image_pdfimage_print

Recovering workaholic

I feel like I am planning to be selfish for the next while, maybe even a year. I want to go to work, come home, go swimming, and dance. Xander is planning to teach me how to play video games. We’ll go to see friends, maybe see a movie or two. I’ll read a lot of books. I won’t do anything that means much to anyone except myself.

I’ve been so tired that I can’t handle much lately. It feels like I’ve been tired for a very long time. Planning to not plan things, to have hours of uninterrupted time off, is alien to me and a little bit scary. I am a little unsure that everything will work out, that it will be fine. I know, on some level, that it won’t be an issue, but at the same time I’ve been very busy for long enough that it has become habit.

I think the biggest issue is not doing anything that matters to anyone else. I like being useful. I like feeling like an important cog instead of a completely replaceable one. I know that everyone is replaceable, but I flatter myself by thinking that it would be hard to replace me. I want to matter. That is overbalanced, though, by wanting to not be exhausted all the time. I’m planning to simply be on weekends and evenings, to do only what I actively want to. I want time with Xander that isn’t layered over with worry about timing and making sure everything is done and whatever else I can think of.

I want to get good at relaxing.

That’s a pretty scary thing for a workaholic to say, but I think the past two years have really convinced me that down time is essential. I’ve made it through, with Xander’s help, but I can’t do much more, certainly not after the blows we’ve taken this year. It’s time to enjoy the fact that we have enough, we have each other, and we enjoy each other.

It’s time for me to relax. It’s time to stop and breathe and take more joy in life than I sometimes think I know how to do.

It’s scary. I will have to be very careful to avoid finding other things to fill my time until I feel like I am at least somewhat less frayed and worn. I’m just too tired to keep up this schedule, and if another blow falls, I might not be able to handle it unless I have some reserves. Right now there just aren’t any, but getting enough sleep consistently will help with that.

The Drunkard’s Walk

I’ve just started a book called The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. It’s quite interesting. Very early on, there’s a discussion about whether yelling at people when they do badly or praising them when they do well works best. The people who do the yelling or praising are under the impression that yelling works better. After all, if someone does something they should know how to do but does it exceptionally badly and then gets yelled at for it, the next time they do it, they are almost always better at it. On the other hand, if someone does something they should know how to do but does it exceptionally well and then gets praised for it, the next time they do it, they are almost always worse at it.

Having worked with training dogs much of my life, I’m very clear that yelling when you are trying to train does not actually help, so it surprised me to see this, at least until I read on a bit. People vary around a mean, generally. On average, they get better with practice, but they will have good days and bad days as the skill level slowly increases. The average will increase very slowly, though, so very good days or very bad days are unusual.

Why does yelling seem to work and praise seem not to work? Because people will generally go back to their normal skill level, whether it’s above or below the notable performance. If they have a really bad day, whether or not someone yells at them, the next day is likely to be better. If they have a really good day, the same applies – praise them or not, the next day will probably be worse.

One of the ideas in the book is that human brains aren’t set up to handle random events. We try to see patterns even where there aren’t any. We’re back to “correlation does not indicate causation”. We may see something that seems to indicate that yelling at people improves their performance, but it doesn’t. The person being yelled at is simply coming back to what is normal for them.

If someone has a daughter, what is the likelihood that the second child will be a daughter? I would have answered 50%, but it isn’t. It’s 33%. The possible arrangement of children if one is female is girl-girl, girl-boy, and boy-girl. Once you know that one child is female, it changes the odds.

We aren’t good at randomness, and intuition doesn’t help us when we are looking at random events. It can hurt us, even, by giving us information that, if we could lay out problems mathematically, doesn’t make sense.

I’m enjoying the book. It’s making me look at the world in a different way, which is always interesting, and in some ways it is calming. I worry about things I can’t control, and this is helping me remember that I really don’t have any way of predicting things. It’s a little scary to think of the world as a random place, but I know it is; I jut haven’t wanted to face up to it.

The concepts aren’t necessarily easy at times, since they are counterintuitive, but the book is written so it is easy and fun to read.

Scattered

I usually have some clue what I’m going to write about, but today I don’t.

I’ve been sick off an on for a while now. It’s probably the stress beginning to tell. Much of it will be removed by the end of August, but until then I will just keep moving forward and keep trying to stay healthy. I’m not very good at it. I know I push too hard. I have slept 10 or 11 hours every night this week (although the morning that Nyx woke me up at 4:00 AM wasn’t quite as restful) and I am still tired. I’m on antibiotics, and whatever it is seems to be clearing up slowly, but even today I had a fever spike rather unexpectedly.

I’ve been pushing somewhat hard for over a year and a half now, and the past year has been unrelenting. It’s my choice, but it hasn’t been an easy one.

I know I’m being cryptic. I’m sorry. I just can’t explain a lot of what’s going on. Suffice it to say that my job, while challenging and interesting, can also be tiring, and, on top of that, foster children can need so much that I come home drained. We don’t live with any of them. I think good foster parents have to have an amazing amount of patience, because I couldn’t do what they do. I make jokes about not getting bitten or kicked in a while, but they aren’t very funny jokes.

I get to spend some time with kids in stable, strong families with intelligent and loving parents. Sometimes I forget how good it is to just be able to hang out with kids without having to actively work with them or keep an eye on them or make sure they aren’t doing things they shouldn’t. It’s a whole different level of awareness, working with kids who are so damaged, and it can be exhausting. Our friends’ kids are a relief, a balm to what is sometimes a very weary existence.

I think I am still grieving a little, too. Scratch that. I know I am. Friends of ours recently told us that they are expecting. I was, and am, very happy for them, but on the way home I cried. I wanted to be able to raise our child with Xander. Mostly it’s ok. If I get enough sleep, enough exercise, enough down time, it sinks into the background and doesn’t bug me. Once in a while, though, if I am particularly vulnerable and something triggers it, the feelings are there again, raw and sad. My response? We stopped and got good chocolate, and I am eating my share a little bit at a time.

Monday I have completely off. I may not do anything interesting with the time. I may spend the day on the couch. If I feel really motivated, I’ll take Nyx out for a nice long walk. If not, though, I’m not going to feel bad about it – she’ll share the couch with me all day quite happily.

The last year has worn me down. I am tired even when I have had enough sleep. I feel like I used to be better at things than I am now. I know that my attention is too fractured at the moment to do as well as I have in the past, and I am very glad I’m not trying to take classes right now, because I think I’d fail them.

Next week is a short week. The week after that I am actually taking some time off. I’m trying hard to make it through August, to have enough money set aside so we don’t have to worry about money for Australia whether or not a certain job market improves. My job is stable, and I’m happy there. I’m learning a lot.

It’s just a few more months. I just have to keep moving, and if I get too tired, I’ll skip a day, one way or another. I’ve been pushing too hard for too long and I think I can’t do it for much longer. I don’t have to, though. We’re almost there.

My addiction

I have an addiction to books. I’ve loved to read for as long as I can remember. Well, almost – I have a very early memory of leaning over the back of a couch, watching my older brother read and desperately wanting to know what was so fascinating about words with no pictures. I figured it out fairly quickly, and I haven’t stopped since.

I stopped reading for a little while in my first year of college. I kept getting headaches that got pretty awful. My sinuses and teeth were checked. Finally I went to an eye doctor and discovered that I needed glasses. During the time that I couldn’t read, when the headaches were really bad, I felt like I was in withdrawal. I was irritable and easily upset, off balance, and unhappy with everything. As soon as the headaches stopped, I was back to reading again.

Books have been a lot of things to me. For a while, they were a means of escape. I loved libraries because no one cared who I was. Librarians were invariably kind to me, especially when they found out that my passion for reading matched theirs. When I went back to public school, the library was the place I felt safest. I wasn’t out of place there.

For much of my life, though, books have been freedom. My imagination was set loose, not just in the amazement of this world, but throughout the cosmos and the full breadth of time. I loved learning odd little facts that most people didn’t know. Did you know that the male platypus is venomous? Or that a crocodile can’t stick out its tongue? I was introduced to science fiction, fantasy, and Shakespeare at about the same time, and they, in turn, shaped my world, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters gave me nightmares for years, to the point that, when I was younger, anyone with a hunchback made me worry. I loved Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, which I found in a library the same year it came out, when I was seven, and it fed my love of horses and gave me a strong but believable female character to emulate, at least a little bit. I tried to write sonnets, learned that, while I enjoy poetry, it was not exactly my strong suit. I learned to enjoy punning from my family and then overdosed on it through Piers Anthony’s Xanth series, when I read three of them in a day. Time travel made my head hurt. Still does, sometimes. I really love The Time Traveler’s Wife, though. I read the Modesty Blaise series, which had a heroine who was dangerous. She fascinated me. She made me want to be powerful, strong, scary. I never quite managed that, but, between Modesty Blaise and Harry Crewe, I never thought women should be meek little creatures, either, so I did get something useful out of them. Spider Robinson pushed empathy, even for the terrible and terrifying people in the world, and then his wife let me dream of beauty dancing among the stars. I’ve wanted to go to space, to float and be free, for much of my life.

I worry about kids who aren’t raised with a love of reading. I feel like they are missing out on so much. Given a choice between watching, for instance, a Hannah Montana rerun that they’ve already seen and curling up with a book, even the kids I know who love to read will generally pick the rerun. They might read during the commercials, but they won’t turn off the TV. The television tells stories, but they are dripped through an IV, not made to draw people in and make them imagine their own pieces, their own visions of the stories.

Reading is active. It makes me think, puts me inside other peoples’ heads, forces me to see the world in different ways. I know some people don’t like reading, but I wish I could give them a book that changes how they see the world, gives them even a glimpse of the amazing things I’ve seen in through simple words on a page.

This is my addiction, my welcome need, my bit of wonder whenever I want it. This is how I regroup at the end of a long day. This is how I remember joy, by reading Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Ursula LeGuin, and so many others. This is how I center myself, how I put the pieces back together when the world finds ways to shatter me.

My drug. My addiction. My books.

Frogs

I am sitting in someone else’s house tonight (housesitting) listening to frogs in the desert. I tend to forget that there are places here where frogs breed quite happily – golf courses, mostly empty swimming pools, places near the river that hold still water. I forget about the frogs because they don’t spend much time near our house. Not enough water there, and possibly too many outdoor cats.

Frogs in the desert. They’re surviving in a climate they aren’t exactly comfortable in. I guess I am, too, though to a lesser extent. I don’t like the desert. I didn’t know that when I moved here. It took several months before I kept being caught by the hills, seeing them and thinking “Brown! Hills shouldn’t be brown…” There is beauty here, no question. I can’t say there isn’t, especially with a lake that sits like a jewel in the mountains less than an hour from our house. It’s just…I want to be able to walk in earth, feel the rich, black dirt between my toes, know that things can grow there.

Have you ever tried to dig a hole in the desert? If you try, as I did, with your fingers, you will end up with bruised fingertips. You can’t just reach down and hold the earth, let it crumble in your hand, smell the deep, rich, dark scent of it. Here you have to use tools, sometimes even jackhammers, to get down far enough to plant things. Even then, in areas where there is clay, you can plant them but the roots are forever bound within the bowl of clay you have created.

I have lived here at least ten years now. I should be used to this, but I’m not. We will eventually manage to put in raised beds to grow food and herbs, and that will help a little, I think, but on some level I’m homesick. Not for the place, exactly, although I do miss a lot of things about the Bay Area. More for the feeling of air against my skin, air that does not suck the moisture out, cracking lips and fingers and feet. I miss dirt I can dig up with my hands. I miss being able to plant things and not worry about them too much except when it’s hot. I miss being able to put an aloe vera plant in a sunny window and not have it die of a sunburn a few days later.

Things grow in the desert. There is beauty here. When we go over the hill, though, back to where I grew up, it feels like my eyes relax as they pass over green hills. The air seems less harsh. I don’t need to put lotion on just to keep my skin from being damaged. My hair is another question, since its response is to get impressively frizzy, but I can live with that.

I feel silly saying I am homesick. I don’t want to move back to the Bay Area. I think we’re much more likely to move north instead, to another state that borders the ocean. I miss pieces of living somewhere less dry, though. I miss green, flowers heavy with blooms, the strong scent of eucalyptus, the smell of the sea, the taste of salt as I breathe. I miss the water. We have a river here, but it does not give me the sense of being tiny and, at the same time, of being part of the world that the ocean can give.

We have made home here. I know this is a good place, for now. There are days, though, when it is hard not to just drive somewhere that feels more like I want the air to feel, where the hills are not always brown or white, where rain beats steadily rather than coming in a torrent and disappearing, leaving strawberry plants bent and broken.

I’m listening to frogs, and I am homesick for a feeling.

Time, change, and peace

I’m taking the summer off from belly dancing. It feels odd, like Friday nights are emptier than they should be. At the same time, it’s freeing in some ways. I have two weekday evenings in which I can simply come home and crash, relax, not think about anything. It’s more likely that I will putter around the house, but there is the option of falling over and reading or sleeping which, just by existing, is relaxing.

I don’t think I knew quite how nice having free time was until I didn’t have much. It’s been a while since I could look at my evenings laid out in front of me and feel anything other than stress – too many things to get done, not enough time. Fairly soon I’m going to have free time again. Weekends and evenings will stretch out in front of me. If I have something scheduled and I don’t feel like going, I just…won’t go. It won’t upset anyone or make anyone’s life harder.

Time has seemed almost tangible for the past couple of years. I chop it into carefully delineated pieces and hold it tightly to make sure I don’t miss anything. I plan everything. If plans fall through, I worry that I made a mistake. I get irritated at traffic (which, in Reno, is negligible, but it can cause me timing issues). I want to hold time, but it is always slipping through my fingers.

I want to be able to be spontaneous. I’ve never been very good at it, but it sounds like fun, at least in small doses. I’ve always worried about time and money, ever since I started high school, and I’ve always felt like I’m a step behind.

This summer, that is changing. A lot of things are changing. Money is not as tight. We still have to be careful, but it isn’t a problem at this point, and it has been a point of stress for a long time. My time will be opening up a little over the next few months and then drastically in September – normal hours, normal work. I can live with that. No more school to pay for, at least at the moment.

I can look at the next four months and have some idea what is in store, at least as much as anyone has. It will be a busy summer, but there is an underlying peace that I have been missing.

I used to believe that I could just get a job, no problem. That certainty became stronger once I got my MBA. I figured it wouldn’t be too hard. In a normal economy, perhaps it wouldn’t have been, but in this economy finding work is painfully hard. I was unemployed for six months because the start up company I’d been with for several years went out of business. I looked for jobs every day. At first I was very picky, but eventually I ended up just looking for something that paid the bare minimum we needed to get by. I found it.

I’ve been very lucky in that I think I may have also found a career. I love working in this area, even though some days can be hard, and I am fascinated by learning everything I can about it. There’s a lot to learn. After a year and a half, I’ve just scratched the surface.

Sometimes there is a moment when I realize that all of the puzzle pieces, dumped out of a box, just slid into place. This moment, this brink of change, feels like that. There are new possibilities opening up, new ideas, new challenges, and the time and money to meet them joyfully. Today I am centered and calm, happy and relaxed. It’s a good place to be.

I know there will be more stress coming up. There is always more stress waiting in the wings. My baseline is changing, though, to something more relaxed, less twitchy.

I don’t generally like change. Change is scary and hard and not comfortable. I think this set of changes will be somewhat easier. There’s a steep learning curve, but I can live with that. I have the energy to move forward again, and I’m enjoying thinking about the future without feeling like I’m hanging on by a thread.

I’m looking forward to a good weekend. I hope you manage one, too.