Saturday, January 31, 2015

Singularity (or lack thereof)

I met my new neurologist this week and it felt like I was starting over, in good ways and bad. 
  • Good: fresh perspective, optimism
  • Bad: didn't know history, I couldn't explain it 
I wish my online-me could have been there. She is so good at expressing herself, given enough time and editing. But just regular me was there, the one who processes like a 1950's computer and looks blankly when asked a question she doesn't expect. And yet he was asked to answer this questions right away: 
  • Is there a way for me to be a competent psychologist despite lingering cognitive problems that range from small to huge
Justin Morrow's Do What You Love blog on film careers
The sorry truth is that I've avoided this question day in and day out and focused on recovery, and told myself I'd figure out work later. So it's later, and I'm in the middle of the endgame at my job. Can't go back to my old work life because my brain can't keep up with that pace. Not sure how to go forward but am getting nudged--okay, shoved--by practicalities into motion. So, the question is out there. Which way do you want to go instead?

Hmm. Can you come back to me after everyone else orders?

Problem solving and decision making are no longer my forte, and herein lies the dilemma. I had a vision last week of all the "big answers" I'm searching for being balloons filled on one side of my brain and sent floating to the other side where they're needed. I can jump and bump them with my fingers, but that just sends them sailing further out of reach. 

From Development Crossroads
group coaching

Because since the concussion that put me out of work (and probably since the one before that), the balloons have no strings. I used to walk into my mental "answer" room and simply choose the best solutions. Grab a few, try them out. Discard one, go back for a couple more. Tie a couple together and see if they flew. 

Now? I couldn't choose one even if I could grasp them. My brain reacts, but doesn't plan, and shuts down when I try to process too much or analyze something complex. All I can do is simple. 

Unfortunately, simple is sometimes hard too.  

We all know people who go on retelling stories and after about 2 minutes you're mentally begging for them to get to the point. Books are the same. You get bonus points as a writer for making the theme subtle, but even obvious themes like "life is short, don't waste a day" are better than a book or movie where there isn't a steel girder of purpose underlying the story's action. 

In writing stories, singularity is powerful--a clear, consistent theme or
character arc that pulls disparate events in a narrative into a unified message or achievement. I get that. I've taken a bunch of classes and they all balance the "hard" stuff of story beats and structure with the "easy" stuff of understanding the point of your story.

But when your brain is foggy, singularity is even harder than story structure. Anyone can have a plot board or a beat sheet and eventually learn how to use one, but keeping a story on that steel girder track--or even a thin wooden balance beam--is impossible if you can't distill all the info, all the words, all the thoughts, all the scenes, into a coherent theme to begin with. It can be hard for even veteran writers (see Jenny Crusie's struggles last week here) but it's essential to writing a satisfying read.

This blog, for me, has been an exercise in singularity. I try to take ingredients from everyday life and try to blend them with humor and visuals and experience into a point I want to make about love. 

I don't always succeed. 

Sometimes I'm stretching the logic too thin, or writing in a way that's muddled. My last post is an example (here, if you need to feel my pain). My husband Mark said it wasn't a complete miss (those I usually have the good sense not to post), but it didn't come together either. Which I knew. Why else would I ask? 

Going back to edit, I couldn't fix it. I knew my point (why obvious advice doesn't always work), but not my limits. The gist of it was kind of arcane, and the examples so broad and the post so long that it derailed from the "theme track" at every turn. 

Self Love Blog
I could delete it but decided not to, as a lesson in self-acceptance. When I miss the mark I'm ashamed, but also proud of myself for trying. 

Because life and love and writing are hard. Adding cognitive problems makes them even tougher. Talking about my recovery--and deficits--is extremely difficult, which is why I don't mention them here very often. I don't have enough distance to make a relevant point about brain injuries. 

But the new doctor's new approach is to work on functional limitations one at a time so progress more likely and clear. 

Which made me think of this blog, and taking on too much at once. 

So in the spirit of positive change,starting tomorrow I'm going to go for less ambitious, more cohesive posts. 

Starting tomorrow ;). 

Love, Lisa

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Diving Through Windows

I heard a talk yesterday by the inestimable Jamie Schmidt at our monthly CTRWA meeting that
New Year, New Goals
got me thinking. As our group's Goals Goddess she reminded us that Big Goals should be dreamy and inspirational, or else broken down into baby steps. Maybe both.

And I agree. If you have a Big Goal that frightens you or feels overwhelming, taking nibbles gets you closer than staring at a huge chimichanga and knowing the only way to swallow it whole is by unhinging your jaw like a snake. 

But goals are often at the pinnacle of multiple layers of unsolved problems and Jamie tackled these too. For one person, scaling the Weight Loss Mountain may involve rebudgeting money, making time for exercise, learning to cook differently, dealing with a sleep problem, expressing emotions directly and watching a lot less television. Barriers to that same person's goal of entering the 2k-A-Day writing club  may be a demanding job, a buggy computer, a noisy house, a mental illness, a deployed spouse and a scattered way of plotting,  

Another person's unsolved problems and unmet needs may be entirely different, and effective solutions for you may not work for them at all. Ross Greene and his concept of Collaborative Problem Solving was the first one to get me thinking about how a host of what he calls lagging skills and unmet needs can cause challenging behaviors in kids. Rewarding "good behavior" without teaching a crucial skill or meeting a deep need may help in the short-term but another behavior problem is bound to crop up. 

Challenging behaviors and difficult goals both require non-linear approaches. 

Easy problems have a straightforward solution. If you crave a runner's high, then you find running reinforces itself. If you live in a warm climate and next to a year-round farmer's market, taking the smallish step of walking through the stalls and finding fruits and vegetables you're willing to eat is naturally reinforced by the vendors remembering your name and setting their best berries aside for you, or giving you an extra ear of corn. 

All you need to know about windows
What we're left with are the intractable problems. The weight that came off with Jenny Craig the first three times but defied her and every other diet each time you tried since. The money problems that persist no matter how much money shows up on your W-2. You can diet and budget and pray and wish and try but the door between where you are and where you want to be will stay bolted. 

For these, we need to stop banging on the door and go in through a window. 

Non-conventional approaches to a problem only mean that they're individualized for us and not others and they're worlds more effective than generic approaches to a difficult challenge. 

For example: 

I find that when I'm spending too much on food, that saying to myself "be frugal" when I'm making a
list and menu actually makes me spend more. Because I have a whole deprivation trigger that started when my parents horded Stouffer's Spinach Souffles and Doo Dads and wouldn't let me have them.

Actually, it was probably when my generous mother fed me to a nice, round forty pounds by eight months, then found herself bedridden with my inconveniently-timed-brother and left my feeding to well-intentioned relatives who were appalled by my size. I have forgiven Kevin for his existence because he is a remarkable brother, but it took a dozen years and scars remain from our mother choosing him over me. 

So what's worked instead? 
  1. My husband Saint who runs the budget telling me we have "plenty of money." Then giving me a number that's roughly half of what I usually spend on groceries. Somehow the "plenty" and the number cancel each other out and I go and spend roughly the amount he mentioned. The Power of Suggestion, merged with the Power of Positive Thinking, though I end up with a vague sense of having been manipulated.
  2. Stretching my shopping trips to every 10 days instead of every 7. I don't have to change anything--not where I shop, not how much I buy, I just have to solve the little jigsaw puzzle of filling in 10 spots on the menu with 7 days worth of meals. I love a challenge! 
  3. Making it a game with rules like "you can only go to one store" or "you can only get what's on sale or has a coupon" and if what's on the list doesn't fit that rule, it gets rolled over to the next week's list. There's an app that takes this further, taking your list of goals into a gaming platform (HabitRPG). I'm not a gamer so this doesn't work for me, but it will work for someone else.
HabitRPG graphic
Sometimes the best solutions are counterintuitive and the path to them convoluted. 

Conventional wisdom says having a strong core is key if you have back problems, or just for general health. I like yoga and swimming and working out in a gym, stability balls, all the things that build core. and like most people find group sports motivating. If I sign up for yoga then I go because the teacher expects me. When I swam at work, my swim buddy wasn't allowed in the pool alone, I had to get there.

The Highly Unconventional Vehicle for Phineas and Ferb
But I'm naturally competitive, and push harder than someone with my back should when someone is watching. And while--yes--I have herniated discs doing laundry, or putting on shoes, if I look closely the "twinges" started earlier when I swam until I felt like puking or did an inverted position in yoga.

Because I'm ridiculous that way. It will never change. 

So I'm better off with a weaker core. In fact, if I skip exercise altogether I have virtually no debilitating back episodes. But then I feel too sluggish and it affects my brain and mood. So I walk, by myself, and figure a lot of stuff out on the way. It ain't sexy but it works. 

This is what I call going in through the window. You glance an opening, you dive before it closes. Next time it might not be there. For years I wrote best by getting up before dawn but lately my best writing has been at night. I accept that for now the 5am door is shut but the 9pm window opened.

The Life of a Desk Jockey
Some people pay themselves to write. Some text their word counts to their sisters. The more experience you have in life, the harder it is to find motivation from the conventional.

Try the odd things that somehow work.

Read your story to your dog (and when they sit at your feet imagine them wanting the next chapter). Or string twinkle lights across your office (imagining fairies above sprinkling magic writing dust into your hair). One of the ones suggested at the meeting today to combat desk jockeying was drinking water all day. It will keep you moving for obvious reasons, and give your body needed fluids. Win-win ;). 

Want to cut down on your alcohol consumption? Buy more expensive wine so you're forced by guilt and curiosity to sip and savor. Or start a fight with the clerks at the most convenient liquor store, over their stocking or labeling or pricing or general attitude. If you're too embarrassed to run there and have to go five miles further, an easy trip turns into a pain you'll skip some of the time.

Want better sleep? Set your alarm for two hours before you absolutely have to get up. If you're awake, get up and get something done. If you're tired, turn off the alarm and fall back asleep. "Stolen" sleep after turning off an alarm is often some of the deepest, most restorative sleep if you have a rebellious spirit.

Want more pleasant interactions with your kids? Block out hours every week when you'll be in the house but unavailable to any pedestrian needs. No homework checking, no griping, no preparing snacks. What happens when you lift the ban? They flock to you, seeking the gift that's been denied. 

Interesting Sex Facts
Want more interesting sex with your partner? Commit to having the most boring sex you can imagine, twice a day. By the second day you'll be fantasizing about every little thing that could make things more fun, and by the third day putting them into action. 

Want to wrestle away writer's block? Quit. There's no better way to see if writing is an interest or a passion. If it's an interest that's giving you agita, find something to give you pleasure. If it's a passion that's giving you nightmares, well, make your goal turning those into dreams because passions don't need pleasure, though it's always nice. They simply need an outlet and won't let you rest until you give them an outlet. 

A window from your soul to the world. 

Leave it open for when you lock yourself out. 

Love, Lisa