Pavlov and the Art of Motivation

For most of my life, I’ve been more of a night owl than a lark.  I viewed the idea of getting up early to greet the day in the same way I viewed going to the dentist:  an unpleasant necessity, but certainly not something one would choose to do.  As a young lieutenant in Air Force pilot training many years ago, I struggled out of bed during alternate “early weeks” and “late weeks” – with the military’s customary unintended humor, “late week” meant that I could sleep in, since I didn’t have to be on the flight line until 4:30 AM.  During “early week,” the reporting time was 2:30 AM.  “How do you go off into the wild blue yonder when it’s pitch black outside,” I wondered.  So, just as I did in later years for innumerable early meetings, 6 AM flight departures, and other uncivilized events, I got up when I had to and slept in when I could.  “Ahh, when I retire,” I thought to myself, “I’ll sleep late every day, and I’ll never have to see 6 AM again.  And the sun will shine, and the birds will sing, and the wind will be at my back…”

There’s a Bible verse I’ve always found to be particularly relevant in my life (Proverbs 16:9), but I especially like the simpler Yiddish rendition: “Man plans, God laughs.”  I had some pretty lofty plans for my life, particularly with respect to retirement.  I imagined where and how we would live, how we would spend our time, and how wonderful it would be to sleep in whenever I wanted to.  God had other plans, though.

So here I am in retirement, with more than I bargained for – I’m still a night owl, but I’m also a lark, too.  I rarely am able to get to sleep before 1:00 AM, and I also rarely sleep for more than 2 hours at a stretch, but I can’t seem to sleep past 7 AM no matter what I do.  It’s partly due to the need to take pills every morning, and from the stiffness and pain that come (for me) with being without medication for 5 to 6 hours.  I sleep much better since I had deep brain stimulation surgery and I take much less medication since then, but the luxurious feeling of sleeping in is just not a part of my life anymore.  When one door closes, another opens, though.

Exercise is an excellent weapon against the ravages of Parkinson’s, and since I was diagnosed I’ve been a strong proponent of a good exercise program (from the safety and security of my chair, and for other people, unfortunately).  I had fallen into laziness and lack of motivation to exercise, even though I knew how beneficial it could be.  PWPs often coast to a stop, both physically and intellectually, and sometimes need external influence to get them moving again.  Since I’m not sleeping anyway, my wife has repeatedly suggested that I use the time to exercise.  “Yes, great idea.  I’ll do that.  Soon.  Very soon.  Right after I check my email, and do a few other things.”  It never happened, of course.

We’ve occasionally used the “carrot and stick” approach with our children to motivate certain behaviors, and I’m sure that’s been an influence on my wife’s latest brainstorm to help me help myself.

“You know, honey, I miss having a dog.  They’re such great company, and they really do become part of the family.  I’ve been looking at standard poodles, and they seem like perfect pets for us.  Great dispositions, loyal, calm, and friendly, and big enough to be a deterrent to bad guys when I’m out running.  I just don’t have time to take care of one though.  If only there were someone who did.”

I was immediately 10 years old again.  “ME! ME!  I could do it!  I’d feed him, and brush him, and walk him, and he would be my friend, and he could fetch things for me, and we could play in the park with other kids, and it would be great!  Please? Please?”

“Well,” she said, firmly setting the hook, “I’d need to see that you were motivated.  If you can go for a walk every morning for the next two months, maybe we could consider it.”  So, when my own health wasn’t sufficient motivation, I’m now motivated to walk every morning by the prospect of having a dog to walk every morning.  Sort of like an infinite loop with fur.  I’m trying not to remember that she used exactly this technique to encourage our daughter to stop sucking her thumb.  My wife, master of operant conditioning.

“In their hearts humans plan their course; but the Lord establishes their steps.”  Through whatever filter you happen to read this, there’s great wisdom here that has eluded me for most of my adult life.  It speaks to our tendency to overplan to no purpose.  As they taught me in Squadron Officer School, after all, “no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”  It speaks to the unanticipated joys we experience when we least expect them, like the overwhelmingly positive experience of a dear friend of mine after his long struggle with the decision to have DBS surgery.  And, it clearly speaks to me of the way that adversity often opens the door to comfort and solace, whether in the form of new friends that change your life, or in the simple responsibility of walking a dog.

I’ve said it before – I hate PD and I hope to see it disappear from the face of the Earth and take all the misery it causes with it.  I would not choose to have this disease, and I don’t see it as a gift.  I do see, however, how many doors it’s opened for me that I never even knew were there.  I’m grateful for those doors, and for the people and new experiences I find behind them.

3 thoughts on “Pavlov and the Art of Motivation

  1. Larry Haron

    Corey, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences so candidly and humorously. You help me reframe my thoughts and feelings about this life. I don’t know how many people follow your blog but I’m confident those who do find it refreshing as well as beneficial. Thanks.


  2. Philip Billnitzer

    Great column, Corey. Probably the best you’ve posted so far and that’s saying quite a bit. btw, i’m having dbs on june 13.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s