing or technique to get an attack through. Some game elements are not explained in tutorials; you must read the “How to Play” guide to discover them. Thankfully, very lenient health, checkpoint, and continue mechanics ensure that no setback lasts long.

Aesthetics: Blade Kitten is an odd duck. The visuals are colorful and cartoonish, and the protagonist has a fun sense of style expressed in her costume, special moves, and idle animations. But the game is marred by numerous animation glitches and strange art decisions that break the mood and flow. NPCs mill about aimlessly and collide with one another. Enemies freeze in place while you dispatch your pet “Skiffy” to pick up coins. Kit flickers between poses if she hits a corner of the terrain. Foreground elements cut away with an ugly yellow-outlined black void when you pass behind them. It has a definite rush-job feel to it.

The story, insofar as there is one, makes no sense. Supposed bounty-hunter Kit spends no time at all pursuing her quarry, preferring instead to run errands for every random NPC she meets along the way. (And not in classic side-quest fashion either; these are all mandatory missions.) Sometimes she teams up with a group, but you keep fighting them throughout the level anyway. It makes a complete joke out of the “strong narrative” mentioned in some of the game’s promotional material! The voice acting for this slipshod script is top-notch, though, and the soundtrack–while less than memorable–gets the job done.

Ism Factor: Better than most. I always give props to games with female protagonists; the more, the better! And while Kit is plainly meant to be a “sexy” character, her outfits are varied and not too exploitative. The male gaze is largely absent. Not bad! Moreover, the character is based on one from a comic book, and her portrayal here manages to avoid some of the sexist tropes from her comic incarnation. For example, in the first few pages of the comic, Kit uses sex appeal and innuendo as a combat tactic, but that sort of thing never turns up in the game.

A few oddments make Blade Kitten less than exemplary, though. Beyond her basic action-heroine status (complete with dead family), it’s hard to come up with any character trait that isn’t gender-stereotyped. Kit titters over cute animals and fashionable clothing, remarks on the dating potential of male NPCs, and so on. Overall it feels like the creators dodged the usual for-heterosexual-males pitfalls, but instead created a “Pink Lego” character with stereotypes of the teen-girl demographic. There’s also a running joke about characters of a different species being unable to determine Kit’s gender or age (which are the most important things about a female character, amirite?)… but the joke falls flat when it becomes apparent that their species has the exact same gender and age markers as humans anyway.

Overall: 2.5/5. It’s playable! I finished it, in part because it’s quite short, the game coming to an abrupt halt as soon as any plot coherence emerges. Worth buying on discount: I’d say $2 would be about right for the experience.

The Fifth Habit vs. Privilege

Kali Ranya:

One of Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” is real listening. He wrote about how we tend, when ostensibly listening, to go into a probing, analytical mode. We hear the person’s problems, and immediately set to pondering and advising on how we’d solve them. We hear their feelings, and get to thinking and describing how we went through something similar once. We hear their stories, and spin them around to our own autobiographies.

That’s all bullshit. Someone’s opening themselves up, trying to communicate something of themselves, and we at every turn make it about us. We get a chance to absorb and appreciate and empathize with another human being’s experiences, and instead we superimpose our own on them and blot them out.

To truly listen, put those impulses on hold. Don’t spin the conversation toward your own story. Don’t argue with or problem-solve their feelings. Affirm what they’re saying, echo back the emotions you perceive (“I bet that make you frustrated as hell!”), and only volunteer solutions, probe for reasons, or dissect arguments if they ask or invite you to. Seek first to understand, then to be understood, as Covey put it.

The same phenomenon occurs, writ large, in wider conversations about privilege. Some horrific event like the Santa Barbara shootings occurs; a celebrity like Mike Krahulik spews hate; a vlogger like Anita Sarkeesian points out the sexist or racist themes in video games. The people hurt by these things speak up, and their privileged counterparts go into autobiography and analysis mode. They reject the feelings expressed because it’s not a problem for them, mansplain/whitesplan/cissplain why it’s not so bad as all that, etc. In short, they don’t stop and listen.

One of the hallmarks of privilege is the from-birth messaging and conditioning that your opinion matters, that it is your right to be heard, that it is your civic or God-given duty to voice your disagreements. But when it comes to experiences not your own, to the emotions and objections of people different from you, put that shit away. It is not your story, not your turn to speak, and your whinges of “not all men or like that” or “go fight some real racism” are not, in fact, worth crap. The people you want so badly to dispute with have not offered up pennies for your thoughts, because now is not the time to voice them.

When someone who does not share in your privilege speaks their mind, shares their pain, points out the problems inherent in the system, your imperative is this and this alone:

shut the fuck up
and listen.