Merry Christmas, BIL

My spouse’s family has a sporadic tradition reserved for high-value gifts: Make them impossible to unwrap.

The gold standard is the Christmas my spouse’s grandfather suspended a gold letter opener in the center of a packing tube, then glued it shut so perfectly there were no visible seams. My spouse’s aunt, who received this gift, had a minor breakdown trying to open the tube. After six hours, her father relented and let her use tools.

See, there are two rules to this game:

1. The gift has to be high-value, and

2. The recipient may not use tools or assistance from others to open it.

I did a lower-stakes version a few years ago, when my sister in law decided that her daughter needed a Kindle. Niece was about 7 at the time, making this her first Very Own Device.

I wrapped the Kindle in four separate boxes, nested within one another. From respect for Niece’s age, attention span and fine motor skills, I did not make the boxes hard to open.

This year, my spouse’s brother is back from several months of serious medical stuff. My brother in law is a grown adult.

And my gloves are off.

This is a jar of truffles, wrapped in bubble wrap and wrapping paper. Isn’t it cute? The perfect stocking stuffer for the foodie on your list!

It needed a little something. Like, say, four layers of strapping tape applied in one continuous motion.

I don’t know if we can trust this dollar store wrapping paper to stay on by itself. Better wrap it in a coating of packing tape just to be safe.

“Hey, I got my brother this new tackle box. Would you mind wrapping it for me?” said my spouse.

Not at all, dear. I’d be happy to.

It fits just great into this box that coincidentally fits great into four other boxes I just coincidentally have happened to have been saving for months in case I needed to get revenge on my brother in law for kicking my butt in Bomberman one too many times.

The wrapping paper was not shiny enough. It needed another coat of packing tape.

Also (not shown) this box was not strong enough, and so I added a coat of strapping tape.

This one was acceptably shiny, but I covered every seam in packing tape just to be safe.

This box got wrapped with normal amounts of normal Scotch tape. Lulling the victim recipient into a false sense of comfort is a very important part of the game.

The boxes have gotten so big by this point, I had to move to the floor to wrap. I finished the seams on this one with packing tape as well.

Our tiny truffle jar, all grown up and nestled into its final box! (Cats shown for scale.)

The final wrap job. Since kraft paper is so fragile, and since my roll of packing tape was beginning to wane, I wrapped the entire box in packing tape until I emptied the roll.

“Well…that’ll make it fun,” my spouse said when I announced that I had used an entire roll of packing tape.

Merry Christmas, BIL.

Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For, Vol. 10: Christmas Dinner Belling

(For an explanation of this project and links to the rest of the canon, see the master list.)

My experimentation with Botnik started a few years ago. The first thing I produced, round about Christmas 2017, was this predictive-text carol, made from the same word bank as this year’s Bad Carols:

Lyrics to "Christmas Dinner Belling" in white text on green textured background. The lyrics are reproduced in plaintext in the post.
Lyrics to “Christmas Dinner Belling” (reproduced below).

Since this was The One Bad Carol to Rule Them All, I wanted to give it a truly epic musical setting. To that end, I gave myself two rules:

  1. Score for orchestra plus four-part choir,
  2. Do not crash Noteflight.

….These turned out to be mutually exclusive goals.

The final piece is scored for four-part choir plus string quartet.

Social media share image with blue snowflakes and red text on white background. The text is "Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For, Vol. 10: Christmas dinner belling."

Christmas Dinner Belling

It’s Christmas bells, it’s parson gifts
It’s so dreadfully white
And we believe neighbors blink
On Christmas time tonight

It’s tallest grandpa sandwich time
It’s loaded lots with ants
Let steeple ways be Santa, ’cause
It’s Christmas dinner snitched

Let sleigh ride sinners play the bells
And Mary captive toast
We spend termites of red striped socks
And wild candle thump

It’s just a partridge that you hear
It’s so long since we’ve peace
It’s dolls that are, Mr. Chorus ho
And everyone sang his beard

And everyone sang his beard

The score is here [pdf].

The audio file is here [mp3].

May Tallest Grandpa Sandwich Time bless us, every one.

Musicians are overworked and underpaid, especially during the holidays. You can help: Share this post on social media or drop me a tip.

Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For, Vol. 9: Merry Christmas Baby (The Krampus Song)

(For an explanation of this project and links to previous volumes, see the Master List.)

Christmas is full of carols for children. Many of these were written explicitly for children – for instance, “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” and “Frosty the Snowman.” Some weren’t, but have become heavily associated with children over time, like “Away in a Manger.”

What most of these carols have in common is their mind-numbing simplicity and lyrics that perhaps made sense 150 years ago but certainly do not today.

Here’s what happened when I asked Botnik to write lyrics for a children’s carol. Mind-numbingly simple tune is by me.

Social media image featuring blue snowflakes on which background and the title of this post.

Merry Christmas Baby (The Krampus Song)

Merry Christmas baby,
Everything is love,
Krampus comes and rolls me
Underneath the doves.
Merry Christmas baby,
Sure did treat me nice,
Christmas time is simply
Candy canes and ice.

The score is here [pdf].

The audio file is here [mp3].

Musicians are overworked and underpaid, especially during the holidays. You can help by sharing this post or leaving me a tip.

Christmas Carols Nobody Asked for, Vol. 6: Hollering Christmas Home

(For an explanation of this project and links to previous volumes, see the master list.)

The vast majority of Christmas carols played on the radio today were originally recorded in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. In other words, the carols that Gen X, Millennials and now Gen Z are growing up with are the ones that give Baby Boomers a case of the nostalgias.

That’s slowly changing – notice how Mariah Carey, Wham! and Michael Buble are sneaking onto the charts – but we’re still subjected to a disproportionate number of songs each Christmas season that are still played solely so Boomers can feel feelings.

In their honor, I decided to write a carol in the 1940s-1960s carol tradition: Flowy, nostalgic, heavy on the random minor piano chords, and basically lacking in artistic quality.

As always, Botnik’s predictive text keyboard provided the lyrics, and I composed the tune in Noteflight.

Hollering Christmas Home

My heart wrapped up in ribbon,
Will touch my arms again,
I’ll miss this starry kickback
in June when I think twice.

Give more snow to spend
on tinkle tunes again,
holding everybody
by the fire.

Making lists,
Buying all,
Underneath the children,
Hollering Christmas home.

Here’s the score [pdf].

Here’s the audio file [mp3].

Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For, Vol 1: Is That You, Santa?

As a quasi-professional musician (meaning I sometimes actually get paid to perform), I am completely, utterly, pervasively sick of Christmas music.

I’m sorry. I know y’all love Christmas concerts, which is why I play several of them a year. But trust me when I say that playing any tune you recognize as a Christmas song is a sacrifice I am making out of love for my fellow human and the season as a whole.

Especially if it’s Sleigh Ride.

In the interest of expanding our Christmas music canon in…interesting ways, I’ve decided to create some new Christmas carols. With help.

I put the lyrics of several dozen popular Christmas carols into Botnik and used its predictive text keyboard to generate new holiday lyrics. Then I put these lyrics to music using Noteflight.

Here’s the first in a series of horrible experiments designed to make popular music, if not less horrible, at least more amusing.

Is That You, Santa?

Is that you, Santa?
The Christmas baby
My merry cheer
Whispering my good ol’ joy

Is it beautiful again
holding Grandpa in
this house like Christmas?
Michelle yooou baby

oh yeah
this starry night
paradise me and my sleigh
oh you
this merry merry
holy christmas tree lights

twinkle christmas
shining times
drinking cheap and
faster than love

oh yeah
this starry night
paradise me and my sleigh
oh you
this merry merry
holy christmas tree lights

in my baby ‘s christmas tree
born three sitting chime again
you and jesus hold the snow
the christmas tree such joy

Is that you, Santa?
The Christmas baby
My merry cheer
Whispering my good ol’ joy

oh yeah
this starry night
paradise me and my sleigh
oh you
this merry merry
holy christmas tree lights

oh you
this merry merry
holy christmas tree lights

Here’s the sheet music (pdf).

Here’s the audio file (mp3).

Musicians are underpaid and overworked, especially during the winter holidays. Help me keep going by sharing this post and/or filling my tip jar.

#VerityLTstheBible: Links to Genesis

I have four or five books I rotate through every summer. They include Moby-Dick, Paradise Lost, Jane Eyre, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

They also include the Bible.

This year, when I got back to the Bible, I decided: Surely rereading this Portentous Tome would be more fun if done in front of an audience?

Hence my latest project on Ye Twitters: Livetweeting the Bible.


What This Project is About

I have in fact not only read this book many times, but I’ve also read a lot of commentary on it from various sources.

What I haven’t done, however, is to read the Bible in the way that so many Christians, from so many denominations, have told my heathen soul to do over the years. That is, I’ve never read the Bible as if it is an inerrant, self-contained book that cannot in fact fail to convince me of the divinity of Christ, the necessity of accepting His sacrifice for salvation, or the urgency of voting Republican.

So that’s how I’m reading it this time through.

With two English degrees and a law degree, I have a soupçon of experience in evaluating the internal consistency of texts and their effectiveness at asserting and supporting an argument. Let’s see what happens when I take proselytizers’ advice and apply those skills to their favorite book!

How to Follow Along

The hashtag to follow (or block, if you’re so inclined) is #VerityLTstheBible. I’ll be archiving links to various threads/sections here for ease of use – every thread is also linked to its own previous and next threads, so you can start at any given section and keep going in either direction.


Gen. 1: God makes things.

Gen. 2-5: Adam names a disturbing number of things “beetle.” The serpent gets off easy once we learn God only created livestock to be sacrificed to him. A seed and seed-bearing fruit diet will make you live A REALLY LONG TIME.

Gen. 6-10: God says to Noah, “there’s gonna be a floody-floody.” We learn that Pride flags, rather than being sinful, are actually saving the world from God’s forgetfulness.

Gen. 11-13: God seems to genuinely fear (most) humans, but not Abram. Abram is cool, even if he does have a weird penchant for pretending his wife is his sister.

Gen. 14-18: God promises Abram and Sarai a kid for, like, FOUR CHAPTERS STRAIGHT. Circumcision becomes very In. Sarai is a jerk to Hagar and Ishmael.

Gen. 19: ….Yikes.

Gen. 20-22: Isaac is born, and everyone who isn’t Hagar and Ishmael (to whom Sarah is immediately a jerk again) rejoices. Then Abraham tries to serve Isaac as spareribs, because God has developed…bizarre tastes. God seems completely unaware of the consequences of mass overpopulation.

Gen. 23-24: Sarah dies. We learn that Rebekah can lift 53 pounds FOR 100 REPS WITHOUT STOPPING, making her highly Biblical wife material.

Gen. 25-26: Esau and Jacob get born. Isaac is blessed with the power of zucchini. We learn the origins of the Christian Right adage “if I were poor, I’d just eat lentils.”

Gen. 27-28: Blessing theft and cousin marriages are good.

Gen. 29-30: Jacob gets married. Jacob gets married again. BABIES ENSUE. Genetics are caused by sorcery.

Gen. 31-33: Jacob is a sneaky snake.

Gen. 34-38: Jacob’s sons have fine upstanding ideas on how to treat family. A melody by Andrew Lloyd Webber can be heard in the distance. Vampire goats eat Joseph’s coat.

Gen. 39-41: Judah strives for the Family Member of the Year Award. Joseph has a series of dead-end jobs before becoming Egypt’s Secretary of Crop Management and Dream Intepretation.

Gen. 42-50: Joseph jerks his brothers around. Everyone cries a lot. I learn some Important Moral Lessons.

How to Recover From Burnout

I’ve seen several tweets this past month about the lack of resources on recovering from burnout.

“Everyone talks about how to avoid it,” one Twitterer noted, “but nobody talks about what to do once you’re already there.”

This strikes me as an unforgivable gap in available knowledge. In the interests of doing what I can to fix that, here’s what I’ve done to recover after I went down in flames in the fall of 2009.

How to Recover From Burnout

Prologue: Some Background

I am not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or any sort of mental health professional. I strongly recommend finding one or more people in this field whom you trust and working with them as part of the recovery process if you possibly can.

I am, however, a person who was hospitalized for burnout three times before the age of 30 and once more at age 33. I’ve been told by several doctors that if I did not slow down, I would die. I am addicted to work.

So here’s what worked for me. It may not work for everyone.

First: Know Thyself

A lot of people get into the burnout zone because we don’t see what’s happening to us until we’re burned out.

I don’t say that to assign blame. There are a lot of real and compelling reasons we don’t see it. We have bills to pay. We have families to support. We really believe that if we just work hard enough, we’ll reach the state of Successful Adulting(TM). Often, we want to believe that we can fix problems in our lives by working harder, because working harder is a thing we can actually control.

So we don’t look too hard at whether the work we’re doing is sustainable. That’s not a fault, but it becomes a responsibility.

The first step to reversing the burnout course is to see it for what it is.

Do This:

  • Make a list of all the stuff you actually do in a day. All of it. If you’re so fried you spent five hours lying in bed listening to Spotify, write that down. This is not the time to judge whether something was sufficiently “productive” to “count”; this is the time to note where it is you actually are.
  • Make a list of all the stuff you’re not doing, but is worrying you. That bill you haven’t paid in three months. The mystery Tupperware in the fridge that has learned seven languages and is currently the mayor of South Bend. Your chronically disorganized laundry pile. The fact that you missed your best friend’s birthday – again. Again, this is not the time to judge; it’s the time to get all that stuff out of your head.

This is often an uncomfortable experience. You might start feeling angry or panicky. You may blame yourself for having “wasted” a bunch of time or feel the need to get up and do one or more of the things on the list. Strong negative reactions are normal and okay (although they, by definition, do not feel okay at the time).

As much as you can, be present with those feelings. Breathing exercises can help you manage the load (there are guided tutorials on YouTube and in apps like Headspace), too. If you need to walk away from the list and come back later, do that.

Remember, you are in a tough situation that is not your fault but is your responsibility. That might feel unfair as fuck. It is. But you don’t have to let it stay that way.

Second: Increase Friction

I recently wrote a piece (which I will link here once it’s live) on the negative effects of frictionless UX online. The instant and often passive way we can fill our brains with inputs by scrolling Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, or by letting YouTube or Netflix autoplay whatever’s next, means that we’re filling our brains in a way that we as a species have never really been able to do.

For example: My husband rolls out of bed at about 6:30 am in order to be out the door at 7:00 am and fully awake and engaged with teenagers by 7:20 am.

The first thing he does when he gets up is to grab his phone and stagger to the toilet, where he scrolls through his email and messages and starts to plan his day. In the first five minutes, he reads and deals with as many as fifty different bits of information.

We’re both old enough to remember the days of yore before ubiquitous Internet and social media, in which that kind of information load wouldn’t have been possible. Now it’s not only possible, it’s expected: My husband says there’s no way he could possibly be ready for his job if he didn’t do it each morning. He’s expected to walk into work knowing all the stuff people sent him after he left the evening before.

This is a “frictionless” world for information. And I’m convinced it is a major factor in our burnout.

Do This:

  • Pay attention to where your information inputs have gotten frictionless. Are you zoning out after dinner and scrolling Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr for hours on end (whether or not you “should” be doing something else?) How often does Netflix stop to ask you if you’re still alive?
  • Make it harder for other people’s content to reach you. Delete one or more social media apps, or turn off push notifications, or bury them somewhere in your phone. Mute or unfollow contacts you don’t interact with much or that you see often enough in real life that you don’t need to keep up with them online as well. Do this in stages, starting with the ones you use/need to see least. The goal is to give yourself greater control over what information actually reaches your brain.
  • Replace with content you really want to consume. Instead of scrolling Twitter in the morning, read one or two blogs you love. Subscribe to a fiction magazine or journal: it’s a great way to get short, entertaining reads in your favorite genre, especially if your brain isn’t handling full-length stories yet. Or just consume the “content” of less damn noise in your life.

The goal is to carve out space for your brain. It’s not always easy, especially if (like me) you developed the habit of scrolling endlessly through Pinterest in order to avoid both doing what you needed to do and realizing how burned out you are.

There are good reasons for doing this, though. Even Facebook has admitted that too much passive scrolling causes worse moods. And at least one study found that limiting social media reduced loneliness and depression, at least in undergrads.

But That’s My Social Circle!

For a lot of folks, especially disabled folks, social media is a lifeline to the rest of the world. Even if you still spend a lot of time on social media, fight to increase friction where you can. Curate your lists, and spend more time engaging (the Facebook study claims that moods improve when people like and comment instead of just scrolling).

The goal is to put yourself in control of the information that is currently overloading your brain. To do that, you’ll need to change your relationship with your sources of information.

Third: Commit to Existence

Increasing information friction in your life helps carve out space and free time. Space and free time are absolutely necessary to resolving burnout.

Let me repeat that, because it’s that important: Space and free time are absolutely necessary to resolving burnout. 

Burnout occurs because the pace at which we attempt to do things isn’t sustainable. We don’t restore the energy we use day after day. Instead, we eat into our reserves – until we don’t have reserves anymore.

Do This:

  • Get a blank calendar. Or play on hardcore mode and delete everything in your existing calendar.
  • Schedule the following four priorities: sleep, meals, movement, and relaxation. The last category can include play, fun hobbies, religious/spiritual pursuits, or anything else that has helped you feel more like yourself in the past. Schedule all four separately. “Sleep” and “relaxation” are not the same category. Don’t assume you can both eat and go for a walk at the same time.
  • Schedule everything else around these four priorities. Sleep, meals, movement and relaxation are non-negotiable if you want to continue living.
  • Reevaluate those lists. If there are things on your “things I should be doing” list that you can’t fit in the schedule, ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t do them. Not if they didn’t get done – if you didn’t do them. Delegate or let them go as necessary.

I’ll repeat this too, because it’s important: Sleep, meals, movement and relaxation are non-negotiable if you want to continue living. 

Fourth: Fuck You, Pay Me

In the process of reevaluating those lists, notice how many things you’ve agreed to do, or have been handed to you, or that you think you should do, that you aren’t getting paid to do.

I don’t just mean pay in terms of cold hard cash, although that’s certainly important in order to afford things like food and a safe place to sleep. I also mean “pay” in terms of mental and emotional energy and support.

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: Your mental and emotional energies work in some ways like a bank account. If you loan out too much of them without getting reapid or receiving interest, eventually the bank goes bust. And if you’re burned out, your bank is going bust.

One of the keys to reversing burnout and avoiding relapse is to resolutely refuse to do things for which you do not get paid.

Do This:

Look at your lists from the first step. For each item on the list, ask yourself two questions:

  1. What do I get out of doing this? For work, the answer might be “a paycheck.” For cooking, “a hot meal.” For doing laundry, “clean underwear.” For picking up the yard, “So that Mrs. Nosy next door doesn’t call the ordinance guy on me again.” And so on.
  2. Does what I get from doing this adequately compensate me for the energies I expend in doing it? Only you can answer this question for yourself, because only you can decide how much energy it takes you to do something and whether you’re happy with what you get in return.

Use these two questions to evaluate things you do with your time. If you’re not satisfied with the answers to both questions, reconsider whether you need to do the thing. Maybe you can just stop doing it altogether. Maybe there’s an alternative way to do it, or to get it done, that makes you feel more satisfied with the return on your investment.

The goal is never to invest physical, mental, emotional or spiritual energy in anything that does not adequately compensate you for doing so. I call this the “fuck you, pay me” attitude. If it doesn’t pay you, don’t do it.

In some cases, you may need to take a few steps to see where the payment is. For instance, driving your kids to sports practice may not seem to compensate you at all; but having happy, healthy kids who feel supported may be extremely valuable. (Of course, if you’re driving kids to practices they don’t even want to attend, it may be time to ask them whether they’re happy with what they get from this activity.)

Take Note: If the answer to the first question is “nothing” or “nothing that actually matters to me,” don’t even bother with the second question. Strike the thing off your list. It’s a vampire. Revoke its invitation into your physical or mental space and never invite it in again.

When in doubt, ask yourself, “What if I just never had to deal with this ever again?” If your feeling is one of overwhelming relief, it’s time to eliminate the thing or find another way to do it.

Fifth: Forget Quick Fixes

If you’re hoping you can do the above four steps and fix your burnout overnight, I have bad news.

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t resolve overnight. Burnout is the result of a longstanding pattern of non-sustainable behavior. While these steps can help you redirect yourself onto a more sustainable path, you still have two major factors to contend with:

  1. You’re going to need time to recover what you’ve already lost, and
  2. You’re going to have to guard against relapse – probably for the rest of your life.

I had my last hospital stay in 2015. While I was there, my psychologist and I worked hard on creating a plan to prevent relapse. I’ve adhered to that plan, but it takes conscious effort every day. And I’m still finding ways to improve it; for instance, I recently deleted every social media app I have except for Twitter, which I buried in a folder on my phone so that accessing it has to be a deliberate decision.

A Note on Selfishness

It’s very hard to maintain recovery from burnout if you’re a naturally giving type. Finding a sustainable way to live your life can feel very much like devolving to a state of utter selfishness.

In fact, the opposite is true. Burn out for long enough, and you’ll end up permanently disabled, if not dead. I’m considerably more disabled than I would have been if I had started dealing with my burnout symptoms in 2004, when I first noticed them.

By focusing on my sustainability first, however, I’ve become much more able to keep the commitments I do make. I’m more reliable, because I make sure I have the energy to do things before I agree to do them. And while I’m more disabled than I was in 2004, I am far less disabled than I was in 2009 or 2014.

Burnout is one of those situations in which selfishness is a necessity and a good. If you do not protect your basic needs, you will have nothing left to give anyone – ever.

If you found this post helpful, please consider showing your appreciation by buying me a coffee or sharing this information with others. Thank you!