Wednesday, November 26, 2014

It's That Time!

Ah, the holidays. Although Christmas decorations started appearing in stores immediately after Halloween, for me the season doesn't really begin until Thanksgiving. That's when the shopping begins in earnest--well, okay, I just fibbed. Now that I think of it, I have bought a few gifts on sale, for who can resist a sale? But you know what I mean. Thanksgiving commences the season of overeating, running up my credit cards, avoiding shopping malls at all costs, and avoiding parties at all costs. If it weren't for online shopping, I'd be a total wreck. I absorb desperation and negative energy no matter how many psychic protective boundaries I build around myself. And let me tell you, "Black Friday" is aptly named. I know the original reason was because that's when companies finally went into the black instead of the red, but lately it seems every year brings some horrid new video of fistfights at Wal-Mart.


This was all so easy when I was drinking. Somebody is rude to me at the store and injures my tender psyche? I'd just come home and toss back a vodka martini. Or two. Or three.

I have to go to a holiday party, and my friend Pat's husband asks me to dance? And it's some old-fashioned waltzy sort of music that I'm clueless how to dance to, so he leads and I try my best to not stomp his toes? Eh, who cares? I can go back to the table and down myself a big ole spiked eggnog. Or two. Or three.

There are twelve people gathered around the table eating, relatives of my wife who all seem to have the name Bruce, and I'm expected to talk about fishing or Texas Hold 'Em poker? Pass the cranberry sauce. Oh, and that bottle of champagne.

This is the time of year I find not drinking to be most difficult. But it's merely stress; I know that. So, I remind myself that for every good time I once had drinking, there was a worse time. And that once I started, I really couldn't stop. Always, always, there was hell to pay the next morning. Let me tell you, it is decidedly not fun to open Christmas presents and smile and say "thank you" when you are trying to not vomit all over the pile of gifts and your head feels like a hundred elves with jingle bells and tiny hammers are inside your skull tapping away at your brains.

So I deal. I remind myself that half the horrors I imagine are inside my own head. I don't have to be "on" every second. No one expects that. And when I get tired, I can retreat, and they will understand. For this weekend, I've already downloaded a couple of movies on iTunes that I've been wanting to see; I'll bring my earbuds. On my Kindle I've got The Red Tent, which I've been meaning to read since forever. And I have some papers I need to grade as well--something I can't get out of, even if I wanted to. No introvert can make herself an extravert.

And no alcoholic can solve any problem by giving in and taking a drink.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Leave Your Footprints Everywhere

You've heard the expression, "Leave no trace."

This applies to hiking in the woods, swimming in pristine waters, climbing a mountain, exploring a cave ... leave it the way you found it.

With social media, the opposite applies: "Leave your footprints everywhere!" Seriously, being online is one big "Kilroy Was Here" written virtually everywhere. But I admit I'm discovering, with pre-marketing a book, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. You're expected to, well, sell yourself. Be OUT THERE. Seriously, my publisher wants to know my Twitter handle, my blog url, my Facebook page, all of it. A part of me understands this. It's good to be easy to find, for interviews, reviews, "your two cents" in an article or a byline elsewhere, for they all help sell books.

On the other hand, another part of me just wants to go jump in bed, pull the covers over my head, and hide. That's the introvert in me, coupled with the person with social anxiety disorder who says, "No! They'll hate me! Make them leave me alone! Wah!" If I were only writing great literature, I could probably get away with being a recluse and lying in bed all day, eating, say, a stick of butter a day like Shirley Jackson or cackling at the top of the stairway and then scampering to my room, slamming the door behind me like Emily Dickinson, and no one would care--but, alas, I'm hardly in their league.

So I guess social media is, in a way, a blessing because I can put myself OUT THERE without having to really go out there.

Consequently, I'm making a big chain of footprints all over the damn place. You can find my Youtube channel under my name--"Joyce Luck"--and I've started organizing videos into playlists such as "Feed Your Inner Geek." This blog feeds directly to Twitter, which then feeds the posts to Facebook. I'm on Instagram, too. And LinkedIn. If you can't find me by using my real name, then try "Hapless Tigger." That's right. I'm now pretty darn easy, beeyotch.

Of course, it also means I'll be easier to heckle or harass, but I'll cross that bridge if I even reach it.

See, that's the other good thing about social media. If it gets to be too much, I can delete, unplug, and vanish and lick my wounds where no one can see me. Or, I can be joyful and spread the love.

I'm wishing for the love. For, really, who isn't?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Educate Yourself on the Keystone XL Pipeline

Ah, the Keystone XL Pipeline. The political spin is that it will help America in two major ways: (1) it will create jobs here and (2) it will decrease our dependence on foreign oil (I guess people are conflating America and Canada, since the company constructing and primarily using it is Canadian, which makes it foreign, but perhaps since the oil would go from the tar sands to the Gulf in a pipeline that traverses our country, folks are thinking that's preferable to relying on oil from the Middle East. Or, TransCanada, the company in question, keeps stressing that some bit of the oil going through the pipeline(s)--it's more than one, people, all linked together--would actually be oil produced in America. The CEO mentions a city in Montana. Oh, and I've also heard a third reason tossed out: that the increased oil supply would lower gas and heating prices here. So, let's take each benefit in turn.

True, to construct the pipeline, there would be temporary contracting jobs given to American workers (about 42,000 people for two years). That's nothing to sneeze at in this economy, because these tend to be good jobs. However, once the pipeline is finished (parts of it are already constructed), even the CEO of TransCanada admits the number of employees needed to maintain the pipeline would be about 50. Fifty is about the number your local McDonald's hires. See here:

Second, there is absolutely no guarantee TransCanada would sell all the oil to the United States. Why should they? Companies exist to turn a profit. So if the company can sell oil to, say, China, for more dollars a barrel, why would they give a cut-rate to the United States? That makes no business sense. Estimates are that US companies might buy about half of the oil, truck it to their refineries, and then resell the oil to other countries in the form of gasoline. Hence all the oil wouldn't necessarily go to Americans even if American-based companies bought it. See this:

So that kills reason three right off the bat: the energy companies have no particular devotion to the United States. These companies are multinational. We shouldn't see prices come down much, if at all, because of increased supply caused by the XL Pipeline. Fact is, we already have excess supply and are are already shipping it to other countries in South America. (See article above.) I'd bet we'd continue to do so to keep demand here somewhat high.

So the question is now: why are we even considering expanding a pipeline right through the middle of the United States if it won't benefit us in any major way? Aside from the politicians who own stock in TransCanada and stand to profit when the price of shares go up--I don't really count that; they shouldn't pass legislation on the basis of whether or not it benefits them personally, although you know and I know they certainly do; nothing new there--I really can't find a compelling reason to say "okay" to running a series of pipelines across our heartland. Pipelines fail, things go wrong, humans make mistakes--how many times have we seen oil spills that kill wildlife, fish, and hurt smaller businesses? I'm trying to picture a big ol' pipeline bursting and spewing out tar sands oil (the less clean of them all) all over, say, rich farmland, or bursting near a river and poisoning some city's water supply. Such might--MIGHT--be a risk worth taking if Americans really stood to benefit in any great way from the XL Pipeline, but I'm just not convinced the benefits outweigh the huge negative.

Now, as you can see from the graphic, much of the pipeline already exists in the US. The logical thing to do is to investigate if the existing pipeline has caused any environmental damage, or what the likelihood of environmental damage might be. The environmental impact study requested by President Obama doesn't appear to have addressed that. It appears to have addressed how the pipeline might impact climate change in Canada. Conclusion? Probably not a lot. You can read a summary of the findings here, but it's also available online if you search for it. 

That's nice to know, but what Americans are concerned about is our land, our countryside, our rivers, our crops, our backyards, the Gulf. Seriously, I can't find much of anything but speculation. Those who support the pipeline say the risks are minimal. Those who don't say the risks are underestimated.  But, I'm inclined to think other TransCanada pipelines are a decent indication of how this pipeline will behave, and voila! Twelve oil spills in the first year of operation here. Another similar company's tar sands pipeline spilled a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010, and despite clean up efforts there, about forty miles of that river are reported to still be contaminated. Why would the Keystone XL Pipeline be especially benign over any other? You decide:

Finally, here is another summary of the supposed benefits of the pipeline with additional reasons those benefits are either outright falsehoods or grossly misstated:

So... will our Congress and Senate continue pandering to Big Oil, or will our senators and representatives take care of Americans and this land we inhabit? I'm skeptical. Lately they just do what the money tells them to do.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Winter Blues Already?

The sun will always rise on a new day. It's up to each of us to make it glorious.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

My New Book!

Well, I was silly when I wrote I'd be able to start blogging again once my book draft was done. Is any book ever "done?" After it sat for a month, I picked it up again and started quarreling with the words on the page. Then school started, so this semester I've been teaching, grading papers, and revising my book.

The good news? The book is finally out to a publisher, so now the only changes can be basic copy edits ... so it's time to put this project down.

So saying, here's the book trailer for the new book, slated for publication (tentatively) in spring 2015. Share this trailer widely and freely if you know of anyone who is interested in the subject matter. The video will be updated as soon as a publication date is set.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Holy Shyte, Five Years!

My friends on Facebook are amazing. It's just now past noon, and already over a hundred people have congratulated me on reaching five years' sobriety. Five years. Wow. That's a milestone for sure, especially when I think about what I was like before I quit drinking. I couldn't imagine not drinking. I thought I'd get boring or be bored. I was afraid I'd lose all my buddies. I couldn't conceive of what would give life its "perk" if it weren't having a buzz. Everything was tied to drinking: going to the race track, watching the Giants or Niners on television, preparing a meal (this was tied to "sampling" the wine while cooking and inevitably having to open a second bottle)... you name it, I'd find a reason booze had to be a part of the deal for me to have any fun.

When I checked into rehab at 11am five years ago, I'd had an evening drinking the night before--my last night. I didn't overindulge, at least not by my definition. Still, when the facility checked me in, I hadn't had a drink since midnight, but I still blew a .04. My norm, back then, was probably enough alcohol to poison the average person. It had taken years to build up that colossal tolerance. But, oddly enough, I was reluctant to call myself an alcoholic.

1,826 days later, I have to laugh at myself.

Well, I didn't get boring, and I haven't become bored. If anything, my life has become much richer, so much more layered. I definitely don't miss the hangovers. I know I'm better in the classroom because I'm always fully present. Instead of drinking at nights and wasting my time acting out or picking fights or "writing" something that, the next day, was virtually incomprehensible, I settle down evenings by listening to lectures at The Great Courses or watching documentaries or reading. No doubt that's boring to some, but it's not boring to me. I like using my brain. And, I've written an entire book that's actually readable.

Have I lost my buddies? Some of them, sure. But I let them go, not the other way around. I just have realized drama and negativity aren't fascinating qualities. They're actually a waste of energy. Likewise, I've dropped other friends I didn't think would be in the original group. Sober, I see that certain folks just aren't worth the drain they put on my psyche. Dishonest people are out. Racists and bigots are out. People who think it's amusing to criticize, make fun of, or insult other people are out. Life's too short.

I can't say I've felt their loss. Instead, I've felt more peace of mind. And for every person who's gone, several others have taken their place.

I've found a spiritual life.

I try to do at least one kindness per day, no matter how small.

I've switched on my creativity otherwise by painting or playing guitar, even though I'm not great at either. They both bring me pleasure anyway.

My relationship with my wife is stronger than it's ever been.

What can I say? My life is better, no longer crazy and out of control.  I can't even imagine why I let myself fall into that dark hole of addiction in the first place, but I slipped into it somehow. I'm just grateful I got sick of being there and grateful I had the support of my wife, her family, and enough friends and co-workers who were there for me when I was scared out of my wits. 

 It's been a great five years. Bring on the next five! But, as always, one day at a time.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Something to Think About....

The above list describes the standard make-up of our political institutions in America, that is, our Senate and House of Representatives who are made up of people purporting to represent ALL of us: "we, the people."

Here is a FACT: the above describes exactly 6% of the US population. 

Black people, Asians, Latinos, other people of color, gay/bi/trans people, women, poor people, single people, uneducated people, young people, and the unemployed are not represented in any way approaching parity (or proportionate representation) in the U.S. government.  It never has. It's gotten a teeny bit better, but parity is a long, long way off.

Now, the United States of America is not a true democracy (it never was); it is a republic, but we still like to pretend the people have a voice and that our elected representatives vote as we, the people, would have them vote. But if you consider the above, you realize why they so often don't and instead just vote a party platform that has been articulated and paid for, if you will, by any number of corporate interests. 

Until our government starts to actually look like we do and not just like the 6%, we will continue to have a populace that feels (and is) largely disenfranchised. The two-party system is failing us. We need more electable, viable candidates than just the two dishes we are offered.

But we have to do our part. If we want change, we have to put forth the viable candidates. Otherwise, a lot of potato lovers or pasta lovers will be stuck with having to choose between salad or tunafish the rest of their days.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Dan Fogelberg's "The Reach" (on 12 string)

I always thought this was a pretty song, if a little over-orchestrated on the album. But I have always been afraid to learn to play it because of the alternate tuning (open D).  It was never one of Fogelberg's hits, which is a good thing, because his hit songs tended to be kind of schmaltzy. I prefer his songs that tell stories.

This takes me back to my college days for sure. How old am I? Well, it was before CDs and the personal computer were common. We'll just leave it at that.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson

As with anything, there are always multiple sides to a story and several ways of looking at a conflict. But assuredly, no conflict would ever exist without two opposing sides. "It takes two to tango," as the saying goes. Things simply don't happen in a complete vacuum.

And this is how I view situations like the one that has been unfolding in Ferguson, MO. I think "The Truth" of the matter lies between the two extremes. Here are the extremes: on the one hand, all cops are racist and will kill an unarmed black man for the sole reason he is black, and if you disagree with this, you are a racist; on the other hand, all cops are good human beings who harbor no racist thoughts or stereotypes, never fire unless absolute right is on their side, and if a cop shoots a man, it has nothing to do with his race, and to play the "race card" is a form of reverse racism.

If you agree with either of these extremes, I cannot dialogue with you. You've got to be willing to insist responsibility falls where it actually does, which means keeping your mind open and carefully considering both sides of the story.

Now, I happen to be a white person, so I don't pretend to know what it's like to be black in America. That's an experience that is not mine. But, as a lesbian and as a woman, I do know what it's like to have stereotypes flung around about me that aren't even remotely true and to have the law not always give me the same freedoms as others. I also have watched the backlash that occurs when our rights begin to be acknowledged and we begin gaining equality: the majority group fears losing its privileged status (often not even being aware of its privileged status) and starts complaining about "reverse discrimination," "quotas," "preferences," and the like. I also know what it's like to be subjected to a double standard all the time; as an example, women are supposed to be both virginal yet sexually experienced, to dress provocatively but not be a slut. It's a strange balancing act that's impossible to attain, much like the American standard of beauty--blonde, tall, super skinny, big breasts, a flawless face, a curvy booty--is something that is basically unachievable without starvation diets, extreme working out, plastic surgery, and tons of make-up... and even then..... only about 3% can attain "the perfect look" because we just don't have the genetics. But we beat ourselves up or allow ourselves to be shamed when we can't do it. I understand the frustration and weariness of impossible expectations and unfair judgments.

So, I "get," in some small way, the African American community's anger. They've made strides since the civil rights movement, just as gay people have made strides lately in regard to gay marriage, but if you think the America they live in is the same as white America, you're uninformed. Black people are disproportionately represented in Congress and in state and local legislatures. They are disproportionately represented in the media (compare the number of black television families to white tv families). Flip through a mainstream magazine such as, oh, Parenting, and count the number of black versus white people. Folks, "white" is constantly fed to us as the norm. So, naturally, there will be things that crop up such as Ebony magazine or BET (Black Entertainment Network), in order to plug the gap and offer some media more relatable to that audience. (The inevitable response from some white people will be, "We don't have an Ivory magazine, or a WET (White Entertainment Network). Isn't this racist and divisive of them?") No, it isn't. Virtually EVERY channel is the white entertainment network. Virtually ALL magazines have a majority white audience in mind. Disproportionate representation is the key term here. And though there are, certainly, some black police officers, they are outnumbered by white officers. So if a cop trolls through the 'hood, chances are really good it's a white guy: one more white guy in a position of power and authority.

The way of the world is this: cops tend to go where they expect trouble to be. Where is trouble to be found? Usually in low-income neighborhoods; there is clearly a correlation between high crime areas and poverty. (As a white woman, you wouldn't catch me walking through a poor neighborhood alone at night, whether it was a trailer park, the Mission in San Francisco, or the projects in Ferguson, MO.) I'm not saying "it's not crime; it's poverty"--there are plenty of poor folks of all races who don't commit crimes. But poverty is a factor. On the other end of the spectrum are white collar crimes, committed by people who normally aren't poor and desperate and which are not violent, but usually a LOT more money gets stolen than, say, the value of a box of Swisher Sweets cigars. But how often are these crimes prosecuted, or how often does a Wall Street banker get taken down with anything other than a smack on the wrist? The scales are not balanced. Not yet.

Day in and day out, black folks see white little Johnny in college get busted for a bag of weed and Daddy getting the kid off with a fine and community service. Meanwhile, black little Jerome gets busted for a bag of weed and gets the book thrown at him. The one place where black folks are more than disproportionately represented is the prison system. If you think it's because black people have a racial commitment to crime, then your head is in the sand. It has everything to do with racial profiling, a justice system that is often institutionally harder on one race than on another, and we could argue all day long what came first: the chicken or the egg. Fault-finding is more complex than that, especially nowadays with private prisons and a prison lobby. When prisons become for-profit, profits can grow only by incarcerating more people. Those who can afford to hire the expensive team of attorneys are the ones who don't take a maximum sentence on anything. But one race is no more genetically likely to commit a crime than any other race. You wouldn't know that, though, by looking at the prison population.

But the bottom line is this: when an unarmed black guy who was acting like a punk swiped a box of cigars that couldn't have cost more than six bucks was accosted by a white police officer and the guy began mouthing off, did he deserve six bullets and death?

That's why Ferguson, MO, is mad. They're tired of it.

It's called freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.

Okay. That's one side.

Now here is the other side, as well as I'm able to construct it, because there is a lot of baloney being posted and tweeted and reported. It appears there was a convenience store robbery and this young man was involved. (And he's a big dude.) The officer stopped him and a friend jaywalking a few blocks away from the crime and the fellow treated the officer with disrespect. Whether he actually punched the officer or tried for his weapon is currently UNKNOWN. (How the rumor about him breaking the officer's eye socket, etc, got started and disseminated can be found HERE.) In any case, the officer felt threatened, so the officer fired. Not just twice, as they are trained to do initially before reassessing. Since he emptied his weapon, he obviously did not feel the threat had been neutralized after two shots. It has yet to be determined whether the officer was overreacting or panicked. It has yet to be determined whether the officer felt threatened for the sole reason the young man was black. But what remains a fact is that the young man was not armed. So, to some it looks like police brutality taken to an extreme, but the officer felt justified, and since right now we just can't know, the officer may very well have been in the right. Race may indeed have nothing to do with why he fired.

Now, I have a tendency to defend the police because they have a difficult and dangerous job. Also, one of my best friends is a cop, and my wife is an ex-cop. They are not racist people. But, officers are trained and trained and trained some more on officer safety. They will protect themselves. So, even if you've done nothing wrong and even if you're sure the cop is being a jerk to you, if a cop tells you to stop, put your hands in the air, lie face down, or do the Macarena, if you don't want your actions to be mistaken for a threat, you should do what the officer says.

Michael Brown very likely did NOT do what the officer said. No, he probably was carrying in his psyche a lot of anger over the fact that white cops always pick on black men and he wasn't doing anything but walking in the street, and why was this officer shouting at him like he had committed a felony, so he did not keep his cool.

What you have is a highly charged situation in which one guy felt singled out because of his race and the other guy felt threatened and his badge disrespected, and those two things don't mesh well. Now a man is dead and some people are having appalling reactions. The officer's life has been threatened. I see white people saying ridiculously insensitive and stupid things. The bigots are overjoyed!

And all America is busy getting emotional and taking sides and blaming whatever the opposing side is, depending on their viewpoint. This is a fruitless endeavor. What we SHOULD be talking about is how to stop these things from happening at all. 

So, how do we prevent things like this? Follow the law, sure. If you break the law, you break the law; be prepared to pay the consequences. But, as with all things, also try to understand the other person's side. I'm reminded of a student I had a few years ago who was a foster mom to several African American kids, and she happened to be white. She was not at all racist. But one day she was in a Mountain Mike's Pizza Parlor and observed a woman who happened to be black steal something. When an employee who happened to be white accused the black woman of the theft, my student piped up and shared what she had seen. The black woman's response was to accuse her of being a racist: "You're just saying that because you're white and she's white!" My message to black folks is this: You're right; things sometimes happen because some people are racist, and I know you're tired of it. But not everybody is racist, so use that as your starting point until that person has given you good reason to believe otherwise.

If you think this is funny, YOU are part of the problem.
And to white folks, stop whining about the race card being played. If the shoe were on your foot, "it's my race" would be your knee-jerk reaction too. And as for using the looting and violence and rioting in Ferguson as fodder to feed racist sentiments, you should know that no matter what the situation or group, there will always be bad apples in the barrel. Stop using the bad apples to describe the entire group. Most people protesting in Ferguson were peaceful, anti-violent protestors who were just as appalled by the looting as anyone. Remember the Occupy Movement? Lots of protestors were peaceful demonstrators, but the rioting white anarchists got all the press. The press goes where the story is.

Alas, there is no story in a non-violent demonstration.

We will never get past race or civil rights issues in this country until things actually are, in reality, truly equal in terms of opportunities, rights, and privilege. One day people really will be judged not by the color of their skin, or by whom they love, or by what religion they practice, but by the content of their character. Until then, we can only dialogue and listen and hold our tempers and stop making ourselves into each other's victims and try to see the other person's point of view. It's more than okay to learn and to change your mind about things. It's also an honorable thing to accept responsibility for your own actions.

There's an expression for it. It's called "growing up."

Friday, August 29, 2014

See This Heart?

It's just for you. I hail the divinity I see in you. You are a wonderful, remarkable human being who has incarnated here for a purpose. Let us all see the glory who is uniquely YOU.

Never forget who you are.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Learning "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin

I grew up on this song. It's kind of neat because it does two things: the bass notes go down, while simultaneously the arpeggios take the treble strings up. So you have to pay attention to two things at once as you're playing.

Still, it's not really all that difficult. The trick will be learning to play it seamlessly without the long pauses while I check the tabs (I can't read music. It's like math to me. My brain freezes.) It'll take learning it by heart, basically, but that in itself shouldn't be too difficult because really, we're just talking about something like sixteen bars of music, some of which is repetitive.

I'm just taking a breather after knocking out a second draft of my novel. The fall semester starts in about a month. Ack! Right now my book is being considered for representation by an agent, but I feel pretty sure she'll want some changes if she even agrees to represent it and try to sell it to a publisher. I've had to put it away for a while because every time I read it, I see flaws and the whole thing seems contrived to me.

Anyway, so for the moment I'm skating. And, learning songs on the guitar.  Too burned out from writing to blog much.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sunrise at Sacred Lake - Traveler Photo Contest 2014 - National Geographic

Sunrise at Sacred Lake - Traveler Photo Contest 2014 - National Geographic

Dear Readers, if you like this photo I've submitted to this contest, please click "like" on the link. I think the remarkable thing about it is not just the sense of place (those mud brick walls in the foreground are over 3,000 years old) but it was one of those moments in which the lighting was just right to catch the reflections of the palm trees in the lake. Even though I took this photo with my iPad Mini and used no special lenses or equipment, it still turned out to be "postcard pretty." There are so many excellent submissions that it's hard to compete, but I'm hoping if I get enough "likes" that the judges will at least take a second look and perhaps will at least consider giving me a "merit" acknowledgment since I wasn't using pro equipment and nothing but my eye. No retouching, no color enhancement: it's exactly as I captured it. 

I appreciate your support!

Friday, June 13, 2014

My New Hero!

First, I want you to watch this video of this remarkable young woman:

Okay. Now Anna doesn't have what we think of as "stage fright" or "just nerves." Stage fright is something most of us get, butterflies in the tummy, maybe shaky knees or hands, dry mouth--all of which are just physical symptoms of too much adrenaline shooting into our bloodstream. It's your age-old "fight or flight" response wired into all of us. With stage fright, unless you're super nervous, most people can't even tell you're nervous, but once you get into your performance or speech or whatnot, you calm down, your symptoms go away and you're off and running just fine.

This video touched me deeply (and Howie Mandel as well, as is clear, because he understands phobias, having OCD and several phobias himself) because I have social anxiety disorder. This is a little different from Anna's disorder: hers sounds like panic disorder that can get so extreme she becomes agoraphobic, and then the fear of leaving her own house depresses the crap out of her (which is totally understandable). But I want people to understand how totally debilitating an anxiety disorder really is.

Therapy can help only to a certain extent. You can be taught tips for coping with fear, but at the end of the day, you already KNOW your anxiety is all in your head and no amount of people saying "It'll be okay," "I'm here," "Buck up," "You just need more confidence," and all the usual platitudes DO NOT HELP. Not really. Support from others helps way more than just being told to get over it and that it's all in your head, but you just cannot shake the knowledge that even though it's all in your head, it is totally REAL to YOU. The kindness of others helps, but it does not cure.

I can't explain Anna's disorder precisely because I'm not Anna, so I'll explain mine in the hopes of helping you better understand. Looking back on my childhood now, I can see quite clearly that signs of it were there, but I kept them to myself, thinking secretly that I was just a big pussy. I was afraid of giving speeches in classes (easily written off as stage fright). I was afraid of parties and social things (easily written off as introversion and teenage awkwardness). I was afraid to call people on the phone (just thought I was neurotic). But as I got older, things got more serious. In college, social situations became okay because I was of legal drinking age, so I got through social situations by drinking (too bad that this coping mechanism later turned into alcoholism). I got a car. But, I was terrified to pump gas in front of other people and so would organize my life so that I could go to the gas station to pump gas when people I knew weren't around. Now, THIS I knew was abnormal. But I could not shake the fear that people would think I was doing it wrong and would make fun of me. And then a horrid thing happened, that "thing" we all fear. I was in Omicron Delta Kappa (a campus leadership fraternity) and the day came to tap others in the college into the fraternity. I picked two people I knew. I figured I'd have stage fright but I wasn't ready for the overwhelming panic attack the minute I opened my mouth in the first class. Two words came out and my voice sounded so reedy and thin to me that I just flipped. I read a paragraph and was stammering and was shaking so obviously even the professor said gently, "It's okay, it's okay." I stopped and said, "I'll start over." I don't know how I got through it. I just kind of blacked out. When I finished, I was humiliated, embarrassed, and felt like a total fraud.

The next one went better. I went into the classroom and asked if I could use the lectern, so I had that crutch to lean on and remembered to take deep breaths at the end of sentences. So though I think people could see I was uncomfortable, it probably just came off as "a little nervous."

Later on, the friend I'd tapped in the first class asked me, "What happened?!" and I'm like, "I don't know." That's the thing. You just don't know when a crazy panic will set in. And so you start fearing the panic attack itself. Will I have one? Will I not? 

After that experience, it was really tough for me. To this day, I cannot do public speaking without a lectern to hide behind if I have to stand. Sitting is better because then I don't shake. In graduate school, on days I had to give papers, sometimes I just could not bring myself to go to class. That is how debilitating the fear could get. I'd call my teacher and say I was sick. This was only temporary, though, because I'd still have to give the paper in seminar the next time. The only thing that got me through is that we were always seated.  Most of the time I gave papers and nobody could tell I was nervous. But let me be clear: it was not stage fight that was causing the fear. What was causing the fear was the unshakable conviction that one day, at some point, everyone would hate what I had to say, or that I would say something stupid, and that I would be judged harshly. If I happened to look up and see someone looking at me with a puzzled expression, that could be enough to send me off into black-out land.

At this point, I was still thinking I just had bad stage fright. But after grad school, I got a job as an editorial assistant and then was rather quickly promoted up the chain to editor, then Senior Editor, and finally the company President offered me a job as an evaluation consultant for the state of California, which would have doubled my salary--AND I TURNED IT DOWN. The only reason I turned it down was that the job involved going around to school districts and doing a lot of public speaking. That did not sound like an opportunity to me: it sounded like a nightmare.

But I didn't like working for an educational test publishing company anyway, so I quit this job and went back into college teaching. By this point, I was a full-blown alcoholic, so social situations did not bother me. Teaching made me nervous the first few days of classes but the phobia wasn't so bad there. It's because students aren't my peers. But I could always hide behind the lectern anyway. And half the time I was hungover enough that my brain was more focused on remembering what I wanted to say than it was on "what are they thinking of me?"

Then the day finally came. I'd been feeling--I don't know--"flat" as of late. I had a class in which I had two students in the back who would not shut up and a very bright girl in the front who thought she was too smart to be at community college. This kind of stuff is very typical but for some reason this one class was starting to get to me. So the day came, yes. I was walking across campus towards the building the class was in, and I got hit with a total panic attack. I'd had them before, but this one was bad. BAD.

You can't breathe. You feel like you're having a heart attack, as if two hands have grabbed your heart and are squeezing as hard as they can. Knowing I was having a panic attack, I started thinking, "Calm, calm, calm" to myself and taking deep breaths. I calmed down enough to wait for class to start, then walked into the room and told the class quickly, "I'm unwell today, so class is canceled," then walked out and got the hell off of campus as fast as I could. And I went home and cried. And cried. And cried some more.

This untreated anxiety had caught up with me. Teaching was my job, my love (next to writing) and I could NOT start being afraid to go to my own classes. So, finally, I admitted to myself this was not standard stage fright, and I sought help. It took exactly one session for the psychiatrist to diagnosis me with social anxiety disorder. It is, in a nutshell, the fear of being judged. Or not a fear. It's a PHOBIA about being judged. He told me to stop drinking (the alcohol was only making it worse at this point) and put me on medication.

And thus began my journey of trying to "fix" myself. The first medication did not work, but that's probably because I didn't quit drinking. Long story short, it took getting sober and playing around with several kinds of medication to get my anxiety under control. What works: 30mgs Cymbalta daily and .5 mg ativan and 10mgs propranolol taken 30 mins before a class or something anxiety-producing. If it's the first week of classes, I take 1mg ativan and sometimes 20mgs propranolol, but I will then come home and sleep. Every three years when I know there's going to be a classroom observation of my teaching (a PEER JUDGES ME--boom! That's the RED button!), I take the double meds the entire month, or at least until the evaluation is over, because they don't tell you what they're coming in. God, what a nightmare that is for me, LOL. Nobody knows I suffer from this except those I've talked with about it. I try to not use my disorder as an excuse to be treated differently. But I do still tend to avoid things like departmental retreats and parties because I can't stay medicated all day long. I have to be careful because ativan--a benzo like valium or xanax--is highly addictive.

But here is what I'm trying to say, because I don't want this post to be about me. I want you to appreciate what this young woman, Anna, has done. She's gone from crippling bedridden anxiety to standing on a stage and playing guitar and singing in front of thousands of people in a situation in which all eyes are on her, judging her performance. That is REMARKABLE to me. It's akin to someone who has been lame just a few months before getting up and running a marathon in record time. So I say "good for her!" She's my new hero. This young woman has her destiny under control, and I wish her all the success in the world.

Learning to laugh at yourself helps too.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Good Lord, I've Lost My Mind

I woke up this morning with sleep paralysis and had to just lie there like a frozen slug until my limbs could move again. Have you ever had that? It's not a lucid dream, because you've woken up at this point, but you're still experiencing "dreamy" remnants, and the freaky thing is that you can't move.

And, what a dream I'd been having, too.

I was back at Penn State, only not as a grad student this time but as a part-time lecturer with exactly three classes. One was a 7am class, but I didn't realize this until after the fact. See, I'd gotten the job like only two days before. Some man called me and hired me. So I dropped everything (apparently I didn't have a job) and went with my girlfriend (who in the dream was actually a real woman I started dating while I was at Penn State 25 years ago, and we have long since broken up, but we were back together in this dream, yet we were the ages that we are now). We had to make haste to get to State College because school started the next day. We drove all day, and by some miracle of fate, we had a halfway decent flat waiting for us and unpacked everything from the car and fell, exhausted, into bed very late, so I overslept.

Panicked because I knew I had an early class, I hopped into the shower and was showering, noticing what a remarkable shower it was because it was on the corner of our building and I could see outside to the right, all the houses and people walking on the sidewalks and some nice trees, and I could see directly in front--more houses, maybe a little shop or two, and more people, and they were looking up at me--and I realized at this point If I can see them, they can see me--so with horror I realized I hadn't drawn the shower curtains, which in actuality were nothing but ruffled window curtains. I yanked them closed, finished my shower, got dressed, grabbed my bag and hustled out of the house to make my way towards campus.

Now it has been a long time since I was in State College so the place was very different. All I knew was that the campus--and it's a sprawling one--was down directly in front of me. So I just went forward, taking what I thought were shortcuts through buildings rather than making turns at streets,  figuring I'd figure out where I was on campus when I reached the campus. So I reached the campus but everything was changed. I had no idea where I was. So I began walking through buildings trying to find something familiar from where I could deduce the location of my department. I thought, Find Old Main to get your bearings but there was no Old Main. Instead of Old Main, it seemed the center of the campus was a gothic looking medieval castle.

It looked exactly like this one.

 "Boy, that's changed," I said out loud, and some woman looked at me as if I'd just said, "Please join me in a Satanic ritual."

So I was still trying to find my department and realized I'd forgotten what department it even was. For some weird reason, it wasn't English. I had it written down in my bag somewhere, so I slipped into another maze of a building and finally found a bathroom except neither stall had a toilet where I could sit and sort through my bag (which wasn't a purse, but a bag. A little duffle bag. With strings.)
Like this.

I got out of the bathroom and there was a friendly looking chubby guy who looked about my age, so I assumed he was a professor, so I just flat-out asked him: "Do you know where the Geology Dept is?"

He was annoyed by my asking this question as if, of anybody on the planet wanting to know where something was, someone in Geology should, but his face softened and he said, "This is History. Go out that door, turn to the left, go down four buildings and it's the fourth building."

I was on my merry way when it occurred to me that how in heaven's name had I exited the bathroom remembering what department I was in when I hadn't known it going in.....but never mind.

I had the building. Now to find the room I was supposed to be in. I wandered into some random room and it was a group of grad students being lectured to about how to teach. But a man with Coke bottle glasses on the other side of the room saw me and waved me over. Actually it wasn't the other side of the room. It was more like the room had a partition in the middle and was two rooms in actuality, but the partition was open. He was sitting at a round table and seemed to know exactly who I was, sight unseen. I leaped to the conclusion that he was the guy I'd had the phone conversation with, so I sank into the chair next to him and immediately apologized for being late. I'd gotten lost in the maze of a campus. He merely shushed me from giving apologies and said it was okay. He'd only wanted to me to give me my official schedule. He handed me a piece of paper and stood up and simultaneously the class on the other side of the partition was done and they all stood up. So I stood up.

They all left and I looked at my paper.

My first class was at 7am (missed it!) Then there was this class at 10am I was standing in, and even though I wasn't a student I was supposed to participate in it. Damn, no pay for that. It was only a half hour thingy, though. Then there were a few more hours before my next class, which had some weird name that had nothing to do with geology but with feelings. And then at 3 o'clock I was supposed to show up at the Campus Police Station.

Happy happy joy joy! I actually knew where that was. It was about a hundred blocks away but I didn't care--at least I finally had a destination I knew where it was. Why I had to go there I had no idea, but, whatever. (And I knew where it was from real life because I once gotten stopped by campus police for a burned-out taillight and had been given a fix-it ticket so had had to go there to provide proof I'd gotten it fixed. Never mind that they'd taken my license and had a look at it and given it back and not even noticed it was expired. True story.)

I was terribly hungry, so I decided since I had a few hours, I would try to find my way back home and grab a bite to eat.

So I found my way home, noting I'd really taken the "long cut" by wandering through Administration and all those weird buildings and all I had to do was cross the street at the corner that had the Starbucks. Well, and the Quiznos on the opposite corner, because frankly every corner has a Starbucks. If I kept straight up a few blocks, it stopped being "College student bar and junk food land" and turned into heavily foliaged comforting homes land with a few shops and there was my house! So I jogged up the back steps and into our flat and was in the kitchen looking at how there was nothing in our refrigerator when I heard a flapping sound and looked over and saw a huge fish on the floor outside of our fish tank.

Mind you, we hadn't brought a fish tank with us, nor set one up, but there it was.  And this poor little fish--actually he wasn't so little; he was sort of Oscar-fish sized--clearly had a problem. Don't you think?

Now there was no way this fish could have jumped out of the tank since there was a cover on top, so I went to investigate. And I discovered a corner had a large hole. This defied all logic since water should also have been pouring out of the hole, not just a clever (or stupid) fish escaping via this method, but you know how physics is. The observation of something seems to make it so, so now that I'd realized water should be coming out, that's exactly what happened. Water started pouring out of the aquarium. Never mind that I didn't even know where this damn aquarium came from. I stuffed the fish back in the hole, grabbed the two split sides and shoved them back together and was standing there helplessly, holding them in place, trying to save all the fish from a certain floppy gasping death, when my girlfriend arrived.

We glued the sides of the aquarium back together and I dug out my schedule to show her. I still had no idea what the 7am class was, but she knew exactly what the "Feelings" class was. "Oh, that's an easy one to teach," she said. "You just give them an emotion and tell them to act it out."

"Shouldn't that be an acting class?"

"No, it's a pysch class. Only everybody who takes it is mentally challenged. It's meant to teach them how to express their feelings. In a healthy way."

What this had to do with geology was beyond me, but I was beyond hungry at this point. I started digging through my duffle bag and discovered a sort of "welcome" kit from the dept that had all kinds of coupons for food at various restaurants. There was one for the Starbucks. So I figured I'd grab a bite at Starbucks, go show my class how to emote, then walk down to the police station.

And that's when I regained consciousness, unable to move.