coming up for air

I’ve a test on Kant, and various interpretations and critiques, in just a few short hours, but am coming up for a bit of air and a break before my brain melts out my ears, as it is wont to do whenever Kant’s the subject of conversation.

I’ve been pretty clear about my general dislike of Kant, and how absolutely dirty and in need of worshiping at the altar of utilitarianism after going out of my want to defend Kant and especially the motive of duty. That said, the more I read, especially of Michael Stocker, the harder it is I find to disagree with one of the very basic of Kant’s maxims: never treat people merely as means, but also as ends. (I think part of it just comes from the traditional German wordiness of that time period; say what you mean, people, not just what sounds pretty!) Treat people as persons, as moral agents, and not just as things that let help you accomplish your own motives and desires.

That’s sort of hard to argue with.

Further reflection also led me, roundabout, to realizing that it’s one of the key things that influences how I relate to people, and especially how I relate to jobs. I’ve been known to insanely throw myself into my work, often at the expense of everything else in my life. (Saying I lack a well-honed ability to balance between obligations is about the biggest understatement. Ever.) Microsoft is probably the best example of this, where my entire world became nothing but Services for Macintosh. Not much of my time there is documented here; I had a different blog at the time, and it was mostly focused on my marriage and then lack of marriage. But while at the Evil Empire, I ended up being the only software test engineer on a project, partnered with a software programmer who’d have rather been doing anything but working on Macs. It wasn’t a good combination, especially when I ended up taking on not just one or two roles, but the role of an entire test team – from getting to work at Insanely Early for the morning team meetings (and having to collect all the test reports, and interpret them, prior) to staying late for new builds and running the build verification tests.

Although I had a home about 6 blocks from the campus I worked at, I ended up bringing my ferrets into my office (in a large travel cage) several nights a week, and just staying there 24/7. Why not? They fed us, watered us, there were showers in the basement, and room to keep spare clothes in my office. It was just more convenient.

And deadly to any sense of balance or relationships I had.

But I’ll admit it, I was happy. I was happy to have something so specific to focus my life and my somewhat OCD behaviour on, I liked the people I worked with, and eventually learned at least a little balance – in that I’d spend a day or two a weekend gaming nonstop instead of working nonstop. But at least it was social (if, in the end, just as, if not more, destructive).

I quickly became unhappy, though, when we had one of the never-ending reorgs, and I went from having a distant but amusing boss to a micromanaging witch of a woman who was threatened by having another female around (I so wish I was kidding on that front). She brought in several full time employees to ease the workload, but still expected me to function as team lead and general head of the show, even as she took credit for it. She got in the way of my hiring on fulltime, arguing I wasn’t needed, and then threw a temper tantrum of spectacular proportions when I announced I was giving my two week notice, but would be willing to work a few hours every evening to help the transition past that. Her argument for why I couldn’t leave? The team needed me too badly, I was the lynchpin that held everything together, since I had been the only person working on the project for that long aside from the programmer, they needed me.

That was when it hit me, really, what I had suspected but then clarified into knowledge. They didn’t care about me, my dedication to the job, the endless nights I’d put in there, the fact that my marriage was ruined over the work. They didn’t care that my average work hours per week for the 6 months before I left was 90 hours a week, all they cared about was my brain, and the fact that I was tool that would get them what they wanted and needed. Sure, I was a valuable tool, but a tool nonetheless, and one they would throw away the minute they were done with me. The loyalty I had fostered for the team and company was not, in any way, returned.

I left that night, and never looked back. Probably one of the sanest decisions I made, even with the longrun result of the company I moved to shutting down due to losing our venture capitalists in the WTC collapse.

I don’t like being used as a means. I am not a thing. I am a living, breathing human being, and when I get involved in a project, I throw myself, heart and soul, into it. Maybe that’s a me-problem, and maybe I shouldn’t give so much that I am inevitably hurt. But if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be nearly so valued, either – which might, in hindsight, also not be such a bad thing.

Since then, I’ve had the chance to think about my other places o’work, and I can tell you with some certainty that I’ve always reacted like this – the minute I notice I’m being used as a thing and not valued for being me, I check out, and pretty quickly after, will actually leave. I guess my loyalty only goes so far as I feel it being returned.

All of which boils down to – damnit, Kant was right about something. Which means he might be right about more things, which means a lot of reading Kant in my future. Plus side: Howell is teaching Kant again in the fall, and I need to take it for comps, so it might not be as painful as I’ve been fearing. Down side: voluntarily reading more Kant.

strange days of gratitude

I guess you know I’m tired when I sit down to the computer and start typing, and wake up 3 hours later, still sitting up at the computer. As far as I can tell, I hung up the phone with Dad and fell asleep almost immediately after that; it’s basically where my memory stops, anyhow. (Experience has taught me I was probably active a bit longer than that, since I tend to lose the last 15-20 minutes of memory when I fall asleep like that – zaps the internal p-ram or somesuch.)

It’s weird to do that, especially since I partly recognize it’s because I took my nightly medications closely together, rather than spaced out like I normally do. I try not to think hard, or much, about the medications I take, except to space taking them out a bit, because I could work myself into a major freakout quickly if I did, especially with Heath Ledger’s death earlier today and reports coming that it was likely a combination of medication for his pneumonia and sleeping problems that caused the death (rather than suicide or OD). Sleeping problems, pneumonia, and oh, then add in the pain management medications – yeah, I get nervous. Especially when I suddenly snap awake over a computer three hours later, with no memory of even being sleepy enough to fall immediately asleep (as opposed to “I’m getting tired I should get to bed”).

Anyhow. That’s not what I’d typed out prior to falling asleep, the below was.

~*~

Today was my first day back on campus since December, and since I was only there a day or two, it was really my first day back seeing everyone since October. I was a bit nervous walking into it, especially as I was there for a job candidate – and one of the people specifically focused on who should be there for the candidate, since the position the department it looking for centers around familiarity with ethics (preferably applied and bio). And as quickly became apparent, a good chunk of the graduate department turned out for the interview – we were joking that we’d never seen so many grad students together at the same time, even inside a classroom.

I was genuinely surprised at how welcoming and warm everyone was. Smiles, hugs, affection – and maybe more importantly, a lot of joking around and laughter. I laughed into coughing fits several times, and although it hurt, it was fun and energetic and just… how I was always hoping to feel there. Like a part of the group, like I belonged.

Small things really stand out – someone patting me affectionately and comfortingly on the back when I got choked up talking about Mom, just a simple gesture of support. Being asked if I knew any of the candidates by name, because I was the one who would – an acknowledgment of the knowledge I can bring to the table. Planning get-togethers, classes for upcoming semesters, coordinating things, lots of teasing of each other. Even a joke about action theory turned into a fun (if short) conversation about female action stars, and Summer Glau.

There was a lot of positive energy coming from everyone, and it culminated in dinner with the candidate and other department members, with conversation ranging from philosophy on television to in depth and pointed discussion on the candidate’s presentation on how we experience emotion.

Being around that positive energy, truly sinking in to a feeling of belonging, was a much needed experience. I spend so much time alone and isolated that I curl in on myself and can lose the spark that excites me – especially when I’m overwhelmed, as I have been for much of the past 18 months. I am such an introvert that it’s easy to forget how much I do need to be around people, especially those who share overlapping interests and passions.

It will be an interesting semester. While I lost one course I had been interested in taking, I have the minimum two already enrolled, and the classes start in the morning. I’ll be on campus daily this semester, for a minimum of 3 hours, which means I’ll have a chance to get into consistent habits that are good for me: waking up at a set time, showering, dressing, eating, getting out of the house. All things that can be difficult to enforce without outside factors.

~*~

Alright – I think what is happening is that lack of sleep from the last week, when the coughing and phlegm and needing to sleep upright in order to not drown in my own fluids, has caught up to me. I find myself starting to drift off again, even though I’ve only been awake 15 minutes or so. Which means I should take advantage of it now, and rest up prior to the start of what will hopefully be a very good semester.

A Matter of Trust, A Leap of Faith

Another surprisingly good day. I did something that can be a bit hard for me (as I am, regardless of the fact that no one believes me, quite shy and introverted), and sought out several people I’ve specifically had problems with in the past year to clear the air, apologize for not talking to them immediately when something bothered me, and in one case, spent quite a while quietly talking and thinking about what factored into the perfect storm that threw us off the rails.

For all I write, and talk, I actually find it very difficult to say, clearly and calmly, “I feel [whatever]” about a subject. I admit it’s my big area of broken; I don’t have the best social skills, and I play my feelings very close to my chest. I have a hard time opening up to people; I will happily chatter for days about any number of things, but if we start in on how I feel, or why, or what, I’ll clam up.

It’s a matter of trust. And trust is a tricky thing, because you have to trust in order to move through life. Trust is what allows us to narrow our options for the future; if we have no trust, it’s very difficult to make choices; our options become limitless and we have no way to make judgment on those options. Trust is a filter on the endless potentialities of the future, and it allows us to not become stuck in the present, turned to past, but continue moving through present to future1. But to give trust is a risk. Because, to paraphrase Alfonso Lingis, the more you know about someone, the more clearly you sees that every act of loyalty, of trust, opens an opportunity for disloyalty and broken trust.

It’s easy to get hurt. It’s easy to lose faith. But it is hard to live life without trusting those around you; you become truly alone.

Still, you can be an academic, you can know a subject intellectually inside and out – that doesn’t mean you’re going to be a genius at applying it to your own life, and this is definitely an area I need to work on. Bad experiences, insecurity, a shitty year – a great combination to fold me into my shell and shut down any thoughts about saying “so, hey, I have this problem…” (Not to mention, as was pointed out to me, when someone is feeling excluded and discriminated against, expecting them to step forward and take action on it does become a bit close to blaming the victim/expecting them to take steps to fix a problem.)

The thing is though, when you’re stuck in the now and unable to trust, it’s because something has made you doubt your abilities to use trust as a filter. The only real way to “get over it” is to just take a deep breath and jump – take a leap of faith, hand someone your trust, open yourself up to them, and then give them to chance to reciprocate.

To say that is hard is an understatement. Then again, I walked into it with nothing to lose; I had hit the bottom, and realized this wasn’t how I wanted to live life. I wasn’t, haven’t, been living life. I’ve been mimicking, and going through the motions, but that’s not going to get me what I want – to, as Thoreau said, live deep and suck the marrow of life. Certainly wasn’t going to help me make actual connections and friends with the people in my department.

I think that it’s necessary to trust to live life, truly live a full and vibrant life, to fully engage with the world and those in it. At the same time, trusting when time and again we will find our trust broken is one of the hardest things to do; to paraphrase another wise modern philosopher, the hardest thing we will do in this life is live it.

Sometimes you have to take that leap of faith. You have to give yourself permission to have been wrong, and you have to override your instinctual reactions to protect yourself, even in that wrongness, and reach out to someone else and tell them the same. To place your trust into the world, into the hands of someone else, and give them the option to reciprocate.

  1. I wrote about this several years ago, for a project that turned into an art book titled Trust Bound:
    to free ourselves from being stuck, we have to take a risk. we have to look at the future potentialities and guess, choose blindly, choose based on what other people offer you. trust is a multiperson experience, and if someone extends you their trust, they do so on the basis of their experience, and what they think of you. what they think you will do.

    the options become filtered through the actions of another. it is up to us, whether or not we accept that external filter. it is up to us to make the decision that a single anomalic event does not mean we always have bad judgement.

    to become unstuck, you must trust.

    []

returning to beginning

Today started out with a lot of dread. I went to campus to talk to people in my department, both professors and colleagues, and I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve been a lot more withdrawn these last six weeks than normal for me, avoiding being online, and people in general. It was going to be trial by fire, throwing myself from limited contact – my family, Michael, Laurie, Daniel – to anyone who wanted to walk up and say hello.

And then I forgot to bring sedatives. You laugh, but they were my just in case. Get overwhelmed, excuse self to get a coffee and have 15 minutes of quiet while a sedative kicked in and I had that slight anesthetic effect to let me regain control and composure.

Woops, and oh well.

Thankfully, they weren’t needed. For whatever reason, the graduate office was relatively deserted today, and I never had any overwhelming numbers of people around. In fact, it was just the opposite, and it was surprising.

That it was surprising might, well, surprise people. I don’t think I’ve ever really talked about what a perfect storm of things to make you uncertain about grad school this last 18 months, give or take, has been. Or at least laid it out in whole. As the chair for the graduate program has told me a few times now, any single one of these is difficult and concerning for a student to go through; going through them all and coming out still able to laugh (as MzS~ said earlier tonight, go through explosion after explosion and come out virtually unscathed) is rare.

Starting at the beginning, moving from one coast to the other is a culture shock. I’ve talked with several professors about this now, and they all agree – most have done the move themselves. As the chair said to me today, when he made that move from West to East, he started his first semester of graduate school elated, and ended it feeling like he’d been kicked. It’s hard to move away from everything you know and start over, especially when you know no one and aren’t in that same boat with the rest of your classmates, living in dorms, and forced to get to know people. It’s hard, and it’s lonely, and you’re a broke grad student and it’s hard to go out to dinner or bars or just places where you’ll meet folks. It can be demoralizing, too – I’m not sure how widespread this particular story is, but from June 2006 until January 2007 – from leaving Seattle until I returned for a short visit – the only people who’d hugged me were family, which was rare in itself.

That, from an environment where, if you walked into the CHID office, you were almost always immediately asked if you’d had your three hugs today. And if not, they would make sure you got them. An environment where I was literally in physical contact with many people, every day – casual, comfortable, friendly, caring contact. To nothing. I nearly cried when the first person I saw, back in Seattle, didn’t even stop to say hello before folding me into a huge hug. And to have that happen again, and again, made me realize just what I was missing.

That would be hard enough. But in that time, the program I was in fell apart, and by everyone’s admission, I got caught in the middle as the student most directly impacted, and it wasn’t handled well on anyone’s part (myself included). I went from this custom, unique program to nothing in the span of something like 6 weeks, and that nothing included realizing just what an odd person out I am in the department I remain in.

Then Mom was diagnosed with cancer, and we knew from the beginning it was likely to be terminal. Going into Christmas trying to simultaneously be positive, but watch Mom go through the side effects of chemo, and everyone silently trying to cope with it being our last family Christmas was more than grueling. It was a nightmare I wouldn’t wish on anyone, as were the subsequent months. And I was forced to deal with a lot of issues around my family that, well, we all probably have to some degree. I had to confront my problems with my family, and deal with them, and work through them – an on-going issue, I admit (and an admission just for you, sis). I had to continue confronting this over the next 11 months, and probably for for a while longer. I’m still angry, I’m still hurt, and I’m still grieving.

Are you tired yet? I think that in itself is enough, don’t you? Too bad it doesn’t stop there. There’s been a pervasive problem with sexism in my department, or at least what appeared to be rampant discrimination. Not from the professors, who I might have expected it from, but the other graduate students. Talking over and around the women, making jokes about not being able to make off-coloured jokes, blatantly discussing parties we hadn’t been invited to in front of us – bad enough, but it escalated to the point that it seemed like direct attacks were being made against the women in classes, and things just exploded into a department mess from there.

And speaking of the department, about this time it also became very clear – in that they told me to my face – that several professors really didn’t like bioethics. They didn’t see the point to it, they didn’t understand why anyone would go in to such a worthless career, that all bioethicists do is sit around and kvetch. And this wasn’t a one-off, it was said to me, directly, repeatedly, up until the week before I left for ASBH. Where MzS~ and I would have to subtly and physically taking turns restraining one another when things were said, because hi, we were standing right there.

So to recap,

  1. moving and culture shock
  2. academic program falling apart and going away, messily
  3. Mom’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent death
  4. sexism and alienation in my department
  5. definite anti-bioethics bias revealed by faculty, leaving me feel unwelcome in the department

As if that weren’t enough, there have been numerous work issues, which I won’t go into for reasons involving discretion (and contractual shut-up agreements). But to say those haven’t helped is an understatement.

Just typing it out is exhausting. Going through it has been… a perfect storm. Leaving me wondering what the hell I’m doing, am I even in the right place, what am I doing in a department that doesn’t want me on multiple fronts, a city I still feel like a stranger in…

Is it any wonder I was dreading going back onto campus, when I’ve felt successively alienated?

Academically, the program dissolution issue has been solved for a while. It’s an expensive solution that’s going to take more time, but it’s still do-able. So that’s off the table, it’s just the lingering stress and loneliness of solitude in interests that’s there.

Obviously, and both fortunately and unfortunately, my mother’s illness is over. I’m going to have to cope with the after-effects of that for a long time, but I’m not alone in the Dead Mommy Club.

I haven’t been around for a lot of the cleanup on the sexism front, but I hear that, like all good stories, instead of it being what we (the women) saw, it was something else. Some cluelessness, some insensitivity, and other people’s problems spilling over and looking like something they weren’t – sexism. It’s sort of funny to say that, in light of the post I made regarding it almost a year ago – because gender was the problem. The fact that there were (and still are) so few women in the program made it seem like it was a sexism problem, when in reality it was just a people problem.

And one of the professors who said such negative things about bioethics actually paid me a compliment today, telling me it wasn’t something he could do, and he knew it was a difficult field – just dealing with the doctors made it hard. We talked about what I wanted to do my dissertation on, and he actually not only gave me advice, but told me he thought it was a genuinely good idea.

That was actually my first meeting today. And the day just got better. I ended up talking to several colleagues who had made me feel so isolated and alienated last year, and they were, across the board, sweet and empathetic and kind. I had a long conversation with one of the primary people who made me feel unwelcome and sort of worthless due to my non-philosophy background, where he got enthusiastic about my research interests, and disturbed over my concerns about the program. Someone else, who has been so consistently considerate, kind, and quietly stable this last year spent almost an hour catching me up on the department issues and talking, again, about the future. MzS~ and I went to dinner, where it was like I had never been gone – we spent several hours laughing, talking over one another, spinning wildly from topic to topic, in one breathe going from giggly girls to serious academics and back again.

I went into the day dreading it, and nine hours after I left my house, I came home feeling like, for the first time in I don’t know how long, that I didn’t make the wrong choice in coming here. I came home smiling, having been hugged, and most of all, having hope…and finally feeling like maybe, just maybe I’m home.