Wednesday, December 30, 2020

My Year in Nonfiction - Living Through Extraordinary Times

 It's probably no surprise to hear my nonfiction reading was a lot about how people behave in difficult circumstances. The pandemic and the partial shutdown of our economic and social lives has definitely been on my mind, as well as everyone else's. Add to that nationwide protests against police brutality, a record-breaking hurricane season and a tense election plagued by an outpouring of conspiracy nuts and it's been an... exciting year. 

I read a lot of different things, ranging from my usual genre loves of science fiction to a few how-to books for projects and hobbies, but here are a few that really stood out as particularly relevant to the mood of the year. 

Early on in the shutdown, before I had to return to in-person work I stumbled a book that really resonated with my new, involuntarily slowed-down life, How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy by Jenny Odell.  This book was not about actually nothing at all, but rather finding healthy ways to unplug from the "always on" demands of work, social media and advertising that are constantly clamoring for our eyeballs and attention. This book got me thinking more about the things I found satisfying away from the ubiquitous screens and made me re-evaluate my relationship with both social media and work. This re-evaluation is still ongoing, but the books that followed became part of it. 

In the same vein I picked up Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit and The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling by Arlie Russel Hochschild. While these books covered very different areas, the first being more about the values of looking at the world on a pedestrian scale (as in "walking" not "boring") while the second is about how the workplace has come to place more and more demand on not only our physical and intellectual labor, but our emotional work as well, as we're increasingly expected to show particular emotions and attitudes as part of our job. Demands that are made unequally along lines of status and often gender, which can create all sorts of hidden wear and tear on our psyche. 

These books helped me look at the everyday grind, what was good, what was bad, and got me thinking about how not only my place in the whole machine, but the flaws of our economic and social structures and how they might be improved with a bit more thoughtfulness. 

But of course, this wasn't an ordinary year, this was the year the machine broke down. The immediate cause was, of course, the COVID-19 Pandemic, though the fact that our cultural and financial institutions were woefully unprepared to deal with a large scale disruption made everything, and continue to make everything, worse than it had to be. So I got to thinking about disasters. 

Two books that really opened my eyes to a lot of the reality of what happens when a disaster hit, the first, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why by Amanda Ripley talked about ordinary people reacted to extreme circumstances, and in a lot of cases how what really happens contradicts the expectations of what's going to happen created by movies and pundits. It explored more than a hundred years of disaster reporting and sociology, involving earthquakes, fires, hurricanes and revolutions. 

Much to my surprise, the pop-culture images of widespread panic and looting were fairly rare in real life. If anything, some people go too far in the opposite direction, waiting passively for things to make sense again, with tragic results. But for the most part, people seem to be pretty sensible in an emergency, working together, behaving rationally and getting away as best as they can. Often they'll behave extremely altruistically and help out others. 

When panic does happen, it's often the result of predictable circumstances, where people are unable to move or act, and are packed too tightly to be able to respond with any sense of autonomy. The same seems to be true of rioting in times of civil unrest, protestors almost never spontaneously riot, it's usually the actions of police or military forces putting pressure on them that causes the situation to explode. 

Looting too, seems a lot rarer than it's made out to be in disaster movies, even in actual riots and especially in life-threatening emergencies. It does happen, but it's hardly widespread. The much greater danger seems to be the vigilantes who take it upon themselves to "protect" the community from the looting they imagine is going to happen, which in practice often looks a lot like shooting anyone of a particular racial or socioeconomic group who dares show their face in certain neighborhoods (this was a big problem after Hurricane Katrina, exacerbated by police with much the same attitudes). 

Ordinary people, it seems, do OK in disasters, while authority figures tend to be the ones who actually freak out, leading to what sociologists call "elite panic," and causing unnecessarily draconian or violent responses to an emergency in the name of maintaining the social order, as opposed to helping people in need (to see this happening in slow motion, just read anything dealing with the response of the US Congress to the current situation).  

Often, in fact, everyday people will work together at their local level to create temporary communities in the wake of a disaster, trying to keep each other fed and safe, which was the topic of the other Rebecca Solnit book I read this year A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disaster. In this book, Solnit describes how some of the improvised communities built in the wake of earthquakes, hurricanes and the like allowed people to not only survive, but to thrive. Often the sense of purpose and the breaking down of routines and social strata made people happier for a short time than they may have been in their everyday lives, and these cooperative bands of neighbors were more effective in distributing relief than the official government response was (which led to more of that elite panic and sometimes interference with grass-roots relief efforts in the name of imposing top-down order once again). 

It's worth noting that the current situation, where the best way to help each other is to keep our distance and stop the virus from spreading, doesn't particularly lend itself to neighborly measures like erecting spontaneous soup kitchens or street medic stations. But think about how many people have been sewing masks or donating blood, volunteering where they can. In times of crisis, the human instinct is often to do SOMETHING to help out, which is pretty great. And, honestly, not terribly surprising, in spite of what all the post-apocalyptic movies we all watched might have told us. We are, as a species, instinctively cooperative, which is probably the most important reason we've been so successful. 

The final book that really tied into my theme for the year was probably the meatiest and most complicated of the bunch, Behave: The Biology Of Humans At Our Best And Our Worst by Robert Sapolsky. This book explored not only the way we act, but the hormonal, neurological, genetic and environmental factors that influenced all of those. I could probably (and maybe will) write a whole blog post on what I learned from this book alone, but there are a few takeaways that tie into what I read in the other books. 

Probably the most important ones are that we human beings, like other primates and most other social animals in general, are very good at dividing the world into "Us vs Them." And we'll often make all sorts of excuses for Us, and blame anything we can on Them. Now who constitutes and "Us" and what terrible enemy counts as "Them" from moment to moment can be very fluid, because we're pretty complicated critters, even compared to our closest cousins in the wild. It can be along racial, political or religious lines, it can be between fans of rival football teams or even between people who like football and people who don't. And we can exist simultaneously in several Us/Them relationships at the same time. "Sure, he's a Dallas fan, but he shares my love of '70s heist movies, so he's not all bad." 

The Us/Them paradigm can be manipulated, for good but more often for ill, because of something else that makes humans particularly human, our ability to think in metaphors. We literally feel sick at seeing an image of something repugnant, like we smell rotten meat, we feel joy at a particular song that reminds us of home, symbolism is so closely tied into reality in our minds that we have trouble separating them on a subconscious level. And terrible people use that to exploit the Us/Them division. "Look at these people from group X," they say, "are they even really people? They're more like cockroaches." And part of our brain stops seeing other people as human beings, and if they're not human beings, does it matter how badly we treat them? This is called pseudospeciation, and it's one of the most effective propaganda tools out there. It works well because, sometimes, the more we hate the Thems out there, the closer and more loyal we feel to Us. 

And all this works because we're never as rational as we like to think we are. Probably especially people who pride themselves on being rational all the time. What we think of as rationality is often rationalization, our very clever brains looking to make excuses for our unconscious biases and things that lurk in the deep, dark currents of our psyche. We don't like to admit to ourselves that we don't trust a person because something about them reminds us of our third grade bully, or because we're a little bit prejudiced against something. Or maybe we need to eat lunch and we're just cranky, but we'd NEVER let a little thing like slightly low blood sugar affect our judgement, would we? 

But in spite of all our strange, chaotic, and seemingly unpredictable irrationality, Sapolsky tells us, we're surprisingly nice to each other most of the time. There are evolutionary and personal benefits to cooperation, and studying our primate cousins teaches us that the noisiest and most aggressive are almost never the most successful, rather the ones who are really good at getting along with each other. No man, (or chimp, or baboon) it seems, is an island. 

The takeaway from all this? Well, for me, a lot of it's still percolating, but in spite of the chaos of this year, I feel a bit more optimistic about human nature, and have been really thinking about my own place and where I want to go from this kind of transitional place I find myself, career-wise. There's a lot to be said about the feeling of satisfaction in finding a way to serve the greater community, and maybe I'll figure out how to do that (and buy groceries) in the future. But I've still got a lot of reading to do, either way. 

Happy New Year, folks!


Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Working From Home Without Losing Your Mind: Tips and Resources

Current events have forced a lot of us to do our jobs from home. For those who are used to doing at least part of their work remotely, this may be an easy transition, but a lot of use are used to the structure and social interaction of the workplace and can find this really challenging. But there are definitely things you can do to survive, or even thrive, in this new environment.

Set a Schedule
Probably the biggest, most important element is creating some structure in your day. The combination of anxiety and a sudden change in work environment can make it really hard to focus, doubly so if, like a lot of us, you've gone from a fairly active, social environment to one that involves a lot of online learning or large group videoconferences, where you might be taking a much more passive role in your work. In addition, if you're suddenly working at home with family, particularly kids, giving them definite "working/not working" time for their parent can help them feel more comfortable and know when not to interrupt you (or, more realistically, interrupt you less often).

Setting a definite start and end time for your day can also help you avoid feeling like you're constantly beholden to your workplace to be productive, even when you're doing personal or family activities. "Clock in" and "clock out", and don't forget to give yourself a break for lunch as well as short breaks to get up and move around. Some people find it helpful to "commute" to work by going outside and going for a short walk before going to work, and almost everybody finds that getting dressed in "office clothes" (even if it's just a different pair of sweatpants from the ones you slept in) helps them get in a better mindset to sit down and work.
Experiment a little bit in what time of day works best for you. You may be a morning person who gets the most done before 2 pm, or someone who likes to get started in the afternoon and work into the evening. This might be the rare chance to tailor your workday to suit your natural inclinations, within the bounds of employer expectations and web meetings. And allow yourself a bit of flexibility, life happens even - especially - when working from your own home. 

Finally, when you're done for the work day, be done. Turn off your computer, or at least log out of your work email, and set aside that part of the day until tomorrow. Keeping a strict division between work and personal time at home helps you keep better peace of mind and let you feel more focused and productive during your designated work hours. 

Set Up Your "Office" 

If it's in the corner of my bedroom, can I brag about having a "corner office?"
If you're fortunate enough to have a home office already, you're all set! But if, like many of us, you're new to this, it's really, really helpful to have a designated work spot, ideally a different spot from where you sleep, eat and watch TV, though if you've got a small living space, you may have to work with what you've got.

If you have the space and money, do what you can to make it as comfortable as possible. A high-end desk chair may not be necessary, but but one that's comfortable and puts your hands and wrists at a good angle for typing can save you a lot of aches and pains (if you have a laptop, like I do, it may be hard to get the screen at optimum level, but do what you can). Using a separate mouse, wired or otherwise, can also make entering data a lot easier and more comfortable. 

Good lighting is essential for relieving eye strain, helping with focus and mental health and making you actually visible while you're participating in one of the many, many, MANY video conferences you're going to be on during the work week. Natural sunlight is one of the best options if you can set your desk near a window, but a flexible desk lamp of some sort can help with task-specific lighting too, from viewing documents to providing a bit of indirect light to make your web-conference face look its best.

Aside from being well-lit and ergonomically sound, the decor and color of your work space can have an effect on mood and productivity as well. Live plants can help for a lot of people and even the color of your environment can have a marked effect. Studies have shown that shades of blue make for the best work environment, followed by green, while yellow made for the least comfortable space. You probably don't have the option to repaint an entire section of your home or apartment, but adding some posters or decorations can help a lot.

Avoid clutter in your working space, too. Not only does it make it harder to actually work if you need to sort through documents or other materials, but a cluttered environment can cause an increase in anxiety, which is the last thing any of us needs these days. 

It may be a luxury for a lot of people, but if you have the option or are expecting to have working from home be a long-term part of your job, having a dedicated work computer can help separate your home life from work life. Your employer may even provide you with one. But if you can't do that, you should designate the desk as your "work" space, and at the end of the day when you're done with your work hours, move your laptop to a different physical location to watch Netflix or read blogs. You can even set up a separate user account for your work self and your home self to create both a psychological and an information barrier between the two.

A final note on web conferencing: be aware of what's behind you! Try to make sure that the space behind your desk is free from excessive clutter and anything you don't want your co-workers to see. 

For some more resources on setting up a home office, TheWireCutter has great reviews and suggestions for gear at various budget levels, and lifehacker has an extensive collection of work-from-home articles. 

Breaks, Health and Distractions

Take breaks. No, really, take breaks. While there is a kind of cult of productivity that thinks working through lunch makes you a better employee, that's not true during the best of times, let alone during the unusual circumstances we find ourselves in right now. You're no good to yourself, your family or your boss if you're burnt out and frazzled. When your work space and living space overlap, the temptation to just eat at your desk and keep going with what you're doing can be strong, but what you should do is get up, walk away from your computer and go eat lunch somewhere where you can't even see your desk (face the other way if you're in a small space).

A break for exercise can be a real lifesaver for a lot of people, a short jog or walk around the neighborhood can leave you feeling a lot more refreshed and focused for the second part of your day. Short breaks also help a lot too, with physical and mental health. Set a time if you have to, but try to get up every hour for just a few minutes, stand up, stretch, move around a bit, use the bathroom, get another cup of coffee, try a few mindfulness exercises and sit back down with your mind and body clearer.

At the same time, you're probably best off limiting your social media and news consumption during work time. Not only do they tend to be distracting, but fairly anxiety-inducing right now. It's no big secret that social media platforms use design elements to keep you scrolling and hold your attention, which can easily derail your work day for longer than you'd expected, but with a constant stream of disaster and political news, they can also ramp up your stress levels and make it hard to focus, which in turn can lead to you stressing out about struggling to focus on the task at hand. 

That's not to say you should be avoiding social media or news entirely! After all, right now the primary way we have to connect with each other is through the internet, and those social connections are also vital to our health and well being, but be judicious and set planned times for it, so you can keep yourself in balance and get things done. 

Overall, the resources and technology we have here in 2020 make working from home a lot easier and more comfortable for most of us than ever, and with a little planning and patience, you might even find yourself enjoying it. And really, you can't beat the commute!