mad anthony

Rants, politics, and thoughts on politics, technology, life,
and stuff from a generally politically conservative Baltimoron.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

On the fine line between happiness and complacency..

A while back, I was having a lunchtime conversation with some coworkers about a project that I was involved in - one that was mostly successful, but had gotten a few complaints about something that I had limited control over. I stated that I preferred to ignore the complements and focus on the complaints, and to always focus on the negatives as things that need to be improved - that if you focus on the positives and pat yourself on the back for a job well done, then you will never have a reason to improve. The way I saw it was that happiness is for the weak, for those who don't want to improve, and that because of that I hope I'm never happy, but instead always trying to improve.

My coworkers looked at me like I was crazy, and I figure I probably am.

But a few weeks ago, in a meeting at work, we were shown a video - produced by another university, and aimed mostly at college kids trying to figure out what to do with their lives. It expressed what I was trying to get across - and incorporate into my own life - but did a much better job of it. The film's narrator stated that we should be wary of ever being satisfied, because if we are we become complacent and don't have a reason to try to set higher goals and achieve more.

It's what I was thinking, and it's how I try (but rarely succeed) to approach things in my life. When I finished the Baltimore half-marathon last year, a number of people expressed that I should feel glad that I finished, even though my time was pitiful (in the bottom 10%). I've tried to look at it as an incentive to do better next year - but it probably isn't working so well, since I have yet to significantly. change my diet or exercise routine, although I do have some time left, and it will be easier to do some of those things - like start running outside - once it gets warmer).

What is tricky is trying to balance a desire to be proud of achieving goals with the need to constantly set new goals and having the motivation to continue to achieve them. When you look at most things - say, at personal wealth - there is always room for improvement. You aren't the richest person in the world, and thus you should feel bad about it, and work harder to change it. But statistically, it's unlikely that you will ever be the richest person in the world. If you accept that, you will probably feel better day to day - but you will also probably not work as hard at trying to make more money.

The other thing that makes achieving the goals you set after you've met your initial goals is that they become way harder to meet - a sort of declining marginal return. When I was 100 pounds overweight, losing weight was easy, because making small changes like actually getting some exercise or not eating an entire box of pizza rolls chased by a pint of Ben and Jerry's for dinner would make a big difference. I could also remind myself that if I didn't lose the weight, there was a pretty good chance, statistically, that I'd be dead by age 50. Now, I'm pretty close to a healthy weight but could stand to lose 10 or 15 pounds. It's a lot harder to motivate myself to do that, because not only is it a lot more work, but the benefits aren't nearly as dramatic - making it to age 75 is worth the extra work, but I'm not so sure if making it to 76 is.

I approach a lot of things by trying to picture the worst possible scenario and doing everything possible to avoid it, like working as if doing a less than perfect job would get me fired. While that seems to work on one level - I'm still employed, and have gotten pretty good reviews and increased responsibilities - it also makes me pretty uptight and worried about doing things like taking vacation days, for fear that will make me look bad.

One thing about losing weight was it really shifted my view of personal responsibility. When I was overweight, I tended to blame it on external stuff - genes, health, ect. Once I began to lose weight, I realized that it was under my control - that when I was overweight, it was because I did bad things, and when I wasn't it was because I did good things. In some ways, it's empowering to know that you are in control - but it's also depressing, because you start to look at the other parts of your life that you haven't changed and realize that it's because you aren't working hard enough or making the right choices, not because life is unfair. Of late, I've been trying to put on some muscle, without a whole lot of success. I used to look at the guys at the gym who are ripped, who can wear sleeveless shirts without looking completely ridiculous, and be jealous of them for winning the genetic lottery. I still look on them with envy, but now I know it's not because of luck that they are in better physical shape than I am, but because they work harder, push themselves more, and otherwise make better choices. They look better than me because they are better than me.

And it's even more difficult for things like dating - obviously, I'm alone and single because I'm doing the wrong things, but I haven't figured out what the right things are. Other things in life can be reduced to simple math - want to lose weight? Eat less, burn more calories. What to be ripped? Lift heavier things more times. Want to save more money? Earn more, spend less. But there is no simple formula for finding love, and I can't help but suspect that there is at least some element of luck involved in it, of being in the right place at the right time.

So how can one be proud of one's accomplishments and still driven to accomplish more? There is an old prayer that asks for "the strength to change the things I can, the courage to accept the things I can't , and the wisdom to know the difference." But I suspect few are wise enough to really know the difference, and that that difference isn't so clear-cut.

Cold and lonely: a winter rant

My boss is a boater, and last year discovered Facebook. Now he routinely updates his status to count how many more days it is until spring launch. I find myself checking his updates - not because I have any interest in boating (I can't swim and my skin burns at the mere mention of sun), but rather because I'm counting down the days until spring.

Over the last few years, I developed a deep-seated hatred of winter. The cold make my pale, thin nerdy skin crack and bleed. The cost of powering the heat pump that heats my house makes my electricity bills double or triple, despite the fact that I keep my house at a temperature low enough that visitors routinely ask to borrow a blanket. I have a horrible sense of balance, so I struggle to avoid falling on icy sidewalks. Dressing to keep warm means that my already less-than-toned physique starts to resemble that of a snowman, because nobody looks serious or fit in a puffy "bubblegoose" down jacket. Not wanting to go outside in the cold makes everyday tasks that I normally don't mind - taking out the trash or recycling, going to the store, gassing up the truck - turn into a dreaded, shiver-inducing hassle.

But beyond that, there is just something depressing about winter - a sadness that seems to come along with each gust of wind when I'm walking outside, that just seems to accentuate the loneliness and uncertainty and unhappiness I feel about my life. On a warm sunny day, you feel like everything is right with the world, even when it's not - but on a windy, cloudy, bitterly cold day, it's hard to feel anything but alone and sad.

Maybe part of it is that cold weather always reminds me that I'm getting older. This week, I had two snow days off from work. I actually don't normally like snow days, because it always seems to screw up my schedule and projects at work, but these were actually not too badly timed, coming right before the start of the labor-intensive phase of a major project. But what did I do with my snow days - play in the snow, build a snowman (or snow-person for the more politically correct), go sledding?

Nope. I did a load of laundry, did my taxes, sorted through some hamfest inventory, wrote some descriptions and took and edited some pictures for some stuff I need to list on eBay, baked a batch of cookies (using leftover Christmas ingredients, including a bag of red and green M&M's), paid some bills, and shoveled my sidewalk and cleaned off my truck - twice. Essentially, I did a lot of the stuff I would normally do on a weekend, which proves how lame my weekends are. It was useful, in that since I couldn't travel anywhere it forced me to get things done at home that I would normally put off, but it wasn't exactly enjoyable.

About the only good thing about winter - with the exception of snow days and Peppermint Mochas from Starbucks - is that it makes you look forward to spring and summer and appreciate it more when it comes. I remember stepping out of my truck a few month ago on a hot summer day and looking at the fire lane in the parking lot of my townhouse complex, and thinking that it was hard to believe that a few months earlier, after the "snowmeggedon" snowstorms we had, that it was filled with a giant pile of snow several feet high and wide. Now it's once again full of snow, although not quite so much this time, and the only silver lining is there will come a time in month or two when it won't be for a while.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Defending T-bell

mad anthony doesn't eat a whole lot of fast food. This is more because mad anthony is cheap and making a half-assed effort to watch what he eats than any sort of elitist protest against it's taste or quality. I've realized I can generally make my own food at home cheaper than fast food - even if I rely heavily on frozen and premade ingredients, and I usually need to drive at least slightly out of my way to pick up fast food.

But when I do eat fast food, Taco Bell is often where I go. It helps that there is one practically around the corner from Casa De Mad, and it's open at stupidly late hours, like until 3am on weekends. It also helps that some of their food is actually not all that unhealthy if you order it Fresco style, and that it's insanely cheap.

So I'm not all that worried about the fact that they are getting sued for having beef that isn't beefy enough. The fact that the non-beef stuff is water, spices, and fillers like soy and oats is one reason I'm not concerned.

But reading this story on Consumerist and on another message board I read seems to bring out the usual Taco Bell bashers. I haven't found it to make me poop any more than any other fast food place. And yes, it's not authentic Mexican food - in the same way that General Tso's Chicken and fortune cookies aren't authentically Chinese - they are still tasty. And did I mention cheap? The 99-cent bean burritos are possibly the most filling thing that you can buy for under a dollar.

So the next time I need a late dinner, there's a pretty good chance I'll be at the Taco Bell drive- thru, ordering a couple fresco style 38% ground beef crunchy tacos.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I can haz contentment?

This past weekend, I was on the phone with the parents, giving them their weekly phone call to let them know that their son had survived another week in the mean streets of Baltimore. Nibbler the cat was on my lap for a while, until she leaped off and headed downstairs, where her litterbox, water fountain, and food bowl are. A few minutes later she came back up, jumped into my lap, and started purring loudly and doing that paw kneading thing that's usually seen as a sign of a content cat.

It's always nice to have a happy cat - I'm not one of those people who thinks that cats are interchangeable with children - you can leave a 3 month old cat home alone for 12 hours, but not so much for a 3 month old human. Still, I do feel that by adopting her I have a certain responsibility for her, and it's nice to feel like I'm meeting that - that she's better off with me than if she was roaming the mean streets of Roland Park.

But I also felt another feeling watching her - jealousy. I wish I could take as much pleasure from simple things as she does. Presumably, she went downstairs to drink some tapwater, nibble on some dry kibble, maybe take a poop - and came back up incredibly happy. I get to eat better, do much more, and don't think I'm ever quite so happy - I mean, I never purr.

As far as things go, my life isn't too bad - I have a decent job that's pretty secure, has lots of perks, and at least some possibility of eventually moving up. I live in one of the most prosperous countries on earth, during the most technologically advanced period in history, I'm in good health. Of course, my social life isn't exactly the world's most active, and I seem to constantly fail at what seems to come easy to most people - dating and relationships.

Then again, maybe that's why Nibbler is so happy. Since she's "fixed", she doesn't need to worry about that kind of stuff.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

New year's resolutions 2011

As a kid, I generally didn't think much of New Year's resolutions, because I didn't tend to measure time in years, but rather in school years or semesters. Even as an adult who works in higher ed, things tend to be measured in semesters and fiscal years more than anything else - May is the start of a new year, with a new budget, not January.

Still, it's a good idea to stop and think at the beginning of a calendar year what one hopes to achieve, and so I'm doing that. I tend to set similar resolutions pretty much every year, although sometimes the measures change, and I tend to succeed and fail at the same ones every year.

1. Stay in shape: - this is one that's been on there for years, and one I've been pretty good at. Between 2004 and 2006 I dropped about 100 pounds, and I've pretty much kept it off since then. So the obvious goal is to continue to keep it off.

But this year there is a little more to it - about 6 months ago I finally added some strength training to my daily workouts, so my goal this year is to keep that up, and to increase the length and intensity of my workouts. I suspect nobody will ever refer to me as "ripped", no woman will run her finger over my biceps and ask in sultry voice if I work out, and I'll never feel that it's appropriate to cut the sleeves off all my shirts. Still, I think I have put on a little bit of muscle, I can crank the resistance a little higher than when I started, and it's a little easier to open pickle jars. In addition to more time at the gym, I also need to put more time into working out at home, especially on crunches and stuff to work on my abs.

The other component of this is that I need to get back to watching what I eat a little more carefully. I still could stand to lose a few pounds, and I have fallen back into some of my old eating habits - giant portions, lunch at the all you can eat buffet at work, big desserts at night. I'm not going to completely give it up, but it would behoove me to scale back a little.

2. Run the Baltimore half-marathon again, and suck less at it this time: - back in October I entered the Baltimore half-marathon, mostly on a whim after a friend suggested it. I finished, but with a pathetic 3 hour and 7 minute chip time, which put me in about 7500 place out of about 8500 finishers. This year, I'd like to do better - maybe more like 2:40. That means I actually need to run for a good time instead of holding back to finish like I did this year. It also means I actually need to train - that I need to add some time on the treadmill to my daily workouts and do some running outside.

3. Save money - and figure out what to do with it - I've been able to put some money away over the last few years, but I could stand to tighten up my budget a little. I spend too much on impulse purchases, lunch out, coffees at the on-campus Starbucks, shoes and clothing, and a host of other things. Last year, I started expanding my hamfest and eBay businesses, and found some promising sources for inventory. I also started selling at more hamfests, including ones further away. I want to - make that I need to - keep that up, and to basically spend any time I'm not working on other resolutions working on making more money. I've also occasionally turned down overtime opportunities, and I need to stop doing that - any chance I can be increasing my net worth, I should be doing that, not doing non-revenue producing things like sleeping.

The flip side of this is figuring out what to do with my savings - I'm probably going to be in the market for a new car in the next year or two, and I need to decide if I want to go all-out and buy what I really want - a stupidly expensive preowned luxury SUV like a Range Rover - or buy something practical and put the rest of the money towards things like traveling or renovating my house.

4. Find a relationship, or stop trying: - This is one that's on my list every year. I'm 30, single, have never had anything that can be called a relationship, and don't really know why. Sure, there are plenty of things wrong with me, but there are plenty of things wrong with lots of people who still seem to find love. Either I'm going about it all wrong, or I'm just completely repulsive and should just give up. I hope to figure out which of those it is and fix it.

5. Get on a career path: - for the last couple years, I've been in the same job at work, with the same title - but with an ever-growing list of responsibilities. While I'm glad that I have the opportunities, I'm also a little frustrated that I'm managing projects, buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, and responsible for quite a bit of technical stuff, while still answering to the title of "senior technician". Ideally, I'd like a title that fits what I do, a role where I'm not answering to like 4 managers, and I'd love to move away from the technical stuff - which I neither enjoy nor am particularly good at - towards the management/business side of things. But I haven't had much luck with that, because we have a ton of management types already, and because I don't feel like it's right for me to walk into someone's office and tell them what my title or responsibilities should be.

It probably doesn't help that I started, then dropped out of grad school this year. I do have an MBA, but I started an educational technology program this year - and after a semester, decided that it was taking up a huge amount of time but wasn't really giving me any skills or knowledge that seemed particularly relevant to my job. But I do worry that dropping out sends a signal to management that I'm not dedicated, and I wonder if I did more damage doing that than I would have if I hadn't started it in the first place.

6. Travel or something, maybe: - Everyone seems to love traveling - women on dating sites talk about how much they love it, coworkers talk about how much they've enjoyed it. It doesn't hold a whole lot of appeal to me - it costs money, which I hate to spend, especially when I don't actually get a material object in return. It means I have to take off from work, and given the fact that I'm on thin ice already career-wise, I'm reluctant to take too many vacation days, and I already have to take some for picking up inventory and going to auctions for my side business, and for visiting my parents and helping them out as they get older and their health fails. I feel like I should travel internationally at least once, just so I can say I did, but I can't see that happening anytime soon. I did get to go to Vegas for work this year, and can probably go again in 2011 if I want to - but I'm not sure I want to. What I think I may do is try to combine the side business with a trip - either to Atlanta for an unclaimed mail auction or to a failed - bank auction (well, to pick up the stuff, anyway - the actual auctions are online only) - since lots of failed banks are in sunny places like Florida. That still means taking time off and spending money, but at least there is a chance of making some of the cost back.

7. Get organized: My house is a mess - boxes, old electronics, and other stuff everywhere. Moving in my basement is next to impossible, my spare bedroom/home office has turned into a storage room, and the crap is spilling over into the other living spaces in my house. It's unavoidable to a certain extent - I'm in the business of reselling stuff - stuff that often has to be bought in large quantities and sold in small ones, which means it needs to be stored in the meantime. Still, there is a lot I can do to make it more manageable - get rid of the stuff that is obviously unsellable, organize the stuff that is, be more aggressive about selling and more selective about buying. I need to do those things.