Junior High Blues

One of the little mental games we play sometimes is the following: Would you go back to an earlier time in your life if you could take back with you what you know now. Often this is asked in the context of high school. Certainly if I could take the me that exists today and go back to high school, I would hope I’d do better in various ways. I’d (probably) actually be able to ask a girl out on a date without the attendant flop sweat that accompanied that in high school. But, if you think about it, the image of a guy with the brain of a mid-40s (okay, maybe late 40s, but SHUT UP!) trying to ask out a 16 year old girl would be more than a little creepy. So, maybe that’s not a good game to play…

But, if there was a time you couldn’t pay me enough to ever go back to and relive, either with or without what I know now, it’d be Junior High School. Specifically, where I grew up, grades 7-9. So, call it ages 12-14. Those were horrible, horrible years. It’s probably not unique to me that my PTSD nightmare to this day may well have the familiar elements of being late for a class and not remembering my combination to my locker. Very Junior High.

Recently I saw a video blog by the Young Adult author John Green where he is thinking back to middle school (Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u90dGnKhhlk). In it he challenges the assumption that those years supposed to be somehow amazing. They often aren’t. Certainly, for me, they were not. He references a great and relevant quote from Robert Frost: “The only way out is through.” Yes, sometimes, it’s enough to just survive and get through it. Junior High was that way for me. I was happy to have survived and you couldn’t pay me enough to go back.

Junior High is all about transitions. You’re going from elementary school where you spend all day with your class to having individual classes with different people in each class. Suddenly, where it was at least acceptable to be smart, now smart was not only not cool, it was something to be hidden. It was not attractive, so far as I could tell, it was not something to be proud of, it was something to keep hidden to avoid becoming that person who screwed up the grading curve.

And the transitions weren’t all about school. Puberty was a bitch. Acne that was out of control – and this was before there were many effective treatments, I wore glasses and we couldn’t afford contacts so, with my prescription, it was very large, very thick lenses. Between seventh and eighth grade I grew a ridiculous amount. In my picture with my Mom at the yearly Mom/Son & Dad/Daughter night for seventh grade, I was several inches shorter than her. The next year I was many inches taller than her. I recall having aching legs from the bones growing, legs that hurt so much I couldn’t sleep and I just wanted it to stop. And the hair… Hair growing in new and unexpected places. With that came the need to shower pretty much constantly so as to avoid the funk that is a teenaged boy.

As a result of this, I felt as though I didn’t really have many friends to hang out with, I didn’t feel like what I was good at (school) was appreciated by anyone, it was more something to hide. I swam, but that wasn’t a school sport, so as far as anyone else knew, I wasn’t in any way athletic – and truth be told, aside from swimming, I really wasn’t. Growing constantly for three years was not conducive to having great control over my body. I was that gangly puppy that runs and seems to be amazed that it’s legs keep getting in the way of where it wants to go. That was me in pretty much every organized school sport.

The Internet gets much maligned, and often deservedly so, for many things. But, one thing I think it can do is provide a wider group to be a part of during a time in our lives that can make us feel so alone and so isolated.

I know I felt alone and betrayed by my body and my emotions and people I thought were my friends. In truth, they were certainly dealing with many of the same problems I was, but because we didn’t talk about it, I know I felt like I was the only one going through it.

There’s another popular notion that’s come up over the last few years and that’s the idea of what you would say to the younger version of yourself if you could.

It’s a comforting idea: What wisdom would you pass along? What future issues would you warn them about, to try and get them to make a different choice? “Go to that party! Ask out more girls, you really won’t die from it!” Mostly, for me, it’d probably be a variation on the now familiar message of: It gets better.

But, here’s the thing: I’m also a strong believer that when I was that age, and I certainly saw it to be true for my own kids, you can hand a teenager gold in form of advice that can make their lives easier and better and they will often reject it because they simply don’t have a framework on which to hang the advice.

I think back to things I used to try and tell my kids and it would seem as though it would go in one ear and out the other. And, often, they’d later fall in to exactly the hole I was trying to warn them about. But, the thing is, until they fell in that hole, they didn’t really know what the advice meant. They had no framework.

I was talking with my son Brian and he was telling me a story about how a piece of advice I’d given him years before finally made sense because he was able to recognize the framework on which to hang it before it gave him trouble. So, there is evidence that it does go in one ear, but it may stick around in some form to be useful later. Or, it may not be something they can really internalize until they are older and then the lightbulb goes on and they figure out what the hell it was you were talking about way back when.

So, sure, if I could I would tell a younger me, “It gets better! You’re going to end up with someone who is an amazing partner, who you truly enjoy spending time with and who really is your best friend! You’re going to have wonderful kids who will challenge you but you’ll be so proud of them. You’ll have a great career and you’ll get to work on hard problems where you get paid for being smart and solving those problems. In fact, it’s a pretty amazing life!”

However, I have a feeling that a younger me would certainly not have believed older me and, additionally, that really doesn’t do anything for suffering through the hell that is Junior High. And that just leaves us again with Mr. Frost: “The only way out is through.”

Magical Thinking

Let’s do a little mental exercise. We’re going to flip a coin. I’ll flip this coin 20 times and you’ll note whether it comes up heads or tails on a little piece of paper with a pen that I’ll lend you. Now we’re going to make it interesting and we’re going to bet on the outcome of the next coin flip.

We’ll keep it friendly and I’ll let you bet a buck. If you’re right, I’ll give you a dollar. If you’re wrong, I get your dollar. So, shall we play a game?

Further, let’s say when we reach the end of 20 flips, you look down to total up the coin flips. There’s a reasonable chance that that coin came up 10 times on heads and 10 times on tails. But, the world often not being that simple, odds are even better that it came down 11-9 in favor of heads or 12-8 in favor of tail. Chance being what it is, despite the reality that any given coin flip has a statistically equal chance to come up heads or tails, it’s human nature to look for patterns to inform our future choices.

So, with that scenario, most folks would decide that it’s basically random chance which side will come up, so there’s no preferred choice.

But, let’s change things up. Let’s say that we flip 20 times and you note the outcome. At the end of those 20 flips, you look down and you see 18 heads and 2 tails. Again, I ask you to risk a buck to predict which side will come up. What would you choose? Would you:

a. Bet your buck on heads because it’s been correct 90% of the time?

b. Bet your buck on tails because, really, what are the odds that it could come up heads again?

c. Toss out both a. and b. and recognize that none of the prior 20 events have anything to do with the outcome of the next coin flip?

Now, assuming I haven’t found a way to cheat a coin flip or that I’m using a rigged coin, C is the only logical outcome but I suspect the odds are pretty good that most folks would tend to choose one of the first two options. I believe human beings want to believe in magical thinking like this.

I’ve talked before about playing a Game Night with role-playing games and dice play a large part in determining the outcome of events: Do I hit the Gnome, do I successfully climb the rope ladder, can I convince the guards that they’re needed elsewhere? The group I play with is made up entirely of very rational folks, engineers and rational thinkers. Having said that, I still see evidence of magical thinking, even in myself!

One person I play with spent extra money for dice that are supposedly “equal access”. They have sharper edges and something about them supposedly make the odds of any given face coming up even across the entire dice. Another guy will spend a few minutes rolling the dice before we get started, to “warm them up”. There also seems to be some serious issues around using someone else’s dice, as if something about the prior roller will stick to the dice and affect future rolls.

I know that when it comes to dice rolling, I have a tendency to believe that I roll poorly more often than I roll well. I know how odds work, I know that I’ve got no “dice curse” on me, yet I don’t think of myself as lucky when it comes to such things. In fact, as a player, I’ve developed a reputation for sub-par rolling and all the fun that follows from failing to accomplish what I set out to do because of the dice.

This is entirely magical thinking and I’m a rational person who believes in science and causality, yet I struggle with the idea that I don’t inherently roll poorly more often than I roll well. Where does that thinking come from?

I like to make fun of my fellow players when they get upset at the idea of someone else touching their dice or when they warm up their dice or try and roll out the bad rolls before it counts, but they persist and as fun as it is to give them crap about it, at some level, I know I’m guilty of that thinking as well.

I have a friend who likes to develop “systems” for when he goes to Vegas. One example would be walking by a roulette wheel where they have a sign that shows the color of that past (let’s say) 10 results. Based on what he sees on that sign, he may walk up and bet whether the ball will come up red or black.

There’s even a name for this. It’s called the Gambler’s Fallacy and it occurs when there is a belief that if there is a run of a particular outcome (10 heads in a row in our coin tossing example), then it will happen less frequently in the future. In other words, that what has come before will affect what’s about to happen.

Pretty much any gambler can be heard to talk about a hot table or a hot dealer or a hot machine. All of these are founded in the notion that individual future events are somehow part of a larger pattern of events. If we can just see the pattern…

Sometimes we extend this in to our lives. Certain people are “lucky” in life and others are unlucky. Some people think that if a bad event happens, it’s just par for the course because that’s the hand that fate or life has handed them.

I think it comes from the natural human desire to see patterns where they don’t exists. This is called Pareidolia.

Think about seeing a shape in a cloud, or the satellite photo of the Face on Mars, the Man in the Moon, Canals on Mars, Jesus in the shadow on a building or the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich. As a side note, that grilled cheese sandwich sold for $28,000 at auction in 2004, which speaks volumes about our desire to see patterns where they don’t exist.

Human beings love our patterns. This might come from early brain development where pattern matching might help our ancestors pick out a larger, faster predator that might be eyeing them as food or perhaps our predator brains making it easier to find prey that’s trying to hide from us. That means it’s in a deep, dark and much older corner of the brain and that sort of thing has a tendency to swamp the more recently evolved rational part of our brain.

As I said, I know I’m guilty of this on occasion. I’ve been known to purchase a lottery ticket, sometimes known as a “tax on people who don’t understand statistics”.

Being a rational adult who is reasonably well educated, what would cause me to use my hard-earned cabbage to purchase a ticket where the odds of me winning the prize are on par with me being hit by lightning? Twice.

Here’s my rational, which doesn’t have to work for anyone else but me. Occasionally tossing $5 at a lottery ticket means that between when I purchase it and when I don’t win, I can spend anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours thinking about what I’d do if I did win the lottery. Lives I would try to change, including my own, things I would do, things I could do that I can’t reasonably consider normally because I have to get up and go to work and do my job. So, for me, it’s an occasional $5 mental vacation. Cheap at twice the price! Certainly I don’t recommend it on a regular basis and I absolutely don’t think it’s a good plan if you couldn’t take that same $5 and set fire to it, but as that’s a federal offense and, frankly, less enjoyable, my $5 mental vacation is a better plan.

I don’t imagine I’ll be able to even conquer that tendency towards magical thinking. As I said, I believe it’s deep down in our brains in a part that’s been around much longer than the more recent veneer of rational thinking. I guess my goal is to try to limit its impact on me to things that aren’t negative or are at least less negative. Meanwhile, I’m going to go out and look at the clouds and make a toasted cheese sandwich and see if anyone shows up.

The Tale of the LizardBrain

I’m terrifically late on this week’s writing. Things are really busy at work and I’ve been putting in lots of hours, so that’s been a contributor. The commute doesn’t help, leading to days where we get up at 6am (when it’s dark) and getting home at 6-6:30pm (when it’s dark). Then dinner, whatever chores that need to be done and then it’s 8pm and I finally get an hour or maybe two to do what I want and what I want to do is NOT have to think. All that leads to the NOT writing.

I have friends (or at least one friend) participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month – http://www.nanowrimo.org). The goal is audacious: Write an entire novel, from scratch, at least 50,000 words, in one month. My friend Duncan will probably write in the neighborhood of 100,000 words in the month. Doing a little math, that’s about 1600 words each and every day of the month. But, say we take off a weekend day for break, that’s 2000 words for 25 days, 2500 if you want to take off the entire weekend. Unless you’re really, really prolific, that’s still a couple of hours of writing, assuming you spend that entire time writing and not editing or thinking or plotting what happens next.

I look at NaNoWriMo and I run aground quickly on two factors:

  1. I’m not convinced I have a 50k word story to tell. I know that some novelists have a pretty strong outline in mind capturing what happens in their stories before they ever write. Others have a general notion what the beats are and where they’re going to end up and they just kind of go along for the ride. Both of those paths seem very, very scary for me.
  2. I don’t know if I’m disciplined enough to write those 2000 words a day for a month. I would need that clear notion of what I’m writing and I’d need to set aside those two hours (call it one to three hours per day). And, frankly, right now my life doesn’t have three hours every day of the week for an entire month. Part of it is my own lack of discipline, I know, but part of it is that I’m simply brain-tired at the end of the day. That is not the time most conducive to writing anything, let alone anything of quality or complexity.

I did a quick check on how I’m doing in this year of writing and by the time I complete this exercise at the end of the year, I’ll have somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 words written. According to my expert (one guy on the Internet), 100k words is ballpark for a novel. Now, that presumes that all 100k words are good words. I have a sense a good editor would chop my 100k words by at least a third for a variety of offenses from simply being boring to rambling or duplications or simply being unnecessary. Still, that’s more than I’ve written before, so that’s an accomplishment.

I was listening to a podcast (my commute affords me a couple hours a day, if I’m not commuting with my wife, to listen to podcasts – but, my wife is better company) and a comedian was talking about how he generates his material and he was making the point that unless you get out and live life, you have nothing to talk about besides, in his case, the minutiae that makes up the life of a comedian – clubs, audiences, laundry, whatever. Not exactly the funniest of stuff. His point was that you have to get out there and live life because that generates material or at least the opportunity for material.

Frankly, for at least half this year, I’ve been so buried in my job that we really haven’t done much to generate real material worth writing about, though I do try to do so when the opportunity presents.

When I started this project at the beginning of the year, I sat down and brainstormed some possible subjects to write about that sounded interesting to me or I thought might be worth writing about. But, I have to be careful because not every story I might tell, either about me or my family or my kids, is something I want out on the Internet. That’s true for me as it’s no doubt true for anyone else in the world.

Another podcast I heard was interviewing columnist Dan Savage. He happens to write a sex column. He was explaining why he thought he was able to keep writing the sex column after so many years when many that started doing similar things around the same time have stopped. He said that the differentiator for him was that very early on he decided he wasn’t going to write about his own sex life because, really, how long could you do that before you came off as forced or artificial. Instead, he uses the letters that are sent to him by readers as fodder for material. That’s a bottomless supply, so long as he has readers. Certainly my life is neither interesting enough nor eventful enough to provide a constant fodder for writing. There are certainly weeks where the most exciting thing might be the wonderfully quiet day I spent with my wife where we did nothing, including me writing. That makes for some pretty boring writing, even for me.

I could write about current events or a news story that caught my attention, but I’m pretty convinced that my opinion is neither unique enough nor interesting enough to share most of the time.

Yet another video podcast by the always worthwhile Ze Frank was about some techniques he’s developed over the years to get “unstuck”. In it he talks about how he starts with an idea and one of his first steps is to determine the “Specificity of the Observation” and one of his first steps is to think about all the things about a subject matter that would be obvious to another person making a video (or writing) about that subject and write them all down and then throws the list away. Clearly, his intent is to eliminate the cliched and the obvious and try to determine a unique and hopefully interesting viewpoint. That’s a lesson I should work on taking to heart. If you don’t have something interesting, something unique, to say on a subject, why bother saying it? So, until I figure out how to do that, I’m unlikely to spend time talking about something like current events. By the same token, I’m self-aware enough to know that a fair bit of my writing is either obvious and/or not particularly deep. That’s something, I would hope, that comes with time and practice and taking advice like Ze’s and figuring out how to incorporate it in to my own practice.

At this moment, I’m writing this at 7:30pm on a Friday evening. To accomplish that, two things happened: first, my wife is out for the evening leaving me and the dogs here at the house and, second, the upper part of my brain told the tired lower part of my brain that there would be no computer or television until and unless I write this. So far the upper part of my brain is winning and I’m still writing, but that LizardBrain, that lower and less evolved part, is sneaky. It comes from the wants and the emotion, not from the reasoning part, not from the part that will accept delayed gratification. LizardBrain says, “You’re tired! It’s okay to take a break! What does it matter if it gets done tonight or tomorrow night? You can just do it tomorrow morning when you’re fresh! It’ll be better then anyway! No one reads these things anyway, so why bother. Wouldn’t it be more fun to play that game or watch that show you’re been wanting to catch up on?” LizardBrain sucks.

According to my calendar, I have seven more weeks that I’ve committed to write something. That’s doable, right? Even if I don’t quite always get it out there by Sunday evening like my goal, maybe it gets out later in the week, it’s okay! Yeah, that’s LizardBrain trying to be lazy and get what it wants. Damn LizardBrain.





[box type=”shadow”] Note: Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/8113246@N02/ and licensed via Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). For more info, see http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/[/box]

Performance Anxiety

When I was growing up there was really only one game show that I thought I’d like to be on and that was Jeopardy. That one, I thought, was entirely about what you knew and I thought I was pretty smart so I figured I’d do well. I’ve never tried to be on that show, but I do believe that if I had that opportunity, it might not go well.

When I was in elementary school, I was part of a school quiz team. I don’t remember much about that one but I do recall one of the questions I got right. Here was one of the questions I got right:

Question: If Athlete’s get Athlete’s Foot, what do Astronauts get?

Answer: Missile Toe!

Okay, not the greatest demonstration of knowledge, but this was on local PBS and it was in competition against another elementary school, so that was something!

The only other recollection I have of that experience was that I was very, very nervous throughout. Something about the TV cameras, certainly, but also just not wanting to look dumb in front of whoever might watch the show. I cared far too much what other people thought of me.

Our elementary school had a yearly spelling bee. You could compete as a fifth or sixth grader. Typically, as you might expect, it was won by a sixth grader, but very occasionally a fifth grader would sneak in and win it.

The year I was a fifth grader I won the spelling bee. The winning word was “mysterious”. The remaining sixth grader, a big kid whose little brother was in my class and had made my life difficult in the past, failed to spell the word correctly. I spelled it correctly and suddenly I was the winner!

Neither of my parents were there to see me win. I don’t even know if they knew that the event was taking place. I certainly don’t know that I would have wanted them there in any case.

That day, in front of everyone at the event, which was most of the school, I, a lowly fifth grader was the best speller in the school.

I got a little trophy, which is still in a box in my garage, and my name went on a plaque that sat in the trophy case for the school. It was still there almost 20 years later when I visited the school just before it was torn down. I still got a thrill in seeing my name on that plaque, even though the plaque had migrated to the back of the case as newer trophies were added.

That day was one of the best days of my life (up to that point). I was popular at recess. Kids were offering me some of their candy. I was cool. I was King of the World.

The next year I was prepared to return to the spelling bee and accomplish something that had happened very rarely and that was to win back-to-back spelling bees.

As it turns out, I had missed a few weeks of school that year when my appendix decided to explode, but I’d done my homework and felt like I was on top of my stuff.

That year my Dad made a point of coming to the Bee and I could see him at the back of the cafeteria.

It was not even near the end of the bee when I was given the work “barbecue”. I was drawing a blank. All I could think of was bar-b-q and BBQ and so I spelled it “bar-be-que”. But, I was fairly confident.

I recall the teacher saying “That’s incorrect” and knew I was expected to leave the stage. The next few minutes were filled with ringing ears and feelings of abject failure. I recall seeing my dad leave the cafeteria as I went to join my class at the tables. A bit later my teacher showed me that we’d just recently covered the word in our spelling lessons – while I was out with recovering from my appendectomy. I think he was trying to make me feel better about not having seen it there, but I knew I felt like I had failed. Not only in front of my class, but in front of my father.

Years later, when I was swimming, I used to get very nervous before a race. This was made worse when I knew there were people there watching. Usually meets weren’t attended by much more than the swimmers and maybe a few parents. My parents were there very occasionally.

On this particular occasion I recall that both my parents were there and, of course, I wanted to impress them and do well, so I was incredibly nervous. So much so that about 15 minutes before the meet my stomach was feeling upset so I went to the bathroom thinking I needed to use the facilities but as I entered the bathroom it became clear the problem was in my stomach and I proceeded to projectile vomit about four feet (at least in my memory) in to the stand up urinal.

I felt much better after that and went out and swam one of my fastest times, so maybe it was the reduction in weight or just getting it out of my system, but I’m glad that didn’t become a regular thing for me.

In High School, during my Sophomore year, I made it as an alternate on the High School Bowl team. This was your basic quiz show format between two high school teams of four folks.

Our team was anchored by a guy named Rex who seemed to have an amazingly encyclopedic knowledge of all things so he tended to single-handedly answer 80% of the questions. That left the remaining three to handle the rest. And, should one of those folks not be available, one of we two alternates would get a chance to play.

Because I was second alternate, I only got to play in one game. I recall going in to the studio and being amazed at how many lights there were and how hot it was. If I looked out from the little desks, all I could see was very, very bright lights.

This all made me incredibly nervous.

The show started and fortunately our anchor, Rex, was there and answering a good number of the questions. I wanted to answer a question or two, but it seemed that my ability to actually think was indirectly proportional to the the number of people watching and, in my head, there was EVERYONE watching this which meant I was almost paralyzed with fear.  Fear of failure, fear of appearing dumb, fear of being wrong.

Finally, though, a question came up that I thought I knew the answer to. It had something to do with measuring light, but I don’t recall it exactly. What I do recall is that I got it wrong. I answered Lumens and it was Candles or vice versa. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I answered exactly one question in my High School Bowl career and I answered it wrong.

All of which is a long way of saying, No, I don’t think I’m going to try to be on Jeopardy. I’m pretty sure I’d do well against the High School Kids. Might even do reasonably well against the College Kids. I suspect the adults would eat me alive. And, even if the didn’t, I suspect the studio lights would once again cause me history’s biggest case of flop sweat as I stare in to the bright lights like a moon-eyed cow, gawping like a goldfish, my mouth opening and closing slowly and soundlessly.