Drift

August 17, 2010 at 5:33 am | Posted in Goal Progress, Links | 1 Comment

In this post from The Simple Dollar, Trent urges his readers to start — to stop dreaming and act. In his exordium, he urges us to spend two hours today working towards achieving a dream. How wonderful, I thought. I will do that right now.

I ground to a halt before I got started, however, when I realized that I don’t actually have any dreams right now. I mean, I want to have a more normal life, with friends and so forth. I’m so focused on the details of survival — getting into the climbing gym, practicing yoga, cooking rather than starving myself, showing up to appointments with my shrink, not drowning at work, and so on — that I couldn’t really tell you what I’m working towards. In other words, I don’t know why I want to be healthy.

That’s unlike me. I am usually the personification of goal-directed behavior. While it could be argued that thrown myself behind some dubious goals — getting a Ph.D. in an obscure field from an elite university comes to mind — it’s unprecedented to find that I’m marching briskly in no particular direction. In fact, I think that this has been the case since I left academia.

There’s a difference, I think, between intending to engage in particular activities regularly and setting a goal. “I want to climb three days a week” is not a goal in the way that “I want to climb an eight” is (climbing routes are rated between 5.5 and 5.12). Goals may be specific, measurable, and so forth, but they also culminate in a one-time event (filing a dissertation, say). Climbing three times a week isn’t a goal, since I’m not going to stop or set a new goal once I’ve done it. Instead, it’s a routine. Funny that I never saw this before.

OK, off to shower and get ready for work. Perhaps my way of following Trent’s advice will be to spend two hours developing a few goals.

Tackling the Problem of Motivation

February 27, 2010 at 6:49 am | Posted in Goal Progress, Wellness | Leave a comment

Rock Climber

Would I dangle from a precipice to bring about world peace? Perhaps. Would I do it to develp ripped arms and maintain my six-pack? Oh, absolutely.

It’s easy to come up with good reasons to make major life changes such as starting an exercise program, improving your diet, or sticking to a rigorous prayer schedule. Here’s the problem: Having reasons and being motivated are not the same thing. If your reasons don’t much motivate you, virtue doesn’t stand a chance in the face of inertia.

I’m not the first person to have noticed this, but it hit me with particular force yesterday morning while I was flossing my teeth. Up until recently I’ve slacked a little on the flossing bit (repulsive, I know). I’ve been flossing swiftly and sheepishly before dates and dentist appointments, but that’s about it. Of course, I’ve lied about this to every dentist who has peered into my mouth. However, several weeks ago I became anxious about my breath, perhaps because I’ve been weirdly preoccupied with the act of swallowing. Suddenly flossing seemed less wearisome, and I took it up enthusiastically. I still feel the urge to skip it when I’m in a hurry. All I have to do, though, is think, “Do you really want to feel self-conscious about your breath every day? I didn’t think so. So floss already.” That makes me floss with gusto.

So yesterday it struck me: Vanity is one of my chief motives. If I think that developing a habit will make me more charming and beautiful, I’m more likely to stick with it than I would if I just lectured myself primly about, say, increasing my bone density.

The key to change, then, is not to generate a list of excellent reasons; it is to discover my chief motives and connect them to a change I’d like to make. Here’s a list, then, of my strong motivations:

1. Vanity. Pimples, wrinkle, and sun damage are all unattractive, so my skin has long been my work of art. Ditto manicured feet and hands. Oh, and I will probably go to my death dressed with flair.

2. Feeling productive, and therefore virtuous. This is the only reason that I don’t procrastinate chronically.

3. Avoiding physical or psychic pain. For instance, I will work out to avoid backaches.

4. Consistently feeling better in the short term by, say, chasing a yoga high.

5. Dreading coming across as a blowhard or a name-dropper. When I catch myself thoughtlessly bragging about money, I cringe at my own vulgarity.

There are probably several more, but those leap to mind. You may have noticed that they’re not especially noble. They work nonetheless, and I’m all about doing what works. So I plan to spend time today recording even my most base motives and plotting to apply them to important goals. It’s sad that I don’t respond well to more noble incentives, but I’ll take it.

Love to all.

On the Sin of Self-Consciousness

February 6, 2010 at 7:33 am | Posted in Goal Progress, Philosophical Problems, Sociability, Spirituality and Religion | Leave a comment

Snake and Apple

For me, self-absorption is the most destructive sin springing from a mood disorder.

I decided recently that it’s selfish to obsess about what others think and feel. This seems counter-intuitive at first. After all, if I’m constantly monitoring others’ reactions, am I not extraordinarily kind and sensitive?

Perhaps not. The following reasons persuade me that such sensitivity is actually another form of self-absorption.

First, my motive for knowing others’ opinions of me is entirely selfish. I don’t actually care how others feel; I’m not even certain that I attribute much agency or emotion to them. Certainly I don’t imagine that they might have drives and sorrows that I can only guess at. Nope, when I want to know what people think, my interest is limited to what they think about me. I’m overstating the case here — I am not a psychopath, and thus feel compassion for friends, family, and lovers. But even though I’ve figured out that I am not the heroine of a Georgette Heyer novel (not even the willful and mannish Lady Serena Carlow of Bath Tangle), I still place myself firmly at the center of the known world.

Specifically, in conversation I act as if people desperately need to find me bewitching, when they’d probably much prefer that I be drawn to them. I have to make a conscious effort to put people at ease, for example, and I’m reluctant to give them the satisfaction of knowing that I dote upon them.

As if that weren’t enough, when I’m ostensibly concerned about others, I’m paying little attention to them. Instead, I’m busily monitoring my reactions to them. I don’t ask questions — my yardstick for others’ inner lives is what I think about them.

Finally, there’s this piece of indirect evidence: In Christianity (or, at least, in the Catholic and Episcopalian traditions) self-reliance is a sin. To the extent that rely on your own perceptions and impulses, you have turned away from God. Christianity doesn’t place a Buddhist-style emphasis on compassion; instead, you should aim to know God’s will. This isn’t easy, since it entails communicating with someone who is by definition not perceptible though the senses. (My friend Al once saw an application for a tenure-track job that asked in all seriousness, “When did you last walk with God?” St. Augustine frowns from heaven upon that search committee.) Much of the paradoxical duty of Christianity rests in finding that “still, small voice,” which is neither internal nor located in the material world.

I’m familiar with the old philosophical argument that we are radically isolated from the natural world, let alone from others. I wonder if that’s really true, though. I’m not prepared to provide evidence to support my position, but I am intuitively inclined to think that we can commune profoundly with others, and that it’s not just a duty, but a relief.

I’m not sure what all of this means, but I have been thinking about it during recent social interactions. I try to devote myself to the other person by understanding that I comprise only a small part of their inner lives, and that they need more than to be charmed and entertained by me.

So, thought of the day.

While we’re on the subject of Me, Glorious Me, I should mention that though I’m making decent progress towards becoming The Perfect Mental Patient, I am still tormented by my many shortcomings and tempted to make dozens of resolutions for improvement. I know that if I take on several more projects I will end up discouraged, but I find it hard to resign myself to such slow improvement. My faults seem so urgent, you see. Nonetheless, I have been walking, praying, and socializing dutifully, and all three are contributing to my happiness.

This and That

January 29, 2010 at 4:35 am | Posted in Cognitive Problems, Goal Progress, My Fascinating Mood | 1 Comment

Weasel

Here I am, as busy as a weasel.

I was hypomanic yesterday afternoon, and, boy, was it fun. My enjoyment was impaired only slightly by a suspicion that I was behaving a bit strangely. I had all the classic symptoms: I was unable to shut up in a meeting, my language became more convoluted, and I drove recklessly. I felt compelled to mention Zeno of Elea and the Duke of Wellington several times. I also entertained the following thoughts:

1. I am so clever!

2. Work is so fun and absorbing!

3. How I love test and software engineers! (This is particularly nutty — when I am in my right mind, I would like nothing more than to strangle the entire Mission Planning group because their work is invariably late and shoddy.)

4. How fun it is to think!

I’m betting this is connected to going off of my antianxiolytic. Ever since, I have the great pleasure of thinking much more clearly. Why, just yesterday I performed a minor but sweet mental feat without thinking: I looked up Alcibiades’ mother’s family name in a book I’m reading about the Peloponnesian war. Years and years ago, my mind effortlessly retained the general layout of most texts that I read. While I didn’t have the entire text of Middlemarch neatly arranged in my head (a trick of the late literary critic Northrup Frye), if I needed to find a particular passage, I could always recall its location on the page. I lost this capacity years ago, but apparently have regained it entirely.

This is big. For years I’d been mourning — mourning, I tell you! — the loss of a whole series of Stupid Brain Tricks, and even if others don’t notice or care, it’s distressing to shed brain functions wholesale. My moods are have been volatile, but it’s more than worth it. Strangely, I’m much less anxious, and am less prone to disappear into what I think of as my Dark Tunnel of Misery, a mental state that renders me unable to hear or see others.

In other Fascinating Mood News, I have been slacking on walking and meeting my social obligations. This weekend I intend to restore those habits, since the next phase of my quest to become The Perfect Mental Patient begins Monday.

Lately my mood has settled into a weekly cycle that I can’t shake. Sunday and Monday I am positively crippled by depression. My spirits begin to lift on Tuesday, and by Thursday I am as brisk as a bee in a bottle. On the bad days I struggle mightily to shift laundry from the washer to the dryer, and there seems to be no hope of folding it once dry. I spend Thursday mornings bustling around the house knocking out even the most repulsive tasks, and at work I crank widgets briskly.

I’m not sure how to handle the down times. A part of me refuses to accept periods of low productivity, so I castigate myself early in the week. Three days later, I am positively smug with accomplishment, resting secure in the knowledge that I am busy and therefore good. I’d like to treat myself with compassion, but my Inner Protestant can’t stop carping. I’ll have to devise a solution and share it.

One last thing. On If You’re Going Through Hell Keep Going, the author shares a list of things she’d like to do someday. Imagining future self visiting London, for example, helps her to survive brutal lows. I will have to try this on Sunday, provided I can move my hands.

Love to all.

My Office Mate Hates the 21st Century, Too (But She’s Not Sure Why)

January 15, 2010 at 3:59 am | Posted in Goal Progress, In the News, The Heath Care System | Leave a comment

My office mate began her own odyssey with CVS Pharmacy yesterday, which spawned a certain amount of schadenfreude in my breast. After wrestling with their website for 45 minutes, she burst out, “Wait a minute, I have to go to CVS? For everything? Isn’t that, like, socialism or something?”

I didn’t think to say, “No, that’s capitalism,” so I satisfied myself with remarking, “And they charge you the whole cost of a prescription if you don’t use mail order for maintenance medications.”

I wanted to launch a rant about single-payer health insurance, but I know from experience that even the brightest of my coworkers couldn’t tell you how a bill gets signed into law — they wouldn’t know to call it a bill. It’s been decades since I’ve made a scolding remark like, “Didn’t you take Civics in high school?” but, boy, the temptation lingers.

So, yeah, I’ve given up on debating politics at the office. After all, in an awe-inspiring example of false consciousness, my Hispanic office mate listens to country music. As I sit at my desk, I can hear the engineers in the office next door demanding of each other, “And if he’s an American, then why is Obama hiding his birth certificate?”

While we’re on the subject of my coworkers’ peculiar political ideas, here’s a joke that the company president told in a speech yesterday. He said that an Afghan told it to a soldier from the U.S.

An American, and Afghan, and a Russian are sitting and gazing out over a lake. Suddenly the American takes off his watch and tosses it in. The Russian says, “Are you crazy? Why did you throw a perfectly good watch into the lake?”

The American says, “Oh, I was getting kind of sick of it. I have plenty more at home, and I can always get another one.”

The Russian thinks about this, then tosses his Kalishnikov into the lake. The Afghan says, “Are you crazy? Why did you throw a perfectly good weapon into the lake?”

The Russian replies, “I was getting kind of sick of it. I have plenty more at home, and I can always get another one.”

The Afghan looks down. He has nothing.

So he throws the American and the Russian into the lake.

Our company president’s account of the joke’s origins were probably apocryphal, but it does make for a nicely ambiguous story.

In other news, my plot to become The Perfect Mental Patient is coming along well. I’ve walked for 20 minutes every day this week, and though I haven’t managed to smile at 10 people a day while looking them in the eye, I have averaged seven or eight grins. And it’s true — people do grin right back. In fact, they match your grin. If all you manage is a vague tightening of the lips, then they’ll do that, too. If you flash a broad, genuine smile, then you will have the pleasure of sharing a happy little exchange with all but the most grim folks.

I haven’t been doing as well using my conversational ice breakers. I’ve enjoyed a couple of nice chats, but I’m still all too likely to fall into a morass of uncertainty and self-consciousness, which can bring any conversation to a sputtering halt. Having mastered the winning smile, for the next three days I will devote myself wholly to chatting people up. We’ll see. When my resolve falters, I ask myself, “Do you want to live in complete isolation, going for days without hearing anything beyond, ‘Plastic OK with you, ma’am?'” That usually startles me into compliance.

That’s enough for now. I love you all tenderly.

Tap Into Your Own Wisdom

January 12, 2010 at 4:25 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, Goal Progress, My Fascinating Mood | 1 Comment

When you fall into a rotten mood, it’s easy to feel as if you need the advice of a shrink, or even just a wise friend. There’s something a bit disingenuous about that, though. In truth, you almost always know better than anyone else what you most need to do to improve your situation. Accordingly, I’ve lately been asking myself a series of questions, beginning with, “What would I tell a close friend who was in the same situation?” This proved most effective this past Sunday.

Sunday morning I was thoroughly depressed. I felt hopeless and helpless by 4:00 a.m., and typically my mood starts out at its peak and deteriorates from there. I managed to keep my wits about me, though, and I did think to ask myself the magic question. The answer was simple: If a friend told me that she was feeling the way I felt, I would cuddle up to her and tell her that I loved her and believed in her, and that she was important to me. In short, I didn’t need a list of 29 Things to Do on a Rough Sunday — I needed a human connection.

I wish I could say that I thought of a friend who would do that and burned up the phone lines calling her for help. In fact, the only people in town who would do that for me are my mom and dad, and I felt too ashamed to ask them. So I resorted to my next magic question: “What is the problem here, and what can I do right now to change things?” Because, you see, part of my misery stemmed from the conviction that nothing would ever change, and that I would live a gradually dwindling life ending in a death that would pass completely unremarked. I love my cats, but I never forget the fact (or urban legend) that they would begin to eat me as soon as they got hungry.

Seriously, though: I’m haunted by the thought that when my great-uncle Bob and my paternal grandmother died, we didn’t hold funerals. That’s partly because they both were atheists who wanted to be cremated, but it was also because attendance at either event would have been thin at best. They were brother and sister, of course, and they both had been politically and socially active. My grandmother attended two Democratic Party conventions as a delegate, and knew two Presidential candidates and one Supreme Court Justice during her day. In the end, though, they were both terribly shy and proud, and they couldn’t bring themselves to take the simple steps needed to keep them from living their last years in terrible isolation. My great-uncle did actually kill himself (I’ve written about him in my blog).

Their fate demonstrates to me that it is possible to shrink away from human contact entirely, with tragic results. Therapists often act as if the worst never happens, and your problems stem from a negative mindset rather than your true circumstances. This is real life, though, and actions do have consequences. In my case, I can see myself becoming so isolated that any family members who survive me decide to skip the funeral. If I continue to act as I’ve been acting, that’s a likely outcome.

After entertaining this diverting thought for an hour or so, I pulled myself together and tried to define the problem in the most concrete possible way. I set out this month to improve my existing relationships, but that’s a pretty foggy goal, and I find myself hard-pressed to measure whether or not I’m actually meeting it. In order to come up with something more measurable and attainable, I needed to revisit the roots of the problem.

One clue stems from something that annoys me about self-help books. They’re based on the assumption that you’re stressed, depressed, anxious, whatever, because you don’t have time to meet all of your social commitments, what with the constant demands of your spouse and kids. I’m sure this is a common difficulty, but it’s not mine, and I’ve been very frustrated recently just trying to find a book that acknowledges my reality. At work, I’m overstimulated and overwhelmed, but once I get home, I’m lonely and, at times, bored.

I think this problem is more common than people like to admit. Technological overload is not the only modern problem; one that’s just as characteristic and serious is the breakdown of social ties. Plenty of people are estranged from their parents and siblings and dependent on the Internet and long-distance phone calls for much of their social contact. After all, the more frequently you move, the more friends you leave behind, and for the shy among us, it’s very hard to establish a “support network” (I hate that phrase) in each new city.

Rather than dwell on demographics, though, I needed to define precisely, practically mechanically, what keeps me from connecting with people. I think it’s this: I don’t really know how to befriend people, or even how to make conversation in a lot of situations. If my coworkers are gathered around eating birthday cake, for example, I have no idea how to join them gracefully, and I imagine them all falling silent when I creep up. I find the idea of asking a likely coworker to get coffee with me puzzling, to put it mildly, and I know that it’s not as simple as blurting out an invitation at a random moment.

So clearly I need to start with something basic and concrete. I wonder, I thought, if there are any books on how to make friends? I need some sort of primer on social contact that will take me through step by step so that I can set simple goals and enjoy immediate success. Though I was sure it would be no use at all, I went to the bookstore to look for such a thing. To my surprise, it exists: business consultant Debra Fine has written an excellent book called The Fine Art of Small Talk.

And, strangely, reading it really, really helped. The suggestions are detailed and practical, and now I feel like I can set goals and reach them. The problem isn’t, “No one cares if I live or die.” Instead, I’ve reframed it as a skill that I’m lacking that I can develop if I simply apply myself. So I read the book and set a goal (smile and meet the eyes of 10 people at work every day for three days, and pick four conversational openers to have at the ready). I still feel pretty dragged out, but I genuinely feel some hope.

I’m happy to note, too, that yesterday I met and surpassed my smiling goal easily. I also deployed my small-talk line. I was chatting with an engineer, one of the few people who comes to my office to talk, and just as the conversation lagged, I thought to ask, “So, are you working on any New Year’s resolutions?” That revived the conversation nicely.

Love to all.

My First Challenging Day, and Missing My Walk

January 8, 2010 at 4:14 am | Posted in Goal Progress, My Fascinating Mood | 2 Comments

I began Monday in the most delightful mood; among other things, I was thinking more clearly than I have in what seems like years. This feeling persisted until about midday, when I recklessly made acouple of calls to corporate 800 numbers. Naturally I went from buoyant to murderous in 15 minutes flat. That persisted until Tuesday afternoon, when I got a cool new work assignment; that flipped my mood back like a switch, and I have skipped around happily ever since.

It still amazes me how abruptly and completely my moods can change from hour to hour. Funny — I used to think this was unique to me, but I’m starting to think that the suddenness is more or less normal. I still do experience myself as having little control over myself when I’m feeling nasty. I came very close to slamming my fists down on my keyboard on Tuesday morning when a colleague whom I loathe persisted in IMing me with trivial carping. It really was all I could do to keep myself from banging out some ill-judged words. I wonder, though, if that isn’t also normal. Non-bipolar folks: feel free to chime in with comments. How often and dramatically do your moods change?

Anyway, Wednesday was the first day when I missed walking for 20 minutes. I think it’s excusable, though, since I was on the road from 5:30 a.m. to 8:45 p.m., and I was shaking with exhaustion and hunger when I walked in my front door. I’ll get back on track today.

Socially, things are going well enough. I arranged to have breakfast with the subcommittee I chair for my persons with disabilities association at work; those women delight me, and I’m very much looking forward to it. I still need to clean out my email in-box and pick up my voice mails, which got a bit out of control while I was away.

I am still committed to making this Perfect Mental Patient business work, but I have to admit that the initial rush of enthusiasm has already worn off — now I’m back to trying to act out of an academic knowledge that it’s in my best interest. I think my interest may pick up again after I go for this morning’s walk. I’ll keep you all posted.

Day Three in the Move Towards Perfection

January 4, 2010 at 4:24 am | Posted in Goal Progress, Sociability | Leave a comment

Dungeon entrance

Would you descend the stairs? A part of me would charge down, sword held high.

As I’ve mentioned before, on Sundays I’m prone to taste the Dark Teatime of the Soul. It’s no surprise, then, that yesterday proved more difficult than the first two days of 2010. I sulked, I moped, I was bored. The day was not wasted, however, since I learned to apply the following principles:

1. No one ever found happiness by staring at her cuticles.

2. You have to take your shots.

3. What would Inglorion do?

The first is pretty self-explanatory, but the last two require elaboration. Let me begin with a story.

Whenever I set out to do something that scares me — that is, morning, noon and night — I want to be assured that the doing will make me happy. If it doesn’t I feel cheated. For example, I was hungry after church, so I went to the Parish Breakfast, which is always a bit of a trial. Inevitably, I have to seat myself at a table with strangers and make conversation. This leads me to suspect that I have poor table manners, and I’m not any better than the next person at making small talk. This Sunday, when I sat with a couple in late middle age and an old guy, the conversation limped along in a particularly discouraging manner.

Me: That’s a lovely pendant — what is it?

Nice Woman: When I bought it, I thought it was a lion, but when I got it home, I realized it wasn’t. I’m not sure what it is.

Her Husband: So her next trip was to the optometrist.

Polite laughter, followed by the sound of the conversation closing with a thud.

Old Guy: It was mighty cold in church today.

Me: The car I was driving this morning had no heat, so I thought, church will seem toasty. And it did!

Polite laughter. Silence. Husband and wife begin to murmur to each other.

Eventually, we did get things moving — we discovered that we’d all lived in Southern California, and shared the usual comparison of communities we’d lived in (Whittier, Northridge, and Irvine) and what had changed since we lived there. It turns out that the old guy had lived in the L.A. basin when he was in the service during World War II, which I found intriguing. I followed up, and unfortunately he launched into a meandering story that involved his son, a contractor, building Nancy Sinatra’s Hollywood home, and the lingering death of the Whittier Elks Club. I tried to listen politely and to find aspects of his tale interesting — the poor guy was clearly enjoying his largest audience of the week — but I did excuse myself after 15 minutes or so.

I left church feeling dispirited. The same dissatisfaction came over me when I chatted with a friend on the phone and felt afterward that I’d somehow failed to give him the support he sought. Darn it, I thought without irony, isn’t all of this network-building supposed to make me happy? I’m almost ashamed of the simple realization that followed: When you try new things, some won’t be followed by an immediate burst of joy.

I managed to see this in the light of a dating principle of mine which I think is clever. It goes like this: You have to take your shots. Dating is like basketball, in that you will miss more than you make. If you allow yourself to get unduly discouraged by each failure, then dating becomes drudgery. If, on the other hand, you react with equanimity, you will enjoy the process more, and will have a much better chance of eventually meeting someone with whom you click. After a dead-end date, I’m pretty good about saying to myself, “Ah, well, you have to take your shots.” (I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a weird knack for dating and job interviews — not surprising, since they’re similar.)

I’m going to try to carry this dating principle over to other aspects of my nascent social life.

I came across the third principle while making a tentative list of Things That Might Make Me Happy:

Add three new features to my blog (I’d like to have an RSS button)
Add sources of pleasure and remove sources of guilt (perhaps difficult, since I’m terrorized by guilt often and often)
Find more ways to be intrepid (the source of my third principle)
Resume activities that I enjoyed as a child (drawing, for instance, which I practiced fanatically through high school)
Think about what you have that other people might envy

About that last: Dating experience does come to mind, strangely enough. In some ways I wish I’d stayed married, although I still dislike my ex-husband heartily. It pays to reframe this, though, and to remind myself that I’ve reveled in much of my single life. I adore men, and I enjoy meeting them — it’s the one area of my life in which I’m not the least bit shy. I regard myself as charming creature, and as a result, I do charm men.

The funny thing is, I’m not especially attractive. A boyfriend (the guy with Hegel in his bathroom) once told me that my features are striking but not pretty. I think that’s accurate. Only one gentleman of my acquaintance ever waxed poetic over my beauty, and he had strange taste. (I was mortified to discover that he longed after the large-nosed actress in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Apparently he had a thing for bold profiles.) I am quite thin, which often stands in for beauty, but I’m not what you would call a looker.

That said, I pride myself in the fact that every guy who has expressed an opinion on the matter says that I “exude sexuality.” Ever since I started college and began to get the usual number of propositions, I’ve thought, hey, I’m a hot number. It came to me much later that any woman who isn’t missing a limb gets propositioned when she’s 19, but by then it was too late — I was convinced that I am enchanting, and as a result, many men find me so.

All of this is by way of saying that maybe — just maybe — I can fool my way into believing that I’m attractive in other ways. Say, that women want to be my friend. Certainly it’s worth a try.

(I’m enjoying writing this morning, and am inclined to go on and on. Feel free to quit at any time.)

About being intrepid … well, I have to begin by saying that when I was in junior high and high school, I played Dungeons and Dragons avidly, which is not normal for a girl, even an unusually geeky one. Unlike a lot of people who have grown out of it, I think D&D was an excellent use of my time, and I’m not at all ashamed to have done it.

So, I had this wonderful character. His name was Inglorion, and of course he was quite exotic, what with his platinum hair, fair complexion, and eyes the color of mercury. Through a quirk of the game, he worshiped a goddess named Anacin III, after the pain reliever. Oh, and he was the bastard son of a duke.

Best of all, though, Inglorion was perfectly intrepid. He crashed through every cobweved cave entrance, mysterious oak-and-iron door, and, naturally, into every sort of booby trap. He took on bullies in taverns, seduced anything in a skirt, and charged into battle with glee. When he found himself outnumbered or outwitted, he responded with unfailing good humor. As a result, he proved indispensable to almost every party I campaigned with.

I bathed in Inglorion’s reflected glory throughout adolescence, and I tried to act as Inglorion would have if he found himself attending high school in a smallish Southwestern town. I danced with abandon, protested various evils of the mid-eighties, and launched journalistic crusades. I cheerfully refused drink (no one offered me drugs) and stayed out until dawn anyway, reveling in grungy bars when I could get in, and all-ages nightclubs when I couldn’t.

One example: I went to the prom stag my senior year wearing a gorgeous vintage dress that cost $15. I skipped the after-prom to check out an obscure band called Mad Parade. I was one of three people in the audience, and I danced happily and flirted with the guitar player after the show. I’m now skeeved out by the idea of a guy who was probably in his late 20s making up to a 17-year-old girl, but at that age my innocence was impenetrable, and no harm came of it.

Why is she telling us this? Well, I recalled it all yesterday, and felt ashamed of my timidity. I don’t like to change lanes, let alone charge hordes of orcs. Therefore, one of my mottoes for the year will be, “What would Inglorion do?” You can’t tell me that this is silly. Inglorion is a part of me — I just need to invite him out more often.

(None of this addresses why I chose to be a guy for so long, but, hey, some unconscious tics are best left undisturbed.)

One last observation: I clearly remember feeling uncomfortable at the prom. Going stag was not just unusual, but unheard of. Even so, mine was the most beautiful dress, and I learned a valuable lesson: Many prestigious social events are dull. For me, a dateless wonder, the prom seemed like an unattainable paradise — until I got there. I enjoyed it, but it was a definitely a letdown, primarily because it was packed with fellow high school seniors whom I didn’t like. The anticlimax proved to be a relief: I conquered the magical prom, and found it commonplace.

I’m tempted to go on, but I’ve probably delighted my audience enough for now. More later.

Love to all.

The Rat and the Pellet, or, Why I Often Prefer Brooding in a Dark Bedroom to a Stroll in the Sun

January 3, 2010 at 4:26 am | Posted in Goal Progress, My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems, Work Life | Leave a comment

A fine rat

Now where did I leave that damn cheese?

I remember reading somewhere (that is, I would like to tell you an apocryphal story) that if you give a rat a pellet when it steps on a lever, the rat will step on the lever whenever it is hungry. If you don’t give the rat any pellets, it won’t try the lever a second time. If, however, the lever only produces a pellet occasionally, the rat will jump up and down on that lever until it dies of exhaustion (the rat, not the lever).

People repeat this story because it neatly explains a problem in the human psyche. That is, Why do we pursue activities that typically end in frustration? The question and the rat came to mind while I was taking my stroll around the neighborhood yesterday morning. I perversely resisted taking my walk, then started enjoying it almost before I crossed my lawn. The sky was blue scored with tattered white clouds, and it was chilly — perhaps 55 degrees. Pigeons flew in formation. I thought, Why did I think that I would rather take a nap? Strangely, I think it’s because naps only work about ten percent of the time. That is, for every nine times I stare at the ceiling and absently pick my cuticles bloody, there’s one lovely, healing nap. So I jump on that bar daily.

In contrast, I have never once regretted going to a yoga class. After classes, I feel practically high, and I can feel the unkinking in my spine. Though the benefits of walking are mild by comparison, they’re still consistent. I love to get outside and look at things, particularly at the way tidy and shabby houses alternate in my neighborhood.

For some reason, the irregular reward appeals to me more than the consistent one. Every time I get a pellet, I think, Damn, what I need is a bigger, tastier, newer pellet — better keep jumping. I think this is perfectly normal, though self-defeating.

Sociologists have a name for the economic version of this: the hedonic treadmill. Work stresses you out, so you buy several gazingus pins. Once you’ve gone into debt acquiring the shiny but entirely useless stuff that bores you almost as soon as you buy it, you have to work harder and longer to pay off the gazingus pins you already have, and to buy more. No amount of gazingus pins will ever be enough, because they don’t address the fundamental problem: Your job stresses you out. (I owe the phrase “gazingus pin” to the authors of Your Money or Your Life, the best personal finance system that I don’t follow.)

If this is true, then changing habits is not a matter of depriving yourself of much-needed, hard-earned rest. Rather, it means retraining yourself to pursue the more consistent result. It’s more effective to look forward to the benefits of a new pursuit than it is to flog yourself with the consequences of your old habits. I didn’t learn yoga because I was afraid of losing muscle as I age; doing it made me feel good. The same goes for every good habit I’ve ever pursued, from praying the Liturgy of the Hours to cutting down on refined sugar.

I’d like to veer off course now to tell you all how glad I am to have escaped academia. It’s not just that there are no jobs in my field; it’s that succeeding in academia requires a tolerance for boredom of truly epic proportions. A friend of mine who remains in the game reminded me of this when he reminisced about when we took a date of mine to session at the Modern Languages Association convention. Half an hour into the first presentation, Greg was literally hunched over in his seat clutching his head in despair. We’re not talking pen-tapping or staring out into space — no, every line of his body spoke of the deepest anguish. My friend and I go off into gales of laughter whenever we remember that. The presentation wasn’t especially horrible, as academic presentations go. The author simply read 20-odd pages of jargon-larded prose about, say, the Frankfurt School in a rapid mumble. And it was followed by three more like that.

At the university where I got my doctorate, three-hour seminars of solid lecture were the norm. In my second year I sat through a talk on the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit that clocked in just shy of six hours. That professor, who was more amusing than most, was regarded as a lovable eccentric, not a possible source of deep-vein thrombosis. I do have a reasonably good understanding of Hegel, but my main memory of that evening consists of picking salt off of a couple of pretzels that I happened to have, and arranging the granules into triangles on the conference room table. He had the original German and two, perhaps three, translations (English, French, and, I seem to remember, Polish). I wish I were exaggerating, but I am absolutely not.

Heck, there were times in 90-minute classes when I would have paid to be transported to that seminar. I remember one gentleman who would murmur about, say Kant and the mathematical sublime, pausing occasionally to pat his face with a handkerchief and refer us to the critical work of Peter Szondi. I never met anyone who could make the least sense of anything he said that semester. If he hadn’t had a particularly coveted accent, we might have rebelled. As it was, we nodded, took notes, and relied on each other to crack the texts.

Another professor got a sincere round of applause on the last day of class for changing out of his usual suit of baby-blue polyester. (He was actually a wonderful, wonderful teacher who had the gift of regarding first-year graduate students rabid with their own knowledge with gentle patience.)

But I digress. The point here is that the terrors of corporate PowerPoint pale when compared to a typical academic talk. At a corporate pep rally you can scoff and jeer quietly. When you’re helping to reframe the discourse surrounding, say, irony, you have to persuade yourself that you are engaged in a crucial pursuit. You’re thinking, Well, you can’t pick apart the entire tradition of Western philosophy without breaking a couple of eggs.

In six or seven or eight years they pack you off to teach composition at a community college in Nebraska where the students decorate their papers with emoticons. Your friends, who are teaching adjunct at four far-flung colleges in Southern California (that’s called “freeway flying”), tell you how proud they are that you got a job. Meanwhile, you’re busy getting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the sheer weight of 80 students’ illiteracy each semester, plus research and administrative work. The whole time, you think to yourself, “Yes, but I am saving Western Civilization one comma splice at a time.” Uh-huh. You and your unfortunate kind will never prevail over the internet, texting, and TV.

Oh, and the reward? If you’re very, very good, and publish a couple of books, you may be permitted to do this for the rest of your life. Harlan Ellison, that master of invective, once said that writing screenplays in Hollywood is like climbing a pile of excrement to pluck a rose at the top. By the time you grab the flower, you can smell only shit. Exactly.

Well, that’s a very bitter rant. I adored graduate school, and wish that life were like that. Every day when I walked to class and looked up at the vultures soaring overhead, I would think, Wow, I’m really here, at the absolute epicenter of critical theory! A shameful admission: As an undergraduate I took a 16-week course where we read nothing but Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness. I loved it, and came to dream of spending a lifetime engaging in Socratic thrust-and-parry. I should invoice the professor for the amount of my student loans.

I’m happy this morning. I am looking forward to my walk, and to hanging out with my parents and talking on the phone.

Love to all.

Happy Birthday to Me

December 16, 2009 at 4:31 am | Posted in Goal Progress, My Fascinating Mood | 1 Comment

Birthday Cake

Yesterday was a day of many candles -- may main wish is to keep moving forward, inch by inch if necessary.

Yesterday was my birthday, and I’ve also hit 100 posts in this space. In true depressive style, I tend to focus on what’s absent instead of the many amazing gifts that I have. Therefore, I wanted to spend this morning reminding myself that I have made progress.

Ten years ago Thanksgiving, things were looking bad for our heroine. I was physically ill nearly to the point of death; I had just been released after two weeks in the ICU for a collapsed lung, the result of a long bout of untreated pneumonia. I had spent part of those two weeks on a respirator, and the doctors had prepared my family for the very likely chance that I wouldn’t be able to breathe on my own, and would die as a result. At the same time, I had serious nerve damage to my right leg; when I was first admitted to the hospital, I couldn’t walk. By the time I left, I used a cane and had a severe limp.

A terrible flare-up of my bipolar disorder combined with financial problems had forced me to drop out of graduate school when I had barely started my dissertation. I had run out of teaching support, and didn’t have the money to pay fees or support myself. I had been fired from two successive non-academic jobs, at least in part for cognitive problems (which I believe were caused by heavy doses of some very ugly mood stabilizers). Once I’d dropped out, I lost my excellent student health insurance coverage, and had no way to pay for the thousands of dollars in psych drugs that I needed every month. The hospital bills for my ICU stay totaled about twice I had earned in my entire life. What’s more, I was carrying more than $25,000 in credit card debt after six years of having earned $12,000 annually while living and working in phenomenally expensive Orange County, California. My student loans didn’t bear thinking on, and once I dropped out, I would have to start paying them back. My only asset was a bright red ’63 Galaxie 500 that would fetch about $2,500 if I sold it.

Since I couldn’t keep my apartment in graduate student housing, when my parents sprung me from the hospital, they sold all my stuff in California and moved me back to my hometown. In 1999, when my 31st birthday rolled around, I was living with them with no job and little prospect of being able to walk normally, let alone work. As you might imagine, I was suffering pretty severe depression. When I limped to the breakfast table that morning and found a gift next to my plate, I cried. I felt deeply unworthy of a gift of any sort. Honestly, I don’t remember what my parents gave me that December 15; I just remember my deep sense of shame and failure.

Fast forward 10 years, to December 15, 2009. I’ve earned my Ph.D. and enjoyed two prestigious postdocs. I was the only person in my graduate school cohort to receive a degree and a job as an assistant professor. I spent another four years as an academic before tiring of the lousy treatment and quitting. Today I have an excellent job with the largest and most generous employer in my home town. Through my company’s association for disabled workers and this blog, I’m living my dream of educating people about hidden disabilities in general, and bipolar disorder in particular. I even own my very own banana leaf house, a freshly renovated condo in the center of town. How on earth did I go from there to here?

Rebuilding my life after that illness took every bit of grit and determination that I could summon. In many ways, I was lucky. My parents supported me while I was too sick to work. I had nothing else to do, so I sat down for an hour or two twice a day for months on end and wrote my dissertation. Once I’d mailed it off to my committee for approval, I got a temp job to pay the bills and relieve my boredom. For two months during tax time, I was lucky enough to work as a clerk in a local accounting firm. It was hard to stand on my injured foot day after day assembling tax returns, but the hard work helped to keep my mind off my losses. From there, I went to an administrative position at a nearby research institute. Ironically, I was filling in for a woman who had taken an extended leave to deal with her bipolar disorder.

And the story goes on, one incremental step at a time. A friend was kind enough to pay my university fees so that I could register and file my dissertation formally; I graduated in June of 2000. Against all odds, I received an extremely prestigious, year-long research fellowship that allowed me to move back to Southern California to teach and write. And so forth, bit by bit, up to the present day. Luck and others’ kindness combined with a hell of a lot of hard work to get me to a relatively stable and responsible position. Believe me, I earned my opportunities.

Why is she telling us this? I believe there are two morals to this story. First, it’s always possible to move on, no matter how dire your situation. Second, it’s incredibly hard to do that. It’s a bloody, hand-to-hand battle that’s waged hour to hour and, at times, moment to moment. There are still many, many days when I think that the house of cards is about to come down. To get here, I used the techniques that I’ve outlined here: organizing my life, battling procrastination, working on wellness, and slogging through each depression as I come to it. I wouldn’t say that my life is a happy one, but I do feel that I’m giving back after years of depending on others for everything from room and board to heath insurance to emotional support.

For whatever reason, yesterday was an extremely hard day. I suppose it’s never easy to turn 41 without a spouse and kids, both of which I always assumed I would have. What progress I’ve made has been slow and halting, and there have been a lot of setbacks, including a horrible year of unemployment when I left academia. Overall, though, I have overcome my limitations and made a life for myself. It’s not what I expected or hoped for, but it’s more than I had any right to expect, given my circumstances 10 years ago.

I intend to fight on, then. I will do my best to give back to the community, to look for love, and to do simple things like pay my taxes and vote. I will keep trying, and in another 10 years I hope I will be able to point to a whole new set of accomplishments.

Love to all.

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