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Dec 11, 2011 - Psychology    3 Comments

In the Shadow of the Goddess: Reverb Broads 2011 #11

 

Reverb Broads 2011, December 11: In what ways are you like your mother? And if you’re a mother, how is/are your kid(s) like you? (courtesy of ME)

“My God, you’re just like your mother.”

I would be well-set for life, and still raking in nice dividends, if I had a buck for every time someone said that to me. And I’ve always taken that for the compliment it’s intended to be. My mom is one of the kindest, funniest, stubbornest, most frighteningly competent people you will ever meet. So, if I remind people of her so strongly that they exclaim whenever we’re in the same room, I can’t help but be flattered.

To be fair, she’s from a long line of them. My great-grandma moved west when she was eight months pregnant, and when she found that neither house nor job was as established as her deadbeat husband said, she carried my great-aunt Mary into a TENTH MONTH.

My grandma Nell in 1944

My grandma taught Red Cross first aid and swimming, and led inner-city Girl Scout troops for decades. When she came across a kid who’d been trapped with only his face visible in a sinkhole on the cliffs above Lake Michigan, she lay on the ground and gave him mouth-to-mouth until rescue crews arrived, saving his life. From them, my mom got her faith, her vision and drive to do what needs to be done, and her intolerance of bullshit.

So how am I like my mom? We tend to end up in charge of things. We’re both quick, intuitive learners, and we like teaching others what we know. That being said, we both tend to think it’s faster to just do something ourselves, so we’re terrible at delegating. We’re wizards at multitasking, and we’re crafty, so our hands are always busy. We’re unapologetic liberals. We love music, and we love singing, and we love to sing together, whether it’s to oldies on road trips, or duets in church on Christmas Eve. We’re both inclined to see the funny side of things, and we both get the giggles when we’re slappy-tired. We’re both very free and unashamed with our emotions, though I’m not quite as much a watering pot as she is. We both see typos everywhere, instantly and unignorably. We both see the best in everyone, but we’re incredibly unforgiving of ourselves. We’re both social chameleons, and we can adapt to fit into many (sometimes unlikely) groups and settings. We love to take care of other people, and blood ties are the least of our concern when it comes to family. We both snap into “terminator mode” when there’s a crisis, and woe betide anyone who gets in our paths.

And boy oh boy, do I look like her.

We never went through that awkward phase when teenage girls hate their moms. My mom was my best friend and accomplice well into adulthood. Distance and motherhood have undermined some of that closeness, but there’s a new honesty and respect that’s different than before.

I always imagined myself carrying on this amazing matriarchal tradition. When I found out I was having a second boy, I burst out into tears. The ultrasound tech quickly reassured me, “No no, he’s completely fine!” To which I replied, “I’m not worried. It’s just another goddamn boy.” I won’t be having any biological daughters; pregnancy is too rough on me, let alone sleep dep and potty training and all that again. And I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t still a disappointment. But the way I see it, boys are an endangered species, and I’ve been entrusted with two of the precious creatures to strong, smart, confident, non-asshole men.

But I see myself in my kids all the time. Sometimes, that’s awesome. I try so hard not to get irritated when I can’t get Connor’s attention out of a book long enough to answer a simple question, because I know it’s magical being that absorbed in a story. I love that Griffin watches Japanese monster movies with me, and wants to learn how to cook. They’re both born performers, and their imaginations are vast and complex, with galaxies of stories to occupy their every thought (and sometimes, like me, their sleeptalking).

And sometimes, that’s incredibly hard and heartbreaking. I wince when I catch myself yelling at them when insomnia strikes. Griffin can’t be anything but busybusybusy, and I wish we could both slow down and be still, and find joy in it. And if I could save Connor the pain of learning how to get organized, and not procrastinate, and not take every unkind comment like an arrow to the heart, I would.

Things grow differently in the shade than they do in unobstructed sun. And my mom casts a long shadow. As much like her as I am, I know I probably do too. Hopefully, I can be the kind of mom who gives her kids the shelter they need, and who gets out of the way when they’re ready to grow up.

My mom and my boys, this Thanksgiving

Me and my boys, circa 2010

Dec 6, 2011 - Psychology    3 Comments

No way, nuh-uh, not ever, never: Reverb Broads 2011 #6

Reverb Broads 2011, December 6: List 10 things you would never do (courtesy of Katrina at http://katrinatripled.blogspot.com)

So, I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and we’re not that good at absolutes. My first reaction was to go all moral relativist on this one — I can’t say I wouldn’t kill or steal, because there are circumstances in which I’d absolutely do those things to protect or provide for my loved ones, or even just a person in need.

Then I decided I needed to relax.

But I won’t ever say I won’t try something new, especially food, because if someone serves me something, and I try it and like it, then find out it was something like monkey, I wouldn’t spit it out and throw up — I’d say, “Huh. Who knew I liked monkey?” and I’d finish it, especially if hospitality was on the line.

So this list is far from perfect, and it’s all asterisked and footnoted and however else I can indicate that you just never know.

That being said…

1) I will never live south of the Mason-Dixon line. I love my seasons, I get sick from the heat, and my natural skin color is that of a freshly drowned corpse. I like to get things done at a reasonably brisk pace, and I prefer my politics liberal and secular. I may visit cities I adore, like Charlotte, Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans, but I cannot be convinced to live Down South.

2) I will never try to like the foods I know I hate. This isn’t the same as the food thing I already mentioned. I already know I hate bananas, pretzels, cranberries, blue cheese, Vegemite, and anything with aspartame in it. Some of them are sensory issues; some are just the way I taste them. I’m pretty sure there are genetic markers for some tastes, and I just don’t have a few of them, no matter how adventurous my palate in other areas. I’ve tried these things repeatedly, and every time, I just facepalm and yell, “Blech! I really do HATE this!” No more.

3) I will never live apart from my husband again. We did the whole long-distance thing when we first met for long enough that it stopped being cute and romantic, and was just tiring, lonely, expensive, and annoying. Sure, the tech for staying in touch is vastly better than it was in 1996, but I’ll take a warm body over care packages any day.

4) I will never hold a snake. Spiders=fine. Frogs=so cool. Lizards=love ’em. And I know snakes aren’t slimy, but I just don’t care. If you hand it to me, I will drop it on the floor.

5) I will never blindly follow the voice of authority. Call me Mary Quite Contrary. I was raised to question the status quo, and my protesting boots fit me way too well to ever take them off. I don’t fight things just to fight them, but I refuse to accept the idea that the world can’t be changed for the better.

6) I will never run for fun. In point of fact, I will only run if something pointy or heavy is speeding toward a child, or I am being chased by a large man named Bubba.

7) I will never go back to Christianity. Before I abandoned it, I read extensively, and since then, I studied Christian theology and Church history sufficiently that two universities have hired me to teach it as a subject. I know the faith means so much to so many good people, and it’s been a force for good in the world in many ways. I also know it’s just not what rings the Bell of Truth deep in my soul.

8 ) I will never stop messing with my hair. I’ve learned some valuable lessons on this score (no more perms; if I want curls, there will have to be heated implements involved), but I believe my hair exists to amuse me, and it just happens to amuse me more when it’s colors not normally found on mammals in nature.

9) I will never be a good sleeper. I’ve been an insomniac since I was a kid, and the analyst at the sleep center told me I had some of the worst sleep architecture he’d ever seen. I’ve made myself (mostly) at peace with this, even though a bad stretch has disastrous effects on both my pain and my mood. I even like the dark, quiet hours sometimes.

10) I will never get through my Reading List. Never, ever, never gonna happen. For every one book I knock down, three more go on the Pile o’ Shame. It’s not that I’m being guilted into reading anything — it’s just that there are thousands of people writing wonderful, necessary things. And there’s only one of me to read them.

Dec 4, 2011 - AV Club, Psychology    10 Comments

It’s Time to Play the Music: Reverb Broads 2011 #4

Reverb Broads 2011, December 4: In the movie version of your life, which actor/actress would play you and the significant players in your life? What kind of movie is it (e.g., made-for-TV, action, emo/indie, etc.)? What would be the major plot points, and how will it end? (courtesy of Emily at http://warmedtheworld.blogspot.com)

As the song from the fantastic new Muppet movie might ask, “Am I a woman or a Muppet?”

Well, if I’m a woman, I’m a very Muppety woman.

To be fair, there isn’t any one Muppet whom I feel embodies me, but the great thing about Muppets is that they come out of a workshop. So let’s imagine one with Abby Cadabby’s hair and spell casting, Gonzo’s enthusiasm for the weird, Sam the Eagle’s pedantry, Muppet News Guy’s doomed truthtelling, and Kermit’s good intentions and frayed control over the unpredictable proceedings around him. I’ve even got my own slightly Muppety theme song now, thanks to Zooey Deschanel’s intro to New Girl.

Naturally, I’m married to Lew Zealand (fortunately, with fewer thrown fish). And I think my sons are Scooter and Animal, though like any brothers, there are definite shades of Bert and Ernie too.

My life tends to veer wildly between the clever and the wacky, the heartwarming and the hair-raising, the magical and the absurd, so that works too. I mean, come on: receiving a marriage proposal in flannel pajamas, when there’s a perfectly wonderful New Year’s celebration happening at an honest-to-gods Scottish castle, less than five miles away, is a very Muppety combination of the silly, the star-crossed, and the sentimental.

It’s not all a perfect fit, of course: I don’t think anyone really wants to see Muppet montages of me vomiting for seven and a half months straight during my pregnancies. There isn’t a song in the world that would make that watchable. But I’ve certainly earned the right to use “Movin’ Right Along” for the endless road trips in my childhood, or “Why Wouldn’t We Ride?” for all the travelling I did during my year in France.

I know you just think I’m still in the dizzy grip of ecstasy at the new Muppet movie, or I’ve spent too long in the company of kids to come up with a grown-up answer to this prompt. But like Jason Segel and Walter, I never stopped being a Muppet fan; I loved them with a passion even when the rest of the world had passed them by. That Kermit watch on Walter’s wrist? I wore that watch all through college, until it fell out of my school bag and got run over by a car. I still have the scraped, broken face in my desk. I got the Time-Life collection of The Muppet Show episodes for Christmas about a decade ago, before I was even a mom, and I used sketches to illustrate lessons in my university courses (much to the bemusement of my late ’80s-baby students). There’s a shirt on The Onion website that I’m pretty sure was targeted directly for me.

And sure, I have the same profile as Carrie Fisher (no, really, I totally do), and I have mannerisms that show up regularly in Drew Barrymore and Sandra Bullock movies, much to my husband’s amusement. And sure, I wish my life inspired something sweeping like a majestic fantasy epic, or a witty drawing-room comedy, or a sweet Nora Ephron romance. Hell, I’d settle for being the quirky feature in a one-off episode of Doctor Who quite happily.

But who am I kidding? I’d end up being the Ood who goes all red-eye at something my kids do.

No, just cover me in felt and stick a hand up my butt — I’ll be a Muppet ’til the day that I die. I just hope I end up looking more like Hilda than Waldorf.

Realistic expectations

Dec 3, 2011 - Psychology, Uncategorized    1 Comment

Straight On ‘Til Morning: Reverb Broads 2011 #3

Art by Roy Best

Reverb Broads 2011, December 3:

How did you become more of a grown-up this year? Or did you pull a Peter Pan and stubbornly remain childlike? (courtesy of Bethany at http://bethanyactually.com/)

I did two pretty adult things this year, though no one who knows me would ever respond in a lightning round with the word “grown-up.” The first may not seem like much to all you gorgeous fellow wage slaves out there, but I’ve actually held down a real, non-academic job for the last 12 months.

I’ve been doing that since I was 15, you scoff? No big deal, you say?

Perhaps it is no big deal. Perhaps you think I’m a spoiled ivory tower wimp who’s never done an honest day’s work in her life. I think you’d be less likely to say that if you’d ever graded 75 blue book essay exams in 36 hours, or written a 2.5 hour multimedia-enhanced lecture in an afternoon, while bouncing a baby basket with your foot.

Academia, with a side of substitute teaching in two school districts, has been all I could manage in the years of fibromyalgia plus non-school-age children minus child care subsidies. I’m not complaining — teaching has allowed me to be there more for my boys (all three of them) than I ever dreamed I’d be able to. And, simply put, teaching is my vocation, in the old, spiritual-calling sense of the word.

But I really, deeply, truly adore the job I have at Atlas Games these days, and both my responsibilities and my hours have expanded since I started last November. I started out just handling customer service requests from the website, and managing the packing and shipping of orders to our distributors. I still have these duties, and I enjoy them, but I’ve been entrusted with the first pass of edits on our RPGs, and I’ve done art direction for the last two books, both of which really make the most of that part of my skill set.

All this is made both possible by my fabulous bosses, John and Michelle Nephew. I respect the hell out of both of them for their many talents, but more than that, they’re good people and good friends. They let me keep flexible hours, so I can be Connor and Griffin’s Mom (my other job title) and do fun things like chaperoning field trips, and so I can take it easier on the days when the spirit is willing but the flesh is weakweakweak. I’m bemused to find myself in the same industry as my Darling Husband, but I couldn’t be happier in a non-teaching job than I am right now.

The second grown-up thing I’ve done this year is starting to take care of myself. I’m still not any good at putting myself first, but all the fabulous coaching from the excellent folks at Fairview Pain Management Center has taught me many reasons and many ways to look after myself better than I have in the past. So now, when I recognize that I’m on sensory overload, I don’t hesitate to just step out for a few minutes. I take mini-breaks, even if only for five mindful breaths, throughout the day, which helps me better evaluate the messages my body is sending. I’ve adjusted the way I do my jobs as worker, wife, and mother to incorporate body mechanics that keep me able to work longer and smarter. And at the end of this year, I’m managing my pain with 25-50% less medication, the least I’ve been on in almost nine years.

So that’s how I’ve matured this year. Everything else? Peter Pan all the way, baby.

Dec 2, 2011 - Psychology    4 Comments

Irish Stubbornness and Sunscreen: Reverb Broads 2011 #2

That's me with the pink hair, blue sundress, and wide ass, back to the camera as I watch a hurley game.

Almost every stupid thing I’ve ever done in my life can be traced back to my stubbornness. I come by it honestly, even genetically — I’m five-eighths Irish, one-quarter German, and one-eighth mule, I think. And this year’s colossally stupid act was no different.

Every year here in Saint Paul, they hold Irish Fair on Harriet Island, which sits in the Mississippi River adjacent to the downtown. It’s around the second or third weekend of August typically, and it’s totally free (well, the entertainment’s free, but they get you coming and going on the food and drink). Of course, there’s music and dancing, but there’s also hurling, wolfhounds, arts and crafts, and lectures on a wide variety of subjects. It’s no Milwaukee Irish Fest, but it’s really quite nice.

We didn’t go in 2010, our first summer here. As a matter of fact, I watched little color pieces about it on the local news from the fifth floor of St. Joseph’s Hospital, which sits within spitting distance of Harriet Island. I was in the hospital because, the previous Thursday, I had emerged from our apartment bedroom and informed my Darling Husband that I had thought of nothing all day but how to kill myself. This certainly wasn’t the first time that summer I’d contemplated means and method, but it was the first day I couldn’t remember thinking anything other than suicide.

This scared the tiny part of my brain that wasn’t yet consumed by the howling storm of depression. The onslaught had begun shortly after we moved to the Cities, and the doctor I’d found before we arrived turned out to have a “policy” about not writing any prescriptions without seeing medical records. The stupidest thing I had done that year, and perhaps in my life, was not come with hard copy in hand, but there was no way I could’ve anticipated the three weeks it took for my doctor’s office just one state away to furnish them. In the meantime, I tapered the doses of my fibromyalgia maintenance medication, my narcotic pain reliever, and my anti-depressant as much as I could, but there came a day when I was off, and I had to stay off for a long time. I finally went to the ER at the end of July, but by that time, the tailspin was irrevocable, compounded by the pain and insomnia that cascaded out of the cover of management, and the loneliness and isolation of being in a completely new, unfamiliar city with no job and few friends, in a brutally hot summer. If there’s a definition of “working without a net,” I’m pretty sure this fits.

So this year, when Irish Fair came around, I was determined to be there, if only to defiantly demonstrate that I wasn’t where I had been a year ago. My dear friend Alan was in town, and he was keen to see the fantastic band The High Kings, scheduled at noon; I had my eye on Altan at 5. It was a glorious day, sunny and warm in a way completely at odds with the celebration of all things Irish, but perfect for an outdoor festival.

The problems began on the car ride there, as my boys announced that they were already tired of this outing. Before we even got there. Clearly, this didn’t bode well. They remained whiny, but more or less compliant for the first hour. The seating for the main stage was smack in the middle of the field, not a gasp of shade for 200 yards, but I was so distracted by my efforts to keep calm and not focus on the kids or the past that I completely miscalculated my need for sunscreen. Even the poor guys in the band appealed to the crowd for “some Factor 15,” after Alan and I had been watching them redden appreciably for the first hour.

My sunburns develop like Polaroids, and I was already in the shade by the time the extent of my scorching became apparent. Meanwhile, the boys’ patience had expired before the High Kings’ set had even finished, and even the dogs and hurley could only distract them for so long. Both my burn (ultimately 2nd degree) and my temper bloomed brighter by the minute, but I was so determined to be there and be having fun (dammit) that I forced everyone to stick it out much longer than any of us were enjoying ourselves. We were exhausted and cranky and sunsick by the time we gave up and left at 4, an hour shy of the concert I’d wanted most to see.

The square tanlines from my sundress, still remarkably clear even now on December 2, remind me that, if I’m going to be stupid and stubborn, I should at least put on another round of sunscreen.

Dear previous me … : Reverb Broads 2011 #1

I don’t have many reasons to write creatively (or any other way) in the course of everyday life. That’s no criticism of my work or my family life, just a statement of fact, similar to my frequent lament that intellectual conversation can be hard to come by as well. And NaNoWriMo isn’t my deal, because while I very much enjoy writing descriptions and dialogue, my plotting skills are woefully inadequate.

I’ve been really enjoying the mental and spiritual exercise of writing this blog, and only the lack of regular direction has kept me from writing even more entries. So you can imagine my delight when my friend Dana Carlisle Kletchka pointed her fellow blogifying females at Reverb Broads 2011. The organizers have assembled a fun and daunting set of prompts, and an impressive list of clever women to write on them.

So, today it begins with the first prompt: If the you of today could go back in time and give advice to any of the previous yous, which age would you visit and what would you tell them?

I maintain that I wouldn’t change anything in my life, because I’ve ended up almost exactly where I want to be. But there are just two points where a bit of perspective might have helped me endure, or not endure, as the case may be.

I would tell my 15 year old self that, though leaving the faith of my mother and her mother would be a scary thing to do, Christianity was not the world view that would feed my soul or bear me up in the darkest moments of my life. I would tell her that the lessons of faith that I’d observed in those women my whole life would actually inform my search, and that I would recognize the ring of truth when I heard it. Most importantly in all of this, I would tell her that setting out to find our way wouldn’t mean a life without spiritual community — there are so many more people on that road, who will love and support your search, than you ever dreamt. In fact, there’s a whole religion devoted to that free and responsible inquiry.

I would go back to my 18 year old self and tell her that I’m worth better treatment in relationships than I’d received so far. I already had a fairly warped view of what I should expect from significant others — I had experienced the wildly romantic, but I also thought I would never be enough for anyone, and I’d put up with some pretty egregious and thoughtless exploitation. I would tell 18 year old me that she isn’t wrong in thinking she would have to go to the ends of the earth to find the person who would complete us, but not to worry — the Internet would turn out to be a much bigger thing that any of us thought in 1992.

And I would tell my 24 year old self not to tell my History department that I was considering a semester of medical leave to deal with my fibromyalgia. She didn’t know that they would take “considering” to mean “had decided to,” and that they would screw things up in ways that would never be repaired. I would tell her that fibromyalgia has its ups and downs, that it’s not always going to be as bad as it was right then. It lasts longer than grad school, but grad school has an end, and you can outlast anything finite.

Also, when people ask you to rate your pain, and you tell them that you’re leaving 9 and 10 on the scale for childbirth? You’re totally right.

Finally, I would tell 30 year old me that the odd things about her beautiful, hilarious son aren’t her fault. Sure, he’s been doomed to geekdom since before his conception — that will only enrich his life. But all those strange, inexplicable, seemingly unconnected things? They’re real, they’re something, and they’re not caused by bad parenting. And finding out about the Asperger’s Syndrome that underpins them all will reveal a piece of our own self that we never imagined existed, lighting up connections that have dwelled in dark mystery since our earliest days. I would tell her to be kind and patient to him, and to herself, even at those most frustrating moments when it looks like he’ll have to fight the same battles we’ve already struggled through.

And to all the previous mes: be easy with yourself. People will love and value you, not just despite all your weirdness — they’ll love and value you for it.

Nov 5, 2011 - Physical Ed, Psychology    6 Comments

Queen of Pain

Pain and I are old friends. We go way back. I know pain’s facets and variations; pain doesn’t have too many surprises up its sleeve for me anymore.

And, as much as anyone can make this claim, I’m pretty good at pain. For years before I gave birth to my kids, I refused to claim 9 or 10 on that happy-face scale doctors use to have you rate your pain, saying I was reserving those two notches for childbirth. And as labor with my first son ramped up slowly and steadily over 12 hours, my midwife thought it was funny how I announced that yes, in fact, I had scaled my estimation of pain perfectly. That perspective helped me get through that delivery without any interventions, which is still a point of pride for me.

I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in July 1999, possibly stemming from soft tissue damage caused by a car crash ten days before my wedding in 1996. I’d been prescribed amytriptaline for severe tension headaches that showed up when I started grad school in 1997 — tension? grad school? astonishing! — but apparently that’s a drug that occasionally just stops working. It’s also a drug that’s frequently used to treat fibro, and it seemed to have been masking the development of the syndrome’s symptoms, which all came tumbling out in an untidy pile that spring.

But without getting into all the problems of treating a disorder that nobody understands or knows how to treat, the long and short of it is that I’ve lived with all-day, every-day pain for well over a decade now. That means I’ve become quite a connoisseur. I know the nuances of it, from the flu-ache-like muscle weariness that characterizes fibro, to the silvery stabs that shake my whole body with convulsive spasms. I carry around the heavy, grinding knots that drag on my lower back, and lean away from the bright streaky pain that twists in the triangle from my temples to my jaw to my shoulders.

The irony is that, as good as I am at tolerating a daily level of pain that drives many people into the ER for relief, I can be a total wimp about new, unexpected pain. Sunburn? Toothache? Gallbladder attack? A fresh injury? I produce as much whine as the south of France. Imagine a baseball umpire who’s put up with the vicious insults and recriminations of players, coaches, and fans, only to burst into tears when a schoolkid calls him fat. It’s almost as if I’m only capable of managing steady, stable pain. The unpredictable spikes of acute pain seem to upset the delicate balance of tolerance and management I’ve established over the years.

I started a pain management program at the University of Minnesota. It follows the interdisciplinary mindfulness-based curriculum developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues. I didn’t have high hopes for the program, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by all the ways it’s defied my expectations. I’ve learned a lot about the physiology of pain, some of which I’m pretty shocked to have been hearing for the very first time, this far into the process. And I’ve worked with the pain psychologist there to start unraveling the messy relationship between pain, guilt, self-worth, and unreasonable standards. There’s a lot of work left to do, but I’m better now at staying in the moment with pain, rather than shoving it down and away to keep pushing through with what I think “needs to get done.”

Because of a snag with renewal, we’re currently uninsured, and that’s causing all sorts of problems, including having to go off all of my maintenance meds rather abruptly. While I’m very anxious about the potential for a depression relapse, one thing I feared hasn’t really happened: I’m not in a ton more pain. It’s still more than I can manage with just heat packs and ibuprofen, but I’m not laid up the way I have been in similar circumstances in the past.

This prompts a question: do I remember who I am when I’m not hurting? I’m not the same person I was before that car accident and all the things it precipitated. I haven’t been a married woman without pain. I haven’t been a mother without pain. I can’t say I’m afraid to step out from behind it, like a person who’s worn glasses their whole life faced with the option of corrective surgery. But it’s intimidating to realize that most of the important people in my life haven’t known me without pain. How would any of them treat me if it just weren’t there anymore? Would they be as forgiving, as willing to accept it when I have to say no to something? Would they require more of me, to make up for the years when pain gave them short shrift? Will they be disappointed in how many problems don’t go away, how many weaknesses turn out just to be me, not the pain?

It would be the biggest surprise of all if turns out that I’m more comfortable with my pain than I am with my true self.

Oct 31, 2011 - Physical Ed, Psychology    4 Comments

The Boo Factor

It’s Halloween, but there will be no horror movie viewing in the Banks house. At least, not for me. Because I can’t watch horror movies.

Please note: I said I CAN’T watch horror movies. Not “don’t want to,” but “can’t.” I love all the ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night. But if something goes BOO, it’s all over for me.

The best we can figure is that my startle reflex is seriously frotzed. If something jumps out at me — no matter how cheezy or predictable — it feels like I’ve been hit by lightning. Red cable, black cable, ZOT — 50,000 volts straight into my nervous system.

And, like you’d expect, this does not have a good effect on the rest of my body (or my mood). The initial impact is a distinctly electrical sensation, similar to the crawly, needley feeling of the electrical stimulation therapy that physical therapists sometimes use. I’m left with a horrid, plaguey feeling, with muscle pain that’s similar to the day after serious overexertion plus poor sleep, a vicious headache on par with a migraine, and nausea. This all sticks around for anywhere from an hour or two, up to I’ve had a chance to get a good, restorative sleep.

I haven’t always had this reaction. In fact, at my tween and teen sleepovers filled with pizza and nail polish, I was the one around whom all my shrieky friends huddled, as if they could absorb my bravery through osmosis. I began a lifelong love affair with Hitchcock movies in the darkened theater; my grandma took me to see classic movies on the big screen at Milwaukee’s great landmark theaters. I even saw Alien for the first time from a 70mm print — if you’ve ever been in one of those landmark theaters, imagine the screen AFTER the curtains have been cranked all the way back, then slap a frisky Giger monster on it.

And I’m not a nervous wreck about other things that leave folks reaching for the smelling salts. I’m the chief bug killer in our household, and in general, there isn’t anything in nature that does much more than just ook me slightly. And I’m crazier now for roller coasters and thrill rides than I ever was as a kid — you can’t tear me away from Tower of Terror at Disney Hollywood Studios, or the Hulk coaster at Universal Islands of Adventure.

But whatever enjoyment I might be able to get from horror movies for their stories or effects just isn’t worth my physical “boo response.” I know my limits: the tension and release of the final scenes of The Silence of the Lambs is about as much as I can take without triggering the backlash. I’ve got a few people who helpfully advise me on a Boo Rating for films I’m considering, and every once in a while, I give them a try, but that’s usually an abortive effort. I managed about 20 minutes of The Others before I vaulted off the couch like I was sitting a springplate. For the most part, it’s comparable to someone who’s allergic to strawberries giving them a whirl every couple of years. Like you’d expect, it usually ends with the phrase, “Yup, still makes me miserable. Next time I think this is a good idea, hit me, okay?”

I don’t know why I’m wired this way, or whether it’s from the fibromyalgia, or my sensory processing stuff, or a PTSD leftover, or my general psychiatric issues. I’ve never seen any research about this effect, though a woman at a fibro support group once said her fight-or-flight response had gone all wonky too. I’d be immensely grateful to hear from other folks who experience something similar, or who have read any research that might relate to this.

As a creative-type person, it’s incredibly frustrating to know there’s a whole genre of material that I’m excluded from. Sure, I may think that many of the current crop of horror movies are stupid and exploitative, but I’d like the choice to opt out on the material’s merits. Missing all the monsters because my body chemistry trumps my logical mind makes me nuts.

Oct 20, 2011 - Psychology    7 Comments

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank

Last week we got a letter from Connor’s teacher informing us that he would be receiving an award at the first student assembly of the year, on the 18th, at 1.40 pm.  Since Cam and I are blessed with flexible work schedules, we resolved to be there to witness his always-entertaining surprise and cheer him on.

So, on Monday, Cam picked me up from work at about 12.30; we snarfed down a burrito together by way of a lunch date, then headed over to the school. We breezed in at 1.40 on the nose. I saw one of Connor’s classmates in the hallway, where she hailed me with a big smile: “Hi, Connor’s mom!” (I love it when they call me that.)

“Hi, Lila!” I replied with a big smile of my own. “Why aren’t you in the assembly?” She kept smiling, but she gave me that look — you know the one. The one that says, “And the person I know is actually an alien.” At that moment, the principal came around the corner, saw us, and grinned.

“You’re a day early,” she said.

Honestly, what could we do but laugh? “Better a day early than a day late,” I said, trying desperately not to look as stupid as I felt.

Here’s the thing: I’m smart. I’m not bragging, or saying anyone else isn’t. But I’m pretty clever. I’ll also say that I test well, and I’ve studied a lot of things for a lot of years. However, this has absolutely nothing to do with my capacity to get by in everyday life.

This isn’t a “common sense” issue. As a child, grownups frequently said that I had loads of “book smarts,” but not a lick of “common sense,” whatever that meant. They also said I was “intellectually advanced, but socially backward.” To me, these things now mean that somebody should’ve been screening me for Asperger’s Syndrome as a child. I’m not 100% sure that’s my deal, but those platitudes were used to spackle over a lot of struggles I faced as I tried to interact with a world that didn’t follow the rules I’d been taught or the examples I’d observed.

In the Middle Ages, scholars used a mnemonic device called a “memory palace” to expand their capacity to remember texts in an age before easily duplicable books. I’m in awe of this technique and its users, because I know it’s beyond me. If my memory is a structure, it’s the haunted Victorian house on the hill outside town, its windows broken, shutters hanging by one hinge, siding peeling and falling away where frost and wind have pried stealthily over the seasons. Once, it housed a hoarder of the most random, eccentric sort: she frequented libraries, church rummage sales, abandoned schools, failed campaigns, futile protests, forgotten ancestors, buried archives, ancient cemeteries. There are gestures at organization — rusty file cabinets, ingenious labeling systems, half-implemented folder schemes — but if anything, they may only complicate the process, like removing something from its usual place “for safekeeping,” only to lose it because it’s not where you normally keep it.

The practical results are twofold. The first is the bifurcation of my available memory. I’ve got the usual short-term surface area that everyone’s got, which is pretty much like a very large refrigerator door/corkboard/Post-It wall. Then there’s what I call The Processor. It’s basically deep storage, and if I want something out of it, it works like the old European libraries used to. You have to write down what you want on a little slip of paper, give it to the scowling old lady behind the desk (who’s not at all convinced you deserve to be there at all), and wait patiently for the workers to bring it back from the shelves in their own time, so sit down with your silly pencil and white cotton gloves and shut up, you ungrateful American.

The Processor occasionally results in odd and embarrassing outbursts, as it turns up answers when you least expect them. My poor parents have been experiencing this longest. It usually happens for me with trivial knowledge, though not always, and it’s always something that I immediately know that I know, and feels like it’s on “the tip of my brain” but just can’t come up with. This feeling persists quite strongly for hours, even days, until with what feels like an audible pop, out comes the answer, so forcefully that I have the almost uncontrollable urge to shout it, no matter what’s going on around me.

The second effect of my messy memory palace is this: I’m pretty sure that my brain is at capacity. It can hold no more. If something new wants in, something old has to come out. You can feel it eject, even hear it: poit.

Unfortunately, though, what comes out isn’t always old or useless — it’s frequently the thing that just landed, and as such, might really be important. So, the new pediatrician’s phone number? Oops, there go the 5 things I need from the grocery store. Have to change my email password to meet some new security standard for work? You better hope your birthday isn’t anytime soon, because it just got kicked right out of my mental calendar. No, it’d be nice if I could shed all the words to “I Touch Myself” by the Divinyls — I mean, seriously, who’s got the balls to sing THAT at karaoke? Or my high school long-distance boyfriends’ addresses. Or all the lines for the first half of the movie Heathers (but only until after the 1st Heather’s funeral). Nobody needs that stuff.

But that’s not what gets evicted from that creaky, collapsing house on the hill. It hardly matters that fibromyalgia sends banks of fog rolling through like weather systems. And I wish sometimes that one of my sensory things didn’t mean having perfect, focused, vividly visual memories of such a large percentage of my life. If that house has ghosts, those reels play out in the rooms and down the halls at random intervals. Still, like every messy room, every disastrous desk, every once in a while, it yields the most surprising treasures, the most unexpected gems.

Mostly, though, my memory just leaves me kicked out of the room for ruining trivia games, and a day early for school assemblies.

Default Setting: Love

This is my first blog post, and it’s by way of explaining why I felt strongly enough about the Speak Out with your Geek Out movement — all next week, anywhere and everywhere you want to talk about whatever floats your geeky little boat — that I stepped up to be an admin. I’m doing it because I’m a big geek, of course, but more importantly, I’m doing it for my kids. They’re going to be a frequent subject on my blog, and yes, I’m going to use their names.

* * *

The first thing most people notice about Connor is how *big* everything is for him. His volume is permanently set to 11; every gesture and expression is oversized and repeated two or three times in case you missed it the first (you couldn’t possibly). Then the other extremes about him begin to emerge: the speed of his speech only hints at the speed of his thoughts, and words pop up in the rapid stream that you don’t expect in a fourth-grade vocabulary. All these things might give the impression of excitement by themselves, but there’s real enthusiasm for so many subjects, and genuine delight at the prospect of sharing the coolness with someone new.

This is my kid. He’s a geek. His default setting is love.

He was doomed to geekhood well before his conception, what with two parents of impressive geek credentials. And he showed his own talent for geekhood as well. He started calling his make-believe play “movies” between ages 2 and 3, around the same time he announced he wanted a Jon Stewart 3rd birthday party. His passion for superheroes exploded onto the scene, until we started telling people who asked about potential gifts for him, “Look, if it’s ‘super,’ it’s great.”

What we didn’t know until he turned six was that Connor has Asperger’s Syndrome. The school where he attended kindergarten failed him in every respect. Teachers missed the expanding intellect and hunger for social interaction, and labeled him a discipline problem, a threat to “normal” kids. His classmates saw a child who wanted friends a little too desperately, and probably left them behind when he tried to include them in his elaborate stories. And, at that critical age, when different is dangerous, those children made his life hell. They rejected his friendship. They rejected his enthusiasm. They hurt him on the playground, to the point of stitches one cold winter morning. They threatened his life on the bus after school. Kindergartners told my son they wanted to have a party at his house; he was overjoyed. They said they would have a party at his house, and he would be the pinata, and they would beat him until he broke open and died. He had nightmares. My six-year-old said he wanted to kill himself. He knew what he was saying.

Things got better. We switched schools for first grade, and within a month, they’d identified the Asperger’s. Instead of simply conceding to the previous reigning theory on his behavior issues (i.e., “we’re crap parents”), we built strategies for home and school to address the most serious problems and deal with them constructively and consistently. Connor’s teacher gave him challenging work that kept him from making trouble when he was bored. He made friends who valued his vast cache of knowledge about Star Wars and superheroes.

Connor’s experiences made him a better person too. His fixation on superheroes had taught him the philosophical concept of justice, but now he understood what prejudice and oppression felt like, and why it was important to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. His skill as a storyteller was growing apace, but now he was sensitive to allowing his friends agency in their own stories, and supplied them with information so they could “make cool movies” too.

It’s not for nothing that jaded adults are advised to view the world through the perspective of a child, if they can. Everything is new and amazing to children, and they’re predisposed to love it, to find it literally wonder-full. I heard a parent of an autistic child in a radio interview say that people with autism are “more human than human;” natural human tendencies are amplified to extremes. Geekhood is, I believe, a natural human tendency. We get enthusiastic about things we enjoy; we want to know more, and we want to share them with others. We start with it when we’re children, when we’re geeks about the whole wide world–our default setting is love. And for some lucky people, like Connor, that setting never changes.

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