Work as Self-care; and Being There

Last week I was reminded that sometimes, it is necessary to skip self-care and just work like the devil. I had stuff to do that couldn’t wait. I was also in a productive mode. And so I spent a couple of evenings working late, working hard, but feeling pretty good about it. This is markedly different from the years I spent doggedly working each and every night after a full day in the office. During that time, no matter how much progress I made, it never seemed to be enough.

When I took those two nights working, the lack of exercise was on my mind, as much as the lack of just giving myself breathing space for a while. I kept reminding myself that I was only going to do this for two nights and I stuck to that. The next night I rested and began to return to what amounts to routine for me. (My routines are amorphous, chaotic things. Kind of like blobs of imprecise activities.) I felt it was critical that I got back to my regular activities quickly, since they still hadn’t quite settled after being away over the holidays.

The nice thing about these two evenings, especially the second, was the downright sense of flow on a coding project. It was fun, creative, and dangerous – just like painting. I like it when that happens. Rarely am I able to get in to that state of mind and work. Too many distractions, too many tasks that pop up that require immediate attention. So it was good.

Sometimes the work itself is self-care, especially if it meets a need and releases stress.


Household chores can also be self-care. I think it is easy to forget that. It seems easy to get into the habit of defining self-care as exercise, meditation, nutrition, time for self, and perhaps other activities. Having a clean, orderly space, clean clothes, car properly maintained, trash put out, all the daily chores that allow us to be properly functional. All of this is self-care, or what some call “adulting.”

Self-care is being there. It is being where you are at and taking care of your needs. Taking care of yourself. Which may also include taking care of your relationship(s).  (I think I will that for a separate post.)  Self-care is nothing more than recognizing what you need to be ____________ and then doing the work. That blank is hard to fill meaningfully. It’s too easy to put “successful” there but that has its own implications for what self-care is, as does “happy.” I’m thinking that each of us need to fill in that blank with the word that makes most sense for the current moment of time, and that will help us determine what self-care really means to achieve that. I don’t think anything goes away, it just gets weighted differently.


Sometimes in caregiving there are moments of despair. Some minor thing goes wrong and cascades into a major, or near major, other thing. When this happens, generally the two people involved have to find a solution together. Say for example when there is a fall and the person you’re caring for can’t get back up on their own or with somewhat “typical” assistance, like a hand up. It can take time, creativity, and very serious effort if the caregiver simply just can’t pick their charge up off the floor. A situation like this when it is not quickly resolved can result in panic for one or both.

When this happens, there is nothing to do but stay calm and do the work. The work being the solving of the problem at hand with as much calmness and patience as can be mustered. The less drama can you be bring to an event like this, the easier it is to cope. Far easier to cope, for both of you.


I think the one thing that overlaps these three sections, besides “work” is “being there.” Whether you think about it as mindfulness or being in the moment, just being there is key. Being there for yourself, your partner, your family, your work (which is not necessarily the same thing as your “job”), whatever it is, it is a question of being present. I’ve said before, I spent too much time when I was young thinking about the future instead of being there. No time now to dwell on that,  or anything else in the past, there are things to do now, even if it is just sitting and breathing.



Reality as construct

My first wife was batshit crazy. I did not pick up on this until it was far too late. I probably should have though, the clues were there. Both her mother and her were residents of reality that was occasionally not overlapping at all with the reality the rest of us were living in. When they weren’t rationalizing away their behavior, they were just lying outright. They would take a piece of truth and spin it into an outrageous warping of reality that one could almost believe – as long as you stopped thinking critically. They never let physics or workings of the universe get in the way of their version of reality.

It was all quite horrible after the honeymoon. She would do things that made no sense and come up with justifications that would make sense, if they were based on truth. She’d start with truth, but if the first rationalization didn’t succeed, she would lie and try again. Until you believed or gave up arguing. Or just gave up. Which I did too often.

Years later as Melinda and I were dealing with my schizophrenic son, James, that came out of that first marriage (that diagnosis did not come until after he was an adult), I often reflected on my first marriage, her and her family, and what I had noticed elsewhere about rationalization. I came to this conclusion. The habit of over-rationalization causes mental illness. Of course, this was prior to understanding that mental illness is a physical illness, and when I later learned that, I modified my conclusion to: Over-rationalization deepens mental illness. (My opinion only, I don’t know what practitioners think of this.)

I saw over-rationalization a lot while we were married (and afterwards, from a more comfortable distance). Much of it was to make herself the victim or the center of attention, or both. It got to the point where there were times I could not understand what she was talking about because her world did not correspond to mine. When she had a psychotic break during our time in Alaska, I was finally able to try and get some help. Not that the Army had all that much in support available, but we did get her seen by psychiatrists and tested. I was tested too, both as a control and to determine if I was a/the problem. The results were not good. Her, histrionic with borderline personality disorder; me, normal (whew),but passive.

[It makes me physically ill to revisit these memories. Writing about James, as Zach has asked, will be worse.]

A couple years earlier, while at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky I had the opportunity to go to the Marksmanship Training Unit for eight weeks to become a sniper. It was like learning how to shoot all over again. It was fun. It was cool. More important than learn to “shoot well and true” as Stephen King’s Roland of Gilead might say, I learned about self-honesty.

There were two instructors at the MTU. Both retired soldiers with experience in Viet Nam. Joe White had retired as a sergeant-major and basically seemed to view the MTU as part of his personal ministry.

When we went to the firing range, Joe would sit along side us with a big-ass spotting scope and watch each round go downrange observing it  impact on the half-inch thick mild steel targets. With each shot we made, he would say two words, “Call it.” Our responsibility was to then sound off with direction that the front sight of the rifle jumped upon firing.

Ideally, the we should have been calling “12 o’clock” meaning that the sight went straight up and straight back down. That indicated that our bodies were in the proper natural alignment with the target and that our breath control and trigger squeeze were properly timed. If we were to call “12 o’clock” when in fact the bullet’s flight path was to two o’clock, Joe would yell out. “Someone’s lying to themselves. Am I right? You’re Goddamn right I am.” Over and over again.

And again.

And again.

Retired Sergeant-major Joe White was a no-nonsense kind of guy. About half the class failed to qualify in the end. (Note for clarification: I qualified.] Everyone of those soldiers made excuses and rationalized why they couldn’t sit cross-legged or get quite right in the prone position. It was clear to me that this kind of ruthless self-honesty was at least a partial key to success. It wouldn’t overcome laziness or stupidity, but it would help ensure you recognize when those terms apply to you. It took time to really begin to integrate these principles in my life, but it was an experience I don’t expect to forget.

So, I carry these experiences with me and they define a lot of what I do, for good and ill. For the latter, the efforts toward brutal self-honesty have lead to an overabundance of self-criticism and worse. Yes, I have tendency to take things too far.

For the good, these experiences have defined my understanding and appreciation of the limits of data and data systems. You see, it would be nice to believe that data and their accompanying systems are always objective and free from bias, but they are not. Instead, they are almost always biased toward the majority or toward a specific agenda.

For example, when I got to Virginia, I found that our collection standards prohibited institutions providing data to us from reporting gender as unknown/unreported and race/ethnicity unknown/unreported. Institutions were required to default such values to match the majority of students at the institution. This creates bias in the data. Any reporting done from these data creates an illusion of objective fact that is simply that: illusion. Fortunately, the bias created from these numbers is likely small as eliminating those reporting rules and allowing for unknowns resulted in trivial changes.

The rationale for these rules was ultimately this. IPEDS, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System of the US Department of Ed, did not allow for reporting unknown/unreported in either element. The agency at that time was creating and submitting the annual IPEDS survey data on behalf of the institutions. Thus it made sense to collect the data in a way that maximizes alignment with federal reporting. Sort of. Reporting is just that, reporting, and reporting is a series of decisions about collation, grouping, and aggregation. There is no reason to collect data inaccurately to make it easy to report. Inaccurate collection of data damages its usability for a wide variety of purposes, especially for such things as studying student success.

So, how do these tie together?

It’s about my bias towards clarity of fact and knowing. With my ex-wife, it got to the point that the only things I knew were true were those things I observed myself or that had a verifiable paper trail. In sniper school I learned to know myself better through self-honesty and awareness of when I was not being honest with myself. The story about our data system is about how inaccuracy and, to my mind rationalization (of collection standards), leads to biased systems…and biased thinking. I think while these have been important lessons and structural points in my development, as usual I’ve taken them a bit too far, as I said earlier, I have tendency to do that.

I’ve become far too critical of just about everything, anyone. I find it difficult to trust. This includes trusting basic statements. It becomes too easy, too natural, to start parsing everything someone says. This is especially true in a digital context, like email or messaging. While I am generally comfortable with unknowns, I get very discomforted when things seem to be left out. Or worse, when I can’t reconcile other data directly related to communication, such as digital footprints and timestamps. And then there is the whole self-criticism thing. Not only do I beat myself up for making mistakes, or for lying to myself “Goddammit Tod, stop lying to yourself,” I hear myself say, it’s often followed by the self-critical shouting, “Well, you should have known! You should have seen it coming! Idiot.”

Idiot indeed for treating myself this way. Time to stop. I think now though I have a better understanding of why I do it, which should make it easier to stop. I hope. This self-criticism has (had) just gotten to be far too much and unnecessary. So also has this constant parsing of things said and unsaid. Political speech is one thing that needs to be parsed, but not every other conversation. It is painful and unhelpful and leads to more criticism generally. It needs to stop.

I also hope this makes sense to anyone who has lasted this far, if not, let me know in the comments.