Pays au dela

"As to the natural parts I have, of which this is the essay, I find them to bow under the burden; my fancy and judgment do but grope in the dark, tripping and stumbling [wobbling] in the way, and when I have gone as far as I can, I am in no degree satisfied; I discover still a new and greater extent of land before me, with a troubled and imperfect sight and wrapped up in clouds, that I am not able to penetrate." Montaigne-"On the Education of Children"

My domain name, "Pais au dela," is the original French translated here as "extent of land before me." My goal for this page will be to explore, in an ambling way at times, the great land before me hoping to find clarity as I advance. I will focus centrally though not exclusively on mental health issues in my stumbling march forward.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Concerning Automoblies

A tribute through form to an old dead white dude from France who shared beautiful, hilarious insight into human folly and weakness...

Though I'm not a car guy really, I do very much love my 2004 Jetta. 1.8 L turbo. Tight and sensitive steering. 30 mpg highway. It's fun to drive and hasn't ever caused me any problems (je touche du bois). It is particularly thrilling to downshift (of course it's a five speed!) and zip by clunkier heavier cars going up a hill. On my way to my gym there is a fairly long and steep incline where I sometimes indulge the traces of Alabama car driving machismo that I couldn't help but incorporate growing up here.

I was driving over that hill a few days ago thinking about how much approaches to exercise have changed in the past fifteen years or so since I first learned to lift weights for football in high school. Back then nobody talked about metabolic confusion, functional movements, mixing cardio and strength training, or elevating your heart rate when you lift weights so that you burn fat and calories more quickly and efficiently. Cross fit didn't exist, and I don't think the core did either. Sometimes we did sit ups or crunches, but we didn't have any concept of getting gut, back, and upper leg muscles to work strong together. At least I didn't. Bench press was king, and we--okay I--fantasized about hitting the 300 lb max. My best was sadly 15 lbs short.

Back in the good old days when we lifted, we did a fixed number of sets of a fixed number of reps for each exercise (3x10 and 5x5 were common) and then moved on to the next exercise. There's nothing wrong with this approach and you can get stronger doing it. But kids these days have it so much easier because trainers and coaches have found so many adaptations and tweaks for getting into top shape fast.

One of these new techniques that interests me for both psychological and physical reasons is something trainers call "going to failure." On the last set of an exercise now, athletes often have no fixed number of reps that they are going for. They go to failure, meaning that they simply push until their muscles give out and they can no longer lift the weight they are working with. I like this approach, especially the name "going to failure."

It does, however, take some mental work to get used to the idea. It's scary facing that last set when you're used to having a specific goal for the number of reps you want to do. You know that it will hurt for a little while at the end of the set. You know also that you might not hit the number of reps you have in mind as being a good result. Sometimes I'd rather not do one of these types of sets because the possibility of a letdown performance disturbs me. I'm afraid that I'll feel like shit for failing when it's over while my arms burn from working to physical exhaustion.

Of course you can't push yourself this hard all the time. If you do, you'll likely get injured or burned out or both. But it's good for us, I think, to expose ourselves to the fear of finding out just where our physical limitations are. Americans are obsessed with success and terrified of failure. It's easy to slip into patterns of avoiding all difficulty because the thought of not winning is too overwhelming. And it's also easy to drive yourself nuts thinking that you always have to succeed balls out 110% of the time in everything you take on.  Going to failure every once in a while promotes a much more realistic attitude. Maybe I'm beginning to stretch now, but I think that experience from the weight room can make us healthier and stronger mentally beyond the gym doors. We have limits. We can't do everything, but there's rarely anything all that catastrophically wrong when our efforts aren't quite enough. The muscle burn cools off quickly, and the angst of wondering if you'll do enough pull-ups to satisfy your image of the ideal strong man you hope to be is gone before you leave the gym. You're left knowing that you did all you could and bolstered for your next attempt, where after proper rest, you will doubtless fail better.

I thought about all this driving my Jetta over that hill the other day. The heated seats are a dream and if you have the means I highly recommend picking one up.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


This post is dedicated to all the Family to Family participants and teachers I've encountered over the past year. To the class that has just finished, thank you for your commitment and enthusiasm over the last 11 weeks. Teaching this class, I learn new things from the people who come to NAMI Huntsville looking to learn from us. At risk of slipping into terms of cheesy pedagogical sappiness, I have to say that I emerge stronger and better informed from this experience because the education that happens is really not a one way process. I can't say enough about how well Dr. Burland designed the program.

I found the organization in early December last year when I was looking myself for help getting back to mental stability. I'd spent nearly all of June 2011 hospitalized with severe depression and was slowly finding my way back. An internet search led me to a page about a monthly support group meeting. I attended apprehensively with my mom. I remember that it was dirty cold and rainy. But there's a plunging gulf now between me and the bone chill of that wet December night. Looking back, it almost seems like it happened to someone else in a different lifetime. A little less than a year has passed, but the memories of how stupidly hard things were then have started to fade. I got involved volunteering for NAMI, and now I work to provide the same boost I found last December to others who are struggling.

In NAMI parlance, I go both ways or switch hit, meaning that I've suffered from depression and have family members who have as well. In olden days, they would have said I was a "family member" and a "consumer." But NAMI has dropped that second term and now I'm an "individual living with mental illness" (a clunky term but warmer I think than "consumer"). I do most of my volunteering from the family member perspective addressing other struggling family members. But this work is certainly one of the most powerful methods I've found of maintaining my own stability.

In discussions of mental illness, people claim frequently that no one can really understand it unless they've experienced it first hand. In my hardest luck times living as a sort of emotional defeatist, I identified strongly with this idea that no one else could possibly get it. It was just futile to try to explain anything or even talk about the problem much at all. But this common place assumption that no one else can understand isn't true. Understanding is a great challenge that demands imaginative effort from the people on the outside and rhetorical work creating clear explanation from folks on the inside. But people can understand. I've seen it over and over in four sessions of Family to Family when eyes light up in compassionate moments of piercing insight into what a sick family member struggles with. The families I've met desperately want to get it, and thanks to the twelve weeks of effort they put in coming to and participating in this course, they do, not exactly as if they'd lived it but well enough to assist someone who is. Misunderstanding and breakdown in communication between people suffering and their families is just the starting point. It doesn't have to be a permanent affliction. This is perhaps the best thing I've learned in Family to Family. Knowing that depression is often a recurring condition is terrifying. But after my time teaching and taking this course and seeing that it is possible to talk about depression even with people who haven't known it first hand, I can't imagine it ever being so hopelessly difficult as it felt a year and a half ago. And for this I have an abundant--we're talking cornucopia style overflowing bounty of natural splendor--sense of gratitude.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Trpytich Series 5: Mood and Anxiety

When I say "mood" here, I'm not referring to what we usually mean when we use the word. This post is about linguistic mood and how it plays into our mis-calibrated understandings of the world and people around us. I've leaked to some my intentions to write a breathtaking and groundbreaking piece on modal verbs. This is not yet that piece, simply the overture, or maybe the shorter sonata that I will one day incorporate into a linguistic symphony of mood, making my language into the music my boyz from band always assured me it could be.

In grammatical terms, the mood and tense of a verb are often discussed together. Tense is a much more familiar concept for non-languagefreaks. "I am eating" and "I have eaten" are two different tenses of the same verb that each indicate when the action happened. Mood is not as simple. It refers to different levels of possibility and potential. You can talk about things that might never actually happen by changing the mood of the verb. "I don't eat horse," but "I might eat horse if someone said I was too chicken shit to try it." Those two sentences are the same verb in two different moods. If you have studied a romance language, you might remember the difficulty of trying to remember how and when verbs take the subjunctive mood, something that doesn't really exist much anymore in English.

In much the same way that our understanding of past, present, and future often goes awry, we can easily confuse things that are true with things that could be the case. Here is a fictional example.

A brother and sister live together and share a car. Rosita goes for a walk one Tuesday afternoon and comes home to find that Enrique has gone somewhere and not left any note about when he will be back. Rosita is on a Jujitsu team that practices every Tuesday night. When she sees the car isn't there, she gets furious and goes through the following thought sequence.
  • Enrique took the car.
  • He must not want me to go to Jujitsu practice.
  • He wouldn't do that if he really cared about me.
In this sequence, one thing is true. Enrique took the car. The rest is over-interpretation of that one true thing. Rosita has extrapolated, assumed her brother has malicious motives, generalized a single inconvenience, and worked herself into a state of rage where she's ready to Jujitsu choke Enrique into submission. All this rage built on potential, built on the modals describing things that might be.

Here's what really happened.
  • Enrique got a call from a friend who needed to be bailed out of jail.
  • He got really upset because he was worried about his friend.
  • He took the car forgetting momentarily in his emotional state about Rosita's Jujitsu.
Conflicting circumstances meant he couldn't simultaneously be a considerate brother and a good friend to his unfortunate incarcerated buddy. But there is no malicious intent like what Rosita was thinking in the first scenario. He doesn't want her to miss doing the things she enjoys, and he does indeed care about her. He doesn't deserve to be submission choked, and perhaps more importantly, Rosita doesn't have to feel the frustration and anger that come when she interprets the absent car as an intentional slight and a sign of her brother's general indifference. You can save yourself a lot of pain and anguish if you can learn to recognize when you are using modals poorly to form an unfounded, negative outlook about things you don't really know.