Writing: Pride and Insecurity

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In place of a normal post today, I’m going to share something of a short story, for lack of a better name, that I wrote for myself a while back. I had been writing about some of my weaknesses and flaws, trying to introspect and see what aspects of myself and my life I could improve the most, and found myself writing something of a fable instead. So without further ado, an untitled work on the symbiotic relationship between pride and insecurity:

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Insecurity was a shadowy, many-legged creature. He scuttled around, frightening people, occasionally barring doorways in an attempt to disrupt people’s lives by keeping them from crossing. He fed on fear, failure, distress of all kinds – nearly the whole range of negative human emotions. But Insecurity, for as large and dark and frightening as he appeared, did not have teeth. He operated in the shadows, preying on people who were too afraid to just ignore or step past him. He relied on the naïve, who did not yet know that he could not bit or claw them, and the phobic, who knew what he was but still could not keep the panic from risking at the sight of him. And so he lived, scurrying from under beds for a meal of startled fear and lingering in doorways to drink in the dread, the frustration, the failed bravery. He lived well enough, but never quite felt satisfied – his diet sustained him, but there was one feeling he could not elicit, and so could not taste: he craved the rich flavor of pain, which his grand but toothless appearance could not provide.

Until one day, Pride arrived in town. Now Pride looked nothing like Insecurity. He was barely the size of your average housecat, and walked on just four stately legs. His size belied his strength, but his strong muscles were hidden under a layer of bright red and orange fuzz. Pride did not live in the shadows, as Insecurity did. He was not large or frightening enough to fill his belly on quick startles, or to keep people from crossing their doorways past him. But Pride had something that Insecurity lacked – Pride had teeth. He rarely managed to partake of the visceral fear and dread that sustained Insecurity, so instead he dined on pain. A quick nip would get him through the day in a pinch, and when he was starving or gluttonous, a hard chomp could usually satiate him. Mostly.

But Pride too was tired of his uniform diet. He enjoyed the rich taste of pain, but even the most delicious of meals becomes unappealing after a time of eating nothing else. On a good day, the result of a bite might have gotten him pain seasoned with startled fear, but none of the subtle flavoring of dread, frustration, or the gut terror of seeing a great shadowy beast. And so, after yet another bland meal, Pride payed a visit to Insecurity.

Insecurity received him in his favorite shadowy corner.

“I come with a proposal for you, Insecurity,” said Pride.

“A proposal?”

“A mutually beneficial business arrangement,” Pride affirmed. Insecurity stared silently.

“These humans have such an abundance of delicious emotions, my friend,” Pride continued after a pause. “Why should you have to live on the scraps of dread and startle, always hoping that you won’t go hungry because you misjudged the bravery of your victim? Why should I have to subsist on nothing but hard-earned pain, day in and day out? I long for the flavors of dread, of the paralyzing terror which you instill, and I can see in your eyes that you too are unsatisfied with you meagre options. We can help each other. I offer you my teeth and the rich taste of pain, and all I ask in return is that I may share in the fear, dread, and frustration that you are so accustomed to.”

Insecurity was silent for a moment longer as he mulled over the creature’s proposal. He had worked and lived alone for a long time, but he saw the wisdom in Pride’s offer. Together they would not only enjoy rich new flavors, but also never again feel powerless against the increasing number of humans who no longer feared him.

“I am hungry,” he said in response. “Let us begin our relationship with a meal.”

And so they did. The feasted daily on fear, pain, dread, and the confusion of the humans who had previously believed Insecurity to be harmless. Those who used to march past him through their doorways and into the world soon grew wary and fearful once more, knowing that the shadowy presence could now hurt them. In this manner, Pride and Insecurity terrorized the town. Many people gave up, refusing to even attempt to cross their doorways. But Pride and Insecurity always found a way in, to feed on their fear and on their failure. They never went hungry, growing only larger and stronger, and tasting more and more flavors as the humans’ frustration evolved into despair and self-hatred, knowing that the whole world awaited them on the other side of a doorway, which they could not bring themselves to cross.

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This piece may seem odd to most – but if you’re like me, you may understand. Pride and insecurity seem, on the surface, to be opposites. But they’re two vices that can combine in the worst of unions: when your insecurities are fortified by pride, it can become impossible to listen to the criticism of others, to introspect honestly, and to admit your faults in order to improve them. On the other hand, when pride is fortified by insecurity, you can be overly competitive and sensitive, taking offense to criticism and becoming something of a bad sport. The combination of my insecurities over my abilities and intelligence, especially those insecurities regarding how others perceive me, in combination with my pride can make even a friendly game of Scrabble a cause for distress.

This story may mean little to you, and that’s okay. But I’m proud (in the non-vicious way) that I have been able to introspect at least this much, and come to see the manner in which my flaws interact and damage my relationships, my life, and my well-being.

Review: Uni-ball Pens and Structured Motivation

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I’m very picky about my pens. So picky, in fact, that I can safely say that I’ve spent most of my academic and adult life (post-pencil years of middle school and prior) in constant search of good pens.

I want an even, dark line. I want to be able to write on both sides of a page without bleed-through. I want to be able to close my notebook or journal when I’m done, and not smear ink all over my precious words.

The wrong pen makes writing a chore. It makes it difficult. It makes it ugly. It takes away that smooth satisfaction of writing by handBut the right pens are hard to find – for the last five years or so, every time I’ve run out of pens, I’ve tried out a new kind. A new brand, a new style, a new size. Over the years I have found a few that worked well enough for me, but rarely any that I truly loved. None that I stuck with. Not until about a year ago.

Our love story starts in the 4rd-floor study room of my University’s library. I usually preferred the 5th floor stacks, but that day fate sent me elsewhere.

It was sitting on the floor, under the chalkboard and amongst a rather foul mixture of dustballs, candy wrappers, chewed up gum and other equally unpleasant debris. I don’t exactly make a habit of grabbing abandoned pens out of corners that haven’t been cleaned in what looked like decades, but I had been using a horrendous freebie pen from some fundraiser or bank ever since my last extra fine-point Pilot Precise V5 had exploded on an airplane (yeah, that was a mess). I had been lethargic about getting new pens, since the Pilots had been far too inky and the task of choosing and trying yet another kind gave me a frustration headache. So when I saw this big, honking silver pen, cover in lint and frighteningly close to a wad of dried up chewing gum, I figured it was better than what I had and pulled out some hand sanitizer. And I fell in love.

Now this pen was so old that most of the markings had been worn off. I could make out something like U**Ba** and maybe a t or an l. I checked every store I went to, trying to find it by simple recognition. I scoured Amazon, Google, pen reviews, Staples…if I put as much work into my writing or school as I put into that search, I’d probably be a wildly rich and successful author by now. Well, maybe.

But I couldn’t find it. Despite my desperate search, knowing my beloved pen would soon reach the end of its days, I never found another of its kind. To this day I have no idea if they even make it anymore. When it finally ran out of ink, I was at a loss. I would borrow pens from the boyfriend or my friends or my classrooms, but I couldn’t bring myself to go back to the hunt, not for a while. I needed to get over this pen before I could be ready for a new one. Delete its number. Eat some ice cream. Burn the notebooks we made together.

Or something.

But eventually, as with all things, I was ready to try again. Refreshed and hopeful. Plus, I knew something now – Uni-Ball. Maybe I couldn’t find the exact pen, but surely the company made something similar, right? So I put on my most daring lipstick (alright, I was probably wearing sweatpants and hadn’t brushed my hair in a week, but I like the relationship analogy) and marched confidently into my local Office Depot.

I found the writing supply aisle. I found the pens. The Uni-Ball section.

I have a few criteria when it comes to pens: black ink, rollerball, preferably 0.5mm if not smaller. That usually narrows it down to just about nothing in your average CVS. In this Office Depot, sticking to the Uni-Ball section, there were maybe two options. I read the boxes. One of them sold me with some nice key phrases like “bleed-proof”, “consistent smoothness”, “thin, neat lines”. I took a leap of faith. I bought a 12-pack.

And boy oh boy am I glad. I just plain enjoy using these pens. It’s easy, it’s smooth, it’s satisfying. Writing in a journal with that even, neat ink flow is up there with a glass of wine in the bathtub or a nice foot massage. It just feels good.

And what feels good, we want to do. I started writing a lot more by hand. I started thinking of writing as a leisure activity on top of part of my work. And it gave me the extra push I needed to get my shit organized.

I’m not going to pretend I’m the neatest, most detailed or scheduled person. I’m not. I tend to be a bit all over the place, if I’m being honest. But I also know myself, and I am not someone who thrives on chaos and spontaneity and constant change. I work best with a routine. I get things done best with a general kind of schedule. So I gave myself some structure: a basic daily routine, including time to write. One chunk of time to type up my next blog post or a short story for editing or submission, and another chunk to sit down with my journal and my (lovely) pen and write whatever I like. Daily thoughts. Insecurities. Lists. Memories. Hopes. Brainstorms. New stories and essays. You know – journal stuff.

The key to being a writer is to write. Everyone says it, all the time: you won’t always have the motivation to write. You won’t always want to. But you have to do it anyway, and that’s where structure comes in. If it’s a habit, when your inspiration passes you’ll still be able to do it, you may even still want to do it. Structured motivation.

So find yourself the right pens, the right tools. Find yourself the right things to do with those tools. And do them – regularly.

And for the record: the pen that currently has my heart is the Uni-Ball Vision Rollerball, micro point (.5mm), available on Amazon and most likely your local office supply store.

Sunday Sads: The Anesthetic Effect of Netflix or, How Shitty Internet Changed My Life

Netflix (and its ilk) can have serious detrimental effects to your mental health, especially for those who have pre-existing mental health problems.

I should start by saying I love and use Netflix all the time. And Amazon Prime. And Hulu. And the vast collection of thousands of movies and tv shows that my dad has copied from VHS to DVD over the years (don’t tell the FBI).

This isn’t going to be a lecture about ‘getting outside and living your life’, ‘kids these days are always plugged in’, ‘you need to be falling out of a tree at least once a week’, or whatever else people are saying about young people nowadays. But it is important to be aware of the causes and effects of what I’ll call ‘chronic Netflix binging’. For simplicity’s sake I will generally use ‘Netflix’ to refer to any method of binging content, (yeah, Youtube and Vine (RIP) count too).

Netlix isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s a wonderful thing: it facilitates social interactions (and no, I’m not just talking about Netflix and chill), helps you unwind after a long day, and provides easy access to the pop culture that a large portion of our daily discussions and references consist in.

But it’s also an anesthetic.

Many of you probably already know what I’m talking about. When I’m down in the dumps, there are tons of things that could make me feel better, both during and after: reading, writing, crafts, (sometimes) socializing, actually doing the work that’s causing me anxiety…but those things are difficult. Watching a 22-episode season in one sitting might sound difficult, but it’s mindless. It lets you shut off, and when your mind is anxious or upset, that’s exactly what you want. It’s the path of least resistance.

I sometimes sit down with the intention of opening up a book to relax – because reading is relaxing, and healing, and pretty much any positive adjective I could think of – but find myself opening up my computer instead. Now, sometimes shutting off really is what you need – after a long day of classes or work, when your mind is tired, a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is just the thing. But when you open up Netflix to escape your negative thoughts, your fears and anxieties and deadlines, you are only hurting yourself.

You are hurting yourself because it works. It numbs you. It makes it all go away – while you’re watching. But when you’re done, or even in the 15-second countdown between episodes, it comes back. And it comes back worse. Your brain says “what are you doing? I’m telling you something is wrong. I’m telling you you need to fix me. Why aren’t you listening?”

Sometimes that voice in my head just perpetuates the cycle. Rather than dealing with my anxieties, whether by taking care of the cause or doing something that genuinely relaxes me, I say “no, brain. Quiet now. I’m pretending you don’t exist.” And I watch another episode to avoid the guilt. And then I feel worse, so I watch another episode to avoid dealing with that.

It got so bad for me a few years back that there were periods during which I slept only every third night or so. Not because I was out all night, not because I was going wild or having a psychotic episode, but because I could only let myself put away the numbing agents when I was sure that I would fall asleep immediately. I was stuck in this vicious, life-ruining cycle of needing to turn myself off.

It’s a strange sort of cognitive dissonance, knowing full well that reading even a light, fun fantasy novel would relax me and make me feel better, and still choosing the option that would leave me tired but wired, and even more anxious than before. It was the path – or rather, the cycle – of least resistance, and it took an incredible amount of self-control to form the habits to break it. To turn my computer off an hour before bed. To log out of Netflix until the paper was done. To take my journal outside where there’s no wifi, or to a different room with no computer.

But with some work, and admittedly the help of internet so shitty it was impossible to watch anything at home, I’ve found ways to genuinely help myself feel better. Not just to turn off the bad feelings for 42 minutes.

Now maybe you’re reading this and thinking “Jesus, do people really have that unhealthy a relationship with Netflix?” Maybe you’ve only ever used Netflix to take a quick break, to unwind a little, to hang out with friends or lovers. If so, good on you. But I encourage you to think about – maybe even make a list of – the things that leave you feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, that help you meet your goals and boost your motivation, that make you feel good about yourself. Then make a list of the things that drain your energy, that leave you with regret, that waste your time. Where does Netflix really fall for you?

I’m not saying delete your account. I’m not even saying don’t watch Netflix every day. I’m just saying that there are good reasons and bad reasons for watching Netflix, good times and bad times to do it. If you’re aware of those, if you can structure your life so that Netflix is just an aid in your enjoyment rather than a crutch to stop yourself from needing to think or feel, then carry on. If not, if you’re like me, I encourage you to make a few changes.

Don’t stop watching. Just think before you watch.