Contextualizing money

I'm bad with money.  And I don't want to think too hard about that, because it makes me feel sad and overwhelmed.  So I'm going to talk about food instead for a little bit, then circle back.

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This is a Ze Frank video, about cholesterol.  It's called Cholesterol.  In it, Ze talks about the impulse that persuades him to make bad food decisions, and has put him in a state of health that reduces his projected lifespan substantially.  He describes a voice inside his head, that decides what's going to happen ("He'll tell you not to have the sandwich.  And we've already established, that's happening." [emphasis mine]) even though it directly contradicts the advice on healthy eating he literally just got, in the building he was walking out of at that moment.

I used to have a problem with healthy eating.  I mean, I still do.  I ate an entire Ben & Jerry's ice cream today.  But I've got my problem in control to a level where I'm pretty healthy -- two years ago, my weight fluctuated between 240 and 260 pounds.  I'm 5'9", so that's not healthy.  And if you're thinking, "The BMI is total crap, it's possible to be healthy at that weight!" -- you're right.  But I'm not a weight lifter.  None of that extra weight was muscle.  I wasn't healthy.

But my mental block about dieting was so massive that I could barely even begin to do anything about my health.  The only times I ever lost any was when I got dumped, and I'd drop twenty or thirty pounds because I wasn't eating because I was sad.  Or, when I was working every day around the holiday season, and barely eating enough to keep myself from passing out at work, where I was standing up for eight hour shifts every day.

And I didn't decide to eat healthy.  That never happened.  What I decided was to switch my lifestyle around food.  I took up Weekday Vegetarianism. ([TED talk] [Vlogbrothers video])  That worked, for several reasons:

(1.) Meat is bad for you, and eating substantially less of it significantly improved the quality of my diet.

(2.) There are several reasons for doing Weeekday Veg, so it was easy for me to avoid annoying self-justification arguments about whether I should make that decision, both with myself, and with people whom I didn't want involved in my dietary choices.

(3.) It created a concrete, easy to follow commitment that allowed me to limit my consumption without thinking too hard about why I was doing it.

(4.) I was doing it for myself, on my own terms, so I didn't feel like I was doing it just because people expected it of me.

My weight dropped at a healthy, steady rate of about 2 pounds a week, until I leveled out at 195, which is where I've been for, so far, all of this year.  I'm still not skinny.  I'm not the embodiment of any ideal of beauty in Western culture.  But I'm not unhealthy, in the way I was before, and I feel ethically better about my eating decisions than I did before.

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Now, I said earlier in this post that I had a whole Ben & Jerry's ice cream.  Which is fine.  I do that sometimes, and I'm not worried about it, because it's not my whole diet and it's not every day.  Reasonably frequent bowls of ice cream have still been better for my health than reasonably frequent burgers, chicken and steak.[1. Especially considering that I didn't skip the ice cream when I was still eating meat every day.]

But I bought that ice cream.  And if you've been following my blog, you know I'm in quite a lot of debt.  But I had some money, so I ended up spending it.

I hate having money.  It makes me feel uncomfortable, unsafe and guilty.  Having money, and relying on money, always implies that I risk losing that money, or losing access to money.  I hate having bills, too, for the same reason.  I hate that money is a thing, though I recognize and acknowledge its utility.

I hate money like I love steak, and I don't know any easy way to control my spending.  If I could, I'd just give all my money away to charity, but while that solves the problem of having it, it doesn't solve any of the problems of not having it.  I haven't yet figured out any way that better spending can be a lifestyle choice, the way Weekday Veg is.  People's advice for lifestyle changes with money generally seem to be, "Be better with money."  It's not that easy, and that approach has never worked for me, with anything.

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Sometimes, I hear people talk about a "Welfare state," like it's some sort of evil system that only people who want to lay around all day and not do anything would want.  But when I think about my money problems, I tend to find myself fantasizing about exactly that kind of system.  I would happily work a full-time job, doing whatever the government decided I was needed for, as long as I didn't have to end up with money as a consequence.  I want a place to sleep, food to eat, the freedom to do and say what I want in my free time, to possibly earn enough admiration in an artistic field to shift into doing what I want to do for my living, and access to the resources like libraries and workshops in which I can do and say those things I want to.

don't want to have to be an accountant.  I don't want my success in the world to be contingent, not just upon my talents and dedication within whatever field in which I might excel, but also my talent at keeping track of finances and spotting good deals and financing plans.

When I think too much about money, I get wrapped up in that daydream, and anger at the unfairness that the system in which we live artificially enhances the success of people who are good at money over people who are good at anything else, like engineers and teachers and medical workers.[1. Until they're making enough to hire someone good at money.]  And that anger makes it difficult for me to accept the world I do live in, and makes it difficult for me to explore solutions to my financial problems that don't rely on the civilization I live in being fundamentally different.

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So, that's it.  That's my money problem, wrapped up in a neat little psychological, socialist-idealist bow.  I'm hoping that having this out of my system and up on the internet will free up the mental space necessary to work with the capitalist environment I've got [1. Which has loads of advantages, don't get me wrong, and I do see the practical and theoretical problems with my socialist fantasy too -- I'm talking about my fantasy here, not making a serious Utopian proposal.  Please don't jump down my throat about being a commie pinko fascist.] instead of getting angry, daydreaming, and stress-spending fifty bucks on scratch tickets and booze.

Status update: alternating books reading plan

I wrote a while ago that I was going to start trying to alternate my recreational reading, between books I've been meaning to get around to, and fun, fast young adult books. It had been going well for a while, but the last young adult book I finished was Will Grayson, Will Grayson -- which was a while ago.

Since then, I've been pushing my way through Moxyland, a relatively recent cyberpunk book I've been meaning to read for about two years now.  And it's not that it's a bad book.  I don't think it's a bad book.  But I'm finding that I'm having the same sort of trouble I always have in getting through it.  I get to these points where I just don't want to pick up a book in my free time.

I'm not sure whether the young adult thing is working -- because I really want to get to The Fault in Our Stars, and that has been prodding me to pick up the book more than I think I might otherwise be doing.  But I'm crawling through this book, and I don't want to be.

Talk to you tomorrow.

Books! I read them.

One of the most common pieces of advice I hear directed to aspiring writers (that is, directed to me and everyone like me) is, read.  Read, read, read and read.  Read broadly, read critically, read for fun, read for work, read as much as you possibly can.  Because the way you learn how to write well is by reading other people -- reading good writing, so you can see how it looks when it's done right, reading bad writing, so you can see exactly what doesn't work,* and reading a huge variety of writing, so you can pick up on stylistic variables and develop your own voice. The thing is, I'm kind of bad at reading.

I don't mean I have trouble with it.  I mean every book I pick up has this intimidating thickness to it, so that whenever I start a book it seems unimaginable that I'll be able to get to the other side.  (They're just so much longer than blog posts, you know?)  I have to psych myself out, pretend I'm not reading a book, and just get into the groove of reading page after page without being too conscious of the number of pages I have left.

So, over the years, I've been sort of passively trying to find a methodology of organizing my reading life that maximizes my ability to finish books.

For a long time, I'd read several books at once.  This seemed to be efficient, but I quickly learned that no matter how many stories I can keep in my head at once, what it actually meant was I'd get a few chapters into six mildly interesting books, and finish one, at best.  I'd only get through the most gripping, most engaging, and often least difficult books.

There are always exceptions -- the truly brilliant books that, though difficult, still manage to drag me from one end out the other.  These seem to most frequently benefit from the paired motivations of (a.) their constant and reinforcing quality and (b.) my desire to have read them.  (As Mark Twain brilliantly put it, A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.")  Books on that list include the Lord of the Rings, The God Delusion, and Perdido Street Station.

I've also tried the well-worn method of a to-read list, or shelf.

Right now, my to-read shelf has 40 books on it.  The last 4 books I've read did not come from it.  I don't particularly think it works.

Most recently, a new methodology that might actually be working has occurred to me.  Or, rather, came somewhat by chance.  I've been reading the Hunger Games trilogy, a brilliant young adult series about a dystopian future America, which is gripping, difficult to put down, and targeted at high school age children, so nothing about it is particularly challenging.**

After the first book, I put the series down to re-read The Great Gatsby.

And I tore through it.  Not just because it's a great book (it really is, it's truly brilliant) but because I was so eager to find out what happened next to Katniss after the cliffhanger-flavored ending of the Hunger Games.

I finished the second book in about two days, and now I've started Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, which has also been on my to-read list for quite some time.  I find myself seeking out opportunities to read it in every spare moment, because I want so badly to get to the third and final Hunger Games book.  Little Brother has, thus far, been excellent.

So, a methodology appears to emerge.  It still bears quite a lot of testing, but it's definitely what I'm going to be trying for the next several books I read, to see if it holds across the vacation.  I'm going to try and alternate between stand-alone books I've been meaning to read, and young adult series (or, failing series, sets of books by young adult authors I've been meaning to get to.)  After the Hunger Games, I think I'll start on Scott Westerfeld's Uglies books.  John Greene's books also look fairly appealing.

In that time, I'm also going to try and cut my to-read shelf down enough that I can fit all the books spine-out next to each other.  (Right now, quite a few are laying on top of one another.)

Wish me luck?

*I think the latter actually works better, because you're more likely to spot -- and fix -- when you've done exactly those horrible things in your own work than you are likely to successfully employ the brilliant devices in good prose. **Though it's brilliantly thought-provoking. I would absolutely love to see these books added to the curriculum of high school classes everywhere.

Minecraft and time budgeting

So, Minecraft came out today. I haven't had much time to play with the update of the game, so I don't really know how I like any of the new features.  I do know that the new sound effects for certain actions keep weirding me out, but I'm sure I'll get used to them.

But the new edition means Minecraft has just acquired even more potential to be a massive timesink.  And because I've got a lot of schoolwork, a novel, and plenty else besides, it's becoming even more important than it already was to start budgeting my time better.

I think I need to make room for the game.  Not just because I'm going to end up playing it anyway, so it's better to account for it in my plans, but because I think it is, to a degree, valuable in itself.

I've been reading Reality is Broken, by Jane McGonigal, which is about how video games make people happy.  And I have to say, I'm more than a little convinced by her argument that the sense of accomplishment I get from Minecraft is good for me.

It's important to keep it in moderation.  It's vital that I don't start compromising my other goals and projects to keep up with the video game.  But I do think that the reliable achievability of things in Minecraft makes it a healthy grounding for a regular source of cathartic achievement.

Sorry for the late post.  Talk to you tomorrow.

Reading lists

I've got this horrible problem, where I develop over time a huge list of books I have to get around to reading.  I've got a shelf of them right now.  And, for the most part, I don't. That's not to say I don't read.  (Though I do go through pretty significant dry spells sometimes.)  But I somewhat rarely get around to reading the books that are actually on my shelf.

I'm beginning to wonder whether it might be a problem with the mechanism of reading lists/shelves themselves.  I think I might be using the wrong decision making mechanisms to choose what books to read.  Or, rather, the criteria by which I choose to read a book are out of sync with the criteria with which I put books on the to-read shelf.

On the other hand, it might just be representative of the continual triumph of my impulsive self over my more measured self-interest.  The Corrections has been sitting on my to-read shelf for about four months now, but it took me no time at all to get to Reality Is Broken.

Thoughts?