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.

April's Charity Debt: Electronic Frontier Foundation

Last month, I wrote that I was going to start keeping a list of charities -- once a month, I'd add a new one, and a $5 debt to them.  My goal is to prep myself for donating a percentage of my income consistently to charity, once I have income. The charity I chose last month was Planned Parenthood.

This month, I'm adding a $5 debt to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).  The area they work in, keeping the net free and protecting human rights in digital environments, is some of the most important work being done in the industrialized world.

I do realize that both of my charity choices so far have been directed towards charities that operate largely in the US, and pretty much entirely in the industrialized world.  This is because I don't feel comfortable donating to charities helping the impoverished worldwide before I learn more about the areas my money will be going to, and what kinds of charity actually helps people in a lasting, sustainable way.

I've heard good things about Water.org via the Vlogbrothers and Wheezy Waiter, so they might be getting some of my money in the future.  And the worst I've heard about Kiva.org is that they're only pretty good, not really, really good.  I took them up on an offer of $25 dollars of free lending, but (since I don't have it) haven't put any of my own money into it.

Charity Debt

So, I found out about five minutes ago that J.K. Rowling isn't on Forbes Magazine's list of billionaires.  Prior to this discovery, I wasn't aware she should have been.  But as this article explains, she's only off the list because she's given too much of her money away to charity:

"New information about Rowlings' estimated $160 million in charitable giving combined with Britain's high tax rates bumped the 'Harry Potter' scribe from our list this year," stated Forbes.

Naturally, none of this likely bothers Rowling, who from the beginning has made giving back a priority for her wealth.

“You have a moral responsibility when you’ve been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently," she said in a past interview.

This made me think about my amount of charitable giving lately.  (None, apart from Kiva's recent promotion offering 25 dollars to lend for free.  So, arguably $25 but still none.)

I'm in a lot of debt right now, so I can't afford to start giving money.  But last time I had a job, I wasn't giving regularly either -- I gave some, when it occurred to me and was convenient.  But I didn't have a regular donation schedule set up, and that bothers me.

So, I'm going to start a new list in my book:  my charity debt.  Every month, I'm going to pick a charity, write its name down on a line, and add a $5 debt to them.  When I have more steady work and have paid off my more pressing debts, it will be $5 or 5% of my monthly income, whichever is more.

This month's charity will be Planned Parenthood, which has a convenient $5 minimum.  I'm sure I'll have more to say in the future about my philosophy of charitable giving as it develops, but offhand I imagine I'll be mixing it up between health organizations and homelessness relief in the US, responsible aid in the developing world, and direct donations to specific artists who produce work for free.  (Aaron Diaz and Jeph Jacques deserve my money, for instance.)

I hope to stick to this for the rest of my life, well into my extravagant wealth, when 5% of my income for a month would be like winning the lottery.  Or, maybe at that point I'll divide it up a little...  And maybe give away a larger percentage.

So I finished the second draft of my novel

By that I mean, I've finished covering the printout of the first draft of my novel with green ink, and am about halfway through typing up the second draft.  I'm pretty happy with the novel where it's at, though there are a couple of scenes I intend to go through and add, or rewrite, entirely -- the third draft is essentially going to be spot edits. I typed fifty pages up on Saturday, and that was long and painful and awful to do, but it's necessary work.

On a more personal note, I don't mind doing necessary work, even when it sucks.  I'm okay with going through the arduous task of retyping my entire novel, working through the annoyingly poorly scribbled green edits, over the course of several hours.  It's not fun, but it's not emotionally painful.

I'm willing to work much harder, in fact, to complete the sort of necessary but unpleasant work that leads to me finishing something like a novel, than I am willing to work towards creating something I don't care about, or creating nothing at all.

There's a lot of work out there that adds up to essentially nothing.  There are jobs that support systems I don't just care little about, but that I actively disdain.  There's a lot of stuff in this world I don't like, and people put a lot of work into making that stuff.

It's not just that those jobs are hard.  I'm okay with hard work.  I like hard work, insofar as I like going to great lengths of effort to create things I think are important.  What I'm not okay with, what I'm not willing to do, is hard work to create things I hate.

I love writing.  I think it's important, and I think it makes the world a better place.  So I'm going to do about 100 pages of not-very-fun typing in the next five days or so, happily.

Talk to you tomorrow.

Bucket Lists are hard

Every once in a while, the concept  of the bucket list floats back into my attention.  It's pretty pervasive in our culture right now, and I think it's generally a pretty good idea -- I mean, if you start from the premise that you're going to make sacrifices and compromises to have a relatively safer and more comfortable life (which I do think everyone does eventually have to do, in some form or another) then it's a great idea to figure out your sticking points -- what sort of experiences you absolutely don't want to miss. The thing is, though, I can't write one.

I really can't.  I can't figure out what things I wouldn't be willing to die without doing.

I mean, there are a handful of things that are really important to me.  I'd like to meet Neil Gaiman (check) and Tim Minchin  (check), I want to publish a novel, but more importantly I want to build a career as a writer, I want to travel and have meaningful relationships and hopefully have kids some day and raise them to have relatively few deep emotional issues.

But as far as the sort of easy, event-based, check-off-a-list kind of things that a bucket list is well suited to organize?  I just don't think I know myself well enough to know what sorts of things those would be.

Maybe I'm wrong -- maybe the bucket list is a shallow papering-over of the reality that human desires are too complex and subtle to be satisfied with a simple checklist.  Maybe, ultimately, you don't need to compromise your selfhood, even one little bit, in order to get through an entire lifespan.  But I think that casts my current ambivalence in a bit more of a positive light than I'm confident it deserves.

That said, I think I'm on the right track in thinking about this, even if I can't actually write the list.

Talk to you tomorrow.

Some more thoughts on the Doctor Who season 6 finale

I wrote, before, on the season finale of Doctor Who this year, "The Wedding of River Song." Spoilers will be present in this post.

In the post, I expressed a little bit of disappointment.  Not much.  I still loved it.  It was still deeply moving.  But it wasn't quite the earth-shattering brilliance I was expecting.  It leaned a little bit too heavily on loopholes for my taste.

Well, I've watched it several more times since then, and I have to say, I am increasingly impressed.

The ending, I admit, still feels just slightly cheap.  It was more a vehicle to keep the Doctor alive to continue having a show than it was a deeply sensible and brilliant wrap-up.  But this plotline, which his hypothetical death justified, was extraordinary, deeply moving, and as brilliant as I was hoping the actual death would be.

Seasons 5 and 6 progressively deconstructed the idea of the Doctor as a hero.  It showed the risks he poses to the people who travel with him.  It showed the damage he can do, dropping into people's lives and shaking them to the core.  It showed the way the universe might rally against him, the way he makes worlds fear him, the way he might terrorize the universe.

Moffat showed the Doctor losing faith in himself, coming to believe that he should die.

Then, in a life-affirming culmination, at the climax of the last episode of season 6, River Song, the woman who loves the Doctor more than anyone in the universe, shows him a distress signal, begging the universe for help.  To save the Doctor.

And from every corner in the universe, voices cried out.  "Yes, of course.  We'll help."

As River said, "I can't let you die without knowing you are loved.  By so many, and so much.  And by no one more than me."

I know it's just a story.  I know that the way Moffat tells it doesn't prove any deeper truths about the universe.  But what he showed us was a world, a universe, where passion and excitement and optimism and love can genuinely triumph.  He showed us the criticisms to the argument, spread across two series, and he shot them down.

I like to believe that we live in that sort of world.  A world where living life with passion and excitement, and loving and helping and fighting for the people we meet, whenever the opportunity to do so presents itself, and at the same time fighting for ourselves, isn't a path to self-destruction.

Ultimately, no one living can work out the moral calculus to figure out the best possible way to make life beautiful and exciting for as many people as possible.  Until someone works it out, I'm going to take the side of earnest, passionate, and unironic trying.

I'm glad to see that Moffat and the Doctor are on that side, too.

On Vegetables

I've been thinking a bit about my diet lately. I'm a weekday vegetarian -- that is, Monday through Friday, I don't eat any meat -- that includes fish, chicken, and bacon, a point which some people struggle with.  And on the weekends my dietary restrictions are entirely lifted.

I'm amazed at the number of people who seem to have a problem with this.  There are absurd numbers of people who seem to have an actual problem with vegetarianism, of any sort, at all.

I'm seriously starting to consider becoming vegan, not because I feel any strong ethical compulsion, but just to piss off all the people in my life who whine if I ever go a weekend without eating a fracking steak.

My experience with weekday vegetarianism over the last year or so has highlighted the absurdity of the cultural trope that vegetarians, especially vegans, try to shove their lifestyle down your throat.

I know a few vegans, and a lot of vegetarians.  I have never -- literally, never -- had a conversation with a vegetarian or vegan in which they were remotely pushy about their diet or moral convictions surrounding them.  It only even comes up in the context of a meal, when they politely turn down food that breaks their dietary rules.

You know who's pushy about it?

Meat eaters.

Obviously, it's not all of them.  Plenty of people I know accepted my decision to eat less meat in stride.  Plenty more were surprised, but when I explained my reasoning they accepted it.

But I've been amazed at the number of people who just won't let it go.  They make a point to make snide comments about vegetarians when they know they're in mixed dietary company.  They pressure me or others to have "Just a little," and in the case of my particular diet, affect a tone of deep concern if I ever go a weekend without stuffing as much meat down my throat as I can.

It was over six months into my diet change before my friends and family stopped trying to actively talk me out of it.  A lot of them still pressure me to agree that this shouldn't be a permanent lifestyle change, just a temporary decision.

I'm seriously tempted to give up meat entirely just so I don't have to be in the same group as these people.

I've made a new bet

I find that there are a handful of good ways to keep oneself to one's commitments.  I've got a few going right now:

  1. I’m updating this blog every day through the month of September.
  2. I’m tweeting every day (@txwatson) through the month of September, now twice.
  3. I’m updating my comic, Bathetic, three times a week. and, now,
  4. I’m working on a book, every day, until the damn thing is finished.

In the past, there are three ways I've kept myself to keep up with the commitments I've made.

Personal vows:  Making arbitrary commitments is easy enough when I vow to do it, like I'm doing with abstention from alcohol this month. This works mostly because I like having the ability in place, and if I ever fail to keep a vow, it degrades my ability to persuade myself to do things in the future.

Public accountability:  I find it much harder to give up on a goal if there's someone holding me accountable for it.  This works better for some things than others -- it's a great way to get my homework done, but it was pointedly unhelpful when I became a weekday vegetarian, because most of my peer group and family wanted me to quit.  (I shall blog about that in future.)

Money:  I made some new commitments tonight, and I put over five hundred dollars on my ability to keep them.

I can't afford to lose five hundred dollars.  I'll be keeping these commitments.

They are:

By March 12, 2012, I will:

Have lost 25 lbs. Have a GPA of at least 3.5 Finish my novel and submit it to an agent Blog every day (3 strikes allowed)

The person I bet against also made commitments, and will have to pay if I make it and they don't.  If we both make it, we throw a party for ourselves, celebrating our continued success.  If we both lose, we make new, harsher commitments, and the amount of the wager is doubled.

Wish me luck.

I didn't need a soul, anyway

I'm at a friend's house tonight, engaging in grossly irresponsible, addictive behavior. I've signed up for minecraft.

I have a history of video game addiction (as well as every other sort of addiction) so this is really probably a terrible idea.  On the other hand, I've been feeling a bit socially anemic lately, and the friend in question keeps a server running with a shared space.

Hopefully, I'll be able to keep it under control, continue to get the rest of my work done, and just use the game in reasonable amounts when I have the time to spare.

If I don't, please intervene.

Substance Abuse

So, I'm taking a couple months off from drinking.  I decided to after a party at which I got significantly drunker than I had intended, through remarkably little prodding.  It seems odd, because I knew I hate being drunk.  I've been that drunk before.  And while I never intend to be that drunk again, I'm sure it will happen, and I'm sure it will suck.  (John Cheese of Cracked.com calls this a "safety net," and says I should be ashamed of myself for using them.) Nonetheless, I will drink again.  I've specifically promised myself to put it off until the first Halloween party of this year, or November 1st, whichever comes first.  And I'll do that -- I won't drink until then, and I will almost certainly drink then.

Whenever I go through one of these introspective periods of abstention, I tend to wonder about the broader concerns of addiction and recovery.  I know, for example, that I meet like half of the warning signs  on alcohol abuse checklists.  Those ones that say something to the effect of, "If even one of these apply to you, you may have a problem.  If you check two or more, seek help."

And I knew that when I started drinking (about four months after my 21st birthday) I was a serious risk-group for alcohol abuse.  I had two significant motivations to drink -- to make the miserable pain of my loneliness and recursive depression a little bit duller (which probably wouldn't work anyway), and to lubricate social activities with intellectuals over one or two drinks in an evening.  I didn't start drinking until after the second motivation emerged from the aether.

The thing is, the entries I check off for abuse problems?  It's not the "damaging relationships" or "interfering with work life" ones.  It's just the other stuff -- drinking alone, drinking to deal with emotions, underestimating quantities of drinking, and so on.

So, should I be worried?

I mean, I am worried.  And I'm pretty sure that the experts would say that's a good reason to worry.  Mainly, I don't want to get to the point where I am checking off those other boxes, with a network of mental rationalizations at my back and a real, serious physical dependency.

Isn't ambiguity fun?