On Kindness

April 15, 2020 in Musings, Politics/Public Service, Speaking Up

I have a little bit of extra bandwidth at the moment because the pandemic is hitting me a lot less hard than many for a variety of reasons*, so, I thought I would expand on something I wrote yesterday. I said that now might be a good time to be gentle with each other and to practice the skill of kindness. I said that, because more than anything that’s what I believe will get us through this crisis.
COVID is a world changing event and it’s still very much in the early phases. It’s likely to get a lot worse before it gets significantly better and it will change everything about our world. It will change how we relate to each other. It will change how we understand community. It will change our beliefs about the powers and needs of government and social safety nets. We will lose people who are dear to us. We will lose people we don’t know well who have impacts on our lives we never anticipated. Distribution chains and the economics of business and government are going to be changed. Health care and the whole idea of lean, just-in-time processes are going to be completely different. We, as individuals, as communities, as nations, and as a world are going to be as radically changed by this experience as our forebears were changed by world wars, by the depression, by plagues…hell, by the fall of the Roman Empire.
I’m not going to make predictions about how those things will change us all because I don’t know what it will all mean in the longer run, though I have some thoughts. But one thing I do know is that, right now, at the front end of this, we need to be thinking about who we want to be in the face of this adversity. Do we want to be the rugged, individualist characters from a badly written post-holocaust book where only the strong survive, or do we want to be smart, caring, social beings who reach deep and learn how to take care of each other and to treat those in need as we would want to be treated ourselves? We can scratch and claw and express our stress with each other through anger and bitter words, or we can strive to be kind, to be gentle, to help each other be better.
I know which way I want to see us go, but I don’t know which path we will walk. I talk about practicing kindness as a skill, because I believe that it is exactly that. It is a group of behaviors that we can focus on and improve if we try. I am not by nature kind. I have a volatile, even dangerous temper, I am naturally impatient with people who don’t learn as quickly as I do, I can be petty and I have always had to fight with a tendency toward contempt. I have spent my entire life striving against those impulses that make me the worst version of myself. In times of stress that becomes simultaneously harder and more important and I have invested enormous time and intellectual labor in tamping down those impulses and teaching myself to turn to the techniques of kindness when I feel them. I often fail, especially in the first few seconds of a quick response, and because of that, I have taught myself to fight against that first instant reaction, to wait, and to think, to force myself into second and third thoughts. I have learned kindness, not as a first impulse, but as a thing to always reach for.
It’s not easy for many of us, and if you choose to try to practice the skill of kindness it’s quite possible you will fuck it up as thoroughly as I do from time to time, but the rewards are immense, both in terms of being able to look yourself in the eye in the mirror and in terms of building a better community of friends and neighbors. It is a skill that undergirds civilization and it is one that I know you can manage if you want to and aren’t already there. I believe in your ability to be that better person and in our ability to get through this all and out the other side as a better community and civilization. I believe that we can use this time of enormous fear and stress to grow and change and become better.
I know some of you are trapped at home alone and that your anxieties and depression are trying to eat you alive. I know some of you are locked away from loved ones you desperately want to see and hold and simply be with. I know that some of you are trapped inside with loved ones and discovering that maybe working away from home is better for your relationships than all this time together. I know some of you are trapped with people you don’t want to be with. I know that some of you are desperately afraid for your health, your loved ones, and your ability to keep putting bread on the table and paying the rent. This is a time of incredible uncertainty and pain and loss for so many. You all need us to be gentle and kind with you, and I know that even when you’re angry and desperate and wanting to lash out, you can see that we all need the same from you.
Be gentle, be kind, strive to be your best self. That’s how we get through this and come out the other side with pride in who we will become and how we handled the great challenge of our era.
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*Full disclosure because I do understand how fortunate I am and how that colors my thinking.
–I’m used to being home alone because I write novels for a living.
–I already sorted out dealing with Laura being home all the time because her sabbatical started 9 months ago.
–I’m less stressed out about the publishing industry being on fire, because my career was already on the rocks.
–My career woes do not jeopardize our being able to afford life.
–I processed my career woes and started putting a recovery plan together months ago.
–I adapted to my career woes, by embracing the idea of a joint sabbatical to rethink why I write.

The Bully in my Brain

August 22, 2019 in About Kelly, Speaking Up

I have a bully who lives inside my head. He sits in the back of my brain and criticizes me.

He calls me names. Lazy. Fat. Talentless. Has-been. Sponge. Wannabe. Timid. Hack.

The bully comes and goes like most bullies, striking when he sees I’m weak or tired or when I’ve just had a setback.

The bully is incredibly clever. He knows just which words will hurt or scare me and when to use them.

My bully’s name is anxiety, or sometimes dysmorphia, or OCD. My bully lives in my head, but he is not me.

My bully is nothing more than a bit of errant biochemistry that got boosted along the way by various events in my life.

I can’t not hear him, but I don’t have to listen. I don’t have to treat what the bully says as if I were saying it.

My bully is no more me than my tendinitis or my allergies. He is something I have, not something I am.

When I remember that, when I separate the bully in my head from the me in my head it makes him weak and me strong.

I have a bully in my head. I can’t get him out and I can’t punch him in the nose, but I can deny him the power to call himself “me” and every time I do it is a victory.

Positive Lessons from Anxiety and OCD

August 20, 2018 in About Kelly, Musings, Speaking Up

Positive Lessons from Anxiety and OCD
 
I have a relatively light form of OCD with associated anxiety. It’s not a lot of fun and mostly it takes without giving back, but it has given me a couple of things. High on that list is a series of tools based on intellectual separation. See also: the recognition that my brain is a dick and that it messes with me.
 
One form of this is that I can often short circuit the worst of a flip-out by reminding myself that the source of something that’s stressing me out isn’t coming from what I think of as my core me, it’s my anxiety making shit up and lying to me.
 
Another aspect is an intellectual separation from impulse and this is going to take a bit of explaining so stay with me, I’ll get there. A side effect of my atypical neurochemistry is that I have frequent (like multiple times a night) vivid dreams which usually include at least one or two nightmares.
 
So, let me start there. It’s fairly easy to wake up from a dream in which you’re being pursued by gigantic carnivorous hamsters and realize that such things do not exist. Your fear from the dream is real. You feel it in your limbic system. But you know that gigantic carnivorous hamsters are not a real thing. That helps you step away from the fear once your thinking brain kicks in.
 
A nightmare about bears in your living room might be a bit harder to step away from because, while there are no bears in the living room, it’s an actual possibility. One about a fire starting in the basement is even tougher to let go of and might require a trip through the house sniffing for smoke. However, if you do it often enough (say three or four times a night) you develop the intellectual tools that allow you to quickly let go of even the most plausible nightmares.
 
Now apply that to incredibly vivid nightly dreams about all sort of things from the phantasmagoric to the sublime to the erotic. It quickly becomes apparent that your dream about wild sex with elves is no more real than the gigantic hamsters. So is the one about the rock star you’re crushing on, and from there to the dream about an actual human you know is another obvious step. The sex drive or affection is real, the connection to another specific person is not.
 
But dreams aren’t the only place where we experience parts of our brain coming up with impulses or scenarios that aren’t real. Especially if you’re not neurotypical and, given that neurotypicality is a spectrum, we’re all somewhat closer or farther from the mean on some axis. What this means as a tool for life management is that when I’m flipping out about getting stuck in traffic on the way to the airport, I can remind myself of the fact that we left two hours early, and that probably has us covered.
 
It also means that when I have an inappropriate attraction response to another human being, I’m pretty good at saying “That’s nice, brain, now find another hobby.” Which is an excellent skill for remaining happily married.
 
Skill. Let me pull that word out. Impulse control is a talent we all have to varying degrees, but it’s also a skill that can be practiced and improved upon. My anxiety and OCD have forced me to learn to separate impulse from action in a very intellectualized way—the fear of the hamsters is real but the hamsters not so much—and that’s been useful to me. I’m writing this in hopes that for at least a few of you folks out there the realization that it’s possible to make that separation between oneself and one’s brain being a dick might be useful to you.
 
So, when you’re stressing out about something, consider the question: is this me, or is it just my brain being an asshole?

Community Means Helping People

July 24, 2018 in Musings, Politics/Public Service, Speaking Up

I had an experience today that reminds me of why I support the social safety net and why I wish we were doing better at creating and maintaining those systems.

I biked to a doctor’s appointment this morning. When I pulled my bike in under the shade of a tree to lock it up, I noticed a young woman sitting there, somewhere in the 19-25 year old range. She was looking more than a little ragged around the edges, and tired, and she was on her phone.

I nodded at her, but I was very careful not to pay too much attention to her. As a burly white guy I know that it is incredibly easy and not unreasonable for women to see me as a potentially serious danger. I figure I pretty much register as the threat equivalent of a puma entering your space. As I was locking my bike up I couldn’t help overhearing her making an effort to access local social services in hopes of finding a safe place to sleep.

Once I was completely locked up and ready to go in, I pulled out a $20 and offered it to her, saying I’d been in rough places too, and I hoped she found what she needed. Then, as soon as she took it, I immediately went in to my appointment. Again, I wanted to be as minimally threatening as possible.

When I got done with my appointment I came back out to my bike. The woman was still there, but no longer on her phone. She didn’t make eye contact, and I made sure to do no more than nod in her direction and then ignore her as I got my bike loose and put my gear back on. Just as I was about to start pedaling and after it was obvious I wasn’t going to bother her more she called out, “I wish you safe travels.” So I wished her luck and went on my way. I don’t know if she found what she needed, but I hope she did.

I would have liked to have done more for her, but it was clear from her body language that she was very wary of me, and I feel it’s important to respect that because I’m quite aware that while personally I am not a threat to her, for her demographic she has every reason to be super cautious around folks like me. So, all that I can hope is that through my taxes and my efforts at supporting good social services as a local elected official that the resources are there for her to access.

As far as I’m concerned, being there for people like her who are in obvious need is one of the important reasons for government to exist, and it’s why I would cheerfully pay more in taxes to make those resources available. I’m glad I was able to help a little, and I would happily have helped more, but I think that it would be better for community and general well being if there were stronger systems in place to make sure that help is available on an institutional rather than a personal level. It’s a hugely important investment in people and the community we are all collectively a part of. I don’t want people like that young woman to have to be afraid of those who are offering help.

Open Letter to my Senators Re: ACHA

June 22, 2017 in Politics/Public Service, Speaking Up

Dear Senators Johnson and Baldwin,
 
I am a county board supervisor here in Wisconsin, Dunn County District 17. I am writing to urge you to vote against the ACHA as presented. The closed doors, secret meetings process for creating this bill has been catastrophically flawed and is a perfect example of the worst of Washington DC.
 
The American people deserve an open and aboveboard process for the writing of a bill that will impact 1/6th of the American economy and directly affect millions of peoples’ health. They do not deserve to be completely shut out of the process, and passing this bill as it stands and after this process is likely to create a kind of rage against the government that this country hasn’t seen in generations.
 
As a local politician I have seen the anger of my constituents when they feel their voices aren’t being heard and I can’t imagine how much greater that rage will be among people who will see their healthcare taken away or greatly increased in price by a bill that was produced in silence and secrecy that was then rushed through the process.
 
All of the polling suggests that this bill is already deeply unpopular and that the more the people hear about it the less they like it. That’s not going to change if it is passed without proper hearings and the chance for the people to be heard. It is going to become infinitely worse.
 
I believe that this is a bill that will do great harm to your constituents and mine and I am certain that the process that has produced it will generate massive anger in the American people, anger of the sort that is corrosive to the very foundations of democracy. I implore you not to vote for this bill as it stands and certainly not to do so given the process that produced it.
 
Kelly McCullough

Endorsements: Clinton and Feingold

October 14, 2016 in Politics/Public Service, Speaking Up

I don’t often post political things here on my blog because this webpage is primarily about the author side of my life even though I am also an elected county supervisor here in Wisconsin, or what most people think of as a county commissioner. This is one of the rare times where I’m going to go ahead and violate that soft rule and put on my politician hat for a few moments and make a couple of public endorsements.

First and foremost, I’m going to endorse Hillary Clinton for the office of president. I’m doing this both because I believe that she will make an excellent president and because I believe Donald Trump represents a genuine threat to American Democracy and that this election is a defining ethical moment for American voters.

On the one hand we can vote Hillary Clinton, an incredibly smart and capable woman who has dedicated her life to public service. She is a hard worker, a deep thinker about policy, and a tireless advocate for the most vulnerable among us. She has made mistakes, but I know of no human being who hasn’t and I strongly believe that she has learned from hers and used them as a spur to drive herself to do better the next time.

On the other hand we have Donald Trump, a man who has spent his lifetime building monuments to his ego, and who has built a campaign on feeding the worst impulses in the American character. From day one hatred, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny have formed the underpinnings of his pitch to the American people and he has doubled down on those themes at every step of the way. The revelations of October are no surprise to those who have actually been paying attention to what he has said. This is who Donald Trump is, a narcissistic egotist who would cheerfully burn the world down if he thought it might warm his hands.

The choice between the two is very clear, and it my sincere hope that we will soon have the opportunity to address Hillary Clinton as Madam President.

I am also going to endorse Russ Feingold for Senator of my own state of Wisconsin. Again I have a number of reasons for doing  this. Number one, I believe that we need to send Hillary Clinton to the White House with a firm majority in both the house and senate.

We have seen what a Republican majority looks like in both of those bodies under the current political climate, and it is a never-ending string of opposition for opposition’s sake. The current Republican party has decided that its own political fortunes are more important than the health and well-being of the country, and they must lose and lose badly if they are ever to have any chance of returning to being a responsible political party who advances the country’s interests over their own.

I do not say this lightly or with any happiness. I believe that it is important to have a sane and responsible conservative party to keep those of us on the liberal side of things sharp and honest. Sadly, that party does not currently exist, and our current Senator Ron Johnson is a perfect example of the worst of today’s obstructionist Republican party. He needs to be retired.

So I am happy to endorse Russ Feingold, who has served in the Senate before under both Republican and Democratic presidents with honor and distinction. I don’t agree with every decision he has made, and some of them have irritated me deeply, but I believe that he has always made his choices based on what he believes is best for the country and best for Wisconsin.

 

 

My brief career as an internet troll

September 7, 2015 in rant, Silly, Speaking Up

As a middle aged straight white guy, I don’t get trolled on social media very often. But I see it happen to friends all the time. That’s why, when I saw a particular tweet go by from Mary Robinette Kowal, I saw an opportunity to play a twitter game with a friend, and well, you’ll see it below. I think what we ended up with is something that’s more useful than a game.


Mary’s post on the exchange is here. As something of a palate cleanser here’s a picture of Mary and I as best man and matron of honor at the vow renewal for our friends Michael and Lynne Thomas. I don’t know about any of the rest of you, but even briefly playing the troll makes me feel more than a little filthy.

KellyMary

Photo credit Sean Michael Murphy

Fear

April 23, 2014 in About Kelly, Musings, Speaking Up, Writing

I have been thinking a great deal about fear over the past few days. Fear and how it affects your life and your writing. I think this is true for any art, but I am a writer, so that’s how I’m going to frame this.

If you are going to succeed at writing you are going to write a certain amount of crap. You will write sentences that clunk and scenes that will later embarrass you. Some of your mistakes are likely to get published, preserved forever in amber where others will be able to see your failures and point and laugh. If you are especially lucky, people will still be mocking your mistakes long after they bury you.

You cannot let the fear of that stop you. Fear will kill your hopes deader than any horrible sentence or purple paragraph or complete failure. Fear keeps you from trying, and not trying means never succeeding. You cannot win if you don’t get in the game.

It’s hard, I know. I’ve been there. I was recently described as fearless by an old friend, which is part of what got me thinking about this.* That may be how it looks from the outside, but it’s not quite true. I have been afraid many times, both in this business and in my daily life. I am not fearless.

What I am is brutally brutally stubborn. I refuse to let fear stop me from doing what I want to do. I attempt things knowing that I will fail some of the time and that it will hurt.

Physically, I fear the bruises and cuts and burns that come with attempting hard things in the real world, but I won’t let that stop me from working my body or climbing a mountain or building and welding. In writing, I fear looking like a hack or a fool or a wannabe.

I fear these things, but I will not let that stop me. I have the scars and the awful reviews to prove it. But, what I also have is things that I have built, a body that is fit, books and stories that I am proud of. I have good reviews to go along with the bad and the respect of some of my peers.

I would have none of that if I let the fear stop me from trying. If I let the fear stop me from failing. If I let the fear stop me from succeeding.

Fear is the enemy. Don’t let it be the victor too.

__________________________________________

*Thanks Tim! I wouldn’t have written this without that post.

Because It Clearly Needs To Be Said In More Places

March 20, 2013 in Speaking Up

Consent is really not all that hard to figure out. No means no. Not yes means no. Unconscious means hell no.

Sex without consent is rape. Period.

Posting this here because I am sick to death of so many people pretending so hard that this is not the case.

Fun With Dismorphia

March 18, 2013 in About Kelly, Speaking Up

This is another one of those things that men aren’t supposed to talk about, like crying. Which is exactly why I’m feeling the need to talk about it now. Before I get started, let me note that I’m not asking for sympathy here, I’m sharing this entirely in the hope that it will make a few other people with the same issues feel less alone.

I suffer from low level dismorphia. It’s not severe and it’s not debilitating, but it’s very real and it has significant impacts on my life and self image. Without making a fairly large effort I don’t really see what I look like. Instead I see how much I diverge from what I think I should look like.

At the moment I’m down about thirty pounds from my heaviest weight of 218. At 190 I weigh what I weighed when I got out of high school nearly thirty years ago, and—though I was a fairly serious martial arts type athlete back then—I’m actually in better shape now. I’ve lost thirty pounds total but more like forty pounds of fat, and I’ve packed on a lot of muscle. Honestly, even when I was heavier I wasn’t in terrible shape or really all that fat.

By any objective measure I look much better and am in much better shape than I was five years ago.

But I don’t see it. Not unless I actively try to do so. Even then, it’s hard. What I see is the five pounds or so of body fat that I have left, and, if I let it, it makes me angry and depressed and pushes all my self-loathing buttons.

Best part? The closer I get to the ideal I see in my head, the worse the dismorphia gets. I think that’s because I can see the me that I think I’m supposed to be more easily as the bits that don’t fit that image get peeled away.

One particularly charming aspect of the whole thing is that it’s not actually possible for me to make my body fit the image in my head. Not even if I lose that last five pounds of fat and and pack on another fifteen of muscle. That’s because the image in my head isn’t just in perfect shape, it’s also a fundamentally different body type. I am a human tank, broad shouldered and thick everywhere—a natural born weightlifter—while the image in my head is more the dancer or runner type.

Nothing I can do is going to transform me into that person. Yet it’s what my brain thinks I ought to be. I suspect that this image comes from a combination of media images, the year I spent in that shape after I hit puberty and before I filled out, and the decade I spent immersed in theater and dance between the ages of twelve and twenty-two. Dance and theater are major breeding grounds for dismorphia.

At forty-five I have much better mental and emotional tools to deal with the dismorphia and what it wants to do to my sense of self, but it’s a battle that I have to fight and win anew every single day. It never gives up, it never goes away, and it’s never ever farther away than the next mirror. It has danced me along the edge of the land of eating disorders, it daily takes the edge off my joy at being as fit as I am now, and I know that it will always be waiting for me on the bad days.

I won’t let dismorphia beat me, but it will always be there trying.