Take care of yourself first

I very recently had a revelation that aroused a great deal of stress and anxiety in myself. (I won’t get into the specifics right now, but it’s very possible that I might discuss it more later, when — or if — the time is right.) It was bad enough that I ended up not feeling well yesterday, and it carried over into today. I woke up this morning feeling dizzy and abnormally chilly, even though I didn’t feel any other physical symptoms. I also felt extremely anxious and overwhelmed. I went back and forth with my coworker, suggesting that I’d be in late. The feedback I received was, stay home. If it’s something that will effect your focus and concentration, then it’s probably best to take care of it before coming in.

I decided to heed that advice, and am taking steps to take care of myself today (I’m trying to make some phone calls even as I write this article).

This would not be the first time that something like this has taken me down. I wrote that over a year ago, during the height of the pandemic, anxiety led me to the point of ignoring my own well-being to the point that I ended up becoming physically sick, and landing in the hospital.

As I get older, I am becoming more acutely aware that issues with my mindset can be just as big as a roadblock as being physically sick. They can affect your concentration, your focus, and even everyday activities. And if you don’t take the time to address them, they can be an impediment to any progress you try to make.

So take the time to take care of yourself, before you get in over your head.

Make time for your art

This pic above showed up in a Facebook meme, and it spoke volumes to me. To sum up my thoughts in only a few words, I’m an artist.

Okay, I suppose some context is in order; after all, I am writing this as a ‘blog article.

For the benefit of those of you who don’t know me, I’m a musician in my spare time. I started playing the piano when I was seven, the clarinet when I was eight, and I taught myself how to play mallet percussion and the saxophone when I was in high school. I grew up learning how to play classical piano, and I picked up a taste for jazz and classic rock along the way. I played well enough that I easily could have been a music major had I chosen to do so; alas, my parents wouldn’t let me.

I also started writing my own music when I was in high school. I started out writing piano compositions (think John Tesh-like new age piano music) without lyrics. One day, I said to myself, “what would happen if I wrote lyrics for my music?” The result was a song called If She Only Knew. I ended up writing more songs; you can hear many of them on my songwriter’s page (you can even purchase my music on the page or on iTunes). I still have more music that I haven’t finished recording (alas, trying to coordinate time with friends who can actually sing is a major blocker, not to mention that life happens), and it’s only within the past few years that I’ve started writing again, after a long layoff of many years (like I said, life happens).

When I first started writing, I was an isolated, naïve, and lonely kid who hadn’t been exposed to a lot in the big wide world. As such, much of what I wrote was stuff that was on my mind that I was unable to express in words. Music was — and still is — the perfect outlet for me; it enabled me to convey what I was otherwise unable to express.

The pandemic over the past few years has stressed me out in many different ways, as I’m sure it has for many people. Under these circumstances, it’s especially important to maintain your mental health; indeed, it was why I ended up in the hospital last year. We are not robots, so it’s important to maintain some kind of relief valve to release the pressure. This is a huge (although not the only) reason why the arts are important. (I could also talk about how art trains us to think critically and creatively, but that goes beyond the scope of this article.) The arts allow us to express ourselves in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to in the corporate, business, and high-tech world.

Art can take many forms. For me, it’s in my music. For others, it can involve drawing, sculpture, painting, glass-blowing, creative writing, poetry, sewing, video production, theater, collecting, cooking, and so on. (You could also make the case that sports and athletics are an art.) You don’t necessarily even have to be good at it. I once got into a lengthy argument with a friend who said that a picture created with animal feces was not art. What he didn’t understand was that art doesn’t necessarily have to be good or tasteful; it just has to be something that’s expressed, even if it’s (literally, in this case) a piece of crap.

I think art is critically important (I’ve argued that we should be teaching STEAM, not STEM). It’s important for us to develop as well-rounded individuals. And it provides us with a creative outlet that we desperately need to release stress, especially in our current world that is full of it.

Dealing with mental wellness and stress

Last year, I wrote about how stress landed me in the hospital. The fact that the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with my job loss, created a large amount of stress over the course of that year. Because of that stress, I stopped taking care of myself. And because of that, I got sick and ended up in the hospital.

That was last year. After more than a year, I managed to gain employment again.

Well, the cycle begins again. Lately, I’ve been dealing with enormous stress; not from one source, but from several. Much of it is deeply personal, so I won’t write anything specific about them. What I will say is that recent events triggered them, affecting me in numerous ways, including my job performance.

Unfortunately, because my job performance was affected, I was told yesterday that I was being let go. Although I was disappointed by the news, it also did not surprise me. My manager had to make a decision, and I didn’t want to be the one bogging down the team. Quite frankly, if our roles were reversed, I likely would’ve made the same decision.

That said, I believe that in order to truly fix a problem, you need to address the root of the problem. I mentioned that I was dealing with multiple sources of stress. I felt I was getting burned out, and that burnout was what ultimately led me to losing my job. But while work stress may have contributed to my issue, I considered that to be a symptom, not the root cause.

Indeed, my job issue wasn’t the only symptom I was seeing. I’ve been feeling a great deal of anxiety. Even activities that I usually enjoy, and am even passionate about, were affected. There were nights where I was scheduled to attend music rehearsals and CrossFit classes — two activities that I usually enjoy — and I had no motivation to go. That’s when I made the decision to contact EAP and get help. They set me up with an online counseling program (my first therapy session was this morning). Additionally, I reconnected with a local psychology practice with whom I’ve worked in the past.

I’ve long stressed the importance of your mental, psychological, and emotional well-being. In my lost job presentation, the very first thing I address is your emotional well-being. You need to get a hold of yourself before you can effectively move forward. If it means (safely) getting it out of your system, talking to friends, finding distractions (such as your favorite activities), or getting professional help, then do it. The online counseling offered by my EAP includes three free sessions, and I decided that I should take advantage of that.

Mental well-being is getting more attention within the fields of technology. My friend Tracy Boggiano does an excellent presentation about mental health in IT (a link to it is available on her website). Steve Jones also posts daily articles about how to cope with various issues. And while I can’t think of articles off the top of my head (if you know of any, feel free to list them in the comments below), I believe there are articles that discuss mental health within the technology industry.

There has long been a stigma attached to mental health. The fact is, mental health deals with exactly that: your health. If you feel that you might not be in “the right frame of mind,” or something might be bothering you, or you feel as though you’re acting peculiarly, don’t keep it to yourself. Get help. Go talk to someone, preferably someone who’s in a position to best help you (such as a mental health professional). These people are there to help resolve your issue(s), or at least come up with an effective way to cope with them. Once you get your mental health under control, many other things — your job performance, your thought processes, your relationships, how you approach life, and so on — will fall into place.

Now, in the meantime, if anyone has any job leads, feel free to send them my way…

Going crazy (in a good way)

Every once in a while, I’ll start thinking random thoughts. For whatever reason this morning, on the last day of 2021, my brain randomly started thinking about one of my favorite movies, Field Of Dreams. At the beginning of the movie, Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) said this: “And until I heard the Voice, I’d never done a crazy thing in my whole life.”

Even Billy Joel once sang, “…said he couldn’t go on the American way… now he gives them a stand-up routine in LA…”

And again, my (dangerously) wandering mind started thinking: how many crazy things have I done in my life?

A little perspective is in order here. When I say “crazy,” I don’t mean psychotic, dangerous, or harmful. I’m not talking about a dangerously unhinged person who decided to injure large numbers of people because “the little voices in the head told him or her to do so.” Rather, how often have you done something that’s out of character for you, something you ordinarily wouldn’t do, taken some kind of calculated risk, decided to do something random because “it sounded like fun,” decided to jump in your car to travel somewhere, stepped out of your comfort zone, and so on?

I’ve had my share, some of them significant, some of them trivial. I’ve driven two or more hours to concerts or sporting events on nights where I had some kind of commitment early the next morning. (I’m finding that as I get older, I can’t do those things like I used to.) I’ve submitted presentations to various major conferences, with varying levels of success. I’ve written music that I’ve submitted to publishers and contests. I once randomly stopped by a gym to ask for advice about getting into shape. And I once drove five hours on a whim to meet up with my then-girlfriend.

How have they turned out? Well, let’s start with my music. I had a publisher tell me (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I can’t use your stuff right now, but definitely keep at it, because you definitely have talent!” (The main reason why I haven’t kept up with it is because — well, life happened.) I even got honorable mention recognition for a song contest to which I submitted. For my presentations, I’ve spoken three times at PASS Summit (or its equivalent), and I’ve spoken at many SQL Saturday and Data Saturday events. There are a couple of non-PASS conferences where I’ve submitted (I was recently picked to speak at one, and I was rejected for another). That gym where I stopped? It was a CrossFit gym. That was in 2015, and I’m still going! As for those late night concerts and sporting events? Well, I had to drink extra coffee the next morning, but I enjoyed myself at the events, and I had very few regrets about attending them!

And my five-hour trip to see my then-(now ex-)girlfriend? Okay, so they don’t always work out. Win some, lose some. That said, I have no regrets about that trip.

Many of those calculated risks have bore fruit. Friends and colleagues have told me that I’m a good speaker; Grant Fritchey, a rockstar in the PASS SQL community and a person whom I greatly respect, once told me that “you’re a good speaker, and you deserve the PASS Summit slot” when I was selected to speak this year. That statement from him meant a lot to me. And while I haven’t become a rockstar (I mean that literally — an actual music rockstar), I’ve found that I’ve gained a measure of respect for what I do from other musicians. I’ve gained a lot of confidence in what I do, and I think it’s done a lot to help me advance my career, as well as my extracurricular activities.

There are a number of other friends who’ve had similar experiences. Off the top of my head, one friend decided to audition for an acting part; he is now active with his local community theater. Another friend actually got married on the Today show. (Yes, seriously — the groom is a friend of mine from high school!) While those are two that immediately come to mind, I’m sure there are others. How many of you randomly decided to go skydiving, sing karaoke, speak in front of an audience, write a poem or a song, sent a resume to a job listing for which you thought you had “no chance,” asked out the girl or guy you liked, or tried out for a part? And how did they turn out?

The thing is, if you want to get ahead in life, you need to step out of your comfort zone. This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with just maintaining the status quo. If you only aspire to sitting on the couch watching TV, so be it. But if you want to get ahead, make something of yourself, and maybe even make yourself better (and possibly, happier), sometimes, you just have to do something a little crazy.

Hope you all have a happy and healthy New Year. And I hope you all do something a little crazy in 2022.

When is “good enough” good enough?

If there’s one thing that I struggle with (and I’ll bet the house that I am not alone), it’s determining when something I’m working on is at a point where it’s “good enough for government work” (as the saying goes). Whenever I work on anything — whether it’s a work task or an extracurricular project — I always want to put in my best effort. As my personal mantra often goes, always put in your best effort — I don’t care if you clean toilets for a living. Ideally, my goal is perfection every time.

The problem is, perfection is an unrealistic standard. I’ve written about this before, and I still believe it. We’re human, after all, and a big part of being human is that we are rarely, if ever, perfect. I’ve often said that perfection as a goal is okay, but perfection as a standard is unacceptable. Sure, every once in a while, a bowler will bowl a 300 game, or a baseball pitcher will pitch a perfect game, but neither can be expected to do so every time out. Setting perfection as a standard is impossible, and anyone who sets perfection as a standard really needs to rethink their priorities.

For me, this is a constant struggle. I want to do the best job possible every time. However, there are often factors that work against me: deadlines, schedules, task management, work load, lack of knowledge or experience, fatigue, and so on. Additionally, my work often coincides with something else; a teammate is often counting on my part in order for him or her to proceed with their task. We don’t work in a vacuum; we’re often part of a team, and we need to work together. This is true even if you’re an individual contractor; your customer often expects to see results.

So how do you measure when something is “good enough?” This is often subjective and hard to answer, but I’ll take a crack at it.

I’ll use one of my favorite (and oft used) examples: baseball. As I mentioned above, a pitcher isn’t perfect every time. He’ll often give up a few hits and walks. He might even give up home runs on occasion. But was his performance good enough for his team to win? A play-by-play announcer will sometimes say, “he didn’t have his best stuff tonight, but he kept his team in the game, and it was good enough to get his team the win.”

So with that, I’ll often use measures like these: did my team get the win? Did my teammate (or customer) get what (s)he needed from me in order to do what they needed? Did my efforts meet the requirements? Did my teammate accept my results? Did my efforts get the job done? And, most importantly to me, did I give it my best effort, given any impediments (time constraints, fatigue, degree of difficulty, experience — or lack of — with the task, etc.) that might be in my way?

If I’m able to answer yes to questions like these, then in all likelihood, I can say yes, my efforts were good enough.

Enemies and adversaries

I stumbled across this article today. I won’t get into the politics behind it (those of you who know me know how much I despise politics), but I wanted to write about it because of a quote by one of the perpetrators I read in the article — one that I found to be extremely disturbing.

The quote: “We need to hit the enemy in the mouth.”

When one political side — any side — refers to the other as “the enemy,” we have a major problem.

Most of the time, when I use the word “enemy” (and I’ll admit that I might use it occasionally), I use it tongue-in-cheek. As a sports fan, I’ll sometimes jokingly refer to our archrival as “the enemy.” But I also keep things in context. At the end of the day, it’s still just a game.

That wasn’t the case here. The perpetrators used it maliciously, with intent to harm. It became a matter of life and death. This is how wars and armed standoffs happen.

I do remember one point during the presidential elections in 1996, when Bob Dole talked about his contentious campaign against Bill Clinton, when Dole said, “we are adversaries. We are not enemies.”

Like everyone else, I have my own perspective of the world. As such, I have my own biases. I’m a registered Democrat, yet I have many friends — including many whom I love dearly — who are Republican. Heck, I’m a Yankee fan whose wife is a Red Sox fan. I was born and raised in the US, yet I embrace cultural differences; indeed, I have an appreciation for environments, traditions, mores, and foods that are not my own. I encourage people to send me good karma, to pray for me, to send me a Mazeltov or a Barakallahu fiikum (I hope I used that context correctly), or whatever best wishes their culture or tradition dictates. Not only would I not be offended, I’m actually flattered that you would think enough of me that you would offer me best wishes from the standpoint of your own culture.

Conflict is everywhere. We as humans will never completely agree with everyone else (nor should we). Conflict is important; it allows us to see things more critically, and it’s an important source of feedback. By using conflict productively, anything and everything we do gets better.

However, if we start thinking about the other side — whatever the “other side” is — as the “enemy,” then we’ve just crossed the line. We reach the point where we are intolerant of other opinions and viewpoints — enough that we’d be willing to cause harm to the others with differing views. And in my mind, that is unacceptable.

Everyone sees things differently. While I think it might be too much to ask to embrace opposing views, at least understand the perspective from the other side. When we understand views from the other side, we can hammer out our differences and come to a better resolution.

I’ve landed!

After 388 days, 557 submitted resumes, and countless rejections, I’m happy to report that I have landed!

I have accepted a position for Insight Global. I will be working remotely as a technical writer for their client, PlutoTV! I start my new gig in a few weeks, depending on how long it will take for them to configure and send me my new work laptop!

I have made no secret about how stressful this job search has been, and I even talk about it in my job hunt presentation. Indeed, an entire calendar year is a long time to be without gainful employment, and it is the longest that I have ever gone without regular work. But I persevered and survived it, and I’m very much looking forward to this new opportunity!

Thanks to all of you who have followed my exploits and supported me!

The right frame of mind is important for your overall health

I’ve been holding off on writing about this, but what happened to me is an important story to tell, and a cautionary tale for others who might be going through the same thing.

The photo you see above is me lying in a hospital bed about a month ago. And I want to tell you how I got there.

I have made no secret about how much the experiences of the past year have stressed me out. When I keep a regular schedule (and when I’m working), I have a routine that I maintain. And as long as I stick to the routine, I tend to do pretty well. If my routine gets upset, that’s when I get into trouble.

Well, the stress that I’ve endured upset my routine. My sleep schedule had been irregular. And I’ve been doing a terrible job of taking care of myself. The pandemic closure, in the early months, shut down gyms, which meant that I stopped going to CrossFit (which had been part of my routine). To make up for it, I started doing a Couch to 5K program. I had been doing pretty well with that program, until about halfway through, I was beset with injuries which also upset my (now new) routine. (The injuries were bad enough that I ended up going to PT to address them.) My extracurricular schedule, also part of my routine, had been disrupted because of the pandemic. I was stressed and overwhelmed. Things that I used to enjoy now suddenly seemed like a chore. To sum it all up, I had stopped taking care of myself.

About a month ago, I started having problems eating. Twice within two weeks, I got sick after eating. After the second time, my wife insisted that I go to the ER. Upon being examined, I was told, “we’re admitting you.”

For the sake of my personal privacy, I won’t say what it was that I had, except that it was not COVID. I will say that I remained in the hospital for a week. I barely ate anything during that week. My only diet was bags of IV solution that they sent through my system.

That was not a pleasant experience. I would not recommend that to anyone.

I have been home from the hospital for almost three weeks. I am slowly (emphasis on slowly) getting back to normal. Even as of this article, although I feel much better than I did, I still have not recovered 100%. My energy level is not what it was, and I get tired easily. And it all came about because I had become overwhelmed and had stopped taking care of myself.

The moral of this story is that your emotional and psychological well-being is just as important as your physical one; in fact, it can directly affect it. Your morale is important; in fact, it’s one of the things that I address in my job hunt presentation.

So take it from me. Take care of your mental well-being, and make sure you’re in the right frame of mind. Do what you need to do to roll with the punches. If you need to occasionally let off steam, do so. Get help if you need to. Get yourself to where you need to be, mentally and psychologically. Once you do that, you’ll be able to take care of yourself. Don’t end up like I did last month, and spend a week in a hospital bed.

The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 25: Taking the “distancing” out of “social distancing” #COVID19

Before I get into this article, I want to make one thing extremely clear. This article has NOTHING to do with circumventing pandemic protocols or ignoring the advice of Dr. Fauci, the CDC, the WHO, or any other medical professionals. That is NOT what I’m about to write. Please, please, PLEASE keep wearing your mask, get your COVID shots, and maintain physical social distancing. Above all, be safe.

Now that that’s out of the way, let me get into what prompted this article.

Earlier today, this random thought popped into my head. I posted it to my Facebook, and I want to share it with all of you as well.

I’m sitting here thinking that possibly the thing I miss most during the pandemic is simply the ability to go out and have a drink with a friend.

Granted, the part about “having a drink” is irrelevant. I say that as a catch-all for going out for a beer, wine, coffee, soda, lunch, dinner, dessert, watching a ballgame, going to a movie, and so on. (I could also say “hanging out in your friend’s living room;” it’s within the same spirit of what I’m writing about, but it’s in a private, not public setting, which people are likely doing, anyway — hopefully, COVID-safely. But I digress.)

I don’t know whether the fact that today is St. Patrick’s Day had anything to do with this thought, but what did prompt it was an urge — and a basic desire — to pick up the phone, call a friend, and tell him or her, “let’s meet up at (some favorite local hangout) this Friday night*.”

(*Before any of my local friends take me up on this, be advised that Syracuse plays San Diego State on Friday night, so my attention will likely be focused on the TV.)

Raise your hand if you miss getting together with friends — and I’m not talking about virtually over Zoom. Yeah, me too. The last in-person social event I remember attending was the after-party for SQL Saturday out in Rochester in February of last year. Since the pandemic began, I’ve had almost no in-person interaction with any of my friends, other than my wife (I’ve had a few, but they’re few and far-between). I would love to get together with friends to talk hours on end about world events, music, sports, family, or even about absolutely nothing. Don’t get me wrong; I love my wife, but there’s something to be said for sharing your thoughts, news, and feelings with someone whom you’re not sharing your lockdown experience 24-7 over a forum other than Zoom. Humans are mostly social animals, and interaction with other humans is therapeutic, even if you’re introverted.

(And if you do consider yourself to be introverted, don’t feel obligated to talk. Just being there is very helpful, too.)

Every now and then, I’ll get on the phone with a friend of mine, and we’ll talk for hours — sometimes, about nothing more than random thoughts that pop into our heads (if he’s reading this, you know who you are). We’re the kind of guys who can spend hours talking about “absolutely nothing.” Regardless of what we talk about, I find our conversations to be therapeutic, and I feel like a lot of stress has dissipated, even if I do have something on my mind.

So, if you’re able to do so COVID-safely, take time to hook up with your BFF. You might find the experience to be rewarding and stress-relieving, especially during this time of pandemic and social distancing.

The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 24: Coping with the stress #COVID19

I’m not going to lie. The mental stress of being out of a job (ten months, and counting) is affecting me in many ways. I’ll talk about the mental stress (which is what this article is mostly about) in a minute, but before I get into that, let me talk about something that has been affecting me physically.

Last year, gyms were closed down due to the pandemic. As a result, I wasn’t able to attend CrossFit classes. For me, one of the biggest benefits of CrossFit classes was that it created a routine. I tend to be a creature of habit, and as long as I stick to a routine, I’m generally okay. With the gyms closed due to the pandemic, that routine was broken. I didn’t stay active at home as I would’ve liked (although I did attempt a Couch to 5K program). I started developing issues with my back and my shoulder (which continue even as I write this), enough to require physical therapy. Now, the gyms are back open, but I’ve been dealing with physical issues that prevent me from working out as I’d like. Thankfully, PT seems to be alleviating these issues, and I’m hoping to become active again soon.

That said, the past year has affected me mentally and psychologically, and I’ve fallen into some bad habits. I haven’t been as active with my business as I should be. I’ve been moody, and I seem to have mood swings easily. The constant battle of looking for employment has been extremely taxing and frustrating. A lot of activities that I normally enjoy haven’t been giving me much pleasure as of late.

I could keep going, but the last thing I want to do is write a woe-is-me article where I feel like I’m trying to solicit sympathy. I’m not (at least I don’t think I am, anyway — maybe some of you might disagree, but I digress). Rather, I’m laying out the scenario so that I can write about coping strategies (and I’m writing this for myself as much as any of you who might be in the same boat). In my job hunt presentation, I talk about making sure that you take care of yourself. This article is about practicing what I preach.

Before I started this article, I sat in my home office, thinking about “what should I do to get back on track.” I thought about a number of things, and I’d like to share them with you.

First of all, I revisited one of my hobbies: songwriting. I’ve been working on an idea for a new song, and I opened my notation app to revisit it. I’m finding that doing so is pleasantly distracting; it gets my brain working on something productive. Doing this makes an adjustment to my mental activity which, I believe, will improve my mental and psychological state over the long run.

I was also fortunate enough to be contacted by a friend of mine who said he might have a project for me. We spoke, and I told him I’d look at it. It’s not gainful employment per se, but it’s another productive distraction to get me going again. On that same topic, I also have other projects for my clients that I need to revisit as well.

Other friends have other coping ideas as well. I highly recommend Steve Jones‘ series of articles about daily coping. His suggestions make a lot of sense, and I find that they improve my mood (I’ve even told him as such).

I need to do something physical as well. My doctor recommended that I do a minimum of five minutes of physical activity per day. At the time of the recommendation, I was in serious pain (directly related to the conditions I mentioned at the top of this article) so I wasn’t able to do this right away, but now that they’re somewhat better, I feel like I can partake. I do have an exercise bike; I will be making use of it. Additionally, I will be investing in some resistance bands and PVC pipes (to do pass-throughs).

And, if nothing else, I’m also trying to come up with ideas for ‘blog articles.

You need to take care of yourself before you can take on your responsibilities. These might sound like small moves, but small moves add up. Things like this can reinvigorate yourself and get you back on track. And once they do, you can be productive again.