Knitting updates

Still overwhelmed in most areas of my life. I use knitting as a (healthy, as long as I don’t get tendon issues) way to ground myself.

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Overwhelmed

Difficult to pick words in this time and place. I feel that speaking about my thoughts like I did in recent posts is irrelevant in light of how other people’s lives are and will be devastated. I am not scared for myself or my future – no matter what happens, and (sadly!) not due to my actions, my life will not be hit as badly as the lives of so many people. I feel lucky, but I wish someone else received my share of luck and opportunities.

I am overwhelmed and speechless, but I don’t want to isolate myself from what is happening. I find that staying calm and positive in such times is either the product of an exceptionally stable mind, or of an aggressive (to the point of looking inhuman) filter on inputs. I struggle talking about this, as strong emotions and projections make the discussion derail, leaving me more confused than before.

Mind garbage collection

Here is one more post for the series “short posts about big topics”.

This time I will describe a behaviour of my mind that can be compared to the garbage collection feature of programming languages. For a computer program, it is a way of removing objects from memory when they are no longer used. This can happen behind the scenes or be manually controlled, and is necessary to avoid memory being saturated by items no longer in use. For a programmer, it is an art in itself to be able to juggle a collection of items that would overflow the available memory, by having at each instant only the item or part of item that is actually needed.

I noticed that my mind is able to do this decluttering work too, but at two conditions: the task has to be properly completed (more on “properly completed” below) and the stress level has to be low. This has some impractical implications: long-haul or non-progressing tasks stay in memory until they are complete, because the cost of recalling everything about a suspended task is high, and considered higher than keeping the task in memory as is; the mind’s threshold for “properly completed” is quite high, so tasks need more work/time/attention than average to be allowed to leave memory; and last but the most critical of all, if I’m stressed I actively keep in mind more inputs than usual, to counteract my mind’s emergency garbage collection (which can’t properly keep really important tasks), and I rely more heavily on tasks’ completion to prove myself I’m still functional, both of which further extend the time an item stays in memory and makes overflows happen faster and more often. This is another way of describing the behaviour of my mind, which shares similarities with the “fragile autopilot” metaphor.

I didn’t describe this mechanism to receive feedback about how to change it. Of course a major review will make sure that the mind always has free space for new tasks, but at the cost of too many other features/behaviours that I consider fundamental in allowing myself to consider this loose puzzle of body and thoughts as “myself” (there is more about that, but for another time). I am actually able to function and even shine, when the conditions are favorable; I just recently started the process of identifying those conditions, and I have no practice about making my needs clear, so for the short/mid term I will have to live with memory management issues and temporary workarounds. It’s not that bad, because I know how crashes look like, but it’s surely a lot of work. Thanks to all the people who are patient with me during this phase, and thanks for all supportive inputs 🙂

Predictability

One more post of the series “short posts about big topics”.

Today’s topic is predictability. As a disclaimer, I want to say that I was often able to hide it and looked like I was ready to improvise, while I actually had rehearsed the possible two or three scenarios in advance. So much for being praised for credible masking. I don’t think I would have acted differently back then, because looking “normal” was pretty much a requirement from the outside world, not something I voluntarily decided to burden myself with.

But I want to come back to the topic. Predictability took for me one main shape, that is the ability to rehearse written music in my various orchestras and choirs, and being able to exactly predict what was going to happen, because it was literally written down note by note. In choir music it’s how it is written – rarely you get only your own notes, while the norm is to get the full four-voice score. It is a supreme joy to see all the notes on the paper become notes in reality, and me being able to read a few bars in advance, sometimes more, sometimes waiting for a specific section to sing a specific part, and melting when that finally happens, at the precise time, not earlier, not later. When it comes to orchestral/band music, the opposite is the norm, that is, each gets their own notes, only the conductor gets the full score. In a few occasions I was able to read the full conductor score and I got the same profound satisfaction about seeing notes on paper, and soon afterwards hearing them played by exactly those instruments.

Percussion notes, SBO rehearsals (2017)

Another, apparently unrelated, area where predictability reigns, is track driving. I was only once on a F1 track for a day of “Freies Fahren”, and as a passenger, I must say I enjoyed all of it – I don’t think I would have liked it as much if I had to drive myself (so many decisions to take!). As a passenger I took one lap to learn the bends of the circuit (and got surprised+scared once), and from that moment onwards it was pure enjoyment. I knew in advance how each curve would feel, and looked forward for each of them, instead of notes, acceleration and bits of drifting (we were often excused, as the weather was rainy and the track slippery). I can’t really tell if I liked predictability more than the actual driving, but I want to confirm that it was one of the rare experiences I remember as entirely positive and safe. The track is indeed very large and meant for much higher speeds than an ordinary car can achieve, and the surrounding gravel/dirt areas are much larger than any road would offer, so I felt way safer than in everyday traffic. It was movement, in a form that made so much sense to me – much more than moving my own body.

Spa-Francorchamps track, in the BMW Motorsport division colors

This is to say that I need at least one area where things happen as I expect them to, and get really upset if they don’t. I know that many people can rely on a bunch of processes and people to be consistent in time, and therefore are ready to accept surprises and unpredictability elsewhere; in my case, as many of these areas are not predictable, I need some other processes/people to be consistent, and it sometimes comes out as demanding, or at least unexpectedly demanding. I used to apologise for it and hide my needs, and I don’t do that anymore; still, it looks odd, but I stand my ground.

There is much more to say about this topic, but these two examples are the shiniest and clearest I can think of. I may write more in a further post, and would happily respond to comments to this post. Until next time, take care!

Fragile autopilot

Here is the second post of the series “short posts about big topics”.

VH-SPQ Cessna 172S Skyhawk SP Redcliffe Aero Club (7220834766).jpg
By Robert Frola – Flickr, GFDL, Link

I took a while to pick the topic, as Continuity is in the middle of a fan of related concepts, and it would be meta-nice to… continue on that line. Sort of connected to it, but on a different plane, is my perception on how easily I can perform common tasks according to how busy I am with one or more major ongoing tasks. I noticed that, depending on how stressful those major tasks are, I seem to lose the ability to concatenate the most common actions, stuff that I otherwise do without thinking – and losing this automation transforms a normal day in a costly, relentless manual flight mode. This is what I call “fragile autopilot”, as automation stops functioning exactly when I would give hands and feet to at least not worry about closing windows and the front door when leaving the house, and remembering what I need to take with me or buy. In this state of mind I can only follow very familiar procedures, like taking the Known Route to go shopping (to the point of using a specific sidewalk and cross the road in a specific spot, otherwise I risk getting hit by traffic), in a shop where everything is where I expect it to be. Knitting also helps a lot, as I mostly follow detailed patterns, and I have at least one work-in-progress that allows autopilot knitting (knit to end of row, based on stitches of previous row) for at least an hour. Of course (at least it’s obvious to me) the first thing that flies out of the plane is social interaction, unless it’s joining a recurring event with people I know, or joining an online group like I do every day. I’m aware that it comes through as unfriendly, and I dearly pay for it when I realise I act like I don’t care about people or take really long to answer, but I’m too busy doing all the small actions and counteractions that the plane needs to stay airborne to worry about anything else.

I think everybody has gone through one or more moments like these, where it seems hard to focus on anything and one is literally drowning in worries and anxiety. It’s when it happens often, and/or in connection with tasks that are considered mildly challenging by the majority, that I think I need some dedicated strategies and not only symptom-reducing fixes.

Until next post, take care 🙂

Continuity

Here is the start of a series of small posts about big topics.

Today the topic is continuity, which is currently a challenge for me, as I’m still settling in a new job, a new town, a new landscape, a new social circle. There is very little I bring over from my past setup: a few important objects, some books, my online identities. I am honestly scared about all this. I am heavily influenced by my surroundings and I tend to blend in the environment where I land. The idea of choosing the environment to match my needs sounds weird and even funny to me. I’m relying on the continuity of the new environment, so that I can merge with it and feel like I have been here since the beginning.

In this specific phase, continuity for me means walking the same way to the office, at the same time of the day, optionally listening to the same playlist. It gives me the ability to predict pretty accurately what I will encounter in the next half hour: traffic lights, specific potholes of the road, the trees along the fields, the beginning of the forest, each bend in the road, sometimes the same people, dogs and cars. It feels especially nice when the songs predictably align to landmarks along the way.

This is an example of a continuity I cherish, and even need, in order to be able to arrive in the office and deal with everything less predictable than this. I’m sure that people who know me for many years would tell: “But you moved so many times! You adapted to new environments so quickly!” – which is true, and was possible because I had continuity somewhere else – mostly in my online circles, that I was able to join from wherever I was located. These last years have been so harsh that I was not that active anymore, and this pillar got much weaker, so I got much more sensitive to changes I was bravely handling before.

Currently my continuity are a couple online chats, a handful of songs that I listen on repeat, an even smaller handful of books, my logs, my dear laptop, my phone, my knitting gear – that’s it. I feel almost transparent, but I’m hopeful that I will find more continuity sources soon – especially as the new town is small and there is a lot that naturally stays the same, even just shopkeepers and people at the pub.

That’s all for today! Take care, and hope you are curious about next post 🙂

On suspense and spoilers

A few weeeks ago I read about the upcoming 36th America’s Cup, with Luna Rossa winning the races up to the final match with Team New Zealand. Back in 2000 I had been watching the competition with great interest, I woke up at 4AM for almost a week to watch the event live (there was basically no other option to see the full event replayed in daytime, and I was not interested in five-minutes-summaries). My first thought was, quite naturally, to do the same, excited to get back to that state of mind. However, I’m not sleeping too well lately, and the time between 4AM and 7AM is usually the most sacred sleep phase. I noticed that when I get up in that interval of time, the body has to cancel some crucial routines and I feel as if I didn’t sleep at all. The event’s website offers the full replay of the races, so there was not so much pressure in getting up that early.

I thought whether I should check the result of the races before watching the replay. I finally decided against suspense and in favour of spoilers. I do that with movies and books – the tension that piles up in my head trying to follow the story, to pick up all relevant information, is acutely uncomfortable. I am sure that other people consider suspense and plot-following the best part of watching a movie, and I assume the authors/directors put in a significant effort in constructing the plot to maximise the quality of the first watching experience; I’m likely built differently, and I struggle a lot to follow stories based on standard social dynamics, especially crime series/novels. I actually prefer to watch a movie several times, to get familiar with the plot, and then put it aside to pay attention to other sides of the work (photography, secondary characters, music, scene changes, views of the writer about things that are not in focus). Same applies to books. But I’m drifting away! To come back to the America’s Cup, knowing who would win made my viewing experience much more enjoyable. Maybe when I’m watching a live event I identify so much with the competitors while being completely powerless to help, that it ruins the moment. Rewatching the event has more of an analytical purpose and I feel allowed to take breaks, rewatch an action to really understand it, spot some tiny detail, enjoy the movement in a purely visual way and then rewatch it to focus on another aspect of the action. Somehow, I get bored only after at least 10 rewatches for single-use content, and for some favorites of mine, never 🙂 I don’t always need new content, on the contrary: I use known content to get into a mood, or a speed of thought, and repetition is necessary instead of boring. What happens to many people only with pop music is touching many more areas of my experience.

Any thoughts about this? Feel free to leave a comment!

On welcoming inputs

Last night I thought about why I don’t feel entertained by novels and movies anymore, and have trouble listening to the news and sometimes even to everyday conversations. I guess there are many factors at play, and different combinations for each situation; still, there is a leitmotiv in my perception that connects them. I apologise for the somewhat vague title, but this is the best fit I could find.

I have realised at a way earlier point in life that I receive information from the outside world in form of a mix of events that can be explained with laws of nature (in the broadest sense) and the opinions about these events. This seeems so obvious that it’s odd to mention it at all. What I recently realised is that I used to give both of these categories the same attention, the same right to be heard; and that I was listening to any input with full focus, genuine intention to understand it well. Not surprisingly I was good at school and I was regarded as a good listener, but I regularly and increasingly got overwhelmed.

The solution that most have suggested to me is “well, focus on some specific topic, filter the inputs the you get, there will always be too many situations that would need your help anyway, think about yourself first”. I understand , but I manage only to half-heartedly agree with that. I recognise my finite resources and I’m working on acknowledging my own needs, but I have no usable logic for picking up a topic. I guess it has to do with my intention to work on a given issue that I met directly, not on what someone managed to convince me to. I would feel horribly guilty to have followed a good marketing feat and have disregarded a more urgent issue just because it was not as brilliantly presented. I think of many examples of great storytelling that made a legitimately good work in raising attention on some obscure yet important topics, but I have the uneasy thought that there is much more in the shadows that can’t sell itself as effectively, and it would be inhumane to expect it to.

Connected to that, I got the increasingly clear perception of that “listen to me, disregard the others, I’ll make you change how you think or confirm your views” in works of fiction. I started to read books in a different way. Until recently, I was reading to discover new topics and the views of the authors, and use them to build my inner world, changing them as little as possible. What happens now when I pick a novel is that my brain defiantly grabs a notepad and takes notes about what views the authors want to bring forward, tries to find out inconsistencies, reasons to stop reading. Same happens, with more success for the brain, when I watch a movie. I seem not to be able to get into suspension of disbelief, and I see the movie as if I were on the set: I can almost hear the director telling what he/she wants to see the actors doing (which brings its own pleasure, as a behind-the-scenes experience). I can only watch videos and read text where the self-irony or self-observation is so blatant that I’m not expected to approve the narrative or have empathy of any sort. The focus moves to the acting ability, the photography, the use of narrative devices for fun. I can watch the Monty Python’s Flying Circus or the IT Crowd over and over, and I am very wary in watching anything new, even when I get suggestions from friends.

I think there is a lot behind this change in my perception and I’m trying to understand it better. I would be curious if anyone has similar experiences or has hints for further exploration on the topic.

Book impression: “Nonluoghi” by Marc Augé

I found this book at the Italian bookstore while I was scanning the shelves for something that would somehow bring light on a topic I am familiar with, but not knowledgeable. As a former frequent traveller, the cover with the airport symbols caught my eye. I started reading it at a quick pace, then stopped and started over, equipped with a higlighter and a pencil, in a more study-like mode. It is a short text but it contains a lot of starting points for further analysis, reflection, observation, thought.

As I finished the book I found it intriguingly close to Calvino’s “Le città invisibili”, as both see the city (and per extension the world) as a mix of socially meaningful locations, impersonal places, traces of the past, people both as individuals and more or less part of the society. Maybe in the future I would read both books again, to pick up the cities in Calvino’s book and link them to the relevant part of Augé’s text.

While looking for links about the author I found this interview, held twenty years after the publication of this book. I listened to it today, enjoying the dual French-Italian quiet voices not less than a deeper, more philosophical, more symbolic view of the non-place – a place that is more a blank canvas and is seen as a crucial component of the globalisation process.

For further reading I would suggest to start with Marc Augé’s Wikipedia page and follow links. The French version has a longer bibliography, while the English version has more about his career and the development of his theoretical apparatus.

I’m sorry that such an intense book is not really shining in my short post, but I recognise that it left me with a sense of wonder, of “OK, I need to reset many of my opinions on so many things”, so it actually cleaned up space in my head – which is refreshing and sometimes necessary.