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…

Help for Tonga

I don’t usually use my ‘blog to ask for money, but today, I’m making a rare exception.

You might have heard about the devastating volcanic eruption near Tonga, which has essentially cut the island nation off from the rest of the world.

I have a personal connection to this natural disaster. My wife has a cousin who lives in Tonga (if you’re wondering about how her cousin ended up there, she was there on [I think it was] a Peace Corps mission and met a guy there with whom she fell in love and eventually married). The last I heard, my wife’s cousin and her family are okay, but they are cut off from the rest of the world.

Another one of my wife’s cousins (the Tonga cousin’s sister, in fact) has been organizing relief efforts for Tonga, including a GoFundMe campaign. You can view the GoFundMe by clicking this link.

I kicked in a few bucks, and I’m posting to see if I can get others to donate as well, if you are able and willing to do so.

The joys and benefits of volunteering

This afternoon, I took part in an STC panel discussion about volunteering — how to volunteer, where opportunities exist, and so on. (A recording of the webinar will be made available; once it is, I’ll post a link to it.)

Those of you who know me well know how involved I’ve been with volunteering. To name a few, I’ve spoken for SQL Saturday and Data Saturday conferences. I’m part of the leadership team for my local SQL user group. I’m a section leader, board member, and secretary for the symphonic concert band in which I play. I play the piano for a local church. I even serve as a mentor for my fraternity and my alma mater. I lend my talents to a wide variety of groups and organizations, and it’s among some of the most rewarding endeavors in which I take part.

Why volunteer? You rarely, if ever, get paid for doing volunteer work, after all. Well, at least you don’t get paid with money. That said, you get paid in a number of ways that don’t directly involve money.

Let’s start with the satisfaction that you’ve gotten something done. I take part in a number of activities. All of these activities need behind-the-scenes work to keep them viable. Who’s going to do the work? After all, most of these positions are not paid, full-time opportunities, and tasks have to be done, including (but not limited to) organizing meetings, finding meeting or event space, scheduling, publicizing events, taking care of participants, paying any necessary bills or fees, and so on. Someone has to do the work. More often than not, that work is performed by volunteers.

Do you want to learn something new, or gain a new skill? Volunteering is a great way to do it. These groups all need tasks to be done, and volunteering is a relatively low-risk way to get experience with those tasks. It becomes a win-win for everyone; you gain new experience, and a group gets their tasks done.

That said, keep in mind that once you take on a task, you also take on a responsibility. Groups look to make sure work is performed, and once you volunteer to do that work, they are counting on you to make sure it gets done. Even if you’re not getting paid to perform the work, any volunteer opportunity should be treated with the same responsibility and respect as a job.

As with any job, you might struggle if you’ve never done it before or are unsure as to what to do. Treat it as you would any job. Use resources at your disposal (e.g. the internet) to get it done. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re struggling. And don’t be afraid to say no. Volunteering should be a rewarding, even fun, experience. If you find that you’re frustrated or overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to either turn down the opportunity or pass it off to someone who can get it done. It isn’t worth the stress.

I mentioned above that volunteers don’t get directly paid with money. Indirectly, however, is another story! If you’re looking for work experience, volunteer work looks great on a resume! Maybe you built and maintained a group’s website, managed their finances, taught constituents, organized events, or served as an officer. Even if you weren’t paid to do them, it counts as work experience, which is something that appeals to potential employers.

And if you’re looking to meet people and expand your network, volunteering is a great way to do it. By volunteering, you interact with people in whatever activities you’re involved, which expands your network. Speaking personally, I’ve met many people and made many friends from my involvement with SQL Saturday and other related opportunities. This involvement has helped me to grow, both professionally and personally.

Additionally, when you work with others, you learn people skills, including teamwork, collaboration, communication, delegating tasks, leadership, and so on. And if you feel any trepidation about your skill sets, these people skills might just improve your confidence as well.

So if you’re looking to learn new things, gain more experience, and make new friends, consider volunteering. The rewards you reap can be life-changing.

Lack of language command doesn’t have to be an impediment to presenting

As someone who is a child of immigrants, I understand and appreciate the travails of anyone who is new to this country and struggles with the English language. Indeed, English can be a very screwy language, with a plethora of archaic rules such as “i before e” and so on. I remember my Korean mother telling me about how Korean is grammatically perfect; every rule is followed to the letter (no pun intended), and there is no “i before e” or anything like that. I got a better idea of this when I tried to teach myself Korean. (I’ll confess that I’ve gotten busy, and I haven’t kept on top of this as I’d like. I’ll have to pick this up again at some point.)

I’ve learned about the structure of the Korean language, but I have not learned enough to be able to carry a conversation or read signs. As such, I have absolutely no command of the language. So I respect anyone who is not a native English speaker, but learns enough to be able to come to this country and be able to have a comprehensible conversation. That ability requires a great deal of work and practice, and to be able to go to a foreign country and speak the language of its inhabitants is a tremendous achievement.

That said, a common statement among my friends and colleagues from foreign countries is that because English is not their native language, it is an impediment for them to do technical (or any) presentations. More often than not, it isn’t external feedback or reactions that keep them from presenting, but rather a self-perception that because they aren’t native English speakers, they aren’t able to present technical concepts to English speakers.

To those people, I want to tell them (hence, the reason for this ‘blog article): nothing can be farther from the truth. On the contrary, I fully encourage you to present.

Now, I was born and raised in New York State. English is my native language. I like to think that I have a pretty good command of the language, and I will confess to being a bit of a grammar snob (I’ll often joke that I’m one of those people who’s silently correcting your grammar!). Granted, I don’t pretend to be perfect, but I think I can hold my own. I will often say (and I do often say this in my presentations) that command of your native language makes it easier to present concepts when it comes to technical communication.

However, while language command is helpful for presenting topics, it isn’t a requirement. Some of the best speakers I’ve met on the SQL Saturday circuit have been people whose first language is not English. The list includes some very good friends of mine whom I’ve met through SQL Saturday, including Slava Murygin, Taiob Ali, Michelle Gutzait, Paresh Motiwala, Cecelia Brusatori, and Thomas Grohser, among others. They are all excellent speakers whom I highly recommend, and the fact that they speak with accents that may be foreign to many Americans doesn’t keep them from presenting technical topics or being group leaders.

Even if you’re an English speaker who never got the hang of diagramming sentences or knowing the difference between their, they’re, and there, it should not deter you from presenting important topics. And if you are self-aware about your lack of language command, don’t be afraid to ask for help or feedback from someone who does have a good grasp of language.

So if you have a topic to present, but you’re not a native speaker, go ahead and present, anyway! If your topic is profound, interesting, important, etc., the material will often speak for itself. Lack of language command is not an impediment for presenting.

Networking for introverts

This morning, I thought about writing an article about how introverts can network… and realized that I’d already written one. So as such, I’m reblogging a “blast from the past.”

Welcome to Ray Kim's 'blog

I’m sure that many of my friends would describe me as being outgoing, and even outspoken. I’ve spoken at a number of SQL Saturdays, and (as a musician), I’ve performed in front of audiences (I’ve long since lost my fear of performing int front of a crowd).

So it might surprise some of you when I say that I can sometimes be an introvert.

It mostly depends on the situation. When I’m doing a presentation, I’m expected to be doing the talking, and I can hold my own. When I’m discussing a topic that I enjoy, such as baseball, college sports, music, movies, or CrossFit, I can talk your ear off. When I’m among friends, I can converse for hours.

However, I wasn’t always like this, and there are times when I can revert back. When I’m in a room full of people that I don’t know, I can…

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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.

Remember the past, embrace what’s next

“Don’t hang on; nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky; it slips away, and all your money won’t another minute buy…”

Kansas, Dust In The Wind

“Movin’ me down the highway, rollin’ me down the highway; movin’ ahead so life won’t pass me by…”

Jim Croce, I Got A Name

When I was in grad school, I wrote a quote for a paper I wrote. My professor loved it, and I’ve used it plenty of times since then. “Ben Franklin had it wrong,” I wrote (or something like that). “There are not two sure things, but three: death, taxes, and change.”

What made me think of this is a Facebook meme that made its rounds over the weekend. Valentine’s Day was this weekend, and a meme with the hashtag #ValentinesDayChallenge was going around. I figured it was fun and harmless (as far as I know, I didn’t include any security info that could be hacked), so I participated.

I still look my answers over, even a couple of days later, and it makes me smile. My wife and I have had some fun times during our years together, and I certainly hope they continue. We’ve done a lot of things that I would love to relive. But, of course, that’s impossible. That time has passed, and we need to confront whatever is ahead.

The fact is, we cannot move backwards in time, and we can only deal with what’s in front of us. What’s done is done. If it was something good, you reflect on it. If it was bad, you learn from it and move on. Unfortunately, too many people (and I’ll admit falling into this trap myself on occasion) don’t understand this. They don’t just want to remember the past; they want to live there. But the fact is, time marches on, and change happens. Those who continue to try living in the past are doomed to fail.

Memories are a wonderful thing — as a song lyric once lamented, they’re “sweetened through the ages just like wine.” It’s okay to remember and reflect on them. But it’s not okay to dwell on them. Memories belong to the past. You can only control the future. Don’t try to go back to what’s already happened. Instead, create new memories that you’ll enjoy reflecting upon once they’re done.

“Your opinion matters…” Helping people by sharing your experiences

My wife and I have an anniversary coming up, so I started planning a getaway trip to celebrate. (Because of the pandemic, we decided to keep the trip short — only one night, and we’re not venturing very far — only about an hour’s drive from our home.) While I was making my travel plans, I started poking around my own TripAdvisor profile. I had posted a few reviews, and I thought I’d post a few more. I figured my experiences and opinions could help other people looking for travel information, and it’s entirely possible that, by the time you’re finished reading this article, I’ll have written a few more reviews.

One of the biggest reasons why I started my ‘blog was so that I could write about my own experiences for the purpose of helping people. Helping other people is one of my great passions, and while I can’t always help physically or financially, I can help by providing information. It’s what I do professionally, and it’s what drives me as a professional technical communicator.

However, you don’t have to be a professional technical communicator to help provide information. There are countless forums out there, covering nearly an endless number of topics, in which you are able to provide your feedback. You’re probably tired of hearing automated support lines that say “your feedback is important to us.” But feedback is important. Feedback is data. Whatever feedback you provide helps to make products and services better.

How often had you looked something up (e.g. an answer to a technical problem, a hotel review, suggested driving directions, etc.) and became frustrated because you weren’t able to find any information? If you’re an application (or any type of IT) developer, have you ever been frustrated because you asked for feedback about your product, and no one would give it to you? That feedback would’ve been valuable in debugging and improving your product. This is why QA testing is a big deal, and is usually a critical step in development life cycles.

This isn’t limited to just IT professionals. It applies to just about anything in which information is involved. If, for example, you were making travel plans and wanted information about a destination, have you ever been interested in, say, a bed and breakfast, but you couldn’t find much information about it, and no one had written any reviews about it? Those reviews would have gone a long way in providing information about that place.

A lot of us brush off the messages that say “your opinion matters.” The thing is, it really does. Don’t be afraid to express your opinion or to provide feedback. What you say can help someone make a better decision, help improve a product, or possibly change the course of someone’s business for the better.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and write a few more TripAdvisor reviews…