rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
It feels so strange to be here without [ profile] scrottie. Coming back is starting to feel like returning to Boston, the familiar intermingled with the new, trying to make sense of my sense of identity. Thinking about some of the influential individuals here who became a part of my local family but have passed away too soon, too recently (Okie, BCH). Thinking about other individuals who used to live here but who have also moved on to other places, other lives.

It's hard to be here, scrambling to write a presentation that feels so intellectually important, but for which I cannot do full justice because I am just too.damn.busy. I need to practice it so I don't stumble too horribly during delivery. It is simultaneously important (on the level of a job talk) and unimportant (instead I should be applying for jobs, working on the current experiments, writing papers, helping new-boss with grant-writing). The perpetual PhD question, too: is this really going to be an earth-shattering subject? Or is it so much fuss over a subject so trivial? I don't think so but I struggle the most with the higher-order thinking, especially when my nose is shoved up against the trees.

There's a limit to my ability to think, one that I can exercise, but a limit, nonetheless. There's a limit to how much work I can do - something I can also stretch, but only up to a point. I have to operate within these limits and not give up, in the hopes that all this work will be a worthwhile exercise.
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.


Apr. 15th, 2015 06:51 am
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
It was interesting, to find that last poem and re-post it, try to think about how it might have related to my former self, and how it does and does not resonate with me now.

Last Saturday, after writing about trying to cope with the silence, I learned something almost more awful, which was that an issue with email miscommunication had been a larger contributor to the falling-apart than either S or I had realized. So we have a lot of relationship restructuring still to do. I guess this gets glibly called, "Status: it's complicated." I would never dare to claim to be any good at this stuff. How could I.

I hit a really low point on Monday - the kind of experience that starts to manifest as severe physical symptoms and isn't the kind of thing I can write about easily, even to myself. Finally talking more to S helped, some.

Just about the only thing that seemed clear from that was that I have to keep working at my own self restructuring, too. A long time ago I used to call this "curling inward."

I can't exactly start chattering about the ephemera, under such circumstances. I don't know if it means that I need to take a more extensive digital sabbatical or not. I had to desperately go through and un-friend a whole bunch of people on Facebook on Monday. I am finding that I can still go through the day and take photographs, but that might be most of what I can do and share for a while - on Flickr, not here. Somehow I always still manage to go to work and get work done as well. Having to inject and dissect crickets keeps me at least a little glued together. I keep thinking back to when my Grandma Clark died and I started reading through the dictionary.

Take care, friends, and family.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)

Today I finished work in time to get home before bedtime, something for which both I and my cat are grateful. She was unhappy when I came home late and went straight to bed last night, and who can blame her - she deserves attention. She got her revenge in the usual manner - meowing periodically in the middle of the night to wake me up.

I am especially grateful because it means I have a bit of time to write about something that has been bothering me over the last couple of days. The day after I had a long conversation with S, he e-mailed me, and then I e-mailed back, and then, after that, silence, for the past week and a half. When we broke up, he said he would probably withdraw for "some time," and accordingly un-"friended" me here and on other social media platforms. I observed a blog post that I wasn't sure I was supposed to see, and let him know in a very brief message (not sure what the right etiquette is for that situation), but again, silence. That's not the specific bother, but is tied to it.

It's hard to listen to that silence, especially after becoming accustomed to frequent contact, especially coping with the ambiguity of the situation. I had gotten to feel like there wasn't much "relating" going on in what was left of our relationship (felt like a litany of complaints directed at me), and like I was no longer sure whether we were really good for each other, which to me was a sign that it was time to put on the brakes. [I try to not be a Flounce Majeure sort of person, but at times it feels necessary to take a step back from things, the overall goal being one to restore a sense of self-balance so as to be able to think and act from the heart].

Over the last couple of days, tied to coping with the silence, the recurring thought and bother has been about a letter and an e-mail I sent, that were both incredibly hard to write, best summarized by the e-mail subject line, "Things about myself I need to work on." I wrote both things focused around myself because I was starting to feel like outside labels were imposing themselves on my actions, BUT I also wanted to acknowledge that I am aware that I am a far from perfect human being, I do things that are hurtful to others, and need to work on recognizing that, and especially recognizing that I need to work on being patient and listening.

So it is hard to let that silence extend out, a good week and a half now.

But let me touch on the more general subject of this post, on non-reciprocity in relationships, before returning to the specific bother. One of the items I found in one of the boxes of mementos was a copy of a typewritten letter I'd sent to my Writing professor at Tufts, concerning a conflict I was having with her over some of the final assignments for our Peer Writing Tutor class. The details of the conflict aren't critical, but the outcome is. Instead of acknowledging and addressing my concerns, she basically said to me, "Well, _I_ am the professor and you are the student, end of story." So I finished that course still deeply unhappy with how things were handled, and I've had to carry conflicting feelings with me ever since then. There's really no chance for resolution, because it all happened about 15 years ago, and besides, she passed away from cancer.

What do we do, about these things? Many would argue that reciprocity an intimate part of forming friendships - I think tied to the concept of social exchange theory, but this could be inaccurate. That's part of why, when going on bike rides here in town with strangers right after S and I broke up, I didn't run around going, "Hi, my name is Rebecca, and I just broke up with my boyfriend!!" I could have done so, but that assumes an often unwelcome level of intimacy and familiarity with strangers. Instead, they ask where I have moved from, and to reciprocate I ask about where they are from (general answer: Nebraska, heh). So when things go non-reciprocal, my sense of what's right and proper gets violated, and I get rocked back on my heels. I think humans are also equipped with extremely good bullshit detectors on this front, such that I readily register the difference between a thoughtful response and something parroted back at me.

But non-reciprocity is as much a part of life as reciprocity. After struggling with waiting, I've had to remind myself that it's still patience that I need to work on, and that I can't tell someone else to write their own homework assignment of "Things I need to work on" to reciprocate my own list. Wow, that would be a good way to get exactly the WRONG thing. So that's the answer to my bother, after several days of thinking.

Multiple times over the past couple of years, S suggested that he and I "take a break," although he never explained what he meant by that or how it differed from living two timezones apart and communicating only sporadically. He also suggested that I go and date some other Mister Perfect and said he doesn't need to hear about it, at which point I go, to me, being in a relationship with someone, whether it's a friendship or otherwise, means I should be able to share things about my life with that person, and not have to sneak around or hide anything!! For one thing, I'm not interested in dating other people (good Lord, especially not right now, and especially not in Lincoln), and for another thing, I absolutely reject the notion that I should have to separate out parts of my life in that fashion. [And why does Miss Perfect get left out all the time?? It's always Mister Perfect that causes the paranoia.]

And so here I am, sitting home alone with my cat in my lap, purring, as I have been spending most evenings lately. As I think even further, I think, inasmuch as S declares that he wishes I find Mister Perfect, you know, altogether, I will continue to hope that he finds meaning and satisfaction in his life's pursuits, whether those pursuits involve finding a deep and satisfying relationship with another person, or otherwise. I cannot know whether that will be the case, but I hope that it is true for all of you as well.

Lastly, I would return to the same notion as I put as the title for my previous post, because sometimes it deserves repeating: when I write things about other people, in actuality I am mostly just saying things about myself.

Morning run

Apr. 2nd, 2015 06:35 am
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
When the alarm goes off, there's no denying it: I am awake.

I step out the front door, telling myself I don't really have to run, I can just walk, but I need to move my body so I can think as I move.

The Dawn Chorus greets me as I step outside.

Eventually, I start to run.

I want to keep running until I can't think any thoughts anymore.

I'm not a runner.

A runner approaches from the other direction, carrying a small light. She greets me as she goes past. She must think I'm a runner. Another group of runners goes past, carrying small lights, too, and they greet me, too.

In all the years of running to rowing practices in the dark of the morning, I have never carried small lights. I am wearing a black t-shirt.

I decide I will keep running along the trail until I reach something, then I will turn around. I run past a giant ZOO sign, illuminated in blue.

I run under a second underpass, then up the other side, then I turn around.

I find a lucky penny on the sidewalk on the way home. It matches with the handful of other lucky pennies I found while bicycling through that area yesterday - battered, as though it has spent time out on the road, being run over by cars. Not battered beyond recognition. Yet.

I have not outrun my thoughts. The same sadnesses loop over - the knowledge that we are all born alone, we all die alone. The knowledge that I can't fix everything that has broken. The knowledge of the things that cannot be known. The knowledge of the ways we re-write our own stories. The knowledge that our physical bodies buffer us against these great sorrows, so that sometimes we cannot feel the things we want to feel and that we know are present.


Mar. 16th, 2015 04:02 pm
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
I am still really bad at practicing patience, especially with myself.

But I think I am learning some things and reaching a direction, as much as anyone can.

Thank you for listening while I batter myself against this thing.


Mar. 15th, 2015 05:33 pm
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
The thing is, if someone thinks you're a robot, can you actually convince them otherwise?
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.


Sep. 18th, 2014 08:05 am
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
So now I'm reading Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. What that means is that I just finished a book about the lead-up to World War II, and now I'm reading a book that was a direct result of that war. The idea to read the book came from Rowdy Kittens a while back (although I seem to recall a specific post with more detailed discussion), stemming from the thought that perhaps there are other ways to think about life beyond hedonism or the pursuit of happiness. Which is a trifle amusing, because the author of Rowdy Kittens often writes under the guise of "happiness," even though I don't think her goal is strictly happiness per se. Anyway, tangent.

It's hard to set down a book about the Holocaust. It's hard to read any story about genocide, especially one so painfully and eloquently recounted by those who survived. It's clear that Frankl's every word has been carefully and painfully chosen as he seeks to recount the experiences in Auschwitz in a way that will allow him and others to derive something out of so much suffering and loss. I picked up the 1992 edition from the library, and found it especially interesting to read Frankl's introductory commentary about how he hadn't expected the book to be so popular, but how its popularity speaks to a shared deep and driving need to understand our existence here on this planet hurtling through space. So despite the difficulty of the subject matter, clearly many of us feel compelled to seek it out and learn from it.

I'm not sure what I'm going to read after this book.

I've gained a greater appreciation for history as I've gotten older. I think I just didn't understand it especially well back in high school. I wish we'd had more occasions where teachers had handed us a collection of primary documents and asked us to reconstruct a history around them. At the same time, I know that many of my history teachers did a perfectly wonderful job of exposing us to as many different facets of history as they could, under all the constraints at hand.
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: (Iheartcoffee)
What do you do when you have to cope with difficult emotions?

not short )
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
Through an accumulation of events, I've shied away from putting too much personal content out on teh internets, but there are certain points in one's life where things don't all happen in neat, tidy packages, and so here I am. From the sounds of things, Dad's surgery yesterday went as smoothly as it could, so now he's on the long, slow road towards healing for the time being (still without fully knowing about certain parts of this whole "cancer" puzzle, but hey, much of our lives is about the unknown, right?). It still weirds me out a bit, making the private, inner workings of someone else's body the focus of so much attention, but it's all part of the experience of life, I suppose, particularly as we get older and more fully realize our intimate dependence on others. Hardest when we return to a stage where we can no longer wipe our own asses. He shared a poem/prayer with friends and family that he said is giving him comfort through this process, which I'll put at the end of this post.

At certain points, our minds respond to difficult situations with emotional numbness. I have a partial sensation of speaking and thinking through a sort of thick styrofoam, tinged by the sadness of loved ones all being very far away. I had one of those moments yesterday where I was a bit shocked by the notion and remembrance that life has continued to advance without me in Phoenix, just as over the years I've come to watch the city of Seattle move on.

But in the meantime, things continue to move and grow here, as well. The thunderstorms and heavy rains which drenched me last Thursday on an aborted bike ride out to Lake Bryan meant that the boatyard grass has grown again. Yesterday I was ever so grateful to be bicycling out to the lake, if only because it would be a welcome distraction through the wait while Dad was in surgery. Practice consisted of a continuation of equipment maintenance, so while others worked on cleaning out the boats and painting the oars, I fired up the lawnmower and shoved it around the boatyard. The mower was such a beast that it made me miss Mr. Pushy, although I don't know if Mr. Pushy could have handled the grass out there. At least it wasn't as crazy as two summers ago, when we had to tackle it with weed whackers because it had gotten so overgrown. It's always amusing to go out to the lake and work hard, because for most of the other people in this region the lake represents a destination for idle recreation. Rowers, however, are all people who relish the hard work itself on some level.


Wakes are for the dead;
even the term leaves me cold.
I usually prefer to deny my death,
which comes by inches,
but comes relentlessly all the same.

Another signal from my body,
another sign of age,
has visited me, with its foreboding forecast
that l’m growing older.

I look with envy at the young
and am often tempted to try
a wizard’s wonder herb
to restore my aging body
to its former age of agility
that was free of aches and pains.

Today I must mourn,
aware that those who hold enough wakes
die with dignity
and even dance with death
in a Chronos childhood play.

To wake with great love each small death and loss
and then move on to what life offers next:
it is thus that i can honestly rejoice
at another’s youthful beauty.

I sense that by observing enough wakes
I'll awaken, to my surprise,
to a new, mature magnetic beauty
that radiates from those
whom time has tanned into a handsome hybrid
of the eternal youth.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
Instead of grading papers last night, I finally got around to reading an article that my father had sent me that was written by Michael Heller, winner of the 2008 Templeton Prize.

Ideas aside, I found myself noting qualities of expression in the article, which I think was an excerpt from Heller's book Creative Tension. To try and explain what I mean, I think I'll first back up and describe one of the only valuable parts of the Dawkins lecture I recently attended. During the Q & A portion of the lecture, someone got up and explained that he had been trying to have conversations with a Mormon friend about their differences in perspective on the nature of reality. He said that he had found such conversations challenging but rewarding, and wondered if Dawkins had anything to offer in the way of advice/support for those trying to encourage dialogue between people raised with different belief systems.

Dawkins first said that basically, he is well aware that he is a poor example of someone able to hold such conversations. He secondly said that he applauds those who are able to do so.

Now, perhaps this response is too punchy, but in the very least it is an admission of individual limitations. So it is still strange to me that both Dawkins and Dennett repeatedly assert that science is a way to truth, glossing over the limitations inherent in scientific processes. I'll grant that Heller makes that point, which he expresses nicely in the context of the scientific realm he's most familiar with, physics.

But to me it seems that Heller is too quick to leap to coping mechanisms after making this assertion, that limitations in what mathematics and physics can accomplish mean that we must recognize existence as the work of some greater force. In contrast, from a philosophical standpoint, Dennett describes in careful, patient detail that this standpoint lacks utility from a rationalist perspective (if one deviates from rationalism, God is a ham sandwich). Basically, existence becomes an all-encompassing Force, which is to say, it leaves nothing out. And so what's the difference between that state of affairs and a state of affairs that does not assign existence some magical name? Is it simply a difference in the degree of flowery language we like to use to relate our lives to the world around us?

I don't think I'm going to be able to come up with a satisfactory ending to this brief essay, as in my mind I'm still trying to decide about the utility of approaches drawn from physics and mathematics relative to approaches drawn from the biological sciences. Biologists generally don't try to play games with concepts of time, but do note how time plays out upon living things, in momentary and daily and seasonal rhythms.

I would guess that neither Dawkins nor Dennett nor Heller would object to an admiration of the beauty and majesty of the natural world on any level. Objections only enter the picture when our perspectives create barriers to meaningful discourse.

And with that, I shall resume grading papers.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
To follow up on my previous, more important post:

Last night, Richard Dawkins gave a talk at ASU based on his latest, best-selling book, The God Delusion. The audience was one of the largest audiences he has ever addressed (Gammage Auditorium was filled). Although he praised science and the process of natural selection, he did not explain these two concepts fully. Much of his talk focused instead on logical fallacies associated with typical arguments used to support the existence of the Westernized Judeo-Christian concept of God, as well as on addressing the fundamental logical flaws associated with Intelligent Design (I was pleased to see the phrase "Failure of imagination" appear on one Powerpoint slide). He also gave some time to the subject of raising consciousness about how religions/religious thinking appear in societies (can we really label 4-year-old children as Jewish, Muslim, and Christian?).

None of these subjects was surprising, and also unsurprisingly the content overlapped considerably with Dennett's recent book Breaking the Spell, though Dawkins was perhaps even more forthright about the fact that by nature he is not inclined to be highly diplomatic in his dealings with religious thinkers. I also appreciated his mention of the fact that he does not think it necessary to be highly versed in theological studies to be able to hold the above discussion (does that mean, by extension, that I am qualified to hold a philosophical standpoint despite being poorly-versed in classical philosophical texts?).

But. There were a few moments that I wish I could remember better, when the audience laughed or applauded inappropriately, still demonstrating a sheep-like response to the presented ideas. To that, I object. And I think the two points raised in my earlier post still stand. As I've said to a few people before, I have found my studies of Biology quite humbling for what they have revealed to me about the limitations of science as a way of knowing.

After Dawkins's talk, I'm still thinking about writing a letter to Dennett about those two points. I just wonder if there's even a remote chance that I will get an honest response. Perhaps I should omit the fact that though I'm a rationalist, I never claim to be rational.

Lastly, I think I'll never get over the fact that Dawkins was perhaps overly successful in his coining of the term "meme" in The Selfish Gene, for the word has been co-opted to mean something much less meaningful than he originally intended, and its utility as originally intended is still incredibly questionable in my mind at least (augh, the "meme" meme! So Meta.).

Silly scientists. If only it were possible to intelligently discuss these things and derive some meaning from the discussion. Alas, it's but a spin of a hamster wheel. Perhaps it's time for some poetry or art instead.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
It would be perhaps interesting to write a lengthy piece in response to Dawkins's talk, but I won't. Instead, here are two matters I take issue with:

1. The idea that science can be used to arrive at truth. Both Dawkins and Dennett quite simply state that that is the function of science. An oversimplification, gentlemen, or what? Spend some more time looking at your supposed truth, and discover where reductionism does and does not get us.

2. How to move the conversations forward. It's one thing to target something like Westernized, monotheistic religions. That's a reasonably straightforward target. But can we move past it, please? Dennett at least acknowledges that we don't exactly have a replacement for this thing we call religion (and should we?), but regardless, where does that leave those of us who are bumbling around in the midst of an ongoing existential crisis? I'd like more dialogue, less monologue.

My thoughts went to two people as I listened: to David Abrams (The Spell of the Sensuous) and Wendell Berry (The Gift of Good Land would be a reasonable start).

But I suppose if I was looking for something new and different, I wouldn't have attended the Dawkins-fest.
rebeccmeister: (Iheartcoffee)
Yesterday, while walking to Scrabble with D, D shared a really cool idea with me--she'd been thinking about two subjects I've written about, the DIY scene and life in the Greater Phoenix Suburb-o-politan Area (or GPSA for short).

She'd had a recent conversation with a friend who is trying to decide where to move next, and he'd expressed some dissatisfaction with the idea of moving somewhere like the GPSA because so much of it is so new. Instead, he figured he'd prefer somewhere with more established history like Seattle or Boston. Their conversation moved onward, but his opinion stuck with D and made her think about how she relates to life in this place.

The simple thing that got D really excited was the idea of extending the DIY concept to the GPSA in general. Sure, there isn't as much established history (in some respects; ancient history lingers but is subtle), but that means that we have to adopt a different sort of mentality, a freedom to explore and recognize imperfections and try to change them or learn to cope differently. With that kind of attitude, I can change from missing delicious Cupcake Royale cupcakes and instead celebrate and relish the fact that I've learned how to make my own, a satisfying process that might not have happened if I had remained spoon-fed in another place. There's so much to be gained from the struggle of learning to ride my bicycle around a town that is learning to become more bicycle-friendly.

I'm going to think about this idea some more as I continue to make meaning of my life and my presence here. But thank you, D, for making that simple yet exciting connection.
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
I'm currently battling a moderate cold. It's not terrible enough that I can declare, "I'm sick!" and stay home and shirk work, but it has made me disinclined to get up early and row or ride my bike (besides, I can still point to last weekend's adventures as justification to take a break). Altogether, I can't even really complain, as it's the first time I've been sick since The Mono. That doesn't make illness enjoyable, though.

Right before I fall asleep, I am reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami, as recommended to me by [ profile] trifold_flame, and it is a pleasing novel for its concreteness and vagueness. It allows me to imagine my own version of scenes with a pleasing photographic quality even as I read the story of someone else. I think this has to do with the mention of everyday objects, particularly foods: a ham sandwich, coffee, hard-boiled eggs. Also, alleyways, houses, tall grass, raindrops.

I have been away from fiction for so long.

Meanwhile, I am tempted to also let myself fall into the grips of a work of non-fiction, a book about a particular set of studies of leafcutter ants in Panama. It's written for a scientific audience, and yet has the pleasing story-telling quality achieved by a set of good writers who write to illuminate and not impress. The difficult balance is that this book blurs distinctions between work and leisure, and I must consider it in conjunction with other considerations for my time.

For quite a while there, I was caught up in trying to treat my time as a precious thing, saving it for something, trying to allocate it cleanly to this or that. But if it is too cleanly compartmentalized, my personhood is severed (this part belongs to work. this part belongs to rowing. this part belongs to cooking. this part belongs to ceramics. I am fragmented.). In contrast, when I do things like riding to Tucson, I feel more restored to myself, especially as I watch the sun arc across the entire sky in the cycle of the day.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
Sometimes, the only way to deal with them is to medicate with the likes of The Way Things Go
(this isn't the entirety, nor should it be--I should really add it to my List of Things to Acquire--it was the saving grace of the Hirshhorn museum when last I visited--no, that's a lie, it has many good things to it)

rebeccmeister: (Default)
A couple of people (mostly my father and a ghost) have been recommending reading Wendell Berry's writings for quite a long time, and of course as soon as I've gotten around to it I can appreciate why. If you were to inquire, I'd profess an interest in rationalism as a useful system for getting a grasp on existence, and yet at the same time many of the most prominent rationalist scientific thinkers often make simple logical fallacies, such as stating that science is a means to discover truth and through science we'll eventually know everything we need to know (see Consilience, by EO wilson, though I'm thinking particularly of a brief quip by Dennett in an endnote in Breaking the Spell if I need to point more fingers).

This gets interesting and disheartening when one thinks probabilistically about the formation of the universe and evolutionary processes and the eventuality of death (whether our own or of others, human and non-human alike). Dwelling on this condition is what I term The Existentialist Crisis and makes me feel quite small and futile (to myself I have proclaimed, "I am dust in the face of the Universe").

But I think the rationalists are most comfortable dealing with the Known and struggle mightily with the Unknown and Unknowable because as they see it there's no way to have a rational conversation about such things. From what I can tell, Berry seems to argue that the rationalists have gotten themselves in a tizzy because they're forgetting about matters of scale and are leaping away from the human scale--what we can know now, in this lifetime here. And what we know here and now is governed as much by scientific principles as it is the principles of the individual (any scientist worth his or her salt will note that science, or at least the hypothetico-deductive principle, is grounded in finding generalizable patterns from individual variations, so if one is most interested in the level of the individual, the utility of science is quite different).

I can't pretend to have any sort of actual answer to things, as I've stated this is a departure from rationalism (if you consult my user profile, you'll note that I've never claimed to be rational anyway). But I will say that reading Berry's writings feels considerably more like progress than reading the hashed and re-hashed ideas of a lot of scientific writers (one should still read those writers, just not at their word, and not at the neglect of reading stories and poetry). The crux came for me when I had to try to resolve Native stories of coming to be where they are with Westernized accounts drawn from archaeological records. The accounts disagree and I had a hard time resolving the dissonance until I tried to see the utility in truth and learned that oral stories and prophecies will change in accordance with what's happening at the time (one might need to re-read parts of the Bible in light of this idea, for it is written that some disagreeable things are in agreement with prophecy and others are not effectively dealt with).

So I'll keep reading. But I'll also pause to spend time outside, watching a particular crow or ant or tree or cactus, for though my professed purpose is science, my purpose beyond that is to be human.


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