Happiness Advice from the Academy

August 18, 2010 at 5:16 am | Posted in My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems | Leave a comment

Yesterday the dear Allosaurus approvingly quoted John Stuart Mill in a comment: “Ask yourself if you are happy, and you cease to be so.” In one sense, I think Mill is right. Happy people don’t typically sit around interrogating themselves about their moods. Happiness is self-evident, and if you’re asking yourself whether you’re happy, then it’s likely that you’re not. Constant introspection is the sad property of the miserable.

In another sense, though, I disagree with Mill. The quote above suggests that thinking consciously about happiness scares it off — that you might be happy without knowing it, and you might stay happy if you leave well enough alone. This doesn’t match with my experience. When I ask the question, it’s usually long after my happiness has drained away — that is, the question itself is the result of misery.

No, when it comes to whether we should consciously pursue happiness, I side with Gretchen Rubin in that I think that it’s an excellent idea to make a study of happiness. Seeking happiness is a moral good, in fact, for two reasons. With a very few exceptions, we’re happy when we’re conducting ourselves well (saving the planet and such). Also, moods are highly contagious. Therefore, insofar as our associates are not mean-spirited grinches, our happiness cheers up the people around us.

This brings me to one of my few bits of personal wisdom concerning happiness, which came to me this morning as I was applying a facial mask. My prevailing thought of “I hate my skin” gave way briefly to the following idea: I’m often happy only in retrospect. Or, to put it another way, I do look back at past times in my life and think, Wow, I had all the raw ingredients of happiness then.

For instance, when I was a grad student, a professor told me that I should enjoy studying for my qualifying exams, because I would look back on it as one of the happiest times of my life. After all, it’s one of the few times in your life when you’ll be paid to read books on subjects that fascinate you. This horrified me, naturally, because I spent those four months in a perpetual anxiety attack, convinced that my committee members would interrogate me about proper names and specific dates, two things that I absolutely cannot remember. Once I passed with distinction, I felt the proper appreciation for the luxury of nonstop reading, and now I do, in fact, remember that as a happy time.

I’m running out of time to write, but I’d like to pass on another bit of academic wisdom from French professor Leslie Rabin:

“When I was a grad student, I thought that I would be happy when I got my degree. Once I had my degree, I thought I would be happy when I had a tenure-track job. Then I thought I would be happy when I had tenure. Once I got tenure, I realized that the truth is, you’ll never be happy.” Oh, my. I prefer to think that you will never be perfectly secure and satisfied, which is a different matter.

Turn Away from What Should Be and Focus on What Is

August 8, 2010 at 9:27 am | Posted in Philosophical Problems, Productivity, stress, Work Life | Leave a comment

I got up this morning to a problem that every human being confronts at one time or another: My time and energy are limited, and I can’t meet the demands that I’m facing right now. I think that the answer spelled out in the headline applies, not just to my immediate dilemma, but to any situation where the stakes are high. Let me begin with the problem, and derive what I think is the solution.

When I got up, I felt the hopelessness and dread that stem from a truly unmanageable workload. It’s unmanageable for several reasons:

1. There’s more than anyone can do in 40 hours a week. I’d be happy to do overtime, but…

2. I’m often in a situation where I’m facing deadlines for multiple, different mission-critical projects. This week, for example, I had to burn 110 data CDs for testing this weekend. At the same time, I needed to translate, index, post and log several data items for analysis — again, this weekend. None of this was optional — if I didn’t get to any one of these tasks, we would be looking at a schedule slip that we can’t afford. So it’s not enough for me to work overtime, since it’s literally impossible to do crucial tasks simultaneously when they have the same deadline.

3. The work requires total precision and unflagging attention. I can’t do it effectively when I’m exhausted, hungry, or depressed; I’m human, too, and I find it demoralizing to respond to constant nervous status inquiries from people who don’t understand the dimensions of my workload.

4. Other people depend on my work getting done quickly and accurately — if I don’t post data, others can’t perform analysis on it, and the program will miss crucial deadlines. If the data I post is corrupted or hard to locate, the engineers will waste precious hours restoring it or simply looking for it. In other words, if I fall behind, that places the whole program at risk.

5. If I defer routine tasks like training, eventually crises will erupt that will — yes — waste precious time and resources. Therefore I need to spend several hours a week tending to administrative tasks that aren’t, in the moment, mission critical.

6. My work requires an unusual level of conscientiousness. If I feel hopeless and stop caring — even just a little bit at the end of a long day or on a Friday — I risk making a critical mistake.

So, what to do? In the past, my solution has always been the one espoused by Boxer, the faithful draft horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm: I will work harder. I will get up earlier and stay later. Through sheer force of will, I will be perfect. Program and functional management, God bless ’em, have been quick to enforce this ethic whenever they think I might be slipping.

There’s just one problem with that. When Boxer’s health breaks — and it does break — the pigs send him to the knacker, and he’s made into glue. The farm loses Boxer, and Boxer loses everything.

My old answer is the wrong one, then. I think that my experience with climbing provides a better one: Turn away from what I think should be and face what is. When I’m climbing or belaying, I can’t afford to fool myself about my limits. If I don’t understand a belay technique and let my partner climb anyway, he could be seriously injured or killed. If I’m tired, distracted, or dehydrated, I need to look realistically at the extent of my impairment and do whatever I have to do — including refusing to climb or belay — to keep myself and my partner safe. A good climber is not someone who can scale a 5.12 with ease. A good climber is levelheaded, systematic, and, above all, realistic about her limits. A dangerous climber bluffs, brags, or refuses to acknowledge her own failings. She pretends to be perfectly skilled, fit and attentive, and thereby places her own life and others’ at risk. Pride — the kind that would lead me to overestimate my abilities or ignore my physical condition — has no place in an activity that involves risk.

You may ask, how does this apply to my life as a cubicle jockey? For one thing, my life is at stake. Also, the program has no margin for failure — if I make a horrible mistake or cause delays, it could cost the company a sum of money that I hate to contemplate.

Work differs from climbing in one crucial respect, however. Good climbers are swift to acknowledge and adapt to a partner’s limits, since no one wants to hang from a sheer cliff wall with no one on belay. Business tends to be more shortsighted. When time is short and profits and lives are at stake, management will reward me for ratcheting up the pressure on myself and refusing to accept limits. Until, of course, I reach a hard limit and break. Then they’ll just discard me and reach for someone who is still fresh. Unfair though it may be, it’s ultimately up to me to think for myself and for the program, and to call a halt to an untenable situation.

Starting Monday, then, I will turn away from the vision of myself as the perfect, tireless emplyee. I will go in an hour early and take a clear-eyed look at my workload and at my own individual, human limits. I will set up meetings with functional and program management, and I will communicate the facts clearly and dispassionately. I will spell out the consequences to the program if management ignores the problem and deprives me of the resources I need to solve it. I will document each conversation in writing, and take it up the chain of command if necessary. If my immediate bosses don’t see the problem, I suspect — I know — that upper management will.

It’s going to be hard, but it’s the only way.

Love to all.

On the Necessity of Following One’s Still, Small Voice

July 30, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Posted in Philosophical Problems, Spirituality and Religion | 1 Comment

Changing one’s life — addressing the most thorny issues of a given existence — would be a lot easier if you could just follow a handful of strict rules unwaveringly. Or, better yet, if others would enforce good behavior. Sometimes change does work this way, of course: Kicking a chemical addiction is the most obvious example, since you cannot use at all when you’re in recovery.

So often, though, our problems stem from relationships — whether to things or to people — that we need to modify, but can’t eliminate. People who have problems with overeating do eventually have to learn to eat responsibly, for example. Even radical gastric surgery leaves most people with enough latitude to fail. For many people, sex, too, must be controlled. If you’re in a poisonous sexual relationship, you can cut off a given lover. Most of us aren’t called to chastity, though, and eventually we must learn to moderate this most primal urge without denying it entirely.

We know in our hearts what we need to do. To put it in Christian terms (which I prefer to the language of psychotherapy), we know where our sin lies. In his Mere Christianity, a brilliant explication of fundamental Christian beliefs, C.S. Lewis points out that living a blameless life is not a matter of following clear-cut rules. Even the Ten Commandments require a surprising amount of interpretation. (That interpretation remains abstract to me, since I have never had any potentially legitimate occasion to kill anyone.) How much more difficult, then, is the fundamental Christian requirement that we love God and our neighbors as ourselves. I am sure I’m not the only person who has little idea what loving God entails, and the difficulty of figuring out who counts as our neighbor provides the subject of many a sermon in my parish church. The law, religion, and ethics will always disappoint when we try to apply these blunt tools to our muddy, intricate lives.

The solution is simple, but it isn’t easy. It’s our duty to discern in our hearts what is right, and to act accordingly. As Kierkegaard was fond of pointing out, right behavior may look radically different in different people — for one man, it might mean marrying a woman he loves, while another might be called to abstain from marrying. Social norms are not a reliable measure of what each of us needs to do (though, of course, any decision to violate laws — or, to a lesser extent, conventions — requires the highest possible level of self-scrutiny combined with willingness to accept the consequences).

It is incredibly hard to behave well even 60 percent of the time, I think. Every day we make hundreds of tiny decisions — to put off a boring task or a potentially uncomfortable confrontation, to refrain from eating nasty food, to maintain even the most minimal spiritual discipline — and, sad to say, I’m often not conscious I’m making a decision. When I am aware of what I’m doing — procrastinating, say — I still often talk my gullible self into all sorts of self-indulgent behavior. I do have some ingrained good habits — I am unfailingly prompt, and am disciplined about emptying out my email in-box regularly — but those good habits live under a deep, cold drift of accumulated tendencies to laxness.

More later.

Love to all.

Check Out This PRI Forum with Ethan Watters

May 18, 2010 at 5:06 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Links, Philosophical Problems | Leave a comment

I’ve been so obsessed with Robert Whittaker’s work that I’ve lost track of how Ethan Watters’ excellent book, Crazy Like Us, has fared recently. I got a very flattering invitation to participate in this PRI forum on America’s most profitable non-defense export: mental illness. I’ve already posted once, and I’ll probably return before the forum closes on May 31.

Many of the people writing in have not read Watters’ book, and as a result he’s been answering some of the most obvious questions and objections, which may be more valuable to the average reader than a detailed engagement with the nuts and bold of his argument. In any case, check it out.

I’ve had all sort of wacky symptoms since I cut out the meds a month or so ago. It’s a cheaper and less time-consuming madness than what I’ve had for the last several years, though, so I’m trying to ride it out.

Love to all.

I’m Not the Only Mental Chick Off Her Meds

April 25, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Posted in Philosophical Problems | 1 Comment

I’m intrigued to note that the author of The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive has gone off of her meds, and is questioning a diagnosis for which she’d been treated since age 12. Hm. I sense a movement starting.

I must note with regret that I’ve lost five of the 10 pounds that I gained on Zyprexa and Remeron. I felt mighty cute at 109, and was almost giddy at the prospect of being able to buy clothes off the rack. Alas, I’m back to regarding food with mingled indifference and suspicion, and my uncannily tiny clothes are growing baggy once more.

In Which I Rise Like Lazarus

April 23, 2010 at 4:50 am | Posted in My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems | Leave a comment

I’ve been off all medication for two weeks now, and I have the strange sensation of turning back into the mercurial 19-year-old that I’ve missed so. It’s as if I’ve come back to life and the burial cloth shrouding my senses is falling away. When you combine this with the evidence from Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic, it looks very much like the past 20 years of crushing mental illness may have been iatrogenic.

You would think I’d be vibrating with horror at that possibility, and, indeed, a part of me feels very angry indeed. However, I’m mostly grateful to have escaped. I’m not entirely recovered, and it’s not realistic to expect to undo two decades of damage in weeks or months, or perhaps ever. I’m hardly perfect now — I do have this alarming temper, for example — but I’m so much better than I ever hoped to be. It really does take my breath away, and I feel profound and unforced gratitude.

There is a moral here, however: It rarely pays to be a good patient. The more conscientiously I followed medical advice, the worse my situation became. A more rebellious or skeptical soul might have stepped off the merry-go-round years ago. Until six months ago, with each downward turn I actually redoubled my commitment to the medical model. If I can just get the meds right, I can whip this, I would think. And the worse I got, the more I doubted my own perceptions. I knew I was getting the best possible treatment, so I blamed my slow disintegration on imagined deficiencies of character. I felt that I must be lazy, sloppy and downright ungrateful. The meds are so good, I thought, and I’ve certainly tried them all. I must be the weak link here. The truth, though, is a textbook example of irony (Dad take note): The more faithfully I followed orders, the worse I became. I felt so horrible precisely because I was so very, very accomplished at being “good.”

I’ve run out of writing time — I’m finding all of this very difficult to imagine and express — so I’ll close now and return later to what is, after all, the key question: Why was I so desperately obedient? And what drove me to this lifesaving rebellion?

Most profound love to all.

In Which I Free-Associate about the Wisdom of St. Augustine

March 1, 2010 at 5:09 am | Posted in Philosophical Problems, Spirituality and Religion | Leave a comment

St. Augustine

Here's my man St. A, looking sheepish, if not repentant.

Even before I began my convoluted path to conversion, I adored St. Augustine. When I first read him as an undergraduate, I was struck by his deft parries of common arguments against the existence of God. It’s a bit like reading Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics in that he prepares the ground for serious philosophical work by setting to rest a series of persistent, fruitless claims. (Naturally people still pull out the same hoary old objections because they presume to know what Christians believe without having read a single sentence of Christian theology.)

I even went so far as to devote the longest chapter in my dissertation to detailed analysis of his famous defense of nuns who had been raped during the Gothic sack of Rome, since he essentially established the definition of rape that prevails today among feminists and non-feminists alike.

St. Augustine also gave me an opportunity for one of my few witty comebacks: When I was in grad school, every now and then someone would criticize me for devoting so much attention to an “ancient white male,” and I would get the smug pleasure of reminding them that Augustine was a native of North Africa and thus almost certainly black (the racial map in 400 A.D. was different enough from ours to render that distinction meaningless, but it’s always fun to tweak the earnest.)

I recently started re-reading his deservedly famous Confessions. This volume is typically considered to be the first autobiography, and it’s amazingly rich. I particularly recommend Book VIII, “The Birthpangs of Conversion,” in which St. Augustine utters one of the most famous short Christian prayers: “Give me chastity, but not yet.” Aside from being intrinsically funny, I love this prayer because it captures the essence of the struggle to surrender to God’s will. That is, we long to turn ourselves over to God body, mind and soul but can’t quite let go of our favorite sins.

It took me 90 minutes to write the above introduction, which has robbed me of the time to unpack a couple of quick quotes. I’ll return to these, then:

“Let [critics of Christianity] rejoice and delight in finding you who are beyond discovery rather than fail to find you by supposing you to be discoverable”

And a favorite of mine: “For you have imposed order, and so it is that the punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder.”

Paragraph of tangential chatter — feel free to skip:

The Prolegomena only rates four stars on Amazon.com, compared to five for Hegel’s Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit and Volume I of the Hong and Hong translation of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. Fair enough. I’d like to meet the guy who’s too erudite to splurge on a fifth star for Volume II. Come on, give Kierkegaard a little credit — he wrote the whole tome by hand in eight months.

Kierkegaard is in good company, though: the latest edition of J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words scores an anemic four, and the most recent edition sports a truly hideous cover design. Let’s see how Friedrich Schlegel is holding up.

Oh, my. No reviews. Not even of Lucinde, which is pretty spicy stuff.

Love to all.

How Much Can I Control My Moods? In Which I Turn Back to God

February 19, 2010 at 5:18 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, Dealing with Mania, My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems, Wellness | Leave a comment

St. Augustine, Bishop of HippoFor me, the question above torments me at times; the answer seems to change from day to day, whiplashing me from guilt to hopelessness to a fragile hope.

When I did a swan-dive from mania to depression on Sunday, the speed and seeming inexorability of my descent awed me. When I’m depressed, I flog myself to stick to even the mildest wellness routines. When I ascend into mania, everything that I ought to do is effortless, a pleasure. I walk, socialize, and pray without thinking and with enjoyment. I see God working in my life. And just as I’m leading a more or less blameless life, the depression crashes back over me, and I’m like King Canute in the fable, commanding the waves to turn back. Canute wets his feet; I drown. God turns his face from me.

Yesterday, despite withering guilt, I left work sick. I’ve been missing too much work lately, but I felt that I couldn’t stay. To my intense humiliation, when I told my section head, I wept and shook so hard that she escorted my to the nurse’s office and refused to let me drive home until I’d spoken to him. Oh, God. My madness on display for the whole section to see.

As I set off on my commute — so much more pleasant now that I have my lovely and perfect Charger — I suddenly knew what was wrong. On Saturday, when I was still incandescent with mania, I’d had an encounter with a friend that shook my sense of myself. I used him, he used me back, and we both left feeling alarmed and frankly repelled. I didn’t feel precisely guilty, but I know that I had harmed him and the relationship, and that I would have to talk to him about it. This came to me with the force of a religious revelation; in fact, it was a religious revelation.

Typically I will suffer any indignity or commit any crime without apology if either will help me to avoid initiating a Relationship Talk. In connections of all sorts, more than anything I dread finding myself in the role of Demanding Woman. As a result, I am easily controlled. If anyone accuses me of “drama,” I fall right into line. My most recent boyfriend, God bless him, caught on to this quickly and used it remorselessly. At the very end, his sudden, bizarre descent into cruelty would have plunged any rational woman into hysterical rage; he branded my mild attempts at rational communication “drama,” and I cut him off entirely rather than play out the role of Dido.

Imagine my dread, then, when it came to me that in order to ease my depression I would have to call a meeting and express my needs clearly. Yikes.

The meeting itself proved instructive (he was free to stop by immediately, since like every last one of my friends, he’s been laid off). It’s strange — for all that I loathe them, I’m good at difficult conversations of all sorts. I cruise through critical evaluations at work, for example, watching myself respond without a trace of defensiveness and formulate a plan for improvement on the spot. I carry out these plans, too. Accordingly, my supervisors come away with a higher opinion of me, and I become a better employee. So I conducted myself well with my friend, and he responded with relief and similar candor.

As we spoke, I realized that he had been waiting for me to set the tone for further interactions. If I’d accused him of horrors, he would have accepted the charges; if I’d said that our bad behavior fulfilled me as a woman and begged him to treat me accordingly, he would have made every effort to do that, despite his instinctive revulsion. I approached the incident with calm curiosity, explored the issue with him, then set a new bottom line for our interactions. I expected him to reject my request out of hand, even to end the friendship. We’d discussed numerous times how we wanted to treat each other and be treated, but I’m not naive, and I know that people will often express a desire to change only to reject every opportunity to do so.

Imagine my pleasure, then, when he agreed to my suggestion with relief. I expected him to hate me for telling him what I wanted; I’d behaved as if wanting anything at all was a cruel imposition. He’d done the same, which led to a hilarious-from-the-outside waltz in which we tried to discern each other’s wishes, and to lead accordingly.

So my depression lifted markedly. Somehow knowing that I can control it humbled me as much as the feeling of total helplessness that I’d had earlier in the week. I responded with near-indignation, asking God (who had turned back when I approached him), Wait, does this mean I have to do the right thing, even when it’s hard? And that I don’t need a therapist to tell me what the right thing is? If my mood depends upon conducting myself well, it’s worse than I thought.

Since last week I’d suspected that the my campaign for perfection was trivial. Getting off the Internet and leaving my cell phone at home delighted me independent of mood; whether I dutifully walked, for example, depended entirely on my preexisting mood. The latter is trivial, the former profound.

Another humbling reflection: I know what I need to do to feel better. Typically it’s the very thing that I am sure will leave me a Bad Employee and an unloved outcast. I’ve adopted certain habits because I believe they stand between me and oblivion. As I discovered when I quit my antianxiolytic, the only way I can find relief is to let them go. Hm.

So, yeah, I need to re-read St. Augustine’s Confessions and reacquaint myself with that brilliant and very human saint. Perhaps, in a characteristic burst of irrelevancy, I’ll discuss them here.

Love to all.

Book Review: Ethan Watters’ Crazy Like Us

February 13, 2010 at 6:33 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Philosophical Problems | Leave a comment

I resisted Ethan Watters’ Crazy Like Us long before I picked it up. In essence, he argues that mental illness is socially constructed, and for the last 20 years, Big Pharma and mental health professionals have evangelized for a pernicious and peculiarly American flavor of madness. Oh, Lord, I thought, another author earnestly “undermining discourse” by pushing a bastardized version of Foucault and postcolonial theory. Ho-hum. When rigorously supported, arguments based on social construction can be illuminating. However, the ideas behind it have become so pervasive that few authors feel the need to support them — instead, they rely on shared assumptions about causality to make the argument for them.

Since Crazy Like Us does, indeed, take social construction as a given, I’d like to begin with a brief overview the concept. I’m not going to prose on and on (I hope), but understanding what Watters means may head off some of the more obvious objections to his claims. This should help us to predict the book’s strengths and weaknesses alike.

Many people bristle at the phrase “social construction” because it seems like a trendy equivalent of its baggier sibling, nurture. Laypeople assume that socially constructed traits stem from individual neuroses, and that, through psychoanalysis, we can control them to some extent. Or, more absurdly, even sociologists may assume that groups choose how they mold members. (To my disgust, the entry in Wikipedia on social construction engages in just such oversimplification.) However, in its strict sense, “socially constructed” does not equal faked or chosen, whether by the individual or a group.

The concept of social construction offers two powerful theoretical advantages: it offers an alternative to deterministic arguments for genetics and allows thinkers to avoid the American sin of psychologizing, and thus pathologizing, individual expressions of, say, gender. Theoreticians (I’m thinking here of Judith Butler’s early work here) do this by arguing that social construction begins from the cradle and involves attributes that people experience as fixed. In fact, genetics may be more mutable, since all but a few traits that people regard as “biological” or “hard-wired” amount to strong tendencies rather than fate. Twin studies bear this out in the case of mental illness; the greatest concordance I’ve read about for even manic depression and schizophrenia is roughly 60 percent.

Further, the concept of social construction pushes philosophers to consider systemic causes rather than falling back on stigmatizing and scapegoating individuals who deviate from the norm. I’m big on systemic causes, particularly economic ones, so I tend to favor anything that jars us out of our national obsession with the individual.

One important objection to vulgar genetics also applies to social construction. In many people’s hands, the latter seems as deterministic as the former, and determinism raises both practical and philosophical objections. For one thing, some people, myself included, feel that they have molded their gender or sexuality through their actions. If the culture is generally homophobic, it seems unlikely that it would routinely construct lesbians and gay men any more than our genes would lead us in that direction. Finally, for many thinkers social construction becomes an unquestioned premise; whole communities of academic tend to take it as gospel and use it as a handy explanation for every behavior that call out for an explanation.

Oh, Lord. I just spent 30 seconds battling the conviction that “explanation” can’t possibly be a word. This is far from perfect, but I’ll run with it. More later.

Get Thee Behind Me, Internet

February 11, 2010 at 3:38 am | Posted in My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems, Productivity, Sociability, Work Life | Leave a comment

Yesterday, just for fun, I limited my time on the computer at work to about two hours. Before I got in, I would have sworn to you that six hours was a stretch, and that even that would risk curtailing my productivity. Not so. In fact, it looks like I’ve accidentally discovered a striking way to boost my mood.

The goal was simple: To stay not only offline, but off the computer entirely. When I needed to see people, my default setting was a face-to-face visit. If that didn’t work, I resorted to a telephone call. This resolution alone wrought enormous changes, and demonstrated the limits of electronic communication.

Surely, I thought, personal visits will take too long. What’s more, how likely is it that people will actually be at their desks? I was cast down early in the morning, for example, when I trotted the quarter mile or so to see IT regarding server access for two other data managers; my target had popped out for a smoke.

On a whim I stopped by my section head’s desk, and found out that I would be able to have lunch with the customer (who was visiting) despite a crucial teleconference I’d mistakenly scheduled from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. If I hadn’t seen her face-to-face, they almost certainly would have gone without me, and I’ve done enough damage to my career through social avoidance, thank you very much.

Next I poked my head into the cube shared by two women whom I find congenial. Since they’re in a distant building and on a different program, I typically see them only in meetings. We had a most excellent time chatting about nothing in particular, and strengthened a promising bond substantially.

I returned to my desk strengthened in my resolve. Within minutes, the IT guy who had ignored two days of plaintive voice mails called and asked what he could do for me. Granted, this gentleman is more “responsive,” as we say, than our usual Program IT people. Even so, it set a land speed record for IT service.

The trend continued. An engineer visited my cube to compliment me on my presentation two days ago on disability awareness; we enjoyed an enlightening chat about his reaction to a sudden, invisible disability, and he expressed interest in attending a brown bag seminar that I’m planning on behalf of the disabled employees resource group. I stopped by the office of the program manager, whom I fear and revere, to suggest a way of improving team communication (more on this revolutionary notion in a later post). I didn’t find him, but, again, he called back promptly, allowing me to stop by a second time. I pitched my idea, which he loved, then we discussed my presentation and problems that disabled employees face throughout the company. I wandered by the office of the gentleman who handles security for Mission Planning. He wandered back and took the time to explain a complicated issue connected with the Program’s telemetry data, which I process and store.

You get the point. These are just examples — I started dozens of valuable face-to-face interactions throughout the day, and I largely stayed off the computer. I also left my beloved iPhone at home. I started out downright alarmed — What if my car breaks down? Oh, yeah, I’ll call AAA on my company phone — but was converted by lunch, since I avoided spending my lunch hunched over a tiny screen reading The Times. You couldn’t pay me to take the thing today.

I had no idea how completely I relied on the computer to communicate, and how much time I frittered away sending and receiving terse, functional emails. That single activity apparently accounts for more than two-thirds of my terminal time. So what did I do online? I looked up people in our online employee directory and did some word processing — that’s it.

The key question is, was I productive enough? Yes and no. I sent fewer messages, certainly, and I did have less time to write. Even so, I’m positive that I came out substantially ahead: In one day I learned more about my colleagues and management than I had in the previous year, and they got to know me. This may prove to be a secret weapon: If I can strengthen my bonds with the Program, I stand to gain significant status and influence. And, of course, the Program gains from spontaneous brainstorming sessions and improved communication. I gathered and shared a tremendous amount of work-related information through spontaneous, free-form conversation, and this sparked ideas that wouldn’t have come to me had I sent even the most eloquent email. Hot damn.

Further radical steps: I’ve resolved to thank people specifically and honestly for their help once a week, and to cut out emails and IMs reading “Thank you,” or, more often, “Thx.” Visiting will be my default mode, followed by calls to people’s landlines. Only if those methods fail will I send an email. After one revolutionary day, I’m certain that email works well for broadcast communication, but is otherwise of marginal value. It turns out that people instinctively accord more importance to a face-to-face visit.

Three caveats: First, I’m still hypomanic, and I may find it tough to keep this up when the inevitable depression crashes over me. I suspect, though, that I vibrated with energy partly because the social contact lifted my spirits. We’ll see. Second, if others take my lead, the magical expediting effect of my visits may dwindle. I’ll take it — the detailed conversation alone pays off one hundredfold. Finally, for all I know, others may already be visiting each other and chatting away, of course. I may simply be catching up. I doubt that they conduct business face-to-face, however — I think that their face-to-face contact is purely social.

So, wow. I’ve got a lot more to tell, but my alarm went off, and it’s time to shut down my laptop.

Love to all.

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