Ego depletion and inner-city living

My recent adventures around simple, cheap and healthy living has helped me realised how much of our society is geared towards the complete opposite:
“We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.”
The challenge I wanted to solve was how to live a satisfied life with a routine that allowed me to indulge in my ambitious projects - whether relating to health, or fitness, or creativity - without being distracted by all the things that a city like Melbourne has to offer.

Monk Mode, green tea smoothies, and downward dogs

I spent much of last summer on ‘staycation’ - taking time out of work while remaining in my home city.

However, I took my staycation a level further - I went into Monk Mode: a minimalist style of living that lets us focus on our own personal projects.

In my case, these involved my creative writing folio, health and fitness, and overall well being.

Haruki Murakami - one of my favorite authors and a runner of marathons - was one inspiration for my Monk Mode adventures:
“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.” (The Paris Review, Summer 2004)
Being a Monk, by the way, doesn’t mean being a hermit. And if you think about it, monks can be very social and light-hearted: they spend all their time hanging out with like-minded people in an environment dedicated to self-betterment, simple living, minimum distractions, learning and adding to knowledge, and taking time to savor the moment.

Quantum leaping in yoga

For the four years that I have practiced yoga, I have yearned to get into a headstand or handstand.

These are the cool ‘inversions’ - the kind of pose that you’d put on your Facebook timeline.

So strong was this desire that I would practice taking a Runner’s Lunge in front of a wall in my apartment, and pressing my hands firmly against the ground, kick off, swing up, and reach my legs up into the air - the wall catching me with a slam before I tilted over.

My apologies to neighbors of all aspiring yogis and gymnasts.

Climb a mountain, tell no one - except your diary

“So you pick up this picture, this two-dimensional image, and you say, ‘That's me.’ Well, to connect this baby in this weird little image with yourself living and breathing in the present, you have to make up a story like, ‘This was me when I was a year old,and later I had long hair, and then we moved to Riverdale, and now here I am.’ So it takes a story that’s actually a fiction to make you and the baby in the picture identical to create your identity.” - Waking Life
Humans are storytelling animals: we form narratives around otherwise chaotic events in our lives to bring them meaning.

Narrative creates a causational and moral thread, letting us connect the dots, weigh up the overall benefits and significance of thing that happen in our life, and relate to one another.

Yet the kinds of narratives that we form are entirely dependent on our memories and perceptions.

And memory is a frail, imperfect thing.

Wanderings around Melbourne - a work in progress

I’ve been writing a novelette for the past couple of weeks and it is at a point where I’m ready to share it - even if it’s not complete.

The story follows a young couple for a day, as they explore inner-city Melbourne: wandering through the Royal Botanical Gardens, exploring the National Gallery, and eating cake on Acland Street.

It’s currently sitting at 12 000 words, which makes for about a 45 minute read. If you’d like to make any comments or recommended changes, let me know and I’ll set up a Google Document of the story, which you’ll be able to collaborate in.

I’ve drawn inspiration from the Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke movie Before Sunset, and Haruki Murakami’s book South of the Border, West of the Sun .

The result is that there’s plenty of dialogue, as well a lot of what editors euphemistically call ‘internality’ - that is, “coming from, produced, or motivated by the psyche or inner recesses of the mind.” (In other words, the characters talk a lot - but they also think a lot).

Some of the themes explored include romance versus friendship; innocence versus experience; mortality versus renewal; memory versus forgetting; responsibilities versus authenticity; and conversation versus introspection.

While it’s hoped to be a stand-alone narrative, it’s actually a continuation of a couple of stories I’ve written over the years - ‘The Year of the Rat’ and ‘The Forty-Seventh Ronin’, some of which has been published for real.

Year of the Rat (fiction)


It is a quiet night at the bistro.

Four people and three courses make up the largest party of the night. For drinks, two glasses of white, a Berry Smoothy, and a Virgin Mary. Entrée is fresh oysters al natural for two, gazpacho soup and tom yum; for main, salmon cutlet with salad, grilled seafood platter, a veggie burger with chips from the kids menu, and risotto with bottled white wine. For desert - crepes liqueur for two, fried soy ice-cream, and fruit salad and afterwards two cappuccinos, a soy hot chocolate, and an espresso.

Half the fish remains on the two plates - the other two, though, leave no remnant of butter in the saucers, no shred of carrot on the side of their plates, no cube of ice in their glasses.

Carrying a bucket of hot water to the Bistro’s toilets, Florian turns a corner and confronts a tall, thin woman in her late twenties. Both reel back like waves hitting an invisible barrier: Florian stooped with bucket in one hand and mop in the other like an aged prophet and she with pants and a top that hung like pyjamas. Water leaps from of the bucket and onto aged yet well maintained Doc Martens that extend over her jeans and half way to her knees. Now the Doc Martens are soaked. Florian leans the mop against the wall as he lowers the bucket, and pulls out the tea-towel from his belt.

Should he get down on his knees and start drying or hand her the towel?

“Oh shit.” He says to her feet. She takes a careful step backwards out of the small puddle and stares down through narrow glasses, then reaches out and squeezes his shoulder.

How will it end?

We seem to live in a strange terror of break-ups.

Separation itself, after all, is not a betrayal - just as with sex, we’re not ‘entitled’ to a person’s presence in our lives.

And there are some benefits of being with someone who doesn’t live in fear of a sudden breakup, who figures that it’s better to speak their truth (even if that means being thought a fool) than remain silent: they’re more likely to say what they want, stick to their own boundaries, and thus respect ours.

How a relationship ends might then be the best sign of how healthy it was while it existed.

If our partner never held anything back, then there won’t be any unpleasant surprises in that final fight.

It might even be relatively pleasant; there’s a great scene in the film 5 to 7, where the female protagonist tells her departing love interest:
“Should you change your mind, I will continue to be out there [in that] smoking nook on Fridays. But if I never see you again, do know that I will always remember you very fondly.”
I would love to have the opportunity to quote that passage to someone.

Making a project out of our partner

“Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably they are both disappointed.”
In spite of the above quote being attributed to Albert Einstein, I’d approach it with some skepticism.

After all, there’s the (sound) theory that men typically provide (and seek) solutions, when women typically provide (and seek) sympathy, and woe to the man that tries to solve his girlfriend’s problems.

As a result, I can see in the habits of men the desire to make a ‘project’ of their partners: becoming a back-seat driver - rather than riding shotgun - in the stagecoach of their partner’s life.

This can create a *kind* of co-dependency - not to mention start mimicking ‘Munchausen syndrome by proxy’.

Feminism helps men too

We go into all relationships with assumptions about what each person is going to be good at - and therefore what they should therefore be responsible for delivering - and often these are along gender lines.

Yet while a few women I’ve gone out with have been really bad at reading maps - and I’ve been similarly bad at asking for directions - there have been some terrific stereotype busters.

In one relationship, for instance, I found myself very good at empathising with children, and I felt a similar sense of self-congratulation as Tyrion Lannister when he remarks,
“Killing and politics aren't always the same thing. When I served as Hand of the King, I did quite well with the latter.”

A dystopia of mice and men

In 1972, animal behaviorist John Calhoun, at the National Institute of Mental Health, set up an experiment with a colony of mice - the original Rats of NIMH.

He wanted to see what would happen if his subjects were given plenty of food, water and nesting material - but limited space.

All went well in the “mouse universe” for almost a year - at which point things started to get a little cramped:
“Mice found themselves born into a world that was more crowded every day, and there were far more mice than meaningful social roles. With more and more peers to defend against, males found it difficult and stressful to defend their territory, so they abandoned the activity.” (source)
Several mouse demographics emerged, including
  • ultra-violent alpha males and frustrated beta males
  • lots of single mothers - who ended up either forgetful of their young, or even infanticidal
  • and my favorite: the “beautiful ones” - pacifists that focused on grooming and sleeping. (“They just ate, slept, and groomed, wrapped in narcissistic introspection.”)

Intimate Partner Violence and the Stanford Prison Experiment

Much responsibility for social and domestic conflict has been placed on our strong ideas of how men and women should behave.

Our Watch states that:
“Research and evidence show the key drivers [of violence against women] to be low support for gender equality and adherence to rigid gender roles and stereotypes.”
For example, ideas of men as providers and women as passive beneficiaries can become the foundations of an abusive relationship.

However, our ideas around gender-based roles and responsibilities can be much more common and insidious than this - and their effects just as worrying.

“Cats in the Cradle” (another article on how men can’t #haveitall either)

The Guardian recently published an article on how ‘Boys need to learn about juggling work and family too’.

What stood out in the article, though, was the words of one commenter:
“Men aren't told we ‘can't have it all’ because we've never expected to be able to have it all - that is a monumentally successful career and at the exact same time being full time parents who share all the joys and turmoils of parenting. For generations we've dealt with the sad phenomenon of ‘absent fathers’ and ‘distant fathers’ (you know the miserable song Cats in the Cradle?).”
The pressure on men to stay at work after-hours is overwhelming - employers often won’t let them leave, at threat of not getting that promotion.

Yet there’s a similar pressure to stay out of the kitchen - as Warren Farrell argues, men don’t ‘pitch in’ to raise children and do housework because women often don’t find it up to their own standard.

The challenges, then, to achieve a gender-non-typical work-life balance, are as great for men as they are for women.


“Boys don’t cry” (a sob story)

I don’t get sick very often - blame it on all the downward-facing dogs and working part-time, but I’m rarely struck down by a cold or infection, and my only kryptonite seems to be pollen.

I still feel for those who are sick, though - I’ll eagerly offer to run errands, do chores, cook chicken soup, and cut slack for a friend, partner, or housemate who’s K.O.

I figure that being taken to task for something while you’re sick - when it can wait until after you’ve recovered - is like kicking someone when they’re down.

So when it has been my turn to have a bug, I’ve learned to communicate the fact of my illness to my significant others - as well as my need for bit of compassion - since my otherwise badass persona can get pretty tough to maintain while I’m on antibiotics.

And yet I’ve found that when it is my turn to fall ill, compassion has often been in short supply.

I’ve literally come out of a hospital after having been hit by a car, my arm in a sling and dosed in morphine, and over lunch the following day a female friend demanded to know why I was behaving so strange.

I’m left wondering - do women feel betrayed when they discovery that a guy can be fragile and vulnerable?

Where have all the good STEM gone? (Or, Why are there so few women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics?)

Recently there’s been a number of expensive social media campaigns aimed at encouraging girls to take up studies in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM).

Unfortunately, these campaigns - EDF Energy’s ‘Pretty Curious’ and IBM’s ‘Hack a hairdryer’ cases in point - have suffered huge backlashes.

What would a good women-in-STEM campaign - one that everyone could actually get behind - actually look like, I wonder.

Yet maybe it’s not simply the form of incentivization that’s at fault - but how we think we understand the problem.

These failed social media campaigns have seen much finger pointing - but not enough soul searching.

Conversation is the new pontification - Or, did social media kill the blogging star?

User generated and curated content is now such a big part of the marketplace of ideas that I I’m amazed people bothered to read before Web 2.0.

In Web 2.0, the line between producers and consumers of content is increasingly blurred; journals and magazines and publishers - the previous ‘gatekeepers’ of good material - compete not only with their own readership, but pretty much everyone on the planet.

We now all control the means of textual production.

Yet Web 2.0 isn’t just about posting stuff on social media so that all your friends can read it.

Web 2.0 is about the *conversation* that takes place from those original postings - which themselves are typically continue on from an earlier post.

We all want to pitch in our ideas - to see and be seen.

Will success fail us?

Is our preoccupation with “winning” the root of our problems?

A Harvard Business School working paper describes how goal setting can result in “‘a rise in unethical behavior; distorted risk preferences; corrosion of organizational culture; and reduced intrinsic motivation.’

That is, we can become ruthless in the pursuit of victory.

We can try so hard to get ourselves on the right path that we sabotage ourselves in the process - and our journey to bliss can lead us instead to misery.

Even our desire to have a “normal” life can set us up to accept a lot of monstrous costs.

There are the compromises and warning signs that we hide from others: we buy now and pay later; rack up a huge credit card debt to travel abroad for a holiday that we haven’t earned; keep up with the joneses via fictitious prosperity; virtue signal while vice living.

Then there are the warning signs that we hide from ourselves, tunnel-visioned as we are by our own ambition: we can weigh in every morning, count every calorie, Strava every bike ride, and catch every metric - but miss the actual results.

We can become so wrapped up in the map that we forget about the territory beyond; fight many a heroic battles in our day-to-day lives but find we have lost the war at the end.

Informed consent is sexier

I was hanging out with a lovely young woman one recent evening at a cute hot chocolate dispensary in North Melbourne.

We’d already gone on a couple of dates - during which we’d discovered a mutual love of the aforementioned beverage - so the conversation was flowing like our drinks.

Between slurps we talked about the usual stuff: books we were reading, television shows we followed, music we liked.

The night was mild, so after finishing off our mugs, we started towards the city on foot, and talked about the kinds of relationships we’d had, what we were after, and what we weren’t.

Soft Power!

Soft power is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence.”

Effective soft power relies on the ‘power wielder’ promoting a special kind of ‘ambience’ through the use of three resources:
  • culture that is attractive to others
  • values by which they themselves live
  • and policies that are legitimate, and authoritative.
On an individual level, I think of soft power as being about engineering a situation so that a person is positively incentivized to share your goals.

Resilience: what is it, and how do you get it?

According to TED-speaker Angela Lee Duckworth, the best indicator of future growth is not past performance - but how well we deal with failure.

The students that go on to do best as adults are those that lived life like a marathon, not a sprint; they didn’t have the best grades, but the most ‘grit’.

For me, such perseverance, self-confidence, and endurance are synonymous with Psychological Resilience.

While attending a Social Innovation Forum called ‘Beyond the safe city’, resilience was used as a shorthand for a “complex combination of evidence-based preparedness strategies.”

More recently, I attended a seminar at RMIT University where resilience was defined variously as:

Graceful degradation and progressive enhancement in relationships

Two web design strategies may guide us in designing our relationships: graceful degradation, and progressive enhancement:
  • Graceful degradation is the old-school approach: you build your site with the most advanced browser in mind, and then add in all of these failsafes to ensure that your end-user has the best experience they can with their own (less advanced) browser. 
  • Progressive enhancement, on the other hand, is the more adventurous and avant-garde approach of the two: build a minimum viable product, and then add features according to the needs and wants of your user base.
“[Progressive Enhancement] keeps the design open to possibilities of sexiness in opportune contexts, rather than starting with a ‘whole’ experience that must be compromised. While it might simply seem like another way to achieve graceful degradation's exact goal from the opposite direction, this newer approach is qualitatively different: because progressive enhancement doesn't presume a single, ideal state to fall back from, it deals much better with emerging landscapes and multiple contexts.” (From degradation to enhancement: redesigning society)
You had me at ‘sexiness.’

The emotional cost of boundary policing

A few months back I got into a conversation over lemongrass tea (her) and beer (me) on the importance - and difficulty - of setting healthy, personal boundaries.

She had been mentoring a disadvantaged high-school student, and trying to figure out how to build trust with her mentee while also ensuring neither of them got overly familiar.

This meant that she was finding it necessary, though challenging, to maintain the right balance of compassion without compromising her own mental wellbeing - what I would consider to be essence of boundary setting.

The need for this came from her position of authority and responsibility in what was a very beneficial student-mentor relationship.

The challenge, however, arose from having never in the past needed to set such boundaries with someone for whom she cared.

Her latter point surprised me, and filled me with envy - the only way any of my friendships, specifically those with other men, have survived has been because I’ve learned to ‘stick up for myself’.

Was this was something special and unique in relationships between women, I wondered - that they can indulge in this ‘luxury’ of no boundaries?

On the origin of boundaries

Why do some women seem to get involved with one abusive partner after another?

Psychologist Ursula Benstead provides an explanation in her brilliant article The Shark Cage: the use of metaphor with women who have experienced abuse (Psychotherapy in Australia, Vol 17, No 2, February 2011).
“People aren’t born with Shark Cages. It is up to the people around us when we are young to help us build a Shark Cage. Our caregivers and everyone we come in contact with in childhood contribute to the type of Shark Cage we build. Let’s think of each bar in the Shark Cage as a boundary, or a basic human right. If we are taught that it’s not acceptable for people to shout at us or call us names, that’s one bar in the Shark Cage created … Once the bars are in place, sharks bang up against them and find it harder to get close enough to take a bite and hurt us.”
Such women were not taught the necessary communication tools, values, and self-esteem to protect themselves against intimate partner violence later in life.

And because they were either never taught to say ‘No,’ or their ‘No’s’ simply weren’t respected, they were instead brought up to believe that there’s no use in establishing healthy boundaries.

Sharks love that shit.

Reconciling healthy boundaries with intimacy

According to Dr. Dana Gionta, healthy boundaries are “knowing and understanding what your limits are.”

Setting and communicating those personal boundaries can help establish our own sense of self - setting “the space between where you end and the other person begins.” - while policing those boundaries indicates to others that we know and value ourselves enough  stick up for ourselves.

However, we hear so much about relationships being an ongoing process of concessions and compromises that we’ve been made to feel like boundary setting is unromantic, if not anti-social.

In fact, marriage vows are all about the breaking down of barriers, and stripping away of conditions - “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.”

So how do we make sure that boundary setting doesn’t come across as a romance killer or simply stubbornness?

Is tap dancing exploitative?

Many vocal people, conservative and progressive alike, argue that sex-workers, erotic dancers, and porn-stars should be prohibited.

Personally, I’m fine with anything that people choose to do for a living, which doesn’t clearly harm others, and when there are viable alternatives from which to choose. For instance, I think that regulated prostitution and dwarf throwing should be legal - and indeed that there’s nothing particularly disdainful about either.

And yet curiously, amateur pole-dancing leaves me feeling quite ambiguous. And I haven’t even begun to think through my response to male pole-dancing.

An encounter with workplace bullying

I used to work in an office where - I realize in hindsight - I was being covertly bullied. I didn’t see my manager as a bully at the time, though - and nor did I take his maliciousness personally.

There were advantages to such perspective.

Instead of looking for someone else to redress his behavior, I looked to myself when thinking about how I could best address my situation. I did ask him for more training, clarity, and feedback. Yet I chose to take a zenned-out, moral relativist perspective when it became apparent that none of this was going to be forthcoming. 

I started to look harder at how I could ensure my own self-care. I figured it wasn’t a question of whether my workplace was dysfunctional. Rather, it was a question of whether our values were compatible. I wasn’t going to argue with him, or anyone else, whether the place was bad on some absolutist level. Instead, I debated with myself whether I could (or should) tolerate it. 

After a few days of deliberation, the answer I came to was ‘No’ - and so I quit.