Defying Classification

I’m writing this post, the first in over a month (my bad!) from a hotel room in New Orleans. I’m down here for the Southeastern Psychological Association (SEPA) conference, having brought with me 5 of my undergraduate students from Delta State. The conference seems to be having the desired effect – students are excited to see the very real possibility of themselves presenting material here in subsequent years. What seemed big, ominous, and unknown, is now something they see within reach. It means a lot more work for myself in terms of advising students, but it’s work I’m happy to do. 

  
The topic of this post isn’t about my academic pursuits, or the symposium that we presented on perspectives on a campus shooting. While the symposium was a success, thanks to the lead author Sally Zengaro, and my collaborators George Beals and Franco Zengaro, there isn’t too much I can say about it that hasn’t already been said. And while the academic nature of the conference has been fulfilling (I’ve seen some interesting talks, and gotten some ideas for my own research as well as my students), it also doesn’t merit my putting electronic pen to paper. My topic tonight is the one part observation of human behavior, and one part my own warped philsophy of the world. And it’s best summed up by the title, Defying Classification.

Psychology conferences are interesting places. Scores of undergraduate students looking to get their feet wet, teams of graduate students trying to be noticed on a larger stage, and professors presenting either to fulfill pre-tenure obligations, out of respect for their science, or out of love for their field (Sometimes all 3!). You tend to notice trends in how they walk, talk, and appear. Undergraduates dress in typical teenage and early 20’s style, with some (who were clued in, like my students) dressing slightly nicer and more professional. Graduate students tend to dress in the most professional attire, with professors taking a more laid back approach. Professor standard attire for men tends to be jeans or slacks, with a button down shirt or polo, and occasionally a sport coat. No suits, few ties. We look, more or less, like grown up versions of our undergraduate students. Other conferences differ slightly – the business school crowd dresses more formally, and I assume other professional schools clean up a bit more than us ratty PhDs. 

Today I was wearing my standard professor uniform: Khaki cargo pants, black shoes, dark blue Carhartt t-shirt covered by a black polo shirt. On my belt I had my camera in a case and my cell phone in a holster. I like to keep my pockets open during conferences to (a) have a place to put my room key without depolarizing it and (b) have a place for business cards and my conference name badge. After the last session tonight, I went out in the same ‘uniform’, adding in a black 2600 hat. I tend to shy away from logos, but I make an exception for brands I like to show support for, and 2600 is a publication I feel is important to the technology community.

Anyway, I proceeded to ‘take myself out on a date’, (because I’m awesome and I’d date me if I were single). I hit a few shops, watched some dueling pianos, caught the sunset over the Mississippi River, and picked up a gift for Karey and a birthday gift for a friend. On the way back to the hotel, I decided to get some food, but didn’t feel like having anything fancy. When you’re alone, sometimes all you want is something simple. Tonight I thought of something I hadn’t had in awhile: Popeyes Chicken. So I wandered over to Popeyes, walked in, placed my order, and walked back out. Holding my drink and Popeyes bag, I noticed a shorter scrawny gentleman come quickly up to me on my left. “Cocaine man, I got good cocaine”. I shrugged him off, and wandered across the street wondering if dealers with subpar products strategically make fewer promises. As I got nearer to the other side of the street, a security guard from one of the hotels spied me and asked “Hey, are they busy in there tonight?”. I replied “No, they’re pretty open” and she thanked me. 

It was then that it hit me: I looked like a security guard or a bouncer. I had things on my belt, I had a black polo on, I had cargo pants, I had a black baseball cap with some strange number on it, and I had just bought food in between two other similarly dressed gentlemen who were off to work at different places according to their polo shirts. The lady who put my food in my bag at Popeyes asked how my day was – I had replied “Busy”. She replied “The more you do the more you make, huh”. I absentmindedly agreed, despite the fact it isn’t too true for me. I am huge, a trait normally found in private security personnel. As I came into the hotel, I realized that absolutely no one on the street would have guessed I was a professor, or a scientist, or a published author, or a computer programmer. I looked like a security guard, and likely New Orleans local. 

And I’m just fine with that. The point of this long rambling post is simply that joy can be found – true, unabashed joy – in simply being yourself. If you defy classification, than so be it. If you are the epitome of who you’re supposed to be – own that too. Be the professor with the tweed jacket and elbow patches (on a side note: I hardly see those anymore). Be comfortable in your own skin, and let others think what they may. Honestly I like blending in – it means people are more likely to treat me as a peer and tell me their story (After all, that’s why I got into psychology in the first place). Others prefer to stand out, signaling to the world that they are individuals. Both mindsets are perfectly fine. And switching day to day is allowed. What you shouldn’t allow is yourself to be consumed by the tyranny of the shoulds, to use a term from Karen Horney. Be all the bouncer professor you can be.

(But stay away from cocaine, good or bad!)

What They Aren’t Telling You: San Bernadino Shooter’s iPhone

USA Today and others made headlines today reporting “Apple ordered to break into San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone”. The topic of government access to encrypted devices has gotten a lot of attention lately, and I’m not writing this post to take a stance on either side. My goal here is to inform some of my less tech-minded friends of a curious thing I noticed…

Fact: This iPhone was owned by San Bernadino county.
Fact: Deploying iPhones to your workers should only be done if they’re properly managed.
Fact: Apple’s management software, Profile Manager, allows you to clear passcodes.

Here’s the proof from my own Profile Manager installation – this is the list of options I get when I bring up my own iPhone from the management console:

In case you’re wondering, it’s also possible to prevent a user from wiping his/her iPhone using Profile Manager:

In case you’re wondering what “supervised only” means, it indicates that the phone has to be setup using the Apple Configurator software, which is free.

Obviously I don’t know what happened in this case, and won’t pretend to, but from an IT guy’s perspective, this problem seems like it would have been avoided if the devices were configured appropriately. In any event, I figured this would be useful information to my non-tech friends who noticed it was a government owned iPhone and wondered why the government couldn’t unlock it.

Sometimes you only learn by doing – such as “when I post an update to my blog, how does it look on Facebook?”. Hence this post 🙂

Still Alive

In case you’re wondering, I’m still alive and plan on blogging a bit now that A) that novel is done and B) I’m recovered enough to consider blogging a fun activity again!. Soonish you’ll see more here. Until then, feel free to comment with what types of content you’d like to see show up!

Epilogue to Cinereous

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It had been about 70 years, they estimated, since the first group arrived in Julie’s mind. They now numbered around 100, and the once barren gray land had transformed into a near utopia. A sky of blue, lush grass, and (thankfully) furniture, books, and more. Julie certainly seemed to have grown a much more active imagination than when they arrived, and also seemed more active in general. While the mountains shown brightly for so many years, recently they’d grown a bit less active once more. The core group found themselves sitting in a circle, reminiscent of the early years.

“Well, she is in her 80’s”, G-ma said, “I don’t suppose she’s running any marathons!”

“And here we are, the same age as we were when we arrived!”, Mrs. Corum replied.

This hadn’t been true for everyone. Over the years, Sara Beth had grown into adulthood, however she stopped changing around age 20. They figured this might have been where Sara Beth and Julie parted ways during their college years. Jamie appeared older now as well, although she seemed to have topped out around 60. Perhaps Julie had never updated her mental picture of her younger sister. Ryan had stayed the same age, as did Mara.

Over the years the core group had learned a lot about Julie’s present-day through those they met in her mind. There was the young man, who they later found out had married Julie. There was the young children, who got to meet their great G-ma inside Julie’s mind. There were the work colleagues, and the friends, and more. So many painting such a rich life of Julie McKay, a life that had saved itself with a little help from Mrs. Corum, Sara Beth, Jamie, Mara, Ryan, and G-ma.


 

Afterthought

When I started writing Cinereous, I felt it would be a fun experience and rewarding. And while I definitely think both of those things were true, it was also somewhat stupid.

The idea of individuals living inside someone else’s mind has intrigued me for many years. As humans, we are capable of simulating many things in our own minds, thinking of the way different events would interact with different people we know. We replay good memories, we imagine what the next major event will be like, and (sometimes) we even imagine what would happen to those we don’t like if we could do anything we wanted to them.

The idea for Cinereous was sound, and I think the idea for writing an entire 50,000+ word novel (Cinereous tops out around 67,000 words) within a month is also a pretty good way to stretch oneself and force oneself to write.

The stupid part? Committing to publish a chapter each day – November 2015 proved to be an incredibly busy month for me, including travel to a conference, as well as the Thanksgiving holidays. While I normally averaged a lead time of 2-3 chapters (e.g., I was writing chapter 13 on November 10), I still found the pace to be grueling to meet my early morning publishing times. It resulted in shorter chapters over time (something I could have remedied by just not calling each section a chapter – a revision of Cinereous would likely see some of the chapters condensed), and it also resulted in poorer writing. Perhaps the most illuminating part of this experience has been the way it held a mirror to my own writing, showing me where I was getting ‘sloppy’ or ‘lazy’. While disheartening, it isn’t a bad thing to see, as it lets one know where to improve.

Overall I hope you’ve enjoyed this strange odyssey into the mind of a 12 year old girl (which I have not ever been inside of myself, so maybe I got some of it right, but I suppose I probably got a lot wrong!). It was a good mental ‘stretching’ exercise for me, and in the end I’ll fondly remember it as that time I wrote a novel in a month and published 1000+ words a day each day. And I suspect I’ll probably do a revision of the book at some point and put it out in e-pub / Kindle format. And heck, maybe I’ll even do up a cover page!

On one final note, the subject of the book, bullying and mental breakdown potentially leading to suicide is one near to my heart. Over my career I’ve lost 2 students to suicide. It’s a problem that we cannot ignore when we see any potential warning signs in others, and one we must address directly. Sadly the myth that “talking about suicide just puts the idea into the person’s head” is still prevalent – rest assured, if you worry about someone you love thinking about suicide, they probably already have had the idea cross their mind. Look out for each other, because unlike Julie, others might not have a majority of ‘good’ characters in their minds to try to help them out. They may need some good people in real life to reach out.

  • Jon Westfall, December 2, 2015.

Chapter 30: Quiet

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Well, here it is – the last chapter. These last 10 chapters have been on the shorter side, definitely something I’d expand out in a revision. Sometime in early December I’ll be posting an epilogue to the book, so be on the lookout for that. All told this has been 30 days, and 67,167 words. A 172 page paperback. A bit on the short side, but hey, I wrote it in my spare time – which I’m looking forward to having back again! Thanks to everyone who has taken the crazy journey with me! Continue reading “Chapter 30: Quiet”

Chapter 29: Secrets

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They all cried, even Ryan, after the shock had faded. G-ma hadn’t been seen since she fled the group. Jamie’s body lie like Ryan’s had days earlier, with no hint of activity. Around her neck, marks where the old woman had strangled her, were visible.

“I can’t believe it” was the popular phrase uttered. They all knew G-ma had become somewhat of a fanatic regarding her belief. They never imagined that she was capable of this. Further complicating matters, they didn’t even know what ‘this’ was. It looked like death, but could one really die here? So many unanswered questions. Continue reading “Chapter 29: Secrets”

Chapter 28: Putting Down The Rebellion

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“Ready?”

“Ready”

“Let’s do this”

When Jamie and Julie were little, the each had their own unique set of fears. For Jamie, it had been thunderstorms. Each time a front would move in, she’d run and hide somewhere she could block out the sound. Since it was possible, very, very rarely, that storms could be violent, her parents were a bit concerned that they might not be able to find their youngest daughter in case of emergency. So they looked for a solution. It turned out to be the same solution that had worked on their older daughter. Continue reading “Chapter 28: Putting Down The Rebellion”

Chapter 27: Uprising

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“They’ll see… they think I’ve gone crazy. But I’m doing this for their own good, and for Julie.”

The group lie motionless, more or less parallel to each other. G-ma stood watch while herself remaining as motionless as possible. In order, Mrs. Corum lie next to G-ma’s position, with Mara next, then Sara Beth, then Jamie, and finally Ryan, still in the exact same state he had been in. No one dared do more than whisper to each other, anytime they saw G-ma look away or seem to ‘zone’ out. They didn’t know if she realized they were talking amongst themselves or not.

The sky had grown a bit darker, they all thought, and the mountains were pretty inactive. It was hard to know if what they were doing was having any affect on Julie or if it was just a coincidence.

Inside each of their minds, they began to consider the situation they found themselves in. Mrs. Corum was certainly not a fan of G-ma’s methods or theories, but found herself truly believing that the woman wanted something good for Julie. She just wasn’t sure this would cause Julie to go in a positive and not negative direction. With the decreased mountain activity and the sky darkening, Mrs. Corum feared that Julie might have left camp early, and was spending her summer days indoors without any social interaction or friends.

Mara, in her own mind, was throughly convinced that the old woman had gone completely crazy. She didn’t give G-ma any benefit of the doubt – she felt the woman had gone suicidal herself and was determined to get out of this place, even if the alternative was unacceptable to the others. Mara was surprised at how easily the group had submitted, and secretly felt that she might need to spur them into action. How she was going to do that, though, was a mystery to her. So she bided her time, waiting for an opportunity to present itself.

Sara Beth was preoccupied with her own problems. Using Sonic as a judge of her “fadedness”, she found that he was becoming less and less likely to recognize her as the hours ticked by. She had to be careful not to make too much noise in playing with Sonic, lest G-ma notice. Thankfully the space between her and Mara was deep enough for the ball and it’s owner to be relatively unnoticed.

Jamie was the most confused of all of them. She loved her G-ma, but she also loved her sister and felt that this might not be the best way of handling the situation. But at her age, she was still used to the adults having the good ideas that worked, even if they sounded somewhat strange or unrealistic. G-ma would see them through, she hoped.

As Jamie lay there, she realized something quite amazing. Ryan, after two days of his comatose state, appeared to be moving slightly.

“Shhh…” Jamie said as quietly as she could to Ryan. Ryan turned his head slightly toward her with a very confused look on his face.

As quietly as possible, Jamie filled Ryan in on what was happening. Thankfully, as they were at the end of the line of bodies, G-ma wasn’t aware of what they were doing. Periodically G-ma would wander, and in those cases, everyone quieted down any semblance of a murmur. Jamie also encouraged Ryan to continue to give the appearance of the coma, even though she had no idea how G-ma would react to it.

The group waited, wondering what would happen next.


 

“She’s gotta get tougher. They all think I’m doing this to hurt her, but I’m not. How can one live their entire life consumed by fear and torment of others? That’s no way to live. Once she realizes we’re not there – no one is there – to help her, she’ll help herself. She’ll stand up for herself. I had to do it, she’ll have to do it too. It’s just the way life goes.

And if she doesn’t, she won’t be in pain anymore. She’ll make the decision, and carry it out rationally, and for her, the pain will end. We’ll also get out of this damn place, and be able to get on with our existence. Maybe we’ll re-integrate, maybe we’ll re-incarnate, maybe we’ll travel with her. Who knows. But it will be better than this, that’s for sure.

Are they talking again? They think I don’t see. Well I see them whispering out of the side of their mouths. But I’m not going to call them out unless they get too loud. We’re already having an affect on this world, and I’m sure that we’ll be fine even with a little bit of talking and moving. Just as long as that boy doesn’t wake up. He could be trouble – I don’t think I have as much sway over him. Mrs. Corum has always been weak willed, and the girls were raised right – they don’t defy authority. But him – he could be a serious problem. How could I handle him? What would stop him from challenging me if it came to it….

I suppose I could do that. But it would have to be in an emergency only. I wouldn’t take it lightly, obviously. But it would take the wind out of his sails. I only hope that maybe he doesn’t choose her. Maybe he’ll choose the oldest girl – she’s strong just like him. They seem to be getting along better. It would be easier on me if he chose her and I had to do it.

It’s starting to get closer to dim. The sky is almost black – this is the darkest I’ve ever seen it. I hope we don’t have to deal with this too much longer. Maybe tonight will be the night.

Is he moving? Naw, just looked like it from this distance. He’s in the coma, the rest of them are too scared to rock the boat, and soon this will all be over.”

Chapter 26: A New Day

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“You look different”, Mara said as Sara Beth walked toward her.

“What do you mean”, Sara Beth said, visibly confused. Nothing here ever changed in appearance. That was the most disturbing part of living in another person’s mind – you were pictured however they thought of you, and it turned out, it wasn’t often you were remembered wearing different clothes. Continue reading “Chapter 26: A New Day”