You’ve Got Potential…

Here’s where you tell me it’s ridiculous to talk about my potential when I’ve never made an effort to use it. If I had an ounce of real potential, I’d get off my dumdum and do something. Go to school…buy an apprenticeship…or just start incanting on my own. Something. Instead, I’m squnadering my existence. On parties and fine food and umty-tiddly, as Zunctweed says. Doing nothing, day by day.

Do you know what it’s like to have dropped out of life? To have had a hundred chances to be special, but you avoided them all? Or just botched them up because you were a horrid coward, afraid of letting yourself change. You clutch your comfortable excuses, saying, Someday I’ll be brave, it won’t take a lot, just give me one more chance and this time I’ll grab it. But chances come and go. It would be easy to do something, but you don’t. You just don’t. Do you know what that’s like?…

Maybe it’s time. This time it’s time. To see if I’m somebody, or just a middle-aged slut who lies to herself about being gifted.

James Alan Gardner, Trapped

I have one singular bad habit. I procrastinate. It’s an old bad habit, and perhaps more insidious than a simple bad habit, it’s a habit borne of self-defense.

If I don’t lose weight, people will be forced to deal with my brain and not my body, and then the horrors of my early teens won’t be repeated.

If I don’t achieve what I can if I actually make an effort, people won’t then come to expect greatness from me. More importantly, they won’t be disappointed in me, and I’ll never again let anyone down. There is safety in mediocrity and being average, and I am as average and mediocre as I can stand to be.

But it’s not who I want to be, who I dream of being. And I am guilty of the above quote, of thinking that if I just had another chance, if I could just have that moment to prove myself and shine, I would shine. Oh, not shine the way you see me shine, but shine the way I know I can shine.

I would be brilliant. I would be breathtaking and brilliant.

In order to do that, though, I have to stop being afraid. Of consequences, of what will be, of what people will see. Of risk and failure.

The only way to be great is to work hard and take risks, and procrastinating protects me from both. And so I am safe, sheltered, bored and unhappy.

I took risks, once. The last one I took was four years ago, and it blew up in my face. It took me a long time, but I started taking tiny risks again, here and there. Getting in front of a class. Teaching. Applying for scholarships, grants, funds. Each time, I’ve done it, achieved what I set out for, and every single time, I’ve looked for the damned bomb that was going to blow up and ruin all the risk-taking and show everyone not for the fraud I am, but for the fractured, scared soul I am.

I thought graduate school was going to be that bomb. I thought I had finally found my Achillies heel, the thing that was going to neutralize all the risk. And at the seemingly last moment, even that proved untrue.

Which in some ways might be ironic, since now it leads all the potential for explosive failure back to my feet. Not that I failed to win or achieve, but that I will fail to do.

I’m scared of a lot of things. But it’s finally reached thet point where I’m more afraid of not doing anything than I am afraid of failing.

I’m tired of shooting myself in the foot. I’m tired of failing to live up to expectations at the last moment because it’s safer, and I’m disgusted with making excuses for the failure.

It’s time. Not to show you that these visions I have of myself are true, but to show myself.

Shay Saves the Day

I took Shay’s advice, after pounding my head against my thesis so long I swear I’ve a large purple bruise on my forhead. I collected together all my writing in one document, in roughly the order I thought it should all go in. I then expanded around each section, explaining what else I thought needed to go in around these fuller paragraphs.

Suddenly, I have 20 pages of thesis. Which is between 1/3-1/5th of the way done with the project, and 20 pages more than I had yesterday.

More importantly, by far more importantly, I actually feel, now, like this is something I can do.

The Genealogy of Pinball Effects

Last night, I looked around my recently de-clothed living room, at books scattered here and there, stacked and toppled, mixed within camera and art supplies, and thought “ananda help me, I don’t want to read any of this!” I wandered between bookshelves (and yes, although I live in a studio apartment, I currently have three standing bookshelves, and two that mimic built-ins, thanks to Kevin’s help) looking for something to read, briefly considered going back to reading about the history of collecting and museums, and finally my eyes landed on James Burke’s The Pinball Effect. The perfect mix of academic and popular writing to curl up with before sleep, tempered with fond memories of a television show I’d rearrange my schedule to watch1

I opened the book, and having read pieces before, skipped the directions2 and skimmed the introduction…

We all live on the great, dynamic web of change. It links us to one another and, in some ways, to everything in the past. And in the way that each of us influences the course of events, it also links us to the future we are all busy making, every second. No matter how remote all these links may seem, over space and time, they are real. No person acts without causing change on the web. Each one of us has an effect, somewhere, somewhen. Everybody contributes to the process. In some way, anything we do makes history, because we are history. The web is the expression of our existence, and of all those who went before us, and all who will come after us.3

This is Foucault, Nietzsche4, genealogy. No beginning, no ending; stories stretch into the past, into the future, and they don’t do so in neat, straight lines, but instead more of a giant spaghetti mess of intertwining. Maybe this is not getting away from academia as much as I’d like – skip the intro and run to chapter one.

It doesn’t matter where you begin a journey on the great web of change. There is no right place, and no event too humdrum to start from, because one of the fascinating things about the web is the way effects ripple across it. Any action, anywhere, can trigger a chain of events that crosses space and time, to end (perhaps) clear across the world. anything that happens on the web makes waves.5

…he’s talking about resonance. The web is the environment, the world, everything that we sense, and the effects rippling, that’s a prodding of the autopoietic system resonating out and in, affecting and changing the systems within the system.

On the one hand, this makes sense. I’ve loved Burke since being exposed to his television shows, I’m slowly collecting the books as I find them used. It’s a style of thinking I gravitate to and can appreciate, and it brings me great joy to see just how renaissance water gardens made the carburetor possible, and to know how bubblegum led to the flak jacket (just to name two examples of trails genealogies he’s led us through). And it’s not like this is a new thought, that this is what his books and shows do. I’ve brought this in to class before as an example of a genealogy that’s accessible, easy to understand, and I’m sure I will again.

On the other hand, it’s almost disappointing to not even be able to sit and read something “for fun” without the academic brain kicking in. I want to ask if I’m cursed, will I ever be able to simply enjoy something for what it is, without analysing? Will I ever be able to sit down with a book and see it just as a book, something to escape with and enjoy for a few hours, or will I endlessly be thinking about how I can apply it in a teaching scenario, what it illustrates, how to utilize it for a class?

And the gripping hand points out that this connection, this seeing and feeling of the web, that is what energizes me, what I love, dare I say what I live for. To see the almost visible connections between science and fiction, affect and music, people. And it’s what I’ve been missing lately, those a-ha moments of connection and visibility.

  1. Burke’s show “Connections”, which ran through several iterations on the BBC, and was brought over here by the Discovery Channel in the mid 1990s. []
  2. Yes, the book has directions – it’s sort of a hard copy of internet linking, with the ability to follow multiple stories by skipping around the book and paragraphs. It’s very cool, and very difficult to explain without showing you. Just imagine the internet on paper, and ignore the headache that creates. []
  3. Burke, James. The Pinball Effect. Back Bay Books, 1996; pp 3 []
  4. Whose I can now spell without having to look up, something that I’m not sure is good, or depressing. []
  5. Burke, James. The Pinball Effect. Back Bay Books, 1996; pp 7 []

Friday Five

The Friday Five is a LJ question list. Every Friday, five new questions are asked, generally on a related theme, and you answer them in your own journal. The ones for this Friday got me thinking, a bit, as they were about teachers. Things like who were your favourite teachers, what they taught, your best memories…

Mr. Wright was my 6th grade CORE teacher; CORE was basically your English and History class, taught by the same teacher. Math, PE, etc – taught by different teachers, so you rotated classes every 50 minutes or so. (On top of that we rotated schedule daily, too – if class was ABCDEF one day, the next it was BCDEFA the next, and so on – but I digress). CORE was an attempt to keep up around one person a little longer, and make sure there was someone to help with our basic writing skills, etc.

6th grade was my first year in public school; I had been in a private Christian school from kindergarten through 5th grade, and in addition to very small classes, we were encouraged to work at our own speed. For all intents and purposes, by the time I was in 3rd grade, I was reading and writing at a 12th grade level, and the next two grades were a chance to finesse my skills rather than build on them. (I would often spend the entire day in the library, those last two years, curled up in a chair and reading.) So coming into the public school system was a bit of a shock. I hadn’t originally tested into the gifted and talented (GATE) program, I apparently missed the cutoff margin by a few points, but after two weeks of “regular” class, the teacher begged them to transfer me. Guess I was a bit of a troublemaker… So I had the double fun of joining a new school and having all my classes change on me, to move me into an area where it was hoped I’d be more challenged. It wasn’t my idea of fun.

Mr. Wright, on the other hand, was. For one, he thought our textbooks were useless, so instead would assign us to go do independent research on a subject, and then come back and teach the rest of the class about what we learned. I remember choosing to research about the black death, and having a lot of fun explaining in graphic detail what the various forms of the disease did to you. We’d have about a month to research, and then a week to teach the material, and then our choice of test or paper to decide how well everyone learned the subject.

His big focus, though, was social activism. Over the course of the year, we would spend time in class preparing sandwiches to give out to the homeless people in downtown San Jose. We would organize food drives, and spend our evenings in the National Guard Armory soup kitchens. This was the year of the Tianamen Square massacre in China, and we raised funds to build a replica State of Liberty for the students in China, wrote stories and poems, drew pictures, and did what we could to bring more and continued awareness to the situation. The poem I wrote and illustrated was picked out of everyone’s to be framed and displayed in Norm Mineta’s office; I hear it moved with him when he was given a position in the Bush Administration and moved to DC.

Mr. Wright was a dreamer. One of the other things he believed strongly in was the importance of computers. He ran a BBS, the Chalkboard, and encouraged us to turn our homework in via computer. If we didn’t have a computer or modem, he would longterm lend us a dterm and modem (150/300 baud – woo). He was convinced it was how the classroom was going to change, and what homework was going to move towards – much to the scorn of the majority of the faculty. He and my father really got along, at least on that front…

Mrs. Callahan was my 7th grade GATE CORE teacher. She was bored with textbooks, too, so she had us cover the walls of our classroom with butcher paper, and draw in a new planet. We had to study planet formation to understand this, from gravity to rain forests and ecosystems. Once we finished that assignment, we learned how to fill out job applications, and the jobs we were applying for were on a spaceship traveling to this new planet. The rest of that year, everything we did was framed in the context of this spaceship, our job, the new planet. It was kind of cheesy, and I remember a lot of us being a bit embarrassed by the entire idea (myself included). But at the same time, it was a lot of fun…

She was the first teacher I had who wasn’t “normal”. And by normal I mean, she seemed cool to us kids. She had tinted purple hair, dressed in what I now realize were sort of new romantic clothes, and she liked a lot of the same music we did – Depeche Mode, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran. She was another social thinker, liberal and passionate. I remember her bringing in a taped performance of Michael Jackson singing “Man in the Mirror” and after making us watch this, led us in an analysis of the lyrics and what the point would be behind singing such a song. About how it is we go about making change.

I don’t remember all of my teachers, of course, but I remember a lot of them. Mrs. Stone was the teacher assistant in 2nd grade; she and I have the same birthday. She would always find me, after that year, on our birthday, and bring me a cupcake. Played a mean game of tetherball, too! Mrs. W (she was Polish and we never even tried to pronounce her last name) was the aide for 3rd thru 5th grade, and took those of us “advanced” students aside for math for a few years. I was developing my rather smartass attitude by 4th grade, and she made some comment to another student about how she wasn’t going to take lip from anyone shorter than her. Well, at that point I was already a good few inches taller than her, and also standing by her at the board working out a math problem. I remember her whipping around before I could get more than a smirk out, and telling me that she wouldn’t take lip from anyone taller, either, and she could still break my kneecaps if she needed to. It cracked me up, and I see a lot of my current rather sarcastic attitude as her filtered through me.

Mrs. Cobb taught the smallest class I was ever in, a joint 5th/6th grade class. My fostered sister was in that class, as well as several people I had become good friends with – but there were still only about 14 students. This was the year of practical jokes, of rubber cementing everything to her desk, fishing wire to rig drawers to fly open. Of sitting in Mrs. Cobb’s bright red pickup, listening to Simon and Garfunkel – music she wasn’t allowed to bring into the Christian classroom, but she thought we needed to hear, anyhow. I guess I never really thought, before, about the fact that she taught with music, but she did, constantly. We were always going out to listen to something or another, stereo thumping, trying to hide from the principle.

The brief time I was in high school, I didn’t have any teachers that really made a difference to me, or really even much of an impression. But the vice principal liked me, and would frequently catch me cutting class to hang out in the computer lab or library. We struck a deal – I stop cracking the school grading system, and he wouldn’t turn me in to attendance. I suspect it was his affection would kept me from getting into a lot of trouble when I blew up the science lab…all three times. He knew I was bored, and knew why, and really pushed for me to graduate early and get my butt on to college. Probably one of the better decisions anyone ever pushed me into.

I guess the seeds were planted early. I think back on these teachers with great fondness and a lot of memories, but I also see bits of them in me. The way Mrs. W would use sarcasm to defuse a situation, using current media events and social causes to teach with from Mrs. Callahan and Mr. Wright, how what’s in a book doesn’t mean much if you can’t connect it to the outside world. That you need to tolerate the people who learn in all kinds of different ways, and that independent research and then turning around to teach it to someone else is the best way to learn. I suppose I have a strong pedigree, only strengthened by the last few years in CHID.

Grieving Baboons Comforted By Friends

Female baboons that suffer the loss of a close friend or relative turn to other baboons for comfort and support, according to a new study that encompassed 14 years of observing over 80 free-ranging baboons in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

The study provides the first direct evidence that certain animals mourn the loss of individuals, even when the rest of their social group remains intact. The findings also suggest that friendship may be just as important to some primates as it is for humans.

Researchers particularly were struck by the behavior of one female chacma baboon (Papio hamadryas ursinus) named Sylvia, who was described as “the queen of mean” and disdainful of other baboons until she lost her daughter, Sierra, to a lion kill.

“In the week after Sierra died, Sylvia was withdrawn,” said Anne Engh, who led the project. “When the other females were grooming and socializing, she tended to sit alone and rarely interacted even with her other relatives.”

Engh, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania, added, “After a week or two of moping around, Sylvia suddenly initiated grooming with several low-ranking females. I think that they were as surprised as I was — they seemed awfully nervous at first. Eventually, Sylvia settled into close relationships with a very low-ranking female and with Sierra’s daughter, Margaret.”

Engh explained to Discovery news that grooming is a friendly behavior where baboons clean each other’s fur.

Similar to two human friends chatting over a drink, the activity seems to relax the participants to the point where it can lower stress hormone levels. Those levels rise in humans and baboons after a close friend or relative dies.

The researchers measured a group of such hormones, called glucocorticoids, in Sylvia and 20 other females. Baboons that experienced losses did have elevated levels of the hormones after the deaths.

In humans, this is associated with bereavement, so it is likely that baboons also grieve their dead.