Flirting With Nihilism

shouting into the void about 21st century living

Perform a quick Google search for the criteria for calling yourself a writer, and you're likely to find any number of requirements. Do you have to be published before you can call yourself a writer? Are you a writer if you pump out genre fiction, or are you a writer only if your works are shelved in literary fiction? Are you a writer only if you obsess over your craft to the point that you neglect everything else in your life—your relationships, employment, and health and hygiene? Are you a writer only if you get paid for your work?

So many possibilities.

Let's keep it simple since you know that's how we roll at Flirting With Nihilism. For the sake of this post, a writer is someone who writes. It's as simple as that.

The next natural question would be, What counts as writing? Obviously, writing requires the act of writing itself. Putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Writers write, after all.

The act of writing is undoubtedly the most important part of writing, but there are a number of other writerly activities that contribute to the craft.

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If we talk about any celebrity for a long enough period, we will almost certainly comment on his or her ego or humility, terms that we seem to recognize only in extremes. We treat the terms ego and humility as if they are mutually exclusive, as if a person has to have one or the other and as if any combination of the two is impossible.

On one end—or extreme—we have supreme humility represented by Steve Carell. On the other end, we have supreme ego represented by Kanye West.

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These days Thanksgiving, once my undisputed favorite holiday, is a bittersweet experience. But this holiday will likely have extra bitterness as the day marks the eighth anniversary of my mother's death.

Before November 28, 2011, Thanksgiving was simple, and simplicity was what I loved about it. Thanksgiving was a day spent with family as we stuffed our faces with food all day. Maybe we turned on the football game or maybe my aunt insisted that we watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. We would give in on my aunt's demand because refusal meant she was going to suggest for the umpteen thousandth time that we watch The Last Of The Mohicans, a request which became the subject of jokes at our family gatherings.

My family's Thanksgiving affairs were small, usually ranging somewhere between four and eight attendees, depending on where family feuds stood and which cousins could attend on any given year.

My grandmother prepared the bulk of our Thanksgiving meals. She was a cook on a tugboat, so she was what you might call a professional. She took her craft seriously, which I realized when one day she snapped at me for teasing that her mashed potatoes were a little too lumpy. I was too young and ignorant to understand how deeply I had cut her as I questioned her competence in her life's work.

Our meals were traditional Southern Thanksgiving cuisine: turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, steamed broccoli, creamed corn, dinner rolls—all of it amazing but undoubtedly unhealthy due to my grandmother's liberal use of butter and lard whenever possible.

Lunch was just the beginning. My grandmother would make an abundance of desserts, usually an assortment of pies. Pumpkin pie. Apple pie. Pecan pie. But the winner was always my mother's cherry cream cheese pies. No one else could make these pies like my mother could. I know because one year my grandmother tried, only to take a hit to her ego as my cousins and I ate her pies without our usual enthuasism for my mother's offerings. We didn't want to hurt our grandmother's feelings, but we could not deny that my mother made the superior pie.

Ali G - Respek

We couldn't put our fingers on why, but my grandmother's attempt tasted different. A subtle difference elevated my mother's pies to a higher plain. After a brief discusission between the two culinary wizards, we solved the mystery. For years my mother had forgotten to include vanilla extract in her pies' ingredients. The recipe would argue that she had been making these pies wrong all this time, but the rest of the family would argue that she had been making them just right.

We would spend the rest of the day picking on leftovers, having second lunch around 3PM and then having dinner at 6. And when we left, we would argue with my grandmother over how much food we were going to take home. My grandmother always wanted to send us off with way too much, but I can't blame her because she was the only one at her home around to eat anything left behind. Her best chance for getting rid of her leftovers was to invite us over for lunch over the next few days and we would sit around and reminisce about Thanksgiving and tell my grandmother once again how good the whole meal was.

Except for the cherry cream cheese pies. We maneuvered around the topic, as if the event never happened. In every category outside of desserts, my grandmother had won Thanksgiving, but her sole defeat overshadowed her numerous victories.

Thanksgiving 2011 was the last holiday I spent with my mother. Unfortunately, it wasn't as joyful a time as Thanksgivings past. At that point, my mother was confined to a hospice bed in the living room. I don't remember much from the holiday other than her condition. I have no idea what we ate. Did we even have a Thanksgiving meal?

An aunt—my dad's sister who lived an hour or so away—was having an after-Thanksgiving get together at her house the following Saturday. It seeemed appropriate to go since my dad had passed away six weeks before.

When I left for my aunt's house, I didn't know that I would never see my mother conscious again. But I can't help wondering if she knew because in hindsight, I can't help thinking that she didn't want me to go.

My mother didn't seem enthuasistic about my leaving, but she might have been exhausted as her seven-month battle with lung cancer was coming to a close. The cancer had widdled her down to a figure of little more than flesh and bone, unable to walk to the front door without making multiple stops to catch her breath. Chemotherapy no longer an option, a steady IV drip of morphine had become her only relief. Maybe she was just tired. It can't all be about me, after all.

My aunt's get together was fine until I received a call from my stepfather saying that my mother's condition appeared to be going downhill fast and that I should come home. Once I had returned, my mother had lost consciousness, and we spent the rest of the day watching her, hanging on every labored breath, silently wondering if each one would be her last.

The next day I left to go back to Texas. Part of me said that this was the end and that I should stay, but so many times I had left convinced I had seen her for the last time. Just four months before, my mother had had an incident in which she was pronounced dead in the hosptial before somehow coming back to life without resucitation. After my mother's resurrection, everyone was convinced that she wouldn't survive the weekend. Yet after a couple of months she started looking better, almost as if the cancer was reversing. But these bouncebacks happen with cancer, and the optimism was short-lived.

Back in Texas, sometime in the early morning of November 28, 2011, I received the phone call from my stepdad telling me that my mother had passed away.

And so now, regardless of the specific date of Thanksgiving, I will always associate the holiday with her death. But that doesn't have to be a bad thing. As I said earlier, the holiday is now bittersweet for me, and now I would like to move on from the bitter and focus on the sweet.

A common practice among bloggers on Thanksgiving is to write a post about what one is thankful or grateful for. I want to put my spin on it and talk about what I'm thankful for as related to the loss of my mother.

So let's get to the point. This Thanksgiving I'm thankful for:

26 years with my mother

I was 26 years old when my mother died. Not only was my mother taken far too early for her sake—she was only 51 years old—but she was taken far too early for my sake. I wasn't prepared to lose my mother. Is anyone really ever prepared for such an event? While I can mope and pity myself endlessly, I have to acknowledge that some people lose their parents much earlier. As tough as it was to become motherless at 26 years old, I shudder when I imagine what might have happened if I had lost her any sooner.

My mother's support of my independence

If I could give my mother credit for only one thing that contributed to my success, I would give her credit for pushing me forward and never holding me back. I can think of a couple of conversations to illustrate my point.

The first conversation went something like this:

Mother: You don't like it here, do you? Me: No. Mother: You want out, don't you? Me: Yes. Mother: Then you need to go to college. Me: Okay.

Such conversations pushed me out into the world and ensured that I would embrace the uncertainty of new opportunities.

The second conversation took place over the phone shortly after I had gotten laid off from my first real job during the Great Recession. At some point, my mom said, “You know you can't come home, right?” 10-4, Mother. No safety net from you. Gotcha. But her line was deeper than that. She and I agreed there was no opportunity in my hometown, so coming home would have been the dumbest thing I could have done.

Or maybe Mom was enjoying having an empty nest. Who knows. Either way, she always insisted that I move forward and she never guilted me into staying put. I'm so much more thankful for the encouragement now that she's gone. What if I had stayed behind for her, only to have her leave me so soon?

We often hear that dying people will share their biggest regrets with others. One day my mother shared with me her regret she hadn't left my hometown when she had had chances. But she had gotten comfortable in her discontent. I'm thankful my mother did not allow me to fall into the same trap.

My mother never told me what to think

I can't remember a time when my mother ever shut me down whenever I shared an opinion. If my mother disagreed or was unfamiliar with my stance, she asked questions and allowed me to elaborate my points. Maybe that's why I now speak as if anyone would ever give a damn about my thoughts. Or maybe it's why I've started blogging again—maybe I'm seeking to replace the lost maternal audience.

I try to pay forward my mother's courtesy while also being true to myself by being honest about my disagreements. If the masses would adopt this habit from my mother, the world would be a much better place.

For the lessons from the grief

When something traumatic happens to you, you have to find a way to see the positives. Is doing so desperate? Are you deluding yourself into feeling better about the situation? One could make these arguments, but I would argue that finding the positives is crucial to allowing trauma to become a catalyst of growth rather than a consistent harbinger of pain and despair.

I am a better person because of my experiences with loss, grief, and depression. I am better able to assist others because I have navigated my way through my own personal hell. Does that mean I'm glad my mother and others have passed away? Of course not. But finding a positive spin has allowed me to find fulfillment after the chaos, and so my grief doesn't own me anymore. I own my grief. I can't control it, but I have learned to flow with it, how to enjoy the ride. And I am still learning how to make my experiences a tool that can help others.

For showing me I can be critical while continuing to accept someone I love

To this point, I've painted only the rosiest picture of my mother, but as is usually the case with those we love, she wasn't perfect. Below are a couple of shortcomings:

Reclusiveness

If my mother wasn't at work, she was likely at home. The only person she visited on a regular basis was her own mother. My mother's reclusiveness was partially justified by the fact that before my stepfather came along, she was a single working mother. She was often tired, so staying home was the easy thing to do. But in reality, my mother also did not want to be a burden to others, so she robbed others of the chance of ever becoming closer to her. And I missed out on some important social skills, but don't worry, Ma—I'm improving every day.

Stubbornness

At times my mother could dig her heels in to make someone else's life hell. My mother is the only person I know to be written up at work for refusing to take vacation. At one time, my mother's employer compensated employees for any unused vacation time. My mother looked forward to these unofficial bonus checks at the end of the year when she would effectively cash in her vacation time. As a cost-cutting measure, the company required employees to take their vacation and no longer allowed employees to be paid for the unused time. My mother decided to keep it real and show them that she was going to get her money for her unused vacation time. The company kept it realer and slapped her with an offense.

I could find plenty of other things to criticize my mother about, but that's not the point. Instead, the point is that criticism is not always rejection. And I'm not sure if you can ever truly love someone if you can't acknowledge the person's flaws. But my mother's good certainly outweighed her bad, and for that I am also thankful.

My mother won't be present this Thanksgiving, just as she hasn't been present for the last seven holidays and as she won't be present for any number of holidays that follow. Her absence haunts me daily and I'll never get over the loss. But the good news is that other peope will be present on November 28, 2019. Maybe too many people. Last I heard, the headcount is expected to be 25 people. My anxiety is kicking in already.

I'm expecting a day full of love and good food. I'm lucky to have this opportunity, and for that I am thankful. I hope everyone reading this is able to spend Thanksgiving (and every day for that manner) with those they love. I hope you're able to make great memories that will stay with you after your loved ones are gone. Not just gone in the sense of death. Maybe a sibling goes off to college. Or a child moves away and starts a new life in some exciting new city in a different time zone and neglects to check in as often as you would like.

Whatever the specifics, the point remains: These comforts won't last forever, which is why we should enjoy them as much as we can whenever we can.

And if you have stuck around and have read this far, I'm thankful to you and for you.

Happy Thanksgiving

#HappyThanksgiving #grief #loss

What do we mean when we use the word deserve? Dictionary.com defines the word as follows:

deserve VERB – to merit, be qualified for, or have a claim to (reward, assistance, punishment, etc.) because of actions, qualities or situation: to deserve exile; to deserve charity; a theory that deserves consideration

I've been pondering our usage of deserve and asking myself whether it is a word we overuse. I even have a problem with one of the examples of the word usage listed on Dictionary.com: to deserve charity. How does one deserve charity when charity is given out of the kindness the giver's heart? No one is entitled to such kindness—it is a voluntary act.

Some people believe they deserve a good job because they have earned a college degree. These feelings are sometimes intensified if the job seeker racked up a significant amount of debt in order to obtain the degree. No one deserves a job simply because he has a degree, and no one deserves a higher-paying job simply because he carries a six-figure debt load after college. Instead, he must consider the possibility he made a bad investment and at least one regrettable life decision.

Does anyone ever deserve a promotion? Maybe you're capable of performing at the higher position, but maybe another candidate is simply a better fit. The higher up the chain you go, the less those positions come open. Therefore, these positions become more competitive, and at some point, someone is bound to feel as if he or she got shafted. If you are undoubtedly the best candidate and you are passed up for a promotion, then your employer doesn't deserve to have you on their team, so you should feel no guilt when looking to carry your talents elsewhere.

Does anyone deserve a happy life or a happy childhood? To argue such implies a certain sense of justice, as if there is a universal concept of fair distribution. Life is full of chaos and randomness and can attack anyone at any moment. Conducting oneself “the right way” does not guarantee reward or success. It merely betters your odds.

Does a person deserve a good relationship? What if said person continually chooses bad partners? Healthy relationships usually do not happen on accident, after all. And in this situation, the person who habitually finds himself or herself in bad relationships is the one constant.

There are times and situations in which someone does deserve something. In the case of a court settlement or ruling, you deserve whatever the judge or jury awards. If you are subject to a certain contract or employment agreement, then you deserve compensation for hours worked or certain outputs or other measures of production.

Minimizing the notion of deserving helps when dealing with the pain and feelings of being wronged which accompany loss. Leaning on the concept of deserving leads to questions like Why me?, and as I've argued in another post, we're sometimes better asking Why not me?, instead asking why we do not deserve such rotten luck. Doing so can give a healthier perspective.

I can say I have earned my good fortunes to some degree. If nothing else, I've taken certain risks which have paid off to get me where I am. But there's no denying I've had my fair share of luck, a touch of right place/right time magic. On the flip side, I've been hit with my fair share of setbacks and roadblocks. I can't say I deserved my bad luck any more than my good luck.

I've tried to remove the language of deserving from my vocabulary, but it is more difficult that one may imagine. Deserve, in its various forms, is a fundamental word in the English language.

What do I deserve if I am able to create and maintain a consistent writing practice? Do I deserve awards? To gain a following? Do I deserve any measure of success? No. At best I deserve the chance for such pleasantries.

That and nothing more.

I usually feel like an old man when I remind myself that it's been over 20 years since my mom bought the first family desktop computer in 1998. I don't remember much about the specifications other than the computer was a Compaq with a 3GB hard drive, which the salesman assured my mother was plenty of space, an amount that we would never fill. The computer set my mom back about $1,200. Fast forward to 2019 and my $250 Android phone has 4GB of RAM and an uncompressed 2-hour Blu-Ray movie is over 30GB. The computer salesman obviously didn't foresee the changes in technology when he made his pitch.

The computer came with a 56k dial-up modem, so it made sense to get internet service. The boonies of North Louisiana are not early adopters of the latest technology, so we could subscribe to only 28.8k service. However, in reality, we were excited if we got a 19200 bps connection. At those speeds, we weren't exactly surfing the World Wide Web, but we were able to crawl along it. How spoiled I am now with my 200 Mbps option.

Photo by Leon Seibert from Unsplash

Looking back, it's pretty obvious that I was addicted to the computer and the internet. Actually, I knew it even at the time, but I didn't care. I spent every free moment basking in the glow of the CRT monitor. I did so to escape the village I called home. (Yes, with a population of few than 500 people, my hometown was actually a village.) Napster alone was a godsend, as the local radio stations played the same five bands on repeat every single day. That's why to this day I'm burned out on Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Guns N Roses, Van Halen, and Bon Jovi. The computer screen (and eventually the phone screen and the tablet screen) became a means to escape into a far more interesting world.

Ample time away has made me realize that my hometown wasn't that bad; such thinking is too binary. But it was not a place I wanted to stay any longer than necessary. I wanted more than my hometown could offer. I wanted a diversity of personalities and diversity in things that really mattered to me: music, movies, books, and ideas. And all of that was available with a computer and the World Wide Web.

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While I am in some ways intrigued by Gary Vaynerchuk, I am wary of his advice. In particular, I do not like Vaynerchuk's message of working every second of every day in order to achieve success. While I do believe that hard work and sacrifice are important, I do worry about the effects a relentless grind has on one's physical and mental health. Fortunately, it appears that I'm not alone.

However, I do believe in giving credit where it's due. And though I disagree with his overall message, that hardly means Vaynerchuk has no good insights. After all, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Despite my concerns about Vaynerchuk, I have been hearing echoes of one piece of his advice in my own life over the last few weeks:

“Love the process and the grind more than the payoff.”

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If you follow me on Mastodon, then you know that in the last couple months or so I've fallen in love with bullet journaling. Hard. You also know that I sought bullet journaling when I started trying to unplug from screens in order to get my attention back. And if you don't follow me on Mastodon, well, you know these things now.

Before finally jumping on the hype train, I had looked into bullet journaling a few times over the last couple years. I had been intimidated and discouraged by the beautiful spreads I found during my research. And all I need is a little discourage.

Photo from the official Bullet Journal website

I recently went to my local public library and picked up The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll, the creator of the bullet journal. I was delighted to see that Carroll keeps his journal minimalist and focuses on functionality rather than aesthetics. After reading Carroll's book, the concept made sense to me. I now steal a few ideas from reddit here and there and change them to fit my needs.

I think I've finally found my perfect weekly spread. One struggle down.

So now I'm a bullet journaling fiend. I've branded myself an evangelist and started spreading the word, like that annoying cousin who suddenly wants to talk to about “the unique opportunity to get in at the ground level and invest in something revolutionary”.

Initially, I was interested in bullet journaling because I wanted to stay organized and productive. Calendars and to-do apps weren't cutting it for me. I imagine one explanation could be that spending too much time in front of screens was zapping my cognition. Another could be the argument that we better retain whatever we write by hand. The bullet journal, like meditating, requires us to slow down and be more intentional, and so in that way, I do consider bullet journaling a practice in mindfulness.

I later realized that the bullet journal is a great way to document things. You know, like what a journal is supposed to do. And so I wonder if I'll ever go back and look at my old journals and entries and reminisce and maybe even marvel at all that I've forgotten.

And so I'm now faced with a new existential regret—I wish I'd been journaling all this time.

I'm not a very sentimental person, and these days I try to look forward rather than backward in time. People's memories are unreliable at best, and specific memories slip away more if we never reflect on them.

I can think of a few specific times in my life I wish I'd been journaling.

Summer camp days

During college, I worked three summers as a counselor at a camp for kids with special needs. My first summer was the summer before my freshman year of college. Each week brought the opportunity to meet kids with a variety of daily challenges, including:

  • Cognitive disabilities
  • Spina bifida
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Epilepsy
  • Autism
  • Sickle cell anemia

Looking back, I can easily recall some important life lessons I learned during my time at camp.

We all want so many of the same things.

I realized that regardless of their challenges, the campers wanted many of the same things that the counselors wanted, most notably to feel acceptance and as if they belong. And then I realized that you can extend that to nearly everyone, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexuality, etc. We're usually better able to accept others when we're able to understand them, so having learned about this shared struggle has gone a long way in developing empathy.

The importance of a good team

So many managers say that their company's greatest asset is its people. When I hear this, I usually roll my eyes because the phrase has become such a cliche. But the saying is in fact true. My last summer at the camp, I was made head counselor, and things ran pretty damn smoothly. I wish I could take all the credit, but the truth is that the directors got incredibly lucky with their hiring that summer. They somehow put together a phenomenal team with unbelievable chemistry.

The teams my previous two summers were good, but the team from that third summer took the prize. Those other counselors made my job ridiculously easy, and that was when I learned that I want to work with the best people whenever I have the opportunity.

The value of shared experience

Soldiers who have fought side by side in the same wars have a bond that needs no explanation. Even if we can't imagine what the two have seen together, we can understand that it's unlike what most of us will ever experience. That's how I feel when I look back at my time at that summer camp. Those counselors and I have a unique shared experience. We have perspectives that don't need to be explained between us. And if another counselor gave a good effort for just one summer, that says a lot about his character.

I wish I'd kept a journal of this time in my life because I know I've forgotten some great stories and funny moments. And I'm sure I could find a few more valuable life lessons if I could flip through the pages again. I also think I could have gotten some great material for a memoir.

College

Ah, college, the greatest four (or seven) years that no one remembers. It's not as if I'm unable to remember my college experience due to a lack of sobriety—I can't remember because it seems so long ago now and my memory has gone down the crapper over the last few years.

College was my first experience away from home...until my stepdad moved to my college town before my sophomore year because he lost his job back home. It was a time in which I was struggling for independence while still holding onto a bit of a safety net. It was an era of increased responsibility, trying to find my future, and getting my heart broken a few times.

I wish I had kept a journal of this time so that I could go back and laugh at myself and what I thought constituted “problems” at the time.

My grief and recovery

My experiences with grief have been documented here and have become the foundation of this blog, so I won't go into too much detail. But I wish I had journaled during this period of my life for a couple reasons.

For one, it could have made things easier for me. Of course, that means that I would have had to find a way to open up, even if only to myself, and be honest with what I was feeling in order to let it flow out. Allowing myself to feel what I was going through was the basis of my struggle, but maybe the process would have been easier if I had already developed a journaling habit. There's no point in wondering too much about “what could have been”, but it is interesting to consider.

I also wonder what other bits of wisdom I let slip into the ether. What else could I learn about my grief if I had some raw text to reflect on? I suppose now I'll never know. I have to stick with the memories I have and see if I can dig up anything new going forward.

My memory sucks now and it's probably not going to get any better. But worst case scenario, at least I now have something else to reference.

#journaling #bulletjournal #bujo #memories

The concept of identity is a significant struggle for nearly everyone. For most, the struggle has begun by adolescence, when we find ourselves juggling hormones and free thought and free will. This struggle evolves and continues or resurfaces throughout various points of a lifetime: the first time we leave the family nest, the mid-life crisis, and then our turn as empty nesters, just to name a few.

In order to satisfy the search for our own identities, we have to answer numerous questions about ourselves. Questions of ideology, ethics, morality, sexuality and perhaps even gender. We have to consider how we present ourselves, whom we associate with, and how we respond to offenses both direct and indirect. Every bit of nuance goes into defining an identity. Or perhaps I should say identities, as most of us do conduct ourselves differently depending on our audience or company. Most of us do not act the same at work vs. at home or among friends vs. among family. We acknowledge and accept that different scenarios call for different behavior norms. Some would call this being two-faced as if it is merely a character flaw, but I'm sure there is some evolutionary benefit to such behavior. Likability does have its perks, after all.

I try to keep my multiple selves as consistent as possible, but there's no denying that I'm different people in different contexts. My opinions are quite different if a microphone is in my face as opposed to what I will say among trusted friends or under the guise of anonymity or a pseudonym.

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I don't consider myself a remarkably intelligent person. I see intelligence as one's ability to figure things out and to solve problems on his own. At best, I might be slightly above average—emphasis on slightly—intelligence, but nothing extraordinary. Perhaps my view of my own intelligence is skewed by my absent-mindedness, which often leads to embarrassment, something I've learned to take in stride. On the other hand, that same view is likely inflated by one's tendency to think himself special. There's a good chance I'm more average than I want to admit.

I'm more confident when it comes to gauging my wisdom. If I can be completely honest, I do consider myself fairly wise. I define wisdom as one's ability to learn from his own experiences as well as the experiences of others. The greatest gift from my most painful experiences has been the lessons. The accompanying pain is a reminder of what I've overcome, of all the monsters I've killed, and also a reminder not to repeat certain actions, whether those actions are my own or someone else's. The real torture comes when one doesn't learn and instead keeps making the same mistakes again and again.

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We have all at some point said those words: I don't have time. We usually say them after we've revealed a desire to do something different, such as exercise, learn a new language, or try our hand at standup comedy. I often said the phrase after I talked about wanting to write again.

When you say I don't have time for something in your personal life, most people will never challenge you. They'll nod their heads and give the sympathy you seek and then you both continue eating your third helping of chocolate chip cookie sundae and complain that you can't lose weight. But it's not your fault because you don't eat unhealthy—your mother had thyroid issues, so you should get yours checked. But you never do it. You don't have time, after all.

Are you seeing a pattern?

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