#SASpeaks: Breaking Up With Busyness

During the NASPA 2016 Annual Conference, I had the wonderful opportunity to give a talk on “Breaking Up With Busyness,” inspired by a post originally published here, as well as my ongoing personal journey and the great work of many writers and researchers. 

  
Busyness, which can be described as the constant need in our lives to be occupied by tasks and responsibilities, is not unique to Student Affairs, but, I would argue, it’s an insidious part of the culture of our field. It’s fueled by perfectionism, workaholism, and environments of shame. 
Before I came to these realizations about “busyness,” I would embark on each semester with an increasing sense of anxiety and urgency, with the belief that to she who works the most hours go the spoils. For years I kept this up, and I did it more or less successfully. It’s unsurprising that I found success by making myself continually busy in environments that tend to glorify the overworked, overtired, and overscheduled. I was the smartest, most accomplished, and damnit, the busiest. If I didn’t work the most hours, sit on the most committees, and volunteer the most, I wouldn’t get ahead. I wouldn’t be successful—or so I thought. 
I wasn’t the only person around me who felt that way or was behaving that way; most peers and colleagues were. I saw role models and supervisors glorifying exhaustion, so I, too, laid myself down for sacrifice at the altar of Student Affairs. It was a vicious cycle of loose boundaries, overwork, and complaining. And then, after a gradual wearing down over the course of years, I decided that it was time to show Busyness the door. One weekend, I came back to campus (I was a live-on professional at the time) after being away, and the very thought of being there caused me to burst into tears, sitting in my car in the parking lot– I knew then that I was burned out, only a few years out of grad school, and that if I wanted to enjoy my life and my passion for education, I was going to have to find the courage to change how I was working and living. 
I started seeing a therapist (which I recommend for anyone), and I intentionally started to name some behaviors that weren’t working for me. I started saying “no,” and quitting things that I no longer cared about. I’ve read a handful of books that have been really helpful in supporting my desired life changes, some of which I’ll reference today. The most important thing is that I truly started to believe that exhaustion is not a status symbol or a measure of success, and I started to measure my success by metrics other than the amount of hours that were filled on my schedule. And I’m here to say that when I did this, my life and career did not come crashing down. Contrary to my fears, I strongly believe that I am now more successful, more productive, a better colleague and supervisor, and…happier.

  

Although much of this journey has been personal and individual, I also see immense organizational value when we break up with busyness, especially those who are supervisors and leaders. So I would ask you to consider 5 tips for breaking up with busyness, both for yourself and for your organizations: 

  
The first is to stop always working. The idea that many of us have that our value is greatest when we spend the most time working is a total fallacy. Brene Brown has researched, among many things, boundaries, and says that “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” 

  

I was awful at this; Not only would I stay late, volunteer for extra responsibilities,and religiously attend any and all “fundtatory” work activities, I would wake up in the middle of the night and check my email at 2am, which was very unhealthy. I felt like because I had my email in my hand all the time, I should be available to everyone all the time. So I stopped checking email at night and on weekends–I actually turn off the email on my phone unless I’m scheduled to be working. I started putting my phone on “Do Not Disturb” when I was sleeping. I scheduled my days for 8 hours and hardly ever stayed late. I didn’t eat lunch at my desk. I flexed time when I spent extra hours at night or on the weekends. I hold these boundaries and others respect them.
It’s important for us to stop believing that the world is going to come to a screeching halt if we don’t send emails at 11pm. And we absolutely need to stop expecting that people who aren’t on duty or on call are going to respond to work related matters outside of work hours. 

Research shows that workers experience negative physiological and psychological impacts as a result of working overtime. (slide) A 2004 CDC meta-analysis found that “Overtime was associated with poorer perceived general health, increased injury rates, more illnesses, increased mortality…unhealthy weight gain…increased alcohol use…increased smoking…and poorer neuropsychological test performance.” Another meta-analysis of long work hours suggested a possible weak relationship with preterm birth. When we expect constant response from employees, we are being totally negligent with the health and well-being of staff; I don’t care how life-changing your job is: you can’t do it all the time, that is how you get burned out, and then you’ll be awful at the job that you used to love. 

  
My second tip is that free time creates innovation. One of my favorite books is Dan Pink’s Drive, which is about unleashing intrinsic motivation. In it, he discusses the concept of a “FedEx” Day, which many of you may have heard of. This is a concept that many technology companies use, in which they give employees an occasional day to work on whatever they want, whatever is interesting to them. It can’t be something that they are currently working on, and they have to have a deliverable at the end of the the day; hence the name “FedEx”, because they are delivering an idea. 

The concept here is that if we are constantly working on the same routine things, there’s no space for new ideas or creative improvements to our work. If all you’re ever doing is crossing off the to-do list and chasing deadlines, you’re not going to be unleashing the creative part of your mind. 

I don’t know how possible it would be for me to regularly take a day off from my normal responsibilities, but the way that I have created space for innovation is by setting aside a few hours a week in my calendar for ambiguous tasks that I’m working alone on. I also add big-picture items to my actual to-do list, like “Think about Supervisory Philosophy” or “How to better engage learning community faculty?” I think that we have to communicate that this type of work is not only legitimate, but necessary to the progress of our organizations. If you imagine a supervisor or colleague asking you “Hey, what are you working on?” would you be comfortable saying “I’m thinking about my supervisory philosophy today!” ? How about if you are the supervisor in this situation? We have to be okay with giving our smart, talented, creative employees (and ourselves) the time and space to be smart, talented, and creative! 

  
The third tip is that wellness is a strategic priority.

As I mentioned, there are a many studies that show the connection between overwork and serious health concerns. Ultimately, if staff are physically and mentally struggling, that is going to negatively impact productivity, success, and the workplace environment. Sick days exist for a reason: sometimes our bodies and/or minds are not operating at the level we need to be able to be productive at work, and we should give ourselves the time and space to heal and recuperate. That includes being able to care for a sick parent, spouse, or child; I know that when someone I love is unwell, I’m not going to be a great employee that day.
I used to feel guilty about spending time taking care of myself, because in the culture of Busyness, we quantify every minute of our lives to achieve maximum productivity, and I thought that taking a walk, going to bed early, or taking a sick day was wasting time. All of these things, though, are essential steps for my care and upkeep as a human. The way to be most productive and successful is not just to put the most hours toward your tasks, but to make yourself best equipped as a whole person to address the challenges and opportunities of life. For me, that means leaving the office at a reasonable time in the evening to go to the gym regularly, getting up and walking around every hour, spending time cooking nutritious meals for the week, getting between 7-8 hours of sleep every night, and making time for my favorite activities like hiking. When you and your staff are physically well, mentally calm, alert, and happy, every minute that you spend on your work is going to yield more success. 

  
Tip number four: If Everything is a Priority, Nothing is a Priority.

I have been influenced quite a bit lately by the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown. McKeown espouses the practice of Essentialism, which is the idea that to lead a very successful life, we need to identify the things that are absolutely most important for us to spend our time on (the essential), and get rid of the rest.  

 We need to intentionally and strategically say no to opportunities to remain focused on what is most important, and we need to deliberately and continuously re-assess what our highest point of contribution is. The highest point of contribution is the intersection of “What do I feel deeply inspired by?” , “What am I particularly talented at?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?” You focus on that and get rid of the rest.
This is difficult to do, because someone is always looking for a volunteer, and often, we know that we are skilled and would be a valuable asset to a task or new idea. But we have to ask ourselves, at what cost? Just because you have the opportunity to do something or are asked to do something doesn’t mean that you should do it. I think of leading an essential life as a way of avoiding “mission creep” in my work life. There are things that I’m here to do for my department and university; I could do many other things as well, but if I don’t identify and protect my most important priorities, then I’ll never achieve success in my area of responsibility. 

This can seem harsh and anti-collaborative, but it’s important for us to learn how to say “no” so we can say “yes” to the right things. If you don’t decide what your priorities are, someone else will. 

  
The last tip is that we can’t help others unless we help ourselves first

Burnout is very real when you work in a helping profession like student affairs. Burnout includes three aspects: 

  • Increased feelings of emotional exhaustion, 
  • development of negative, cynical attitudes about those you are helping, and
  • unhappiness with yourself and dissatisfaction with your work accomplishments. (Maslach & Jackson, 1981) 

Because burnout is caused by organizational, interpersonal, and intrapersonal factors, (Huebner, 1993) there are opportunities to prevent and treat burnout as a supervisor, colleague, and for yourself. We should expect that the type of stressors that we deal with related to difficult human emotions and experiences may lead to burnout, especially when combined with overwork, conflicting workplace demands, or insufficient organizational or supervisory support. Avoiding burnout is like when you are on an airplane and they tell you to always put your own oxygen on first We cannot bear every burden and solve every problem, and if we don’t develop and sustain healthy coping mechanisms to address work stressors, we won’t be able to bear any burdens or solve any problems. So make sure you have your oxygen on.
We, as the field of student affairs, need to look Busyness in the face and name it for what it is: a toxic personal and organizational attitude that devalues our holistic selves and replaces good management and efficiency with anxiety and wasted time.
It’s time to break up with Busyness for good.
References: 

Books:

  • Essentialism, Greg McKeown
  • Rising Strong and Daring Greatly, Brene Brown
  • Drive, Daniel Pink

Articles:

http://www.cnbc.com/2015/01/26/working-more-than-50-hours-makes-you-less-productive.html

http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2004-143/pdfs/2004-143.pdf

How to deliver innovation overnight

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/businessclub/8180974/Reap-the-rewards-of-letting-your-employees-run-free.html
https://hbr.org/2012/08/the-disciplined-pursuit-of-less

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/09/how-to-set-boundaries-brene-brown_n_4372968.html 

Journal Articles: 

The Measurement of Experienced Burnout Author(s): Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson Source: Journal of Occupational Behaviour, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Apr., 1981), pp. 99-113

Huebner, E. Scott, PROFESSIONALS UNDER STRESS: A REVIEW OF BURNOUT AMONG THE HELPING PROFESSIONS WITH IMPLICATIONS FOR SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGISTS Psychology in the Schools Volume 30, January 1993, pp. 40-49

“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”

I haven’t written in a few months. And the truth is, it’s because I’ve been afraid of what might come out. As a process of personal consciousness-raising, writing allows me to get in deep with my own thoughts and feelings about the personal, political, and vocational. And lately, in all three of those arenas, I’ve gotten close enough to the edge of the pool to see that it’s getting awfully deep and it is looking like I haven’t cleaned it in quite a while. So I’ve been sitting on my lounge chair, biding my time until I convinced myself that if I dive in, I’m a good enough swimmer to make it back to the surface. 
One struggle over the past few months has been with my level of “busyness.” Much-reviled busyness, which I frequently take to task here and elsewhere, was starting to enthusiastically creep back into my life. It turns out, once you figure out some important truth about the best way to live your life, you can still retreat to old habits. Furthermore, when the context of your experience changes, so too must the way you make meaning of your values in practice.  Behold, having recently proclaimed myself as unburdened with busyness, I launched into a schedule that can only objectively be described as absurdly busy.  I have allowed tasks and responsibilities that are non-essential and driven by obligation and perfectionism to consume my time. The distinction between those types of activities and those that are essential, important, and aligned with my values and goals is very important, because spending time on the essential is not busyness, but rather an investment. For example, taking two weeks to be with my family when my grandmother was dying: essential. Worrying about trying to put together alumni class activities for college homecoming: busy. 
As a recovering perfectionist, it’s still a pretty ugly process for me to own up to vulnerability in public arenas. However, I share my writing because I am deeply invested in human connection and value the process of exchanging thoughts and ideas with others. Still, it’s a lot easier to share something that you anticipate people are going to find positive and inspiring than to share your struggle. So once I realized that I was bumping up against my own values in a rather uncomfortable way, starting to bullshit my way through life because things were getting kind of ugly and painful, and I was getting dangerously close to reneging on my own self promises of wellness and authenticity, I started putting my protective walls back up. One of those walls was avoiding writing. 
I’m a master of building emotional walls. I’m impossibly good at shutting other people out when it allows me to evade owning that I am scared, in pain, confused, or sad. My partner is very proficient at noticing this, most likely because he has some good practice at carefully dismantling said walls. I am a persistent builder, though. And although I’ve done better lately at not hiding my vulnerabilities quite so much, every once in a while, when I feel like I’m losing control, I will drag out the bricks and mortar and get to work. Brick 1: anger; Brick 2: defensiveness; Brick 3: blame. So on and so forth, glued together with the cement of self-righteousness. Although I haven’t managed to rid myself of this tendency yet, I’ve started to be able to name it, and as previously mentioned, my partner will name it too. Being called out on being insufferable and emotionally distant kind of sucks, but not nearly as much as continuing to be insufferable and emotionally distant would suck. 
One recent example of a calling out happened when I was in a rare mood. I was swimming in my own feelings of hypocrisy, shame, and not being good enough as a partner. I had recently (with the supportive listening help of my partner, sister, and father) identified that my priorities were messed up and hadn’t been able to fix it yet. I was still reeling from grief and worn down from an unforgiving schedule of work and travel. I described myself to my sister as being stuck on a swing, but I couldn’t figure out when or how to jump off without getting hurt. So obviously, I decided to transfer the blame. I was mad at myself for not making enough time for my relationship and for my personal well being, which I spent a five hour car drive thinking about, so I started to transfer my anger by picking a fight. I called my partner and said “Can we please DO something when I get home, because I really CANNOT just sit on the couch all afternoon?” It’s remarkable that I have the inflection and attitude of my twelve year old self when I’m steeped in feelings of inadequacy and exhaustion (this may merit further exploration). He amiably agreed and asked if I wanted to go on a hike (of course I wanted to go on a hike! It was a beautiful day and I love hiking). Because I won that fight too easily (mostly because it was not a fight at all), I lingered and clung to the idea that he was only going on this hike because I had somehow tricked him into it and that he totally resented me and didn’t want to go, instead of accepting that although hiking is not his all time favorite activity, he suggested it and was obviously okay with it because of his love for and devotion to me. I appended this new nugget of inadequacy and failure to the mental novel of Inadequacy and Failure that I had written during my long drive.
And so I kept swirling in this little shame storm. When I got home, I picked another argument when my partner casually joked about our hiking plans. I got into a full blown “conversation” with him about how I feel that “we” don’t do enough “fun things” together (read: I’m being a shitty girlfriend because I’m constantly traveling, I’m totally stressed out, and pissed at myself for not making time for the things that I say matter). I will add here that I’m fortunate to have a partner who fights fair, with love, and an immense amount of care. We actually had a sort of productive conversation, but I was still trying to build a wall around myself to avoid my vulnerabilities. Finally, we got into the woods (literally, we were in the woods). The path we were hiking was slippery with late fall leaves; he went ahead of me, offering his hand as I commented that I thought the path was a little dangerous that day, and reassuring that he would protect me. I  snapped: “I don’t need you to protect me,” and as the words left my mouth I immediately felt the weight of my own hurt. He casually responded “Oop, there’s those walls…” I felt guilty but was grateful that he called me out. Denying that I need help or protection is how I justify the wall building behavior. If I don’t need anyone other than myself, I can justify crappy behavior because it will only impact me. 
I’ve since resumed the hard work of reexamining and committing to my priorities. I thought it was enough to name and understand these things for myself, but the truth is, I can’t live an authentic and whole life without the help and investment of others. I needed help as I navigated major transitions in my life. A new job, a new relationship, a new living and financial situation, and the death of a loved one are all kind of a big deal. 
I’ve been coming to terms with the idea that my development is neither linear nor sequential. Fellow educators will get this: I’m finally figuring out that I’m not following a stage model. This perhaps should have been easier to figure out, since I don’t necessarily believe in linear development as an accurate description of the human experience, but alas, knowledge is easier to understand written on a page than seen in a mirror. So I need to give myself permission to sometimes fall down and sometimes stagger backwards when faced with challenging situations. I need to remember that thinking that I can perfect anything in life is  dangerous and destructive. I need to accept that the beauty is in the struggle and that learning is a direct result of challenge. And I need to be open to the fact that an authentic and whole life is one in which I am open to others and forgiving of myself. 

Breaking Up with Busyness

About a year ago, I started breaking up with Busyness. Busyness and I were pretty deep in a toxic relationship that had started sometime in my sophomore year of college, just around the time that I was introduced to a budding career in Student Affairs.

Busyness, which can be described as the constant need in our lives to be occupied by tasks, responsibilities, and to-do lists (usually work-related, but for me, also related to volunteering that is suspiciously like work) is not unique to Student Affairs, but, I would argue, is an insidious part of the culture of our field. It’s fueled by perfectionism, workaholism, and environments of shame. With a calendar that looked like a game of Tetris, I embarked on each semester with an increasing sense of urgency and anxiety, with the belief that to she who works the most hours go the spoils.

For about 7 years I kept up this deleterious dance, and I did it more or less successfully. It’s unsurprising that I found success by making myself continually busy in environments that tend to glorify the overworked, overtired, and overscheduled. Every time I started to get weary, I reminded myself that I had a reputation for excellence to uphold. I was Ashley F**king Robinson (an actual nickname that others used for me). I was the smartest, most accomplished, and goddamnit, the busiest. If I didn’t work the most hours, sit on the most committees, and volunteer the most, I wouldn’t get ahead. I wouldn’t be successful.

What a load of bullshit that was. I wasn’t the only person around me who felt that way or was behaving that way; most people were. I saw role models and supervisors glorifying busyness, so I, too, laid myself down for sacrifice at the altar of Student Affairs. It was a vicious cycle of loose boundaries, overwork, and complaining. And then, after a gradual wearing down over the course of years, I decided that it was time to show Busyness the damn door. I was getting burned out, only a few years out of grad school, and I knew that if I wanted to have a long, rewarding career of educating college students, I needed to do it differently.

I stopped checking email at night and on weekends, unless I was actually working. I put my phone on “Do Not Disturb” when I was sleeping. I scheduled my days for 8 hours and hardly ever stayed late. I didn’t eat lunch at my desk. I flexed time when I spent extra hours at night or on the weekends.  I started going to the gym regularly for the first time ever. I started getting up and walking around every 45 minutes. I paid attention to my mental and physical health and nutrition. I kept track of my sleep and always aimed for 8 hours in bed. I stepped away from any extra work obligations that were not clearly benefitting me and the mission of my department as it related to my scope of influence (committees, I’m looking at you). I refused to let myself feel guilty when I left the office when other people were still there or didn’t volunteer for something extra after hours. I let things slide a little bit here and there in favor of more important priorities.

When I did this, bad things did not start happening. In fact, good things started happening. I am less stressed and more organized than I used to be. I spend more time on things that I am passionate about. I lost weight and got healthier. I advanced my career with a new job. I fell in love. I’m not saying that if you stop answering your email at night, you’re automatically going to lose 20lbs, get a new job, and find love…but what I am saying is that when I carved out and fiercely protected my free time, I allowed myself to expend energy on previously neglected areas like reflection and personal fulfillment outside of work.

Although much of this journey has been personal and individual, I also see immense organizational value when individuals break up with busyness, especially those who are supervisors and leaders. Over the past year, I communicated openly and widely about my quest for balance and wellness. I told supervisors, peers, and students that this was a core value of mine and encouraged and supported the same type of behavior in others. I reflected on the ways I had felt guilty or not enough in the past and tried to break down those forces for others as I combatted them for myself. And this, I think is the path to fix our busyness problem.

We, as the field of student affairs, need to look Busyness in the face and name it for what it is: a toxic work culture that devalues our holistic selves and replaces good management and efficiency with anxiety and wasted time. Stop scheduling things for after hours that don’t have to be after hours. Encourage your staff to be productive without spending extra time in the office. Be clear and consistent in your expectations for how supervisees spend their time, and when extra time is spent, ensure that they are able to balance that out. Challenge if extra time needs to be spent or if there are ways to work smarter, further ahead, and more creatively. Stop acting like the world is going to come to a screeching halt if you don’t send emails at 11pm. Challenge how we schedule student staff and how we structure our schedules during both the busy times and low times. Eat lunch. Ask for help. Go home. Don’t be a martyr.

It’s time to break up with Busyness for good.

There’s More to Life Than Work (I Think)

You should work to live, not live to work.

I have, in very recent history, openly scoffed at this adage. I have thought to myself, “My work is not just work…it is life. My work is meaningful and important, so I don’t need to worry about keeping my work time under control. Everything just blends together and it’s okay!”

I’m pretty sure I was wrong.

These days, I’m starting to reconsider my stance on what a good life looks like. I’m on something of a journey of self-discovery (that sounds much better than “existential crisis,” doesn’t it?) As I try to determine the next steps in my career, I am reexamining my work-related values. As I previously alluded to, those values used to be something along the lines of: “Be everything to everyone all the time, and be the best at it.”

There are many contributing factors that led to my work ethic, including perfectionism, gendered achievement expectations (I can’t just be successful, I also have to be selfless), and endless positive reinforcement for my burgeoning workaholism. I believe that these factors are tied into the culture of student affairs and in larger part, to societal factors that conflate being busy or stressed with vocational success.

Here are some of my thoughts about redefining “success” and valuing a holistic life:

Free time is where creativity and potential exist. 

All work and no play make Ashley a dull person. Seriously. Not just for the obvious reason that free time is enjoyable, but because when your mind is allowed to have space to breathe without constant attentiveness to already-determined tasks, you have the chance to dream, imagine, and think deeply about a whole variety of things.

“I don’t have anything else to do” is a crappy reason to work more. 

How many times have you said some variety of this? “I’m not doing anything else…so I might as well just go to the office on the weekend/check my email/work on a work-related project after hours.” Maybe you don’t have anything else to do because all you ever do is work. Have you thought of that?

Know when you’re at your peak performance. Don’t go beyond that. 

Listen to your body. Pay attention to how clear your mind is. Know what it feels like to be productive, energized, and “in the zone.” And if you’re not there, take breaks, take care of yourself, take a walk. We are not robots or machines. We are humans.

Being healthy and well is more important. 

I frequently tell my students that they do not get a new body to trade in upon completion of college, and this admonition goes for all of us. We don’t get to trade in our abused, uncared for bodies and minds. These are the ones we have. What better use of our time is there than to make sure that we are in good condition? I will admit that there are many times that I have said “I don’t feel well, but I don’t have time to go to the doctor; I don’t have time to be sick.” Illness doesn’t, it turns out, just go away if you ignore it. And once you are really sick and have to take days out at inopportune times, your workload and stress level is not going to get any better. Prevention and maintenance matter.

Volunteering might be working dressed up in a disguise.

I’m just saying…I’m a master of this one. If you work in student affairs, there’s a good chance that almost everything you do is for other people. There’s also a good chance that your selflessness, positive attitude, and event planning skills make you a great volunteer. Be careful how many things you sign up for (on and off campus). Though every opportunity is likely a wonderful cause, you can only be spread so thin. Before you take the next volunteer opportunity, ask yourself these questions: Will doing this provide personal/professional benefits to me as well as to others? Am I actually going to enjoy doing this or see it as a burden or stress? Are there other people who are equally qualified and able to do this?

I know that I am more than my job and that my life is more than my job. It’s time to start acting that way and passing along a new work ethic. One that values dedication, hard work, self-care, kindness, intentionality, and living well.

What Not To Do: Online Dating

I’ve been trying my hand at online dating for quite a while now. Even after a couple of years (it’s obviously going REALLY well) I continue to be amazed by deal-breaking actions of potential mates. For a while, I thought I was being too picky or that my standards were too high, however my friends, family, and even a licensed family and marriage counselor have assured me that is not the case. So I offer up the following advice on online dating, to be considered for your entertainment, self-improvement, or otherwise.

  1. “Hi” is not a message. “Hi” is what you say to the cashier at the grocery store as you put your bananas down on the counter. In fact, it’s usually followed by “How are you?” One word messages don’t deserve responses. I spent a crapload of time writing interesting stuff about myself in this profile, and all you can come up with is “hi?” Try harder.
  2. Please spare me the microagressions (and not-so-micro-aggressions). I wrote a profile to provide information about myself, with the idea that you might comment on something other than my appearance. I wrote in my profile that I’m a feminist so that misogynistic, sexist pigs know better than to contact me. Don’t spend your time spewing hatred at me via message. I’m just going to report your profile. Maybe you should invest yourself in thinking about your irrational fear of strong women, instead (preferably through psychotherapy).
  3. Don’t talk about your other online dates. Obviously, everyone who is online dating is looking at plenty of fish, so to speak. Don’t bring it up, though! I’m sorry that someone else stood you up, bro. Oh, you have another online date tomorrow? Maybe you’ll like her more than you like me? Online dating is an experience that we share, but maybe we can find something else to talk about?
  4. Do not bring up your ex. Or exes. This is just a dating no-no in general. If a relationship progresses with someone, you are probably going to eventually get to talking about past relationships. But that is not first date (or pre-first date) conversation. What are you trying to tell me? That other people have actually dated you in the past? Okay…good for you? This doesn’t really come across as proof that you’re not a violent sociopath. It just makes it seem like you’ve got baggage and you’re not over your ex.
  5. No means no. Sometimes I don’t message people back. Don’t keep messaging me until I have to block you. That is stalkerish and absolutely guarantees that I’m never going to talk to you. And if I politely inform you that I’m not interested, I am not opening it up for bargaining or negotiation. Accept the rejection. Move on. I already decided the outcome, you don’t get to re-decide it for me.
  6. Don’t ever tell anyone that you are going to make a voodoo doll of them. This should go without saying, right?
  7. Don’t start by putting yourself down. Humility is a wonderful trait. Being self-deprecating is not. Do not start a message (or your profile) with “I’m not very good at this online dating thing” or “I’m not very good at writing messages” or “I hope I’m not too short, or too far away, or too [whatever].” I’m out here looking for the future father of my children, folks. If my first interaction with you suggests that you completely lack self-confidence, think you’re pathetic, or see yourself as a loser, you are not getting past square one.
  8. Don’t lie. Just don’t. I’m like an online dating ninja. I’ll discover the truth. Besides that, if you actually get to meet me/date me and I find out that you lied, I will unceremoniously excise you from my life.

The one upside of constantly dealing with these ridiculous online dating follies is that it provides endless entertainment for me and my friends. So, potential suitors, if you do commit any of these no-nos, know that I’m doing a dramatic reading of your messages over a glass of wine and sending screenshots to everyone. Thanks for the laughs. It’s not me; it’s you.

America’s (and My) Post 9/11 Loss of Innocence

At age 26, I have now officially lived half of my life pre-9/11 and half post-9/11. On this 13th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, I have been reflecting on how I experienced that day as a 13 year old.

Sitting in second period Computer Science class, we had easy access to the internet, which normally wouldn’t have happened in school. This meant that another student, browsing his Yahoo homepage, turned around and started to tell students that a building in New York had been hit by a plane. I recall thinking about how that was such a strange and awful accident, and that it must have been a small private aircraft. For the next several hours of school, I remember a vague sense with each passing period that the news we had discovered was worse and worse. My teachers were increasingly uneasy and distracted.

Upon arriving at home, I stood in front of the television in the living room, watching repetitive broadcasts of the two towers falling for what seemed like hours. I remember during that time developing a consciousness of what terrorism was, and starting to understand that there were people who so deeply hated the United States and what they believed our country stood for that they would kill themselves and countless innocent civilians. I wondered how humanity could be so profoundly damaged that this could happen. I wondered how someone could be so angry as to complete such an act.

In the following months and years, the lexicon of the “War On Terror” crept into my vocabulary. Ground Zero. Al Qaeda. Taliban. Homeland Security. This was the first time in my life that I developed a socio-political consciousness. Life became scarier and more uneasy. The eighth grade class trip was canceled. Flying on planes was different. Suddenly, anti-Muslim racism was virulent. Bumper stickers informed me that THESE COLORS DON’T BLEED. We were all PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN.

Patriotism changed. I used to think that patriotism meant love, pride, and investment. It meant parades on Memorial Day and fireworks on Independence Day. It meant giving to your community, thanking veterans, and holding your hand over your heart. After 9/11, though, as we trudged through the War On Terror, patriotism became fear, anger, and vengeful violence. Love for the United States was warped by insecurity and sadness into violent xenophobia, a national anxiety trademarked with a desire to punish and kill. Within our nationalism was an open wound, an exposed vulnerability that was shielded with the rhetoric of revenge.

By the time “Freedom Fries” came about in 2003, I was increasingly aware that the effects of the 9/11 attacks had not just been in lives or in property, but that the attack on our soil had damaged the American psyche. We were still living in fear, anger, and overcompensating for our emptiness and hurt with a pernicious nationalism that left a bad taste in my mouth. I was left wondering where the United States I knew had gone; the United States that stood with hands outstretched, rather than fists up.  I spent my teen years recoiling from this patriotism (you will never find me singing that awful “Proud to be an American” song, though I am, indeed, proud to be an American citizen). I never felt like patriotism should be violent and forceful, but rather like getting a good long hug from a friend whom you have known for a long time.

In some part, my post 9/11 experience was also part of my experience of growing up and gaining awareness of the brokenness of our world. But I will never lose the feeling that after 9/11, America’s trust was irrevocably damaged, and that it has yet to be repaired. I hope to see a day when our collective definition of “I Love the United States” does not include “…because I hate everyone else out of fear.”

My Existential Crisis of “Home”: Where am I from?

“Where are you from?”

This is a seemingly simple question to which I routinely respond with complicated answers. Most inquirers are just being polite or trying to ascertain some small amount of information about where I live. However, they usually end up with significantly greater detail than expected.

My answer  and corresponding internal dialogue usually goes something like this:

“Well, I guess I’m from Connecticut now” (that response inspires confidence; I guess? My driver’s license and the plates on my car sure seem to think I’m from Connecticut)

“I live there. In Storrs. Actually… at UConn.” (I don’t want this person to think that I just moved out to rural Eastern Connecticut in my mid-twenties to live a quiet country life or something)

I live at UConn, but I’m not a student. I’m a residence hall director. So I live on campus, but it’s not like, a dorm room. It’s a real apartment…in a residence hall.” (They need to know that I’m a real live grown-up. Maybe I should mention again that I’m not a student. I have a kitchen!)

“But I’m originally from Rhode Island! From outside of Providence.” (Now they know who I really am!)

“And I lived in Maine for six years while I was in school.” (Haha! Wildcard! Betcha didn’t see that coming.)

My long-winded explanations, of course, stem from my own confusion about “home” and where I am rooted at this juncture in my life. Numerous factors contribute, not the least of which is my somewhat unique position of living on a college campus because of my job. After two years in Connecticut, I feel that I owe my experience as a resident there some level of recognition, but that recognition is almost always qualified by explanations.

For me, “where are you from?” is a question that has very little to do with geography. It has to do with values, context, and history. The name or location of a place tells a story (accurate or otherwise) about the person who lives there. It would seem that I find my story complicated enough that it cannot be condensed into one single locale. It would also seem that I see my current, employment-related residence as not quite worthy of full “home” status.

I enjoy my job and where I currently live, and I’ve put in a lot of effort over the past two years to build a sense of connection and belonging there, but I think that I will always have some dissonance in explaining where I am from as long as I live on campus. As long as I live on campus, my home is defined by my job, and I am unwilling to reduce my definition as a person to my job. So for now, I’ll continue to confuse new acquaintances at social gatherings by embracing my multifaceted, trans-state definition of “home.” I don’t exist in just one place and neither does my story.