Monthly Archives: May 2014

Happy Birthday To Me

So today is my birthday. I am now 29 years old. I had planned to do a neat “Where have I come in a year” post, but I feel more like slacking off instead. In other words, when I sat down to write that post, I got distracted and before I knew it it was time to go to work.

Anyway, thank you for all the birthday wishes today. Here’s to another year of dodging the reaper. I’ll leave you with some Arrogant Worms:

Black vs. White

Hopefully, yesterday I managed to communicate some of what’s going through my head in regards to knighthood and the SCA. It’s a complicated ball of thoughts, one which for some reason I reflexively shy away from looking at too closely. After all, one could (and I’m not saying I do) take the uncharitable view that knighthood is “just” a fighting award, reserved for those combatants who achieve a certain level of prowess. After all, isn’t that kind of what a black belt in martial arts is? This train of thought then begs a question:

Why don’t I get hung up about black belts?

After all, that’s another rank that is often idolized in popular culture. For better or worse, being a black belt carries an aura of mystique with it, as if at any moment the black belt could, with the twitch of a finger, flip out and kill everyone. So why don’t I get all flustered at the thought of being a black belt?

Maybe it’s because I am a black belt, and became one at such a young age. I first achieved the rank when I was 11, and was a 3rd degree black belt by the time I stopped practicing Taekwondo. In other words, I’ve been a black belt for most of my life. Now if you want to discuss whether or not a child of that age can “truly understand what it means to be a black belt,” I’ll grant you that that is an important discussion. And while I’m not sure where I fall on that issue (I’d like to think I grew into the position), that’s not the conversation I want to have right now. What interests me now is the differences I perceive between being a black belt and being a knight.

Intellectually, I’m not sure there’s much of a difference. Both ranks can be seen as a level of mastery, or at least mastery of the basics. But culturally, I’ve come to view them as different. Perhaps it’s their position in the rank structure. I came from a fairly westernized martial arts background. My dad’s instructor was Korean, but our school had a fairly typical ranks structure. You started out as a white belt, and then every few months tested for the next rank until you were ready to test for your black belt. As such, you could easily measure your progress. Orange belt? Then you’re just about done with the first tier. Blue? You’re about halfway. Red? Best start preparing hard for that black belt test in your near future.

The SCA, on the other hand, doesn’t have that rigorous structure. You fight, you get better. You play the game, you progress. Eventually, someone notices you and decides you’re ready. You get offered knighthood. At least, that’s what the process looks like while you’re in it. As such, it’s hard to know exactly where you are on the path, which for me means that path can look long right up until the moment it isn’t. Without any clear-cut goals or markers, it lends a certain amount of mystery to the final achievement.

Maybe this is intentional; I don’t know. Much like I don’t know why being a black belt and knighthood hold such different places in my mind. But they do, and maybe this difference is part of the reason. Maybe I just got exposed to being a black belt early enough, I didn’t have time to see it as a Big Thing™. Either way, thinking and writing about it like this does seem to be helping. If nothing else, it helps me clear my mind enough that I (hopefully) won’t be brooding too obviously while at work.

Knight Musings

I’ve been thinking on the nature of knighthood in the SCA a lot recently. Not only along the lines of “What does it take to be a knight?” but also “What does it mean to be a knight?” What experiences I do have of knighthood are from the outside (obviously), and while I’m sure there are many people out there who would be happy to talk with me on the subject, I am at this moment limited to the echo chamber of my own thoughts, as well as the small amount that makes it out and onto this page.

My understanding of knighthood has changed during my time in the SCA, as is inevitable. When I first started playing, I looked to them as masters and instructors, much like the black belts from my days with eastern martial arts. They were the gurus, the keepers of knowledge and experience. And in a way, they represented a goal to be achieved: one day you, too, may achieve this. One day you too may be a knight.

But what I didn’t realize at the time is I was only seeing the end result of a long journey that took place before my time. That these people weren’t always knights; they became them (or were recognized as such, but that’s a different discussion). First impressions are a big thing, after all. If you meet someone who is a knight (or black belt), it can be hard to think of them as anything else, even if they just received the accolade/achieved that rank a little bit before your time.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that for a long time, when I saw the white belt of knighthood I didn’t necessarily see the time and effort it took to get there. I only saw the master, not the master of the basics.

And I still do, to a certain extent. But I’ve been forced to reevaluate my mental shorthand, if for no other reason than I’ve seen people get knighted, often people who started fighting around the same time (or even after) I did. Some of them even my friends. I knew these people before they got knighted, and familiarity can go a long way to breaking the spell of idolization (not to take anything away from my friends that have been knighted). It can be hard to think of someone as a symbol when you already know them as a person, after all.

And yet, for all the humanizing of the position that seeing friends knighted has forced me to do, I can’t quite make the connection that this is a thing that could happen to me. On some level, I still see knighthood as something off in the future. Something I would love to attain, and will hopefully do so when the time is right. Not as an… I don’t know. A goal? Something I might be close to achieving?

See, even writing about this is hard for me. Even though I’ve been ostensibly working towards this goal, I still can’t see myself as a knight. Not yet. I know I have so much more to learn, and what I have learned has just reiterated that time and again. After all, if I have so much left to learn, why do I get the feeling I’m on someone’s radar?

I probably need to talk to someone about this; spending all this time in my mental echo chamber isn’t doing me much good.

Crossroads Recap

So Crossroads was this past weekend, and I ended up having a really good time. Having a full weekend off work was a nice change of pace; I even managed to sleep in! Sure, it was only until 7am or so, but it’s all relative. And even if we didn’t end up staying on site, it was fun to hang out with my friends.

I even ended up fighting this weekend. I was slightly surprised, given how exhausted I was going into things. But oddly enough, it was my knight saying I didn’t have to that gave me the energy to gear up and hit my friends with sticks. It’s as if I was able to remember that fighting was something I wanted to do, once I was reminded that it wasn’t something I needed to do.

And as often happens, I’m glad I did fight, because I ended up fighting really well. There was one tournament each day for Heavy and Fencing, and I fought in them all. Saturday I ended up making it to more or less the quarterfinals in each, and Sunday I made it to the semifinals in both. Sometimes you have off days, and sometimes everything just clicks; this weekend was one of the latter, and I haven’t had one of those in a while. I don’t like to brag about myself (and I’m not just using that as some sort of false modesty excuse), but I felt pretty good.

I also got several compliments on my fighting, from several knights I highly respect. Which was great; it was quite encouraging. But it also is kind of intimidating. It means people are noticing me. That I’m no longer just some faceless drone in the fighting ranks. That I might actually be good at this fighting thing.

It made me thing about what I talked about a month ago, on the nature of “mastery” versus “mastery of the basics.” Since I joined the SCA, I’ve dreamed of being a knight. It’s why I started heavy fighting, and although my interests have branched out, it’s still a goal I hold. This weekend, for better or worse, made me realize that (and this is a weird thought) I might be closer to knighthood than I thought.

Maybe that’s just the ego boost from placing well in some tournaments talking. But on the other hand, maybe it’s something I really do have to consider. I’ve often said I’m too nice for my own good. Part of that may be excess humility, a blindness to my own achievements. In fact, you can probably see it in my writing right now: notice how I keep on throwing out qualifiers, coming up with other explanations? It’s an interesting reflex, and one that feels weird to be working through in semi-public on a blog. But writing seems to be the easiest way for me to do so: it gets my ideas out of my head, into the open where they can no longer clog up my musings. It also lets me document my progress, so I can tell whether or not I’m just re-treading worn paths or if I’m actually moving forward.

And really, I’ve been fighting for about ten years. Even in the unstructured training environment that is the SCA, that much time has to get you somewhere, right?

This will require more pondering.

Temporal Disconnect

The temporal disconnect of having a buffer is getting to me again. As I write this, it’s Friday afternoon. I’ve just finished working seven days in a row, staying longer than I expected to for several of those days. I’m tired, burned out, and not feeling like doing much of anything, let alone going to an SCA event over the weekend. By the time this entry gets posted on Monday, I will have managed to sleep in, been to said event, and will presumably be in a much better mood than I am/was on Friday. So what kind of post to I go for? Do I go for an attempt at a happy, well-rested mindset, where I have the brain power to spare to address pertinent issues or subjects that fascinate me? Or do I go for a more morose tone, one that reflects the fatigue of a long work week and the lack of motivation? One wouldn’t be applicable on the day it’s written, while the other wouldn’t be applicable on the day it’s posted.

Truly, this is a conundrum for the ages.

Usually, there’s not as much of a disconnect between when I write and when I post. Sure, a day or two may pass, for example when I blog about my experiences at that week’s fighter practice. But I assume what readers I have can deal with that dissonance; it’s not like I’m blogging about hot-off-the-presses news or bleeding-edge technology developments, after all.

Maybe that’s what’s confusing me: I’m once again thinking about this blog from a reader’s perspective, rather than my own writer’s viewpoint. I keep coming back to the question of who I’m actually writing for. I’ll admit I’m enough of a narcissist human that I get a small thrill out of seeing that people have read the things I write. If I didn’t care about that at all, I wouldn’t be sharing my writing, now would I? But I am, so on some level I do care what other people think. But at the same time, I can’t let that dictate what I can and can’t write about (not that I’m saying that happens in the slightest). This blog is supposed to be an outlet, a project that can both be fun and helpful. That’s not to say it isn’t a commitment; I do try very hard to at least post something every day. But there’s a difference between a commitment and an obligation. And the last thing I want is for blogging to become an obligation. That’s where projects go to die.

Hopefully these musings were more fun than scrolling through a hundred copies of “I don’t know what to write today.” But I’d be remiss if I didn’t attempt to address the temporal disconnect. So here we go:

FRIDAY: “Blargh, I’m tired. I need a day off, where I can just sleep in and not even bother getting dressed. Even packing up the car is too much of a chore. I don’t even know if I’m going to have enough energy to fight in any tournaments this weekend, let alone all of them.”

MONDAY (predicted): “Well, I’m feeling a bit more rested. I’m tired, but I ended up having fun at the event. I’m in a pretty good mood, all things considered. Happy Memorial Day!”

…or something.

r4nd0m 4ll 0v3r t3h pl4c3

I was planning on writing a third post about burnout today, but I’m just not feeling it. I’m tired, my mind is foggy, and the weather is being weird. I’ve got no drive to do anything. And oh yeah, there’s an event this weekend to get ready for. Assuming it doesn’t get rained/hailed/tornadoed out.

So let’s talk random!

Godzilla was a fun movie. A bit too much “human interest,” as my girlfriend put it, but not nearly as bad as the recent Transformers movies have been. Godzilla showed up, looked and sounded like Godzilla, and proceeded to lay the atomic smackdown on interposing environs and creatures. We may not have been the only ones cheering in the theater for Godzilla, but we definitely started it. Kinda made me want to see Pacific Rim again, in a good way.

Why am I so tired? Well, because I’m having to work seven days in a row to get the weekend off, and I’m on day six. I keep getting asked to stay for longer shifts, and like a good little retail cog-monkey who wouldn’t mind the extra cash, I’ve been doing so. Not sure how much I’ll be up for this weekend as a result. I even skipped fighter practice this week, even knowing I would have to miss next week’s too because of work. Although given the day I had on Thursday, I would have really like the chance to hit something. Hard.

Q: How many kids with ADD does it take to screw in a light bulb?

For something I didn’t get into until very recently, I find myself spending more and more time on Tumblr. Seriously: I end up checking my feed multiple times a day, trying to make sure I see everything. I used to do the same on Facebook, but for some reason that’s grabbing my interest less these days. I’m gonna blame Facebook’s news feed not defaulting to a “most recent” view.

I was gonna write about something else, and I’ve completely forgotten what it was.

I keep coming across GIFs and screencaps from Firefly and Serenity lately, and it’s really making me want to re-watch the series. It’s also making me really sad there wasn’t more of the series. And sad for Wash. Did you know I have one of his Hawaiian shirts? I first came across the series while I was studying abroad in France. I’ll admit to downloading the episodes, but I bought them all on DVD once I got back to the states. It was is just that shiny.


Burnout, Part 2

So you burned out shortly after going to college, a part of me says. That’s okay, a lot of people are unprepared for the steep learning curve. But it been over a decade since then. Shouldn’t you be over that by now?

Well, internalized voice of condescension, that’s a great question! One I’ve heard many times in various forms throughout the years, both from myself and others. Why don’t we take some time to address it, starting with what it feels like to be burned out.

I will readily admit that burnout is probably different for each person. But for me, burning out meant that all my drive and passion seemed to get sucked out of me. Things had lost their purpose, and I was left wandering aimlessly as a self-identified “good student” who suddenly didn’t like school.

I didn’t know how to deal with this. Nothing in my admittedly limited life experience had prepared me for the rude jolt that college gave me. So at a complete loss, I decided to do more or less nothing. I continued going through the motions: attending classes, turning in assignments, and working my way towards graduation. I changed my major away from hard science and ended up in the foreign language department. Why? Well, I had been studying French since elementary school, and wanted to keep up my skills. It turns out that a French class a quarter over four years is pretty close to a major, so I defaulted to that. I have a French major by default.

Luckily, my school skills were good enough that I don’t think losing drive affected them too much. This was when I discovered that I write a mean first draft. Also when I discovered that I could speed-read whatever section the professor was going to talk about next and still sound reasonably competent. But something had shifted: I was no longer doing my reading and assignments to learn. I was doing them to pass the class. It’s a subtle change, but can make a world of difference.

And these new habits and coping mechanisms have stayed with me ever since. A “new normal,” if you will. All the way through undergrad. All the way through grad school. Even the jobs I’ve had have been more about getting from A to B, rather than accomplishing anything notable or enriching.

I often wonder if I’ve been wasting my time and money, approaching school like this. That same part of me from earlier wonders how things would have been different if I had actually “applied myself” in college and grad school. Would I have learned more? Would I have come out of the experience with something more that a couple fancy pieces of paper and a mountain of debt? Could I ever return to that passion for learning that I had when I was younger?

I don’t know. Contemplating could-have-beens is always a dangerous exercise, doubly so when it’s about you. For me, burning out tore a hole in something, shaking my sense of self to the very foundations. That hole hasn’t really been filled, and I’ve been forced to shore things up around it. An experience like that makes it hard, very hard, to allow yourself to risk being passionate about anything, lest you end up getting hurt again. But life goes on. Somehow, life finds a way.

Burnout, Part 1

I’ve mentioned before that I’m something of a recovering perfectionist. I’ve also referred to myself as an “underachieving overachiever.” What do I mean by that? Well, I’m in the habit of knowing I could put more effort into things, but for some reason don’t. But I still feel guilty about it.

What happened? Well, long story short, I burned out in college.

Up through high school, I was a very dedicated and motivated student. I loved learning, even didn’t mind doing homework too much. I was the kind of kid who would read my textbooks for fun. From what I can recall now, I regularly leaped at the chance to do extra work. I did science experiments at the kitchen table. I couldn’t get enough of drafting in AutoCAD. I was put in Honors-level classes whenever possible. In middle school, I actually went to the high school down the hill for some classes. I was a good student, is what I’m saying.

But it wasn’t all roses and butterflies and 4.0 GPAs as far as the I could see. My penchant for good grades probably contributing to my perfectionism. In fact, I still remember freaking out in elementary school because I got a less-than-perfect grade on something. I got pretty bad test anxiety, especially about timed tests. I never was able to memorize the Twelve Times Table. I could be forgetful; if I didn’t write down an assignment I tended to forget it, which also probably stressed me out a bit.

Then in college, something changed.

I ended up graduating high school a year early. I went off to college at seventeen, commuting from my parents’ house every day. I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to be an astrobiologist, searching for extraterrestrial life in the stars above. Over long summer between high school and college I had the chance to visit the University of Washington (Seattle) and tour the astrobiology program there. It was a graduate program, and I figured I’d head there after my undergraduate work was finished. In order to prepare, I would dual-major in biology and physics. I was excited. I was ready. Everything would go according to plan.

Then I took nineteen credits my first trimester.

The typical maximum load for undergraduates allowed at my college was eighteen credits. In fact, you had to get special dispensation in the form of an adviser signature to take more. The exception was the first quarter freshman year, because of the required major orientation class. But I figured that hey, I was a good student. I could handle this!

Looking back, two hard science majors was a bit of a doozy. Couple that with the culture shock between high school and college, and you can probably see where this is going. I was used to school being easy, so I was wholly unprepared for the work load I found myself under. I don’t even remember specifics, like if there was a particular class that drove me over the edge. I just remember wandering through the quarter in a vague haze of panic, as I attempted to do all the assignments. Read all the books. Go to all the classes. Succeed at all the things.

Unsurprisingly, something snapped.

Looking back, I can’t tell you what it was that caused it, the apocryphal straw that broke this camel’s back. All I know is that something changed, and suddenly school wasn’t fun any more. School became work. School became a chore. School became a thing to be tolerated, to be wandered through, getting from Point A to Point B as painlessly as possible.

And I don’t think I’ve ever fully recovered.

The Reward For Good Work Is More Work

This is the other reason I don’t like to give 110%. Whereas yesterday’s post was a little more philosophical in approach, I’m going to let this one get as ranty as it wants.

Let’s go back to my morning work routine. I often have to prioritize what tasks to do, how much I think I can accomplish. What products need to be stocked or moved, and which ones can just be faked up to make it through one more day. Sometimes I overestimate, scrambling until the last minute and the doors open. Other times I underestimate and finish early, either because someone came over to help me or the tasks I planned simply took less time than I thought. Do you know what thanks I get? I get a manager coming up to me and saying “Hey, could you go help so-and-so?” Not so much as a word of encouragement, or a congratulations on a job well done. Just a heartless, thankless shuffling of to the next task.

(Non-rant: Yes, I know that I’ve benefited from people who finish early to come help me, and that this is a way of paying it forward. But that’s not the point of this post.)

School could be this way too, although I was more of an overachiever back then (pre-college) and didn’t mind nearly as much. Finish an assignment early? Here’s another one! After all, if you’re not busy doing something, you might wander off task and start distracting other students. Maybe you finished so early because you didn’t fully understand the assignment (I usually did). Even if it’s clear you understood the work, we can’t have you doing something else. That might make the people still working or struggling feel bad. So here’s another worksheet!

Is it any wonder a lot of people have a habit of letting/making a task expand into whatever amount of time they’ve allotted?

Like I said, I didn’t mind this so much in school; I had a drafting class that I loved spending time in, so more drafting projects to work on weren’t a burden (except when I lost my floppy disk with all my extra credit). It’s only in the workplace, and especially at my current job, that I’ve really started to be bothered by this. After all, even if I finish early, I’ve already been working hard; it’s not like I spend my time lollygagging or taking cigarette-and-coffee breaks all the time. So I’ve taken to working hard but not too hard, as I talked about yesterday. If I find myself finishing early, I’ll try to take more time on some of the smaller details, even if those details involve meticulously sweeping or carefully straightening up product. On the really bad days I’ll even cultivate a “I’m going somewhere and have stuff to do” walk to fend off predatory managers. Even if it won’t help me in a case of direct observation, it might let me slip into the background.

It’s like I’ve said about grad school: “I’m learning a lesson. I don’t think it’s the one you want me to learn, but I am learning.”

Working Hard, Or…?

I like to think that I have a good work ethic. I take pride in the quality of work that I do, and even if I do procrastinate more than I feel I should, when I get around to doing something (that’s a different topic, however) I generally do a good job. But is “doing good work” enough? Or could I be doing more?

Take my current job, for example. Most days, I get up early and go stock shelves and move product around for a retail store. It can be hard work, and one has to have a very good idea of what can be accomplished before the store opens. I’ve gotten into a routine: clock in, make a drop list, stock product, take out trash, sweep, clock out. It’s nice to have some sort of visible progress as a result of your work, even if that’s a well-stocked shelf or pallet that lasts only as long as it takes for customers to get their grubby little hands all over everything.

But of course, my overachieving and perfectionistic aspects won’t leave well enough alone. What do I mean? Well, I tend to be fairly methodical in my work. I work hard, but not too hard. In fact, I know I could probably get more accomplished if I was willing to run around like a chicken with it’s head cut off. If I gave 110% all the time, I’d have no issue stocking an entire third of the store by myself and moving multiple aisles and getting displays built and whatever else my employers need done.

And I’d be a quivering wreck.

You see, the funny thing about “giving 110%” is that it actually is possible to do so, whatever that pesky thing called math may say. But in order to do so, you need to borrow some of that effort and energy from the future. So if you give 110% on Monday, you’ll only have 90% on Tuesday. If you need to give 110% on Tuesday, you’ll be left with 80% on Wednesday. And so on, until you only have 50% left for Friday. Oh, and keep in mind that whatever personal projects you may want to work on also get debited to the same account. Need I continue?

So I find myself in the interesting place of not giving my job all I can give. This completely contradicts what I was taught to do, both growing up and in martial arts, but it’s the only way I can see to keep any semblance of sanity while working retail. Heck, while working any kind of job! Does that make me a slacker? Maybe. But it also means that I can try and spare some energy to be happy, to find fulfillment in my friends and hobbies.

Of course, being who I am, I still feel guilty about not “giving my all.” But as far as I can tell, I’m the only one that is able to tell. Maybe it’s the general level of caring and investment you find in retail employees, but my supervisors and managers don’t seem to notice. Could I probably “wreck the curve,” as it were, if I threw myself fully into my temporary retail job? Probably. But see the aforementioned comment re: quivering wreck.

And I don’t want to give this job my all, not really. It’s just a small fragment of my psyche that insists it wants to. And like so many other things in this head of mine, it’s really hard to ignore a voice when it sounds like your own. Talking about it helps, as does writing. It’s a way of cataloging, of picking up that fragment with a set of tweezers and putting it under the microscope. And maybe by better understanding why, or at least saying I’m okay with being a slacker, it will become as true as I want it to be.