Bogart’s character Rick in Casablanca: an optimist or pessimist?

Photo Wikimedia Commons, Humphrey Bogart as Rick

Photo Wikimedia Commons, Humphrey Bogart as Rick

Rick says to Ilsa: I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world[1]

Then, Rick gets noble and becomes a bean that matters on a hill of beans. He leaves Isla and strides into the fog to fix the craziness in his little corner of the world. Cynical Rick? A hero? What the …? 

Today, Bogie leans against my kitchen wall; his eyes smolder in the shadow of his fedora; he snarls at me, “Sweetheart, if you can’t do much about how crazy the big world is, pick some little problem nearby.”

“Bogie,” I say, “That’s not nobility, that’s optimism.”

Pick a hill of beans

Like most people, I want a life that matters. Having come so close to dead, my quest to live that life has some urgency. Quick! Where’s the accelerated search engine?

Okay, it’s not my destiny to win the peace prize or cure cancer. But, what if Rick was right at Casablanca’s conclusion, when he focused on one little local problem with one small impact? The movie ends before we learn its bigger consequences, but it implies he made a difference. Or is that the optimist’s view? Rick changed his pessimistic outlook and affected – the audience is audacious with hope – the outcome.

Optimistic / pessimistic ambidexterity

What next? Chemotherapy imploded my natural optimism into a pessimism so deep I couldn’t recognize positive action if it stroked my face. I entered one Friday treatment believing the best would prevail. Sunday exhaled a swirling pit of panic and despair; a chemo-induced brain makeover in thirty hours that clung three years.

The upside is my brain now operates as ambidextrous, functioning in optimism and pessimism with equal dexterity. To paraphrase Sophie Tucker, I’ve been optimistic and I’ve been pessimistic. Optimistic is better.

Risk management is a conflict competency

Guess I should thank chemotherapy for the opportunity to live as a pessimist so I can weigh both options and opt for optimism.

Optimism is more than hope, or what I call the twin tyrannies of positive thinking and good attitude. It’s also risk management, which is a conflict competency. Recent research suggests that pessimism is an advantage because optimists depend on happy endings. Is this a fair categorization of optimism? Not all optimists treat lottery tickets as a retirement plan, just like all pessimists aren’t good savers for retirement. I seek to mitigate risk whichever outlook I use. Where optimism has it over pessimism is belief in my ability to make a positive difference in outcome. I’m more motivated when my outlook is that my actions might matter. So go ahead, buy the lottery ticket AND save for retirement. Integrate the inner optimist and pessimist.

Adapting to change is a conflict competency

And that’s a conflict competency; integrating the two outlooks is more adaptive than their competing for mental bandwidth. I had an example in conversation with my bio-daughter Beth.

“It scares and saddens me,” Beth said, “that my generation is the last able to do whatever we want. My son won’t enjoy that freedom.”

Pessimism reality check. History and experience suggest that Beth’s correct, everything we enjoy won’t continue. Optimism alert. Other enjoyments await.

Optimism doesn’t relieve me of the responsibility to leave my grandson a better world but it’s relief from pessimism’s paralyzing fear and sadness.

What’s next? Well, which problem should I prioritize for 2014: climate change, social upheaval, or 2013’s leftover personal turmoil?

Bogie tips his fedora, glides through my kitchen wall, and is gone.

Wonderful words from optimists: (or, words from wonderful optimists)

“Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” ― Desmond Tutu

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” ― Anne Frank

“Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.” ― Nelson Mandela

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Chinese Proverb

[1]Casablanca is a 1942 film about an American expatriate owner of an upscale club and gambling den in the Moroccan city of Casablanca who meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.”


Restitution for chemotherapy’s criminal tendencies

imagesChemotherapy stole my concentration, compassion, and creativity. I came home from chemo treatment to find my brain ransacked. Neurons scattered everywhere. My orderly mental filing cabinet of memories ripped apart and discarded in a jumble of fragments. My organized identity as a conflict manager strewn about my skull. Emotional reserves looted. It felt like being asleep and awake at the same time. The awake part of me saw things. The asleep part didn’t react to what the awake part observed.

inventoryAnd sneaky chemo so impaired me I wasn’t aware my complement of thoughts and feelings had gone. It took two years to inventory the personal and professional resources chemo stole. With hindsight I understand the impacts on myself and others; my quest is restoration.

Cat+Pillow+Ekorn+GraphicsFairyPersonally, I stared for two years at nothing in middle space like a lazy cat on a pillow. Two years of valuable reading and writing time – poof – evaporated. Relationships and conversations were hard work in the absence of thought and reaction. Can I recapture lost opportunities?

Professionally, my tactful tank was empty. When someone complained about a sore back while I was locked in chemo-induced acute pain syndrome, I said: “Would you like to trade problems?” Snap. Next, I disrespected a support group of bald women. “They cut out body parts to save your life and you moan about your hair?” Harsh. Empathy and sensitivity, which are basic to conflict managers, went missing. Is it too late to respond with kindness?

I needed a new inventory. Recapturing lost opportunities and words wasn’t possible, but restarting was. Gains have been incremental, requiring patience.

A win – I read again although v-e-r-y  s-l-o-w-l-y. The delightful days I once spent with books are now a delightful hour. That’s an hour more focus than I had a year ago. I prowled our bookcases for skinny books, judging only by their covers, and stumbled upon three classics long buried in our bookcase. I give each discovery 5 out of 5. They are:


Ali and Nino – pray the movie in production does justice to this gem.

The Paper Men -profound and funny.

A Single Pebble – a world in a river trip.

A win – I returned to my dream job as Ombudsman’s Adviser and Conflict Manager for West and North Canada at Parks Canada, which I love. I have the privilege of working with Rebecca in Ottawa, Pierre (Spike) in Halifax, and be well managed by Parks’ Ombuds, Luc.

logo beaver

Yet, I’ve resigned and leave in two weeks. To quit was an agonizing decision. Chemo also sucker-punched my stamina and as long as I work full time, that’s all I get done in a day. Another win – work part time as a Conflict Management Consultant and finish revising my novel.

I like to believe I lived a mindful life before the diagnosis. I like to think my adaptive and resiliency skills made dealing with the treatment/side effects easier. I like to show that being so fit and living a healthy lifestyle before, during and after the treatment has some bearing on whether or not my life is long.

I like to think and believe and show all that, but ultimately, Triple Negative Breast Cancer is a randomized crapshoot. So, what gives meaning to life is what I have left. Pining over the losses of what used to be, wishing for what can’t be anymore, isn’t part of my conflict competence. If I can write a bit again, then writing is going to be my new job.

That’s a permanent win for me. If my novel is ever good enough, maybe it will be a win in other ways.

Brain Fog, Chemo Fog, Chemo Brain – no fun by any name

I once commented to my dear friend Martha that people didn’t say to me: ‘are you ever nice’, or ‘gee, you’re kind’, or ‘what a sweet person you are.’ No, on meeting me the usual feedback was: ‘wow you’re smart.’ Or, ‘you’re so intelligent.’ Being a brainiac became an identity conferred on me through constant reminders that ideas, theories, and knowledge were my contributions to whatever was happening. So, losing that capacity to think lucidly, quickly, insightfully, and incisively was a loss of who I am.

Before and after treatment pictures of my brain might’ve been interesting. No one is telling me now how smart I am.

I’ve always been able to recall conversations accurately. I could listen to parties in a conflict tell their stories and repeat their words back to them and they’d say: ‘yeah, that’s a good synopsis of what I said.’ Where I seem to differ from those in ‘the books’ about brain fog, is that treament hasn’t affected my memory. It’s the analysis of those memories that’s MIA. Thoughts are now random, slow and just sit there waiting for the ‘so what’ to happen. And it doesn’t. All the usual tricks for jogging memory with notes, highlighting markers, and creating stories of what to remember don’t help. Organizing the memories into coherent thoughts to create sentences – kaput.

From diagnosis in August 2010 until  June 2012 I couldn’t focus my mind to read or write. I scanned newspaper headlines in a few minutes. At one point I said: ‘I’m bald, breastless, and can’t hold two thoughts in my head at the same time – OMG, I’m turning into a man.’ I’d often asked men who said they weren’t thinking anything if they really had no thoughts or if they were thinking something they didn’t want to tell me. They said, no, they weren’t thinking anything. I said, ‘how do you do that? How do you have no thoughts?’ My mind had enough dialogue going on for a whole cast of characters.

I’m a lot more understanding of the ‘I’m not thinking anything’ response. Been there, done that, still there. I’ve spent the last 2 years staring into middle space like a cat in a sunbeam on the window sill.

Here’s what it felt like until July 2012, and the reason I’m writing this blog to recover from it:  Two side effects act as parallel events simultaneously in my mind as a result of the two surgeries, eight highly toxic chemo treatments, and twenty-five radiation sessions, plus all the bad news from the pathology.

1. The absence of analysis that was always easy for me. People talk and now I get a blank look instead of a response because I can’t follow the conversation. There’s no focus or concentration I can call upon to replace the quick study I used to be. Then I get frustrated and cry. Imagine what conflicting parties want from their mediator (calm, perspective, skill, smoothing them over their rough spots), and they get me sobbing instead. Yup, that’d make me want to settle fast just to get away from the blubbering.

2. The presence of cancer related fatigue, limited stamina, exhaustion, and temporary loss of my usual resilience. When I get tired, all the bad news comes flooding back, and my memory dredges up every word the doctors shared with me about the grim diagnosis, guarded prognosis, limited options, high risk for the future, and generally poor outcomes. What tires me – mostly #1 above and people.

Here’s my personal recipe for cooking brain fog.

Try to think or analyze,

get frustrated with reduced cognitive functioning,

try harder,

get exhausted,


have bad news memories break through usual dam of optimism,

get flood of negative thoughts,

dig a big hole of junk to wallow in,

go catatonic with anxiety about the poor prognosis

be sure I’m going to die in months and it’s all my fault for getting tired.

Repeat until well stewed.

Whew. This lasts until I can rest or talk myself out of it.

Can I write about how I am getting out of it, now that I’m finally feeling better? It’s conducting field research in my own mind to recapture the bleak vortex that sucked me down. I now use every shred of discipline to practice meditative thoughts, get enough rest, bring focus through a calming mantra, go for work outs at the gym, walk Trail the Westie often, use my Inner Healer named Terry, and excuse myself from situations where there’s people expecting conversation short of withdrawing socially . The only technique I didn’t use until this blog was journaling since I couldn’t write, and I wish now that I’d done it anyway even if it was jibberish.

Feeling whole, sitting in the garden on a glorious summer day is the opposite of the past winter and spring of being a partial person. Having a conversation when I’m tired is pointless. I stumble for words. Being with people for too long => stumbling for words. The change that turned the season from winter to summer for me was replacing stress with rest.

Bottom line is I’ve been given the gift of struggling instead of being a smart person. It’s a chance for me to see if I can come off as – maybe – nice, kind, or even sweet, not just intelligent. What a great time to see the problems in life as a pattern I recognize and yet can’t think my way out of, instead of being the problem solver