Portrait of Kestrel

April 26th, 2011

Kestrel and I are continuing her wardrobe-renovation project. After our shopping expedition a few weeks ago, our project today is to go through her existing clothes and decide what to keep and what to toss, and then assess what she has and what she needs.

Here is Kestrel in a plain black dress from Ann Taylor:

Isn’t she beautiful?

As Kestrel noted in the earlier post, I am trying to cut down her wardrobe choices in terms of color and styles. She hopes that doing this will make it easier for her to get dressed in the morning, as she can follow two simple rules: wear two to three colors at a time, and either match a slim skirt or trousers with a looser top, or flowing skirt or trousers with a fitted top. I hope that if Kestrel’s options are narrowed and focused, she’ll be able to develop a better independent sense of style.

After all, when you want to teach someone how to write poetry, you don’t read them “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and then say, “Make like so.” You introduce them to rhyme, to rhythm, to metaphor, to imagery, to form, to vocabulary, to voice. You have them experiment with one or two elements at a time — writing a series of haiku to springtime, a sonnet from Juliet to Romeo or vice versa, a poem based on a single metaphor illustrated by typographical conventions. Once students have isolated and analyzed the elements of a poem, they can start putting those elements together, creating action in the interactions. I’m hoping to break women’s style down in a similar fashion for Kestrel. Updates to come!

Exile, fandom, acne, hair, dance

April 25th, 2011

And I’m back, everyone! The break was nice, although I never had any sort of great Passover-y moment of revelation. One thing I found myself thinking of a lot was the people who were born and died during those 40 years in the wilderness, who had no memory of Egypt and didn’t live long enough to see the Promised Land. I’ve never greatly identified with Moses — the Lord is always sayething unto him, for one thing, and the Lord doesn’t sayeth unto me very often, if at all. But those cynical Gen-Xers of Exodus, tired of the Greatest Generation’s war stories, wondering if they’re anything to hope for, really … them, I get.

Some good reading from last week: this article in the Globe about fandom. It focuses on sports fans, but many of the dynamics are true of fans of anything else (a celebrity, a television show, a band) as well. Are you a “fan” of anything, to the point of buying a t-shirt, following someone on Twitter, or joining a group (online or off) for the purposes of discussing that thing? I’ve become a fairly avid fan of several television shows, most notably “Deadwood,” to the point of writing fan fiction and buying a “Star & Bullock Hardware” shirt.

A piece in Slate on why humans are the only animals to have acne, and also the only ones that would be psychologically bothered by it. (Evolution is a cruel trickster.) New treatments have made acne rarer among teens, but that very fact might increase the suffering of those who can’t afford treatment, or for whom nothing has been successful.

I was fascinated to read that blogger S.E. Smith recently cut her long hair very short, and found that she was darned near considered antisocial for wanting to keep it her business what she did with the ponytail. Specifically, she faced a lot of pressure to donate her hair, a practice which has gone from being a nifty option for people suddenly in possession of a braid no longer attached to their head, to becoming near-mandatory, the default option. The thing you have to explain if you don’t do it.

This bothers me. A great deal. Two years ago, I wrote about a New Yorker article on people who donate kidneys to strangers. My reaction to it then was strong and visceral, and has since become more focused. This notion of one’s body as a resource that may be owed to strangers is deeply problematic. As I wrote two years ago:

I would not donate a kidney to a stranger, nor do I feel any sense of a moral call to do so merely on the grounds that I could. My body and its functions are not some form of wealth that I am hoarding like Scrooge McDuck: they are constitutive of my identity. They are ME. And no one has an a priori right to my blood, my organs, my womb. I may choose to share, but that is my choice. Having two kidneys when others have none is not the same has having two loaves of bread when others have none. The body is different. I do not owe anyone access to my body.

As an etiquette matter, let’s all take note that “Did you donate your hair?” is a question better left unasked.

Finally, on a less existential note, let this hilarious pantomime/interpretive dance by David Armand brighten your Monday. I love this guy’s work! Am I the only one who finds brilliantly talented physical comedians way sexy? (See also: Danny Pudi.)

Capgras and the President

March 28th, 2011

Pascal Boyer has a brilliant post up at the International Cognition and Culture Institute blog on the psychology of birtherism — the belief that “Barack Obama was not born a U.S. citizen.” He likens it to the psychiatric condition of Capgras Syndrome, which manifests itself as the persistent belief that one’s family and friends have been replaced by replicas, clones, aliens, spies, or some other form of impostor.

Capgras happens when people’s ability to recognize others emotionally, as well as visually, breaks down. When I see Mr. Improbable — or even Milo — I’m not only processing visual input, I’m having an emotional reaction to seeing the man (or dog) I know and love; Boyer describes it as a “specific emotional signature.” Without that signature, all I am seeing is a man who looks exactly like my husband, but who stirs in me none of the feelings that I associate with him. Hence, my brain conjures an explanation, however bizarre, to explain the discrepancy between my eyes and my heart.

Turning to birtherism, Boyer writes:

[I]n the spirit of a pop psychology of the masses, let me offer the diagnosis that a large segment of the US population may be experiencing something somewhat similar to the Capgras delusion. That is, when they switch on their TVs and watch the news, they see someone who has all the trappings of a President, acts like a President, lives where the President lives, is treated by everybody as the President, signs bills like the President, gives a State of the Union address to Congress every year like the President? But these people at the same time have a clear and vivid intuition that:

This man is not the President

Now, once you have the intuition, in the same way as in Capgras, all sorts of strange beliefs may seem almost plausible, if they provide a good explanation for why this particular person, with all the right details, still does not quite ring true. In the “two-step model”, Capgras patients come up with alien abductions and suchlike to account for the Unheimlichkeit of their situation. More reasonably (these things are relative), the birthers come up with a conspiracy that this particular American is a Kenyan, that he forged his birth-certificate, that he made up an entire family history, that the entire world media agreed to cover all this up.

Interestingly, Boyer doesn’t attribute the gut feeling that Obama cannot be President to simple racism. Although he doesn’t say it, he implies that a more stereotypically “black” President might cause less dissonance in the public mind. Barack Hussein Obama, by contrast, is biracial, with some family roots in the Muslim world; has a deeper academic background and less political experience than nearly any other president; and generally tends to confound categories and stereotypes.

I think Boyer’s point may well be right for a core of true-believer birthers. I have to wonder if some people feel unsure of the President’s citizenship not because they are fully convinced by birther arguments, nor because they cannot have what they think of as an appropriately presidential emotional reaction to Barack Obama, but simply because the media continues to report on the story. Without having the time, ability, or motivation to research the president’s citizenship, many folks may not have a strong opinion one way or the other, but assume that if there is smoke — as there continues to be, and will be until the end of Mr. Obama’s presidency — that there must be some fire, somewhere.


March 24th, 2011

Yesterday I conducted a casual Facebook experiment that yielded startling results. I’d noticed for a while that a disproportionate number of my women friends — and my very closest, sister-from-another-mother friends at that — had been diagnosed with AD(H)D. Wondering what might be up with that, I posted on FB asking any women with ADD to “like” the post. Eight have liked it since last night. And none of them were even among the group I was thinking of. (There is yet a third group of women who haven’t responded, nor have they been diagnosed, but I certainly wonder about them.)

I can think of plenty of girlfriends who don’t have ADD, of course: Amazing Genius Science Girl doesn’t, nor do several of the Fabulous Bureaucrats or the Renaissance Lawyer, and I don’t think the Traveling Psychologist does either. But clearly AD(H)D is way, way overrepresented in my ladyposse.

What is up with that? This is sparking all kinds of questions, people. For starters:

1. What’s the interaction between gender and AD(H)D? Do the symptoms manifest differently? Are the rates significantly different? (One thing that seems odd is that I can’t generate a similar list of male friends or exes with ADD; if it’s the case that men have it at greater rates, that makes my distracted-girlfriend situation even more remarkable.)

2. What other traits go along with AD(H)D? Is there some common thread among all these women? Honestly, I can’t think of one offhand — they range from bubbly and extroverted “with a low delight threshold” (a self-description of one of them), to socially anxious and downbeat. Some are tomboys, some are conventionally feminine. They’re all verbal, bright, and funny, but not in a way that seems different than my other friends.

3. Why do they like me? Attraction goes both ways, after all. I don’t have AD(H)D in any shape or form, so it’s not like-likes-like. I think if anything, it might be that I tend to be good at keeping track of several lines of thought simultaneously: I can listen to you talk about French feminist theory or the latest Mark Bittman column while simultaneously keeping an eye on whether the barista has called your order yet and remembering to remind you to get tofu on the way home. And if I know that’s the deal with you, I don’t particularly mind doing it, either.

A friend of mine whose daughter has ADHD told me last week, interestingly, that she’d heard AD(H)D girls tended to get along better with boys than with other girls.

Speak to me, readers, of AD(H)D and gender and friendship! What books or articles on AD(H)D would you recommend? Do you have it, and if so, what qualities do you look for in friends who don’t? If your children have it, how do you see their relationships playing out? Have you ever noticed that you have an unusually large proportion of friends who have AD(H)D, or dyslexia, or autism spectrum disorder, or what have you, and what did you make of that? If you have AD(H)D, how do you feel your experiences with it differ from those of the opposite sex?

UPDATE: It occurs to me that one of the reasons I don’t have many AD(H)D male friends is that I automatically go into a keeping-track, environment-scanning, caretaking mode with folks who aren’t as organized as I am. (Suppressing this tendency takes more energy than giving in to it.) Doing this kind of emotional/cognitive work for women friends makes me feel competent and loving, but doing it for men makes me feel either like a subordinate Girl Friday or worse, a bossy nanny.

Handshakes, pot, and chickens

March 1st, 2011

Dan Ariely, behavioral economist and all-around mensch, has a post up about the advantages of “handshake” agreements — contracts that do not have exhaustive thoroughness as their goal.

Even lawyers see the risks of complete contracts. As part of my research, I asked the dean of Duke’s law school, David Levi, if I could take a look at the school’s honor code. Expecting a detailed contract written by lawyers for lawyers, I was shocked to find that the code went something like this: If a student does anything the faculty doesn’t approve of, the student won’t be allowed to take the bar exam. It was, in essence, a handshake agreement!

“Imagine that a student decides to deal drugs and raise chickens in his apartment,” Levi said. “Now suppose that our code of conduct bans many activities but doesn’t address pot or chickens. The student has honored the code. But does Duke really want that student to become a lawyer?”

Complete contracts are inevitably imperfect. So what’s better: a complete contract that mutates goodwill into legal trickery, or an incomplete contract that rests on the understanding we share of appropriate and inappropriate behavior?

Dan’s logic is sound (more on the dean’s in a moment), but the rub lies in his phrase “the understanding we share.” Handshake agreements work to the extent that there are shared norms of behavior. But even assuming the greatest goodwill in the world, there are different styles of handshakes. “Diversity” doesn’t only mean intriguing variations in skin color, appealingly displayed like the bridge of the Enterprise or a Benneton ad. Diversity may mean fundamentally different beliefs about time, personal responsibility, power and authority. These different assumptions, if unaddressed, can cause things to go sideways despite the best efforts of the people involved.

As far as the dean’s point is concerned, I disagree. When one is speaking of a dorm room, either pot or chickens might create insurmountable logistical problems, but neither are ethically problematic. In fact, a person raising either one would of necessity develop a patience, an attention to detail, a sense of humor, and a humility by which many lawyers might be improved.

Learning social skills

February 23rd, 2011

A friend of mine posted a link to this article on Facebook last week. It’s about a program to teach social skills to kids who don’t naturally pick that sort of thing up:

Yet until now, it’s always been assumed making friends is something that young people should learn to do by themselves — even if some are naturally better at it than others. Now that idea is being turned on its head by a new approach that treats problems forming social relationships in the same way as a learning difficulty, like dyslexia … But in the same way as techniques have been developed to help with those with academic learning difficulties, there are now skills that can aid children with poor social interaction, according to American child communication expert Michelle Garcia Winner, who first devised the Social Thinking programme to teach “bright but socially clueless students” at high schools in California.

Take a look. I think it’s brilliant that such skills are being taught, although it’s not quite as groundbreaking as it might seem: old-fashioned “charm schools” had a similar curriculum, without edifying jargon about “theory of mind” or “mirror neurons” to validate it.

There’s a tendency, I think, to consider social skills indicative of the kind of person you are, of one’s essential nature or moral quality. The idea of learning social skills has an unpleasant whiff of manipulation, of Becky Sharp, about it.

I know I would have benefited from this kind of training when I was a kid. As I’ve written often before, I tend to be good at analyzing social situations precisely because I don’t have a “natural” sense of it. (I have a natural sense of balance, and I couldn’t teach another person how to take a fall without injury if I had to.) I discovered etiquette books when I was in my early teens, and devoured all sorts of self-help and tips and tricks for the next decade or so. Studying theater helped even more.

What about you? How did you learn to make sense of the social world when you were growing up? How do you coach your kids — do they only need instruction in “manners,” or do they need help with some of the deeper, more tacit, aspects of the social dance?


November 10th, 2010

Here‘s a good, if slightly facile, article on how to protect yourself against winter depression.

I’m not looking forward to this winter. It’s not as though normally, I’m all “W00T! Boston winter, yeah! Bring it on and keep it up through April again this year!” But generally winter is a slight annoyance, a constraint, a nuisance. This year I’m afraid, to be honest. Because as the days get darker and shorter and colder, so are my thoughts and my temper and my spine. Because last winter was when I was really, really sick, and now I’ve got that irrational, but hardly abnormal, fear that as winter descends, I’ll get sick again.

Even if I don’t, I want to be extra careful and good to myself this winter. Right now I feel scared and anxious about the approach of the cold weather. So I made a list of a few things I’m going to do in order to keep myself on track:

1. Invent lots of new vegetable & whole-grain stews, and share my best recipes with my readers, and ask for yours as well.

2. Stretch and meditate to the Hebrew prayers I have on my iPod at least once a day.

3. Write at a coffee shop at least twice a week, even if it’s really cold. There are several within a seven-minute walk. I have a brand-new 800 fill count Patagonia winter coat. I can walk seven minutes to a coffee shop.

4. Study Torah and write more about Judaism. Ideally, for money. (Yes, I know that sounds like the most anti-Semitic joke ever, but I mean it. I want to do this for my own benefit, but I really do want to start getting my religious writings published. I think I have a distinctive voice, and it’s a way of participating in my religion that is very, very meaningful to me.)

5. Take up photography. I’ve done bits and pieces of arts and crafts, but the problem with it is, then you have arts and crafts all over your home, and what do you do with them? (Especially if your artistic style is dark and gothic. It’s great if you’re a knitter and can knit scarves and booties, but you can hardly give someone a mixed-media Cornell box based on 16th-century anatomical drawings and clipped-out phrases from Poe and de Tocqueville as a christening gift.) I can’t quite grapple with the logistical problems of creative efforts that can’t be archived on a computer. Fortunately, photos can be.

6. Make physical pleasure a priority. Well, yes, Mr. Improbable gave a big cheer when I told him that resolution, but I’m not only talking about that. I mean burning incense. Taking time at night to rub lotion into my legs and feet. Getting a massage when I want one. Curling up on the sofa with a book and blasting the space heater right at myself until I feel like a human hot toddy. Taking a sauna after working out. Making time to sit and really gaze into my art books — or, for that matter, at some of the art I’ve bought or made myself. Taking hot baths with essential oils. Going to Colonial Drug and smelling the perfumes. I’m good at giving my brain pleasure — through work, books, conversation, television, blogging. I’m less good at giving my body pleasure. (I’m hardly the only one, I suspect, in our culture that is simultaneously Puritanically afraid of the body and hypersexual. I almost blushed writing the phrase “giving my body pleasure” — it seems dirty, crude to say. But I believe my body is as holy as my mind. I believe pleasure and beauty are religious values, not sins. I believe God wants me to be happy as well as good. Maybe if I act on those beliefs, I will truly feel them as well as believe them.)

7. Ramp down December, ramp up January and February. Because we all know December’s not the hard one. The first snow is fun. And there’s Christmas and New Year’s and Hanukkah and such to keep you occupied. It’s January and February, when the snow is old and dirty and half the Christmas lights have burned out on your neighbor’s house but he still won’t take them down and your social calendar looks as blank as Don Draper when faced with another person’s emotional need, that life gets hard. So start planning now for some treats for yourself in January. A girls’ or boys’ night out, a potluck, a costume party, trapeze lessons — whatever does it for you, and brings a little jolt of novelty into your life. Don’t burn your body and mind and wallet out during December and leave yourself depleted in January. Boston winters are a marathon, not a sprint!

(I originally typed that as “spring.” Paging Dr. Freud!)

So that’s my list. Probably a little heavy, because I’m dealing with stuff that not everyone else is. Of course, I’m also not dealing with winter stuff that other folks have to: fine, maybe you’re not worried about your digestive system collapsing, but I don’t have to worry about a commute or what to do on my kid’s snow days. Point is, winter’s hard. And this time I’m gearing up for it. Are you? What are you doing?

Milo: a liberal, not a hippie

November 8th, 2010

Mr. Improbable was out of town this week, so as usual I took the opportunity to catch up with some of my girlfriends. Friday night, two friends from synagogue came over for pizza and vodka whipped cream and general silliness. We made it a slumber party because I didn’t want them driving home, and they had a class near my neighborhood in the morning anyway.

Erika and Molly are a lesbian couple who have been married for five years or so. And here’s the thing: Milo figured that out. He immediately realized that these were not two separate people, these were a PACK. If one of them told him to do something he didn’t want to do, he’d look at the other to see if she really meant it. He spent most of his time sitting in between them, and was happiest when he could be touching both of them at the same time. If they weren’t close enough to do that, he’d at least manage to be able to watch them both at the same time.

That’s not how he acts with any two people, even good friends. That’s how he acts with me and Mr. Improbable. That’s how he acts with a pack.

God knows I am not one to sentimentalize dogs or their innocence or insight or capacity for teaching moral lessons. I find that an insult to both philosophy and dogs. But Milo has no politics. He has no ideology. He only knows what his senses tell him, and what they told him is that my friends Molly and Erika are one.

My dog can recognize gay marriage. I hope the rest of the world catches up with him soon.

Milo is a good liberal who respects all treat-bearing people equally and recognizes nontraditional families. He ain’t no damn hippie, though. When Erika pulled out a guitar and started singing folk songs to him, he totally flipped a nutty. Good dog.

The psychology of stories

October 19th, 2010

On the Emily Rooney show today, I talked about stories: the story of “Mad Men,” the storytelling initiative at Central Square Theater, the stories drunken garden club ladies told a research psychologist back in 1976. (I’ll get a link up to the show as soon as possible.)

All these things — the kinds of stories we like to read, hear, or watch; the power of storytelling to build community and identity; the kinds of stories we tell about ourselves — are under the general umbrella of “narrative psychology.” For those of you who are interested, here are some recent articles of note on psychology and stories:

This study attempts to categorize people by their media preferences. The critiques in the comments are spot on: this is a very psychology-focused study, and disregards the whole field of media and communication research. Still, I do find it interesting — in my own dissertation, I tried to link up personality traits and reading preferences.

This New York Times article looks at recent research in how people tell the stories of their lives. We are willing to admit our faults, but need to believe we are continually improving.

Attempts to give an evolutionary explanation for storytelling are often embarrassingly bad stories themselves, but I liked this quite a bit.

This isn’t a study of narrative psychology per se, but of experimental philosophy. However, it’s about the use of stories to get at people’s moral intuitions (focusing more on the paradoxical nature of those intuitions than on the methodological problems of “trolleyology”).

Happy reading!

Being right versus being effective

October 19th, 2010

Mr. Improbable sent me a link to this New York Times article about getting rural Kansans to embrace cleaner energy. Most of the people written about in the article don’t accept the reality of global climate change, so it was initially believed that getting them on the conservation bandwagon would be difficult — until clean-energy group “ran an experiment to see if by focusing on thrift, patriotism, spiritual conviction and economic prosperity, it could rally residents of six Kansas towns to take meaningful steps to conserve energy and consider renewable fuels.”

And it worked. Because it didn’t try to change people’s beliefs, or their values, or their identity. Rather, it asked them to live up to the values they already embraced.

Merengue dog

September 16th, 2010

If you’ve been on the internets at all in the past two weeks, you’ve probably seen the amazing merengue-dancing dog. If not, do check this out:

I’ve seen some good canine freestyle dancing, and Milo and I have rocked it out to the soundtrack to “8 Mile” once or twice, but this is different. This dog actually has natural rhythm, which I didn’t know dogs were capable of. As a friend of mine described it:

I didn’t just marvel at how long the dance was, and how many different sub-routines there were, but how darned well the dog just plain moved. There were times when I’d all but swear Carrie was wagging her tail in time to the music.

She has nature on her side when it comes to focusing on her dance partner, but those two move delightfully well together on the dance floor, just like truly good dancers do. It’s something human and dog are doing *together*, for each other. It’s clearly not one-sided, not dog performing for human, but dog and human having a blast together, and on a dance floor at that.

Exactly. Look at Carrie’s face:

No, you’re not anthropomorphizing; that’s a smile, and a proud one too, of a dog who is interacting with her pack in what she knows is an appropriate way. Clearly, she is loving the attention and the knowledge that she is good at what she is doing. (If you have a dog, and its face doesn’t look like this at least some of the time when you are training it, check out a different training technique. This is how they ought to look. The Milo version of that face is on the last photo of this article.)

Dancing together, whether you are leading or following, requires a solid understanding of your partner’s mind. The extent and nature of this understanding in dogs is what the Canine Cognition Lab (which I wrote about here) is trying to tease out. The social sciences have traditionally had two approaches: idiographic and nomothetic. Idiographic means the study of the individual as distinct from all others; nomothetic means the study of populations and groups. Both have their place. The idiographic approach is better when highly exceptional individuals — savants, children who have been raised in isolation, people with specific kinds of brain damage — can be studied to teach us about the boundaries of the human (or canine) experience. It can also be useful when we simply don’t know enough about a population to even begin to figure out how to test them.

The clever reader has probably figured out what method I think would be best to study dogs, at this point in our knowledge.

What I don’t know about dreams

August 6th, 2010

Following up on yesterday’s post about dreams and Paxil — I learned a fair amount about dreams during my work with Alan Hobson. One thing I still don’t know, however, is why certain dream plots are so common: performance-anxiety dreams like the Actor’s Nightmare, having one’s teeth fall out, missing a train. And I don’t know to what extent these “common” dreams are culturally determined. If anyone has good resources on this — empirical, not mystical — I’d be interested to know about them.

The Paxil thing, cont’d

August 5th, 2010

So as I mentioned a while back, I went on Paxil about six months ago as part of the whole mind-body thing. Clearly, my gut was not going to calm down until my brain told it to, no matter how much yogurt and bananas I ate. (Yes, after about a month of no substantive posting, I figured I’d jump right into the deep end. Come on, you’re with me, right?)

Going on the Paxil coincided with cutting way back on drinking, and the two together did a real number on my dreams. Drinking alcohol before bed — even a seemingly modest glass or two of wine, if it’s a regular habit — can suppress dream sleep, which means that when you quit, you may get a bounceback effect. Add to that the fact that SSRIs intensify dreams, and things got quite exciting for a while.

After graduate school, I worked for a while with Alan Hobson on the psychology of dreams. As I’ve written about before, one of Alan’s ideas is that we solve problems in our dreams much as we do in real life, we simply don’t question the bizarre. Alan also believed that Freud and psychoanalysis had led people to focus too much on the symbolism of dreams. When you stop trying to figure that out, and instead focus on the story and the emotions, what the dream “means” will usually become quite clear.

The power of a dream lies in its story, and in how that story affects you. The set and props are just whatever your unconscious mind could most quickly grab: images from the day’s business; random memories that floated up in response to this color or that smell; faces or places you watched on television before bed. This is why there’s no point to “dream dictionaries” that purport to tell you what the various symbols in your dreams mean. Dream symbols are at once universal (ever go through a computer training with co-workers, and discover afterward that many of you dreamed of the program you were learning that night?) and idiosyncratic (a cigar may be merely a cigar to Sigmund, but it might symbolize the Cuban embargo to Rosalita, or her father’s cancer to Dora, or even a penis to James).

Anyway, about a month or so after I’d been on the medication, I had a dream that nicely illustrated both the principles above and the effect that Paxil had had on on my problem-solving style.

I’d been over to a friend’s house that night to catch up on some Tivo’ed episodes of “Big Love.” (It’s a fun show to watch in batches — when you watch several episodes back-to-back, you realize that every time someone smiles, something horrible happens within 10 seconds.) Unsurprisingly, that night, I had the classic Actor’s Nightmare: I’d been cast as Bill Henrickson’s fourth wife, but no one had bothered to give me a script.

Was I anxious or worried? Oh, heck no. I have a fair amount I’d like to say to those characters, so until the directors put a script in my hand, I was going to say what I thought. (I recall telling first wife Barb, “Listen to how Bill yells orders at you! My boss doesn’t talk to me that way, and he’s my boss! A person’s spouse certainly shouldn’t bark at them like that.”) And if the director or other actors didn’t like what I had to say, well, give me the script, already, and I’ll stop improvising and say what you want.

Have you ever had a dream that used to make you anxious, but doesn’t anymore? Or a kind of dream you stopped having once certain problems in your waking life got resolved? Or a dream that makes more sense to you now that I’ve talked about the “story, not symbolism” principle?

So, the Paxil thing

June 8th, 2010

As I mentioned last week, I went on Paxil in December. My digestive system had not been working well for a couple of years, and what had once been an occasional annoyance turned into a full-time debilitation by last fall. As it turned out, I have the trifecta: IBS, gastritis, and esophageal reflux disease. This was going to require not only medication, time, and rest, but significant changes to my diet and cutting out alcohol. And as my gastroenterologist is one of the good ones who realizes that I am not a bunch of interconnected malfunctioning tubes, but a person, she suggested I go to behavioral health and get myself on, as she put it, “something that will help you cope without dissolving your esophagus.”

Now, here’s the thing. Every time I had gone to this doctor before with a bout of gut misery, she would ask, “Are you under any particular stress?” And I would say, “No.”

And, having seen the incredible difference that Paxil has made in my life, I was obviously wrong. Why didn’t I answer the question correctly?

Because of how it was asked, that’s why. People are notoriously susceptible to answering a question based on how it’s worded: for example, a recent study showed that more people agreed that “gay men and lesbians” should be able to serve in the military than that “homosexuals” should be able to serve in the military. Same question, obviously, but “homosexuals” sounds clinical and perverted, while “gay men and lesbians” sounds like people you know.

The question “Are you under stress?” or “Are there particular stressors in your life?” is a question that leads me to look outward, away from my emotions and to the objective circumstances of my life. And every time I did, I simply couldn’t see anything that could be, almost literally, twisting my gut into knots. My husband and I get along well. We are both in relatively good health, physically and financially. Yes, sometimes it can be difficult to juggle multiple jobs and projects, but I’ve always preferred to have a lot going on (and in this economy, having multiple sources of income seems like a good thing). I have good friends to confide in. What did I have to be stressed about?

But if she’d said, “Do you feel anxious?” — oh, I would have given a very different answer to that. Because that’s a question that would lead me to look inside, to how I felt. And I am an anxious person. Not because of my life circumstances, but because of how my brain chemicals are mixed. My flight-or-fight response threshold is ridiculously low.

And it isn’t anymore. I don’t have the off-the-chain startle reflex that I used to. I find it easier to read e-mails criticizing my work, even when they’re completely hateful, without my heartbeat going into overdrive. To my great surprise, even Milo has picked up on this. Before, if he was sitting on my lap at night while I watched TV or movies, he’d leap out of the chair and run to the window barking at the slightest noise. Now, he’s more likely to lift his head, growl, and settle back down immediately when I say “It’s just the wind, little guy.”

I’m amazed that the way a question was worded kept me from getting the help I needed for several years. I study this kind of thing: I know about cognitive biases, and the power of language and framing, and even a fair bit about temperament and brain chemistry. It’s a good lesson in staying humble and always, always, remembering to look at a situation from more than one perspective.

Going on Paxil really did a job on my dream life, too, in some fairly amusing ways. But I’ll save that for another post.

Metaphor du jour

June 7th, 2010

One of the reasons I love writing an advice column is because I do my best thinking not in a solitary state of meditation, but in response to other people. And here’s a non-advice-related example. A friend of mine e-mailed me a week or so ago to ask about the common distinction between left brain/right brain, and how much of that is actually based in science and how much is simply shorthand for analytical v. artsy-fartsy.

I gave him some basic 411 about the different brain hemispheres, and the corpus callosum, and handedness, and neural plasticity. Then I summed it up with this:

“I mean, sure, they’re different, but it’s like Manhattan v. Brooklyn. You can’t really imagine one without the other, and everything is constantly commuting between one and the other. Real estate’s a little cheaper in the right hemisphere, and the left hemisphere is more influential in the world of ideas and commerce, but fundamentally, it’s two halves of a whole.”

I gotta say, I’m fairly proud of that one. And it sure beats the last metaphor I came up with for the difference between Manhattan and Brooklyn.