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.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Belmont Stakes 2014 Picks! (UPDATED POST SCRATCHES)

Well, it's a day before the big race, and the Belmont Card is a good one--lots of stakes races. As usual, what I'll do for now is just list the four horses I best like in races 2-11, and tomorrow I'll tweet actual Pick 4 tickets. So far no horse is really leaping off the page at me as a single (Palace Malice would be but he's on the rail), although I'll probably do at least one Late Pick 4 ticket that goes deep in the first three legs hoping for a longer shot to hit and singles to California Chrome. I know pro handicappers are saying Chromey's a definite bet-against at his odds, especially given how difficult it is to win the Belmont, but you know.... I gotta root for my home boy.


Race Two: Life in Shambles, Kid Cruz, Misconnect, Legend

Race Three: Eriugena, Ground Transport, Micromanage, Cat Burglar

Race Four: Ben's Cat, Marchman, Undrafted, Upgrade (if you have deep pockets, you might throw in Positive Side)

Race Five: Bayern, Meadowood,  Coup de Grace, Social Inclusion, Havana, Tonito's M. (I know that's five but I think the favorite, Social Inclusion, might get upset here. Otherwise, take a stand and single him.)

Race Six: Fashion Plate, Fiftyshadesofgold, Unbridled Forever, My Miss Sophia

Race Seven: Close Hatches, Beholder, Princess of Sylmar, nice longshot with Belle Gallantey

Race Eight: Somali Lemonade, Discreet Marq, Better Lucky, and Stephanie's Kitten

Race Nine: Palace Malice, Goldencents, Normandy Invasion, Shakin It Up

Race Ten: Imagining, Grandeur, Seek Again, Five Iron (a lot of good 'cappers are also VERY hot on Rookie Sensation)

Race Eleven: California Chrome, Commissioner, Tonalist, Wicked Strong

Good luck and may they all come home safe!

Note: Early Pick 4, Pick 5, and Pick 6 tickets are up on twitter. I'll see how things are playing and tweet a Late Pick 4 ticket later.