Update

Tag: ramble. (I should just do this instead of having to put it in the title. New convention that I might establish :))

Hey all :).

How are you all doing? I’ve been keeping an eye on my mood, and it’s swinging back upward since last week. Last week’s post was rough, but it’s surprising to me that I’ve been feeling melancholy since then. Then again, my issues around [meeting expectations and approval / dealing with criticism / lack of self-trust in ambiguous situations / etc.] are probably going to take months to sort through. Normally I swing between topics / issues really fast; my poor therapist has to keep up with all of the new stuff I come up with on a weekly basis.

However, the set of reactions and emotions involved in last week’s post are a little unusual. They’re long-running, tightly tied in with my history, and embedded within a whole bunch of my systems for understanding and interacting with the world. It’s a bit frustrating that progress on this has been slower than usual thus far, but I have faith that I’ll get it done :). Meaning, I’ll come out of the process with a new set of reactions that involve less intense emotions, and less negative emotions! I feel like my quest here since arriving in CA is boiling down to “how to be more chill”.

(That said, I’m still pretty constantly intense at people. I am blessed with massive amounts of energy, so I tend to blast it. But it internally feels more chill!)

Introspection is such a funny process. The other day I was wondering why I was feeling simultaneously melancholy and also baseline optimistic, so I took the part of me that was observing this and went and asked the optimistic part who it was. After I realized I had to introduce these two parts as equals lest they condescend to each other, the optimistic part (which was taking the appearance of a bushy-tailed, bright-eyed squirrel / monkey) let me know that it was a baseline, constant part of me, that it wasn’t in charge of dealing with intense emotion, but that it liked life. That was its main point, that it liked life. And people. And things. And that this world was a pretty cool place to be. My optimistic part is very accepting-chill. It also pointed down to the forest that it was overseeing, where all the deep emotions lived, and pointed out how lovely that was too.

The above paragraph is patently absurd, by the way. I never would have done anything like this last year, and that’s because moderating a discussion where different parts of you talk to each other is just weird. But the weirdest part is that it can actually be productive? Like, I realized something new about myself and calmed way down after talking to the optimistic part. Introspection can be soooo weird. Also, east-bay hippie stuff can be pretty cool.

I’ve been doing less introspection in general, but a decent amount of my usual mode, which is to directly try to sort through emotions that arose due to something upsetting. Emotions are informative. I’ve also been doing more of my other usual mode, which is looking back on past behavior and classifying it. Once you extend the reach to childhood, pattern-matching becomes even more interesting. The point being that after you figure out what you’re doing in reaction to things, you can then figure out why you’re having those reactions, and then adjust the reactions according to the new situations that you find yourself in. I find that a roadblock in that process is that I don’t know what’s unusual about my reactions, since they’re my reactions, and I often get the most insight about this when I tell someone else a story and they’re like: “…wait, you did / thought / felt what? I would’ve done…”

But enough about introspection :). I’ve been doing research! I’m trying to push through as much research as I can through January, because for spring semester I’m not going to have much time at all. I’ll be TA-ing a course (“Computational Models of Cognition”) and studying for quals. Quals are “qualifying exams”, and are one out of only two benchmarks during the PhD. (The other benchmark is the dissertation. The PhD process doesn’t believe in checkpoints very much.) For the Berkeley Neuroscience quals, we have an oral examination broken into three parts: a) basic neuroscience questions, b) questions about related topics, c) questions about your proposed research plan for at least the next year. I’m really psyched to start studying and teaching. I’ve wanted to try teaching for forever, and studying—assembling high-level information that I’m interested in from multiple sources—is always very rewarding.

Outside of research, not much is going on in my life right now :). I’m working out (too much), reading stories (too much), eating (…takes a surprising amount of time?), and doing thinking-about-self when the mood hits me. Also, social, of course, though I’ve been backing off a bit recently. I was doing various experimental ventures into the dating realm for a while—the past year on and off, really—but am currently on a downswing. MAN, dating is a topic though. I hadn’t really encountered, until this year, that a lot of people are really worried about not finding a life partner. It’s an age thing, certainly, but it’s kind of funny to me that I entered the dating realm at a time where a lot of people are in a mild panic about finding “the one”. (Is this what one’s supposed to worry about during one’s 20s and early 30s? Oh man, that’s a long ride ahead…)

I had some really fun social events the week before last. During one weekend, it was one amazing thing after another—first I spent the day wandering around the Exploratorium (science museum in SF, certifiably awesome) and Chinatown with two friends. Then I met up with another friend for dinner. Then I went to a “no-small-talk” party with strangers. And these were all friends I like a lot, and the strangers were great too. (I find it very amusing to watch myself interact with strangers in weird social contexts like these. One guy I completely bulldozed because I felt he was being closed off, one woman I had a great conversation with, one woman I had a really romantically-charged intense conversation with (she opened with “I’m attracted to you,” and I went “OH BOY”), one woman I was reserved with because I felt she wasn’t in my crowd, and another guy I had an “eh” conversation with. On some level, I’m really not very consistent.)

Then the next day I met up with my friend Alyssa, from college, and we had a grand time traipsing around SF for dinner and then for walking. (We always end up walking along the waterfront. I even objected this time, and Alyssa rolled her eyes and brought me there, and sure enough I didn’t want to leave once we arrived. Alyssa: “Monica, you always want to walk near water. Accept that this does not change about you.” (Alyssa was my roommate for a summer when we were both at Wellesley, and we engaged in much walking along the Charles river.) Then, when we’d spent long enough hanging out that it was quite late, she let me tag along as a guest to the Rocky Horror Picture show, where she’s a cast member. Rocky Horror was not nearly as frightening as I’d thought it be. Admittedly, I was sitting with the cast, but it was just a bunch of people giving other people a place to have fun, within a somewhat scripted environment. It was a super fun night—I like Alyssa a lot, and it’s gratifyingly mutual. (I feel the same way about the friends from my previous day’s adventures.)

IMG_0336.JPG
Pretty lights at the theater (view from the stage) before everyone showed up for Rocky Horror :).

That’s about all I’ve got, right now! The current thing I’m mulling my brain over is how to write characters. I really want to be able to write characters in stories. And I’ve historically been not pleased with my ability to do so. I seem to get stuck in that visualizing what other people will do kind of hits a blank wall for me, even in real life. This doesn’t make sense, because when I interact with people I have a distinct sense of familiarity or surprise with their reactions, so I obviously have a model of them in my head somewhere. But I’m weirdly unable to access it in a way that’s easy for me to use to write characters? I feel like this block is tied in somehow with my confusion about self-trust and empathy and a section of ideas I’ve generally been exploring in introspection, so work on that will help with this. I just feel like, based on how my thinking works and my available skills, I should by all rights be able to write characters. I’ve written characters before (that I wasn’t terrifically pleased with, but I have some capability), I appreciate characters a lot and have read SO MANY examples of them, I have knowledge of how other people act in real life, I know how to write story-wise in general, and write a lot of dialogue from real-life situations, am capable of constructing plots—this has got to be possible. I’m going to try to figure it out.

Talk to you all later! Probably the next few weeks won’t be very eventful for me, either, just because the semester’s finishing up and I’ve been changing out [hanging out and experiencing people] with [do research especially the class project that’s due at the end of the month] :).  To finish up, I figured I’d include another transcript from the checkout line at Trader Joe’s, because that is a quality store and I usually have good interactions with the people there. Have a good night, all!

Monica

*More transcripts from the checkout line at Trader Joe’s:

Employee from another lane who’s just finished up: “Do you need helping with packing?”

Me: “… No, I think I’ve got it, thank you!”

Employee in my checkout line: “Yeah, I can see you’re an expert.”

“I get the same things every time, I know where it goes.”

“You’re a creature of habit?”

“…yeah, with respect to cooking. Though I should learn how to cook. It seems like a skill that’s best acquired early on.”

“Why?”

“Like, it’s a skill that’ll last for the rest of your life. Seems like you’d get a lot of… [*internal struggle not to say “utility”*] benefit out of it if you learn it early.”

“Ah. What zodiac sign are you?”

Me: “What?”

“Zodiac sign.”

“Uh… I was born in April,” (Me: this is based on month, right? Right?) “Do you know what that is?”

“No.”

“Hm. Taurus, I think?”

“End of April?”

“Yeah.”

He pauses, thinking about it.

Me: “Why did you ask?”

“Oh, I don’t really believe in it.”

“Yeah, but what were you looking for?”

“I don’t really believe in it, but sometimes there are connections between personality and month.”

“Cool. What did you expect me to be?” (I’m pushing, I’m worried he’s not going to say anything)

“… (obviously thinking about it, deciding whether to say it) a Capricorn.”

“What are Capricorns like?” (me: yes!)

“They’re very structured. They follow specific procedures in general.”

“Well, I do do that! I love all this personality stuff.”

“Yeah. Huh, your total is 77.77.”

“That’s pretty special.”

“Yeah. A customer earlier said that 7 is the number of the ocean.”

“Cool. I’m a Capricorn of the ocean. Thanks!”

“(laughs) Have a good night!”

(The amount of conversation you can fit into a checkout line makes me happy :).)

Advertisements

Angst with a Happy Ending

Hey readers—

Sorry I was out last week! Things got busy research-wise, and then I started cramming all of my academic things in before going to a hippie-woo workshop this weekend. This particular hippie-woo workshop involved 16 adults sitting in circles and reflecting their feelings at each other. It was very interesting, and had some really excellent experiences but also had some rough times in it. I’m still kind of reeling from the tough bits, and am unsure what this blog will look like because of it.

I think I’ll just get right into it. Here’s one of the puzzles I’ve been working on today and yesterday: I don’t know how common this experience is, but I’ve been realizing recently that a lot of my really upset moments have a common flavor. If I track back to times in the last year that involved lots of crying, most of them actually feel like a pretty similar set of emotions and are in the face of remarkably similar social situations. Specifically, I’m in a one-on-one conversation, and I’ve just related either a disappointment or a goal I’m aiming for, and am asking for feedback. This is a pretty natural thing for me to do, and in these cases I’m asking for advice from someone who I respect and who enjoys my presence.

Said person then delivers advice. This advice is well-meant and makes lots of sense, and obviously works within their framework. This advice feels absolutely, completely impossible to execute within my framework. If I’d related a disappointment, then it feels like they’ve just said something ridiculously obvious, and have completely failed to understand that that particular problem is hard for me, which is the whole reason why I was asking about it in the first place.  If I’ve related a goal, it’s usually worse, because I was offhand checking to see if they had useful advice but not actually asking-asking. When people then present: “to achieve your goal, you should do x,” when x feels impossible to me, I feel like I get attacked out of nowhere. In both cases I feel like I’ve “asked for it”, so I can’t complain. Moreover, I feel like the people aren’t being mean, just failing to model me in a way that feels hurtful, so I can’t get angry. It’s kind of feeling like despair and hurt and “why did you just stab me” and helplessness and hopeless obligation. I’ve recently learned the phase “not being seen”, which I interpret to mean that the other person really isn’t getting you and didn’t make the effort to get you. It feels like the other person doesn’t care, like they didn’t take the time to listen. (Luckily, this is pretty much as bad as it gets for me, though :). I am very grateful not to suffer much in general—I get this sort of feeling a few times a year from various interactions with people, but it is as bad as it gets.)

It’s interestingly wrapped up in what I’m starting to frame as violations of consent. I was thinking about it a few days ago, and I’ve realized that I don’t approach conversations like I do sexual consent, for example. In sexual consent, it feels totally reasonable for me that if someone says yes initially, but then changes their mind, they are completely allowed to do that and if the other person ignores the change of heart, then what they’ve done is just as bad as if they’d violated consent the first time around. However, in conversations, I feel like once I’ve granted someone permission to push my boundaries, I have to give them free reign and pick up the pieces later. I’ve executed this kind of behavior historically, and in many cases it’s a wise way to proceed, especially in the face of someone with a lot of power. But I feel like it isn’t exactly serving me right now, when interacting with peers. I also don’t like that when I tell this sort of story, people who are really listening mention that it feels to them like I’m a victim, or that I felt unsafe, and that feels true. I also have this very strong, nagging feeling like I’m doing this to myself, like I’m making these situations happen, like I’m getting myself hurt. And I don’t like that at all. That feels to me like I’m trying to grasp at control in whatever way I can—which is to blame it on myself in some sense, rather than the people doing the harm—and also like a complete victim mindset, and an incorrect way of understanding the situation.

I’d probably better give some examples of how this goes. For example, I was talking about how I was anxious during a particular experience one day, and my friend turns to me and says: “Why don’t you just try to enjoy it?” Which, yes, that’s obviously what I would have liked to happen, but my experience was such that not only was I not enjoying it, I was struggling just to feel neutral about it. (I felt misunderstood, and hurt, and defeated.) Another time a friend told me they wanted me to put on a specific personality trait under stress, when this particular trait is one I’ve mentioned that I struggle with. They were taking an approach to bring it out, but I suspect that this trait only comes out when I’m completely comfortable, and they were making me uncomfortable. Another recent example is when someone told me that the way to get better at the skill I was trying for was to “stop processing it so much, and think about sharing it rather than thinking it through.” In this case, the skill I was trying for fit into a context where I felt much more freedom than usual to say and feel my own emotions, rather than considering and modeling others’. Thus, the tears were super quick in that situation, because I interpreted what he’d said as: a) I need to start thinking more about other people (“sharing it”) and be less in my own experience even in this context where I thought my experience could be mine, and b) to figure this method out, I couldn’t use the one resource which I can always rely on, which is thinking through a problem.

Interestingly, the worst parts of these scenarios isn’t even in the advice, it’s the stage after it. With friends I trust (…I stop trusting people who do the above to me, with regards to handling my emotions), if they make a mistake and give me advice that isn’t landing, they’ll back off. They’ll apologize, and listen to how I’m saying it doesn’t work. What I most often get in the above scenarios is what feels like people eating up my experience. They’ll be staring at me, at the tears, and you can tell that they’re somewhat uneasy, but they’re just staring, and they’re not taking it back. A move that people who are trained in therapy-like practices will pull is, “you know that wasn’t my intention,” when I explain how I feel in response to their advice. No shit. I know that my response is exaggerated, and I give people a huge amount of space and benefit of the doubt when they give me advice out of their own experience that doesn’t happen to fit with mine. But when “it wasn’t my intention” is followed up with a reiteration of their original advice, and the good spirit in which it was meant, it drives me nuts. Because I feel like what’s happening in that exchange is this… Them: well-meaning advice. Me: BAD BAD BAD I FEEL ATTACKED. HERE’S WHY. Them: You’re attacking me, I feel hurt that you’re upset by me and like I did something wrong. I’m going to reiterate my point. Me: FUCKING HELL I JUST SAID I FELT ATTACKED WHY ARE YOU MAKING ME TAKE CARE OF YOU AND DO THINGS FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE WHEN THE WHOLE POINT IS THAT I DIDN’T FEEL LIKE YOU WERE DOING THINGS FROM MY PERSPECTIVE. I’ll do it, though, the reassuring, because often when I’m staring at this person, who’s just staring blankly at me back (sometimes they’re even enjoying the vulnerability, you can tell), they feel like this blank obstacle that I now have to remove before I can escape. And to remove the obstacle, the fastest thing to do is to reassure them, to thank them, to start crying so they’ll eat it up, and move on. It’s really unpleasant in that I feel completely abandoned and also like they’re seeing me as weak when I do it.

When I was writing these, a few other situations came up that don’t fit the above model super well, but feel somewhat similar. This can include when I’m asking for sympathy and not advice. An example of that one was when a friend had said something about how I wasn’t trying hard enough, and the response was, “well, are you?” Which, yes, a good question to ask, but I was looking for recognition of my emotional state. Another one that happened today is that I mentioned a small complaint, with a lot of couching language and consideration of the other person’s experience. I received back a list of complaints with very little effort to understand where I was coming from. It hurts. A super fun one is when you’re bodily telegraphing “I AM UPSET” at a leader in a group, and they look straight at you, then right on past you. (It feels so absurd when it happens. I know why—they can’t take time out of the group to deal with one person, I totally get it—but it feels completely absurd, because I do facial expressions well so I know I’m communicating, and they just go right on past.) A final example situation that can sometimes happen is that someone gives me advice that I find offensive, I tell them I don’t want to consider that advice, and they get defensive and then I’m required to either reassure them or argue with them until I’m so frustrated that I start crying. As it goes—no one’s wrong in those situations, since the advice is earnestly meant, but it does feel terrible. The recurring thought I get throughout all of these scenarios is: I can take care of myself. I can goddamn take care of myself. But why are you making me do this. Why are you doing this to me. I HAVE TO PICK UP THE PIECES AND WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME.

In circling (the focus of this hippie-woo workshop), one person often is being “circled”, and they’re the ones who everyone focuses their attention on. Rules are different in circles than in real life, in that you’re supposed to bring up more raw and true emotions, even if they’re unpleasant. Everyone is completely focused on listening to your description of what you’re feeling, and then relaying their emotional reactions to your emotions. Personally, I have a bunch of rules that I employ concerning social interactions in real life, and I get to relax them a little bit in circles. Basically, I end up ruder, because I don’t filter negative reactions as much.

What was really interesting about my circle is that when I decrease the strength of those filters, I lash out a lot more when I’m feeling attacked. And I feel a lot more resentment about it—or at least the resentment is much more available for me to see. Someone said, “Yeah, I’m not feeling you right now, I’m kind of frustrated with how this circle is going,” and I said: “Well. Normally I’d ask you what I can do to make this better for you. But it’s my circle.” A different time, someone relayed an experience that they felt was similar, and I said: “Yes, close to that, but that’s actually not what I’m feeling, I feel like you don’t have my experience. Here’s my experience.” Another time, someone delivered a bunch of observations that I felt were sexist and not very applicable to me. I paused, staring at them, and then said: “Okay. Cool.”

That response (“Okay. Cool.”) still kind of blows me out of the water. It’s so rude. Someone’s just delivered their experience and advice, and I completely disagree with them, but rather than coming up with some nice, packaged response that addresses their experience but also clearly and softly addresses why I don’t agree, I just dumped all of that responsibility and presented “Okay. Cool.” The weirdest part is that it’s absurdly rude, but it’s also not. Like, I could have said: “I disagree.” Or “I feel like what you just said was sexist.” Or anything confrontational or true to my feelings at all. Instead, for social cohesion purposes I didn’t say any of the negative things I was thinking, but I also did just the bare minimum of social cohesion in that I normally would have responded much more extensively to that. There’s a lot of freedom in the circle being mine.

In my circle, the main topic ended up being consent, and how it feels like to me when people are giving me this sort of advice. To that end, people would occasionally ask me a question, and then ask “Do you want to answer that?” Which was a super weird experience, because before they tacked on that end bit, it wasn’t ever in question whether I would answer it or not. I would have to, and in a minimally polite way. But when people did ask whether I wanted to answer it… a surprising amount of the time, what would come out of my mouth was a firm and immediate “No.” This is incredibly internally surprising to me, because I’m not at all thinking “I don’t want to answer this” when people ask, but apparently when directly asked that question I know I don’t want to answer a whole host of things, that involve prettying-up my experience and framing it so that other people find it compatible. One time, when asked whether I wanted to answer a question, what came out of my mouth was “No, but it’s way too much bother not to.” And what I meant there is that it was way too much work internally to fight with the part of me that was enforcing bare minimum politeness, and it was easier just to give a somewhat polished response to the question.

(Another recent experience that happened today. I’d been really upset by what someone had said, and had actually been feeling really attacked by it all day. They’d said something not nice, I’d responded with thanks and careful consideration of their experience, and they’d said something unsympathetic back. I had the tears under control by that point, and was acting normal. They came up to me and jokingly said:

“We’re still friends?”

I smiled wryly. “I was very sad.” I checked their body language—they weren’t looking at me, were just passing through the room. “Today was really rough.”

No reply; they passed out of the room, but still within earshot.

“But yes,” I said, “we’re good.”

I don’t know what to do with the contradictions here. There are a few observations here that I wasn’t aware of, that came up over the past few days. One, that I forget to acknowledge, is that I feel these types of situations, where I’m not “heard”, really deeply. I forget how deeply I feel them because most of the time I’m not in a raw mode, or in contexts where people are telling me how to do things I’m concerned about, and the deep emotions get blanketed. (It’s really strange, actually, how well it works. Before starting this post, I was having trouble not crying every few minutes (it’s kind of been a long day, and I have the affordance to sit in it today, which is really nice). But as soon as I decided to write this thing, I went straight into this mode where I’m relatively dispassionately relaying these emotions without actively feeling any of them. It’s super, super strange.) A second observation is that I actually have a lot of politeness filters? And I do consider other people’s experiences, a lot? A third observation is that I feel like my reactions to people giving advice that feels impossible are crazy high-intensity. Like, there must be something going on there, for it to hurt that much. Because it obviously hurts a lot, and these types of situations are becoming kind of distressingly repeated, and I’m not sure what’s going on or what I’m doing to make it happen or why I’m having such huge reactions in the first place. Or how to have more productive reactions. A fourth observation is: …oh man, I get angry at stuff. I’m angry at so much conduct which I think is justifiably bad. I’m so resentful at people who make me take their perspective when they’re not taking mine. I feel like it’s unreasonable, how much I want people to just act appropriately around me, and that I’m biting people’s heads off. That I’m being unjustifiably prickly and making people jump through hoops. (…But then again… there are so many situations, where I’m having a good time and really enjoying the people around me, where I don’t bite people’s heads off and have no desire to, just want to appreciate them. I don’t like feeling like I’m unjustifiably attacking people. And there are many, many situations where I don’t feel like defending myself against people at all.)

I don’t have any conclusions here. What I know is that I want this crap to stop. Specifically, I want to stop having situations where I feel like someone’s attacked me, and I’m staring into their face, crying, while they just watch me back and soak it up. I hate it—it feels really bad, and I don’t like the recurring theme that comes from it, which follows the line of the only person you can rely on with emotions is yourself, plus a despair and helplessness feeling, which is not a mantra I want to encourage.

Luckily, it seems like there are several intervention points here. First, there’s something about avoiding these kinds of situations in the first place. I could stop asking people for advice on things that are bothering me. I kind of like doing that, though, and often it’s fruitful, and people find it interesting and it brings us closer. I could be more picky about who I ask though. I seem to go for people who I respect and who like me but are a bit edgy—I don’t know what they’re going to say, because they’re people who I think may know more about me than I do—which might be a bad choice. I’m really not sure what to do with that though. Another point of intervention here that occurs to me is I could decide I know more about me than anyone else does. That seems like something worth developing, and actually addresses a point I was going to say, which is “don’t get upset by these things in the first place.” (Easier said than done, and if someone else told me this without giving me concrete steps or being sympathetic I’d bite their head off / start bawling, but it seems like one of the end goals.)

Another thing I could do is head off the game when it starts— after people deliver the advice, there’s this horrific pause before the waterworks start, and I could try to recognize that and attempt to extract myself from the situation rather than asking follow-up questions. Another possibility is to engage the anger module once I feel that feeling, rather than the upset module. Anger feels a whole lot better and lasts less long, and I’m pretty darn in control of anger, so there’s no risk of it exploding into something nasty. (If it gets close, I’ll just start crying, so.) Another point would be to try to figure out why people telling me to do things that feel impossible is so impactful in the first place, because I feel like there must be something going on there, because the reaction is so extreme for the prompt. That’d be about dismantling that response from the ground up.

What feels important to accomplish in the end for me is to have a response that feels powerful and not weak. That stands up to people instead of making me feel small. I feel like the “lash out” response gets engaged when I feel like people want things from me that I don’t want to give them (responses, consideration of their feelings, etc.) but I always get stuck in this muddle of “it’s my fault I’m being rude” or “but you’re going to make them upset and then you’ll have to deal with that” or “I’m just being so prickly right now, and rude to them” or “I put this upon myself by asking them to make judgments” or “but maybe this’ll be useful later so I have to be grateful” (I’ve decided I’m okay with abandoning this one)… and it just feels like a mess.

Heh, sorry for inflicting all that on you all :). (Also my use of “sorry” is something I was noting over the weekend :).) Luckily, there is this mess of emotions, but it’s built on this incredible foundation and unshakable faith that I can take care of myself and am going to be fine. And another weird thing is that it kind of feels like a blessing to have this much emotion and access to it, that I can feel things this deeply. I also have a strange sense of continual gratitude to how excellent my life is, that I can have these sorts of feelings, and also no doubt that I’ll be able to surpass and grow from them. Then there’s the fact that this isn’t urgent; these are trends I’ve been noticing, and this is a long-standing type of situation that I get myself into that stretches wayyyyy back. (The “I think other people know more about me than I do, so I’m going to ask for advice and thus put myself in the way of being hurt” is a very old trait trend of mine :). So old.) (Also, it’s not like my response is going to get worse. It’s already established and can only get better :)).

One of my favorite moments this weekend was the following exchange, which I think mirrors some of what I’ve been talking about above, but with a set of people who know me and enjoy me and care about me consistently.

I’d been talking with a few friends at the end of the workshop, asking if we wanted to hang out before we went home, because I’d like to. We’d lapsed into more normal conversation by this point.

One of the friends I was talking to, out of the blue: “You seem agitated.”

Me: “…Yeah. I’ll tell you about it in the second. Could we make a plan for what we’re doing next? Should I call an Uber?”

(Having taken care of the Uber, I walk over to the friend, who’s now sitting on the curb.)

Me: “So, re: me being agitated—”

She’s looking down, and I stop immediately. She doesn’t reply for few moments, and is obviously struggling with something. She starts raising her head, making eye contact.

“—don’t worry about it,” I tell her immediately, as soon as I read her face. I know that expression on other people—that’s what people look like when too emotionally exhausted to deal with other people right now. I’ve also learned that I’m very high energy compared to most people, all the time, so I don’t need to be told at this point.

“…I,” she says.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m boxing it.”

She sighs, looking at bit relieved, and a bit conflicted. By “boxing” I mean that I’m putting the emotion away to deal with later. It’s a pretty temporary solution that I’d been executing for the past ten minutes or so—shoving unpleasantness away while I do social things—but it’s something I used to be very good at and still have reasonable capacity for.

Another friend sees us interacting. “What’s going on?”

I turn to her. “I’m feeling agitated, but [name] is feeling low-energy right now.”

My friend on the curb chimes in, sounding very conflicted. “I want to be supportive, but…”

I nod. “It’s fine.”

Other friend: “Agitated about what?”

Me: “I was just talking to one of the leaders about my circle. And I interpreted what he told me badly, like I wouldn’t be doing this right unless I was maintaining eye contact and focusing on sharing or something.”

Friend: “What do you mean?”

Me: “Like, I feel like he told me I wasn’t doing it right, and I needed to be caring about others more instead of being in my experience. Or something…”

At this point I’m tearing up despite intentions, because I’m really not boxing this thing very well right now. I’m way too on edge to talk about it, though I’m doing okay when I’m not bringing it up.

“Aw, no,” a third friend jumps in. He’s been sitting on the other side of the curb, talking with someone else. His attention apparently was recently drawn to our conversation.

“No,” he says, standing up and coming towards me, “[Leader name’s] not allowed to make you sad.”

He doesn’t ask (he’s asked before, we’ve already established what each of us is okay with in terms of physical touch) and comes right up and hugs me, tightly.

And I’m proud to say that this is probably the first hug I’ve experienced “properly” in years. Normally, during hugs, I’m all: “okay, issuing comfort, how long do we hold, how tightly do we squeeze, are they going to be good after this, what social function are we serving here, emotions organized? Okay, yes.” I’ve gotten better about receiving them, but there’s still usually a fairly involved reasoning process going on. And it was only this last year that I determined hugs were good to begin with, so that’s already a measure of progress.

This time, it was just this feeling of comfort, and support. A space to gather myself rather than a space demanding control. And I had the stray thought about height and length of hug time (I remembered that he was probably following the proper hug rule, which is that whoever needs the hug decides when to let go) because I’m hopeless and this is how I roll, but I think this was my first uncomplicated “hug as giving comfort” that I experienced mainly as such.

My friend on the curb launches herself off the curb. “I changed my mind. My desire to support you has overridden my desire to maintain a specific mental state.”

She strides over, eyes bright. And I get to hug her too.

(There was also one person who met me over the weekend who really saw me, got me, and hugged me just as I was leaving. “Remember you’re so much fun to be around. Remember that.”

And I met a whole bunch of others in passing, who said I was “so alive”, “strong”, “a leader” (when I get to do this in the right contexts, it kind of feels like I’m becoming more myself), “smart”, “beautiful”.

And I got to dance like I haven’t ever danced before? Freedom, and fun, and space, and people?

And I was expressing some of the nonsense above to the friends I met there, and so were other people, and our solution was to get together and hang out and circle each other, when we know and like everyone, and that’s going to be happening next week.)

Night, all :). I feel much better for having written this, and thanks so much for sticking through it :). I want the blog still as an opportunity to do more polished writing, but sometimes I guess I need to stick the feelings in :). (Another thing I learned at the workshop: I have an extremely expressive body, in addition to face. I’m expressing something. What are those emotions? Where are they? What do they mean? Apparently I can get even deeper access to them, and it feels like I’m starting to touch on that, sometimes. Who knew :).)

Best wishes, all, and happy to be contacted, as per usual!

Monica

Comparisons and Connections (People, Always)

Hey all :).

Gah, I feel like I simultaneously want to rush this, go to bed, write this and take my time with it, and DO WORK *swear word*. I feel like such an irresponsible graduate student, what with all of the fun I’ve been having these days.

I was just on a panel at USF discussing how to get into grad school, and one of the girls came up to me later and said, “You make it sound so threatening, but I’m pretty sure this is what I want to do, so I’ll definitely email you later!”

Me, sheepishly: “Well, there are just a lot of parts to it. But each of the parts is…”

(Mentally scanning through parts: letters of rec, research, grades, standardized tests, organization, paper writing skills, scientific reading skills, etc…)

Me, even more sheepishly, “…uh, yeah, I’m happy to answer emails!”

Sigh. Each of those parts are themselves a ton of work. But I forgot to say that graduate school can be awesome! I seem to think it’s especially awesome (and I fully expect to pay for the good times later—January will be rough, I can already tell) but circumstances can be miraculous. I did remember to tell them that everything is going to be fine. Which I didn’t especially believe back then, but I do now.

The graduate panel was also really interesting because I was the only PhD student there. The panel was aimed at psychology students, and the organizers were striving for career diversity among the panelists. Alongside me there was a Masters of Public Health (MPH) student, and two PsyD students (which is like a PhD program, but clinically-focused, and they don’t get paid for their clinical work).

The moderator had asked what students needed to do to prepare for graduate school, and I was ready with my usual list. Classes and grades matter, standardized test scores matter, letters of recommendation matter, and research experience matters most of all. Check, check, check, check, need to hit all of these skills, which need to advance in parallel and incrementally.

Then one of PsyD student spoke up and I was surprised, yet again. Every time they spoke I had this internal shock through my system, because graduate school is not the same for everyone. Specifically, what I keep on forgetting is that graduate research is similar. Even across fields, if you’re doing full-time research, I can give an overview of what your academic life looks like. But if you’re not doing research full-time in a PhD or Masters program, “graduate school” can mean different things, and the answers you give to new students are not the same.

For example, apparently in the PsyD application cycle they’re looking for a holistic picture of you, and outside activities matter, as well as exposure to several types of clinical populations. I had to interrupt partway through with: uh, my experience was actually kind of different, for PhD programs they’re singularly looking for research potential. You have to be able to baseline get along with other people, but they’re looking at your research.

Also, people have to work part-time in the PsyD programs, because they don’t get paid? I’d forgotten that getting paid is pretty much restricted to science PhD programs, and had been ready to go off on a detailed monologue comparing stipends across schools and departments. Which is still really relevant information, and usually in the scope of what people want to hear from me when they contact me. I’m just so used to narrowing my scope to a specific audience—the audience which surrounds me pretty much 24/7—I forget that there’s an audience in between “general public” and “wants to get a science PhD”.

If you’re interested in social work, what populations you work with and volunteer with matter. I could have told you that “clinical experience matters”, because I’m actually quite familiar with the qualifications necessary to go to medical school. But this is a different type of volunteering, and is just slightly off-center to what I know. Being on this panel was such a strange experience because what everyone was saying was mostly familiar, but kept on having these weird offshoots that revealed that there were fundamental differences here that were hinted at but not fully explained.

Something else that was also funny to me was the emphasis on age. There was a panelist who was 28, and she was mentioning that I was so young, for having gone pretty immediately to graduate school. One of the other panelists was concerned because he felt too young, because he went straight through to the PsyD after undergrad. Currently, I have two distinct social groups: one of them is the Berkeley graduate community, specifically the AI, neuro, and psych populations. The mean age there is something like 26-27. The other is an outside Berkeley / SF community, where the mean age is probably something like 28-29, with a lot more variance. In both of these groups, there’s a lot of programmers who easily move between internships and jobs, and there is pretty much no emphasis on age. There’s a form of panic about age that I used to have, and kind of showed up at this panel, that I don’t feel anymore. I’m used to being slightly younger than the people around me, but being treated as if we’re all the same age / at the same stage anyway. (Academic hierarchy is respected, of course. If you’re a 5th-year grad student you’re about ready to apply for faculty positions, as compared to a 2nd-year grad student. But people treat that as isolated to research capacity.) There was also a little panic about having moved around jobs, or taking circuitous or non-circuitous paths, that doesn’t bother me at all anymore. I think this is especially a side effect of living in the Bay and the populations I hang out with, but I watch people around me switch jobs all the time, and it no longer becomes a big deal.

It was a great graduate panel, and I’m so glad I got a little more exposure to the different paths that psychology undergrads can take. I forget that I’m on this far edge of psychology, that’s way over near computer science, and that in undergrad I never was on the psychology track. I legitimately only took two psych classes in undergrad—Intro to Psych and Cognitive Psychology—and I’ve learned a lot about psych since then, but it’s not the same.

(For example, I had an embarrassing moment on the panel around the GRE, the standardized test for getting into graduate school. I blithely stated: “The math is easier than on the SAT” and got shouted down by my fellow co-panelists.

“But I heard it was supposed to be like 10th-grade math!” I defended myself.

“I took the SAT years ago!” was the reply. “I was a theater minor! I haven’t taken anything but Psych Stats since!”

…Whoops. I ended up having to take math every year in undergrad, despite telling myself every year that I was done. But the people currently around me know more math than me! Of course everyone’s done this level of math! No, Monica, not all psychology students end up doing this level of math. The relevant comparison group is not the super-stud computer science undergraduates and artificial intelligence PhD students.)

It’s all about the comparison groups. The MPH student was telling me how stressful her first semester had been, because of Berkeley’s Free Speech week and DACA and how everything social-justice had piled up just before mid-terms, in a class where a lot of people were directly affected or were people of color or… “and this program is about how health is affected by society, so it’s obviously been incredibly hectic,” she continued. She was describing this, and I was like: whoa, okay, I do not feel like this was academically hitting most of my friends over here in biological sciences. (Besides the travel ban, of course. The travel ban directly academically affected people I knew. My officemate almost couldn’t come back after visiting her family in Iran over break.) (I’ll keep the commentary to academically affected here, but obviously the real effects are often much deeper than that. I think for a lot of my friends, we were less affected in that way as well, as science grad students often don’t tend to be marginalized or in the social justice crowd, I think to our detriment (I feel for sure for the former, and don’t make a strong claim on the latter.)) (I also strongly reserve the right to revise these opinions later; I feel like I’m uninformed and stumbling around here, and expect to build on the existing values but improve my beliefs with additional information.)

Hm :). Bubbles are excellent things, and it’d be fun to get to know the other panelists better, get to know their bubbles. When talking about what careers they wanted to pursue after their graduate studies, it’s always fun to hear about “helping people in x way”, compared to “wouldn’t it be cool if…?”

God, I love the subway.

A young guy, blond hair and immaculately business-chic, walks in and grabs the handle in front of me. I check him out—yep, loafers, red socks, soft-looking grey suit, tight-ish and styled young, stylish messenger bag, white button-up, Apple earbuds, consistent all the way up. It’s not often you’ll get someone that consistent. I eye his phone he’s holding. Oh—he’s playing one of the repetitive games, and easily looks away when he waits for the next level to load, like he knows how long to expect. I shrug internally, losing interest.

Across the way, there’s a guy with a helmet on on top of a baseball hat; same color. There’s a black plastic thing attached to it—oh, a bike mirror. He’s wearing a shirt that has a few confusing patterns on it. Wait, does it go down his arm? No, that’s a black tattoo that goes from a few inches above and below his right elbow. It looks like it’s covering previous tattoos.

(I get lost in contemplating tattoos for a while before getting back on track.)

Bike-guy shoves his massive backpack up onto his shoulders, and the woman next to him—who I’d been admiring for a while—gives this hilariously affronted look to him briefly, then to her Kindle. She’s tall, older, skin sagging around her chin but standing firmly and straight. Creative clothes, black-themed, long hair and glasses that she whips on. I kind of want to be her when I grow up.

Guy next to them has large black headphones on, large sunglasses shoved up onto his forehead, and is bobbing along to his music. More than bobbing—dancing a little, totally into it, head bopping and legs and body shifting—he looks like he’d been a good dancer. It’s contained, he’s not trying to draw attention, but he keeps on glancing up and mouthing the words and is great to watch. Those three are overlaid: bike-guy, affronted-lady, dancing-dude. It’s great.

There’s a super muscular guy behind them, got an air to him such that you wouldn’t expect him to be except for how you can see it when he’s got his arms folded over each other. Long hair, tied up really high on his head behind a bandana, mottled rainbow tanktop, loose pants.

When I look away one of them disappears, and then a second—soon enough even the guy in the corner, crazy-cheekbones with beanie is gone (he looked like he was doing social things on his phone)—has disappeared after a stop. The new person that takes his place is older and has his hair parted down the middle. I stare down at someone else who has his hair spiked, and trying to figure out how you do it with hair that short, and if you need to.

I spend a bit trying to determine the ethnicity of another woman and comparing another’s facial features to how baby faces are oriented (she’s “cute” in a very characteristic way—is it in the way of big eyes and small jaws that make babies cute? Why else is the way she looks so distinctive? I implicitly know this category, dammit!) There’s a tattooed woman and her partner talking quietly to each other right next to me, and I like that they seem to get along well, very cooperative. (…yes, “very cooperative”, what is this language ;P). I do some basic gender ratio checks, get briefly annoyed that the guy with the skateboard keeps meeting my gaze, think about whether I want other people to notice me noticing them (answer: yes, but in a way that they are similarly amused). Think about the people staring out the windows not looking at their phones. Think about how many stops to go.

There’s something fun about this sort of exercise. Also, something fun about planning ahead. Something fun about being “in the moment”, too. Before this I was riding an Uber down the hill through SF’s city lights, and it was like, right there, right then, that was all there was, no planning, no future anticipation or memories, just me, living it. These types of moments are new for me, and sometimes I’m in them and I go back to thinking and then I go back in them and everything has a new perspective, briefly, before I switch back. Fun being alive, fun being able to play with these things, you know? I don’t always know. But right now I do.

I was riding my bike down to campus one day and narrowly got missed being hit by a car door—god, so close, a second later and I would have been down—and the adrenaline was familiar and immediate and astonishing, and I breathed out, audible sigh, as soon as I was outside car-door-opening-range again, and someone said “that was close,” as I rushed past, and I didn’t know they were talking to me, but I realized they were, and said: “yeah”. And that was an interaction we shared that they observed and I never even saw their face, just said “yeah,” had the acknowledgement that they’d been watching the situation, they’d been watching my reaction, they’d heard my yelp they’d heard my sigh they’d lived my experience there, with me, said something, told me, and I never saw their face, just said “yeah” as we went past.

My therapist and I figured it out, sort of, figured it out much more than before. It was our third week together and I just wanted something out of her, wanted her to do something, wanted it to be good. I kept on talking and analyzing and trying to get her to ask me questions, to input something, to stop looking at me so seriously, none of what I’m saying is the end of the world, come on, engage with me. But she’d look back at me so seriously and say, “and I hear that you felt like this,” or “and in asking that question, you seem like you really care about that question being answered. Why?” And I was like: no no no no no, I’m fine with you turning the question back on me, like, that’s fine, but I need you to answer a few of them occasionally, and generate them occasionally, I want you to prompt me, or something, come on.

But then: “What does it feel like for you in your body right now?” she asked, and that was the start of the good.

“…Tense,” I say, thinking about it. “Like, there’s a lot going on here. I’m—I’m on top of this huge mass of messy social things, because there’s a lot happening right now. I’m trying to manage this situation, because I want something from you, but I’m trying to maintain the social relationship, and we’re like therapist and patient, and that means something, and I also want you to ask me questions, and I’ve told you what it’s like when I do therapy with friends, but I also feel like I’m not giving you space to do your thing, and that I’m moving too fast and that this isn’t easy, at all, like I’m banging against something trying to figure this out, and I want to be doing whatever it is that lets you do whatever you’re really good at.”

“And do you always think about this sort of thing?”

I pause for a while. It’s a good question—I have to pose it as, “when do you not do this sort of thing?” I’m searching for exceptions when she talks again, trying to clarify. I tell her to wait up a second, mentioning the query I’m asking and the fact that I’m checking for exceptions.

I finish searching. “Almost all of the time, I’m thinking things like this. Sometimes I won’t, when I’ll just kind of move automatically.” I give a few examples.

“And those moments where you’re moving automatically, those feel free?”

Long pause. “I… wouldn’t describe that feeling as free. It’s… when I do things automatically, it’s like I’m watching myself do it. I’ll make a motion, and I won’t control it, and I’ll look at myself doing it and be like: huh, this is happening. It’s pretty interesting to watch myself like that, when I’m not thinking. Because I usually feel like I have a bunch of control over my actions and emotions.”

I pause, mentally going on a tangent. Tangents are allowed in therapy, though.  “Actually, the way I’m looking at you now, the way I was a few minutes ago, it reminds me of…”

She prompts me when I reference a situation and then stop.

“Like, you’re holding me. Long eye contact is super interesting, because usually I’m trying to model the other person and thinking about the pause and trying to figure out who’s supposed to say what when and what the topic could be and it’s super spinny and focused and all over the place. But if I can trust the other person—like, here, I’m looking at you and I know it’s your turn next, you’re leading this thing, I don’t have to lead it—then that’s really engaging. Exciting, interesting, because I’ve done my thing and said my words and now it’s your turn. And there’s just as much thought going on, there’s just as much behind it—it’s, how long is this pause, and why are they holding it, and what am I feeling with regards to this length of time, and what am I feeling right now, push-pull-push-pull, but it feels like the other person’s more of a black box, there’s still this tension, but it’s good tension, it’s I wonder what they’ll say next, and I’ll react, but it’s not a “pressure” kind of react, it’s just on hold, waiting, seeing what will happen next. Thrilling, sort of.”

She asks me how I feel about this, then goes back to a previous point. And she’s leading, and is helping me generate new things, and is not bouncing questions back at me, and seems engaged, and is going along with all the meta, just fine, which I forget I need people to do with me, but I really need people to do with me.

How do I get people to engage with me how I want them to engage? I thought she would be able to do it from the beginning, because of the good questions she asked at the end of our first session. But I seemed to be unable to pull out exactly what I wanted implicitly, and in the end I needed to explain what my expectations were out of therapy based on my previous experiences and what I was looking for and not looking for. Which seems like the obvious thing to do, when I write it out. But really, I’d previously mentioned what I wanted out of therapy from her. What I hadn’t mentioned was how I wanted therapy to go, and I think that most people would fall into a dynamic naturally by a bunch of implicit cues, rather than laying it out. Meanwhile, I had to say: I want you to ask leading questions. I want you to have some idea in mind of where you think it’d be useful to go, because I’m really used to my own mind and what I come up with doesn’t surprise me or doesn’t seem odd. If you see a clear path where I’m thinking in a convoluted way, I want you to point that out. Hearing myself talk is okay-useful but not amazing, because I’m already pretty capable of navigating my mind. I want to interact with you in a way that you find engaging and pleasing and plays to your strengths, and I want that way to be established between us. Go.

And at the end of the session, I stood up, and words came out of me in the automatic-not controlled way they do sometimes. And those words were: “That was super fun!”

And as I was walking out to my bike, this thought kept on repeating: “yes, play with me!”

And that’s the key bit, I think. Play with me. When done right, when I can trust the other person to catch and hold and engage and spin and come up with new ideas and jump between representational structures and push and pull back and play—that is playing, for me. That’s what exploring mind is. It’s tense and fully engaged and interesting and thrilling, and there are rules but there’s also this sort of boundless tangent that doesn’t feel pressuring, just interesting and new. And there’s this sense of constant progress along with the newness, because the topics I’m going over and the feelings I’m describing are hardly ever the pleasant ones, and working on the not-pleasant ones does produce long-lasting and measurable impact in my day-to-day mentality.

I was describing once to a friend how I do therapy with a bunch of other friends, and how I’m even leading some of it myself. And she asked what these friends get out of “playing therapist” with me, since she said there are hardly any people who she cares about deeply enough to really get into the dregs of their emotions with. I know my answer surprised her initially. It’s that it’s really intellectually interesting. If you don’t think of emotional problems as fixed or part of your identity, and you have the tools and inclination to work them, there’s a large class of problems that you can just try to unravel and poke at. People often have similar problems, and their minds are wired up in roughly similar ways, so that there are ways that you can talk yourself around issues and resolve them. But minds are also really different, and there will be tons of hang-ups all over the place which you don’t expect, and trying to help people by figuring out ways around these really complex mental structures is both incredibly rewarding and really interesting.

It’s also the type of problem where if people’s minds are easy, then your solution has wide applicability and can provide large impact, and if people’s minds are more challenging, it doesn’t get demoralizing because then you’re the type of person who likes puzzles anyway. You can also measurably “level up” in it, because it’s obvious when you’re good at helping people navigate their problems or when you can’t help them come up with anything different than what they’re already doing. This is all really subjective, of course, but it’s also a shared social activity, because everyone’s trying to fix themselves and each other. Which for me, coupled with the sense of personal progress, culminates in “fun”.

It’s kind of great to me that these weird forms of therapy are kind of a fascinating hobby and tap into what’s most fun about life for me in addition to being classically helpful. (I was reading an article about someone the other day, and had this immense sense of sadness and lost-ness that he didn’t have the tools he needed to pull out of an emotionally really hard place. Not having tools… everyone should have tools. We aren’t born with naturally great ones, and it’s so much a process of chance, genetics, and environment what kind of emotional management tools we end up with as adults. I think everyone could benefit from good therapy, if they went for a little while. Good therapy, of course, differs by person and is hard to find, but tools are so good.))

Hmmm :).

And look at that—I totally meant to keep this short, and instead I’m not going to be sleeping as much as I’d like tonight :). But it’s been such a good week—Dungeons and Dragons continues to be really awesome (I have thoughts), I got to have a sleepover with a friend, one of my projects is actually SO CLOSE to being able to run, and things are finally in full gear research-projects wise. Ah well, that’s what sleeping in on Friday is for :). Hope you all have excellent weeks, and best wishes!

Monica

Half-rambled conversations

We’re standing at the edge of the bar, in one of the few places lit with stark, fluorescent light. The music is loud behind us, and the room is humid with body heat.

“What?” My conversational partner yells at me, as I start describing what I’ve been up to. I’ve got my hair up, so the earplugs I’m wearing are visible. But with the general volume in this room, earplugs aren’t affecting how well I can pick out individual voices.

“I’ve been doing weird hippie-woo stuff,” I yell back at him, enunciating and speaking slowly. “Emotional introspection for nerds.”

“What does that mean,” he yells back. I give him a brief explanation, trying to shove what’s usually a rambling paragraph into smaller, shorter phrases. He sits there, puzzled.

We stand there, for a bit, until I see he’s struggling to generate a clarifying question.

“I don’t think I’ve thrown enough words at you!” I interrupt him.

“So throw more words at me!” he says.

I smile and internally shake my head. We’re already doing that weird dance of wanting to look at each other straight on, so we can read lips, while simultaneously trying to lean an ear forward to hear better. But if he’s game…

“Oh,” he says, when I’m done. “It’s a style of engaging? Of trying to ask deeper questions?”

“Basically!” I yell back at him.

“How about let’s try it?”

I goggle at him. “It’s really loud in here! This would be a really hard environment!”

“What would it look like if you were to do it here? How does it start?”

I stare some more, then jump on board. “Well, usually you just start with ‘How are you,’ but you actually answer the question. So, um, if I’m doing it…”

I stare up at the ceiling, musing and checking on what I’m feeling for long seconds. I describe it, when I’m done. He nods, takes that in, and dives, natural as anything, into the mood of it. The noise in the room means you really have to think about your thoughts, have to crystallize each word, before they’re revealed.

I’ve never had someone tell me “then let’s try it,” before. I wouldn’t have when I was first hearing about this, and I don’t expect anyone to. And yet, as I go along telling this hippie-woo story to the people I encounter, I’m continually surprised by the number of people ready to join in. I guide them a little, ease their way, but there’s always that one person, the one who “yeah, I’ve always been weird in that I’m happy to talk about this stuff” person, and I wonder about how many weird people are in the world, all those people ready to communicate how I love to communicate, that can be drawn out with a story like that.

Someone comes up to us near the end, taps him on the shoulder, greets him. He responds, and she nods appreciatively towards my earplugs and asks me about them. I get started in a back-and-forth with her.

He turns to me, breaks in during a pause. “Wow, so that was a really tense conversation, and now,” he says, gesturing to the room, dancing friends and moonlight through the windows.

I smile. I’m quite used to switching back and forth between modes by this point—being able to transition seamlessly between surface-level social behavior and deeper communication is a skill that’s demanded of me and that I’ve been cultivating. But there’s something about it that will always remain a jarring transition.

“Well, if you want to do it again, I’m always around. I love this stuff,” I tell him.

He nods, smiles, then drifts off into the crowd.

I turn back to the friend who interrupted us, and start the conversation.

We’re sitting across from each other at a quiet coffee shop. She’s a friend from high school who has just moved to the area; this is the first time I’ve talked to her in more than six years. Her makeup is heavy and flawless, and she’s a beautiful woman to begin with.

I learn that she’s in a high-powered tech job straight out of college, and seems to be working insane hours but is pretty pleased with how much she’s learning. I tell her a little about research and we catch each other up about people we both know, but with far less of this than I’m used to.

An hour in, we’re talking about dating apps. I’ve gone first, and she’s now telling me about the guys she’s been seeing, one of whom she’s meeting tonight.

“Can I see your Tinder profile?” I ask her. “I bet I can guess what it looks like.”

Uh oh, I think. There’s no way she’s going to let me get away with that one. If someone said something like that to me, I’d be all over them to describe their guess before I showed them. My friends are remarkably indulgent of this behavior, and I appreciate it every time they formulate their intuitions and explain them to me, but still, an opening like that…

She lets me gets away with it. She looks up briefly, then slides her phone across the table. I marvel at the ease of that interaction, then flip through the pictures, unsurprised.

(She has beautiful friends, beautiful pictures, heavy makeup, flawless.)

I tell a quick story of my own, and she laughs. “Well, the best part about dating apps,” she says, grinning, “is that you can throw in a little white lie here and there. You could have been in bed for 15 hours and just woke up, and he texts you, and you can say, ‘Oh, just got back from yoga and on my way to brunch with friends.’ Guys love yoga, by the way. Makes them think you’re flexible.”

I laugh along with her, marveling. Is that even allowed? I think. Are you allowed to lie on social media? Nah, I don’t think that’s allowed. But huh, that does sound like a good thing to say, a lot of good social signaling. But I’m pretty sure that’s not allowed…?

I tell her about my hippie-woo nonsense, and she’s fascinated. She’s the best person I’ve ever had a conversation with about it, actually. Intensely analytical and interested in the question of why one would do this, she asks me question after question, clarifying and reiterating my points, sorting them into categories. Her openness and willingness to assimilate my experience is remarkable; usually people push back more based on their own experiences, but her eyes are wide open to evaluate and learn. I’ve never met someone who didn’t show any unease after a detailed jaunt through this world of mine. She was just curiosity. An usually warm curiosity, intensely intellectual curiosity that nevertheless didn’t feel at all threatening and also fit her.

It’s almost eight, time for her to meet her guy and me to go home. She’s texting him, arranging a meeting spot. “I’m mad at him,” she tells me, looking up. Her voice holds emotion but her face belies the comment, smooth and easy as she talks to me. I nod agreeably. In my own lens of how I express emotion, anger would either bleed frustration and upset, or be delivered offhand with a smile. Through my lens, “mad at him” almost sounds like a reminder to herself. I grin companionably at her, an appropriate response to her facial expression, I think, regardless of what the correct interpretation is.

We part ways, and I get on my bicycle and pedal my way home. It’s so interesting, I think, who I feel is “my type of people”, what lines I draw. The balance and tension when someone so clearly is, and just as clearly has parts that aren’t, when ties in history overlap and blend with who people were and are, when people are even more themselves than they used to be.

(She’s beautiful, so intelligent, driven and curious and a friend, tech-oriented and fond, makeup heavy and practiced, flawless.)

Heard in my kitchen:

(International) housemate: “You know the date I went on yesterday? It was really nice, I want to see him again, but I don’t know if he likes me.”

Me: “Oh ho! Finally, the tables turned for once! I’m glad you finally found one you like.”

Housemate: “But now I have to wait for him to ask me again…”

Me: “You know you can ask him, right? Just say something like, ‘I had a nice time yesterday, would you want to go on another date sometime?’ Easy.”

Housemate: “But I thought he was supposed to ask first…?”

Me: “If we both thought that, no one would ever get asked!”

Housemate: “But…”

Me: “But yeah, historically, the guy asks the girl out. But in today’s society, it doesn’t matter!”

Housemate: “Really? But what if it’s too soon?”

Me: “Yeah, I’ve read about that, apparently there’s a whole philosophy about not seeming too desperate or something, I mean, I don’t follow it, but I think it probably has merit, if you’re trying to seem, actually, wait, I always like when people tell me they’ve enjoyed something right away, huh, but I know there were situations where it seemed like it made sense…”

Housemate: “Well, if it’s acceptable, then I’ll go do that now!”

Later

Housemate: “He said he had a good time as well, and would be happy to go out again! Now I’m waiting for him to send details.”

Me: “…You could organize the details too?”

Housemate: “No, he needs to work for it. He can choose location and times and such.”

Me: “…I guess I usually send out details because then I can choose a time that’s convenient for me, and a location that’s easy for me, and so it’ll get done quickly…?”

Housemate: “But I feel like already made this move; it’s his turn. I think maybe it’s because I come from a culture where the man has to work to get the woman.”

Me: “…Okay? I’ve never thought of it that way before. But the event you mentioned already has a date and a time attached, I’m sure. And then dinner before, that’s classic, or drinks after.”

Housemate: “But it’s going to be at night, so that means I’ll have to get an Uber…”

Me: “Does he have a car? Can he drive you?”

Housemate: “I don’t want to tell him he’s required to drop me off…”

(It does amuse me how I’ve apparently become the house expert in casual, internet-based dating. Look at me go :P.)

I’m waiting for my housemate to finish shopping at Trader Joe’s, leaning on the exit ramp. There’s a woman next to me who is waiting for a receipt return. She turns.

“I like your shirt,” she tells me. “I really like blue.”

“Thanks!” I say, frantically trying to remember what I’m wearing. “Yeah, I like this sort of geometrical pattern and colors.” That’s true of all my shirts; I can say that without looking.

“Yeah, I really like blue,” she replies, friendly.

I look at her; she has vibrantly-dyed hair, purple and pink. “Is your hair normally blue?” I ask.

“Yes. Someone told me to try something new, and I hate it.”

I laugh. “Well, it looks good.”

“Thanks,” she says.

My housemate returns victorious, and we leave.

(A funny thing: I wouldn’t have had this conversation last year. I didn’t really appreciate dyed hair before this year, and its variations and what it means to people. Also, I immensely enjoy the pragmatics of this conversation. There was such a huge amount of subtext that she was giving me with her replies, and I still can’t believe my brain spontaneously came up with the hair question, or that the reply was yes.)

There are three of us in the car, with asymmetric relationships. The driver is close friends with both of us, but neither of us know each other.

I’m sitting in the back, which naturally makes it harder to talk. But the new person is very friendly, and keeps me in the discussion.

But at some point the conversation switches to SnapChat, so I’m sitting quietly, listening. They’re arguing about the merits of the app when I get pulled in.

“Um,” I say, “Sorry, I don’t actually use SnapChat.”

She’s cheerful, shows me how to use it on her phone, and it seems like it’s got some pretty interesting features with the story lines—I can see it.

I ask her about what she likes most about it, and she has good reasons—not my own, but I could see it. She asks if I would get it.

“Um.”

See, the thing is, with the relationships in the car, I can’t actually slide a half-answer through. The driver knows me super well, and knows my opinions on this front, which are fairly strong. Moreover, he wants everyone to get along. I know that in his mind, getting along with strangers can involve flattening one’s personality. But I would guess that for two of his good friends getting along, he probably doesn’t recommend personality flattening. Regardless of what he thinks, if someone’s watching me giving answers they already know the answers to, by my rules I have to be consistent with the fuller answer. Also, by my rules, if someone wants me to get along, then not giving full answers under these circumstances is an indication that I’m feeling uncomfortable and need to checked in on, and I certainly don’t want that.

But on the other hand she’s really into it, and I can totally see her perspective, and if I were talking with her alone then I’d mention the features I think seem pretty cool and direct the conversation down that line. I can totally see where that conversation would go, and it’d be good. Also, I’ve been nodding along all the way through this point, and it’s something like a betrayal to turn around and reject this whole venture at the finish line. Also, I’m about to seem super judgy and also a little lame.

I pause a little longer, then bite the bullet. There are three of us in this car and so honesty’s going to win.

“Yeah, actually, I don’t like phones or use them much; I really don’t like how you can be contacted at any moment.”

Sigh. Sigh sigh sigh.

A bit later, we’re talking about TV shows. It’s pretty entertaining from the back, and things are going well. We’re talking about whether cringe-y shows are good or not, and I’m asking about the appeal.

They answer, and then she asks me about what TV shows I watch instead.

Good lord, I feel like it’s been a long time since I’ve felt this sinking sensation. It’s not unfamiliar by any means— high school, college, whatever— but I’ve actually forgotten that I haven’t felt like that here.

“…I actually don’t watch TV.” There’s no way out of that one, no matter who’s in the car. This is not a shameful thing in itself, of course—I’m happy with it—but there are certain contexts in which you seem unbelievably cloistered/introverted/possessing no life. It’s all completely in the context—I know I’ve been asked that question this year, and been applauded for my answer—but this is an old context, one I forgot used to be my standard.

“Oh. Then what are your hobbies instead?”

I’ve got to give it her, she is damn polite.

(That actually makes this question even more internally agonizing, but that’s not her fault.)

“Uh, not much. Exercising—ellipticalling—and reading meaningless stuff.”

“What’s the meaningless stuff about?”

No no no no no.

“Uh,” I begin, and sketch some very broad outline. How to change the subject? She’s trying to get me to talk about something I’m enthusiastic about, this isn’t going to work unless we get there. She’s also in charge of question-asking right now, it’d be weird if I took over.

We meander around that topic for a bit before thankfully switching out of it—I don’t remember how.

Later on we get on topics that show that I’m not as sack-of-potatoes as I appear. But it’s funny to me that I’ve forgotten. With who I hang out with now, I’m interesting by default. I can tell when people are interested in certain topics that I care about, and I’ll dive in. But there’s this whole set of scenarios that I can fall into when I don’t control the conversation, or even sometimes when we’re both trying really hard but don’t have good common interests, where I’m super boring or stereotyped, and I’ve forgotten. How special it is to be recognized and respected for the weirdness I have; how special to have the communities and people around me that I do :).

Something else that I find interesting is that I’m pretty sure I could have made this work if it were one-on-one. Nowadays I’m decent at guiding conversations to topics we can both find interesting, and in fact it seems like I should have been able to do that even with three people in the car. Why couldn’t I? I’m not sure, but I think it’s something about the setup. Someone is politely asking me questions, for which I felt implicit pressure to give a normal-type response, while someone else is watching who is not actually interested in the answer to this question because they know it already. So I’m feeling pressure to rush through this, since no one’s genuinely interested anyway, and I know exactly the normal-type answers I’m supposed to give, but I can’t give them because I don’t do those things. And normally I’d slide some half-answer in and redirect the conversation to something I’m more interested in, but there’s no space to maneuver in the polite-asking-questions-with-someone-watching format, since if I did anything weird it’d feel like I’m performing or trying to make myself interesting or not acknowledging the format or something…

… so I was feeling flustered, and backed into a corner, and fell into old habits. The solution to this is to bring up weird things that people might find genuinely interesting when asked, which I do frequently, but I think the particular “being watched” format of this made me wary. I would urge myself to set a new rule and correct this problem the next time ‘round, but I actually trust my in-the-moment decisions much more than any post-hoc analysis I could do on conversational tone, these days. I keep on telling people that while my research is about making computational models of social interaction, we all know much, much, much more implicitly than what we can currently formalize. (Not to say that we can’t make improvements, but I’ve found that just thinking through what happened is often good enough to make any implicit improvements that need to be made. Of course, if things are actually upsetting me on an identity-level then I’ll force through an update, but this isn’t the case here :)).

In the end the conversation was good, though, despite these two moments of drama and remembrance. I was asked at one point to summarize how I’m analytical in the social domain, and I said: “I don’t know, like, I guess always trying to figure out how people are achieving the effects they are, and why they’re doing it in specific ways? Especially with what people say,” and she said she’d never thought of doing that before, and that was kind of a revelation to me, realizing that that’s a summary of my unusual thing, and maybe that’s what my research is going to be about, in the end, in the thesis, after all.

I saw the back of someone’s sports shirt the other day, and it said:

PLAY HARD

PLAY SMART

PLAY OFTEN

This is my favorite sports quote I’ve ever seen, and feels close to an ideal life philosophy for me.

Heard in my kitchen:

“Hey, what’s up?”

“I’m taking a tea break. I’ve been working on writing about the relationship between Azerbaijan and Russia all day.”

“…I’ve… never heard of that country? I’ve been trying to figure out this null distribution?” I point at the screen and the messy code, and she laughs and tells me I can look at her thesis if I want.

Warmth in her eyes as she invites me on the dance floor. Warmth in another friend’s eyes as we talk in a corner. Interest and respect in a stranger’s as we talk. Still and concerned in one of my therapist’s, interested and rushed in the other’s. Wide-eyed and bright as he runs over and high-fives me, another friend amused and pleased as he turns to me and makes a joke. Eyes interested and curious as they look at my poster. Eyes calm, present, clear, in the mirror.

No post this week

Hey all :).

It’s been a really good, fun week for me. I forget how much I like being busy, and finishing small day-to-day tasks that don’t have nearly the scale of most research projects (which go on for many months :)). I got a new bike, enjoy my new therapist, got help on one of my major stuck points on one of my projects, got stuck and then unstuck on a different project, sent a bunch of emails, am really enjoying my Dungeons and Dragons group (we’re on week 3), signed up for another hippie-woo workshop, met up with a friend from high school, made and gave a good presentation for class, am possibly soon going to be an egg donor, made and printed a research poster that I’ll be presenting tomorrow, got after-PhD advice from a lab postdoc, finished one of my animes that I watch while working out, acquired food and consumed food, went to class and did the reading for class…

It’s been busy, and I’ve been talking about introspective things a lot recently, so while I’m able to generate plenty of the introspective social nonsense that goes into my blog on the fly, nothing’s really urgent right now. Rather, I’m kind of just feeling contented / happy and that I should probably go to sleep, since I was up late making that poster last night and the next three days are the annual neuroscience program retreat. I’m excited to hang out with people I haven’t seen in a while there, and I’m also surprised because I’m a little bit sad I don’t get to make progress on my research projects– I like the project lineups I have right now, and I like being interested and ready to work on them.

In short, it’s smoky outside and the light is strange in midday because the colors look like sunset, but everything’s going well in my camp. Hope you all have great weeks, and until next time!

Monica

Parabolas

There’s a shape to it, almost a taste: sharp on the side of my tongue, bright and blunted, outlining her in the sunlight. She’s in a patch of sun, lying on the carpet, sprawled, really, a blanket wrapped around most of her body, on the floor. Her face is turned towards mine, her eyes toward the front of the room; she’s listening. I’m watching her.

Her skin is remarkably clear, from here. From a chair six feet away. Skin is clear, clean features, hair shiny and long and soft-looking. The way she’s laying, her body, gives me a momentary flash of someone else, someone else I used to know a long time ago. An image appears of them, side-by-side, in my mind’s eye. Passionate people. People who feel, a lot. The someone else used to demand power, wrest it, create it from the world, demand action. The someone else fades away.

She’s not looking at me, laying on the floor, facing me, face tilted away. I normally wouldn’t look at her, but I’m leaning into this feeling, leaning into the taste, letting it have its way. It’s sharp and blunt and strong. It wants… something, it wants.

It wants desperately. It wants diffusely. It wants something from her, it wants her acknowledgment, it wants her expressions, her interest, her engagement. It wants the group she represents, it wants acceptance, it wants her attention, her caring, her mine.

Her hair is nice in the sunlight. I want to turn away from this emotion; it’s usually blacker in my mind than it is right now. Usually corruptive and corrosive and spreading uncontrollably: wanting something that you can’t just grab, that takes time. Luck. Effort. Self?

What do you want? I ask it. Just acknowledgement. Just care about me. Just let me know what to say, to make you hold me too. To be your friend. To be an equal, to be easy, to be someone who is in your mind, who occurs to you when there’s something I’d like, to invite me, who you’ll invite into circles, who will want me, easy, and the same, too, for the group you represent.

It’s been a while, I think at it, since you’ve been so blatant. Such pure, diffuse, undiluted yearning, sunlit and centered on her. Or maybe I just wasn’t looking.

The feeling shifts, turns itself over, like a pebble, exposing a smooth other side. The flipside holds admiration for people, the calm open-minded beauty in observing others, in seeing what they care about, in writing them and about them and watching. Oh, I think, you’re that feeling, too? Yearning—yearning hurts, sometimes, corrupts—yearning is that feeling, too, of brightness, of admiration, of calm, of openness? I didn’t know.

Sometimes her eyes meet mine, and she’ll often just look back, a second or two of gaze, before I slide my focus away. We know each other, have various connections between us, are almost where I want to be. That almost has a taste, a texture, a shape.

I’m standing, talking with someone else, later. I’m telling an old story; I say: “They said I wasn’t…” I’m searching for the word, on the tip of my tongue. It starts with an ‘a’, several syllables, has a very specific feel to it, negative but old.

“Ambitious enough,” she fills in, unprompted, from a new position on the floor. I didn’t know she was listening. It’s an old story, she was there, but it’s an old story.

“Yeah, she knows,” I say, looking at her, body turned towards me, eyes closed, turned away. She remembered, she filled in the word for me, she engaged. The yearning in me perks up, waiting. Gives a burst of warmth, of remembrance, earnest delight.

See? It says, this taste on the edge of my tongue. Time and patience and wanting. It may come; I am here regardless; it may come.

It’s nighttime on the subway, late. I could have Uber-ed home, instead I’m waiting in the station, leaning on the outside of an escalator, looking up, several floors above, listening to the un-silence of the tunnels. No one’s talking near me, no human voices, but there’s the ever-rushing noises of incoming trains and the rhythmic clanking of the de-escalating steps. It’s a long escalator; my gaze can follow its line up to the ceiling, clanking and hissing and unsilence. Someone steps on at the top, starts the way down, might make eye contact, and I stop my staring upward, sweep my gaze downward. Twist into the appearance of normal, heft my backpack and wander off.

I find a tiled wall to lean on. The man next to me moves aside deferentially. I rotate, slightly; he’s old, Asian, hair strands alternating white and black, shifting forward and backward where he stands. There’s something weird about his arms—I face forward again. The kind of weirdness that means he’s probably used to people staring; sneaking glances. The kind of weirdness where it’s not all right just to look.

Plastic, I see on my next glance. Plastic arms, at least one of them, prosthetic. Back to facing forward. He smells good, I note. Cologne. I might write about this, I note.

We get on. His other arm, too, is prosthetic. I stare into the dark window opposite me, trying to examine the reflection. Hooks for hands, grasping hooks? There’s a mechanism that allows them to close and open, one degree of freedom… I can’t tell from here. Grocery bags swing from the hooks. He doesn’t look like he’s having problems carrying them. He sways back and forth with the railcar movements.

Someone gets on; he moves deferentially away. A large movement, a full and a half back. I wonder how he got his prosthetic arms. Where he’s been. He seems polite. He steps out of the train, and we rush on past, station gone in the screeching of movement.

I look around. The only people talking are two boys some seats back; I’m standing, like I almost always do. I don’t like the fact that there’s conversation; I don’t like the fact that it looks like I could know them, that they look like my people, undergraduates at some school somewhere. Several stops later I recognize one of them. Recognize him as an undergraduate in a lab I collaborate with. Recognize the class number they’re talking about, recognize the cadence of school-talk, of talking about professors, about assignments.

We’re on a subway, I want to tell them. We’re on a subway at night.

Nighttime in the subway isn’t for friends, isn’t for your daytime normal. Nighttime on subways is for thoughts. Nighttime on subways is for people.

Conversational tone can branch, sometimes. If I say: I often feel guilty for not doing something, do you say:

Huh, interesting, I didn’t know that about you, or

Have you thought about the advantages of doing it?, or

What are your motivations for not?

I have relatives visiting, who I’ve never met as an adult. They’re incredibly easy, fun, engaging. They bring me into a science museum because I rave about the gift shop. Why the gift shop, they ask? Too expensive to go inside, I reply, but the gift shop is amazing.

Inside’s even more amazing than the gift shop, and we’re all having a far better time than I could have imagined. The displays are astonishing, each one obviously carefully crafted, a marvel of demonstrations of science for the public. My relatives don’t do science, and earlier when we were catching up they asked me to explain my research in understandable terms. People don’t often ask that; it’s a request that’s often left implicit.

We’re trying to figure out what one display is doing, playing and questioning and peering at it. He figures it out, gets the rope to run on the motor, and we both laugh, excited, start fiddling with the knobs.

“Ah, we’re changing the parabola!” I exclaim, getting it.

He nudges me, teasing. “You just can’t help yourself, can you? Parabola.

I shake my head, flustered. It is a parabola. We are changing it. I—

I need this language almost all the time, you know? Excellent spelling, grammar, use of terms describing “base” concepts; most recently I need a speed of analogies between related scientific domains that demands a mathematical grounding. People around me like it, I like it, it’s like a game we all play: can you take a topic or term from one domain, slap it down on another? What are the implications? How clever can you sound, how interesting is the new idea in concept space? Make links, do it quickly, understand it quickly, get the joke—

There’s no time to check for communal understanding, no time to explain baselines, that ruins the fun of it, the satisfaction of knowing the esoteric and making the connection fastest—you need to know, you need to know fast, you need to know well

That wasn’t my intention, you know? I’m not good at the analogy game, most of the time. But I play, and I definitely try to understand the jokes. This game is the fodder of many of my conversations. It defines the strongest displays of dominance and expertise, while simultaneously existing as one of the greatest sources of shared delight and interest. It exists as a commonality of the many people around me: a wide-open engagement of shining a new perspective on an idea, a reveling in tiny eureka moments of understanding.

Parabola. A default base term I don’t have time to think about, that I’m encouraged not to think about, not because it’s an efficient term (it may or may not be), but because it signals competence, it signals speed of understanding and the potential for flexibility between domains, and everyone else uses it so you’d better keep up.

Scientists will take the time to think about universally-understandable terms if you ask them. Sometimes they’ll fail, most often because the concept they’re trying to describe is very difficult. To understand the concept, you’ll need to have learned many previous concepts, each of which is summarized by a specific set of words. These words aren’t substitutable because they represent an entire set of concepts. People will give up because of time or magnitude, because they don’t know how to explain, or because they don’t understand enough themselves to explain it to someone else.

Sometimes scientists will model you incorrectly, and not explain enough because they don’t want to tell you something you already know, or more often because they forget everyone doesn’t already know the thing they’ve been studying for however many years. I forget what level of knowledge is baseline in many fields / year of education, and have gotten in trouble for this both ways, explaining too much and too little.

Sometimes scientists aren’t simplifying because this is part of their identity: they’ve constructed their representations around complex links, and they want these parts of themselves to be appreciated. Sometimes they aren’t simplifying for the pleasure of it, because it is satisfying to link advanced concepts, even if no one’s who will understand it is around. Sometimes scientists are a little asshole-ish, because they’re doing this for their pleasure. Sometimes scientists really are assholes, where they’re explaining on complex terms to signal they’re above you.

But the majority of the time, I think that people are legitimately trying, and we’re just conditioned like crazy by the interactions and what’s required to be “in” and accepted by the groups around us, or we don’t understand the concept well enough to explain it from the ground up so we’re hoping you just know, or we don’t think it’s going to fit in the time allocated, or we don’t understand what your current state of knowledge is, or we forget that you won’t understand and therefore appreciate the fun analogy…

Just… for the numerous slightly tension-filled moments I’ve had over the years and will continue to have: please bear with me when I’m stupid and get excited and jump into the modes where I really should say “parabola” instead of “shape of the arc”, forgetting that I’m in a different situation. You’re right to correct me. And please don’t take it personally :).

“What were you thinking?” he asks me, and I breathe out a huge sigh of relief.

We’ve just finished eating dinner and discussing a book club book, Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider”, a collection of her essays and speeches as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. This is the first time I’ve been invited to this book club, and I’ve gone for the experience of listening to people who know and care about social justice, and institutional discrimination.

And I don’t speak the language yet.

Description: 15 people gathered around two tables pushed together, chairs and stools and folding chairs crammed into Tess’s apartment in San Francisco. Mostly women, some strangers to each other, couples, a few sets of friends. Indian food and overflowing naan and excellent group norms, individuals even explaining terms that are mostly common knowledge, smooth and continuous conversation emphasizing equal speaking time.

I know two people, both peers who I greatly admire, who are sitting across the table. I am equipped with having read a few chapters of this book out of many, and a nurturing neighbor who has asked me about her research and explained some of hers.

It is an excellent discussion.

There are obviously underlying concepts here. People share frames of reference for the circumstances the author describes, and make connections between her writing in the ‘70s and what is present today. They discuss the themes that the author discusses and weave them into their own lives, and what they see in others. Modern politics, economic systems, and social movements are effortlessly integrated with personal anecdotes and analyses of the author’s personality and intentions. People read passages out of the book or paraphrase, ask questions to the table or pass the speaking turn with confidence and acute attentiveness.

It’s probably the best book discussion I’ve ever been in—no, it is by far the best book discussion I’ve ever been in. It’s also readily apparent that I wasn’t reading the book the same way these people were. They’ll read passages out loud that I read, and distill a point of the author, and how it’s still relevant today. And though I felt distant from the page when I was reading it before, a sense of yes, yes, this is poetry, I see what story you’re telling, with the speaker’s words the passage will feel relevant to me, through its relevance to them and their extraction of meaning, and I feel this author, I feel engaged with this book, with struggles of people today.

At some point, Tess is going around the table, checking in on anyone who hasn’t spoken yet.

“One of Audre’s intentions in writing this may have been to process the world she’s experiencing. Monica, you also write in order to process, right?”

I freeze, face heating, put on the spot. “…Yes,” I say, in a tone that I fear expresses how much I think this is dooming me. A few people laugh cooperatively.

“What do you think that’s what she was aiming at?”

It’s a beautiful question. Tess has brought up an interesting analysis question, retrieved something from her memory something that’s important to me, linked the two, lobbed me this link instead of something more open-ended, and done so in an incredibly deft manner. I wanly destroy this effort.

“…I knew you would call on me, and was trying to think of something to say. Uh, this is way too put-together to be her form of processing. But I really don’t have any comment right now… I haven’t done humanities in, like, seven years, I really don’t have any opinions right now, but I will in the future. Sorry.”

It’s a bit worse than that, with some more fumbling, but that’s about the essence of it. They try to engage me a bit more, and I do some more fumbling before they leave me be. At the end of the discussion, my neighbor is kind and asks if I want to say anything. I shake my head mutely.

I feel like I’ve run headlong into this problem of presenting especially badly in public in a few new groups I’ve joined. It’s not something I want to stop, necessarily. A lot of the time I’m joining these groups because they’re new, because I don’t know what the expectations are. I could prepare beforehand, and often in these cases I could have guessed what would be expected of me and done a decent job, but I usually don’t put the effort in because there’s hopeful ambiguity I can just skim along listening. I seem to decide that the stress of preparing, when I don’t fully know the scope of expectations and would have to prepare more broadly, isn’t worth just showing up and possibly being embarrassed. Maybe other people get around this by being better at on-the-spot presentations, but I’m only good at on-the-spot presentations when I have cached thoughts about the domain.

What especially pained me about what I said this time was “I haven’t done humanities in seven years”. The immediate counter-argument is that this isn’t humanities, this is life, which everyone should be engaging in. I know this. As soon as I said it I winced, because I know this. So what was I trying to get at when it came out of my mouth? I think it’s something like: I’ve been engaged with feminism, especially feminism in STEM fields, for years. I’ve read articles; I know the basic arguments; I know the stats; I know the current situation; I write about it; I’ve talked with older women scientists about it; I’ve talked with younger women scientists about it; I’ve talked with male scientists about it; I talk to a lot of people about it; I talk casually about it; it’s something often on my mind. I’m also comfortable with LGBTQ issues, and have had many personal discussions about this. Meanwhile, I have talked about institutional racism, in depth with individuals, um… one time? I’m not oblivious—I read the news and also know stats and basic arguments, but it’s not something I talk about with people, except with the broadest brushstrokes.

That’s part of it. Another really big part of this is that I haven’t done a book analysis since something like senior year of high school. That was about the last time I had a book discussion as well.

What was weird about my trying to contribute to this discussion is that I couldn’t generate anything—people were engaging in analysis of the literature, and I was like: I have read the words on the page, I did not read this to draw conclusions and I now seem to be unable to come up with any. Usually there’s something I can pull up, but at the time that I was asked, I wasn’t able to draw up anything that would be at the right level for what people were bringing to bear in this audience.

I was feeling meh upon the conclusion of the discussion—it’s embarrassing, I was embarrassed and feeling defensive and worried everyone thought I was stupid. I was also feeling much less of this than usual because I recognized the feeling and had partially discarded it as inevitable and not terribly useful, but I was still feeling a good part of it. And then one of the people I know—a friend who’s studying at Stanford—comes over to me and says:

“What were you thinking?”

And I was saved.

“Not thoughts,” I say.

“Really?” he replies. “What type are we talking then? Nouns? Verbs? Visions? Space?”

I smile at the teasing, think about it since he seems actually interested.

“No, like… I just felt completely blank. Like, I guess, when they were talking about who the audience was, and whether people have the right language for it, I’m like that, I feel like I don’t have the language for this, in concept space. And I’m feeling very “unwoke”, as she said, and also like I don’t have a generative model for how people were coming up with things, I think I talked to you about this earlier. And there was that part at the end about how to convince people of things, and I was thinking about how you do it, and how you were engaging with…”

And things started coming out of my mouth. It was ridiculous, I had no idea where they were coming from.

“But what was your input? Words? Faces?”

I think about it. “Words, yeah. And, like, people, too, yeah. Trying to figure out who knows things. Who’s authoritative. Like, I know whenever words come out of your mouth, they’re good, but sometimes people say silly things in one aspect but they’re really good in another aspect, and trying to figure that out, and also which ideas are common knowledge, and whether people agree with them, and what people mean by some silences, and…”

He’s brilliant, this guy. I didn’t realize how important of a question that was, until he asked it. Who asks that kind of thing? What kind of input were you using for thinking? That’s an astonishing question, shows a depth of interest and understanding of the human mind and my mind. And even that first question, What were you thinking?, that emphasis, the interest and astonishment, assuming I was thinking anything, was processing anything? I thanked him several times for checking in later, and he assured me he was genuinely curious. Who does that? I didn’t even think I had anything in my head—it certainly didn’t feel like it—but apparently I had paragraphs. It put a completely different spin and ending on that night.

That whole evening… there was a lot there, a lot of kindness, a lot of interest, a lot of caring and intelligence, room for growth. I feel like I’m only appreciating it now, when I write it up, but it left me feeling calm and warm, made me take the subway, rather than an Uber.

I’m in her office for the first time, finally found a new potential therapist.

“…And I’ve been collecting data on the dating thing, this whole past year,” I say.

I watch her carefully. I frame it in these terms in my mind sometimes, combining emotion and science. It’s a pleasure to do, a sort of distancing / connecting cold concepts / (analogy), but it’s only one of my representations, though a favorite of mine. People in science often like it, think it’s funny; people who are my friends often think it’s unique-ish and me. Most others don’t. I’m presenting it now: a subtle check for distaste.

There is none. She’s not phased at all, continues to nod slowly, ask occasional questions.

At the end she tells me that it seems like I like introspection a lot, will bring a lot of energy to this process, am motivated by curiosity and progress and seem to really enjoy various aspects of this in life. I nod along like to a horoscope, tell her yes, this all seems true.

It’s not until later, when I leave, thinking about the frame she just gave me and using it to push through a hurdle on part of a problem…

No distaste, huh. Even though she’s not someone super similar to me. Good questions, interested in motivational structure. Still extracted a huge part of who I consider myself to be.

…Found a therapist :).

Days go by

After Lasik, I’ve been going around this past week with some splotches of blood in my eyes. This is normal and not a problem, but it looks weird. I was trying to solve the problem by smiling all the time, since you can’t tell anything’s off if I’m squinting. My doctor and friends, however, came up with even better quotes.

“I thought that if you hadn’t been aware, you would probably appreciate knowing your eyes are bleeding.”

“Yeah, those are eyeball hickeys. Since they’re from the suction cups to keep your eyes still, you know? Bet you never thought you’d have eyeball hickeys; you probably won’t have another opportunity.”

“THAT’S SO METAL.” (Me: what?) “That’s so metal. Bleeding eyes.” (Me: …that’s metaphorical, right?) “No, come on! Iconography in metal music. It’s all over the place.” (Me: …but it’s still, like, metaphorical, right?)

I’m trying to decide what the feeling of the future feels like, when it’s predictable and going to go on forever and mostly focused on research and small-scale.

It occurs to me that it tastes like far-away green ladders.

(Some people use techniques like meditation / emotional introspection / etc. to allow them greater access to the nuances and complexity of emotion. Having acquired a bit of that skill, I can say that it’s interesting. It allows me to catch and hold feelings too fleeting to otherwise identify.

But man, these insights don’t naturally translate to language. I like language a lot, so I’ll frequently make the effort to express my thoughts in words. Moreover, I’m not sure if this is a cause or effect of my preference for language, but a lot more of my thinking seems to be linguistic compared to other people’s. A lot of my emotions, however, are visual. Color is very salient, and my visualizations are often textured. There are sometimes words attached to the colored textures that don’t have direct semantic meaning.

I haven’t quite figured out how I’m going to use these visuals yet, since I feel like I haven’t unlocked the full scale of them. I feel like they’re useful if I can dig semantic content out of them, which I usually can if I focus for a while. They’re also sometimes just fun to play with. But where I’ve found them most helpful is for memory: the visuals give me something to hold onto, to grasp a fleeting feeling as it goes by, and gives me a timestamp of realizing that I was actually feeling a certain way. Then, when I’m trying to pinpoint what I’m upset about / happy about later, there’s not just this smear of mental states across time, but specific moments/ideas/events that I can isolate. And this is helpful, because often I’ll be upset because of one specific thing, and or be happy about one specific experience, and if I can say—oh, it was that— rather than— ug, I just feel gross, I feel like something’s been off the whole day—it’s easy to figure out whatever I was worried about and fix it, rather than feel generalized anxiety.

Tangent about emotional access completed :). That access has been hard-won, so I like to think about how it has been useful in my day-to-day life.)

There’s a version of introspection that feels like progress—I think I’ve been developing and using that over the past six months. There’s also a version of introspection that feels like play, in that it’s not really going anywhere, not really changing my mind in any way, but just fun in the moment to mess around with ideas about myself. I feel like I was doing much more of this pre-six months ago, and that I haven’t really been doing it since. What I’m doing right now feels more like play— I’ve missed it.

I’m still trying to figure this one out. Problem setup:

Some people think I’m really weird. Some people think I have some quirks, but am not particularly unusual.

I think I’m in the middle, and I’d like to be really weird below the surface, whilst still keeping all of the opportunities of behaving normatively.

Possibly related to this, I have no problem blasting people with non-normativity, and equally no problem blasting people with normativity. The “non-normative” versus “normative” split also doesn’t feel particularly natural to me; unlike a few friends I know, I don’t feel like I have different “selves” I present. I feel continuous to myself, not discrete :P.

Since I want to be innerly really weird, I’m always in search of people who do believe this of me. These people seem to think it’s something about presentation styles or social or something. Reports disagree. (Also, the people I hang out with are mostly really weird, so we’re talking a standard deviation beyond what you’d normally consider strange.)

Maybe whether people consider me weird or not is about predictability? No, I don’t think so :). There is a phenomenon whereby I can be quite unpredictable to people who don’t know me, and very predictable to people who do know me. But quite a few people who do know me still think I’m weird, despite being predictable.

However, possibly we’re actually all really really strange on the inside! And another word for that is special, and we’re all trying to find the people in the world who think we’re strange. And if the person is strange in a way you like, then you’re friends, or you’re sisters, or you’re dating, and you’re good to go, and the problem is solved :).

I was complaining the other day to a friend about how there’s so much I’ve been needing to sort out on my feelings on dating and sexuality and gender and whatever. And he turned around and said something like: “…yeah, I feel for you, I’ve always been x, never had to think about it.”

That actually blew my mind a little bit. I mean, it shouldn’t have, I’ve been on the other side. One of my friends was asking me how my race has impacted my life, and… being biracial but appearing white hasn’t personally caused me to think about my race much at all. This isn’t true for a lot of people, but for me that question was a non-starter.

This same vein of thought occurred to me today when I was reading about one of my grad student friends, who was interviewed recently: http://neuroscience.berkeley.edu/neuroscientist-portrait-project-krishan-aghi/

Krishan is a queer, trans feminine person of color and it’s IMPORTANT in their life. They say: “Legitimately I know of no other queer, trans feminine person of color in neuroscience. It might just be an issue of visibility, and people could be coming into their identities at this very moment but I can think of no one off the top of my head. There are definitely trans folk in neuroscience and I am so grateful for their visibility and the mentorship they have offered me, but I kinda occupy a very niche set of identities.”

And later: “I say this all the time but me being a scientist doesn’t automatically prevent the world from throwing racism, transmisogyny, or homophobia in my face.”

The lesson for me is that our lives are shaped by what we’re born with, and I could recite that lesson to you, with the appropriate context, any day. But… I don’t know. Unlike how I understand that lesson in terms of race, when it’s mostly intellectual, this set of stories connected for me, connected that lesson across my personal experience and that of others and felt generalizable across domains and true

Like, I don’t know. I was talking to an authority figure and they said something like: if it bothers you, if it bothers you what other people say, why just take drugs and not be that way?

And I was shouting: that is not the point! Disregarding the fact of whether drugs exist for whatever the “problem” is (they don’t, in many cases), I felt furiously helpless, because that was so entirely not the point. I didn’t know what the point was, but it was so much closer to this:

This is who I am, this is who I’ve been, there’s nothing wrong with it, the thing that’s wrong is that other people think there’s something wrong with it. I have ALWAYS BEEN THIS WAY, DAMMIT, and I DON’T WANT TO CHANGE IT, why are you TELLING ME TO CHANGE IT, why are you ASSUMING I WANT TO CHANGE IT. WHY are you not helping me DEAL WITH IT, why are you being like EVERYONE ELSE, stop it, this is not something separate from me, stop.

There are things one should change about oneself, because they’re hurting others, or they’re needlessly making one’s own life difficult. But “needlessly” is such a dangerous word, here, because sometimes the parts of ourselves that other people think are changeable are really not. And sometimes the parts of ourselves that people think are “making your life difficult” are really not the thing that’s making our life difficult, it’s… other people. Sometimes the type of person who is asking you.

And that, that sense of furious hopelessness, furious helplessness, work upon work upon work (and fear, which I haven’t had to deal with, but fear and rejection and loss) that’s what born with means.

Remember that, Monica? That’s what born with means.

(In related news before I finish, has anyone ever told you that you should want something? And you don’t? And you’re sitting there going: why are you telling me to want something which you desperately want, but is not easy to get? It’s bad enough when you’re telling me to want something that you have and think is great and I don’t, but it’s even worse when you’re telling me to want it and it’s not even going to be good for me. Keep your pain to yourself, thanks, I don’t need your shoulds.

I have friend who gave up eating meat recently. I congratulated him in public. He mentioned that he’d like if I didn’t congratulate people on things like this, because he doesn’t like the practice in general of pushing values on people, but that he’d be happy to hear something like “Good on you for doing what you want to do.”

That was an idea I hadn’t heard of—there’s one extreme where you always tell people what they should do, and then there’s apparently the other extreme of trying very hard to never impose one’s own values on people. (Side note: I am aware that in the process of telling me this, my friend was imposing values, but he actually only tends to push two types of values—that one should not push values, and that one should enjoy things.)

I’m in the middle somewhere, nearer the end with less pushing. (I don’t think I push less hard, I think I just push fewer things than some people.) It’s really intuitively appealing for me to try to push some of my values on people, because I think they’re good for the world. But on the other hand, one of the reasons last year was so good for me was the people actively encouraged me to stop accepting the shoulds I was getting from others and putting on myself.

It’s all interesting, right? I also think it’s interesting that a few of my recent blog posts have been kind of angry, and think this is actually a good temporary thing. I’ve noticed that I’ve had more anger responses rather than oh-my-god-I’m-wrong-feel-guilty responses recently, and that I feel FAR more comfortable pushing off other people’s shoulds than I did six months ago. I have direct comparisons for this. For a long time I just wanted people to tell me how to change, all the time, and now I’m going through a phase where I want most people to leave me be: I’m happy changing myself at my own pace. I think it’s going to seesaw back a bit, where I’m a little more open to people influencing me in the future… but this feels like a pretty important state shift in terms of my attitude. And it doesn’t really surprise me that this is coming through as anger instead of anxiety or sadness, because those emotions have to come out somewhere, but I’m intrigued to see how I channel that anger in a little while. I’m going to have to do something with it, because I refuse to be grumpy all the time :).)

It’s always funny when I realize these thoughts exist in my head :). When I was doing Lasik last week, I wasn’t allowed to do any close-viewing, so I couldn’t write or type. Moreover, I was hanging out at home mostly by myself, so I wasn’t doing a lot of talking either.

Which resulted in the following—I met up with one of my friends, and he asked me what I was thinking about these days. I proceeded to give a summary sentence on each of three topics. It turns out these summary sentences were exceedingly vague, so he asked me about one of them, and thereby I delivered another few sentences describing the first. And then he asked for clarification on those, and there followed another brief paragraph, again very context-dependent, again missing out on a bunch of subtext. And he stopped there, and didn’t delve into the other two topics, but this revealed to me that I had paragraphs about those stored up somewhere that I could deliver with prompting as well.

I sort of have running thesis statements about topics that I give to people when they ask what’s happening with me, or I’ll describe the topic itself and no conclusions. But those thesis statements subjectively feel like the sum total of what’s “in my head”—I seem to forget that everything other than my top-most conclusions exist.

I was able to start typing again the other day, and just felt this huge sense of surprise and relief, because there was so much that had been happening in my head that started coming out once I started noting down those thesis statements. Because one thesis statement leads to a new thesis statement, and a new thesis statement, and if you’re logging down the top-most conclusions over time, there’s a LOT MORE CONTENT than you think there is. Or more accurately, there’s a lot more content over time than what currently exists in working memory :).

Interestingly, I think this is why I always write these massive monologues to people when I’m messaging with them. Often, the thoughts don’t exist to me until I start writing them out to someone. Usually I’ll start with ideas that I’ve been working through and reflecting on, but hadn’t been able to keep in one place. As soon as I’ve got them written down, I can then start to work on them as a collection, and then I always learn new things as I’m writing. Whether I’m learning or not depends hugely on my focus—I spend a fair amount of time in my work life explicating things I already know, and know I know. But there’s definitely a set of topics where I’ve been working things through mentally, and haven’t had the mental space to put all of the linear thoughts together and see what they can do as a collection. That’s often what this blog is about, actually, and where I’ve been having some tension… because writing-as-explication reads as much, much cleaner, and feels like performance and art, and writing-as-putting-collections-of-thoughts-together is like journaling and rambling. I’ve been trying to do more writing-as-explication, but I keep on running into the need to do writing-as-putting-collections-of-thoughts-together, and because I always learn from that, I bend to the need. I think this need will diminish with time; it already has to some degree.

This does result in funny behaviors though in my messaging. Have you all ever used dating apps, or texted? I dislike texting, have refused to for a while, and I always said that a big part of it was because phones don’t have keyboards. Because it turns out, how I do it, I need a keyboard.

I have had so many messages from the dating app people which go: “oh my god, that was a LOT of text, let me reply to some of it”, or more often, no reply at all. I certainly know what I’m supposed to do—short messages, low content but interesting content, etc. I also know what I’m supposed to do when messaging friends, but if anyone ever lets me get away with it, I’ll do paragraphs on what I’m thinking.

I write paragraphs because it’s intrinsically rewarding, whether the other person replies or not. If the other person DOES reply, all the points, because they’ve now read what I’ve most been thinking about and can give feedback on what’s most important to me right now. If the other person DOESN’T reply, well, I’ve just learned that I have thoughts! And in fact, generated new thoughts based on collecting my previously-inaccessible thoughts! Paragraphs are awesome! …Which is also what this blog is about :P. Ooh, has this slight-variant on my usual conception of writing explained why I refuse to journal if it’s not in public? Nope. The reason for that is unrelated and still centered around the idea of productivity and holding accountable.

(Also, unrelatedly, but sending people monologues of personal thoughts via dating-app messaging has the fun result of pulling out super weird people when people do bother to reply. Very low hit rate, but always a good time when it happens.)

Hm, last thing for tonight 🙂

A friend and I are eating salads together, talking. I’m standing at the center table, and he’s leaning against the sink.

“Oh, I always forget,” he says, and pulls out his phone.

I watch him for a bit, deciding whether to continue the conversation. He seems distracted by whatever he’s doing. I turn my attention to the salad: kale-based, of course. It’s pretty good.

“…I want to buy you a shirt,” he says eventually, and I make a questioning noise. “Do you wear shirts? With images on them?”

I half-grin, raise my eyebrows. “Graphic tees? Graphic tees are awesome, I always wish I could wear them.”

Pause, still typing. “So do you?”

I’m looking at him weirdly. “I mean, to bed. I should change my style at some point; I’ve wanted to wear them for a while.”

He’s typing. “What are your shirts made out of?”

“Uh… spandex and polyester?”

Still looking at the screen. “Hmm…what else do you wear?”

I’m thoroughly confused by this point. “You know what I wear.”

He nods.

…Ooooh, okay. I get it now.

“Yeah, I’ll definitely wear it to bed. Get a medium. Obviously they only come in cotton, that’s totally fine.”

He looks up, smiling. “Yeah, I didn’t see an option for spandex and polyester.”

I’m much happier to be on solid ground, and go back to gnawing at my salad. There are sweet potatoes and cheese.

Long pause. “Do you like V-necks?”

Yes.”

“Of course. Everyone should like V-necks. V-necks look good on everyone. And I know this because I am right.”

I laugh. “My dad cuts out his own V-necks from shirts, and they don’t look good then. But I generally agree.”

Salad-chewing.

“…So,” I say, into the silence, “Thank you, for the present for not even an occasion. I appreciate it. Or… wait, that feels strange.”

He looks up. “Why? Is it strange to say thank you in this context?”

I think about it. “Given this conversation…? This isn’t the right word, but it feels, like, arrogant?”

He looks confused.

“Because you haven’t…”

“Oh! It’s like, you’re counting your chickens before they hatch.”

I nod. “Yeah. Except, there’s a word that’s shorter than that phrase that is not ‘arrogant,’” I inform him, smirking.

“…Presumptuous?…”

“Yup, that’s the one.”

Typing.

“…God, I hate Chrome. Manual entry. It should just send it to where I spend most of my time.”

“Well… maybe where you spend time between the hours of 3am to 7am.”

“Exactly! It has all of this information! Manual entry! Why!”

I’m laughing. “I mean, it could do it. Or it could just know your address from previous—”

“Yes! Regardless, it should know my address!”­­­

More tapping.

I’m finishing up the bowl, and an image occurs to me. This same friend talking about a Yale shirt that says “Kale” instead.

“…Does it have to do with food?”

“Nooo,” he says, eyes still on the screen.

I frown at him, not sure.

“Nooooooooo,” he says again, exaggerated, making a skeptical face.

Ooooh, okay.

I finish the bowl.

He puts the phone down, moves to the center table. “Is it still rude to say thank you now?” he asks, he’s asking as a real question, pulling his own untouched salad over.

“Nope. Thank you.”

“Gotcha.”

Someone says, “So what have you been up to lately?” and we’re back in the flow.