Still Going

Two nights ago I was lying in bed and just didn’t know what to do with myself. Happiness. Bubbling bubbling happiness, the type that comes with energy, that makes me want to scream at the world how amazing it is and dance and smile at people: smile smile smile smile SMILE. So I was lying in bed, grinning madly, and thinking: this isn’t quite conducive to sleep, Monica. But go ahead, and ride it hard.

I don’t know what it is—a combination of things, most likely. The weather has been stunningly gorgeous. Clear skies, bright sunlight, rippling shadows through the trees, perfect temperature. Work has been going well, work is light, I’m comfortable, my friends are wonderful. There has been some indication that it might not be exactly like this in the future, and the threat of taking it away has brightened everything considerably, made me realize how much I have to appreciate. I feel like I’ve been given this beautiful pass at life, that this might be one of the best years of my life, that by god, I’m going to bask in how amazing it all is.

I want to share it. Not, like—you can’t really share happiness, but it’s so much, it’s just so much, I want to throw it out at people and have them join me, love upon joy upon love. I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable, or like they have to acknowledge me and then go back to their life—I want them to feel it, and you can’t do that, but it’s too much for me, too much energy, I don’t have the words or the movement to express it, I want it shared, want it appreciated, want the scale of it expressed through all the friends I encounter. Some chemical trick of the body, some uncontrollable tweak that’s lasted two weeks, my goodness, two weeks of this—what tremendous luck, what surprise, that this much happiness can be contained in this body and mind!

People who meet me call me happy, say that I’m always carrying a positive outlook in their presence. People who know me better don’t say things like that anymore, but I think they notice the differences more, the subtler changes in energy (conflated with the probable truth that I express more emotional range in their company). I just came back from an evening with both types of people, and my buoyancy has just increased: I was seriously thinking of not writing this blog tonight, because I could use the boost from writing some other day and rather use some of this motivation to do work.

But hey, it may last longer, and there’s no trouble with piling on happiness upon happiness, given my ability to willpower through work tomorrow is still intact. There’s so much, just inexpressibly much—my wish right now is that you could take some of it with you, if the possibility of that might suit you in this moment :).

Smaller thoughts from here on out :).

I was noticing that when I’m trying to determine my state of hunger, or alternatively my mood, I don’t have access to that information directly. Rather, I’ll offer myself choices: “Would you want a cheese stick? Would you want spinach? Would you want nuts?” and see what’s appealing. I’ll do the same thing for my mood: “Do you want to go work out now? Do you need to hang out with people? How do you feel about work right now?”

These are questions that correlate with mood—exercising is always something that I use to make myself feel better, and people often serve that function for me, if I’m not having a new social adventure. I can often access mood directly, but it’s funny to me that I use this intermediate pathway. I wonder if everyone else does this too? And if so, or if not, what kind of conscious thought process goes on when others do it, and what other traits does it correlate with?

I’m writing a message that says “and I thought of you”—

—it begins with “So I was reading this research paper…”

Recently, I was sitting at a table and presenting one of my more… unusual personal plans. When I feel like I need to do something new, I set out “projects” for myself: projects have defined beginning and end points, and clearly listed goals. It’s a silly thing—most of the time, these sorts of “projects” are the sorts of activities that people do organically. As such, people consider the level of formalism and planning that I put into these activities as highly unusual, often disconcerting, and occasionally hilarious. (People who know me well add “fondness” into this list of reactions.)

But it’s a safety trick that works well for me. I get scared and worried about trying new things, and setting defined boundaries around it—time boundaries, contingency boundaries, clear goals, plans—makes it easier for me to psych myself up and accomplish whatever I’m trying to do. I’ve recently noted that once I feel comfortable with the new activity, I have far less need of any of this structure.

That puts me in an interesting position with regards to how I explain myself, because I tell people about my projects, to get feedback. And when I’m at the stage where I’m telling people about the project, it’s usually in its most intricately structured form, which people almost always have a gut objection to because it’s way of structuring the world that doesn’t match their experience. So they’ll react to how it formulated, and tell me that I have a weird way of doing it. Which I’m perfectly aware of and don’t mind; I endorse any and all ridiculous associated with overly-formalizing activities that don’t need to be formalized.

The strange part for me was when someone recently reassured me that one of my structured ideas was fine. This specific idea wasn’t an issue that I’d been particularly defensive about (sometimes I do get defensive), but my immediate response was “nah, I don’t need to think about it that way anymore”. This was very surprising to me. The fact that I didn’t “need” to think about it that way anymore, and that I didn’t have any trouble dropping this very carefully-constructed rulebook by the wayside—very surprising to me.

It makes me wonder. When I present these types of projects to people, I usually lay it out as: this is who I am, I overly formalize everything, it’s a weird quirk so just accept it, it will always be this way. But it actually seems more like the following: this is who I am, I overly formalize things when I’m scared, it’s a weird quirk so just accept it, if you accept it and I grow comfortable with the experience I’m not going to need that formalism again.

It’s a slight twist on my identity and how I explain myself: the idea of a strategy as a safety mechanism rather than an always-true. It becomes construed as a weakness rather than a quirk—it requires an admission of fear. Ah well, though. I generally don’t have a problem being vulnerable in this sense. And that I use this kind of strategy at all is unique in itself… it’s still a quirk, one that I enjoy and relates to a lot of scaffolding I use to think about my life in other areas. I think it always will be :).

“You seem like you’re asking for approval.”

There’s silence, in this moment—I’ve been looking around the table after presenting one of my projects. I frown, because that’s—not quite right. Not wrong, but not right, either.

“Hm, not really,” I say, slowly. “I mean, if you want to approve I’m happy to hear it—”

“—or disapprove,” I tack on, remembering.

I do this sort of probing all the time with new projects. Projects are, by definition, activities I don’t have a lot of experience with, so I present them to anyone who I don’t think will negatively judge me for them. It is seeking approval, because I’m trying to make sure I don’t do anything stupid. In fact, I’ll often present the most extreme version of the ideas, because people will have the most objections to those, and I want to draw that information out and think the problems through before I start anything.

The word I’m looking for here doesn’t feel like “approval” though. It’s closer to “reassurance”. When people say they’re looking for approval, I generally think of someone running around looking for validation that they’re right. What I expect to receive whenever I present a project is some kind of immediate startle reaction. It’s great when it’s good, but often it’s surprised-bad, and then people will bring up doubts that I can address or ask more about. If I do this with enough people, and eventually stop getting new objections, I know I can go through with something.

The strange part about the above situation is that I presented something, and then no one said anything. This makes me feel insecure, because I don’t know how anyone’s taking it if they’re evaluating silently in their heads. If I’m in a group, then ALL of them could be taking it badly, and if no one’s giving me any negative comment to work with, then I can’t justify myself and talk people around. I was looking around, waiting for someone to say something, give me some cue, and then I hear: “You seem like you’re looking for approval.”

In actuality, the origin of this comment was that the speaker was fine with this turn of events, found no objections, and then was surprised when I started waiting around and staring at everyone intensely. The speaker is a particularly open-minded and let-live kind of person, so I wasn’t worried about them.

Everyone else, though… there are such interesting group dynamics among different collections of people! This group is sensitive, admiring, reassuring, and consciously non-judgmental. I’m new to this group, whereas they’ve known each other for a while, and they’ve been very kind and welcoming towards me. I do worry about their opinions: whether they were holding back because they saw no problems, or whether they were keeping silent out of courtesy.

It makes me realize how much my behavior is optimized for a specific type of person who has a particular relationship with me. I’m extreme in a few ways, and I adore when people engage in the casual mocking of these traits and preferences that means that they know me well. Joy and teasing in another’s quirks—that makes me feel close to people, both giving and receiving. (There’s something so nice about knowing someone’s taken the time to remember something about you that they find absurd. I’m also a huge fan of when people can predict me, a comment I often repeat :)).

Sensitive people, though, kind people, who don’t feel comfortable telling me right off that I’m being ridiculous: I always get thrown by them :). This isn’t the first time—one of my friends is used to working with people calling a suicide hotline, and they’re thus very restricted in how much they expresses their judgments.

Hm :). Goes to show that a common approach that works for a lot of people won’t work for everyone who will react to me, and that I should maybe take this into account when presenting information for different groups. That doesn’t feel like something I’m going to start working on, beyond my initial screening for making sure friends won’t take anything I say too badly, but it’s maybe something to work on in the future if I want to better control my impact on people. Then again, the only person it’s currently hurting is possibly me, and so I get to choose my tradeoff.

Ha—reading that last paragraph, I feel like it says so much about what I value, what kind of person I am. In reading “Insomniac City” by Bill Hayes, I’ve realized that you can infer an immense amount about who a person is just by reading their dialogue with others, even more so than you can infer from their musings to themselves.

I don’t have a nice conclusion from this one, or a useful takeaway. Just one of those tiny interactions, twenty seconds of questioning and dialogue that pass by in life’s tide of experience.

When I’m talking with someone, I’m really oblivious to anything outside that person. I appreciate when people who don’t have this tendency realize that full attention is important to me and change the way they interact to align with my preference.

I mention this to say that I’m rarely distracted when I’m fully in a conversation with someone. It’s thus always amusing to me when I’m actively talking and get sideswiped by some thought, and have to actively pause and wait a few seconds for it to pass through before continuing on.

For me, the thoughts are usually something meta-level about the conversation—they just said this or took this action in this way, for this purpose. I can observe other people having these kinds of pauses, too—sometimes about external happenings, but sometimes internal, as well. They mix in with the pauses from being sideswiped by memories, or trying to determine what’s safe to say.

I find these derailments very amusing when they happen. Here I am, in the middle of a sentence, someone with quite focused attention when conversing one-on-one—and I can actively feel my thought processes halt while I work through the too-high-level thought. Pause pause pause, okay let’s just try to pull that off as a contemplative pause rather than a complete side-swipe, what was I saying? 

(As a note, these kinds of thoughts about how a situation is laid out, or how a person communicates, occur to me all the time. But usually I’m listening to a lecture when it happens, so I’ll whip out my laptop and write it down before going back to it. These lapses in attention are a bit harder to hide when you’re not one person in a 50-person room.)

(The fact that this kind of observation is unstoppable, for me, both makes me happy and makes me laugh. Some people have research-thoughts occur to them all the time—I’ve got thoughts about people and process that energize me and whirl up unbidden.)

I was hanging out with a group of people who were thinking about creating art in the moment. My artistic range is rather limited: I have a random aptitude for drawing abstract designs, and I can write. The latter’s much more meaningful to me, but that’s not something that I think I could do on the spot. It’s reflection, and reflection sometimes happens in conversations (to my surprise, I’ve realized a few new things about myself just from clarifying and describing thoughts to people) but I still do most of my reflection alone. I wonder which forms of art do lend themselves to being done in the moment; performance art, photographs, most likely? Can paintings be done in the presence of others?

Sometimes I hang out with long-term computer science people, and the following sort of thought-sense-philosophy occurs to me:

Elegance for the sake of elegance (and generalizability in mathematics)

I’m paused over the keyboard, waiting for my brain to decide what to use as a search term for Google Scholar.

It’s currently warring between “empirical social welfare functions” and “werebunny”.

Some of my friends really enjoy puzzles. My philosophy goes something like: If we’re doing this and it’s interacting with real life, sure, let’s do puzzles. But there are so many real life happening-now puzzles to work on!

(I can certainly admire the puzzles, though. There seems to be a massive amount of work and skill needed to make a good artificial puzzle. Good knowledge of the human mind, too.)

I love talking to my friend Tiffany. Ending conversation of our Skype call:

Me: “I don’t get people who don’t make it to classes at 8:30am because it’s too early. Like, just get up.”

Tiffany (laughing): “Right, because you just muscled through it for years, so you’re like: yes, I understand, but I have zero sympathy for you.”

Me (also laughing): “Yes! And they’re not even getting up to work out! Morning workouts are the absolute worst, the first thirty seconds of getting up and you’re like I hate my life I hate my life I hate my life before you pick yourself up and be positive.”

Tiffany: “I do think that that’s probably what people are capable in the mornings—that they’d rather work out than think.”

Me: “But why? I’d much rather think.”

Tiffany: “I think that’s probably just you, Monica.”

We’re still learning stuff about each other, but we’ve known each other for so long now that we’re predictable, we know what we’re going to say, we know what we care about and how it goes. I always say that if there were more Tiffanys in the world it’d be a better place, and after talking with her (tangential discussions about circadian rhythms aside) I always am reminded of that statement.

One of my readers (and friends from college :)) commented on my last post recommending the site StoryCorps, especially the animated versions on Youtube. GOOD LORD. They give you some funny stories to get your guard down, and then they launch you in with stories that seem perfectly lovely at the beginning and have you completely sobbing at the end.

So much love. So much love, and so much acceptance of death and life and the bonds that tie us together.

This one and this one and this one.

I don’t know that I’ve ever cried that hard, actually—for sure not in recent memory. There’s definitely some interesting breathing effects and pauses between remembered emotional hits that I wasn’t expecting! Also, I’d forgotten all about the mucus thing.

Quite enjoyed, though. Made me want to go accomplish something, and appreciate more.

I just tacked on “man” at the end of a reply to a doctor. Sometimes the language in my head is not the language that I want to use out loud, and I just continue to sigh at myself. Current words that are incompatible: “dude”, “man”, “thing” and the many swear words (sometimes used happily) that live in there :).

I was at a party, and was talking about how I taught myself a lot of social niceties and other social skills when I was younger. I was then claimed as “one of us” by my conversational partner with regards to being on the autism spectrum.

I don’t know how other people would react to this, but I felt a rush of pride. I’m not on the autism spectrum, just like I don’t have anxiety, even though I have traits that tend in these directions. I definitely don’t want to claim that I’ve experienced anything severe enough to fall under these headings, because that feels to me like I’m claiming to empathize with something that I don’t have a right to or understand.

But man, just the acknowledgement that these things are hard. That there are some traits that we’re born with that are awesome—I’m high energy and positive, and I don’t really have to work at these—and some that require time and effort and a lot of failure cycles. And that if things seem effortless, then they weren’t initially that way.

There are people who actually don’t believe me when I describe shyness or behaviors from middle school or high school. And here was a person who not only believed me, but empathized with me to the extent that he was willing to compare the challenges he faced in interacting with others with mine.

Please please please let me know if I’m being offensive in any way here—I generally try to steer clear of any sorts of medical diagnoses in this blog, because I know I don’t have a good understanding of what other people experience. But in my mind this was a positive experience on both sides, and I just wanted to express that moment, because it was an unusual one for me.

Sometimes I miss Wellesley. I was recently reading a low-key powerpoint that was being passed around, and it was written in texting language without a single grammar mistake. Everything was perfectly PC, and I had the thought: oh yes, there is a place where there’s a much lower chance of being offended by anything, because the people writing the text already went through the effort of trying to be respectful to many perspectives, and moreover share the same values about respect that you do.

It’s unique, the Wellesley community. Not someplace that I think is a stereotyped fit to my personality, but I’m so grateful to have been a part of, and continue to be part of, that community all the same.

I think about thoughts sometimes in the context of mathematically formalized Bayesian inference.

In those moments, I feel like I’m on my way to accomplishing what I most desire out of this PhD.

“That fits.” Have you ever had that thought when learning something new about someone? Someone said this to me recently, and ever since then I’ve been experiencing this insight when I listen to other people.

It’s nice.

In one of my groups, the standard mode of interacting is to be mildly aggressive. Turns out, when I know that’s what’s expected, I can totally pull off mildly aggressive interaction. Who knew? It seems like what works for me is figuring out the “supposed to” behavior, and then things often work from there.

(Will I ever be able to counter true aggression? That one I doubt. Backing down is too ingrained by this point. It’s going to be trouble in talks though…)

Some thoughts I wrote earlier in the week:

When your brain recognizes that that’s a problem that already has a solution, and subsequently stops thinking about it, and you’re like HALLELUJAH I KNEW YOU COULD DO IT GOOD JOB PAT ON THE BRAIN KEEP IT UP. (Worrying is lame and should be eliminated and thus positive reinforcement is necessary. I’m so proud.)

When people use information-processing system language to describe their brains / minds, and I’m like YESSSS you have it organized the same way I do and interpret things in similar ways.

When you’re vaguely frustrated because you’re like: I had all of those pieces of information, and I could have put them together the right way, but instead I left them sort of disconnected and now I feel dumb :P.

When you’re vaguely frustrated / amused because you spent a whole page deriving an experiment, and then you look to the original page, and it turns out you’ve rediscovered the exact same experiment.

It is immensely calming to me to look over and see my advisor paying attention to a talk. It reminds me: yes, you are doing the right thing, continue on.

I was sitting in a lecture today and someone asked a question, and I looked over and Prof. Ken Nakayama had somehow showed up.

I Googled—yep, he’s still located at Harvard.

I looked back—yep, that’s definitely Ken Nakayama at UC Berkeley.

Bemused, I turned back to the lecture.

And with that, I’ll leave it be :). Thanks so much for reading, all. It makes me so happy when I hear friends tell me that they keep up with this week after week, that they’ll spend time engaging with it and with me.

Much love and happiness to all of you :). (And happy pi day :)).

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