rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
After reading some really compelling arguments on the subject, I have just one question: in what contexts can disconnects arise between one's physiological state and emotional/psychological state?

It seems like there are a lot of potential contexts. It's interesting to think about cases where this is normal and healthy and cases where it might be pathological.

Edited to add: I think this article is also relevant:
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
I am just going to put a couple of things here instead of on other social media venues because this seems like a better place for productive conversation.

After hearing about the horrible bike crash in Kalamazoo last week that killed 5 cyclists, I got to wondering again about where automobile crashes sit on the list of preventable causes of death.

The Wikipedia page provides some perspective, although it contains a note that the chart for the US is very much out-of-date. There's some additional information in a more recent CDC report (pdf), where automobile crashes are lumped into the category of "Unintentional injuries." There's a trend towards progress in terms of automobile crashes, although of course this depends on what one considers to be an acceptable level of preventable causes of death. And were firearms scrubbed from the record? I did not poke at this especially hard so I am still probably poorly informed.

Overall, human beings are terrible at being scared of the things we should actually be concerned about, because so many of these things are things that we are in contact with or experience over the course of everyday life, and so we just come to see them as something normal. In contrast, think about the extreme safety measures in place for airline travel. I also still see bicycling as a really good tool for reshaping these lists in a positive direction.

Also, this is mostly unrelated, but I am incredibly happy to see this article about bridging indigenous and scientific knowledge in Science. I am happy because it's a beacon of hope, and to me it's a wonderful form of trendy "Citizen Science" because it validates indigenous peoples' way of life.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
My attention span for subjects in cognitive psychology has traditionally been limited by impatience over heuristics. It's an arena where humans can't help being subjective, and it's easy to get tangled up in this subjectivity to a point where one becomes blind to alternative ideas and evidence and ways of thinking. Kahneman is continuing to do a sensitive job of covering important gaps in how humans think about, interpret, and respond to the world around us. I have a feeling that I will wind up pulling out some excerpts to savor further.

In the meantime, here are two things that popped up yesterday, both touching on how scientific thinking can be transformed over time. They highlighted one of the most important things that Kahneman has done, from a philosophical standpoing: when Kahneman has encountered resistance to his ideas and evidence, he has made a concerted effort to work with those who have an opposing viewpoint to figure out how to reconcile different perspectives.

In contrast, for years now I have been observing some Huge Arguments in sociobiology that have largely just exasperated me, over the evolution of eusociality. At one point, a couple of years into graduate school, a group of us got together as a small class to work through the relevant ideas and math for the sake of understanding group selection. It wasn't easy, but with the help of a couple key people, we reached a point where we all felt like we had a good sense of the mechanics, even if we hadn't reached the stage where we had ideas on how to structure and test hypotheses on the subject. That was sufficient for me; my main interests lie elsewhere.

But the evolution of eusociality is obviously a Big Question for sociobiologists, so of course some prominent figures in the field have had longstanding interest in being involved in answering the question. When Wilson and Nowak's paper appeared in the journal Nature in 2010, it created quite a stir, but as this blog post so aptly puts it, "Reading the protracted back and forth between the challengers and defenders of kin selection is like watching a tennis match in which the ball abruptly changes shape, size, colour, and direction every time it crosses over the net."

In this case, there may be hope in the long term, but the tennis match has left its mark on interpersonal relations in the field of sociobiology, which I think is something of a shame.

Yesterday I also encountered a piece about an emeritus faculty member from Berkeley, Marian Diamond, who is the subject of a new documentary because of her influential career spent studying the human brain. The brief video snippet in the article also provides commentary about how Diamond faced resistance to the ideas she was interested in pursuing. But it sounds like a worthwhile documentary project in that she was eventually able to convince people that longstanding notions about how the brain works were wrong. I also like her perspective on five things that promote brain health (diet, exercise, challenge, newness, love). To some extent, this all actually wraps back around to Kahneman, who in the most recent chapter of Thinking, Fast and Slow has pointed out that humans do a much better job of generalizing from anecdata than we do of applying general statistical information to specific cases. It will be easier to follow Diamond's story than it would be to follow a history of neuroscience.


Jan. 28th, 2016 11:03 am
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
I woke up this morning sometime before my alarm was scheduled to go off so I could get up and go rowing. When I woke up again to the sound of the alarm, I pushed snooze, and when the alarm went off a second time, I turned it off and went back to sleep. This isn't a post about excuses, or about regrets about not going rowing this morning. My legs are still sore from doing lunges on Monday, and I also have busy work and home life agendas at the moment, to the point where I could tell my subconscious was rebelling and deserved some thinking-space.

At the moment, my mind seems to be most preoccupied with two instances of failures, which both belong to other people. One instance is an exploration of how certain traditional hetero relationship expectations can wind up undermining relationships. The second is on how housemate dynamics fail, which is a somewhat delicate topic because I'm in the midst of working out how new housemate dynamics will go and have had my own fair share of failures in that department.

I'm not inclined to obsess endlessly over failures, as I get the feeling that such obsessing and anguish can turn into a deep, dark, black hole. I'd like to learn from them, reflect on them, and also use them to see areas that could have been failures, but aren't. For instance - on the traditional hetero relationship expectations undermining relationships. That whole notion got me thinking on how the absence of that structure presents its own challenges, because it means that more aspects of a relationship need to be actively negotiated, especially surrounding "housekeeping vs. the dirt."* So people who might wish to be egalitarian may wind up falling back on the hetero tropes because it takes less energy, and for whatever reason, we're overly busy adults. Anyway, all that said and done, I'm immensely grateful to be in a relationship that feels like it's working pretty well on this front.

But failures shouldn't be glossed over or ignored, either. Heavens, no. Again, I have that hope of learning, tied to that notion of one's whole lifetime as a developmental process.

I wish I could keep lying in bed, to fully work out what's going on, on this subconscious level, but I also know that after a point I inevitably get stuck in my thinking and wind up with an incomplete thought. Plus, the sun was up, the sunrise was lovely, and it was time to start the day and attend to other things.

*This is the title of a book by Nick Hornby, which is a collection of literary essays, but I just love the title.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
So I've been reading and pondering a book that was loaned to me not too long ago by my mother. Getting the Love You Want is an interesting relationship book, both for what it contains, and what it does not (so highly heteronormative). In a nutshell, its goal is the promotion of "the conscious marriage," defined as "a state of mind and a way of being based on acceptance, a willingness to grow and change, the courage to encounter one's own fear, and a conscious decision to act in loving ways."

There are a lot of elements to unpack. I'll touch on the omitted subjects first, mostly to remark that with the way the book is written, it doesn't necessarily come into any direct conflict with alternative relationship structures except in how it stresses the importance of "closing your exits" to create a critical degree of security in the relationship at hand (boiling down to making time for the relationship instead of avoiding it). Sexual in/compatibility isn't directly addressed, either.

Laying those elements aside, I'm still left pondering several aspects of the book's approach to marriage. It is based around some rather Freudian notions, in addition to a specific concept of individual development and relationship progression. Specifically - it posits that we have all experienced unmet childhood needs, which have deeply shaped our personas and affect who we are attracted to, date, and marry (generally, significant others who resemble our parents or caretakers in key ways). These things don't rise to the surface until an intermediate relationship stage is reached, when the interplay of those combined unmet needs leads to conflict and a power struggle. For the relationship to progress beyond the stage of the power struggle, it can be helpful to go through a series of exercises to identify those suppressed unmet needs, cope with the emotions that arise upon their identification, and develop concrete methods to ask for, give, and receive these things from one's partner.

I feel like the Freudian aspect is one that a person could take or leave, depending on one's perspective on developmental psychology. There's clearly a lot that happens in terms of emotional development when one is young, but it seems to me this basis leads to the creation of a "just so" story. On the flipside, we are all sample sizes of one, and I don't think there's any serious harm that would come from taking this perspective unless it was used deceptively. And deception just wouldn't really hang in this whole framework - at that point, it isn't much of a relationship anymore. And if it helps a person pinpoint his or her hangups, well, that's useful, regardless of the source of those hangups.

The "development" aspect of the book kind of made me rock back for a minute, because it made me realize a longstanding implicit assumption of mine - the notion that a human's lifetime is a developmental experience (emotionally and intellectually). This notion is highly ingrained, tied to a concept of lifelong "spiritual development" (which can occur whether one is religious or not). I operate under an assumption that a life-long developmental process is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. The thing to ponder is, what would be an alternative to this perspective? I don't think it's the notion of being "stuck" - that just brings you back to the context of development. Humans aren't simply random, either - memory comes into play, somehow. And regardless, I *do* think the book is correct that one's personal development is intimately tied to one's relationships with others, even though the book has defined the nature of those relationships a bit narrowly. Working through this line of thinking has been helpful in figuring out why I put emphasis on long-term relationships (best friend, family members) in thinking about my own identity and priorities.

Food for thought, at least.

I also suspect that, regardless of whether one accepts the underlying theories or not, the prescribed set of activities will nurture a relationship in concrete, pragmatic ways, by creating structured opportunities to talk about and practice good, kind, and loving behavior. Will I sit down and do them? I'm not sure yet. But I can't help thinking about them anyway.

There's also a section in the book on figuring out how to express and deal with anger in constructive ways. I hadn't thought about the subject so directly before, but it touches on the notion that it's important to be able to express and experience the full range of one's human emotions.


While work is busy, I have grabbed the closest fluffy read I could find, Gnarr, about the Icelandic comedian who unexpectedly launched a political career, starting a new political party, the Best Party. After that, I am going to read The Book on Forgiveness, and then I think Nonviolent Communication. I suspect these two will be thought-provoking as well.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
"And then, outside a greengrocer's, it happened - something that sooner or later always happens to me on a long trip away from home. It is a moment I dread.
"I started asking myself unanswerable questions.
"Prolonged solitary travel, you see, affects people in different ways. It is an unnatural business to find yourself in a strange place with an underutilized brain and no particular reason for being there, and eventually it makes you go a little crazy. I've seen it in others often. Some solitary travelers start talking to themselves: little silently murmured conversations that they think no one else notices. Some desperately seek the company of strangers, striking up small talk at shop counters and hotel reception desks and then lingering awkwardly after it has become clear that the conversation has finished. Some become ravenous, obsessive sightseers, tramping from sight to sight with a guidebook in a lonely quest to see everything. Me, I get a sort of interrogative diarrhea. I ask private questions for which I cannot supply an answer. And so as I stood by a greengrocer's in Thurso, looking at its darkened interior with pursed lips and a more or less empty head, from out of nowhere I thought,
Why do they call it a grapefruit? and I knew that the process had started."

-Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island

Bill Bryson is an excellent traveling companion. Initially I had only carried along an intense book by Simone de Beauvoir for my trip to Europe, but on the extra day in Chicago I decided to track down a local bookstore to find slightly lighter fare. Bryson's book hit the spot, especially because it's about adventures around England and English culture.

I read the above passage on the train during a point in the trip where I could relate all to easily to it. In addition to traveling all the way to Europe for the sake of a one-of-a-kind bicycling experience, I wanted to see other cities and their sights and sounds, to get a feel for what this whole human experience is all about. To get perspective.

The first time we visited Paris, some of the immigrant neighborhoods caught me by surprise. Sure, we have Chinatowns in the US, but there's nothing quite like walking down a huge city block filled with narrow shops all specializing in African weaves, each with a guy standing out front to entice you inside. There were drifts of hair blowing along the sidewalk on that street. Then there are parks that consist of small patches of gravel, completely overrun by people (men, mostly) just lounging around, looking like they have nothing to do and nowhere to go (not necessarily homeless, just without purpose). Even the crowded US cities don't feel like this.

The human experience can be uplifting, inspiring, discouraging, depressing, the whole gamut. I know I wrote briefly about feeling like London was soul-crushing without elaborating much on the sensation. If I was traveling for a sense of perspective, London and Paris both gave me that, just not the sort of perspective I'd expected. I left London with a sense of my own unimportance. It's a city that doesn't care about you and your petty aspirations, especially if you lack social class. So, why even bother? How can I continue to churn out blog entry after blog entry, knowing that most of the subject matter is trivial and will gradually disappear into a dusty corner of the Internet? Wouldn't it be better to take a more refined approach, only putting out and sharing maybe one or two all-time incredible gems, cultivated and polished over a lifetime? Could I channel my energies in that fashion? It's not that I have any wish to be famous, whatsoever. I just want to feel purposeful.

On that train trip, reading Bryson's book, however, I remembered something else.


Magnum opuses don't come out of thin air. They are born out of hundreds of small attempts and failures. I *do* need to keep at it, even when things seem utterly futile and I don't have any idea what the future holds (by the way, this is also related to gearing up for another round of job applications). The act of writing keeps me in touch with myself, and this is necessary for the sake of channeling my voice and using it for good. Besides, the demons compel me to write, and I have a hard time ignoring them, which means I probably shouldn't ignore them.

Shortly after I returned from Europe, my ceramics instructor from Tempe passed away. She had been diagnosed with an inoperable form of brain cancer a year or two prior. I haven't seen her since moving away, only heard the news indirectly. She lived such a public life, as a teacher, and yet I have also always had the sense that she was also a very private person, perhaps as a defense mechanism. Only every once and a while would this side of herself slip out. Just a few days after I learned that she had died, I received an alumni magazine with an article about her and her work, talking about the ceramic sculptures she's had exhibited around the world - the list of her accolades. What's most striking to me, however, is the photo showing her in her home studio space, putting on a bright face and smile even while the ravages of cancer are evident (but only to those who know). Despite the smile and warm, loving attitude, B did not have an easy life. Everything she has accomplished has been the result of tireless persistence and dedication. Porcelain clay is an unforgiving medium in an artform that is often overlooked because it's traditionally in the female "craft" arena. She was also one of the people who was a consistent champion of the things I did as a graduate student, and I know she will continue to be a source of inspiration through the low points.

And so, onward.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)

I think I am figuring out that at least some of the present insomnia is allergies, once again. Thanks, spring. I mean, I feel shitty and all but it's out of sync with the emotional processing.

Sometimes I *can* feel the shift in my emotions, like the snap of a rubber band or a pinging sensation. Friday there was an unexplainable sense of relief, this morning it is that sensation that says, "REACH OUT TO HIM" with every fiber but right now I just don't know if I trust my emotions and I don't want to be a chain-rattler. I have to sit and wait. Those two emotions are at opposite ends of the spectrum, bracketed by a deep anger that tells me that I am hurting and that I care. The opposite of love is ambivalence. Interspersed with a horrible quantity of mucus production from the unending crying. I had to sink-wash 8 bandanas yesterday, and let me tell you, snot is gross.

I've heard on numerous occasions that depressed people actually tend to have a better grasp on reality than non-depressed people, but in such reports nobody ever seems to just up and ask, "Yeah, but is that a good thing?" Its prevalence suggests that either selective pressure against it has been relaxed (in the same sense that it has been relaxed for many other diseases, through modern medicine and technology) or there is something beneficial to it that keeps the propensity around, at least in minor variants, not extremes. This doesn't exactly answer the question either. I know when I am on the edge of those lows sometimes it feels like I can channel more intellectual capacity, but I also manage to stay out of the bleak realm of "unable to cope."

There was one striking episode in Texas where S's emotions took him for a ride so suddenly that I trace the memory back to a single timepoint, lying in bed while he was on that rollercoaster, trying to get some company* and mad that I wasn't saying anything. I guess that, like another friend of mine, I don't know the right thing to do under such circumstances, from a cognitive behavioral therapy standpoint, which was why I was so quiet, but that explanation was swiftly shot down by the subject.  There's no consulting nurse phone line to call up for that kind of question, as best as I can determine (the consulting nurse is for those embarrassing times when you can't decide if it's appendicitis or just a really bad gas bubble and the internet sure ain't helping). The best I could come up with was what [ profile] thewronghands articulated in a recent comment, time. And in time he came out of it and we could talk.

It's so hard for us humans to just come out and talk about these things, still, and I don't take the project of writing about this stuff lightly and it is filtered on some level, I hope akin to the way in which the author of Hyperbole and a Half was eventually able to write and draw about her experiences with depression. I take the Christian Science Monitor's motto pretty seriously in that regard (though a less sexist version), "to injure no one, to bless all humankind."

-I feel I have to reiterate my policy that this blog is about me and any requests for removal of personal identifying information will be honored, including of S.

*hope the meaning is clear-emotional company in that he wanted me right there with him in unhappiness-because I sure wasn't going anywhere in a physical sense

rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
One of the things I deeply appreciate about [ profile] scrottie is his strong drive to do work on projects. There's a piece of that drive that could be labeled "introversion," but it's more than just that. I relate to this aspect of S because after a certain point I grow weary of neverending parades and parties and social occasions and talking. Weary of sitting and watching movies, too. I have a higher tolerance of these things than he does, but the underlying sentiment is the same. Enough; let me go do things on my own, take time to think and not speak.

A couple of visits back, my uncle F and I had a brief conversation about projects. He pointed out a simple insight he'd had, that the thing that has kept him up and moving in the long term has been projects. If he didn't develop projects in his workplace, he said he wouldn't have managed to keep burning the rubber to get to work every morning. He went over one day to check out the activity happening at a retired neighbor's house, spying a group of guys hanging out and watching a construction crew, and they all knowingly glanced at each other and said, "Projects." Even in retirement, that's what keeps them going. If I'm kept too long from my stream of projects, I know I get anxious. But I know many other people who have been content with sliding into something of a mental vegetable state. Did they make that choice consciously? Is it the result of some sort of giving up? Are they stuck in a state of struggling to survive that makes it hard to think of much else?

For me, the projects are a piece of the Existential Crisis. It's important to be aware of that. In many ways, they're a struggle against many of the conveniences handed to us on a platter by modern socioeconomic circumstances present in the United States of America. I don't really need to finish making a quilt; it would be cheaper, easier, and far, far faster to just go to a store and buy one, especially if I'm willing to be completely blind to the conditions in which the quilt is made. The quilt also isn't even art in the Western sense, as it's being made for a small audience, and won't be particularly good or nice because it's my first quilt ever and I don't entirely know what I'm doing. But it's there, and I *will* work on it.

The projects are also not hustle and bustle in an attempt to cover up the silence. The silence still creeps through and sends me back to books like Man's Search for Meaning. We'll see about Goedel, Escher, Bach and whether or not it speaks to me at all. I want to go visit the silence, actually, on mountaintops or on lakes.

Is it possible to shift the national discourse away from happiness? It's written into the Declaration of Independence, and yet I'm inclined to agree with Man's Search for Meaning that happiness doesn't relate back to fundamental aspects of the human experience. Advertisers have long exploited the idea because it's an effective selling point.

Religious practice or spiritual development can be a form of project - for many, if not most, a very worthwhile one. Rowing, for me, has been a long-term project.

I remember, quite distinctly, waking up one morning while I lived in the Farmer House, the white light of the Arizona sun shining in through the white curtains, reflecting off the white walls, making the room almost impossibly bright. I had the distinct sensation that my arm, made up of its billions of tiny, metabolically active cells, wasn't fully a part of me, that it would one day return to dust. Then the inner demons compelled me to get up and get back to work.


Nov. 13th, 2014 02:54 pm
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
So, today Nature has put out a special issue on depression. I'm unsure as to what most of you folks will be able to access, but if any of the content looks particularly interesting or relevant to you and is paywalled, find a way to get in touch with me and I'll see what I can do. Longtime readers will be fully aware that I think it's important to push back against the social stigmas against psychological disorders, and learning more about conditions like depression is part of my agenda in this direction.

I especially appreciate the piece on cognitive behavioral therapy, because while I've known that it's often effective, this summarizes the state-of-the-art with regards to knowledge of how to treat depressive disorders, so I can speak with somewhat better authority on the subject. It's so interesting to think that the process of working with another human being to analyze and change thought patterns can have such a tremendous positive influence on one's life. Words have real power.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
Some people say that many of those who go into studies of psychology, do so because they experience some level of psychopathology that makes it difficult for them to relate to other human beings, and so they study psychology to obtain at least some level of working knowledge of how other human beings function, and use that knowledge to be able to function on at least a pseudo-normal level in society.

A basic and related concept presented by my Abnormal Psych professor is that everyone displays symptoms of different psychological diseases, but if the person generally isn't pathological he or she shouldn't freak out about it and make the giant leap to concluding he or she is ill. Thus, the boundaries between pseudo-normal and normal are thin or nonexistent.

Social Psychology was the only college course where the professor: (a) tested us on whether the material we learned came from the textbook or lecture, and (b) curved grades downward, such that my 94% turned into an A-minus or B-plus (don't remember which, and it hasn't really mattered, aside from the sting of diminished reward relative to effort). Aside from that, I found the course to be highly informative with respect to how individuals manage different kinds of social contexts (groupthink, the fundamental attribution error, self-fulfilling prophecies, stereotype threat, attitudes, persuasion and routes to persuasion, the diffusion of responsibility, cognitive dissonance, et cetera). As someone with strong empiricist leanings, I think the field appealed to me more than other subdisciplines like cognitive psychology or developmental psych, because it is rooted in experimental design and testing of human behavior.

There are just two small problems, for me. The first is that, as a field rooted in empirical research, findings generally deal with average behavior, not with individual behavior. And if there's anything I know about individual behavior, it's that it can be tremendously variable, to the point where it's often hard to distinguish signal from noise. It can also be affected and changed through education, which is a hopeful message for negative behavioral attributes (think stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination). So, how useful is it, really, on an individual level? It's also pretty hard to engender goodwill when pointing out someone's self-fulfilling prophecy.

The second problem is, how good are we, really, as individuals, at identifying and characterizing our own behavior and thought processes, as they relate to these identified behavior patterns? A recent, excellent long read might suggest that we're not really good at all at identifying what we know and what we don't know. What I know for myself is, I'm rarely certain, for it seems unwise to be certain after we become aware of how our individual perceptions and moods shape our memories of events.

And so, despite devoting their lifetimes to the study of human cognition and behavior, many psychologists persist in having just as many social abnormalities as the rest of society.

While my academic focus shifted away from psychology and towards animal behavior more broadly, I'm still grateful for the time I spent in the Psych department as an undergrad. If anything, I hope that having learned more about how humans behave, as compared to the behaviors humans hold up as ideals, can help me be a more compassionate and forgiving human being, myself.


Sep. 2nd, 2014 11:22 am
rebeccmeister: (cricket)
One of the absolute best parts of my current job has been the opportunity to work with our collaborator. He's one of those people who will tell you he's not particularly smart, but then he turns around and has keen insights and provides helpful, focused feedback on multiple fronts. I suspect that he feels that it's necessary to declare up front that smarts haven't gotten him where he is because a lot of people probably declare to him that he's smart. But really, a key attribute that makes many people successful is NOT smarts* (and oh, let's not get into the subject of how differently people attribute the successes of men vs. women). A willingness to be stupidly and stubbornly persistent can really, really help, as can an ability to work hard (ugh, I'm not doing well on that front lately), and knowing when and how to ask for help. Also good social skills (yes, it IS all about relationships), and the ability to respond thoughtfully.

When I interact with someone like him, I start to think, yes, there are ways to not just survive, but to have a huge positive impact on the lives of others. We human beings still have a lot to learn about how to be good humans, and yet we have also come a long, long ways.

Let's remember that, now and again, especially when we start to feel beaten down by world events or personal events. Forge on.

*I think I might have already written about this sometime in the past six months, but I can't seem to dredge up the post. Sigh.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
For the better part of the week, I've been pondering writing something entitled "Sloughing," about how it has been so far to live with reduced possessions. [short answer: I should've emptied out my wardrobe sooner!! I've hardly missed anything else!]

But it has been a difficult week, on both superficial and deep levels, so my mind has primarily been elsewhere. I'm only going to talk about one superficial example: on Tuesday, after posting about bike commuting, I experienced catastrophic bike-transit failure - so catastrophic it was pretty much ridiculous. I needed to get stuff at the library on the main campus, so towards the end of the day I biked over there, hauling the bike trailer. That took longer than I'd hoped, so there I was, running late, with all the extra weight and the bike trailer, trying to hustle my bustle out to Lake Bryan. I'd had the idea of stopping by the homestead to swap out the Jolly Roger + trailer for Froinlavin, with Froinlavin's brand-new wheel, which would be more efficient and also more pleasant to ride home in the dark. I made it about 3 blocks from home on Froinlavin (hearing an odd clicking sound) before I realized I wasn't carrying my pannier with spare tools and cell phone and sunglasses. Back home. Then I made it about a third of the way out to the lake before getting the first of three flats, and quickly discovering that I'd failed to tighten the cassette's lockring when I swapped wheels. When things start to snowball like that, it's time to just throw in the towel, turn around, and go home. So much for rowing.

Maybe I could conclude the week by being pissed off and upset at humanity both individually and in the collective for all of the pain and suffering that occurs in the world and in my daily life. Maybe I should dwell on my imperfections and re-experience them in excruciating detail, spend time agonizing over all of the fun things I'm missing out on all of the time.

But sorry, pushback. As I wrote not too long ago, I do think there's an element of choice to how we spend our mental energies. That doesn't mean "suppress bad feelings," but don't seek out things that amplify them pointlessly (I'm looking at you, TeeVee News Media). Simple psychological experiments have actually shown that if people are made to arrange their facial features in a smile-like expression, they report more positive emotions and respond more positively to events*. The self-fulfilling prophecy can be positive OR negative, depending on what is prophesied. "Regression to the mean" will factor in, too. All of these might be why we can find incredible and beautiful expressions of humanity in people who have survived genocides, not universally bitter, alienated, isolated persons. Not saying it's easy, though the struggle through will probably be worthwhile.

I'm not advocating blind optimism. Just saying that, when the demons arise, take it as a sign to seek out the positive and the life-affirming. Respond by reaching out, not retracting. Here are a few such things for me, right now. (This is so fun. I think you'll see what I mean.)

Robin Williams talking about the dark side of humor in an interview with Terry Gross - but read the last thing he says in the "choice excerpts," which is part of why he resonates with so many people, and why we're grateful for him even while sad about a beautiful life cut short.

Coping with uncertainty - again, useful to remember that this is part of our shared human experience.

*Standard caveats for psychological research apply.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
So, I've started reading the book, and it has been good, so far. The first sections have reminded me of some of the things I've read on a bicycling blog written by Kent Peterson. After some searching, I still couldn't pull up the original entry that came to mind, but the overall ideas were related to elements discussed in this entry. The original was about the time Peterson spent as a software engineer/manager, where I think he declared something along the lines of, "Well, I didn't really manage things, so much as listen to people and tell stories."

Transitions works along those lines; I wasn't expecting it to contain so many stories, but there you have it - they're a useful framing technique for sharing insights. I think my starting expectations were based on the idea that self-improvement books are formulaic (is that part actually even true?), so I expected Transitions to be formulaic and dry and tedious, too.

The first chapter discusses the idea that there are three major components to transitions: endings, beginnings, and that uncomfortable segment in the middle between the ending and the beginning. Here's an excerpt I've been thinking about, although overall I have a feeling I'll want to make note of many passages as I read (oh, and someone has already gone through this library book with a pencil and "helped" me with that project, heh).

Looking back over your ending experiences, what can you say about your own style of bringing situations to a close? Is it abrupt and designed to deny the impact of the change, or is it slow and gradual? Do you tend to be active or passive in these terminal situations? That is, is it your initiative that brings things to term or do events just happen to you? Some people learn early to cultivate a subtle sort of receptivity to coincidence, or they become skilled at inviting others to covertly act upon them when change is in the wind.

Such people are characterized by a kind of blamelessness in regard to endings. They had no choice, they seem to say. The situation was beyond their control. In that first class on transition, we had several blameless ones, and they irritated everyone. None of us were feeling quite like the captain of our fate, but most of us acknowledged having played some part in the transition we were experiencing. Not the blameless ones, though, and particularly not one man whose wife had recently left him. ("She just walked out - no warning, no nothing - just left me.") He resented the idea that his own style might be one of inviting endings. He figuratively showed us his hands. ("See-clean.") And like someone who shouts "I didn't do it" when the police arrive, he called attention to himself and made everyone suspicious. He never caught on to what the others meant, and he finally stopped coming to class - another ending that he couldn't help - when one of the women
insulted him by calling him "emotionally accident-prone." Rule number three: Although it is very advantageous to understand your own style of endings, there is some part of you that will resist that understanding as though your life depended on it.
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Clearly, the trip over the weekend was wonderful, and yet it was one of those times when I really wanted to be enrapt but just wasn't. The landscape was beautiful, the company entertaining, and I love to ride my bike, but I didn't feel subsumed in the experience or the place. I talked to D about this deadened feeling a bit yesterday and the fact that she could relate to this experience was comforting--she has such a good emotional perspective (you do, D, you do).

Beyond that, I could recite for you a narrative of events, or a list of facts and figures, but reading text on the internet isn't the same thing as stepping outside, strapping stuff on a bike, and going, going, going.

The other thing that really stuck in my mind was conversations with one of my traveling companions, P. I should back up for a moment and mention my connections to the entirety of the group, because it was not a gang of the usual suspects. Well, one suspect was kind of usual, a grad student with a professed love of bikes and interest in touring. The other three are people who I have gotten to know through biking in various formats (the co-op, bike rides, biking-related events, bike shops)--it seems that K is right that like-minded people end up eventually finding each other here, whether through usual or unusual channels.

Anyway, one of the other riders is a "ships in the night" sort of person for me--even when we are in the same space, we can't quite talk to each other in a straightforward way, but look past each other and see mostly ourselves. I wouldn't ever expect to be able to really talk and don't necessarily want to be able to, but this slippery quality makes me think of other people with whom I've had transient connections but who have nonetheless had a disproportionate impact on me. In the present case, our infrequent contact and conversations give us interesting perspectives on each other. The previous time I had talked to him he said he was quite pleased with how his life was going, what with a switch to a new, stable job, and that he wasn't really looking to date anyone or make any drastic changes to his life--things were good. Subsequently, of course, he proceeded to start dating another biker, which is another great thing for him, and on the present trip he could not contain his joy about having a job that lets him do what he loves, a great girlfriend, and opportunities to do incredible things like go bike touring for a weekend through beautiful country.

As a transient outsider, I couldn't help but agree--his life does sound like it's going well. Yet something about the conversation bothered me, but not in any way I could articulate to him or myself (I don't really have to articulate the bother to him, but to myself, I must always articulate). I thought of my own life, which is also going well by many such standards--I do like the emotional rollercoaster of my academic profession, I have the opportunity to do the many things I love (rowing, biking, Scrabble, etc.), and I am surrounded by loved ones.

And yet--it is the "and yet" in my brain that makes me wonder and that reminded me of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (read the entry for both definitions and criticisms--even if incorrect, the concept has utility). All of the things that he has described and that I have described for myself fill our basic human needs for a sense of security and even more "advanced" needs like a feeling of participating in a larger context and making a positive contribution to society. At least for me, though, there's no way for me to stop striving and seeking out more, more, more, and I don't mean the material more or the social more or the artistic more. I just mean the beyond. I could tell you that I accept this truth of myself, but I don't, always. Right now I think the "more" lies in a need for a connection to the land (is this "more" merely the restlessness described by Berry?), but I don't know for sure until I try the thing out.

Last night I went on another bike ride with a larger group of people--since it's a week before a major Christian holiday, we decked ourselves out in festive colors and played Christmas carols as we rode through the neighborhoods. I attached dangly snowflakes to my handlebars, where they twirled in the wind, and hung a Jolly Gnome Ornament from my saddle. In the darkness, riding my bike felt safely dangerous and fast, and as always the lights on the sleeping lake drew me in as we rode alongside.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
After a quite brief respite, I'm back to reading about agriculture. Yesterday, as a little reward to myself for surviving my committee meeting, I went to the library and picked up a copy of The Gift of Good Land by Wendell Berry. I think my father had recommended the book some time ago. But I was too tired to do more than read the Foreword. Berry's writing has been inspirational for a lot of the thinkers I admire; hopefully my reaction will be similar.

I keep thinking about expressions of one's life's work recently. I've been toying around with the idea that one's life-work could culminate in a single thing like a book, as though the entirety of something can be captured in a set of pages. Book-writing is often seen as an academic capstone. But I am particularly trying to answer the question of what I would write if I were to write a third-person narrative about myself, and you can be certain that it wouldn't be academically driven.

The "tag cloud" of this journal style is perhaps one way of viewing myself externally and getting an idea of what subjects are most important to me--more frequently used tags are in larger print. In contrast, many people keep blogs that cover a particular theme, whether it's cooking or politics or bicycles, and perhaps by thus focusing they attract a broader audience (for better or for worse).

But the messy tension of talking about everything all together is important--could it be succesfully included in that third-person narrative? I might risk boring more audience members by doing that, though. Perhaps it would be equally interesting to couple the views of an external observer with my proposed external perspective of the internal. Thus my narrative complexifies [sic] itself.

What it all gets down to is that I won't be writing this hypothetical book any time soon. Now I return you to your regularly scheduled program.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
This is some of the stuff that keeps on getting a bit lost in my life. It's always nice to have reminders. I just have to keep on trying. The other day I *did* realize that I stopped gossiping about people around me about 3 months ago, and that felt like a really positive change. After all, how can I work on the stuff in my own head if I'm that focused on other people?

Maslow's characteristics of self-actualized people )
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[ profile] figment80 and I talked recently about the difficult realization that certain relationships/friendships that we have been trying to maintain weren't worth it. For example, she feels like she has been putting a lot of her energy into some of her friendships with her colleagues, but that energy wasn't reciprocated. I have also been questioning certain things that contribute to the quality of my friendships. Then a conversation with A reminded me of a couple more things from my good old Social Psychology textbook related to self-disclosure in relationships that has helped me articulate what feels wrong.

(Aside: When I took Social Psych, I thought that a lot of the material we learned about was really common-sense, and I didn't feel like I got a lot out of the class. But as time goes by, I have come to realize how much I learned in the class and how well this knowledge helps me articulate aspects of my beliefs/behaviors.)

Basically, self-disclosure is the process of revealing intimate aspects of onself to others, and it can be a pretty intricate dance in any relationship. A couple of things tend to lead to more self-disclosure: we disclose more when distressed, we disclose more to those with whom we anticipate further interaction, and we disclose more if we have a secure attachment style. Lastly, disclosure leads to further disclosure; when someone reveals a part of themselves to another, the other often reciprocates. But this isn't an instantaneous process; if a person discloses too soon, they may seem indiscreet and unstable. It also seems to me that if reciprocation is missing, things won't end well, either. Some people are better than others at nurturing self-disclosure. These are people who are known as "growth-promoting" listeners (Carl Rogers 1980): they are genuine in revealing their own feelings, they are accepting of others' feelings, and are empathic, sensitive, reflective listeners.

Self-disclosure can have a huge number of positive benefits. It can be gratifying to open up to another, and have them open up to us in return; it's a trust-building process. Swann and Predmore (1985), for example, found that having an intimate friend with whom we can discuss threats to our self-image seems to help us survive such stresses. Also, true friendships are special relationships that help us cope with our other relationships.

I am extraordinarily grateful for all such friendships in my life, and am saddened whenever this process falls apart.


Rogers, C.R. (1980) A way of being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Swann, W.B., Jr., and Predmore, S.C. (1985) Intimates as agents of social support: Sources of consolation or despair? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42: 1025-1035.

Myers, D.G. (1999) Social Psychology, 6th edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill College.


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