There goes the fear


I type this from 36000 ft, somewhere on a flight path between JFK and LAX. And while I am sitting here I marvel at how things change over time. I marvel at how we are capable of changing our head and feelings about things.

On the morning of  September 11 2001, I was on my way to the airport in LA, where I was living and working at the time. I was to make one of my routine trips to the New York office of the company I worked for at the time. As I prepared to go to the airport, a friend who was going to give me a ride called me to tell me to turn on the news. It seemed that some plane had just hit one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and my friend wondered if my flight might be delayed.  I told him that although it sounded like an awful fluke accident, I didn’t how it could affect my flight plans. I imagined some small piloted craft had hit the tower, some prop plane whose pilot had been drunk or something. I turned on the news just in time to witness the second plane hit the other tower, and the next one hit the Pentagon. That is the moment the shock set in, and I obviously never made it to the airport that day. We spent that day, two friends and I, wandering around the eerie quiet of LA, wondering if we or some other target would be next. We tried in vain to reach friends and colleagues in New York, but all communication was jammed and it was several hours until we heard from them.

Two weeks later, when flight restrictions were lifted, I finally took that flight to New York. What I found was a city that was shell shocked and bewildered. I found a city where everyone was still mourning, where the xeroxed copies of faces were still plastered on so many walls, beseeching people for information about loved ones who had gone missing that day. I traveled to ground zero to witness the massive scale of the destruction, the strange dust that still covered the buildings, and notice the odd smell that still hung in the air. I connected with old friends and found that everywhere we went out, the city was partying like it was the end of the world. People were drinking heavily and doing drugs all over the place it seemed, throwing caution to the wind, clearly a way of coping with the shock and future uncertainty.

On the flight back to LA, my plane experienced perhaps the worst turbulence I have ever seen. We flew through a heavy storm and the winds blew the plane in many directions, side to side, up and down. The flight attendants were strapped in as well for much of the flight, as nervous passengers gasped and grimaced and pushed their call buttons for some assurance that was not forthcoming. We landed in one piece, everyone a bit shaken, but apparently never in any serious danger. Over the next few months I noticed that I began to develop an aversion to certain situations, notably flying and elevators. I began to experience a series of panic attacks at odd moments, increasing in frequency and duration over the next several months.

I began to worry greatly about where this was heading and what, if anything, I could do about it. My job required a fair amount of travel and I began to intensely fear taking the next flight to New York and back, obsessing over the weather conditions and seating in the cabin, at all times trying to assure myself of the safest, calmest flight I possibly could. Around this time I really started to fear losing control of my life. It seemed my fears were starting to define me, and just thinking about them could trigger a panic attack.

I finally consulted with my doctor about my intense fears of flying and being trapped in elevators, and he prescribed some medication to take before flying. It wasn’t practical to take before riding elevators or daily because of the time to take effect and the unfortunate side effect of making me a bit drowsy. Still, it did wonders for me. Over the next several months and 8 or so flights that I took, I would take one of these pills before boarding the plane. When turbulence happened, it no longer seemed the existential threat that it had previously. It seemed like bumps. After several months of taking the medication before flying, I gradually stopped taking it on several flights, and then altogether. During this time my panic attacks stopped, and I stopped being worried about flying. And since that time several years ago, even bumpy flights don’t seem to affect me. I was amazed that I could train myself out of this fear.

Around this time I read a book about how the mind works that I no longer remember the name of, but which held a key insight that I found fascinating. It described the mind and its habits as a series of pathways much like rivers. It talked about how these pathways or channels became deeper and stronger the more they were exercised. It talked about habit formation and how just like a river that is fed more water, they get stronger the more they are fed, or dry up if they are lacking stimulation. The impulses and stimulation that move through our brains can be channeled in many directions, and these same stimulations can effect completely different thoughts and feelings depending on how they are experienced.  This was clearly what had happened to me, and it has inspired me since. We have the power in ourselves to change our attitudes and challenge our fears. We might require a little help now and then (as I did with the medication) to get things going, but as we train ourselves into our fears and habits, so can we train ourselves out of them. Once those rivers are dried up, so too does our fear.

As I look out the window, I see wisps of beautiful white clouds in the distance to my left and beyond that the hazy ground below.  Everything else is clear blue sky.

What you want to hear


I have been thinking a lot the past few days about the placebo effect. It is a known fact that believing in something (especially a treatment related to one’s health) tends to make it much more effective, and ultimately real. It is also an unfortunate corollary of the placebo effect that if one tends to not believe in something, or to believe in a negative outcome, that too can become a self fulfilling prophecy. Ultimately, although our minds are not all powerful and cannot cure or worsen everything related to our health, what we believe about our state of being does have very significant health implications. These thoughts have occupied much of my thinking over the past few months as various health problems have presented themselves. These things are aided and abetted (or worsened) by various health care professionals, each with their own stake in the outcomes of their patients and what that means in terms of validating their own world views.

Let’s take the example of my shoulder injury. A few months ago (as many of you know) I started experiencing pain in my right shoulder and reduced range of motion. My doctor sent me to get MRIs which seemed to confirm some tears in the area, and then sent me to a specialist, Dr. Levy (who I had a rather awful visit with). Dr Levy (an orthopedic surgeon) minced no words with me, telling me that although I could try some other tactics like physical therapy, there was no getting around the fact that I would be needing surgery. He was an expert, this was his area of expertise, and that was that. I left somewhat disheartened (not to mention off-put by his bedside manner), but basically believing his analysis. I am not an expert, what did I know? Then again, I do know that when all one has is a hammer, every problem tends to look like a nail.

Over the past couple of months I have been too busy with moving and work projects to pursue any treatment, and my shoulder has gotten progressively worse. I finally decided a couple of weeks ago to make an appointment with a physical therapist, to see if I could at least have the pain abated a bit while I saved up money and courage for my inevitable operation. Something was slightly tugging me inside away from this decision, and there were competing voices in my head. A small “practical” voice in my head said why pay for something that won’t change the final outcome anyway, why not just schedule the surgery? Another voice, more feeble, held out hope that maybe I could avoid surgery after all, and what did I have to lose by at least meeting once with a physical therapist?

I am glad that smaller voice won out. After getting some recommendations from friends, I went to go see a physical therapist yesterday, armed with my MRI report and various other documents related to my shoulder. He examined the report and told me that for my age it was not at all unusual to have some small tears reported, and that they bother some people and others not at all. He then gave me some motion and stress tests, and asked me what treatment I had been following up til now (essentially, none). He prescribed an anti-inflammatory to take for the next month, as well as an icing regime and physical therapy, which I will begin tomorrow. He told me based on the exam that surgery could probably be avoided, and that I should recover full use and strength with a couple of months’ treatment. I was thrilled.

Could this doctor be guilty of his own hammer and nail syndrome? Sure. Could this just be the response I want to believe? Sure as well. But as we know from the placebo effect, my chances of getting better are vastly improved by me believing it to be so. And avoiding the more radical and expensive option of surgery is a good way to go whenever possible. Western medicine, like the western mind, generally favors quick fixes (surgery) over gradual process (therapy). It prefers to see problems as discreet, not part of a system, and I can be guilty of this at times as well. Will this treatment route result in healing? We will see, but I feel a lot better about it in my head than I have in a long time, and that is a very important component of getting better.

Things get ugly in Arizona


Once again, the nut-ball right wing (best exemplified these days by the tea baggers), proves that consistency is not their strong suit. While claiming to decry government intrusion into their lives, they enact a bill exemplary of such government overreach. A new law in Arizona makes it a crime not to carry proof of citizenship. Someone care to explain to me how this isn’t Orwellian? Aside from the obvious contradictions with freedom, this law is nothing but a fig leaf for the worst strains of nativism and racism.  These malcontents, always on the lookout for a scapegoat for their troubles, find immigrants or “foreign-looking” people have always been easy targets. A hard look in the mirror has never occurred to them. But this law is truly a new low. And since the law requires police to stop anyone on “reasonable suspicion” of being an undocumented immigrant, the potential for abuse is great. Police could stop without warrant anyone who didn’t pass their subjective test of normalcy. This law is an obscene authority grab by a state that claims to value freedom, but in truth only values the freedom to fit into their definition of upright citizen. Anyone else is suspect.

The Kid


I like musicals well enough. I am gay after all. But among the performing arts they really don’t hold that much sway for me. Something about the artifice of breaking into song to tell a story pulls me out of the telling a bit. I can appreciate the artistry, but rarely feel as connected as I do to a story told in film, for example. Still, every so often one comes along that keeps me engrossed in the story even through the singing, where the words and music are so well done that I am kept in rapt attention. Last night I went to go see “The Kid“, now in previews at a small theater not far from my house. (Full disclosure: my cousin had a huge part in creating this work as the Musical Staging Director.) “The Kid”, based on the book by Dan Savage, tells the story of how he and his boyfriend Terry adopted a baby. Although I hadn’t read the book, I have been a longtime fan of Dan Savage and his sex advice column, finding his sense of humor very much aligned with my own. But…a musical based on his story of adoption? It didn’t seem to me like the material lent itself particularly well to musical adaptation. Was I ever wrong. This was the most satisfying musical I have seen in the entire time I have been in New York. It was probably the best musical I have seen, ever. The dialog, music, lyrics and staging were all fantastic and compelling. The acting was top notch, with some amazing performances. People that know me know that when it comes to musicals I am pretty much dead inside, with a heart of stone, unmovable. But I really found myself getting choked up at a few of the numbers and extremely engrossed in the story. If this piece doesn’t make it to Broadway for a long run, I will be surprised. The work is still in previews and there are a few technical things in the sound and presentation and flow that they are still ironing out, and I will go back to see the final product on opening night. I can’t wait, “The Kid” was that good.

House Rules


Most sites that have a mechanism for user feedback (usually via comments system) maintain a set of rules of conduct. On large sites, these rules may be written by legal departments and be many pages long. On small sites (such as this one) they may be quite informal and unwritten or there may be no set of rules at all. The reasons sites maintain these rules are many. Some sites want to strictly control the content and tone. Some want to prevent harassment. Some want to avoid lawsuits. Some want to control the message. Some are concerned for creating a space free of ad hominem attacks. For the most part, I don’t censor comments on this blog except in the following cases:

– Clear spam having nothing to do with the content (ie, trying to sell a product or link to a virus)
– Direct threats on an individual (ie, I am going to kill you)
– Ad hominem attacks (and not even all of these, as long as there is some actual argument along with)

And there is one overarching precondition for commenting on this site. To participate in the dialog on this site, there is one thing I absolutely demand: an identity. Since I am not writing anonymously, I expect all contributors to this site to likewise exhibit at least the most basic pretense of an identity. By that I mean a working email. Just about every comment I refuse to publish is for the same reason: A non working email address. If I can not reach the people who are commenting, it is not a dialog, it is a monologue. And if that is what they want, there are plenty of other sites that will accommodate them. I never publish anyone’s email, nor do I use them for any sort of marketing whatsoever. But a working email to me indicates a willingness to be part of a dialog.

It is also true that the ability to be reached via email (or in any way) tempers content. It is far too easy for people to act like total jerks towards others when they feel safely hidden. When there is a possibility of being contacted, people tend to think just a little more thoughtfully about what they have to say. When there is (even the slight) possibility of being identified with one’s public comments, people’s opinions are more considered. And this is how it should be.

So just in case anyone was wondering, these are my house rules.

Banking on the bus party


Often times dreams are just a jumble of the images that you were presented with the previous day. I had such a dream last night. Here are some pieces of it:

I was at a party saying good bye to lots of people from LA, but we were in Paris at a bank. The woman who was throwing it looked a lot like Jujubee. As people were arriving at the party  she was telling them over the intercom what they could not bring in, and the list of things were odd. She told them not to bring pacemakers and bank slates and equipment. I saw a lot of old friends and even though we were in a stationary building, the party was moving like on a bus through the streets of Paris. We kept looking out the window to figure out where we were (somewhere near the Bastille I guessed) but couldn’t. I told some people that I was hugging goodbye that I didn’t miss LA, but I missed them (which was not true in the case of the people I said good bye to, because they were only vague acquaintances, not ever close friends. But I didn’t want to hurt their feelings and it seemed appropriate in the moment.)

Prior to arriving at the party a few of us were traveling around with someone close to me, I could not make out who, but someone I had known a long time. And we kept packing and unpacking suitcases with lots of old things, memorabilia in them. I kept asking my close friend if he or she had everything, hadn’t forgotten anything, as we looked deeply into the suitcase for things that had been discarded about the room. All kinds of things, pants, books, tobacco, lamps, plastic bags, moldy old photographs. Something was really important to find in all of this mess, but we couldn’t and the bus/building was leaving for the party, so we gathered what we had and left.

What does “reality” look like, anyway?


A little over a week ago, I bought a somewhat fancy new television set. As with many sets today, it contains some impressive technology that promises to deliver a sharper, more detailed, clearer, and smoother picture. It accomplishes this by a number of means including a high resolution screen (much higher than we grew up with), and the ability to process images fed to it so that movement on screen appears clear and in focus the whole time (this technology is called 240hz, which you can read about here). At first I was just amazed at the jaw dropping clarity of the images. But then I started to notice that things had a kind of odd, video like quality to them, even though I could see greater detail. I messed around with a bunch of settings, turning on and off motion blur correction, color settings, picture settings and the like. The more I played around with the settings, the less sure I was of what I should be looking at. I got more and more confused about what the “best” picture should be, and came to some interesting conclusions about our relationship to represented “reality”.

The idea that a moving image on a flat surface is more or less real depends on many learned assumptions about what reality looks like in the first place. Other than the standard representations that we are exposed to growing up (that change with new technology anyway), we have no objective reference point. None of it is real, and the degree to which something feels “right” or “real” is completely culturally determined. I now find myself floating in a kind of no man’s land regarding what I should want out of a picture. In some ways this is quite liberating, as I can decide how best I want reality interpreted for me by my set. And in others it is quite destabilizing, because we seem to have lost the shared language of representation that once pervaded our culture. Who become the new arbiters of the real? Who should we trust in these matters, if anyone?

One of the funny things a new technology like this exposes, despite its marketing hooey about clarity and reality, is how completely arbitrary representations are. When photography first came on the scene a couple hundred years ago, people were amazed at how much more “real” it was than painting. Ultimately, although it often carried more detail, it was no more real than a painting or a view with ones own eyes. Which is more real by the way? A present viewing or a memory? Something seen from up close or far away? I could go on, but the point is they are all equally real, and equally unreal. They each distort some understanding of a reality, even as they enhance other aspects.

And so I am left in a brave new world of uncertainty thanks to my new TV. Will I argue with friends over what the settings should be? Will I seek cold comfort in making it conform to the style of images from my youth, or some hybrid of new and old? Now that I am freed from the myth of representation, will I still relate to my peers the same way while watching a TV episode or movie? Perhaps my mood will determine whether I seek to adjust to my subjective notions of real, hyperreal, or surreal.