This is Me

I have better enjoyment of life when I choose my emotions. Circumstances are often out of our control, so it isn’t always reasonable to choose to be happy in response to all of them. It's not that it's impossible to reach a positive emotional state, but it can certainly be a lot harder when life layers on the challenges.

I’ve learned from observing myself and others to never underestimate a person’s selfishness. I think that’s our natural state, to think only about ourselves, and it takes work to socialize people into caring for others. For the most part, I don't care if someone is an insufferable asshole so long as they know that about themselves. Keep being yourself, but just not anywhere near me. I often place myself at the centre of most experiences. I’ll choose to be unhappy if I don’t get a new iPhone every year, even when most people hang onto theirs for probably two to three years at least. Hanging out with people, sometimes it can feel impossible to have a good time, but it can also mean it required a higher amount of effort to have fun that night. I’ve held my happiness hostage before until my vague and infinitely long list of demands were met, which usually doesn’t happen. Especially being out of school and into marriage both for around five years now, more and more of the list of demands seems to move depeer into the area of first world problems.

It’s also worked in the opposite direction for me as well. When I should have been angry or upset, I chose not to be. When I should have gotten aggressive in response to an attack, I chose to run away. That helps when you’re trying to de-escalate a situation, but sometimes you need to respond with plain old brute force. In those cases, the decision preceded the emotion. I had already chosen to not get upset at all, so whenever my heart applied for a permit to be upset, it had already been denied well in advance. Being traumatized since childhood, I was stuck in a state of fear for a long time. Sometimes it’s helped me push past struggles, sometimes it’s worked against me.

”Fear. What happens on Earth stays on Earth,

And I can’t take these feelings with me

So hopefully they disperse

Within fourteen tracks, carried out over wax.

Wondering if I’m livin’ through fear or livin’ through rap.”

Kendrick Lamar

If I’m stuck in a state of fear, then I’ll eventually find something that I should be scared of. It’s been hard for me to relax my whole life because of that trauma. I thought I was just tightly wound, but it’s one of those deep psychological complexes. It’s harder for me to choose my emotions because they’re physiologically locked into my body, but again, it’s not impossible to break free. It takes a lot of work, and I got a big boost from professional help. Now that I’m not stuck in that state anymore, my emotional range has opened up. I’ve downgraded from traumatized paranoia to heightened suspicion now.

What’s an example of a time when did I not choose the best emotional response? The most recent example was Chasing Summer Music Festival 2017. Because of some changes this summer, it’s probably the last big event I’ll attend, never forgetting that I already spent a big chunk of dough going to Coachella. I had worked hard to trade shifts, to get my hair cut, to make sure we synced up with our friends, and even still, there were moments where I wasn't enjoying myself or loosening up. Some sets that I was anticipating were pretty awful. There were also some pleasant surprises like meeting new friends. However, it was only after I decided to just run with it and enjoy myself that I actually started smiling and dancing. I could have chosen to feel butthurt about the prices, the crowds, the smells. Maybe the DJ didn’t play the song I liked or they mixed it in a way I didn’t vibe with. Like the last two years, it rained cats and dogs, and I had to walk around and dance in wet socks for the rest of the day. I think it would be understandable if I were sour because of all those conditions and more, but I just decided that life was too short to be so bitter while so much more had lined up for me to enjoy myself at the event I was looking forward to the most for the year. I didn’t have to travel or find accommodations for this festival. A bunch of friends came in from out of town. I hadn’t seen Zedd in a few years, and Jauz moved up to the main stage this summer. I could have been selfish and increased the items on my list of demands, but after being a bummer for a while, I chose to appreciate what I did have, especially being surrounded by the best people. I’m privileged enough to have these first world problems.

Okay, so that’s a surface example. What’s a dark and terrifying place in my chest that needs some light shone upon it? This month marks roughly one year since I took short term disability from work. I was stressing about my job rotation and my mental health, and I had to quit once I realized I wasn’t getting any more support from HR. I got on medical EI for four months, tried to extend it in January, and I was looking for work and not getting responses. My health was not in a great place overall. Nowadays, I have a job with benefits and vacation. Carrie’s done school and working now. The car is functioning. I have amazing coworkers who’ve become friends, and I’m having fun 3D printing again. I’m still getting used to shift work as opposed to office hours, but there are upsides that I’m still discovering and learning to take advantage of. That is, I have a lot to be grateful for. I could go back to my old ways and demand that life remove my every annoyance and inconvenience, but I don’t want to be that person anymore.

It’s interesting trying to think back to The Struggle. Since I don’t feel absolutely and constantly devastated anymore, it’s almost like it never happened. I know in my head that it was the worst time of my life, but emotionally, it feels like the very distant past. It’s weird not being able to empathize with my past self, the one person I should be able to empathize with out of everyone. It’s easy to forget the hard times because I think the mind tends to erase unpleasant memories. I think back fondly to that time I went to Vietnam with my family of origin, but I also know that we stayed way too long; something like five or six weeks in the summer. It was scorching hot, the sun rose at like 4 AM, not to mention the car mechanic across the street started work around that time everyday. I didn’t like the Malaria Mosquitoes and Assassin Ants, the rain was overbearing, and the language barrier was difficult to navigate, especially talking to anyone that wasn’t a family member. I had to ask someone with a different dialect to repeat themselves five times, and they were only asking how I was doing. I know I was miserable at the time, but I still think of that vacation as only good times. During The Struggle, I never really felt like I had control of my feelings. I had the ability to choose to submit myself to certain experiences, but I spent a lot of time being surprised at how I felt.

"Why is this bothering me so much?"

"Why isn’t this bothering me more?"

Should I react or respond first? I think it’s healthy to react privately and then calculate your response afterward. I find that my reactions are much more base and instinctive, rash and animalistic. I used to have a serious problem with rage. I had so much pent-up anger inside that I would constantly plot how to kill people. I never did, but that's not a great thought to brood on. Apparently that’s a normal response to being abused and having my boundaries violated deeply and regularly. If I don’t release the tension built up in my reactions, then my response isn’t always ideal. That’s partly why I write. Typing helps me to slowly channel my rage onto the page, and once I can examine them objectively, I can tweak my response accordingly. I have a lot of reactions that are ridiculous in general, but I keep it to myself and try to respond with kindness. It’s not so bad if I react to something, but I like to be more measured instead of blurting things out, which I only do if there’s a lame pun to punish my readers with.

Is it possible to have too much control? When I should be mad but respond too quickly with generosity, it seems disingenuous because nobody processes feelings that quickly. It comes off as robotic, and even though there’s an underlying niceness, it can be as harmful as having a quick reaction. Being way too nice, I developed this mentality of being a pushover. When someone wronged me, I would quickly respond with “No worries.” Hakuna matata. What a wonderful phrase when it’s genuine. Saying it too quickly makes it seem suspicious. I was selfishly nice. My whole life I was told to think about others, but later I learned it was a manipulation tactic to take advantage of me the whole time. I thought I was supposed to be super nice to everyone because they would be nice back to me. That's not how the world works. I shouldn't be nice just so I can get something in return. I should do it because that's who I am and how I choose to interact with others, not with the expectation of a reward. In my experience, that reward is rarely ever presented.

On top of being forced to consider others, I’ve always felt rushed so I could fit someone else’s pace. Now I’m learning to assert myself and to go at my own pace. Instead of getting out of the way, I’m telling the world "This is me." My dad always rushed me to succeed so I could reach higher, so that created a pattern throughout my life where I wouldn’t centre myself before making my next move. I’m learning to ground myself, to take deep breaths, and to commit only once I’m ready. In an alternate timeline, Carrie and I would have had a lower cost wedding. We wouldn’t have traveled to such faraway and expensive places. We would have taken smaller risks, gotten married later, and had kids earlier. We would have bought a house on the outskirts of town, and eventually we would have grown resentful towards our kids because we did everything we were supposed to do when we were supposed to, all for their sakes. Societal and cultural pressures demanded them. Instead, we marched to the beat of our own drums instead of rushing so that I avoid inconveniencing someone else.

Your reactions can surprise you, which makes it harder to respond when you don’t know how you feel. At one of the after-parties for Chasing Summer, I ran into this girl who was just way too attractive. Not only was she gorgeous, but she and I were vibing on the dance floor. I’ve spent a lot of time on many a floor of dance before and I’ve run into plenty of pretty girls, but the combination of the looks and moves on this one girl just devastated me. I wanted to be with her, to know her problems and to take them away, to give her everything she needed. There was a searing pain in my chest that I felt wouldn't go away until I could make her happy. I haven’t felt this way in I-don’t-know-how-long, and it caught me completely by surprise. I was shook. I had a junior-high level of hopeless infatuation with her so bad that I’ve been thinking about her all week. It’s new to me. It does happen to people, even when they’re married. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still very much in love with Carrie after being together for some thirteen and a half years, but the heart wants what the heart wants. Feeling this way isn’t wrong, but certainly choosing my response can be judged in that realm. Being that our wedding anniversary just passed, I’m certain this was some sort of test, and it was a tough one that came late at night when I wasn’t expecting it. I think I did well because I didn’t ask for her name or number, I kept my distance, and I left the venue once I couldn’t handle the pain anymore. I sometimes think about her during quiet moments, but luckily she’s beyond my reach now and I’ll probably never run into her again. Until the next test.

We out here. The trend of the universe is towards darkness, chaos, emptiness. The very act of existence is a rebellion against what the world wants. By being born, by being yourself, you defy all the forces trying to end you. There are those that would take your money, your attention, your health and well-being for their own selfish ends. By saying “This is Me,” you fight back against everyone trying to exploit you, trying to colonize your body for their own profit. Be yourself. Write your own story like Kendrick. Don't be like Drake the actor. Sometimes you can choose your emotions, but it can be a lot of work. Sometimes we need to listen to our bodies and bend to its emotional pull, but other times we need to overpower our feelings with our heads to get things done. We're selfish beings, so it takes a conscious effort to remove ourselves as the centre of all experiences. Life is best when you live for something beyond yourself. On the other hand, you have to address any damage and missing pieces before you can do that. It’s all good as long as you’re saying this is who you are and who you want to be.

Scarcity and Wealth

I’m having a transition summer. While I’d much rather be out and about, biking instead of driving, wearing tank tops and flip flops, I spend a lot of my time hiding out at home. I’m always tired. I’m always diving in to the deep end, and as I’ve been trying to come up for air, I always rush back in before catching my breath.

I’m at about 40% of my full power. I go to work, and that’s about all I can manage. I 3D print things for people there, and otherwise, I leave everyone alone. I’m at home playing Breath of the Wild with Reno 911 playing alongside on my iPad. I’m sure most people live pretty mellow everyday lives, but it’s always been a challenge for me. There are people I could call up to hang out, but I have very little left over right now. My cup doth not overfloweth.

Scarcity and weatlh. I don't mean being objectively rich or poor, but instead there are the mentalities of thinking you have either much or little, whether it be money, time, friends, food, opportunities, health. In terms of clichés, if you have a day to write 20 letters, you’ll get them all done that day. If you have a week to write one, you’ll take all seven days to write it. Your perspective of how many resources you have affects a lot of domains, and I find that leaning towards scarcity leads to better results. Warren Buffett is famously very frugal as far as billionaires go.

It’s the difference between the day of the job interview and the day you get the offer, after which you start planning purchases and vacations. When you’re super physically attractive like me, sometimes being polite and friendly is too much effort because you’re sick and tired of the attention from all the creeps. I remember a friend telling me about how cheap their dad was. If the price of gas moved up 1 cent, it would just ruin his day, and my friend wouldn’t hear the end of it about how the oil companies were stealing all the money and the government was overtaxing the average working person and on and on. Gas prices are a genuine problem for people with low income, but my friend’s dad did well for himself, so it didn’t make sense why he was so bothered by such an inconsequential change. Perhaps his mentality was too extreme in its scarcity.

I can think of a lot of times when I took on a mentality of wealth and got burned in the end. There was the time Carrie and I were ready to leave our honeymoon in New York to go back home, so we just packed up and left for the airport like 4 hours before our flight just so we wouldn’t run into trouble with traffic or other bad luck. We got through security and everything pretty quickly, so we had something like three hours to burn. We ate, used the bathroom, bought some snacks, chatted, looked at pictures. We thought we had so much time that there was no way we would miss our flights, so we sat by the gate early, where Carrie fell asleep and I got caught up in a video game on my phone. Carrie woke up and asked if we were leaving soon, and I said, “No, doesn’t look like it. This pilot sitting next to me would already be in the plane if we were boarding soon.” She went back to sleep. I eventually looked around and noticed that nobody was getting up to board the plane, and the plane was supposed to leave in a few minutes. I went up to the desk and asked if our flight was late. They asked if we were Jon and Carrie, and when I confirmed that we were, they replied “We’ve been paging you for 30 minutes. The plane just left 3 minutes ago.” Apparently it’s possible to have too much time to board, and as a result of my wealthy mentality, thinking that we had all this time, we had to spend an extra $500 on flights, accomodations, and food.

I used to think I was on top of the world. I had a strong, tight-knit family. I still had both of my parents. We had a strong Christian upbringing, bolstered by the Asian values of family and honour. I received a proper education from the top high school in Canada and then from an average Canadian university. I had tons of friends, I was smart, I was tall, dark, and slightly above average-looking. I found the love of my life at the tender age of 16, and I had a solid office job with good salary, benefits, and vacation. I acted in a way that was consistent with my bougie identity at the time, so I spent money on the nicer sets of IKEA furniture. I spent a ton of money on toys. We traveled to distant lands and went to expensive music festivals. When I first moved to Calgary, I got a place with a second bedroom because I wanted to share the wealth with people who needed a place to crash in the city.

After counselling, I now realize how many challenges I actually faced growing up. I was sexually abused as a child. I was emotionally abused for years by my family. I couldn’t manage my stress and anxiety as a young adult. I had the symptoms of PTSD, experiencing hypervigilance, flashbacks, and nightmares. Last year, I couldn’t work anymore, and I lost my support system. I turned to simple pleasures and partying to feel better, which only made me feel worse. In those situations, you need to deal with all of the mounting problems, but you don’t feel strong enough to do it. You party to feel better and to restore your strength, but the late nights and drinking make you feel worse than before. If you decide to face the problems head on and skip out on the fun, you can easily push yourself so far out of your comfort zone that you need to turn back to the simple pleasures again. In those times, there is no winning, only losing more slowly.

A habit I picked up from my youth was diving in to the deep end completely to overcome big challenges. That was all well and good when I was a kid, defiant and invincible, having no real responsibilities. We were always reminded in school that we could be anything we wanted if we put our minds to it, and I took that to mean I could do everything at the same time at any age. Most problems can easily be dealt with if you’re betting your whole life on it, going all-in at every turn. Then your luck eventually runs out and you lose big. It’s a highly inefficient system, but it gets you a quick little boost early in the game. I don’t have a problem writing the cheques, but it’s starting to hurt more and more when it comes time to cash them.

I dive in because I feel like I have endless energy. I used to. Now I’m bankrupting myself and getting into trouble. From a previous post, I resolved to patiently wait until I knew when to move on. I’ve learned that once I feel jittery and anxious to leave, the right time is generally double the time I already waited. What I’m doing now is building up my strength again until I’m ready to dive in again. Last week, I took some sick days to recover from the common cold, and I did absolutely nothing. Laid in bed, listened to some music. I fought every instinct and reflex, to watch TV, to make 3D models and prints, to read, to do my morning yoga. It was very difficult. I learned long ago that relaxation is an active process, but it’s almost at the point where it stresses me out to not stress myself out. When I feel like I have an abundance of energy, I pick up projects and hobbies, sleeping less. Recognizing that I don’t have any leftover energy has helped me stop spending what I don’t have.

Even though I’m making half as much money as I did a few years back, Carrie and I are getting by great. Dual income, no kids. I could compare myself to friends who are making more than the two of us combined, or we could live within our means. I’m not at full strength right now, and there are too many things I want to do for my health, ie. humidifier, yoga, rolling out my locked-up muscles, flossing, nasal rinsing, moisturizer, eating less, sleeping more, writing every week, etc. A customer told me how he doesn’t ask for much in life. He works hard, doesn’t gamble, doesn’t drink or smoke, so he has money leftover to buy a nice iPhone and to take care of his kids. Similarly, I’m not suffering from being around certain people anymore. I don’t have any limbs missing. My organs aren’t failing on me. I’m not being abused anymore, so with the little that I feel like I have right now, it turns out that I’m actually rich.

Better a dry crust eaten in peace than a house filled with feasting--and conflict. (Proverbs 17:1)

I always seem to think that I'm not productive enough. I'm not really sure what I'm so afraid of happening if I’m idle. Am I traumatized from a past event where I didn’t do enough? Clearly I'm very productive, but it’s a deeply ingrained fear. Why? I never really seem to have an answer as to what will happen if I don’t keep myself busy. It’s apparently a fact that anything less than maximum capacity is the worst possible thing I can do. For that matter, I seem to feel like it’s terrible to think highly of myself, even when it’s warranted, for fear that I’ll have an incorrect view of myself. The pendulum has swung too far the other way, where now I have an inaccurately low opinion of myself and my abilities, but somehow that inconsistency hasn’t clicked in yet. I’m afraid of taking on a wealthy mentality with respect to my self-worth, and maybe that’s in response to growing up around narcissists. My brain has already registered that I’m productive enough and that I’m not worthless as a person, but my heart hasn’t gotten those messages because I keep throwing away the fan mail.

It’s tempting to relax for a long time. Instead, I have better luck when I’m always on my toes. Constant vigilance. Otherwise, I get lazy and complacent, and then I’ll miss something critical. Like most things I write about, it’s a hard way to live when you’re at either extreme, but you gotta find that fine balance, which changes depending on the situation. However, instead of generally finding balance somewhere in the middle, I think it’s better to lean towards the scarce mentality, like 60/40. “That way, I have a better appreciation for the little I do have,” he typed from his brand new iPad Pro.

Considering Others

I like to make people happy. That’s the good side of the young me trying to constantly seek my dad’s approval. I like fixing problems for people. I like being useful and good at my job. I like adding value and making people’s lives better. Apparently it’s a middle child thing too, since we middle children don’t get enough attention. The bad side is that I usually put the needs of others before mine. I’ll go into work when I should stay home and recover from my cold. I’ll rearrange my schedule and greatly inconvenience myself so I’m not late to meet someone. I’ll light myself on fire to keep someone warm.

A strength is a weakness if you look at it from the other side. A weakness is also a strength when you use it right. One of my bigger strengths is my ability to empathize with others. I’m certainly not the best at it, but I’m working hard on it and I’m a lot better than I used to be. It becomes a weakness when I overdo it. When I so closely align with another person’s emotions, I can very easily and unknowingly put their situation above mine. That’s kind of what compassion is until it becomes like Stockholm’s Syndrome, where you care more about your captors even though you’re their victim. That’s what kept me in connection with my family so long. I can bend over backwards so far for people only to feel betrayed when they don’t do the same for me. It’s unfair to me that I give so much of myself when they didn’t ask, and it’s unfair to expect them to reciprocate. Who’s going to refuse when I freely give so much free attention and support? At the same time, it’s not cool to take and not give back, so that’s a bad on both parts. I went out recently with people who were only looking out for their own fun, whereas I like to make sure everyone has fun. Sad!

We need to place all the people in our lives in the right categories. Some are good for heart-to-heart conversations, some are good for getting wild and reckless, some are better in a group, some are better in small doses. Certain friends can span multiple categories, which is what I think qualifies someone as a good friend. Best friends are the ones that fill the most. The best relationships aren’t necessarily the ones where you have to fit into all the different circles, but they’re the ones that fit into more and more areas as you grow closer. I’ve had terrible results making work friends into outside-of-work friends, but that’s alright if I don’t try too hard to make the relationships into something they aren’t meant to be. Some friends are better over coffee than beer, and vice versa. I have some amazing friends that I can’t really have a solid one-on-one talk with. Some school friends only remain school friends, and you can only ever talk about those good old times way back when. More broadly, some relationships can only continue while looking towards the past. Where I’ve gotten into trouble was trying too hard to fit people into categories where they didn’t fit in. I’ve invited shy people to events where they didn’t know anyone and where they wouldn’t have enjoyed the activities anyways. I have some good friends in the city whom I could technically see pretty often, whereas I actually visit my besties in Edmonton more often. This one customer asked how I felt working on Canada Day long weekend. I told them I’d spent a lot of time in the past few years sticking my neck out to make time for friends, so I didn’t mind working that weekend, especially since I enjoy my team and my job. I said it was getting harder to see friends as they were all moving on to do their own things when it felt like they weren’t trying as hard to see me. He asked how old I was, and then he laughed when I replied. "Wait until you turn 50."

Doing things on my own. I’ve been burned by my family for so long that it’s still hard to trust my closest family and friends. That’s not fair to me or to my new family of choice. I’m placing responsibility on them for actions taken by different people, and I become more isolated as I refuse to open up. (I understand if you don’t believe that I don’t open up to people when all I do is talk about my problems.) That means that a lot of responsibilities stop with me. I have to be the one to answer for everything at the end of the day. That’s all well and good, but I’m too weak. I’m still crumbling under the pressure of marriage, work, health, and relationships that I’ve fallen ill with a cold. I’m not strong enough. I don’t mean to be hard on myself for catching a virus, but what it means to me is that my walls are generally too rigid, leaving me too protected and isolated. I’ve forgotten that only Jesus can truly be my strength because I’m only made of dust. The last year has been hard as I’ve slowly learned by trial and error that I can’t do it all on my own. I can’t be ultimately responsible for everything. Trying to juggle everything only ends with me feeling crushed. I can’t suspect everyone of trying to hurt me when only a few people treated me that way. Trauma makes it more complicated than simply trying to relax or lighten up.

Forgiveness. Relationships can only exist when there’s a consistent and evenly distributed agreement to forgive. I need a lot of support right now, and I’m resisting trying to make Carrie pay me back for all the things I did to help her during her four years in school. She certainly did a lot for me during that time as well, but when I slip and I try to make her help me because of all the things I did for her and blah blah blah, then trouble arises. Sometimes I feel like a parent that gave up their dreams for their kids and constantly reminds them of all of their sacrifices. I need to be self-sufficient in my own life and trust that I will eventually reap what I sow. It’s a fine line between taking ownership for my life versus depending on others. I know that keeping score in my marriage leads to nothing but trouble, but I also know that it requires give and take. I need to be responsible for myself, but I have to let others take care of me. Forgiveness is necessary to keep relationships alive, but too much leads straight to the danger zone. I’m lost.

As it stands this week, I’m focusing too much on others and I’m not prioritizing myself. I shouldn’t even be going to work in my current state because it’s selfish to put others at risk of catching my cold. I care way too much what others are feeling, and I need to assert myself and take care of myself first before I can give to others. It’s like in the pre-flight safety demonstration how they say that in the event of the cabin losing air pressure, you should put your own oxygen mask on first before helping anyone else. I need some air.

Signal to Noise Ratio

Signal to noise ratio, or SNR, is the ratio of the power of a desired signal to the power of the noise.

SNR = Psignal / Pnoise

Signals are the desired content of the message. You send an SMS. You’re expecting an offer letter in your email. You’re listening to a speaker at a conference, and their voice is amplified through the audio system and their video is projected onto white screens.

Noise is the stuff that gets in the way of the intended message. In audio, we recognize noise as the hum in our speakers and headphones when no music is playing, which can sometimes be heard in quiet passages of the song. In online discussions, we identify noise as most YouTube comments. Noise goes by a lot of names. Fake news. Junk mail. Spam. Propaganda. Advertisements. Static. Interference. Bias.

In most respects, we want the SNR to be as high as possible. That is, we want to send strong signals and remove as much noise as we can. What does that look like?

  • Camping. Summer is the time to hit the trails and camp sites, and with Canada 150, access to National Parks is free. That means getting away from the city and turning off your phone (sometimes). That allows a person to clear the noise from their heads and reconnect to the quiet and important messages from their minds, bodies, souls, hearts.
  • My piano teacher taught me that if I want to play louder, I can either pound away on the keys and hurt my forearms or I can play my quiet passages quieter.
  • Wi-Fi. When you live in an apartment or condo, most people’s wireless is on the frequency band 2.4 GHz, and even the same channel within it, making it hard for devices to pick out your precise Wi-Fi network even if your signal is strong. Same with cordless phones, microwave ovens. A quick hack to boost your Wi-Fi reception is to choose a channel that no one else is on. That is, you reduce the noise by tuning it out.

That’s all well and good, but what even makes a good signal and what is considered noise? There’s a lot of good messages out there, so what’s a useful indicator to recognize signal vs noise? Eat your vegetables. Exercise 30 minutes every day. Drink water. Follow your dreams. Be a lover, not a fighter. Decent signals can have a high SNR. On the other hand, some people’s whole jobs and life missions is to amplify the noise to distract you from the signals you need to hear, using racism and xenophobia, sexism, trans- and homophobia, ableism, ageism, classism, all the -isms and izzles. Systems are put in place to keep you busy filtering out noise while the powers that be keep you oppressed and less likely to bother them.

One way to distinguish whether a signal is useful is its timeliness. When it’s received on time, when it’s needed or expected, that means it’s a good signal. It gets you unstuck. When I started blogging about The Struggle, a few people told me I should write about this particular topic or another one because it would be so important for people to hear. I declined all of those requests because truly, the most relevant topics came to me on their own every week. They weren’t ever really suggestions by others. It was merely a reflection of what my conflict was that week, and I’ve worked very hard to keep it that way. There are a lot of good topics I could explore, but the reason the writing can be so poignant for me is because of its timing. Certainly my topics won’t be timely for everyone every week, but choosing a message that isn’t relevant in its timing would decrease my SNR.

Reception. In order for a signal to reach you, you both have to be tuned to the same frequency. My friend got a tattoo this week. After several years of thinking about it, one particular artist in Calgary caught their attention. They could have gotten it at any time and any place, but once they knew what they wanted, finding the right person who was putting out the right signals made them lock on to that channel. The artist’s Instagram page is pretty consistently updated, but it’s hard to make a big splash when there’s so much noise. So many bots and spam accounts.

Filters. As in circuits, we can cut out the noise by setting up a passive filter. I stopped watching lectureporn like The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, Samantha Bee, and when Carrie watches those shows, I ask if she can watch with headphones on. I do value being informed, but it drains me to keep up with all the political hobbyists when I have more pressing matters at hand. I can only enjoy feeds like Reddit and Twitter when I have my filters well-curated.

Patterns. I have to write to clear the noise out of my head every week. I noticed that was a pattern that helped me. Prior to The Struggle, I only really wrote every few weeks once something interested me or piqued my curiosity. Then I noticed how much better I felt once I made writing more regular. When I don’t write consistently, other parts of my system feel the strain and have to compensate. I snack more. I exercise less. I clench and grind my teeth. My upper back stiffens up and I get more knots tangled up in the muscle fibres. Regularity makes for a clear message. Having weekly coffees with coworkers. Making special time for your loved ones.

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Searching for signal. One way of quieting the noise is by changing channels. For people familiar with any device with a radio, this analogy is quite literal. Old TVs had this. FM radio. You can remove the static by going to a different channel.

Pain is a huge signal. Sometimes it can be signal, sometimes it’s noise. Lifting weights, you should feel a resistance. That’s a good sign. When I felt a sharp searing pain, it was because I was using terrible technique for so long that a tendon or ligament was being pinched between bones when they weren’t supposed to be. Bad kind of pain. Signal that I’m doing something wrong.

Emotions are hard because they send us mixed signals. We tend to logically interpret our feelings as strictly binary, either yes or no, but all human relationships are murky because we can both love and hate a person to varying degrees depending on which side of them we’re looking at, including ourselves.

You’re probably thinking “Okay, Jon, we get it. We’re not dumb like you. Tell us then, what signals is your body sending to you?”

Great question. I’m getting a lot of signals right now. Let’s lay them all out on the table and examine them together. Working with so many people, I get reflections of myself through a lot of different ways.

  • Sleepy. I’ve never been so “on” for a job before. I feel alive and in the moment, and if I’m not well-rested, I perform suboptimally. I’m learning so much, and empathizing all day is new to me. My emotional muscles are getting a full workout, so I finish the day and just want to pass out. I’ve worked hard at other jobs before, but it’s an entirely different beast when you love what you’re doing.
  • I’m very hard on myself still. While I’ve worked a lot on being as compassionate to myself as I usually am to others, I beat myself up hard when I make a mistake. I’ll feel terrible, worry that someone is going to punish me, and curse myself a lot, loudly, creatively, and in a short period of time.
  • My physical posture is getting better, but it requires a lot of work. Still major knots in my traps. Hip flexors are loosening. Feet are much better thanks to the orthotics. My sore back is a pain in the ass. I’m done processing my childhood trauma emotionally, but I’m not done processing it physically yet. Even then, I can’t tell which of the three areas I should focus on and when. The only way I can tell is from which one is hurting the most at the time, which feels like an endless game of whack-a-mole.
  • Eating right. I eventually want to get around to this, but too much going on right now. I know that you can lose a ton of weight simply by eating better, but my resources are tied up right now with other tasks. Exercise is nowhere near as important as limiting calories, and I’m still eating my feelings.
  • I’m really forgetful. I used to memorize all my piano pieces, the tradeoff being that I was terrible at playing from sight reading. Since I stopped relying on those mental muscles, I pretty much have a goldfish memory. I’ll shampoo my hair in the shower, then I’ll rinse and repeat because I’ll already have forgotten if I shampooed my hair. I can’t say that I’ve blacked out much while overdrinking, which is weird considering how much I’ve binge-drunk before.
  • When I get nervous, I stop breathing. I need to consciously slow down and breathe so that I can get back into my groove.

Sometimes we don’t like the signals we’re hearing, so we crank up the noise. That is, we’re reducing the signal to noise ratio. We want to drown out that feeling. When my heart aches, I’ll put on some headphones and listen to some dubstep. Wub wub wub.

Power supply rejection ratio. PSRR. In electronic circuits, operational amplifiers can transmit the noise from the power supply into the output signal. PSRR is rated at how many decibels it can suppress at a particular frequency. For instance, power lines can pick up radio signals and general static. It’s up to the amplifier to filter out the noise to keep the power from entering into the signal. One example is that audible pulsating buzz in audio equipment when someone with a GSM phone makes or receives a phone call. In life, we see politicians being influenced by the money being donated by lobbyists. TV and radio shows alter their content depending on whether their sponsors and advertisers will like it.

What does power supply rejection ratio have to do with noise and relationships? It’s a topic I wrestled with regarding my parents. They would give me power, such as room and board, food, love, nurturing, access to education, a car, financial assistance. There would sometimes be strings attached to those gifts. Some of them were reasonable, like doing my chores, helping out around the house, driving things or people to places at certain times. Other obligations were not reasonable, like being taken advantage of, abused, manipulated, berated. The Asian parental mentality is often “I’ll take care of you when you’re young so that you can take care of me when I’m old,” so there’s this expected reciprocity. "Love" can often be given as a favour to be returned, not as a gift. As much as I appreciated the power they supplied me, I had to increasingly reject the growing noise they transmitted my way to the point where I had to remove myself from the channel entirely. I got a new power supply, a new family to support me.

Clear as mud? Signal good, noise bad. Sometimes signal bad, noise good. Filter signals and noise by squinting or changing tune. Power supply can introduce noise, so reject it or get a new one if it gets too loud.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Life is considered unfair when you're given challenges you never asked for. The dream is to only have adventures when you choose to take them on. Higher level education is one of those big ones, which is why I didn't really expect anyone to feel bad for me or Carrie over the past few years. We chose that life. At the same time, I never chose to grow up in a toxic family. Carrie never asked to be born in a refugee camp. Privilege puts some people ahead and others behind.

Privilege also means having the freedom to ruin your own life. Throw a few years away on a hopeless romance. Burn a few more on an interesting but ultimately unemployable degree. Take up smoking to look cool in high school. Train to become a professional video gamer. Spend disposable income on collecting sneakers and sunglasses. The height of banality in my mind when I was young was spending money on clothes. Most of my friends' parents made good money, so they flashed all the nice labels. Some of them aren't doing much these days, but at least they had nice clothes in school while I struggled to fit in. I always wondered "don't these people have bigger problems than looking nice?" and only now am I realizing that the answer is no. I feel like I was pretty unique in having a bigger share of problems, and I'm glad others didn't have to experience the same thing. It's kinda nice that people don't have to wrestle with being abused. It's great that my friends are able to be confident in themselves, something I still find hard to do for myself.

Pain wakes you up. It forces you into the moment. There's a threat to your system causing undesirable feelings, so your body responds by summoning an appropriate response to remove that threat. I think it's no coincidence that being conscious is also described as being woke. The ones who suffer the most see the clearest. My worst subject in school was English, which is funny to me because so many people have commended me on my writing on this blog. I never really thought anything about being a writer or a novelist, but I do however have this objectionable image of a kid growing up, idolizing being a writer. They wanted to write a novel, but having no real problems, they had nothing to write about. They just thought writing was cool. So they created their own problems and sabotaged themselves so they would finally have something to write about. It's like when Eminem, the Average Joe in 8 Mile struggling to get by as a single parent with his daughter in a trailer home, roasts his opponent in the final rap battle because his parents are rich and have a good marriage. I feel like my writing has gotten more fluffy since I stopped struggling so badly, which is a tradeoff I'll take any day. Why experience so much pain for the sake of being able to write? I had so many different layers of complexity to make sense of as a kid that it felt like nothing would ever make sense. When things did somehow click, I would latch onto it like a small connected section of a jigsaw puzzle that made everything else make sense. Pain was my friend in this pursuit.

I started reading "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up." Not sure how I feel about the whole topic, but one idea that has stuck so far is that of only keeping things that spark joy. The context they use it in mostly has to do with discarding belongings that no longer hold any significant meaning for us. Does your body and soul light up when you touch it? Throwing things away that are old or no longer functional doesn't necessarily work in every case compared to only keeping things that spark joy. Even if something doesn't work anymore, it might still be worth keeping because it can still brighten your dark days. Growing up with three siblings, we were strong believers in the hand-me-down system, which doesn't age well. It creates an imposition on the younger siblings to keep the items handed down, making it hard to let go of those things due to guilt and merely shifting the hoarding problem to the younger ones. When Carrie encounters a pushy salesperson, she tells them she doesn't love the article of clothing. That pretty much dismantles all attempts to close the sale. Now we ask that of everything. Should we make that brunch date? Should we attend that show? Carrie asked me if she should keep her graduation cap, and I asked her if it sparked joy. She threw it right in the trash. Certainly this idea applies to those that are a bit more privileged, who have the ability to replace items if they feel like it or who are advantaged enough to own too many things in the first place. I've been using this principle unknowingly, so that's why I like this particular phrasing. Every good revival I've experienced started with discarding things that didn't spark joy.

Sources of strength. What gives you strength and what takes it away? It could be anything: people, animals, art pieces, culture, tradition, philosophies. Some people are leeches of your life force, and they'll bleed you dry if you let them. On the other hand, it's really rigid to require that everything give you strength all the time, and frankly it's a bit selfish. You need to give and take. It's hard to argue when a certain coping mechanism gave you enough strength to get through a hardship. If smoking makes you feel better, how can you argue with that when your day exploded? Yes, long term you'll suffer from severe health effects, but what happens if it gives you the strength to die another day? It's tough to reckon with that day if you do survive to see it. I don't mean flatly that the ends justify the means, but we are constantly stuck between rocks and hard places. It's hard to care about the future when you're stuck in a dilemma in the moment. There were countless times during the two year period of counselling, which I'm heretofore calling The Struggle, where I thought "This much drinking is going to reduce my lifespan, but it's also going to move me past the crushing defeat I faced today." It's easy to respond that one should just tough it out and do the right thing. Okay. That makes sense on paper, but then the strength required to make that brave decision subtly removes your willpower from another area. Which one? I've denied myself fast food at lunch only to face a snack attack full of junk food for dinner. Sources of strength look completely different to us in different circumstances. It could be a friendship or simply a line from a book. It may break the rules or go against the grain, but who's to say it's not good when it gives you the strength to get unstuck?

That all sounds well and good (and preachy, like I'm standing on some digital soapbox), so am I practicing it? I can talk a big game, but can I live up to it? Looking back to The Struggle, I was facing a lot challenges and pressure from work, at home, and from counselling. It felt like I could never get ahead no matter what. Sleeping was a struggle because I was so gripped by anxiety in bed at night, and other days I would be so exhausted from the battle that I'd sleep by 8 PM. Eating wasn't really a joy anymore because everything seemed so far away, even when ordering in because I would still have to wait so long. Very few friends could understand or empathize with just how badly I was doing, and it was too uncomfortable to hang out with some people that I still had a lot of affection for. I realized that the pain was what had always made me so conscious of my surroundings, especially from my childhood. While I would agonize over issues or competing interests, the pain was necessary for me to analyze and dissect my problems into their smaller components and further to their root causes. I would take a problem, let's say my loneliness, and wonder why I felt that way. I'd basically throw as many different explanations at my heart to see which would ultimately soothe it. I quit my job, so maybe that lonely feeling comes from not building community with my coworkers like I used to. I had a unique problem that few people could relate to, so maybe that's why I feel so isolated. There were tons of other explanations I'd try, but what it came down to was that Carrie was my rock, but she was often unavailable to me and also became a source of the pressure.

In response to that pain, I grasped at anything that would spark joy in me enough to keep going for another day or hour. Pokémon Go in October was huge for me because it was a reason to go outside and to get some basic exercise. I worked my way up to about 5 km a day, developing a nice route around my neighbourhood through all the Pokéstops. Then my friend took me to the gym and helped whip me into shape. That was fun and deeply rewarding. I got deeper into EDM and hip hop music, especially the conscious raps of Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. Certain games sparked joy enough to distract me from the burning sensation in my chest for a few minutes like Super Mario Run. Plus I learned to embrace being alone and enjoying my own company. I discovered many more activities that proved to not spark joy in me anymore, so I discontinued them in the interest of surviving each day.

Despite finding items that sparked joy, they weren't enough on their own to really drive me through the barriers. This is how I discovered that only people and not possessions would be my strength through The Struggle. Objects and activities sparked joy in their own way, but the people involved with those items were much more substantial in my experience. An hour for coffee with a friend, whether we were just bullshitting or genuinely connecting and catching up, could keep me going for days longer than snacking on my favourite candy. Grabbing a meal with a buddy was even better because it was always such a struggle to eat in general. Going out to dance with friends was by far the best, which could power me for weeks. It became really clear who was willing to stick their neck out for me. That was also what made The Struggle so devastating, when a lot of my good friends moved out of the city. That's why I was always grateful whenever I got even a single Facebook Like on a post or a general message of encouragement. Surrounding myself with the right people was so important because they were such huge sources of strength in my dark times, as was removing the wrong people, who took my strength away.

That covers it, right? Pain is your friend, only keep things that spark joy, identify the people that give you strength. If you live a privileged life, you'll have time to decide when you want to choose your adventure, but if not, I hope these words help to get you through the path that's been chosen for you. Carrie and I chose for her to go back to school, but along the way we encountered problems that we didn't necessarily want to assume. J. Cole says there's no such thang as a life that's better than yours. Circumstances won't always line up the way you want, but your response to those circumstances is always within your control.

Carrie got a job. I'm so proud of her. She got multiple interviews and turned down two offers. She attended a few interviews, one outside of Calgary, and she decided on a position that sparks joy. I'm really proud of her. She took some time after graduating to decompress. It was really disorienting for her to have so much free time. Sleeping the days away was possible, but she didn't want to do that. There were a lot of times where she didn't know what to do. However, creating that space made it easier to not only apply for jobs but also for her academic credentials to be approved by the College in order to apply for her provisional permit. When she was looking for a job last time, she felt very unemployable because of her heavy time commitment for school, and she was either under- or over-qualified for everything. This time around, it almost felt easy. I'm very proud of her. She worked hard through school, and now we can both start our next big adventure. No, not kids.