I need a moment

I need to take a moment to be sad. To just sit with this deep, gut wrenching sense of sorrow and loss that’s been pulling at the edge of my existence for a while now, a little blurry but definitively present. This week, though, it’s brought it into focus. Sharp, clear, unignorable focus. This week, with confirmation of the end of the school year for all the kids; this week with the news that my education and progress will be significantly delayed; this week is ominous and dark in contrast to the sudden spring we’re experiencing outside.

It brings me back to a time when my kids were babies and young toddlers; some days were rough. There was layer upon layer of defeat and frustration piled on throughout the day but there I’d be, keeping it together, until someone threw a toy and it accidentally hit my face, maybe caught the corner of my eye, and it really hurt. Just for a second, but the pain was intense and it brought to a head all the feelings I’d been pushing down and keeping under control all day. And suddenly I’d be sobbing because it’s not just that few minutes of physical pain that you’re feeling but the summation of all that you’ve been carrying up to that moment. 

I know that we’re very likely going to be okay, that in the grand scheme of things we’ll get through this, probably changed but still intact. I know that I’ve made it through much, much worse and that the way through is one day at a time. I know that I, and my family, are fortunate to have the safety and stability to bunker down and that thus far we are fortunate that the only losses we are mourning are losses of what we perceived our short term futures would be. Because many aren’t so fortunate. I know that, and that’s all good and fine. But, today, I still need this moment to sit with my sorrow because it is real and it is valid; the only way past this is through it. 

Sitting with the Uncertainty

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March 2020: the month of the 1000 piece puzzle

I don’t know what day of “quarantine”/”social distancing”/isolation we’re on here. Heck, like most people now, I don’t even know what day it is. I do know that it’s almost the end of March and that I’ve got a big presentation to give (online) tomorrow and that that presentation which is supposed to last half an hour is not put together yet.

I’ve been suffering from too much time. Even when life has maintained its normal daily structure too much time is a phenomenon students and professional procrastinators throughout the globe are familiar with. It occurs when you know you have plenty of time to finish something but instead of spreading the work nice and evenly over all that time, you tell yourself “I’ve got time.” As in, “I really should start researching…but I’ve got so much time still.” In this pandemic induced stopping of nearly all time related obligation (for most of us), the too much time phenom has kicked into overdrive. It’s on steroids and is raging.

But this blase attitude, this extreme lack of motivation to do the things I need to do in allllll the time I now have available to do them, it’s more than the usual procrastinating tendencies. There’s a vague sense of purposeless that presses down like a heavy fog. The emotional roller coaster that takes you from “but look, I’m able to run almost every day and I’ve been getting so much sleep” to crying in the bathroom because Detroit is burning and so many people are not working and how are we all going to pay our bills and eat??? Back to thoughts of how much I’m saving just by not driving 110 miles back and forth to Detroit every day and then again to worries over my parents and my brother-in-law with frequent lung infections who was left a single parent by my sister’s sudden death a year and a half ago… and so I wander around the house and stare vaguely out the window. I try to check in on friends and family but get distracted by the cesspool of social media. And the hours somehow tick by. Slowly. But nothing happens. My presentation isn’t done. The information for my upcoming (also online)  tests and quizzes sits untouched.

Lat night while staring at my computer and feeling very stressed about the work I wasn’t doing, my best friend tested me with a question about her son’s teeth. All the dentist offices are closed until who knows when so an almost third year dental student is an okayish substitute. After we went back and forth about the lesion in her teenager’s mouth we started the usual chit chat about daily life, the kids, etc. Because some things haven’t changed. “Today was very somber, everyone is getting very weary around here.” she texts. I know exactly what she means; the reality of the current situation is setting in. At first there was a sense of novelty about everyone being stuck at home. Things were changing day by day, it was novel and sharp; there was a sense of urgency to take collective action and stem the tide of this pandemic. Very rah-rah-cis-boom-bah! And you could kind of pretend that the kids were just on an extended spring break from school and that’s cool and normal enough to get through it. But now there are rumors that they won’t be back this school year. There is a heavy sadness for the graduating (maybe?) classes who are missing all the festivities and emotions of such a pivotal moment in their young lives. We’ve been at home for almost three weeks. Or maybe this coming week is the third week. We’ve been at home, our lives have been slammed into a bleak limbo, for a timeless amount of time that will go on for unknown many days or weeks more.

And that’s it; that’s life for so many of us. We sit and watch the news, wondering who to trust and what is real. We watch the numbers climb ominously: confirmed cases of the virus, number of Covid-19 deaths, hospitals that are at capacity. Here in Michigan we look at the county-by-county break down of the number of cases each day and hope that we’ll see the effects of the Social Distancing protocols Stay at Home order that’s been in place since mere days after the first couple cases were confirmed. We need all this sitting and waiting to mean something.

We need results!

But what we have is uncertainty and all we really can do is just sit with the uncertainty and try to be at peace.

Running from the Black Dog

I don’t remember my dreams or even having dreams very often, never have. Maybe I just don’t dream much. There is one dream though, really more of a nightmare, from my childhood still hangs around in my memory. I remember waking up from it a couple times in the early to mid elementary years. I even remember being in the dream and starting to recognize the events that were unfolding, thinking “Not again. No! Not again.” in a dreamy panic but the details are fuzzy. There was a large black dog, clearly vicious, chasing me through an orchard full of gnarled apple trees. It was dark or getting dark and the snarling dog would chase me getting just a little closer as the chase ensued. The fear was visceral. I remember the running, the chasing, tripping and falling down. Knowing the black dog was about to reach me…and then I’d wake up in a sweat, heart pounding in my chest. Thump thump thump. That palpable fear; your body doesn’t care that it’s not real when your mind says it is.

The other day I stumbled across a blog post that talked about the come down after finishing a big race or event. It used the metaphor of the black dog. The author wrote about how the months of training change you, the intense focus it takes to succeed and the purpose that gives you, and the demons everyone who is doing these things are chasing. (Oh the demons!) We train and we chase; we pour ourselves intensely into this one goal, making not only our bodies but our whole selves stronger and more capable. And then the event we’ve been working towards arrives. And we do it. We push through, falling back on our training in the tougher moments, and we succeed. And it’s great. It’s so awesome…for about ten minutes. But then it’s over. And the Now What sets in. It lurks around the edges, like a black dog, hanging about and stalking. Waiting to give chase.

Lately I’ve been in a bit of a funk. It is the time of year for that. At least for me it is. The dark days of February, not as dark as they were a few years ago, are still not the best. It’s not just that though. A couple weeks ago (actually, well over a month now) I got the official email informing me that I did not get into dental school. I hadn’t even gotten an interview. Throughout the process of applying I struggled with a fear of failure that I had never realized was present, let alone so deep seated. And here it was in one email, the fear now a reality, staring me down in a generic, formally worded email:

I’m sorry but we have thousands of qualified applicants and only a couple hundred spots. We have to crush someone’s hopes and dreams. This year it’s yours. Best of luck in all your future endeavors.

Sincerely,

Dental School.

And that was it. Failure.

Any small shred of hope I had been hanging onto was gone. Obliterated. Smashed to bits in a few typed lines… I tried and I failed. I thought I was good enough, had done enough, but I wasn’t. And I didn’t.

All I could think was: Now what? What do I do?

And I did nothing. I didn’t quite wallow, it was more of a slumped. A passive sinking into the ground, somewhat less active than a full out wallow. I pretended I was okay with the rejection. After all I did see it coming. And on paper (hypothetical paper, not actually written down. That would be taking at least some action.) I had a plan. A regroup and recharge strategy in case this happened. Time was of the essence in this plan…but all I could do was…Nothing. I just floundered. I sunk into indecision, slumped, and I wavered.

The inclination to settle where I am started pulling like an anchor around my ankles. I questioned my goals and lost direction, not so sure anymore that this hard hard thing is right for me. There are a lot of reasons it might not be. Fresh upon this rejection they seemed pretty valid.

This past summer was consumed by an intense push to finish my dental school application. Cramming for the DAT, the pressure of getting a decent score with only a sad sorry month of studying under my belt, the hundred shadowing hours squeezed in between the demands of my constantly crazy life, the struggle to convey who I am and why I want to be a dentist in 4500 characters. It was a rush, there was a sense of urgency to reach the goal. And then I did, very early one morning  (late one night, really) in August. I submitted my dental school application and felt relief, the swell of victory that comes with accomplishing something challenging.

After that the waiting began. Sometimes it was itchy and uncomfortable but mostly life kept me distracted like it has a way of doing. September and October rolled around, interviews were scheduled. Still no word. November and then December. The chatter was that there were two more interview sessions in January after the initial wave of acceptances. There was still hope. And then January. The first week…then the second…no word. Chances were so, so slim now but the official email still brought a heavy sense of disappointment.

And the now what.

That black dog hanging around, lurking, stalking, waiting for its moment to take me over. It’s the same dog of my childhood nightmare. Appearing less aggressive but really it’s just a little wiser and more patient now.

I know what I should do. This situation calls for perseverance, pick yourself up and try again. Resilience. It’s a thing (a skill?) I’ve developed and honed. It should be fine tuned, sharp and ready, especially after the past five years of my life. But my instincts to grab onto and wield it are sluggish and I’ve stayed slumped. I let the black dog come in too close and thought that was it, the end. It’s not though. Slowly, oh so slowly, the regroup is starting. I put the plan on paper and started the slow, hard trudge of big test preparation..because, in the words of Chumbawumba, “I get knocked down, but I get up again…” Sometimes it just takes a little longer than it should.

(And now some memes to drive the point home…or possibly water it down. Whichever.)

micheal jordan failure meme.jpghenry ford failure meem.jpghomer failure meme.jpgbatman failure meme.jpg

It’s not the chase, it’s the intermittent reinforcement.

I briefly mentioned (in my exasperated rant about yet anther ghosting) that I have once again entered the dark and mysteriously alluring world of online dating, this time with an altered approach. For one I’m on a different site than last time (no more bottom feeders at POF for this girl…I’ve moved on to the (still free) illustrious pool of somewhat eligible bachelors matched to me via the very loose algorithms of OK Cupid.). And for two, I’m more interested in and open to an actual relationship this go round. Shocking, I know. It kind of snuck up on me too but I’ve realized I feel sort of…maybe..almost ready for a regular other person in my life. Whatever that means.

However, just because that’s what I think I  want right now does not mean it’s what I’ve gotten. While there does seem to be more candidates on this site, the dates I’ve been on have not been so different. There’s been the FriendZone guy (decent, easy to get along with, interesting but no chemistry), the boring guy (super available, not a lot going on in his life, nice but…nice), and, the one that seems to click, the Ghoster.

It’s the last one that gets me every time.

He’s fun, interesting, and makes me laugh, even gets my sense of humor. He meshes. Usually there’s something that makes me hesitant at first but a  few dates in and I start thinking “This has potential.” And then it happens. As soon as I start leaning towards wanting him around and feeling optimistic, he “Ghosts”. Dude just drops off the face of the earth never to be heard from again. I’ve experienced this a few times. And every time I’m infuriated.

But then it happens again.

Sometimes there are signs. He texts a little less or seems less engaged. Little things like that. I should be able to recognize the warning signs by now. And I sort of do. The problem is the warning signs make me want the dude more… I thought I just really liked the chase (in a lot of ways I am more like a stereotypical guy than girl. Seriously, don’t buy me flowers…give me beer and a burger and I’m a happy camper.) But then one day, in a somewhat frustrating but still rewarding texting situation with a friend, a light bulb dinged in my head saying:

“Intermittent reinforcement”!

See, this guy and I have a mostly texting based friendship. Occasionally we’ll talk about meeting up for a random adventure. And it has actually happened. Twice. In three years. Sometimes, okay maybe more than sometimes, I’ll randomly text him and he won’t respond. But then sometimes he does. Once in a while he’ll even text me out of the blue. I’m always super excited and kind of happy about it. This pattern has gone on for a while now, over a year (I’m almost embarrassed to admit). Little spurts of fun attention with spans of mostly being ignored or getting short answers in between.

Intermittent reinforcement.

I’ve taken a couple psychology classes (Or I’ve taken a psychology class a couple of times. Whatever. Basically the same thing.) and I remember B.F. Skinner and his rats.

Skinner, an early behavioral psychologist, studied rats and their response to reward based stimulus. He talked about operant conditioning and stuff. (Here’s the Wikipedia page to prove it.) One of the things that this Skinner dude found, way back before the middle of the 20th century, was that intermittent reinforcement was way more effective than continuous reinforcement. Meaning when we consistently get a positive (or negative) result from our actions it isn’t as exciting and, well, rewarding as when we only get that same result once in a while. We thrive off the unpredictability of the prize, it makes us crazy for more and drives us to increase the behavior for even just the chance of getting the reward.

In rat studies this looks like the rat getting a food prize every time it pulls the right lever versus only some of the time. The rat who only gets a prize some of the time will pull that damn lever over and over and over again. Think gambling and slot machines here. It’s exponentially more exciting and rewarding because we’re surprised when we get the reward and addicted to the possibility of getting a reward next time when we don’t. It’s a very effective training tool.

So what do rats and reinforcement have to do with dating?

Everything! Getting a response or attention from a person only some of the time instead of every time we try makes us want to try to get that person’s attention even more. Anyone who had done any online dating can probably give antedotal evidence of this. 

So I realized that I was engaged in a pattern of intermittent reinforcement with Fickle Texting guy. The fact that he didn’t respond every time, or even regularly, made me want interaction with him even more. When he did actually respond and interact it was like all the cherries lined up on the slot machine. Excitement and win ! When there was no response it was annoying and frustrating but I was still drawn to texting him again at random. Because he might respond. The possibulity was there. As soon as I recognized this dynamic with Fickle Texting Guy (I’m slow sometimes but eventually I get it.) I started to notice it other places in my life too, specifically in some of my past dating experiences.

Heck, I’ve been on the receiving AND the giving end of intermittent reinforcement.

I think we all have and that’s not necessarily unhealthy. At the beginning, in moderation, it’s part of what builds attraction. But, and this is a big butt, it can very easily become unhealthy and even feed into abusive relationship dynamics. Continued intermittent reinforcement basically gives one person control of the interaction pace and lends itself to a craving in the other person that goes largely unsatisfied. Again, think gambling addiction here. It’s the same thing.

SO now that I’m aware of this thing, what do I do with this it? 

Do I try to “hook” a guy using intermittent reinforcement? It does sound like a fun social experiment. But what kind of a relationship dynamic would that foster? And what kind of guy would I catch with that?

Seeking out guys who don’t engage in imtermittent reinforcement seems like a better idea. I mean, I’ve already proven to be good at finding the guy who is going to run away, probably after the next shiny thing. Identifying patterns of intermittent reinforcement early could be a good way to weed out the Ghosters before the disappearing act begins. This is something I’m going to mull over and keep in mind as I message new guys online and continue to try and find one who will not only stick around, but who I also actually want around. 

As for the guy who only responds to texts sometimes, it’s been about a month since I’ve restarted the intermittent reinforcement cycle and I’m not all that interested in doing so. Maybe knowing really is half the battle.

 

 

The Illusion of Safety

I’m scared right now, terrified in fact. I’ve opened a can of worms in hopes of instigating a positive change and now it’s out of my control. I don’t know how it’s going to end and the possibility that things could get worse is absolutely petrifying. What the fuck did I do? Why can’t I leave well enough alone?

It snowed yesterday, the first snowfall of the season and it really was a doozy. I had gotten the night off work to go celebrate a friend’s birthday with another friend who lives out of state and some of their mutual friends. They reserved a hotel room and had a super fun night on the town planned. I was super geeked to be included in these plans and have some time with a friend I rarely see.

The snow started around 5am, a couple inches had accumulated by the time I was leaving work at nine. Around four in the afternoon I was in the arduous process of waking up a little earlier than my body wanted to. I looked out and saw that there was quite a bit of snow. After contacting my friends I learned they had gotten slightly less. I knew I was going to have to be cautious and take it slow on my normally forty minute drive to the city. About and hour later I stepped outside to start my car and maybe shovel my back steps, turns out there was way more snow than I had realized. Like, a foot more. I was wearing dressy boots that came just to the tops of my knee caps, standing int he snow only the top couple inches of those boots was visible. My neighbor who was out fiddling with his snow blower (sadly, it was not working) offered me his snow shovel. He looked at the way I was dressed and asked if I was planning to go out for the evening.Yup, that’s the plan.  He cautioned me against it saying that the roads were pretty bad, that the freeways were barely moving when they had been out earlier….and that was when there was less snow.  He commented,”It better be pretty important to be heading out in this weather.”  I could hear the genuine concern in his voice, he wasn’t wrong. I stood there in the knee deep snow  debating if the good time I hoped to have was worth it. Importance is a term of relativity but was I putting myself in unnecessary danger?

I have chronic bad judgement and a very strong stubborn streak. I like to call it determination, that’s being kind. Bullheaded stupidity might be more apt. So, of course, I decided a little snow was not going to stop me from following through with my plans. Not today, Michigan winter. Not today. After more than an hour of shoveling (in fancy boots and a short dress no less), I was questioning my judgement. However, I had come this far I figured I should probably make it worth while and keep going (I totally ignored the economic concept of sunk cost here.)

tomtom winter meme

Around seven o’clock I was finally ready to hit the roads. They really were bad; I probably should have heeded the numerous warnings issued and stayed home or at very least just gone to work instead. I slid around on the slick roads twice, hitting the curb pretty hard but thankfully no other cars. I kept telling myself I’d be safe once I made it to the freeway. Although I knew that was not the case it helped. Having that very short term goal of getting to “safety” calmed me. Once I did get to the freeway, though, I faced a snow covered entrance ramp and traffic moving at forty mile per hour…max. Numerous cars were in the ditch. My idea of the freeway being a safe point was clearly flawed. But that’s the way it is with safety, isn’t it? We think we’re safe; we take precautions so we feel safe. We’ve done something and that makes it seem like the situation is under our control when in reality there are so many factors at play every day in every situation that we never truly are safe. And when you start to think about that it’s truly scary. There is a lot to be afraid of whether it be sliding to a cold, snowy death or losing your kids in court.

Once you open that door you let possibility in, both the good and the bad. But you have to. What’s life without possibility? You can’t filter the good from the bad; picking and choosing is just not an option. Ever.It’s Pandora’s  Box day in and day out. So we create these illusions and tell ourselves we’re safe and usually it works. That feeling of safety and security allows us to ignore the bad that is lurking everywhere and carry on with life. It’s a good thing but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it makes us do stupid things like go out in very bad weather for a the sake of a good time. It enables us to make poor choices. Other times that illusion of safety limits us. It keeps us in our zone of comfort and perceived safety, preventing us from reaching out and connecting with someone who might need it. I had a long time to think about this as I crawled along the freeway praying to calm my nerves and fortify my own personal illusion of safety.

It’s natural to seek familiarity and shy away from the unknown, that’s pure survival instinct right there. It’s why I can’t walk up to a stranger and talk to them. It’s why we hesitate to actually have a conversation with the homeless person standing at the stop light holding their sign. Just hurry up and give them a couple bucks or a granola bar if you have either, look away and pretend to be busy in your car if you don’t. It’s why our nation is all up in arms about allowing Syrian refugees into America. They are not “us”, they look different, they are different. They represent the unknown and that doesn’t mesh with our illusion of safety. Forget that they are people being kicked around and having a real shit time who would most likely prefer not to have to forage out a whole new life in a place far from home. Forget that this country was founded as a place for the weary and downtrodden to find rest. Just focus on controlling whatever aspects of the unknown you can to increase your safety.  Who really knows if that’s real or only perceived.

My point here is not that we should allow displaced refugees into America. Maybe we should, maybe we shouldn’t. That’s a bigger puzzle than I can solve, a multifaceted issue that has no “right” answer. I guess my point is that while it’s good to take precautions (don’t stop locking your door at night or anything) to protect ourselves and especially those whose safety and well being is entrusted to our care, it’s also important to take a step back and see how the idea that we’re safe, this feeling of safety, is effecting the way we live. Is it empowering unneeded recklessness or limiting the level of kindness and compassion we live out on a day to day basis? It’s just something to think about.