What do people mean by “nice?”

I was talking to a male friend the other day about the expression “nice guys finish last” and why niceness may be looked down on. “Is niceness bad?” was his main question.

And I think it really depends on what people mean by “nice.”

“Nice” doesn’t necessarily mean good, thoughtful, or genuinely kind. For both men and women, it generally refers to something more bland and superficial, like basic manners. So people may wonder if there’s more to you than niceness. What other qualities do you have?

For some individuals, niceness seems like a brittle shell barely covering a miasma of unpleasant or hostile feelings, such as peevishness, rage, self pity, cruel glee, and bitterness. It’s this barely concealed miasma, and not the niceness itself, that tends to push people away.

Another use for “nice” is a description of unassertiveness. (I don’t use “nice” to refer to unassertiveness, but some people do.) A “nice guy” may be someone who lets other people walk all over him. Maybe he doesn’t stand up for himself or show that he has boundaries and standards that help protect him against manipulation or predation. In this sense, “nice” is a softer word for doormat. And if someone behaves like a doormat, they usually don’t get ahead, and they may very well finish last. In any case, it’s possible to be assertive without acting like a jerk, though of course there are people who will step on anybody to get ahead.

Limiting the Experiences Women Can Have as Women

I recently heard an argument that Louisa May Alcott wasn’t a woman – or at least, she wouldn’t have identified as a woman nowadays. Had she been alive today, the argument went, she would’ve identified as a man or maybe another gender identity.

I found the evidence unconvincing, as it amounted to quotes cherry-picked from her diaries with a disregard for context – sometimes textual context but also, more broadly, cultural and historical context. I also found the reasoning fundamentally sexist.

Born in the 1830s, Louisa May Alcott lived in a culture that not only had a more constricted social role for women, but also a narrower view of what a woman should or can be (that a woman must be very feminine, must think a certain way, must act a certain way, and never overstep her bounds).

Alcott didn’t like feminine things. Some of the traits that were dominant in her, such as a love of adventure and a bold assertiveness, were considered men’s traits. Furthermore, she wrote in her diary about falling in love with women – something that, in her culture, was conceived of as a manly thing to do, as only a man would love a woman romantically. (And in the second half of the 19th century, the “inversion theory” of same-sex attraction came about, arguing something similar about the psychological makeup of gay people.)

It’s no wonder that she sometimes used masculine language to describe her longings and her traits. No wonder she struggled with womanhood and how to describe the ways she wasn’t fitting in. (Also, no wonder she was a proponent of women’s rights.) Even nowadays, we still use gender-based or sex-based metaphors for different character traits – for example, saying that somebody “has balls” when they’re being brave.

To say that Alcott shouldn’t be identified as a woman strikes me as profoundly sexist and limiting. The argument boils down to the following: “The fact that she wasn’t comfortable with womanhood means that she wasn’t a woman! If she were actually a woman, she would’ve been comfortable being feminine and settling into a constricted role. She wouldn’t have wanted to be anything else or do anything else. She would never have used masculine terms, even metaphorically or playfully, about herself.”

Many women, however, chafed against narrow roles and narrow conceptions of womanhood. They bent, broke, or played with various stereotypes. That doesn’t mean they stopped being women. To say otherwise is to compress womanhood into a particular personality and a particular way of thinking and feeling. It limits the experiences that women can have as women – and that includes the experience of wanting to not be a woman, for one reason or another.

Just as a personal anecdote, one of my friends growing up was a tomboy who often longed to be a boy, for three main reasons: 1) She was berated by her family for not being feminine (and she wondered why she just couldn’t have been born a boy to avoid the need to be feminine) 2) She found it harder to fit in with girls socially and 3) She hated the changes her body underwent in puberty and how she was sexualized. It was only in college that she became more comfortable with herself and her body; she understood, not just as an abstract idea but as a realization deep in her bones, that she could be a woman while not being feminine – that womanhood doesn’t have to be limited to certain ideas about femininity. (And this was somebody growing up in the late 20th century! Her struggle took place in a society that’s freer for women.)

But, you may argue, maybe Alcott would have identified as a man nowadays. Who can say? Isn’t it a possibility? Her family and friends used the nickname Lou for her (which was a common nickname for any Louisa, including a Louisa more feminine than Alcott was). But maybe Lou in 2022 wouldn’t have identified as a woman at all!

I have no idea what she would have done in the 21st-century USA. You can’t transplant people from one culture or historic era into another and pretend that they would have turned out the same. People aren’t just a product of genetics; they’re also shaped by their culture and upbringing. (Likewise, you can’t interpret everything in history or other cultures through a specific 21st-century viewpoint and pretend that other people would’ve thought about things just as you do.)

Had Alcott been born nowadays, I don’t know what path her life would’ve taken. Maybe she would’ve lived openly as lesbian or bisexual. Maybe she would’ve enlisted in the military and then gotten a job as a war correspondent. Maybe she would’ve worked for an advertising firm or driven an ice cream truck or become a foster parent. Many possibilities.

I hope she wouldn’t have been limited by the imposition of sex stereotypes, as these still flourish nowadays. The pressure to conform to stereotypes is especially hard for girls who don’t fit in socially, who aren’t feminine, or who aren’t comfortable with their bodies (including how they’re constantly sexualized). But the fact is, there’s no ironclad rule about being feminine or being comfortable with social expectations attached to womanhood. Also, there isn’t one way to feel or think as a woman, and there isn’t one female personality. It looks like we still need that reminder.

Not Having to Set a Target Weight for Weight Loss

There are many reasons to eat healthier and exercise more, though weight loss is often the top reason people give for wanting to get into better shape.

Even if weight loss is your main goal, you may not want to set a target weight. Maybe you aren’t sure what it should be. Or maybe you don’t want to focus too much on a particular number, especially if you think you’ll start weighing yourself obsessively and anxiously. You may also want to make a more holistic assessment of your progress, including improvements to your health-related habits.

Whether or not you’ve set a particular target weight, there are alternative goals you can keep track of, such as:

  • Reducing or eliminating unhealthy oils from your diet.
  • Reducing the amount of added sugar you consume each day.
  • Increasing the amount of time you exercise each week.
  • Increasing the number of steps (or miles) you walk each day.
  • Increasing the number of servings of vegetables you eat each day.

Using these kinds of alternatives as fitness goals will still contribute to healthy weight loss, but you won’t have to focus only on a particular number. Even if you have no target weight in mind, you can start getting healthier now. You’ll be placing your emphasis on establishing habits that are good to maintain for your overall health.

Can We Talk About Modesty in a Secular Society?

Outside of religious circles, it’s not at all popular to talk about modesty. And in religious circles, modesty often gets reduced to how short a woman’s skirt is or whether you can see her hair or bare shoulders.

I don’t often come across discussions of modesty as a way of living with dignity and restraint, especially in a world that constantly encourages excess. Whether or not you’re religious, the concept of modesty is worth exploring. And not just for women.

(Do I feel a little like Mary Bennet bringing this up? A little, yeah, but I’m also laughing at that thought.)

So, what does modesty look like?

  • Not flaunting wealth or expensive possessions, in a world where displays of luxurious excess are everywhere.
  • Holding back on gloating or on glorying over another person’s problems.
  • Being moderate in how you drink, eat, or enjoy other pleasures. Basically, enjoying yourself without overdoing it or indulging in out-of-control behavior.
  • Not wanting to “bare it all.” Being more selective about what you share and with whom. I’m not just talking about your body, but your secrets, your children’s secrets, lots of personal details shared for no helpful reason. (Sometimes there’s a good reason to share a secret, especially when you’re trying to protect yourself or others from danger, but in other cases it’s just TMI, 24/7, on social media and elsewhere.)
  • Preserving important boundaries. Not thinking that you’re entitled to control people and violate their privacy, dignity, and trust. Not treating your own worth with carelessness, as if it doesn’t matter who you let into your life or which violations you perpetrate or endure.
  • Stopping yourself from acting like a loud and aggressive ass.

Modesty is an antidote to excess, to a lack of thoughtfulness and judicious restraint. It’s connected to humility, another unpopular concept that often gets misunderstood as humiliation or needing to act like a doormat – when instead, it’s about being aware of your limitations as a human, which means you’re curbing arrogance and acting with greater care and healthy doubt.

For many people, the concept of modesty is steeped in unpleasant connotations. It has been frequently misused as a weapon to silence and hurt people, particularly women and girls. Its misuse doesn’t make it useless though. It’s still an important value and can be discussed meaningfully and helpfully in different contexts.

It should be possible to talk about modesty without self-righteous hectoring and preening. Also, without the hyper-focus on women (or rather, certain aspects of women) and the mere lip service paid to the idea that men should be modest too.

People don’t have to be religious to appreciate modesty and its possible expressions. They can consider how to bring it more into their lives and what may change for the better as a result.

When Does a Hobby Become a Compulsion? And When Does It Matter?

I recently came across a YouTube video of a woman who keeps hundreds of plants in her NYC apartment. She’s knowledgeable about her plants and dedicated to nurturing them, and this blog post isn’t about scrutinizing her decisions. I was thinking about passions and hobbies more generally and wondering – when does something shade over into an obsession? And is an obsession always a negative thing?

The hobby can be anything – collecting books, growing plants, making things out of yarn. People with an intense interest in these activities sometimes use the words “addict” or “obsessive” about themselves, often in a light-hearted way, but sometimes because they seem worried.

So, is your hobby a problem? That’s not something I can answer, but if you’re wondering about yourself, the following are some questions to consider:

  • Is your hobby putting you in debt?
  • Is it interfering with your relationships? For instance, if you share a home with someone, are they getting angry because they keep tripping over your plants or awesome Lego collections or whatever else it is that you love?
  • Is your hobby giving you some nagging anxiety? One form of anxiety is not being able to keep up with the most recent trends or buy the latest products. Are you mildly disappointed when this happens, or do you feel devastated?
  • What motivates your purchases or interests? With social media, for instance, we get a peek at other people’s amazing collections. On the one hand, these can be inspiring; you may see a new plant someone’s keeping in their gigantic plant collection and realize it would fit well in your own home. On the other hand, it could also place pressure on you to get new stuff – not because of genuine enjoyment, but because you want to keep up. You feel incomplete unless you have the latest thing or your collection resembles someone else’s. You’re regularly comparing yourself to other people.
  • If you feel like you have obsessive tendencies, do you think your hobby is a healthy choice among possible obsessions? Sure, maybe you spend more money on it than you intend, but at least you’re channeling your energy towards something that isn’t much more harmful.

Anyway, if you wonder whether your hobby is getting a little out of control, thinking about these questions may help. Enthusiasm may intensify into compulsive or obsessive behaviors, but whether or not you’re crossing some sort of line really depends on your personal situation.

How Personal Should You Get Online?

If you’re setting up a YouTube channel, an Instagram account, or a blog, how much of your personal life should you share? Many people will expect you to share all kinds of details, whether it’s photos of your kids or a discussion of your medical issues. But what’s right for you?

The following are some points consider:

You’re allowed to have boundaries

Even if you decide to post about personal topics, such as your mental health, you should draw boundaries. There are probably a variety of personal details that you want to keep private.

You may think, “Of course I don’t have to share everything,” but it can be easy to forget, especially when people pressure you. Your audience becomes interested in your personal life. They want to know more about your relationships and where you live. Many times, they’re just curious. But some people will dig into your life for worse reasons.

Also, keep in mind that you can reset your boundaries. For example, if you begin to talk about a medical problem you’ve been struggling with, you can later decide that you no longer want to discuss it. It’s up to you.

Resist Posting Impulsively

The click of a button often leads to regret. If you’re about to share something personal, take a break from your computer or phone. Do something else for a while. Consider the ramifications and whether it’s worth it for you to follow through on posting.

Sometimes, you become tempted to share personal information because you know it will get you more clicks, likes, and subscribes. But in the long run, will it be worthwhile for you? Will it harm you? You can’t know for sure how every decision will play out, but you can at least keep the risks and drawbacks in mind.

Ultimately, you may decide to share something personal. At the very least, don’t do it on an impulse. What you post can wind up staying on the Internet for as long as there is an Internet. Even if you delete it, people can make copies and post it elsewhere or use the Wayback Machine to find it.

Consider Your Safety

I’ve watched YouTube videos where you can see someone’s whole house, including entranceways. You can figure out where they live based on what other houses in the neighborhood look like or based on street signs. People also post videos and photos of their kids outside of easily identifiable structures, such as schools and churches.

Speaking of kids – child predators often steal images of children from social media and blogs. These can be ordinary photos, at least to normal people. But they wind up getting exchanged among creeps.

Keep safety in mind when posting online. For example, if you’re uploading a short video of yourself, make sure there isn’t an envelope or a prescription bottle with your full name and address visible in the shot. Consider what people can learn about you from your posts. Can they see the make of your car? Are you wearing an ID badge from your workplace? Does the world really need to know your date of birth, your kids’ birthdays, and other identifying information?

Consider the Effects on Other People

Even if you’re fine with posting a lot of information about yourself, are you exposing too much about other people?

There may be tension between what you think would make excellent content and what other people need for privacy. You may want to include your spouse in public photos, but they may have no interest in appearing online. You may want your kids to feature prominently in your videos, and maybe they seem enthusiastic about it. But do they understand the potential pitfalls of appearing in videos available to anyone?

How will your content affect your relationships? If you frequently film interactions with family and friends, you’re changing how you talk to them, listen to them, and perceive them, and they may get frustrated by how you seem to be prioritizing your online audience. Also, if you share sensitive information about your kids, such as their medical history, how will they feel about your choices when they get older?

Projecting Our Emotions Onto Photos of Other People

It’s common on social media to see a gorgeous image from the past with people sighing over it saying how much happier life was back then.

A photo like this one, for instance – a lady in a flowering meadow. The photo was taken in the 1950s.

The lady is smiling at the camera. And she’s pretty, and there are flowers all around her. Of course she’s happy, right?

We don’t know.

Continue reading “Projecting Our Emotions Onto Photos of Other People”

Your Bullet Journal Doesn’t Have to Be Instagrammable

Why did it take me so long to try bullet journaling?

For a while, I’d heard about using bullet journals for scheduling, project planning, making lists, and jotting down notes and ideas. But I was hesitant to try it for three main reasons:

1) It seemed to be just a fad, and I’m wary about fads (this tendency sometimes helps me avoid something harmful or useless, but other times may keep me from trying something that could be helpful).
2) The examples of bullet journals that I came across online seemed super fancy and elaborate, full of gorgeous graphics, reflecting a skill with drawing that I don’t have.
3) A quick glance at the bullet journal method gave me the impression that it was confusing and cluttered.

Why did I finally decided to try using a bullet journal? Last October, I had finished using a regular planner and was searching for a better way to keep track of different tasks. After hearing yet another recommendation for the bullet journal method, I decided to revisit it.

This time, I gave the method a closer reading, and I tried it out with an old spiral notebook I already had at home.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far, using a bullet journal:

– There’s no need for you to buy an official bullet journal. You can make use of an old notebook like this one:


– Your bullet journal requires no visual art, no artistic touches, unless you feel like adding some to it. (If you don’t want to draw something, you can paste in photos or cutouts from a magazine.) Your approach to journaling can be minimalistic and entirely text-based if you want.

– You don’t need to make your journal worthy of an Instagram post, with fancy fonts and such, unless you really want to. Sometimes, people design their journal to make it look like a standard planner, which may interfere with its looser format and the more flexible way it’s meant to be used.

– Rather than being too cluttered, I’ve found the method of numbering pages and keeping a running table of contents (or index) helpful in finding what I need, including lists, notes, and fragments of fiction I’ve jotted down in between days.

– The instructions on the bullet journal website, linked to above, are a good starting point. As you use the journal, you can make modifications in how you organize or present the text in it (such as the way you highlight or prioritize certain tasks or set up weekly trackers). You can adapt its use to meet the specific demands of your life. It works well in tandem with other systems of organization, including project management software.

– I still find ways in which I can use the journal more effectively. This flexibility is one reason I like it.

Four Annoying Things People Do When Discussing Fictional Characters

I like talking to people about fictional characters, for two main reasons:
1) It’s interesting to explore psychology, relationship dynamics, and culture.
2) I enjoy thinking about how other writers have crafted characters.

Along with gaining insights from people, online and offline, about characters, I’ve run up against frustrating behaviors. Here are four examples of annoying things people do in these discussions:

1) Exaggerate the flaws of an unliked character

I won’t try to argue someone into liking or disliking a character. How people feel about a character isn’t always easily explainable. People have preferences that you can’t control.

What I do care about is a fair and well-intentioned interpretation. For some people, it’s not enough to dislike a character. They have to make that character the WORST EVER, blowing up all their faults while minimizing or erasing any good points. They exaggerate mistakes or poor behavior while pretending that the character has never done anything meaningfully good or interesting. Sometimes, they make stuff up.

(I’ve also seen the reverse situation, where someone favors a character to the point of exaggerating everything good about them and giving that character credit for things they never did.)

2) Reduce a character to one dimension

Oversimplification bothers me. When a multi-faceted character gets described – and dismissed – as “the muscle” or “the babe” or “the brat” or “the bitch,” we miss out on an opportunity to consider a complex figure with a mix of characteristics and motives. Maybe the character changed in important ways throughout a story, or maybe they stayed stuck as they are, also for important reasons.

3) “Well I wouldn’t have done that!”

It’s normal to wonder how you would have handled a situation similarly or differently from a character. It’s interesting to consider how the same situation can affect people in different ways.

But it gets annoying when people keep using themselves as the sole yardstick for determining whether a character is good, wise, kind, beautiful, worthy of sympathy, or written realistically.

On the question of whether a character is “realistic,” there are multiple issues to consider. A character may seem unrealistic because the author failed to portray them convincingly – maybe the character seems flat, written without care or consistency, or the author messed up major details about their job or religion. Or maybe the character is meant to come across as deceptive or unreliable. Or the story is set in an unsettling fantasy realm, and as a reader you haven’t yet figured out all the rules for the way things are. There are interesting discussions to be had about what it means for a character to be realistic.

In any case, your personal experience is important, but it isn’t the sum total of existence. People don’t all act/speak/think/feel the same way in similar situations.

4) Make unwarranted, uncharitable assumptions about the author and other readers

Authors do sometimes write themselves into a story as a character, or they seem to favor one character greatly (possibly at the expense of the other characters or the plot).

But I’ve also seen many cases where readers make unfair assumptions about an author based on the behavior of a character. One example – they assume that a character’s racism reflects the author’s beliefs. Or, if a villain didn’t receive a harsh punishment, it must mean that the author condones the villain’s behavior.

They may also make assumptions about other readers (or viewers) in a similar way. In some fan forums and social media subcultures, it’s imperative that you feel a certain way about a character, or else you’ll get viciously harassed or even doxxed. By liking a certain character, you become indistinguishable from them in values and worldview. Never mind that it’s possible to like a character for multiple reasons. For instance, you can be drawn to a character because they’re interesting and make the story more entertaining, even if you know they would hurt you in real life.

Implications Beyond Fiction

Everything I’ve mentioned here makes conversations about fictional characters unpleasant and unfulfilling. What also bothers me is that I see the same responses to actual people:

The need to demonize opponents, while downplaying the flaws (or dismissing the crimes) of those you support. A strong tendency to sum people up with a label or two before stuffing them into a mental compartment within easy reach. An inability to see beyond yourself and try to understand why another person (someone in the present day or perhaps a historical figure) acts, thinks, or feels a certain way. A desire to ascribe unwarranted perverse motives to people or leap to conclusions based on faulty judgments of collective guilt or guilt by association (“you agree with so-and-so about one political issue, which means you agree with them about every political issue, you bigot/communist/fascist/etc.”).

If we change the way we think about and discuss fictional characters, can we do the same for real humans?

Notes from a New Year’s Day Fitness Fair

In what is a promising way to start 2020, I went to a fitness fair at a health club and community center. All of the classes at the fair were free, and it was a fun way to try some different activities. Here are my notes:

MELT method for improved neck and shoulder posture and pain relief

– I didn’t know what the MELT method was, and unlike in a regular class, the instructor didn’t have time to explain. She kept using certain terminology (like “shearing”), and she mentioned how this was about connective tissue.
– The particular exercises she used were supposed to help with the healthier position of the neck and shoulders and a release of tension in those areas, which is important for me, because when I write I have a tendency to get a tortoise neck (where my head pushes forward towards the laptop screen). So I thought maybe this could help.
– The exercises involved lying on a mat and using a cylindrical tube, a roller, made of foam that sometimes didn’t feel soft at all, like when it was digging into my spine.
– Some parts of me did feel genuinely more relaxed – not numbed, but truly more relaxed. But I also developed a pain in a part of my upper back. So, mixed results.
– Maybe it would have worked better with a smaller class where the instructor can stop next to each person and make sure their technique and roller positioning are good.

Nia Dance

– Ok, this was fun. So happy I signed up for this one.
– It was an hour-long workout combining dance, martial arts moves, and other types of movements (free-styling too). The warmup and cool down were effective, and the workout itself was energetic and called on the whole body.
– Also, the energy in the room was fantastic. A friendly vibe, people enjoying themselves. This was seriously a great activity.
– I felt happy, relaxed, and at peace with the world after.

A lecture on sleep

– Some of the stuff I learned kept me awake at night. (Just kidding, somewhat.) Anyway, sleep is a critical part of good health.
– It’s important to consider both quality and quantity of sleep.
– The lecturer talked about some things I’d like to look into further, like blue light from various screens and light fixtures (fine during the day, but could disturb ability to sleep when exposed to it at night before going to bed).
– Low-quality sleep can arise for multiple reasons, ranging from anxiety to problems in the physical environment. Also, the lecturer brought up a disturbing attitude towards sleep, where some people consider it unproductive or a waste of time.


– Really low-key instructor. A relaxed, quiet guy. You could tell he meditates.
– The first meditation, which was just breath-focused, was pretty good, but I also felt impatient some times. The instructor talked about how to gently note the impatience and gently return attention to breathing whenever attention slips.
– The ticking of the clock sounded like a caterpillar munching on a leaf.
– The second meditation was more successful for me. It was focused on breathing and on a single word of your choice. I chose “mayim” (pronounced “mah-yim”), the Hebrew word for water. This also got me to imagine water flowing over me (including on the MELT-induced upper back ache), and to picture myself at one of the best beaches I’ve ever been to – the one at Halibut Point State Park near Rockport, MA. This is a photo I took when visiting there in the summer of 2017:


– The third meditation involved focusing on a feeling of warmth and closeness. That one was good too, but for meditating on a regular basis I think I’ll do the second one most frequently.