Good-bye 2016

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This post is a benchmark post for me. Hopefully, it will withstand any desires for deletion and be here next year when I can reference it and take stock, once again.

This year, not unlike last, has been challenging. During this time, I feel like I’ve been undergoing a test without end. This has been related most closely to my husband’s brain injury from a year and a half ago, and the cumulative effects caused by more than ten other such injuries during his life.

The questions haven’t been easy. What exactly am I made of? What does love mean? What are the limits? What are my limits? Is quitting an option? Running away?

There have also been the unending “to do” lists. Everything I’ve been doing has been to get us back on track, to give us the normalcy I’ve taken for granted, to secure us some peace and quiet.

Today has been a good day. I don’t know what the night will bring. I don’t know about tomorrow. Every day is taken one at a time, sometimes hour by hour. How do I manage this? Can I manage this? Do I want to manage this? These questions are quiet most of the time, but in the moment, when the yelling and raging begin again when I thought maybe it was over, I return to these questions. I return to them time and again.

What happened?

When my husband fell a year and a half ago, he broke a metaphorical dam in his brain, a dam that had been shoring up all the painful emotions and experiences of his life. That bit of energy that was holding this all in leaked away, leaving him with all his thoughts which he experiences all at once, demons that terrorize him constantly, and me as well.

What happened?

The doctors, nearly all of them, look at me like they are telling me something I don’t know. He’s got brain damage, they say.

Like this is news to the little lady. Oh, I’m shocked, I want to say as I lean back and pretend a faint.

Because really, these days, nothing can shock me. It isn’t that I’ve seen it all. I have not, thank goodness. But I am numb to the exploits of doctors. I am numb to the shock that they are in a “business,” the very personal business of milking the pain and misery of others. They seek to get on the “permanent payroll,” and my husband’s condition makes them drool sloppily.

But, I will stop here for a moment and say this hasn’t been true of everyone. By some accident of luck, or mercy, I found a naturopath, who is better than any of these “specialists.” An honest man, a man who tells it like it is, a doctor who doesn’t try to control us by emphasizing our ignorance and who instead patiently teaches. If you find yourself in a similar situation, find a naturopath. Save yourself as much as possible from this faceless machine of medical manipulation.

But enough of that. My husband seems better. I found myself saying shocking things to him like: “Get over yourself. You have brain damage. Now, we need to move on.”

This is what I said about a week ago. And things calmed down.

“Your memory isn’t that bad!” I yell back, in a weaker moment.

And, somehow, getting a little tough helped. Who knows, but my feeling is that we wouldn’t see any improvement, if he really had a progressive disease, which is what one of the neurologist said before suggesting a brain surgeon. We wouldn’t see improvement if he had CTE. This is my gut feeling. I have no idea. Who knows?

And why is this distinction important? What does it matter if he has CTE?

Well, CTE is characterized by anger, aggression, violence, murder, and suicide.

That’s why it is important. Getting back to those questions? How much is too much?

It hit me harder than I could have expected to learn that Carrie Fisher died. Star Wars was my favorite movie when I was a kid. It opened up my imagination like nothing else. Princess Leah was iconic and as we lost her, I at least learned more about her life and her challenges. And then her mother died a day later, and I learned more about her life and challenges. Debbie Reynolds had been friends with Elizabeth Taylor, and they traveled to Europe together, palling around with their husbands at the time, and then Eddie Fisher left Debbie for Elizabeth, turning fond memories of traveling in Europe into questions and despair.

These are beautiful people, and rich, and seem to have it all, and yet the beautiful and sweet Debbie Reynolds was not impervious to heartbreak. Elizabeth Taylor’s first husband beat her so badly she lost their baby, leading to her first divorce.

My husband is better than that. Truer, sweeter—a better human being. I’m reminded of this as I want to flee. I’m reminded that roses have thorns, and as much as I want my life to be glamorous and simple and sweet, full of adventure and triumph, full of love and fidelity, that life isn’t like that. Love is complicated. The brain is complicated. Personality is complicated and shifting. What stays the same in a person, against all assaults, what is at a person’s core? What makes them unique?

And so, some books came my way, that I can say I would never have picked up if I had not been invited to a wedding in India.

Before my last series of moves, I had been living in a town of 625 people. Bombay (Mumbai) has over 20 million. There’s no way this won’t fascinate me.

Good luck to everyone in the coming year. Best wishes for a safe and prosperous (and joyful) new year!

WW

 

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Magical Thinking

Did not know this was a psychological disorder. I mean after all Joan Didion seemed to make it mainstream. Paulo Coelho flat out encourages it. Following the breadcrumbs laid down by the universe, imagining significance and symbolism directed to guide you, asking the universe for a sign—and getting one that is personalized—just for you?

I don’t know. I take my magical realism with a grain of salt; however, it does seem that if you set out to notice things, you do. It does seem that if you set an intent to take in the information that comes to you, that some is offered. Things do seem to show up that help. Magical thinking? Unflagging optimism? Mild insanity?

I mentioned in a post a while back that I asked the universe for a sign. I prayed for a sign, demanded a sign. OK, universe, I’m watching you. Give me a sign!

And, it appeared that I got one. I knew it when I saw it. I “felt” it was the sign I was asking for.

A friend had come to visit me in the depths of my impossible situation. She made the effort and showed up. And on her last day with me, she told me about how she dealt with her ex-husband’s family when they all sat around together for hours, and she felt stifled and trapped. It was then that she took up needlepoint. That’s when she whipped out her latest project—a peacock.

The peacock has had significance to me for a long time. As a child, I was fascinated with the only creatures at the zoo who were allowed to run free. Their beautiful displays made me want to touch their feathers. And the sad little peahen. It troubled me that she was so dull and unattractive. At a young age, it just seemed wrong that the male should be beautiful and the female drab and unremarkable. Why would that be so?

Later the peacock hit my consciousness as the symbol of pride for a national television station. “Proud as a Peacock” was the slogan sung to me countless times.

In my twenties I met an interesting man, younger than me so I’m not sure that “man” is quite the right word, young man? Anyway, he was interesting and rightly so, and smug and proud, like a peacock. And I told him this. Later I found that a friend of his had given him a peacock jewelry box. He liked my nickname for him and had adopted it.

Peacocks are a key feature at an area tourist attraction close to where I live, the Maryhill museum, in the Columbia River Gorge, a place on the cusp of beauty and desolation. A castle of sorts brought to America from somewhere I don’t know where.  A replica of Stonehenge, for some reason is close by.

Peacocks were the source of the wild desperate cries on the five acres I bought, and later sold, in eastern Washington. They had been brought in by someone. I don’t know what happened to them, but they ceased being there.

For a while, peacocks abounded everywhere I looked. I seemed to be chased by them. They were on stationery and scarves, blazoned far and wide. It’s not my sign. It’s not symbolic of me. I’m more of a chucker who would like to be a flamingo.

They interest me though. I hear they dance when they hear thunder or before a good rain.

And so this was the rush of feeling I felt when I saw my friend’s embroidery. A peacock. What kind of sign is that? What could it possibly mean?

And then I saw, just the other day, that the peacock is the state bird of India, where I will soon be visiting.

Magical thinking?

I recognized the sign when I saw it, but didn’t understand it. The universe after all is known for making you figure things out for yourself.

But now it seems the peacock is an invitation for me to think about this great bird in a new and different way.

And so I shall.

Ask Shakeel!

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Blog Suspended!

So a few days ago, this blog, the blog I’ve been blogging for, what, nearly four years, was suspended. This happened just as I hit “Publish” on my post All Roads Lead to India. And just like that, my access to my blog was canceled. No explanation. Nothing.

At first I thought my site was hacked—by the Russians!

Or, by the Ukrainians!

By someone who works at Adobe!

I slipped into complete paranoia. I just couldn’t figure it out. What had I done?

It was embarrassing too because I had just shared several links with my boss, who depending on when she tried accessing them, may have seen that my site had been suspended.

So, I followed the links and there was a notice that said something like, “if you feel this action was taken in error, notify us as soon as possible.” So I did. What do you say to a message like this? —> Hey, what’s up. I’ve been blogging for years. What happened?

No one ever responded, but within about ten hours my blog was reinstated as was my access.

So I have a theory. My post about India, which I’ve linked to above, had all kinds of words that might have created automatic flags from an automatic reviewer program. I won’t repeat them here, but I can count 27 words, that when used together, could have raised some robotic bot eyebrows.

I know I don’t own this program. Far from it.

I know I don’t have any rights as I sit here blogging away. I live under some assumption that my work here is my own and that I have some kind of control. When, in reality, I am blogging at the pleasure of WordPress, which can withhold its pleasure if it wishes.

It’s revealing of our times.

It’s frightening.

So goodnight dear friends. Let us hope we can live to blog another day.

And we will as long as we satisfy our robot overlords that we are worthy.

And peaceful.

Let us assume nothing.

So much for free speech.

For some reason, Dovlatov comes to mind.

RIP Sergei.

RIP.

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Pareidolia

Thanks to Steven Novella and The Great Courses, I have recently learned a new word: pareidolia.

Pareidolia is a tendency (a very human tendency) to see a pattern in random noise. One example of this is seeing faces in random shapes like clouds.

In Dr. Steven Novella’s lecture series, “Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills,” Dr. Novella tells how a particular memory is a construction that is re-constructed every time we recall it. Our memories are not recorded and played back for us the same way every time we access them—like a movie or a song. Instead, we assemble our memories again and again each time we recall them, with the effect of changing them every time.

Reality is also a construction. We take in sensory input and mash it all together to form a picture, a view or opinion, of what reality is. We have a system of “reality checking” to verify that we have done an adequate job at this. Some people have better reality checking systems than others. Some people have very poor reality checking systems. Those people may have schizophrenia.

Reality testing is switched down when we dream. That’s why we don’t question the odd things we see in our dreams. I recently listened to a TED Talk by a woman with schizophrenia who said that her reality was like living with a dream going on.

Novella echos this when he says that psychosis is the lack or decreased ability to test reality.

People can contaminate each other’s memories. I was suspicious of this after my husband fell in the shower and the guys from the hotel asked him: “You felt dizzy didn’t you and then you fell?” (Rather than, did you slip and fall?) Liability speaking, that probably makes a difference. Medically speaking, it definitely makes a difference.

I also learned a new definition for emotional intelligence: “the relationship between our motivations and our decisions; the tendency to relieve cognitive dissonance with rationalization.”

Dr. Novella tells us that we are awash in misinformation.

Our brain, approximately 3 pounds of grey jelly, is a tool for thinking, but it’s also a “believing machine.” Novella tells us that our brains are deceptive. Humans possess logic, but we are not inherently logical creatures. And, our thoughts follow the path of least resistance.

The brain consists of 100 billion neurons “and a lot of other cells that support those neurons by modifying and modulating function.”

What (who) are these other cells? We must make friends with them.

It seems that humans are plagued with a brain that can be logical but that evolved to easily accept logical fallacies.

There is so much in this course of thinking about thinking that I can’t even scratch the surface here. This course goes a long way to explain scientific skepticism and how to arrive at conclusions that are likely to be true and to have a sense of how reliable our conclusions are.

When faced with built-in deceptive thinking (even in the healthy brain), the barrage of information we have thrown at us, outside forces that seek to influence us for a buck (or lots of bucks), Dr. Novella gives us some strategies for examining conclusions. He urges us to invest the in process of thinking critically rather than the conclusions we arrive at.

He tells us that we tend to remember emotional events, so want to remember something? Tie an emotion to it.

Narratives are important to us, and we tend to make up the details as needed to make our memory narrative work. This means our memories are terribly flawed.

Reality seems to be a construct that we all need to agree upon. We need to collectively agree on which patterns have significance and which ones are meaningless.

I think that pareidolia must help us with language. Once you speak a language fluently, you can understand a variety of accents without a problem. However, the language learner has trouble understanding a variety of accents because they actually hear and analyze each sound. Fluent speakers rely on this innate pattern finding ability to approximate (and predict) words or phrases to decide quickly what they “must” mean.

Stay with the course to learn about statistics, the scientific method, and how logic works. I found the section on non sequiturs very engaging.

How should we cope with the urge to impose meaning on the patterns that we see? How can we not become emotionally attached to our conclusions?

Novella tells us that humans have an innate desire for control. Feeling a lack of control increases our pattern recognition or pareidolia. Magical thinking gives us the illusion that we can exert some control over otherwise random events. Superstitions are a result of this desire for control.

Novella tells us that “reality is always more complicated than you think.”

If you’re interested in hearing more of what Dr. Novella has to say, you can follow his blog, Science-Based Medicine.

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Afternoon photos

My husband, still brain injured, is going through photos from our trip this summer. He is picking out all the unflattering ones of me, of which, sadly, there are a plenty. He loves these photos, with me my face squinched up in pain, sunburned, eyes in slits, grimacing, cold. He sits and laughs at them and calls to me: hey, you gotta see this!

I wonder, is this what love is? To somehow see something appealing in something, well, not?

I remind him that beautiful women can’t take photos like that.

He doesn’t say anything, but keeps sorting, laughing, and saving.

It’s hard these days. I don’t want a new normal. Sometimes I’m afraid that’s what we’re facing—as I cling to the past. Time tramples over us, and I think, if only I could go to Scotland and see some castles. Maybe I’d come back with a nice accent instead of a tan.

 

 

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Michael Faraday and Other Musings

FaradayWhen asked about heroes, who comes to mind?

My grandfather loved Einstein. My grandmother never quite got on board. I’m not sure why. It could have been the womanizing thing. Or, maybe it was the bomb.

Me, I sometimes wonder who my heroes are. I don’t spend a lot of time looking. For some reason, I want my heroes to just show up and knock on my door. But for a long time, I was in my grandfather’s camp. Einstein is (was) kind of cool.

I’ve been spending the whole year clearing clutter, going through old papers and throwing out as much as possible. I had this crazy idea of leaving. Running away. I often joke that I’m a flight risk.

As I was doing this, I came across some Internet printouts on Thomas Edison, Edith Clarke, Michael Faraday, and Nicola Tesla. I had been hoarding them as is my nature. I couldn’t bear to throw them out until I had read them. So I’ve been holding onto them, for years.

Reading through this stack of papers, I discovered that these were some impressive people. At first glance, you’d think I’d like Edison, but no. He lost me with the experiments on dogs. I don’t care how much the guy perspired. Although the sudden windfall that sent him from rags to riches did capture my imagination, he came across as kind of, well, stuffy and gruff. So no, I am no Edison girl.

Edith Clarke—a female engineer, a human computer. She had the Texas connection. She and I walked on the same 40 acres. She traveled to Turkey to teach for a couple of years and then wound up retiring from the University of Texas. There must still be some Texas loyalty in my blood because I was left unimpressed to learn that upon her retirement she didn’t stay in Texas. She returned home to wherever it was she was from. So no, kudos to Edith, but no, it’s not her.

Tesla, the man who stood up to Edison. The guy who turned out to be right. AC is better. I have to admit; he was in the running. But no. It wasn’t him either.

Who was it? Michael Faraday, of course. The poor boy who divided up his loaf of bread into 14 equal pieces to ensure that he would have something to eat every day of the week. The boy who went to a chemistry lecture, took copious notes, returned to his bookbinding job, bound those notes, and sent them to the lecturer along with a letter begging for employment, begging to be taken away from the drudgery that was his life. Sounds like something I would do. I like this guy. And for Faraday, it worked.

Faraday was interested in all the things I’m interested in: light, magnets, electricity, force fields, strain, tension. He seemed to be onto how all of these things are connected. Light: particle or wave? Both? That’s what I grew up wondering about. It’s all connected. Chemistry is in there too, somewhere.

Faraday figured out induction which led to the generator, and the production of electricity. My life. It would seem.

I’m notorious for connecting things that should not be connected. But upon reading about Faraday, I thought of a conversation I had not so long ago with someone I admire. He was telling me that sometimes tension is good. Bah humbug, I wanted to say. And then I read about Faraday and about waves, the tension that is caught up in a wave, drawn oh so tight until its release and the wave that washes back in the other direction. The ocean. The moon. Tension. Stress.

“Unlike his contemporaries, Faraday was not convinced that electricity was a material fluid that flowed through wires like water through a pipe. Instead, he thought of it as a vibration or force that was somehow transmitted as the result of tensions created in the conductor.”

“When he opened the circuit, however, he was astonished to see the galvanometer jump in the opposite direction. Somehow, turning off the current also created an induced current in the secondary circuit, equal and opposite to the original current. This phenomenon led Faraday to propose what he called the ‘electronic’ state of particles in the wire, which he considered to be in a state of tension. A current thus appeared to be the setting up of such a state of tension or the collapse of such a state.”

He never found the experimental evidence to support this theory, but I like it. Sounds pretty darn good to me.

Unfortunately, I’m way out of my league when I try to talk about these things. But they fascinate me. Gosh, sit me down with a particle physicist any day, and I would be in heaven.

 

 

Why bad boys have an edge

Today I am practicing evolutionary biology—without a license.

Why is it that bad boys fascinate women? You know the ones. The dangerous ones. The ones who don’t play fair. The ones who aren’t especially nice. The ones who are downright awful. The ones who break the rules and betray our trust.

We know they’re bad, oh, yes indeed we do, and yet that deadly combination of good looks and rule breaking is intriguing. Hypnotizing. And, like sad little moths drawn to a flame, many of us fly too close and are doomed.

I’ve been pondering this for some time, and I think I have an answer; well, at least an answer that satisfies me. And this is largely thanks to heuristics, personal experience, and Dan Carlin, not that Dan Carlin is bad. Well, who knows, maybe he is.

So thanks to Dan, I get it. Humans have a long history of violence. This violence is part of our essence. My theory explains why we continue to be violent. It’s because we self select for violence.

In a violent world, what does the woman who wants her progeny to survive do? Has she historically sought out a nice guy? The one who lets others go first? Who clings naively to idealism? The pacifist? The one who won’t fight. Who runs away. The one who sacrifices his own desires for hers?

Or—does she go for the callous man? The gruff man. The one who is wild. Who isn’t easy. Who can’t be tamed.

Choice B. She loves Choice A, but she adores Choice B.

Why is that!?!

I think it is because humans evolved in violence. If you had a nice cave, you were likely to be attacked by strangers who wanted to take it from you. And they could wander by at any time.

Even recent history is unimaginably violent. Things that are going on in the world right now—unspeakable.

So who do you want at your side?

You want the guy who isn’t afraid to do a little blood-letting. They guy who isn’t squeamish. The hard ass. The one who is difficult—impossible to understand. He’s got a bad attitude sometimes. A stern glare. The look of him when he’s angry scares you to death. That’s the one you want. He’s the one who will successfully fight off the wandering pillagers. He’s the one who will keep you safe.

It’s instinct.

Only recently have many of us lived in a societies where the nice guy can prosper. The good guy. The honest guy. The one who always does the right thing. The uninteresting guy—because he’s unpredictable, and needy. He’s the one with the dopey smile. Who doesn’t glare. Who doesn’t scare us. The one we can overpower. And outsmart. We love him, but not with urgency. He doesn’t pull at our thoughts. Logically, we know he’s best for us. But logic isn’t on our side.

We want the bad boy. He challenges us. He captures our imagination. Makes us angry. And delighted. We have to try harder with him. He isn’t a pushover, he’s difficult, and often he isn’t pleased.

Weird. Huh.

Tragic, really, when you think about it.