Tagged with " sensory"
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 28, 2011 - Fine Arts    16 Comments

I Still Believe

Sunday night, I was born again in the fires of rock and roll.

I’ve never experienced the bliss and fervor I see on the faces of people at religious revivals, so I can’t be sure it feels the same. But if their god can’t offer them the same welling joy, the fullness of heart, the redemption of primal psychic and sensory needs, then I can’t fathom the attraction. And if some would say the bone-deep delight, the hope for the continued existence of love and beauty in this world, the honest-to-goodness peace on Earth and goodwill to all men that settled onto me with every blessed chord isn’t divine, well then, I would have to tell them that they’ve never touched that state of being.

By now, you think I’m exaggerating, overstating the case for the sake of a writerly challenge or a philosophical argument. I’m really not.

A big part of it was the music. If you’re not a fan of Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, let me deliver unto you that great good news. Theirs is a happy polyamory of punk, folk, and old-fashioned rock and roll — if you need an equation, maybe this will help: Frank Turner & the Sleeping Souls = Green Day + Flogging Molly + Buddy Holly. Turner’s got a singular voice that fits all three genres perfectly, if you can conceive of such a thing without hearing it, equally at home in the cozy black box of a venue that is the famed Triple Rock Social Club or singing wrenching tales of blood and rebellion in a militia camp. And his ability to hold true to pitch and somehow stay melodic, no matter how raucous the refrain gets, is a rare thing as well. The band is equally accomplished, from the metronymic steadiness of the drums, to the ruffled arpeggios the keyboard layers on top of classic guitar and bass.

And the songs — Turner’s got the gift of nailing the catchy hook and rousing chorus, in both tune and lyric. The best of his songs should be the anthems of nations or, at the very least, the downtrodden masses. Even the ones that bemoan the toll of age and cynicism on a generation too tired to be the happily angry punks we once were bestow an unexpected optimism and communal goodwill. As a result, fans come ready to sing along, and I watched with keen curiosity to see whether an arms-around-shoulders biergarten sway, or a rollicking mosh pit would break out (a bit of both, at various points, as it turned out). And when you’re singing every song en masse, it’s no stretch to smile and talk with your newfound allies, in a way that just doesn’t happen at even the most intimate of other concerts. This was a show to restore a person’s faith in his fellows.

That we were even there was the definition of Serendipity, or Destiny, or whatever you will. I took the wrong pair of headphones (broken) and the wrong exit for home on a trip to the doctor’s one morning this fall. So while I’d been keen to listen to my own playlist, and to do it for a lot less time, instead I had the company of The Current, MPR’s excellent modern station, as I waded through snarls of traffic. About 15 minutes after I should’ve been home, “I Still Believe” came on the air. I was smitten — new favorite song, on the spot. When I got back, I queued up the YouTube video to show my boys. After it finished playing, up popped a little box, announcing: “Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls at the Triple Rock Social Club, October 23. Would you like to know more?” Why yes, yes I would. And at $13 a ticket, how could I pass up the chance?

So there we stood on Sunday night. We’d enjoyed the opening act, Into It Over It, enough to buy the guy’s album, but I knew I couldn’t make the whole show on my feet. We slunk off to the old bar next door, and I felt like a lame, hollowed-out, decrepit old punk. But a nice long sit, enhanced by some unexpectedly excellent comfort food, at least left me feeling competent to remain upright for the rest of the night. I was sore, and glaring at the hale and hearty 20-somethings occupying the few seats, when Turner and company took the stage.

And then they played, and I went to a different place. By the end of the first song, my jaded concert-going self was tingling with the knowledge that this was going to be an exceptional show. By the end of the second song, I forgot my pain and fatigue, no mean feat these days. And by the end of the third song, I found myself unexpectedly crying a little, as my senses sizzled like Fourth of July sparklers. My body thrummed, comforted and content as the heartbeat of my long-lost rock and roll mother lodged next to my own, bass in my belly and drums in my feet.

I was over-joyed, the pleasure of it all spilling out my fingertips like light. I couldn’t stop smiling. I wanted to run outside, take everyone by the hand, and bring them into this place, this time, this feeling. And I left the show restored in all the thirsty crevices I didn’t know were cracked.

So I’ll just let Frank and the boys sing us out:

“I still believe in the saints
In Jerry Lee and Johnny, and all the greats
I still believe in the sound
That has the power to raise a temple, and tear it down
I still believe in the need
For guitars and drums and desperate poetry
I still believe that everyone
Can find a song for every time they’ve lost, and every time they’ve won
So just remember folks we’re not just saving lives, we’re saving souls and we’re having fun…

Now who’d’ve thought, after all,
Something as simple as rock ‘n’ roll would save us all?
Who’d’ve thought that after all it was rock n roll.”

 

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.

Sep 14, 2011 - AV Club, Fine Arts    3 Comments

Music Calms the Savage Geek

Don’t call the people in the padded van, but I’m pretty sure I pick up radio signals with my fillings. Because I hear music. All. The. Time. The only other theory I can think of is that someone’s secretly making a movie of my life, in real time, but that would be deeply unfortunate, because some of the songs I hear really suck sometimes, and I would hope whomever’s in charge of this project has better taste than that.

Much as my kids were destined to be reading and gaming geeks, I was destined to be a music geek. My mom sang in choirs from when she was a little girl, and loved ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s pop music passionately; her mom could play piano by ear, and knew dozens of campfire and folk songs from her years as a Girl Scout leader. I was blessed with a good ear and a strong voice, and with the exception of one elementary music teacher who told me she’d like to hear everyone else too, I was never told to pipe down or use the maracas instead.

My earliest and best memories are all saturated with music. I remember my very first concert — I couldn’t have been more than 2 — where I sat on my father’s shoulders and looked out at the sea of shimmering lighter flames as Willie Nelson sang “Stardust.” I knew dozens of Beatles songs, and they were my favorite band as much as my mom’s. I cried and cried the day John Lennon was shot. And it took me years to realize that the 20th Century Fox intro wasn’t actually the beginning of the Star Wars score.

By high school, I was firmly entrenched as both a band and choir geek. Sorry, no show choir. This was pre-Glee, and these were the jazz hands, “Send in the Clowns” days. Every geek’s got their limits. My good fortune as a musician truly blossomed. I had the very best teachers, and my stepdad’s work as a music ed professor gave me opportunities to sing in national festival choirs that thrilled me to my toes. At college, it only got better. Though I had to choose choir over band for time constraints, I worked for several years with Simon Carrington, one of the founding members of the King’s Singers, as he began his foray into a second career as choir director. His repertoire and professional expertise was epic, and he simply didn’t know to expect any less from a college choir. So we delivered. Britten’s War Requiem, Biebl’s Ave Maria, Tallis’ 40-Part Motet … we even staged Mendelssohn’s Elijah as an opera. I was spoiled forever.

High school was also where my listening tastes began evolving, formed by influences from every direction. The Morrissey tape from my first kiss; Erik Satie and Francis Cabrel from my Belgian exchange student; and every concert I could scrounge up the allowance and babysitting money to attend: Bob Dylan, Heart, R.E.M., Modern English, Skinny Puppy, Love and Rockets, The Pixies, Fishbone, Jane’s Addiction, The Swans, The Cure, Primus, Tracy Chapman, Johnny Clegg, Nine Inch Nails, Peter Murphy, Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, The Bobs … the list goes on, and memory fails. We had the perfect arrangement: Thursdays at Bailey’s and Sundays at Club Marilyn in Milwaukee for dancing, and The Exclusive Company and B-Side on State Street in Madison for cassettes.

 

Music has power over me. Sometimes, that’s not such a great thing. When I was 15, I dated a kid who was a musical prodigy. He played trumpet and piano. He arranged Bach’s Air on a G string for brass quintet from the organ score one weekend when he was bored. He would sit at the piano in my living room and improvise the most beautiful, heartbreaking songs. I basked in the reflected glow of his genius. I pretended that made up for the abuse. I made excuses for him until after the second rape, and some of my other music geek friends circled the wagons to protect me. When I would’ve crawled into myself and died, they made me eat Spaghetti-Os out of the same big mixing bowl with them and sing Little Shop of Horrors songs with my mouth full. That music saved me as surely as the other music endangered me.

And I was 35 (!) when another piece of the music puzzle fell into place for me. Part of my music geekiness is based on the fact that I have hyper-sensitive hearing, and perfect relative pitch. Put another way, I can’t ever stop listening, which is why I have to have white noise without any pattern to it in order to fall asleep; if it’s silent, I’ll lie awake waiting for a sound. And the sensitivity to sound is so bad that my one and only migraine trigger is loud, sudden noises: everything from fireworks or a car backfiring, to a balloon popping nearby. If you can feel the percussion of it “slap” your eardrum, it’s enough to trigger a migraine for me. It’s been this way since I was a baby, they think. But I’m good with prolonged loud noises, like you’d find at the kind of concerts I most enjoy, and there’s almost nowhere in the world I’d rather be than standing in front of a powerful Bass II section or a good bass woofer. If my sternum’s rattling, if I can feel a mild heart arrhythmia caused by the secondary beat in my chest, I am one hundred percent happy.

And I think that both of these come from the fact that, in all likelihood, I have Asperger’s Syndrome to some extent too. The wrong kinds and frequencies of sound make me extremely uncomfortable, but music — especially lyrical bass (not that stupid bass-bumping crap) — fills me up. It forms a glowing, golden spiral from the center of my belly, up through my whole body, like a mighty architecture that leaves me so much stronger that the light and joy just spills out my voice and my smile and my fingertips.

This is one of those rare instances where I am not a nerd at something I’m a geek about. I’ve never had a single day of music theory, or any other formal course of music study, and I stopped piano lessons when they asked me to do two things with one hand at the same time. But there’s no question I’m a music geek. When people look at our CD collection, the first question is usually, “How many people did you say live here?” And the second question is usually, “Can I borrow this?”

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