Saturday, June 30, 2012

how we decide

This post contains graphic violence.

This was a pretty good book, though as always--especially with pop science books--it's important to read critically.  The basic idea is, you have an intuitive brain, which calculates much faster and more thoroughly than your rational brain.  You also have your rational brain, which you can understand, but which can't handle much info at once even at it's best.  There are certain ways in which each will reliably error, and in general they work correctively on each other.  It was satisfying to see that the current science lines up with my personal theorizing, and to see so much backup for the difficult premise I've been increasingly focused on--emotions are really imperative for even basic functionality.  I suspect that I'm going to be addicted to cognitive bias books for awhile yet--much of the material overlaps, but everyone presents it in a different way, and somehow the project of refining my own views on it remains fascinating.  

One of the most riveting passages in How We Decide is in the chapter, "the moral mind," where Lehrer discusses the development of (intuitive) moral instincts.  A scientist named Harry Harlow did a series of horrifying/fascinating experiments in the early 50s on bonding in monkeys.  His original intent was to breed them, which had never been done successfully.  To avoid disease, he kept the first generation of young in complete social isolation and cared only for their physical health--which remained good.  But, as Lehrer writes,

"the physical health of these young monkeys hid a devastating sickness: they had been wrecked by loneliness. . . they proved incapable of even the most basic social interactions.  They would maniacally rock back and forth in their metal cages, sucking on their thumbs until they bled.  When they encountered other monkeys, they would shriek in fear, run to the corners of their cages, and stare at the floor.  If they felt threatened, they would lash out in vicious acts of violence.  Sometimes these violent tendencies were turned inward.  One monkey ripped out its fur in bloody clumps.  Another gnawed off his own hand.  Because of their early deprivation, these babies had to be isolated for the rest of their lives. . .

The scientists had lined their cages with cloth diapers so that the monkeys didn't have to sleep on the cold concrete floor.  The motherless babies quickly became obsessed with these cloth rags.  They would wrap themselves in the fabric and cling to the diapers if anyone approached the cages.  The soft fabric was their sole comfort. . . 

(Harlow) decided to raise the next generation of baby monkeys with two different pretend mothers.  One was a wire mother, formed out of wire mesh, while the other was a mother made out of soft terry cloth. . . instead of hand-feeding some of the babies, he put their milk bottles in the hands of the wire mothers.  His question was simple: what was more important, food or affection?

In the end, it wasn't even close.  No matter which mother held the milk, the babies always preferred the cloth mothers.  The monkeys would run over to the wire mothers and quickly sate their hunger before immediately returning to the comforting folds of cloth.  By the age of six months, the babies were spending more than eighteen hours a day with their soft parent.  They were with the wire mothers only long enough to eat.

The moral of Harlow's experiment is that primate babies are born with an intense need for attachment.  They cuddled with the cloth mothers because they wanted to experience the warmth and tenderness of a real mother.  Even more than food, these baby monkeys craved the feeling of affection.  'It's as if the animals are programmed to seek out love,' Harlow wrote.  

When this need for love wasn't met, the babies suffered from a tragic list of side effects.  The brain was permanently damaged so that the monkeys with wire mothers didn't know how to deal with others, sympathize with strangers, or behave in a socially acceptable manner.  Even the most basic moral decisions were impossible.  As Harlow would later write, "If monkeys have taught us anything, it's that you've got to learn how to love before you learn how to live."

Harlow would later test the limits of animal experimentation, remorselessly probing the devastating effects of social isolation.  His cruelest experiment was putting baby monkeys in individual cages with nothing--not even a wire mother--for months at a time.  The outcome was unspeakably sad.  The isolated babies were like primate psychopaths, completely numb to all expressions of emotion.  They started fights without provocation and they didn't stop fighting until one of the monkeys had been seriously injured.  They were even vicious to their own children.  One psychopathic monkey bit off the fingers of her child.  Another killed her crying baby by crushing its head in her mouth.  Most psychopathic mothers, however, just perpetuated the devastating cycle of cruelty.  When their babies tried to cuddle, they would push them away.  The confused infants would try again and again, but to no avail.  Their mothers felt nothing." 

I can understand why I haven't run into a detailed description of this study before.  The information can easily be twisted/used for damaging mother blaming and victim shaming--the idea being that victims of abuse and neglect are permanently damaged, period.  It thus deserves particularly respectful handling.  I also think that Lehrer is clearly over-reaching when he assigns a lack of emotion to the "psychopathic" monkeys, perhaps due to my own experience--it isn't that I don't want to connect with people, but I've spend most of my life not knowing how.

This was a really hopeful thing for me to read, simply because it's so validating.  For as long as I can remember, I've felt that I was a bottomless pit of need.  For my first 22 years, I believed that everyone had this--and that everyone else was simply better at handling it, or perhaps was better than me in general.  It isn't gone, but I have learned to calm it.  And as I try to carry it--to carry it gracefully, which is hard, and still be a good friend, sister, roommate, student, and aunt--it helps to know that this is a completely normal hunger, and that not everyone was raised in empty cages.

Friday, June 22, 2012

getting things done

Awhile back I posted an extremely ambitious "stuff to do this summer" list, which (as I realized before summer had really even started) would need to be prioritized.  I then proceeded to spend A LOT of time wallowing.  For a couple of weeks I barely did anything except be depressed.  Since then, though, even though I haven't been studying enough Greek, or writing enough, or getting enough done on the house, my life has been more or less functional.  Since it feels good to conquer the crushing burden of being responsible for all of one's own time, I thought I would share the tool that most helps me: a weekly checklist.  Or perhaps more accurately, a "weekly checklist."

Here's how it works.  One day, when I'm wallowing in bed or perhaps killing zombies at some ungodly rate, I spring from my lethargy and try to make a realistic-ish accounting of what I'd most like to and be able to accomplish in the next week.  The one I'm using right now (started yesterday) looks like this:

On five occasions, do each of these:
Do Tai-Chi 
Meditate (10-30 minutes)
Get 5 fruit and veg in a day
Maintain friendships and/or practice kindness

On three occasions, do each of these:
Study ancient Greek (30-90 minutes)
Draw (30 minutes)
Study music (30 + minutes)
Study for GRE (30 + minutes)
Do other writing
Get other exercise
Work on house (60 + minutes)
Read to prepare for school

They're all listed out in a notebook.  I put a star after each thing as I do it.  If you'll notice, I have (5x6) + (3x9) goals, which means 57 total.  I'm shooting for ten stars a day and a day off.  The list doesn't include other basic things which better'd damn well get done regardless, like shopping, cooking, cleaning, watering the garden, etc.  They are the things which I tend not to get done, or which, being done, make it so that other things naturally happen.  Here's the best thing: I don't usually make it through a whole week with a list, but it still mostly works.  

Anyway, that's my secret bullet.  Until I get bored and invent a new one, anyway.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

creative DNA

is one of the ideas from The Creative Habit which I find particularly helpful.

The gist of it is something like this: insofar as you are a unique person, there are things which only you can create.  There are also things which you will never create.  In order to have the habit of creativity, you have to be in touch with your own scope of creative possibility.  Everything that hurts you, everything that drives you, everything you hunger for, everything you love--all of it is part of your creative DNA.  Your work will inevitably be a reflection of these parts of you.  If you tend to choreograph ballets with a strong dramatic storyline and well developed characters, it's usually best to push yourself out of that mold a little at a time--or to work within it.

I love the way this helps me see my own repetitions as a way forward, rather than something that holds me back.  Tharp writes about the way we know an artist by their repetitions--the common elements that carry through their different endeavors.  Those repetitions are a source of power, style, and continuity.  If there is something you're stuck on, it's probably deeply interconnected with with what you need to express.  It may be something you need to work around for now, but someday, it may be the source of your best work.

Monday, June 18, 2012

sort of just hair, sort of not just hair. . .

This morning, I found myself re-watching this documentary about gender in advertising.  I've been having a lot of thoughts about my gender identity over the past few months, many of which have been brought on by my hair.  Shaving my head has been very revealing.

Part of the revelation has been in other people's reactions.  I'm glad my first experience introducing it to the world was on campus; people were incredibly kind and supportive about it, and after I'd shaved it I realized that several other people had done the same thing for the same reason.  On the other hand, my mother basically told me it was ugly (and that I looked just like my brother) the minute she saw it, and asks me when I'm planning to grow it out at every chance.  My first visit with the majority of my nieflings was entirely devoted to their being weirded out and upset by it.  People in my neighborhood flinch and look away when I try to smile at them while I'm walking past.  It upsets me, but I can hardly blame them; I had the same reaction, before I had a chance to get used to it.  In a way, this tells me I'm doing something good for the world, since by giving people exposure I see that they do have a chance to get used to it.

Most of the time, I don't really care for how it looks--but I do love how it forces me to confront things I don't like about myself.  I love knowing that even when I look especially fat and manly, I can just get on with my life--knowing how much, ultimately, appearance doesn't have to matter.  It isn't just the fact of not having any distraction from my fat body, though.  When I first looked in the mirror after shaving it, I thought I looked like an ugly, half man/half woman, freak--the face of my brother when he was a teenager over a disturbingly feminine body.  This thought wouldn't have had much traction, though, if it weren't for the feeling that it was true deeper than the surface level.  After all, my hair grows fast, and if I'd felt my appearance really didn't suit me, I could have said, "well, now I've shaven my head once.  I know what it's like, and it was a worthwhile experiment.  Time to grow my hair back out. . . I guess I can just wear a lot of hats between now and then."

Me with super-short hair isn't any more or less me than me with long hair.  My face, even framed by short hair, is just as much my face (arguably moreso, since I had it first) as it is my brother's.  If I were clearly and comfortably feminine, I would simply reject this appearance.  Instead, it speaks to me of things which are dirty and not allowed, but which I want.

None of those things are male anatomy, but they are about masculinity.  They are about power, assertiveness, and aggressiveness being a socially acceptable part of my identity.  They are about getting recognition, respect, promotions, and fair pay for hard work.  They are about being considered well groomed without excessive, expensive, and time consuming rituals about cosmetics, shaving, and hair care.  They are about being able to traverse public spaces without submitting myself to judgments about my sexual attractiveness and availability.  They are about being able to dress up and be considered appealing and well presented without using clothing which calls attention specifically to sexual attractiveness.  They are about having access and recourse to the appropriate use of physical violence, both in defense and in play.  They are about not hiding my intelligence for fear of making others feel insecure.  They are about avoiding the manipulative and deceptive social games women sometimes feel compelled to play for the sake of their patriarchal bargain.

Honestly, sometimes I don't know how anyone can stand being a woman.  That doesn't mean I don't love making people feel better, or have days when all I want to do is hang out in my kitchen, wearing a pink dress and baking for someone appreciative.  It just means I don't have any days when I'm OK with the completely un-necessary ways being female cuts off my choices.  

And I've wrestled with this--alongside struggling to accept my fat body, which is a whole other can of worms--and come to a few conclusions.  I think part of the reason I have this struggle is that gender norms are even more deep-down-encoded for me than they are for most people.  It's harder for me to say, "well, I can have xyz feminine characteristics and uvw masculine characteristics and there's really no conflict there--people are just people."  I was raised with an incredibly gendered religious model of what I ought to be, and it was soon clear that was never going to work.  I was never going to be able to be that thing, and many of the characteristics I had which didn't fit were "masculine" characteristics.  Without role models, I was particularly vulnerable to the representations in advertising--which were just as gendered, damaging, and impossible to fit, although this time the impossible expectations were more centered around my body. 


The other day he called me out of the blue, the bastard, and apologized for not spending enough time with me when I was a kid.  Sometimes, I think he is more innocent than I've ever been; he honestly has no clue.  Once, he dragged me into the house in a rage, had me drop my pants for a spanking, and shattered a slat of wood against our (fortunately sturdy) piano bench.  Then he held it in front of my face, and said, "this is what I want to do to you right now."  As shitty childhoods go, mine was thankfully light on direct brutality, and that moment had an impact.  

Most of the time, I try not to think of the fact that I have a father.  A little of this is because of his progressive dementia, which has been a factor in his behavior since god knows when.  More of it is because of the way he treated, and didn't treat, his children.  

On some level, I really want to forgive him.  I want peace, and to feel gratitude about the things he did give me.  There was experience with greenhouses and gardens, which I mostly hated at the time but love now; there were endless nights laying awake and listening to the soothing cadence of his voice, reading adventure stories from Lloyd Alexander and C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.  Sometimes, we would go out into the mountains and cook dinner over a fire, singing in harmony all the way there and back; I loved the way the cold air made me feel alive, and how it swallowed all the noise and made the world seem silent even when people were talking.  My father wanted his children to work hard, play hard, and to love books far more than he ever had.  I think perhaps he succeeded.

One night when I was fourteen, The World Was Coming To An End.  My parents didn't understand, and I couldn't explain it to them, but my father--in a rare moment of understanding--took me to the mall. It wasn't that we could afford to buy anything, but malls had a lot of mystique for me.  Malls were at the center of my attempts to observe and imitate normalcy, and they offered hopeful contrast to home--a dark and dilapidated place that came to us with carpets soaked in moldy dog urine and bedroom doors which locked from the outside.  On that night, the mall was already closed.  I had given up, but my father pulled into the church parking lot and gave me my first illicit driving lesson.  No child of his would face the world without learning how to drive a stick.

There was something about the way he would ask, over and over--did you like that?  That story, that dinner, that anything?  Even his finest moments as a parent were colored by his bottomless pit of need.  I am not sure if my father has ever really felt loved.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


For all of my radical politics, there are few things I find more important and harder to live by than anti-consumerism, and this summer I've repeatedly found myself slipping.  This isn't just important for ideological reasons--my life gets terrible when I start defining myself and seeking happiness by spending.  Today's post is about physical objects, and what knowledge I've scraped together about how to deal with them.  Some of it is what's right for me, but I'm hoping to develop a more widely applicable approach. . .

1.  People are always more important than objects

I learned this lesson by living with my oldest sister and her husband when I was about thirteen, and I really have to thank them for it.  You wouldn't get yelled at for spilling, loosing, or breaking things.  It was understood that you would try your best not to do it again.  People--and not just their physical welfare, but their emotional state--were always more important than physical objects in that household, and it was a much happier way to live.    

2.  Things belong with the people who will use them best.

This is an obvious efficiency maximiser.  To best enact your values in the world, your resources (including your physical objects) should go wherever they will best enact your values.  Sometimes, that means somebody else gets the treadmill you use once a week, because they'd use it every day.  Sometimes it doesn't.

3.  Have respect for embodied energy: things are someones' life.

All person-made objects represent people.  The makers aren't going to get that time and effort back; it's been released into the world in the form of your object.  While these embodiments are less important than living-breathing-people-in-front-of-you, they're still important and worthy of respect.  Because of this, I try to primarily own objects which are sturdy, well crafted, and made by well compensated workers--and to make things last "a boringly long time."*

4.  Accept that you need to own objects, and that they will require time and care from you.

Whatever your needs are, you will not be able to meet them without some physical objects.  Almost certainly, you will need to own some physical objects.  Like pets (but less so), possessions require attention and upkeep.  Like certain combinations of pets, possessions require upkeep both individually and as collections.  This is a bitter taste.  Get used to it.  

One of this biggest gaps remaining in my personal algorithm for dealing with physical objects is the question of how much time and care they should receive.  Really good tools have improved my life dramatically.  At the same time, I struggle not to be owned by my things.  

5.  Cultivate a sense of security.  

I'm not 100% certain this is true, but for the time being I've found it helpful to postulate that being well supplied in general will carry you through famines, rather than making you soft.  Feeling insecure is distracting and stressful, and it makes you less good at life.

Economic security is an impossibly distant wish for many--possibly most--people.  Still, I find it helpful to know what I'm shooting for.  Supposing I had a steady income adequate to sustainably meet my needs, I would try to cultivate a sense of security regarding objects by (a) being very aware of what my needs were, (b) owning a sufficient kit of durable, high quality stuff to meet my needs, and (c) keeping a cash reserve specifically budgeted for replacing said objects when they were lost, damaged, and broken.  I would use my bountiful circumstances to develop skills which would help me do without, if necessary.  I would also try to plan well for retirement, life changes,** and emergencies, and follow the financial habits which correlate with happiness.  I shall try to post and/or link to those at some point soon.

Some people attempt to achieve greater economic security by storing objects, rather than cash they don't have.  This makes a lot of sense--in our present economy, you can find absurdly inexpensive consumer goods on a random basis.  By buying everything at its lowest price point and storing it for future use, you can have access to a lot of objects for very little cash.  You must also budget time and energy to organize, store, and maintain these objects when they aren't in use--and spare time, storage space, and energy are also frequently as short supply, when you're poor.  For some people, this strategy works very well, but it requires a lot of skill, planning, and investment of self into caring for things to work well.

A sense of security can fight the fear of being without, as well as the excessive attachment to objects that comes with fear.

6.  Fight hard against hedonic adaptation, aka "necessity creep."

I think everyone is vaguely aware of this problem.  Actually fighting it is another matter; this is the best I've come up with.  Figure out what your needs are.  Write them down.  If you discover them changing over time, take some time to decide whether or not they're changing in a healthy way.  When deciding whether to acquire something, think hard about how it will relate to your actual needs.  If you frequently find yourself justifying purchases which you later find excessive, maybe sit down for a minute and write about how the item you plan to acquire will function in your life, and whether it really serves your needs as much as money in the bank or a donation to your favorite charity would.

I have problems with this because for the first 24 years of my life, I was so intent on avoiding hedonic adaptation that I failed to recognize my real needs, let alone fight to meet them.  Arriving at a healthy willingness to recognize what is really necessary for me to flourish took more than a year of therapy.  This habit turns the fight against necessity creep into a tightrope, on which I feel I'm constantly overbalancing one way or another.

7.  Seek the elegance of just what is needed--seek less and better. 

For me, ultimate luxury would involve not owning anything that I wouldn't be using within the year.  The cost of owning and maintaining objects is high for me, because I get stuck on decisions that don't seem terribly hard for other people, because my health problems make it difficult for me to physically maintain things, and because I don't have the habits and/or mindsets of a skilled housekeeper.  I find a lot of elegance in simplicity.  When I dream of a perfect home, I see spaces which have everything in them which is needed, and absolutely nothing more.  

Starting in the real world and trying to accomplish this, I try to focus on the ratio between stuff and usage.  The goal is to get the greatest amount of use out of the smallest amount of stuff, without this project interfering with the rest of my life.  Owning beautiful things helps optimize your stuff/use ratio.  Taking pleasure in an object is a kind of use; therefore, maximizing use means, if possible, owning only objects which especially bring you pleasure.

8.  Don't get sucked in.

Minimize your exposure to advertisements and window shopping; shop only for items that you have noticed a need for in your day-to-day experience.  Do not go to places of commerce for pleasure or comfort.   

Take care of your feelings.  Try to notice and address what you feel.  Focus your life on the things that will actually make you happy--relationships, experiences, satisfying and hopeful work, and connection to something larger than yourself.  Seek pleasure and comfort in these things.

*where is that line from?  such a good line. . .

** this might be obvious to everyone else, but the materially expedient way to meet your needs will change with your circumstances.  Therefore, whenever you move to a new place, you're likely to need a certain amount of different stuff. . . etc.

Friday, June 15, 2012

investigative, collaborative, creative

Last year, I took these tests from the career center--a "career values inventory" and a "career interests inventory."  One of them showed me that I'd be willing to work in a coal mine, as long as I was doing work that used my skills, with people I loved, and thought I was helping someone.  The other showed me that I have an outstanding preference for work which is investigative and creative.

Knowing this is quite helpful.  With the kind of undergrad degree I'm getting, the obvious thing would be to go straight for an advanced degree at the swankiest school that will pay my way.  It is less obvious that I'd be happy living an intensely competitive and academic life.  I've started trying to cultivate the skills to do the work that will make me happy.  Since I'm pretty good at investigating things, that means becoming more creative and more collaborative.  

I have a long way to go on both of these fronts.  To become better at being collaborative, I've been trying to practice kindness. . . and particularly, to practice being open to the people around me.  I know people are responsive to this sort of thing; they want to spend time with someone who isn't going to shut them down, who is pre-disposed to be enthusiastic about their good qualities and accepting of them as an over-all package.  It is so hard.  I try to smile when I see people, but somehow it doesn't get to my eyes. 

I have a friend, L, who is exceptional at this.  People flock to her; you mention her name and people will immediately and enthusiastically mention that she is AWESOME.  They speak the truth; being around her just makes you feel good.  She threw a birthday party around the beginning of the year, the preparations for which involved baking several batches of cookies in our dorm kitchen.  It was like being transported to a farmhouse kitchen in some alternate reality, with the infinitely loving cookie-baking family that you never had. . . except that she was also nineteen and brilliant and adorable and not your sister.  Needless to say, it was a popular attraction even before the cookies started to emerge.  

Perhaps part of the problem is that I haven't worked out the ways in which I do and don't want to be judgmental.  There's boundaries to be sorted out here.  A lot of people do things that I find grossly unacceptable; what's the best way for me to deal with that fact?  

The creativity thing is also hard.  The Creative Habit has been very helpful, though I disagree with some of her premises.  Yesterday, along with my usual journaling (and now also blogging) and "professional" writing time, I made myself draw for half an hour.  It was incredibly difficult, even at the library with piles of drawing books before me, but I'm glad I did it.  Last night, when I was settled in with one of my "girl with a sword" books, I ended up putting it down and starting to write my own. . . because it was just more fun.  Hopefully, this is a quality that will slowly grow.  It's ironic that I'd shut down this part of myself, thinking it self-indulgent, being hyper-critical of my own work, on the assumption that I would never be able to create anything of real value.  I will probably never draw or paint or fiction-write anything spectacular, but being in the habit of making things--of overcoming the blank page with something interesting and new--can only better my work, whatever that work turns out to be.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

six pages

I tried to write the book I was planning to write this summer, and it became immediately clear it wasn't going to happen.  I thought I was well enough, stable enough, having a sufficiently calm and neutral attitude towards the church.

Instead I'm writing what I can write--what I need to write.  It's the sort of obscenely self-indulgent autobiography I'd been hoping to avoid.  I am writing about recovery; about what happened--about getting help--about getting better.  Recovery, the slow and painful crawl.

I have six pages, and am picking up speed.  It is not good.  If anything good (writing wise) comes out of this, it will be after a serious refining fire.  It's very strange--I find myself writing in this weirdly detached voice I recognize from other biographies of child abuse--a hole in the world, a child called it.  This is what happened, we say.  This is just the best I can remember it, the simplest accuracy I can muster.  Except how the hell am I supposed to remember?  I was young, and had nothing else with which to compare my life.

Maybe I will be better when this is done.

Though, to spoil that deliciously melodramatic note, I actually feel better now.  Actively dealing with it is definitely better than not.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

I am lonely.

This should not come as a surprise.

Here are the primary things I want (lack and desire--I'm not sure how much of each) from friends:

1.  They understand most of what I am interested in thinking about without long additional explanations, because they know me well and/or have put thought into similar things.

2.  They are interested in hearing much of what I have to say. 

3.  They are just the right sort of judgemental.  I can trust that they will (for the most part) judge me only by some criteria that I understand and care about, that are related to my own core values even if I don't agree with them completely--and I know that they have some handle on what my values and aspirations are.

4.  We treat each other well.

Leaving aside how much we care about each other and how well we treat each other, very few of my Utah friends fall into the first category.  Many of my closest friends at school have the first two, but not the third. . . the right sort of judgemental is very difficult to pull off.  I would give a lot to have half a dozen reasonably bright people around me for the rest of my life who are in all four categories.  I think finding people like this--and being a good friend to them--is one of the most important skills I could learn.  I wish I had better ideas on how to learn it.

This criteria set is not perfect; my friendship with J, for example, often runs better because she's not in category 1 for me--and she's willing to listen to my long additional explanations till the end of time, which does much to keep me sane.  Also, she thinks differently than I, and has had many very different experiences, which just. . . helps.  Also, it works because she's awesome.  I should call her.  Except my phone isn't working.  Hmn.

I'm lonely, at which I should not be surprised.  It helps to acknowledge this; like many things, having acknowledged it, I can stop furiously trying to ignore it.

I've know this all along, but living St. John's style--surrounded by interesting people, several of whom are one's friends, all of whom are brought together by a common project--is really the only way to go.  This doesn't bring me any closer to knowing how to enact this outside of St. John's.

At the same time, I know that people need times of isolation.  Knowing that however much I reach out to people is unlikely to be satisfying, I can work on reaching out while also trying to make this a useful time of isolation for me.