Friday, January 17, 2020

Is this the year?

I
T'S too freaking cold tonight. Time for a Mormon mocha. ("What might this wonder of nature entail?" I hear you cry. Well, basically it's Abuelita chocolate made double strength with hot milk, a coupla good spoonfuls of Pero mixed in, then a drizzle of vanilla and almond extracts to finish it off. And maybe some half and half if you don't like having your tongue scalded. Yes, it's mighty num and it warms my tum. And no, Howard Schultz, you can't copyright "Mormon mocha" and sell it at Starbucks. That's dumb.)

As I sit here sipping and making "mmm" noises and muttering occasional imprecations under my breath against the guy who sold the Supersonics, I can't help but be drawn back to this month's overwhelming question:

Is this the year?

Really, it's not so much a single question as it is the preface to a number of questions:
  • Is this the year I finally finish my book, so I can try to get it published?
  • Is this the year I get serious about reading audiobooks for fun and/or profit?
  • Is this the year I submit a mad glut of short stories to publishers and anthologies, in the hope that at least one will get loved and printed?
  • Is this the year I actually work out to lose excess fat and improve my health?
  • Is this the year I start actively seeking out and doing more things that make me happy?
It's not as though I've never asked myself these questions before. The primary difference is that this year, I'm 50 years old.

I didn't mind turning 40 so much. In fact, reaching that milestone was kind of a relief, since I'd harbored a small superstition about not making it there; my father died a month short of his 40th birthday. Being in my 40s didn't feel "old" per se. But hitting 50 back in November was... not painful, exactly, but troublesome. At 50 you're far too old to be a wunderkind and too young to have achieved anything like wisdom. You're meant to be "established" by your fifties, a well-defined personality with significant achievements in life; instead I feel like I'm just dropping anchor.

There were several personal goals I'd hoped -- and failed -- to attain before my 50th birthday. While I have managed to travel out of the country, see London, get a story or two published, etc., there are so many other things I've wanted to do. And I'm aware now, with a twinge of something like sorrow or panic, that there's less of my life before me than there is behind me.

Gahh. That way lies midlife crisis. The point is not to go crazy, it's to start looking over the half-formed vague desires floating in my skull and decide: of these things, what do you really want to achieve? And what's the timeline to achieve it?

It's too freaking cold tonight. I'm going to sleep on this, and give it some more serious thought in the morning.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

The Tik-Tok brain

(No, this is not about the app. You young whippersnappers get off my lawn.)

If you haven't already seen the 1985 film Return to Oz, go watch it right now. I know you signed up for Disney+, so just go. I'll wait.



Now wasn't that fun? One of the most visually arresting, creepiest bits of nightmare fuel ever made for kids! And a teeny Fairuza Balk in the lead role!

So if you haven't already guessed from the title of this piece, I want to discuss the shiny golden character with big green eyes, appropriately named Tik-Tok. If you cheated and didn't watch the movie or read the Oz books, Tik-Tok is a mechanical man, what would now be described as clockpunk, as his workings are all wind-up. He has three separate keys to wind: one that runs his thinking, one for his speech, one for his action. These have to be rewound each time they run down, and Tik-Tok himself cannot wind them, so he has to rely on others to make sure his inner workings continue to run.

Tik-Tok's workings all run at different rates and it's impossible for him to predict when one of his keys needs to be rewound, so he gets into several scrapes where something randomly runs down. Sometimes it's his action, as he grinds to a sudden halt at the worst possible moment. Sometimes it's his speech, as he goes unexpectedly mute. Once, hilariously, his thinking runs down and he thrashes about and spews gibberish at the other characters.

Tik-Tok isn't stupid or lazy. He's a machine who works exactly as he was designed to work. Wind-up clockwork eventually runs down, so you can't fault him for that. It's just that the folks who designed him didn't stop to consider how much easier it would be for Tik-Tok to run on a single wind-up mainspring that could handle all his inner workings at once.

Image of Tik-Tok being wound. Illustration from the Oz books.
Is it just me or does Tik-Tok look a little like Groucho Marx in this one? Just me then.
So if I were pressed to explain what it's like to have a brain with executive function deficits -- and really, ADD should more properly be called "executive function deficit disorder" -- I might begin with a Tik-Tok analogy. If you have a typical brain, you could think of it as running on a single, synchronized mainspring. Yes, it eventually runs down; you can tell because your thinking gets fuzzy, your speech gets slow or garbled, you don't have enough energy to do things. When all these things happen, you know it's time to get rewound (ideally, this means getting some sleep; less ideally, this means getting some caffeine).

My brain's more like Tik-Tok's inner workings. Everything works well enough, but it isn't built around a single mainspring like yours. Instead, I've got several different keys that need winding, and each inner working seems to run down at a different rate, so over the course of a day I may discover that one or more of my executive thought processes has run down. Maybe it's my action; if so, I may have a lot of great ideas and be able to express them well, but I can't find the motivation to accomplish them. Maybe it's my speech; I may be thinking and acting in full hyperfocus mode (the way I was when I was composing this piece... around 3:30 a.m.), but unable or unwilling to stop long enough to explain what I'm doing. And maybe it's my thinking; in this mode I may speak or act on complete, thoughtless impulse, often deeply embarrassing myself or hurting others in the process.

I'm not stupid or lazy. My brain works exactly as it was designed to work. It just isn't synchronized like yours is, and sometimes parts of it run down unexpectedly. Like you, I can patch the problem temporarily with sleep or caffeine, but my brain remains fundamentally asynchronous. Because my life is a constant mental juggling contest, I've developed some workarounds to deal with situations when parts of my brain need rewinding. Others with brains like mine get temporarily synchronized by using stimulant medication, behavioral therapy, or a combination of both. It's different for everyone.

Executive function deficits aren't fun to deal with, but sometimes having a Tik-Tok brain can be useful. People with non-synchronized brains perceive the world around them in novel ways, and can come up with unusual or creative solutions to problems. There's a scene in the movie that I won't describe in detail (because spoilers) where Tik-Tok is able to help his friends out of serious danger by pretending his action has run down. The so-called design flaw of his wind-up workings temporarily becomes a strategic advantage.

I'm not trying to make excuses for bad behavior; executive function deficits don't excuse bad behavior at all. But I would like more people to understand a little of what it's like to deal with a brain that doesn't naturally sync up. And I hope more people will understand that when a friend of theirs with executive function deficits spaces off a date, hyperfocuses on something, or says or does something weird, it's not because that friend doesn't care about the friendship. In fact, true friends are often very dear to people with executive function issues, because with our partly-unwound brains it's hard for us to make and keep friends. Please be patient with us as we figure out some way to get the several run-down parts of our brains wound up again.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

What a little care and feeding will do

Some of you may remember what Charlie-cat looked like when we first brought him off the street. For those who don't, a quick review:

Scrawny 10-month-old Charlie
And here he is after a few months as an inside cat, being regularly fed and played with:

1-year-old fuzzy cannonball Charlie
He's filled out a bit, hasn't he? While not exactly a full-on chonk, he has the body of an adult cat and not a lerpy teenager. He has grown a lot more solid and quite muscular (during his last vet visit, our veterinary tech commented, "That is one strong cat!"), and we DO NOT free feed him because, like many former street cats, he would be eating day and night if we let him. He's also becoming a bit of a lap kitty, and he loves jumping into empty bags and boxes and declaring them kitty cat clubhouses. So that's fun.

Plus he's still a huge flirt. So yay for the little fuzzy cannonball!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Saying "I love you"

Today I'd like to tell you a little something about my uncle.

My uncle is a good man. He's a good husband, a good father, he was a good older brother to my dad, and he was an exceptionally dutiful son to his parents. I live halfway across the country from my uncle, so I don't see him very often, but I do sometimes get to talk with him and my aunt on the phone. And at the end of our conversations, some variation of this exchange happens:

Me: Well, I have to go now. Thanks so much for calling! I love you!
Uncle: Uh. Yeah. Uh, great talking to you. Bye!

My uncle is a little awkward about saying (and hearing) the words "I love you." I know it's not that he doesn't feel it. As mentioned, he's a good man and he cares a great deal about family. But my uncle didn't grow up in a family that was physically or verbally demonstrative. His parents didn't hug often, didn't kiss, and rarely said the words "I love you" to their boys. They preferred to show their love in other ways -- by acts of service and kindness, by teaching their boys how to be good men, by various small but significant gifts given. And the boys knew their parents loved them. But my dad, in particular, longed for the signs of affection his parents rarely showed -- bear hugs, kisses on the cheek, and those three magic words that verified what they felt for him.

When my dad became a father, he did his best to create the kind of family he'd wanted when he was a boy. My siblings and I hugged each other, kissed our parents, and said "I love you" easily and frequently. Still, whenever he visited or called his parents, Dad would make an effort to express his love to them and they remained strong members of the you-will-know-it-by-the-way-we-show-it school of restrained affection. I suppose it was too awkward or too difficult for them to say it out loud.

I know my uncle was raised to show his love through service, not words. I know he doesn't like to say the words "I love you" out loud, and I know that it's awkward for him to hear me say those words to him. So why do I do it?

Well, for one thing, because I know life is short and there isn't time to mess around. I learned at the age of 12 that the people you love can go suddenly, without warning, and when they're gone there will never be another "next time" to express what you feel for them, so you might as well do so every chance you get. I also live halfway across the country from my aunt and uncle, so I have precious few chances to show my love and affection for them through acts of service, the way I could if I lived nearby. And you can't hug through the phone lines. So if I want my family to know how I feel about them, I've got to say it.

Understand, I don't expect my uncle to suddenly start saying "I love you" back to me. This isn't an exercise in social pressure. I already know he loves his family. I also know it's hard for him to say it. But my love for him isn't contingent on his ability to express his feelings in words. I just want him to know, the way my dad wanted his parents to know.

Do you make it a habit to tell people that you love them? Or is it hard for you to say those words aloud? Did you grow up saying the words "I love you" to the people you cared about most, or hearing them say those words to you? Do you think saying the words out loud cheapens the feeling -- or strengthens it? Have you ever wanted to tell someone you loved them, but been too nervous or afraid to do it?

Monday, November 11, 2019

Ever after

...and they lived happily ever after.
--the ending of way too many fairy tales to count
Within the last three decades, a specific genre has gradually emerged into the public consciousness: the alternate-take fairy tale. Novels like Nicholas Stuart Gray's The Seventh Swan or David Henry Wilson's The Coachman Rat, story collections like Tanith Lee's Red as Blood, movies like Maleficent, even smash Broadway musicals like Wicked (I could make the argument -- in fact, the Library of Congress already has -- that L. Frank Baum's Oz books are American fairy tales) all provide variations on a well-known story, often told from another point of view. Some are silly, some shocking, but nearly all are compelling. But what I've come to notice is that most of these alternate-take stories don't end with the well-worn six-word phrase at the beginning of this piece.

Because most familiar stories look very different when they're told from someone else's point of view. What would A Christmas Carol be like if told from the point of view of Jacob Marley, or Scrooge's sister Fan, or his former fiancee who broke off their engagement because Scrooge was becoming too miserly? What would Gone With the Wind be like if told not from the point of view of vivacious, spoiled, conniving Scarlett O'Hara, but the slaves of her father's plantation? (If you're really curious, you can find out.) What would the Harry Potter books be like if J.K Rowling had written Hermione Granger, Neville Longbottom, or even Draco Malfoy as the primary protagonist? Simply changing the point of view can alter a story dramatically, even without changing any of the events that took place in the story.

Perhaps that's the reason why so many alternate-take fairy tales are shot through with melancholy. Many traditional fairy tales are about a protagonist going through terrible hardships and emerging victorious -- but if that victory involves, for instance, a scullery maid achieving an unlikely marriage to a royal ("Cinderella and the prince were wed and lived happily all their days"), one person's triumph can translate to many other people's tragedies. It's not that difficult to imagine the reactions of the other princesses invited to the ball, the king and queen horrified by their son's choice, the stepmother whose brooding ambivalence about her stepdaughter's good fortune could hardly be kept hidden, the tradesmen who had noticed with quiet delight the kindness, generosity and beauty of the scullery maid with the tiny feet, or the little palace chambermaid who had kept up a secret friendship with the prince and who had to be kept from throwing herself off the castle tower when she learned he was to be married to someone else. There are always other people in a story, and their feelings are never as clear-cut as "happily ever after" suggests.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Crossing the line

(I've been sitting on this minor rant for a while. Enough time has gone by that I'm not actively angry about it any more, but I still think the experience is worth sharing.)

It's early June, 2015, and I'm looking for dorm appliances for my college-bound niece at our local Bartell Drugs. In the next aisle over, an old man -- probably in his eighties, tall, skinny, with wavy gray hair and glasses -- sidles up to a Bartell's clerk in a red vest. "You're working late," he says jovially. She stares at him.

So far, there's nothing really untoward in the exchange. He could just be an old family friend. But something about it doesn't feel quite right. And while still looking through the rice cookers and electric teakettles, I can sense that the conversation in the next aisle is already getting strained. I don't hear everything he says, but I notice the old man is blowing raspberries with his mouth, a weird, off-putting compulsive act. And when he gets a little too close to the clerk and says, "You're very pretty, though," in a tone that has nothing to do with being polite or complimentary, I suddenly have the sensation of my stomach being flooded with ice. I know what I'm witnessing isn't a friendly conversation, or even playful banter. It's harassment.

The clerk knows it too. She snaps into him immediately. "You were already told that if you ever came back in here again to bother me or anyone else, you'd be banned from this store," she says, loudly enough to be heard by other customers. "I want you out of here right now."

And as I watch, the old man's demeanor changes completely. His tone and expression switch from lascivious to innocent in less time than it takes some sports cars to get from 0 to 60, and he begins to protest, gently, that he doesn't understand, that his words must have been misinterpreted, that he's done nothing wrong. And I can feel myself getting angry. I've seen this behavior before, and I've seen it often, because the people who regularly get away with harassment have discovered that it works for them.

Direction of Creeping
Let's just say that it didn't work for him that day.

The manager on duty got a full report of what I'd witnessed. I also indicated that I'd be happy to make a statement to the local police, backing up the clerk, if she chose to press charges. Separately, I sent a message to the Bartell Drugs corporate offices reporting what I saw and repeating my offer to speak to the police if necessary. (They later indicated to me that, while the clerk did not press charges, the man in question had been permanently banned from the premises.)

My local Bartell's did a great job of taking this case of harassment seriously and taking quick action to make sure it wouldn't happen again. Other businesses or organizations may not display as much concern. This is why I'm convinced it's vital for everyone to report every case of harassment whenever it's witnessed, and to as many people as possible -- managers, corporate, local police -- until someone takes the report seriously and acts on it. I know it's uncomfortable to do this, and that most people would prefer to look the other way and pretend nothing happened. But harassers have been emboldened by years of people looking away. In fact, they depend on it. The way this particular old man operated, I wouldn't be surprised to discover that he'd successfully harassed people for decades, with little or no consequence to himself.

To my mind, there's an interesting behavioral correlation between harassers and shoplifters. Both are curious to see what they can get away with, and neither want to pay the real price for their activities. And just as stores prosecute shoplifters for theft, serial harassers need to be told that they've crossed the line, to be made just as uncomfortable as they make their victims, to understand that there's a real, steep social cost to their actions. Otherwise they'll go right on acting creepy and playing innocent for as long as they're allowed to get away with it.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

ow. dangit. ow.

UTIs suck. They're hurty. That is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
--me