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A "before" picture. "After" pictures coming soon!
A “before” picture. “After” pictures coming soon!

Here’s a funny story: so my laptop is equipped with a built-in camera. It’s fairly new, since I managed to short out whatever bit of circuitry is responsible for charging the battery in my old one. And, well, I couldn’t live without one in either India or Country X, neither of which necessarily has reliable electricity 24 hours a day. So a battery is kind of important, even if you don’t use your laptop as a “mobile” device.

I have taken pictures with the laptop camera—you can see an example of one above. They are the blurry-looking ones with the crappy lighting. I had noticed the poor quality of the pictures, but I didn’t think too far beyond that.

Then today I saw the little plastic film that had been placed over the lens to protect it during storage and shipping. And it occurred to me that taking photos through a film of plastic might make your photographs a bit blurry and screw up the contrast.

See, these are big and heavy. You don't want one just lying around anywhere. They also count as deadly weapons. So be careful.
See, these are big and heavy. You don’t want one just lying around anywhere. They also count as deadly weapons. So be careful.

Life seems like that to me. Sometimes it’s the big things that go wrong and ruin your life, but more often it’s some stupid little bit of plastic you’d failed to noticed that throws a monkey wrench into everything.

Success may be largely about what you do with the stupid bits of plastics that stand in your way.

“Stay loose,” is the advice I’ve heard recently. Yes, maybe. That might be the right idea. There is probably a place for marching into the store where you bought the laptop and complaining about the poor quality of the photos it is taking. Then they can remove the stupid bit of plastic for you, while you feel slightly foolish.

But maybe that’s really more stressful. Maybe it’s easier to give it a few weeks—as I did—and see if a solution presents itself quietly, while you’re sitting at the laptop, typing up a blog post and not thinking at all about the poor quality of the photos or what might be causing it.

I don’t know. But a song comes to mind. “You gotta know when to hold ‘em…” You know the one. Maybe that’s what wisdom really is.

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A house, not a box

houseI had an argument with Nandhini the other day. Not exactly an argument—I’m not sure we even disagreed. More like a kind of crisis.

I hate these, because I get frightened, and I switch. Later, I am never sure if I even believe what I said. I find myself speaking from a perspective I’m not sure I even have. But I suppose I do have it or it wouldn’t be able o speak from it, even if I usually occupy a different perspective. So, it’s confusing.

And the switching itself makes me feel crazy. I am not sure there’s any other time when it’s quite so clear or so obvious that the body is being occupied by a different person. So I have to deal with being where I am and with having that being a place I’m not always very comfortable with.

This is one of them.

Nandhini has a lot of rules for herself. I knew that, but being here I’m aware of it again. She has so many rules, I have the sensation of being trapped in a box, and I suppose it’s that box-feeling that I reacted to. Maybe some other stuff too. But let’s deal with the box-feeling first and the other stuff another time.

I know all about living in a box. I’ve spent a lot of time in my own box—I might still live in one, although a box that’s become a bit bigger. And it’s also a different one than she lives in; if it were the same one, I probably wouldn’t notice so much. I suppose I’m afraid of returning to life inside a mental prison.

So I wanted to think about the nature of these kinds of mental prisons, because rules aren’t always a bad thing. In teacher preparation programs, they tell you both to be flexible and understanding of where students are and to be consistent in enforcing rules and following through with consequences. No one seems to notice that these are a contradiction. You cannot be both completely flexible and entirely consistent.

boxInstead, there is a kind of happy medium between rigidity and chaos. The reason they stress both ends of the spectrum is that most beginning teachers get the balance wrong, and they don’t all get it wrong in the same ways. Some fall back on rigidity and rules and authoritarianism—and their students rebel against the lack of care and warmth in the classroom. Others slide into a kind of pudding-like tolerance that tends to culminate in explosions of frustration and rage from both teacher and students.

We do need rules, but we need to be in charge of the rules, instead of the rules being in charge of us. Put another way, you need rules that serve you, that have a purpose for you, and make your life easier, simpler, and more manageable.

Rules like that can be thought of as a house. They form a safe, comfortable structure from which your life can flow outward, in the same way that a house can be a place around which your life revolves—but that doesn’t confine it.

When you have rules that you serve—instead of rules that serve you—then that’s a prison. Those rules may be of very little benefit to you. They have an arbitrary, almost capricious nature. There might, in fact, be better ways of doing things, but you don’t do them because they break the rule.

For example, I try to sleep at the same time and get up at the same time every day. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule helps me sleep better. I fall asleep faster, and I wake up at least slightly more refreshed. That’s a rule that serves me.

But if I slept at 10 every night because that’s when people should sleep, well, that’s a rule that I’m serving. It doesn’t really have any practical purpose except to give me that comfortable sense that I’m following the rules.

I think we can find ourselves serving rules—instead of making rules that serve us—if we believe that we will be punished for breaking the rules and rewarded for following them. I was certainly raised to believe that.

But one thing I’ve realized is that God or the universe or whatever you think is in charge of how life runs doesn’t give a damn about rules. Human beings sometimes do, depending on the rule and the humans involved. And following some rules has its own rewards: When I am kind, for example, I feel happier and like the world is a better place. People are often kind to me in return. So it’s worth doing.

But this doesn’t mean the occasional jackass won’t come along and trample all over both my kindness and my happiness. They do. Also, kindness does not make trains run on time, the AC work, or the LCD projector bulb not burst. God is not going to reward me for being a good person by making my life run smoothly. My life runs smoothly (when it does) through a combination of good luck and good planning, which might have to do with my following certain rules (keep a spare bulb handy, stick to countries that are time-oriented, keep up with routine maintenance), but nothing to do with others (like kindness or putting others first).

The difference isn’t then in the rules really. It’s how you approach rules, why they are there, and whether you feel empowered to change them when circumstances change and the rules you have for yourself cease to work.

Three hours into nowhere

This kind of thing tends to be wasted on me.
This kind of thing tends to be wasted on me.

I know where I’m going.

I don’t mean where I’m going in a general, this is what life is all about sense. Instead, I mean something specific.

The Country X people sent me an email. In a continued effort to keep my work and personal life separate, I cannot reveal the location to you. However, suffice it to say that, on a good day, it is a few hours into absolutely nowhere. Also, it is ass-bitingly cold for much of the year. And they usually have electricity except for the odd week here and there when everything goes kaplooey. So this all seems acceptable.

Incidentally, the Village Where I Am Headed is also very pretty in an alpine kind of way. However, to someone who has spent most of life in arid climates, that kind of pretty isn’t terribly appealing. Pine trees are just, well, okay. As are mountains generally. But you would probably find it stunningly beautiful. Most people do.

Don’t get too excited. You can’t come. Only relatives are allowed to visit.

But I am wandering away from the point. (And there is a point. In fact, I expect there will be several points.)

joshua treeThe first of these points is that, now that I know where I’m headed, the fact of my going has taken on a sharper sense of realness. My application has been formally approved by the Ministry of Education. All of the requested documents have been submitted, including my application for a work visa. I had my cheek swabbed and my blood taken. (Ok, not really, but it started to seem like it.)

Reality requires you make sense of it. So, we enter a new stage—the making-sense stage.

And this moves us closer towards this first point. The take-away message of all of this is that God failed to strike me dead for doing something almost purely for my own personal satisfaction. (Yes, Nandhini played a distant part in this decision, although I won’t see her there either. Yes, a desire to contribute to my world played another part. But mostly I just thought it would be interesting. Oh, and fun. Fun and interesting.)

I am taking this to mean something more general: God does not strike you dead for “taking your own way.” After all. This is big. Seismic, in fact. Pardon me while I duck, cover, and hold.

Phew. Okay, back to the post, now that the world has stopped shaking.

Nonetheless, I am not sure if he is generally for or against doing fun and interesting things just because you feel like it. But he doesn’t kill you over it. Which is great news really. And probably will require all kinds of reshuffling of other misconceptions.

Remind me to get a good night’s sleep tonight. I’ll need it.

The wisdom of indignation

auntyWhen I’m angry or in a bad mood or just frustrated, I smile more. It cheers me up. I crack jokes. I crib in a way that makes people laugh. I think about something else. I count my blessings. I explain to myself what has happened. I see things from the other person’s point of view. I go for a walk. I buy my favourite chips. I make a fresh pot of tea.

In my emotional backpocket, I have a million and one tricks to cheer myself up. But today I don’t feel like using them. I just want to be angry.

Other people are angry who have fewer things to resent than I do. Why shouldn’t I be?

They're very cute when they'te not peeing on things. And then all of a sudden they start looking like Satan to me.
They’re very cute when they’te not peeing on things. And then all of a sudden they start looking like Satan to me.

Like Angry Aunty, the Neighbor across the Lane is angry about something every day—usually the same thing. The other white dog I mentioned, that’s her obsession. The other white dog relieves herself in front of her house. The other white dog barks. No one is taking care of the other white dog properly. Someone took her in and then dumped her. (Which is true, and which is wrong. However, cribbing about it all on a daily basis doesn’t seem to be helping.)

But I’ve also realized the Neighbor across the Lane sounds angry even when she isn’t. It’s just that she’s angry so much of the time that ranting has become her normal speaking voice.

I want to be angry too, although perhaps not so much. Perhaps not so much that anger becomes a habit. Still, there is a sense of deprivation for me, like the rest of the world has gotten candy or some other nice thing and I didn’t get any.

Anger isn’t so nice really. But my backpocket tricks are work. They take effort. They are difficult. What the rest of the world is getting that I’m not getting is a break from exercising so much self control.

I should probably go back and explain a bit. It was a fine morning. Nothing wrong with it. I slept soundly. Woke up on time. It rained last night, but stopped by morning, so what we were left with was this gloomy, gloomy fall feeling that’s not really natural for this part of the world. All nice.

Then the dog came into my room for a minute. I’m trying to teach it not to do that, but when someone’s talking to me, I’m too distracted to make it mind. And people do that. They come to my room because they want something or other. They’re talking to me about that thing they want—whatever it is–so I’m listening to them and the dog comes rushing in. Actually, both of them, because Priya has been letting the other white dog come inside. I tried to explain to her that wasn’t a good idea, because the dog is not housebroken. She’s been an outside dog her whole life, and she doesn’t understand about not peeing inside. But Priya doesn’t think about the future.

ChintuAnyway, so Priya was talking to me, the dogs rushed in, and her dog immediately went to the window and peed on the drapes. She gave me newspaper to put over it and told me the maid would clean it when she came in a few hours.

So, I was angry. First at the dog, just because. But mostly at her. Because the dog is hers and she has neither taught it any manners nor does she clean up after it. I really should not have to clean up dog urine in my room when I don’t have a dog. Nor should I have to wait a few hours for someone else to clean it.

Indignant might, in fact, be the better word.

There is a wisdom in indignation. Indignation says I know I have rights, I know what they are or at least think I know what they are, and so I also recognize when they have been violated. That wisdom is the reason behind my two tight slaps. And indignation also says, “I can correct that. I can defend my rights against violation.”

Now, some of us get confused about what our rights are. We get it wrong sometimes. The world does not, in fact, owe us convenience, fulfillment, or pleasure. And you probably cannot come to a country over-run by stray dogs, rent a house, and expect to never have to come across dog doo. That’s probably unrealistic. But I may be wrong about that.

Also, indignation is not helpful if you never move forward from it, and by forward I don’t mean “putting it all behind you.” I mean devising a plan.

For example, my indignation was not effective. Although I resented doing it, I cleaned the dog urine up in my room myself. I said nothing when I might have said something. A better plan might have been to tell Priya she could clean up after her own dog for God’s sake, and that I shouldn’t have to wait a few hours for the maid to do it for her. Maybe.

However, this whole indignation business is a bit new to me. I wasn’t sure whether I would like the way I might choose to respond to it. So I did nothing. I just felt it. One thing at a time.

Superstition and Uncertainty

superstitionOne way of reducing anxiety about uncertainty is to make a lot of rules, even if the rules don’t actually work. In that way, you can at least create an illusion of predictability.

“If I do this, bad things will happen. If I do this, good things will happen.” How comforting! How nice! Life continues to unfold in whatever way it unfolds, based partly on chance and probability, but you can pretend that it isn’t.

Life is inherently uncertain, but it is more uncertain under particular conditions: poverty (either temporary or ongoing), severe mood disorders and a range of mental illnesses (including addictions), and in developing countries.

So it never really surprises me that India, for one, has often byzantine systems of bureaucracy. Nor does it surprise me that dysfunctional families tend to be extremely rule-based. What I hadn’t considered in this category of “how to cope with chaos” is superstition.

And India has a million of those too. Sneezing, for example, is bad luck. You shouldn’t rock an empty cradle or the child will get an upset stomach. A hooting owl means that someone has died.

I don’t really know what most of them are. I probably transgress against them about a hundred times a day. But I do know they’re there.

Kind of like this.
Kind of like this.

The light switches crackle in my room every time I turn something on. This scares me. What I have in my head every time I hear that sound are visions of the whole house burning down, with my inevitably sleeping self inside. This could happen. It probably won’t, but it’s much more likely than if I were in the US sleeping in a house with up-to-code wiring.

The crackle is a clear and obvious reminder to me of the faulty wiring that probably exists in every house in India. And that’s only one possible danger.

So, how do you manage the anxiety of living with these kinds of dangers? You can make up rules—either rules that make at least some sense or arbitrary rules. “I won’t leave any of the switches on or plug anything in while I’m sleeping.” Or, “I won’t turn anything on if the dog barks three times.” Both of the might make you feel better so long as you believe them. But then, of course, you also have to live by those rules. And they might be more inconvenient than helpful. (If I don’t use electricity when I’m sleeping, then I can’t plug in the mosquito-repellant machine. And I might get dengue or malaria instead.)

You can attempt to exert more control. So, I can pester the owners of the house to investigate the faulty wiring. And sometime this helps. At least you’re doing something even if it doesn’t actually yield any results. (Which getting the wiring looked at won’t.) But it’s also frustrating–there’s a trade-off.

Denial is an option. (I just won’t think about the faulty switches.)

I can minimize the danger in my own mind. (Yes, it’s faulty, but it’s been like this for a long time. The house hasn’t burned down yet. It probably won’t.)

I can breathe.

I think I’ll just breathe.

Where I’ve been: order, dogs, and family myths

Here, in fact, I’ve been right here.

The room.
The room.

But I have a new room. For now. As usual, things did not go as planned. So, I’ll be returning to old small room any day now. It’s a long story and not a very interesting one, so I’ll spare you the whole thing, but suffice it to say I spent yesterday cleaning in preparation for taking up residence here.

I haven’t been thinking much either, except about the relative merits of Lizol over Rin. (Rin foams so much more satisfyingly, but does it actually clean better? The jury is out on that one.)

Oh, and I’ve been training the dogs. Slightly. It’s just that Bozo, the resident dog, is completely untrained and it’s a hassle. Also, Chintu will grow up to be a much nicer dog if she stops jumping up on people and biting their clothes. And I have this idea that minding begins with sitting. So I give the five minutes of my time a day per dog and they learn how to sit and lie down and stay. That’s not really so much, is it? It doesn’t seem like it to me. If I could teach advanced mathematics in five minutes a day, all of our lives would be much easier. Unfortunately, maths must be harder to teach that sitting and lying down. It’s a shame that. I’m sure my students agree.

picture025
The new room. For now.

I feel a little like an ad for Cesar Milan. You don’t need to train dogs so much as you need to train their owners. So it isn’t just Bozo that needs training, it’s Priya and Uncle #2 who need it. The fact that he isn’t trained is a reflection of the whole rest of their chaotic lives. And it’s the chaos as much as anything that makes Bozo so anxious and hard to manage. He doesn’t know who’s in charge and so, like a child, he has taken charge. But this makes for a lot of jumping around and barking. And torn clothes. Since dog school has opened, he’s calmer.

Priya has also been gone, and it was interesting to see what happened when she returned. He wasn’t jumping up on her. He was behaving himself, so she picked up his paws and lifted them and put them up on her shoulders. But later she’ll complain when he tears her clothes. I don’t really understand it, although I know some people are like that.. The future does not exist for them. “I want attention from my dog at this moment. Never mind that I won’t like this kind of attention later,” Priya thinks and so she picks up his paws and puts them on her.

I’m the opposite. I don’t know much about dogs—I’ve had cats my whole life. But I’ve noticed how it often starts with them: it starts in the same way it starts with children. It starts as testing behavior. He puts a paw on your leg a few times, and a few seconds later he’s jumping up on your chest. Dogs are a lot like us. They need rules to follow. They need to know what to expect.

I now have a porch instead of a view.
I now have a view instead of a porch.

And it makes me think about myself. Because, since I’ve come, most things have become a bit more organized. The kitchen is cleaner. There aren’t cockroaches racing for cover every time you pick something up. It’s only partly because of me. Order is also contagious, and everyone else seems to do a bit more because of what I do.

But what it says about me is that I prefer order. That’s not a terrible surprise—I was a librarian for almost a decade, I teach maths, my books at home were always arranged by subject, my spices by cuisine, and my shirts by colour.

My preference for order comes out of both an aesthetic sense (if you don’t have much, it at least looks better if it’s tidy) and a concern for the future (it’s so much faster to find what you want).

Yet, I am still surprised. Surprised because I experience a degree of denial about this. I tend to see this desire for order as both a character flaw and as something someone else does and not me.

The dogs.
The dogs.

I think this has something to do with how my family saw me when I was growing up and with a kind of myth they created out of me. I was the absent-minded genius, the cluttered, creative artist. Perhaps that was their way of making sense of me, or maybe it was the suitable box for reflecting well on the family—because I am bright, I am creative, I do have the occasional unconventional or novel idea. Some of it does fit.

Like everywhere else in my life, I must have felt I needed to be the person they imagined I was. And it went on for so long I became confused about what was real and what wasn’t.

Standards of evidence

Like this. Now try not to think about it.
Like this. Now try not to think about it.

I decided last week that I know nothing about delusional thinking or psychosis and so I ought to read up about that. I mean, I know a fair amount I would say about my own issues, about trauma and dissociation and what you might call attachment issues. I even know some useful information about what have been classed as personality disorders—namely, borderline and narcissism, although I believe less and less that they represent distinct illnesses rather than a collection of symptoms that may or may not occur together. But that’s another topic.

So, I did. And it turns out that what causes delusional thinking—which is surprisingly common–may have to do with how people consider evidence. Those who develop delusions tend to consider only very sparse evidence before reaching a conclusion. In addition, they may reason emotionally, as others of us also sometimes do.

For example, a person walks outside, has an uneasy feeling, sees the neighbors talking, and decides the neighbors must be plotting to blow up his house. He doesn’t consider additional evidence, such as the fact that the neighbors don’t generally seem inclined towards violence and have no compelling motive to harm him.

It seems to me that a difficulty in considering probabilities must have something to do with this as well, because many of us get crazy ideas about things from time to time, but then we think about the odds and reconsider. But that’s just my own idea.

Uncle #2 is inclined towards delusion. He’s an anxious person generally, and seems constitutionally set up to worry. Last week, I was 20 minutes later than usual coming home in the evening, and he concluded I had decided to give up my room and take up residence elsewhere. Never mind that my rent for the next month has already been paid.

I'm fond of the bougainvillea also. But I worry a lot less.
I’m fond of the bougainvillea also. But I worry a lot less.

Uncle #2 has a few obsessions: the bougainvillea is one of them. He’s perpetually worried someone will chop it down, because this has happened before. He doesn’t seem to consider the number of times he has thought it was going to be chopped down and wasn’t.  This doesn’t enter in.

He’s also concerned that the other owners in the lane are conspiring to persuade his paying guests to pick up and leave. The watchman, of course, has been paid to assist in this process.

Granted, Uncle #2 not the easiest person to have as a neighbor, because he feels constantly threatened and is therefore inclined to be a bit obstructive and, well, crotchety is the word that comes to mind. But my experience has been that most people are really just too lazy and preoccupied with their own lives to form elaborate plots. In most cases, their difficult neighbors continue to remain in their houses and continue to be difficult in spite of any neighborhood sentiment against them. Also, Uncle #2 has lived here for nearly 20 years. But these are facts he seems not to have considered.

This has also gotten me thinking about the rest of us, and other differences in how much and what kind of evidence  we consider when coming to conclusions. I know for myself that, in most things, I want to see quantitative studies that use acceptable samples (large enough and random enough to mean something), control for important variables, and yield statistically significant results. Better yet, I’d like to see meta-analysis so that I’m seeing the results of many studies at once. Qualitative studies have their uses, but not as decisive evidence. I think this way in terms of my work (education) as well as in other areas where I need to make important decisions, such as physical and mental health.

If you work in the humanities, you probably have a completely different way you approach evidence, which I probably don’t understand. But I’m sure that that way is also valid. Whatever it is.

Of course, we all weigh new information against the framework of what we already know and believe—some of which is true and some of which probably isn’t. But that’s a different matter for a different post.

However, some people use an entirely different standard for assessing evidence, a standard that has to do with the person providing the evidence and not with the evidence itself: name recognition, prestige, the air of confidence and certainty in which the evidence is submitted, and personal qualities that are valued or associated with authority and believability. Some of this has some value: my physician has a medical degree from an accredited university. That seems important. But most of it probably doesn’t.

Sometimes, you know someone’s name because they’ve advertised well and not because they actually have anything to offer. Or, maybe you keep hearing their name because they’ve captured the imagination of a lot of people who know even less than you do about the subject.

This worked out well.
This worked out well.

As for confidence, that’s usually a better indicator of bias than of correctness. Absolute confidence means the person is unwilling to consider other explanations or interpretations aside from their own, so they have blind spots. The more confident someone is, the less seriously you should probably take them.

In the same way, I think we often consider religious and political figures in light of their personal qualities rather than think critically about their message. If they can persuade us, we believe what they are saying must be right. But the tactics that lead to persuasion are more often emotional than factual. Even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who I think was right, seems to have mainly compelled the nation to listen because of his oratory gift and not because of the strength of his ideas. Listening to him, I still get chills. And it’s good we listened to him, but not everyone who can do that has something to say that’s worth paying attention to.

workersStill, I think we learn what evidence to use in making decisions–as well as in making sense of our lives–from our families as well as the larger culture. I was raised to defer to the “workers” (the 2×2 ministers) in nearly everything I did. Their source of authority? A place in the hierarchical structure of the church and compliance with the accepted practices and beliefs of those higher in the structure. Where did those come from? Charisma, really, and the political acumen to know who to align yourself with and for how long. Personal qualities and nothing else.

And I think this needs to change. I think we need to change how we consider evidence–responding less to how something is said or who has said it, while considering more what it is that is being said. Otherwise, we could all end up wearing our hair in buns or drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.