Social Media/News Holiday Diet: Week 3 Results

Week 3: Going for quality by making proactively healthy social media and news choices…

duolingo-results-week-3                                         My Duolingo XP Results for Week 3…

Last week, I said I wanted to focus on how to make good quality “dietary” choices in my social media/news intake, and learning (more about) how to do that was my biggest takeaway of the week (more on that below). Here’s how Week 3 went:

The urge keeps shrinking as shown by my running tally of views and resisted urges:

T 12/6 = 3/3 (= 3 looks, 3 ‘resisted urges’)
W 12/7 = 6/2
Th 12/8 = 4/2
F 12/9 = 4/3
Sa 12/10 = 0/6
Su 12/11 = 4/1
M 12/12 = 2/5

The total number of views dropped another 20 percent this week, and the total number of times I resisted the urge to look dropped another 30 percent; there were 29 looks, 32 ‘resisted urges’ in week 2, and 23 looks, 22 ‘resisted urges’ in week 3. The total number of urges (both filled and resisted) dropped from around nine per day to around six and a half per day. I may have undercounted the number of resisted urges, but that’s mainly because they have become weaker to the point where I almost don’t notice them, which is good. I’m now wondering what would be a good number of total urges. Six-and-a-half per day still sounds a little high to me, but it’s also not entirely in my control, and I don’t have a strong basis for comparison since I haven’t kept comparable track of, say, the number of times a day I want to eat something.

The weekend numbers were good but not that different from the weekday ones. I did not spend a lot of time during the weekend doing engaging activities which took me away from my computer and other devices. Instead, my weekend days didn’t look that different from my weekday days, which is probably why the numbers don’t look that different.

The triggers keep weakening — Interestingly, I did not identify any new triggers in Week 3. Not that I lack for triggers, as I identified over 20 triggers (21 to be exact) in the first two weeks. This makes sense, I suppose; one could expect that just about every possible trigger would show itself over a two-week period, especially when some triggers were being consciously ignored, which presumably would bring the lesser-used ones out into the open.

As the triggers also continued being weaker in week 3, I started to notice what I think is a different mental layer in the habit process: triggering the thought of social media or news versus triggering the urge to look at social media or news. For instance, one morning I saw the looking at the Facebook icon on my iPhone screen triggered the thought of social media, but the mental message seemed different: ‘there’s social media’ instead of ‘there’s social media; go look at it!’ The difference may be subtle, but it seems important to me because it implies another level of clearing that could be useful: extinguishing not just the urge to look at social media or news, but extinguishing the thought itself. Could I get to the point where I ignore my Facebook icon as often as I ignore most of the other icons on my iPhone screen? Would it make sense (duh) to move the Facebook icon off the main screen so that it would require a proactive move on my part to look at it? (Duh….) So I did that, and it seems to be helping so far.

This morning it occurred to me that the key distinction might be whether or not I have to make a mental decision about a trigger, as distinct from simply observing the impulse and letting it float by without any additional regard. I’ll play with that idea some more and see how it works for me.

Putting the “diet” in social media/news diet — This week, my social media/news diet actually looked more like a food diet: three “meals” one day, three meals and a snack on three days, a skipped meal on one day, and a fast on one day. I think the main reason for this was that there was more planning involved. More on that in a moment.

How’s the food diet going? And the language learning?

Food diet is doing better. I got plenty of exercise, returned to a more balanced food intake level, and dropped a pound and a half. Still not yet back to where I was in August.

Language learning, quite well also.  I amassed 1,780 “experience points” (XPs) on Duolingo in the past week, almost double the number of last week. Progress continues — level 11 in Spanish (52% “fluent”) and level 9 in French (40% “fluent”).  The Spanish felt comfortable enough that I went to a conversation class and did fine. I have next to no experience conversing in French, though, so I’m still gathering the gumption to try a conversational event in French, maybe after the holidays.

Biggest takeaway of the week: learning to make healthy choices. I started paying attention to my reasons for looking at social media and news, trying to identify good choices and bad choices and how to distinguish between the two. At first, I tried to keep track of when I made a healthy choice and when I didn’t. That soon stopped working, though, because sometimes it usually was a mix of the two, and there were also things that were hard to distinguish as good or bad.  I did succeed in identifying mumerous examples of both healthy and less healthy social media/news choices.

Examples of healthy social media/news choices:

– Proactively deciding to do a brief news scan via FB news feed
– Proactively deciding to do a brief FB friends update via FB news feed
– Checking the business news briefly to see how key indicators are doing
– Reading another business-related article or two to keep up a bit with business news
– Posting beautiful, interesting, elucidating, humorous, or otherwise uplifting posts on my FB feed
– Reading other people’s beautiful, interesting, elucidating, humorous, or otherwise uplifting posts on my FB feed
– Engaging in worthwhile, elucidating, civil conversations online
– Researching related to client, collaborative, creative, or citizen activism
– Supporting other causes on their FB pages
– Client or cause-related FB Live show
– Promoting or engaging with my audiences via FB pages, Twitter feeds, and other social media means

Examples of less healthy social media/news choices:

– Looking for/at articles that I read mainly to feed my sense of outrage and righteous indignation
– Looking passively or aimlessly through my FB feed
– Looking passively or aimlessly through news web sites
– Using social media or news surfing as a passive form of taking a break
– Engaging in arguments with friends or strangers in FB conversation threads, Twitter feeds, or other social media means

The other big takeaway for me was building the habit of proactively choosing healthy social media. As the lists above imply, being passive about my choices usually does not serve me well.  Instead, I found it helpful to plan what I was going to do before I went on social media or looked at news. One time I wrote down a list of about a half dozen things I wanted to do. Other times I simply thought of one or two things I wanted to do, and also thought ahead of time whether or not I would indulge in more ‘junk food’-like activities like reading news articles or feeds (which these days, let’s face it, is unavoidably laced with junk).

These lists help me understand why going ‘cold turkey’ was not for me. There are too many good reasons for being on social media or looking at news for me to give it up altogether.  Both of these lists are probably longer, and maybe I’ll add to them in the coming week(s). My other focus for this week will be on consolidating these new habits and starting to write up a summary of what I’ve learned — not just about changing this habit, but about changing other habits as well…


Social Media/News Holiday Diet: Week 2 Results

 Week 2: starting to learn how to put the “diet” into my social media/news diet…
duolingo-progress-wk2-1216                    My Duolingo XP Results for Week 2 (see below for details)…

Last week, I said I couldn’t wait to see what Week 2 of my social media/news diet brought, and Week 2 did not disappoint. Here are the highlights:

Taming the urge — My running tally of views and resisted urges shows signs of improvement relative to the first week:

T 11/29 = 4/8 (= 4 looks, 8 ‘resisted urges’)
W 11/30 = 7/5
Th 12/1 = 4/2
F 12/2 = 5/5
Sa 12/3 = 1/6
Su 12/4 = 1/2
M 12/5 = 7/2

Both the total number of views and the total number of times I resisted the urge to look dropped a little over 25 percent each; there were 40 looks, 45 ‘resisted urges’ in week 1, and 29 looks, 32 ‘resisted urges’ in week 2. The total number of urges (both filled and resisted) dropped from around 12 per day to around nine per day.

The most striking numbers are the weekend ones, but I’m not sure yet what to make of them. They are low because I spent the weekend at a client retreat. Although such meetings are usually full of urges to do social media/news checks in reaction to boredom or other lulls in my attention level (more on those triggers in a moment), I exploited the room layout (several circular tables) so that I knew that someone behind me could see if I was straying off into social media, and that was enough to curb my impulses.

I see two ways to look at the weekend results: one is that this weekend activity artificially drove down the numbers, and I will be struggling to replicate these results on other weekends. The other way is that weekends offer opportunities to curb my social media and news intake by doing several engaging activities, preferably ones which take me away from my computer and other devices. How will that play out over the next few weeks? I’ll focus on finding that out.

Taming the triggers — Week two also added several new triggers to my list:

•    Twitter — looked reflexively at it; had to remind myself that it is also social media
•    Sitting down in a (DC) metro car
•    Being bored in an online meeting (Webex et al.)
•    Facebook notifications on my iPhone
•    Simply looking at my iPhone
•    Seeing a message alert on someone else’s computer
•    A lull in my attention level

A few of these were also eye-openers. I hadn’t appreciated how conditioned I was to look at my phone when I rode the Metro, but simply sitting down in the Metro car seat was all it took to have me reaching for my iPhone. Seeing a message alert on someone else’s computer (the presenter’s computer projected on screen during the retreat; his iMessage alert indicated two unanswered messages) made me want to check mine, but I resisted that one. The most disturbing one was discovering that simply looking at my iPhone could be a trigger; it was just sitting there, face down on a nearby table. But I resisted that one also.

I also noticed that triggers during an online meeting felt more like boredom, while those in an in-person meeting felt more like a lull in my attention level. This makes sense because there are more environmental cues in an in-person setting to keep one’s attention from wandering away from the environment. At the same time, it’s usually not humanly possible to maintain full attention during a day-long or even a multi-hour in-person meeting either. In both cases, the immediacy of the available devices (whether computer, smartphone, tablet, or something else) often makes them hair triggers which are all too easy to pull. If I’d been sitting somewhere with no one to my back who could see what I was doing, I’m not sure I would have done so well.

Although the number of triggers didn’t decrease much, there were signs of improvement here as well. It seemed that the triggers were often weaker in week 2; they happened in my mind but often didn’t trigger actual behavior — no physical movements or mental ideation of those movements. It felt like classic behavioral extinction was slowly taking place.

Putting the “diet” in social media/news diet — So how well did my meal plan go? On the surface, not so well. I didn’t check social media or news exactly three times on any day; I either had too many “meals”/“snacks” or too few, and a couple of days it appears that I “gorged” myself with seven views in one day.  What really happened, though, is that the social media/news diet actually became more like a real diet in these respects:

Frequency matters, but portion control matters more. I counted a single instance as one view whether it lasted a minute or an hour or anything in between. Doing this clearly distorts the process, so I think I need to pay more attention to duration as well as frequency.

Some choices are healthier than others.  One day, most of my views involved engaging in an interesting Facebook conversation on a topic of interest in my field (performance-based funding), which included doing some research to learn more about the topic. Another day, most of my views involved a conversation about how to respond to the Comet Pizza incident.  In my opinion, these are part of a healthy social media/news diet, to the point where I found myself wondering, is there such a thing as the social media equivalent of leafy greens or other veggies? As in, things you can eat as much as you want?

Overcoming the tendency to gorge is a learned behavior. I also found myself wondering if it’s human nature to feast at first when we find a new source of engorgement. If so, this is a useful insight for a) not being so hard on ourselves for not handling social media well, and b) recognizing up front that dealing with this requires conscious re-patterning to overcome our more animal tendencies. Although that may seem strange to think of such a digital and mental activity this way, our animal nature resides as much in our brains as in the rest of our bodies.

How’s the food diet going? And the language learning?

Food, not so well — no pie in Week 2, but I’m still gaining weight — retreats will do that (lots of food, relative captivity, disrupted schedule), as will relative lack of exercise.

Language learning, much better.  I amassed 947 “experience points” (XPs) on Duolingo in the past week. Each ‘lesson’ earns 10 XPs; although I also earned some XPs for testing out of some areas in Spanish, I still must have done at least 60 lessons. They’re short and can be done in a few minutes each, but that still means hours spent on learning languages instead of on social media or news. And I’m continuing to progress — level 9 in Spanish (50% “fluent”) and level 8 in French (26% “fluent”).  The Spanish is coming back to me, and the French is ever so slowly starting to make sense, so I’m very pleased with my progress this past week.

Spending time in relatively productive pursuits has dampened my desire to leave Facebook or other social media for now. Instead, this week I’ll have a different focus: how to make good quality “dietary” choices in my social media/news intake

Social Media/News Holiday Diet: Week 1 Results

One week into my social media/news diet, here’s how it’s gone so far: pretty well, and a bit eye-opening…

pattys-lemon-pie-tgiving-16A lemon pie my sister Patricia made for Thanksgiving —
one-and-a-half of the seven pieces I had this past weekend…

A week ago, I resolved to do a holiday diet — not a food and drink diet, but a social media/news diet — for reasons I explained here.  The main elements of the diet plan were these:

– Keep a running, daily tally of each time I look at social media or news;
– Keep a tally of each time I have the urge to look but resist that impulse;
Try to limit my number of social media/news “meals” to three per day, and no snacking if I can help it.
Keep a list of the social media/news triggers I encounter along the way.

Here’s how it went for the first week — first, the tally of views and resisted urges:

T 11/22 = 9/12 (= 9 looks, 12 ‘resisted urges’)
W 11/23 = 6/11
Th 11/24 = 4/1
F 11/25 = 8/2
Sa 11/26 = 4/3
Su 11/27 = 3/8
M 11/28 = 3/7 (as of mid-afternoon)

I didn’t try to limit myself too much the first day because I wanted to get a sense of what my everyday baseline had become. And that was an eye opener — the urge to look at social media and/or news struck me almost two dozen times in one day!  That is one ingrained habit. The first day’s number may be inflated a bit by my son’s arrival back in the States after 4 1/2 months abroad (which of course I had to report on Facebook, right?).  But even so: the second day was 17 times (six indulged, 11 resisted).  Thursday was probably artificially low because it was Thanksgiving Day; after that, the instances ranged from 7-11 times per day — a distinct improvement, but still a lot if you ask me.  Except for Friday, I was able to keep my views down to three or four per day, so that’s encouraging.

So what’s triggering this behavior in me? The list of my triggers is long, varied, and sobering. Here’s the list from the first day which I posted previously:

– Seeing a blank “New Tab” open in my browser window.
– Transition to a new task on my computer. (Task doesn’t matter, whether it’s work or creative or something else.)
– Reaching for the “F” key (hint: “F” doesn’t stand for “Ford Motor Company” anymore!) when opening a new browser window.
— Taking a break from a task (e.g., writing).
– Needing a break from a task (e.g., writing).
– Internal dialogue, e.g., some imaginary conversation with someone whom I disagree with (on Facebook or elsewhere).
– Seeing that red dot with a number in it on an app icon on my iPhone

Here are more triggers I’ve found during the first week:
•    While walking toward my home office
•    While doing yoga (I use my smartphone as a timer, but there’s that red dot again…)
•    While checking email
•    While on a Meetup web page
•    After leaving another web page
•    Seeing the web page thumbnails when I open a new tab in my web browser
•    Getting out of bed/waking up
•    As a ‘take a break’ signal (similar to transitioning to a new task, but not the same)
•    After having completed a task

There were also a couple of others I noticed but forgot (for now) before I could record them.

What patterns do there seem to be? Here’s what I saw during this first week:

The computer is a major trigger source. No real surprise there, but: I had no idea there were so many triggers embedded into my computer usage habits — changing pages, checking email, stopping or ending a task while on the computer. Deeply, deeply embedded triggers. An infestation of triggers. Some of them are downright unnerving in how deeply they are embedded.
Being around people and having things to do away from the computer helped.
Not taking my smartphone with me everywhere helped. I allowed myself to rely on other people’s phones for things like time, information, and the like.
Removing myself from trigger sources reduced the demand, but it didn’t completely eliminate it.

Now that I’m back home working in my home office, it’s harder to avoid the triggers because I spend so much of my time on the computer mostly out of necessity. Previous good habits like taking breaks and getting away from the computer only worked with conscious effort, rather than just taking a quick look at social media/news first (which, as you know, all too often “quick” becomes 10 minutes, or 20, or a half-hour or more).

Here was the big takeaway: what did I do instead?

I used the triggers to start a new habit: language learning on Duolingo. I’d started using their phone app a year ago to brush up on my Spanish, but I’d stopped doing it. So, using my computer instead (a useful and necessary strategy since so many of my triggers were computer-induced), I resumed the Spanish lessons and started French lessons as well. Whenever I was on my computer and felt the urge to check social media or news, I did Duolingo lessons instead. It helped that my sister Patricia also got involved in a little friendly competition to catch up with me in French. (She’s studied French in the past, so it didn’t take her long to catch up.)

I ended up doing a lot of lessons — so many that I’m now at Duolingo’s level 8 in Spanish (36% “fluent”) and level 7 in French (22% “fluent”). No, it’s not the best way to learn a language. But it’s a good way to develop some helpful language skills that could be integrated with other language learning activities. And it’s a great way to break the social media/news habit — or at least it’s a promising way so far, after one week. Imagine if I did this for a month, or six months, or even longer:  surely I would make some noticeable, tangible progress. Well, that’s what I’m imagining — and I actually think it could work if I use the trigger power of my social media/news viewing habits to fuel this new habit. But how well will it really work? I’ll keep you posted.

Oh yes, and I ate a lot of pie — eight pieces overall in four days (1 1/2 pieces of lemon; 2 1/2 pieces of pumpkin; 3 pieces of apple; one piece of shoo-fly).  I had two pieces for dessert Thanksgiving dinner; I had pie for breakfast Friday morning; I had pie for lunch Saturday afternoon. I did not hold back on the pie, in other words. I gained a pound and a half, but I’ll do my best to work it off this week; there’s no pie in the house, and fond memories remain of my Thanksgiving indulgence — that should tide me over through a week at least. It was well worth it to help support this new habit I’ve gained and resolve to sustain — call it an early New Year’s resolution.

One other curious thing started happening: when I did check Facebook, it seemed even more toxic than ever. Lots of wonderful stuff there too, but so much junk. I saw a posting from someone who’d I always appreciated and admired which insulted me — not directly or even intentionally, but it was unmistakably insulting. It used a word intended as a pejorative which is a word I use to self-identify. So I hid her postings. I also began to wonder if some of the postings from even my most trusted FB posters were from trolls. At the very least, I felt the urge to track them down to see if they were. What is that about? It started getting me thinking if I should leave Facebook altogether. All this after just one week of my social media/news diet; can’t wait to see what Week 2 brings!…

What, A Holiday Diet?!?!? Yes, A Holiday Social Media/News Diet…

pecan-pie-613    no-social-media-icon-1116      nonews-icon-1116
[photo credits below]

Name a word that we use on Thanksgiving Day more than any other day of the year. Yes, it would be nice if that word were “giving” or “thankful” or even “thanks,” but let’s be real for a moment. I’m going with the word “stuffing” or “stuffed.”

There’s a reason for associating the word “stuffing” with Thanksgiving, and it’s not just what we put inside the turkey. I’m sure that we use the verb “stuffed” more often on Thanksgiving Day than any other day of the year, because that’s what we do to ourselves; it’s not just a widespread practice anymore — it’s tradition.

Thanksgiving is thus a good time to consider what else we’ve been stuffing ourselves with lately. Let me answer that for you (or at least a lot of you, myself included): you’ve been stuffing yourself with social media.  And with news from the media, both mainstream and the fringe.

Admit it: for you, the holiday ritual of stuffing yourself silly began several weeks ago, now didn’t it? Before and during and after the election, you stuffed yourself full of mainstream media articles and Facebook news and goodness knows what else. Maybe even some of that “alt-“ crap. Stuffed. Yourself. Silly. Now you remember why they call them “news feeds,” right?

So, so what? ’Tis the season after all, right? If we stuff ourselves with food, we might as well get into that holiday spirit by stuffing ourselves with information as well. Especially the kind that seems to feed us — feeds our beliefs, our righteousness, our outrage. Ah, it tastes so good I can’t stop! Yum yum yum yum (snort, snarf, slop…).

“Well, if you put it that way” — well yes, I do put it that way, because of this: Consuming way too much information will hurt you at least as much as consuming way too much food. Gluttony is not limited to food and drink, and it is called a “deadly” sin for a reason.  At least with food and drink, the loosened belt and bellyache and hangover will only last a short time; you can always go on a diet after the holidays, even after having an extra piece of pie or three. (Because who stops at two pieces? Well, I usually don’t.) That information you’ve been feeding your head stays around much longer — maybe not the specific content so much, but the reverberations of it, the endless electrical impulses and elevated hormone levels, the muscular tension held in your jaw and neck and shoulders and on downward, the pained look on your face that becomes chronic and then a hard freeze.

Maybe you like this way of being, but it’s not working for me. So I’m cutting down on my social media and news intake for the holidays — a lot. It’s not a social media/news “vacation” or “holiday” because I still plan to check in every now and then. More like a social media/news diet — maybe even two or three squares a day — so it’s not even an austere diet. But it’s not the social media/news glutton fest which I’d been feasting on either. Besides, I don’t think it’s necessary for me to go cold turkey (saving that for the day after Thanksgiving — heh heh). I simply want to curb my consumption to a healthy level, one that helps me maintain a sense of space and perspective instead of feeling perpetually stuffed in mind and spirit.

This is how I’m doing it:  I’m keeping a running, daily tally of each time I look at social media or news, and I’m keeping a tally of each time I have the urge to look but resist that impulse. No more than three social media/news “meals” per day, and no snacking if I can help it. (I’ll save that for the pies.)  Also — and this is important — I’m keeping a list of the social media/news triggers I identify along the way. Here’s what’s on my trigger list so far (and it’s only the first day!)

– Seeing a blank “New Tab” open in my browser window.
– Transition to a new task on my computer. (Task doesn’t matter, whether it’s work or creative or something else.)
– Reaching for the “F” key (hint: “F” doesn’t stand for “Ford Motor Company” anymore!) when opening a new browser window.
= Taking a break from a task (e.g., writing).
– Needing a break from a task (e.g., writing).
– Internal dialogue, e.g., some imaginary conversation with someone whom I disagree with (on Facebook or elsewhere).
– seeing that red dot with a number in it on an app icon on my iPhone

Not a pretty picture this is painting – a bit too much Pavlov going on, isn’t there? That’s why I’ve created this trigger list and am holding myself to it (as in holding it in my face): to show me just how ingrained the habits are and how deep I have to dig to get them out.

Yes, I know this goes against the grain of holiday festive feasting, but look at it this way: if you curb your social media/news intake and overindulge on the food and drink side, at least you can tell yourself truthfully that you did show some restraint during the Thanksgiving holiday and beyond. Just as long as you leave me that extra piece of pie….

Photo credits: Pie photo by John Sener; No Social Media icon from ; No News icon from

Election Reflections #1 – #6

An interplay of light, dark, and wind evokes reflections on our recent election…

While I was doing yoga this morning, the reflections on the wall in front of me caught my attention. Coming in through the window behind me, the interplay of light, dark, and wind mirrored for me the interplay of analogous forces in our recent presidential election, so I decided to pay more attention and to record some of it.

This first reflection captures patches of darkness blocking out the light and threatening to overrun it but never quite doing so, while small patches of light remain intact:

This second reflection felt more sinister: a tornado of darkness bisecting two areas of gray, keeping one gray area from the light and threatening at any moment to convert all of the gray to darkness:

This third one seems the darkest one of all at first: swirls of darkness envelop the gray areas and almost obliterate them; and yet a glimmer of light arises from the bottom and remains steadfast throughout the chaos. (This one is short only because my iPhone 4S ran out of storage after a few seconds)

Light on the left, dark on the right — but the interplay is more complicated than that. For this one, I experimented with changing the focus and observed how it changes how we see the light and dark. When I put the focus on the light, it became blindingly bright, making it impossible to see things clearly. When I put the focus on the dark, it became even darker, dimming the light and casting an ominous pall over the entire scene. Only when I put the focus on the boundary between light and dark was I able to see both sides more clearly. I also noted that whenever I changed focus, it took a little while for things to return to focus again.

When my yoga practice was over, I turned to looking at the window itself and was surprised to realize how clouded was the view. It had been quite some time since I’d cleaned this window, and the neglect clearly showed. From this perspective at least, the view outside was very hard to see.

I decided it was time for a cleaning, even as I wondered what windows inside my mind also need a similar treatment.

Election Reflection #5:


A little cleaning can go a long way. Not a perfect or thorough cleaning — I did not go outside on the ladder to clean the storm windows that were unreachable from the inside — but I did the best I could, and what a difference it made.

Election Reflections #6:


It’s fun to explore the analogical interpretations of these images, applying them to my election experience, framed in darkness as are all of these images. There’s always a danger in being too literal, but intuitively I know that it’s informing my efforts to move toward the light…

Coping with Election Grief: Some Thoughts from a Widower

You know the feeling I’m talking about. You forget for a little while, your day passes along, life begins to feel a little — dare I even use the word? No, I cannot. Because then the moment suddenly hits you again: that jolt, that sledgehammer blow, that sharp stinging stab to the pit of your stomach. That didn’t really happen, did it? Omigod, it did really happen.

The feeling can last for many days. That’s certainly how I’ll always remember November 9, 2015. That was the day after my neighbor and friend Matthew had called me to ask how I had coped with losing my wife when it happened 19 years before. He wanted to know because his wife, the love of his life for the past 30 years, had died that afternoon in a tragic accident. His words set off in me the first wave in a chain reaction of jolts — how could this possibly be? He and his wife Karen were legendary among their friends and acquaintances for the formidable array of recreational activities which they avidly pursued. Karen rode horses and aerial danced on silks and had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with her husband and a group of their friends just the year before. The two of them scuba dived and flew on trapezes; both of them were veteran, highly rated parasailers and hang-gliders. They pursued these activities with a verve and energy that seemed inexhaustible. How could this new reality possibly be real?

And of course, this sad news triggered memories of reverberations of my own experience of loss, the decades suddenly compressing into the present as I remembered the wave upon wave of shock and disbelief and lack of comprehension that would slam against me and then pass and then slam again.

So exactly one year later, November 9, 2016, the day after Election Day, was a grim anniversary for me with a cruel but familiar sense of deja vu — the momentary forgetting, the jolts back to this new reality with our new president-elect. (Even though I saw the collection of cars parked by Matthew’s house on election night which indicated that he was surrounded by friends to watch the results, I can’t even imagine how he got through that evening and the next day, and I haven’t had the heart to ask him yet.)

To this day I resist using the word “normal,” for there is nothing normal about such moments in time like this one. If you feel the same way, your reaction is natural, and that can be the glimmer of the beginning of finding a little comfort in our new plight.

Allow me to offer you a source of guidance: turn to your friends and acquaintances, but especially seek out those who have been widows and widowers for some time. We are practiced in handling this emotion. We are as shocked and appalled as you are, but we also have the added sensation of recognition — we have traveled through this territory before. Here are a few things I have learned from that experience which I am practicing now.

Life does goes on. There’s no getting around that. The late autumn days may be impossibly and insultingly beautiful, mocking your sense of loss with their reminder that some things haven’t changed. At the same time, don’t be fooled by the lure of “this too shall pass.” This will not pass in the sense of going back to what life was like before. Life will go on, but it will never be the same.

Life is short; grieve, but it’s time to get moving.   Some time after my wife Martha died, I read a book on grief by a widow whose husband (if I recall correctly) was a judge and a mystery writer and whose death tore her apart. She described how she would spend hours day after day doing nothing but feeling sad and falling apart. I understood her feelings, but her experience felt foreign to me since I did not have that luxury. I had my two-year son to take care of, and that kept me sane and busy. So give yourself time and space to grieve, but also get busy; there is no time to wallow in that mire.

Move toward the light. The revulsion, the temptations to flee or lash back or give up in despair are also natural. Know that they will recur as these waves continue to wash over you; accept that this is happening and feel them as part of the actions and reactions to the wave energy that is beating down upon you.

But in addition to accepting this natural reaction, resolve yourself to do something that may feel unnatural at this moment: move toward the light. In my case, this means resolving to spend much more time in nature, walk, write, create, and appreciate what I have, as well as supporting those people and organizations and causes and ideas that have evidenced to me that they are spreading light, focused on making the world a better place. Redouble your efforts — retriple and requaduple them if you can — to support the spreading of this light.

As you move toward the light, remember these crucial truths: light is defined by Otherness (that is, the dark), and it is not defined by belief or tribe. Seek to shine the light wherever it needs to go, including within yourself. Seek to expand your light by understanding others and why they chose what they did.  But don’t waste your time on trying to turn darkness into light. If the light you shine cannot penetrate through resistance to facts or insulting communication or hostility to your identity, turn your light away and shine it elsewhere where it can find more light. Keep a sharp eye out on those who seek to take your light from you if they can, but shine your light into those dark reaches every now and then to see if things have changed there.

At the same time, spend as little time as possible in the backwaters of your life.  For me, this means paying even more attention to what I consume: looking at much less mainstream media and TV; watching sports is out (except for soccer; that’ll take a longer time to work out of my system); rationing of Facebook and web surfing; and removing consumer products from my life produced by those who have expressed their active support of values in opposition to mine.

Well, one hell of a gauntlet has been thrown. This is serious now. So I’m off to an event being held by a friend who is putting into practice what I’m saying here.  Words are important, actions much more so. And remember that, if you’ve ever spent any time in the ocean bodysurfing or simply frolicking, you know something about how to handle waves. Don’t just stand there rigidly and let them knock you silly. Respect their power and respect your ability to respond to them, move within their power, even use them to propel your life in new, sometimes painful but sometimes joyful, unexpected ways.

Time to Retire an Old “Friend” (?)


Yesterday, I decided that it was time to retire one of my “beach shirts,” a short-sleeved, vertical striped button-down casual one.  I’ve had this shirt for at least 23 years; once it was a full-duty casual shirt, but eventually its main role became that of a reliable beach companion. In fact, I’ve taken it to the beach every time I go for over 20 years. I wore it at the beach just a month ago this past August.

It’s not really appropriate for social wear anymore. The collar frayed open a long, long time ago, and strings are continually popping out there and there all around the collar. Even so, the looks don’t bother me, and the frayed collar never rubs my neck or causes any discomfort, so it had remained quite suitable for “I don’t care what you think about how I look” wear on many occasions. What pushed the shirt into retirement territory was my discovering a couple of rips in the back of the shirt itself.  Maybe it’s an arbitrary line, but for me when the body of a shirt develops sizable rips, that’s means it’s become a rag.

At least that was my first impulse. But I got a few interesting suggestions after I posted a picture of the shirt on Facebook. One suggestion was to duct tape it back together. I appreciate the sentiment behind that suggestion, but I don’t need to hold onto the shirt that much. It wouldn’t feel the same (either physically and emotionally) with duct tape on it, and it would need a lot of duct tape, especially after I ripped one of the tears all the way down to the bottom of the shirt. I have other old beach shirts, and I’ve had this one such a long time that I am ready to let its beach shirt days to be over.

Another suggestion was to turn it into napkins. An intriguing idea… sounds like a lot of work though… but I decided at least to look it up on Google. It turns out that everyone from the Happy Housewife to greenworlders to Martha Stewart has instructions for how to do this (the search on the words ‘how to turn an old shirt into a napkin’ produced over 1.13 million results). However, it takes a sewing machine, which I don’t have. Still, I’ll keep the shirt at the top of the rag pile and try to remember not to use it as a rag, in case I get the ambition to borrow a machine and undertake a sewing project after all.

A third suggestion was that there was a short story in that shirt. This suggestion is the easiest for me to do, so here goes.

I’ll start with a small confession of sorts: a particular story about this shirt did not come to mind. This is not the case with some of the other beach shirts I own. There’s the one with horizontal orange and white stripes which I’ve also had forever (i.e., ~25 years or so) that has a small rip in it which I made not long after I got the shirt; it also has a couple of grease stains on it from my bicycle chain; the stains have faded but are still visible decades later.  There was a time when I considered it to be a relatively nice shirt, and I remember being mad at the time for being careless because the shirt was relatively new then but already had a rip and stains on it. Now, those are merely marks of character.


Then there are the two button-down shirts of similar vintage — one blue, one sea green — which I got at a thrift store in Pennsylvania for $4 each. I actually bought four of them at the time; one was peach-colored, the other one I don’t remember now, but those are gone. I remember being proud of having gotten such a bargain then; talk about being a bargain now (at about 15 cents per shirt per year)!

I couldn’t think of a similar story behind this striped shirt, so I cheated a little bit; I got out some old photo albums to see if I had any pictures of me wearing the shirt in the past. Sure enough, second album, first page I opened, I found a this picture of me holding my son Chris as a baby — not sure where, but it’s from September ’94. (Note how the collar was still in fine shape then.)


Finding this pic so quickly fooled me into thinking that I would easily find other pictures me with wearing this shirt, but that was not the case. Looking through albums and boxes of pictures, I encountered lots of other shirts along the way, some forgotten but now fondly remembered for a moment. There were also pictures of me wearing other shirts I still have, including the blue and sea green and peach $4 shirts at the beach and elsewhere. Surprisingly, I discovered pictures that showed I was wearing the orange and white striped shirt on the day Chris was born. (Well, it was mighty hot that day, but still: nice enough at the time for ‘expectant father at hospital’ wear, apparently…)

Eventually, I came to realize that it didn’t matter. I could make up my own stories about my shirt, even if they weren’t specific or even accurate. Walks along the ocean strolling past crowds of beachgoers or in solitude. Casual meals at outdoor cafes in the city on mild summer evenings. The mild but welcome surge of excitement as the act of packing this shirt in a suitcase signified the onset of another vacation. This shirt and I have been through a lot, good times and bad times, and it’s not too much to say that we’ve become friends of a sort after all these years. Clothes like these make it easy to tell stories about them and to understand how we form attachments to our things. Even so, it’s a friend of a different sort — one I can, if a bit reluctantly and sadly, throw away. Or perhaps repurpose — because maybe this is one of those things that deserves a better fate…