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 🙂

Atlantis and space

Recently I took a long and winded walk on Wikipedia and read about space shuttle orbiters.

After many years since their first launch and a decade since last mission, the surrounding (and lifting) enthusiasm about traveling in space with such machines has dissipated somehow, and the way of talking about them became more practical, less dependent on the interpretation. The details of their construction and missions, at least the ones shared publicly, appear very practical to me, and therefore interesting.

One of the pictures that struck me is one of Atlantis docked to the ISS, the international space station.

STS-132 Atlantis at ISS 1.jpg
By NASA – http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/gallery/images/shuttle/sts-132/html/iss023e044747.html (direct link), Public Domain, Link

When I saw it the first time, the details almost brought me to tears, and every time I see it (quite often, as it’s one of my desktop backgrounds) I smile. I see the picture as a mosaic of pieces that all need to be there for the mission to be successful. And more than the metaphorical pieces, I see the actual pieces – the tiles of Atlantis’ thermal shield, with signs of wear, the black tiles protecting the most exposed sections (and I particularly cherish the black area between the cockpit windows, as it’s a feature that airplanes don’t need) – the cabling of the ISS, so non-Earth-like in its appearance, exposed and only answering to physics and necessity – and I think: this was made possible, even if mostly for political reasons; but those were the motivation, and didn’t take part to the actual creation of the whole setup. I am emotionally indifferent to the publicity around the space shuttle, but I cry when I read the details of their construction and missions – at least what is publicly available – because I can relate to the struggles and successes of a technician with a very practical problem to solve, and I feel a profound sympathy for the finished object.

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 🙂

Happy New Year 2019 and a few updates

Let’s start 2019 with a post packed with good news and wishes for the year that just started!

Last year was definitely challenging, but ended with a great positive note: in December I went back to work, back to the 106-key keyboard:

At the new job I found an atmosphere where I can keep healing at my own pace, while contributing to the company. As my first task, I chose to continue the development of a small software package. As I explored the code to get familiar with it and decide where to start making changes, I slowly saw how much I can see that software as a mirror – so that taking care of the software became a way of healing myself, by carefully picking the parts I could replace while keeping the program functional. I could have decided to rewrite it from scratch, but I didn’t feel brave enough to start something 100% mine, nor to abandon the thread of functionality of the current code. It will not be a straightforward task, but I know what I have to do, and I know it will be an enriching experience.

Being employed again means I suddenly have a lot less practical worries about the future, and therefore I am quite optimistic for the upcoming year. I will need a bit of time to adjust to the new routine, and to keep playing music with my mind fully present (sorry Sven for our last concerts where I was barely paying attention!). I have mixed feelings about my job taking so much of my energy and attention, but at the same time I have already seen how I can make it a meaningful and fulfilling practice.

For other activities I have no specific plans. As usual, I would like to draw, craft, knit, play music and meet horses more than last year, but I prefer to follow inspiration rather than goals. Let’s see 🙂

That’s all for this post! I wish all my readers a great start in the new year, and the strength and peace of mind to keep navigating their lives’ rivers.

The way and the shortcuts

I was thinking about how setting a goal shapes the way one takes to reach it.

Where am I going?

Let me pick an example with music, my most familiar environment. Let’s say my orchestra plans to play a given difficult piece for next concert. That goal will influence all rehearsals, filling them with a detailed plan, that includes the progressive steps to the full execution of that piece: separate rehearsals per section, focus on getting to play to the required speed, focus on expression, and finally playing the piece properly from start to finish.

When difficulties arise during rehearsals and it starts to look like we are not progressing as fast as we thought, it’s time to find shortcuts. We simplify our parts, play a little slower than required, remove details. This is where I start to diverge from how one is expected to work. I rarely think about the goal directly, it is for me more of a part of the landscape that I sometimes remember to look at, but my interest is on my immediate surroundings, on the atmosphere at the current rehearsal, on what I can do right now. I’m relieved that someone else is responsible for keeping the boat sailing straight towards the goal, because I just couldn’t! My work is more of a fractal exploration, without direction, with the focus on how I walk, and no eye on the time – in this mindset, shortcuts simply make no sense. I observe and I accidentally also take part to the rehearsal. This is where I’m not offering any grip to the usual motivation talks which sound like  “Don’t you feel the pressure, the urge to reach the goal?”. No, I don’t. It doesn’t mean I explicitely avoid it, but simply that it will be the side effect of me having the space to wander at will. I first had to prove that my random exploration takes me to the goal anyway, before I was given the trust to be left free alongside the bridled horses, apparently aimless, for the surprise of some.

I felt that this can be a good parallel with how one works with animals, for example during horse riding. I sometimes get the feeling that the rider has a goal in mind and gets to the point where the test approaches and they start looking for shortcuts, but that is where+why the horse loses connection – because the horse doesn’t seem to think in terms of goals, and the proposed shortcuts look like forced steps that take attention further away from the flow of observation, of being in the present. This gearing up tends to make things work both worse and slower, it requires even more shortcuts, and that brings the opposite of the desired effect!  It takes a lot of trust to stop this vicious cycle when the deadline is approaching, but re-focusing on the present seems to me one of the few respectful and efficient ways out.

I hope that makes sense! Let me know if that resonates with you, I’m curious to read about your experiences with deadlines, goals and shortcuts.

The copilot syndrome

I recently thought about my habit of being ready to take over responsibility from others. The classical situation is when I’m with one or more people in a car and I am in the passenger seat. I call it the “copilot syndrome”.

IMG_20180205_102702

In this situation I feel I have to be alert and ready to help: I check the road signs, the directions, the weather ahead, I ask the driver if they’re tired or thirsty. The funny thing is that I would not be able to take the wheel: I stopped driving in 2010 and am too scared to try again, especially without preparation. So I am in the funny position to feel a lot of responsibility but be unable to actually do much. At the same time I can’t relax and for example simply look outside of the window, or sleep. I have the fear that I would not notice something important and that it would be my fault, that I should have paid attention; as if there were a responsibility chain and I am always the next in line, and all others (except the first in line) come after me, and even worse: none of them would step up if I don’t act.

Source: lupineandruby‘s pinterest

The other, maybe more important, funny thing I finally noticed is that it’s rarely necessary that I pay so much attention, or that I feel this copilot burden at all. It doesn’t mean not caring about how the car trip is going, or be passive if doubts or problems arise – it’s more about feeling a more reasonable amount of responsibility and not waste energy and attention being fully alert while the situation is well under control.

I can understand how my readiness to step up has often been seen as great resource and a cool fallback for the group of people I was part of, because others were reassured that I would take care of glitches before/instead of anyone else. But it’s a disaster for me, when this means that I have to constantly feel in charge: this indeed happened on a couple jobs, that I luckily managed to leave before they drained all my energies.

I have a few hunches on how I learned to feel this obligation to pick up responsibilities. The important thing now is that I have a plan to get rid of this habit. My current strategy is to pick situations where actually nothing serious can happen if I don’t pick up the lead, and see what indeed happens. The experiment is ongoing and it’s early to tell if this approach would work in more critical situations; but I can already say that I feel more relaxed, and even reassured that I’m making progress.

Introducing changes: the trial phase

Last weekend I talked with my friends about introducing changements in our lives, and more precisely, what makes each one of us hesitate before changing anything in our routine.

We agreed that we all find difficult and risky to introduce a changement from one day to another, with no plan to rollback, even if it’s a change for the better. I find it daunting to turn a page forever, and have to adjust into the new habit because there is no other choice. What I look for is to be 100% (OK, at least 80%) convinced of the new plan, therefore I need to test it for a while, because I could discover that it’s not the right solution to my question, or I could need to adjust some details and test it again.

For example, some time ago I decided to draw more regularly. I initially resumed drawing, but in drawing sprints (with a drawing a day) that were too demanding for me to be a permanent task. I have since revised the plan and am aiming to draw once a week, but still I find myself struggling to respect the schedule. For the time being, I’ll probably settle for a finished drawing every other week, and scribbling everytime I feel inspired. I feel that the important thing is that I keep this activity in my schedule, rather than dropping it completely because I can’t work on it often enough. Of course the lower limit changes for every activity (running once every two weeks can’t count as training) and determines how much progress I can expect on that domain (I’m really behind with my practice with the trombone, but I won’t give up, and I want to practice more often in the near future!). Even for what falls below the lower limit there can be a positive thought: it has been tried, but this time it didn’t work out – if I want, I can analyse why, and try again with a better set of conditions.

Overall, I feel more inclined to introduce a changement in my schedule if I can have a trial period before adopting it on the long run. Amusingly enough, it is a widely accepted practice in Germany, so much that there is a (colloquial) word for introduction course: Schnupperkurs – based on the verb schnuppern, that means “to sniff, and in broader sense to get an idea about something new”. The goal of these courses is to give newcomers a good overview of a discipline, so that they know what it involves before committing to it.

Sniff...?//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

What do you think about introducing changements in your schedule? What works for you and what doesn’t? Let me know in the comments!