Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The power of stillness

One of the lessons I have learned from dance is the importance of stillness.  Beginning dancers often assume that one must be continuously in motion -- keep moving, keep moving, fill up the music.  But constant motion is wearying to watch and gives the viewer no time to rest.  Of course, pauses do more than just give the audience a breather.  Stillness provides a frame for motion.  When the dancer stops moving, it serves to accent the previous move -- it lets the viewer know that something important just happened.  Even the most spectacular move will not be appreciated by the audience unless they are given time to absorb it and the pause that lets them know how amazing it was (think of the "ta-da!" moment, for example).  Dance also needs stillness for structure, just as language uses punctuation to break the continuous stream of words into meaningful units.  Similarly, we use pauses and changing tempos to create phrasing in dance. 

But these moments of stillness are challenging.  As one of those people who can become uncomfortable with silence, I tend to want to fill up every moment with sound and action.  Pauses create anxiety in many dancers, because they worry that the audience will get bored.  We tend to think of stillness as an absence -- without movement, nothing is going on.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  When executed well, the pause is filled with meaning: with the memory of movement and the anticipation of movement, with the persona of the performer, with the connection between performer and audience.  The quiet moments require that we have confidence in ourselves -- confidence that we alone, without the distraction of movement, have a strong enough presence to compel the viewer's interest.  In this way, stillness requires that we make ourselves vulnerable; stripping off the cloak of our dance technique and putting aside our bag of tricks, we expose our self, the self we embody for performance, to the audience. 

This excerpt from George Balanchine's ballet, Apollo, uses moments of stillness to create tension and heighten emotion, as well as to highlight beautiful poses.

In this piece by the spectacular dance company Momix, stillness is essential for the illusion of defying gravity.  Tension is created as we wonder whether the dancers will be able to hold their position.  We are able to focus on the one dancer who is moving because all of the other dancers are immobile.  Notice, too, the moment at about 1:30 when the dancers hold a new position for a long moment, and the audience applauds.  This is the the "ta-da!" moment I mentioned earlier.  Later in the piece, moments of stillness highlight particular poses and shapes created by the dancers. 

In life, as in dance, I want to keep moving, striving, doing.  I don't like to just sit still and do nothing.  But I'm coming to realize that we all have (or should have) pauses in life, when we are not doing, but merely being.  While they may feel unproductive, these moments give us a chance to reflect on the past and envision the future, as well as to fully experience the present.  Of course, just as in dance, there are more and less effective uses of stillness -- we need to fill these pauses with meaning, not just hang around doing nothing.  If you find your life overfull of activity, perhaps it is time to cultivate moments of quietude.  If you find yourself in a prolonged pause, make it a meaningful one and recognize that sometimes it is all right just to be, suspended between moments of doing.  I suspect I will always enjoy action best, but I'm learning to appreciate the value of purposeful inactivity.  Perhaps someday I can learn to live as comfortably in stillness as I do in motion, even if only for a moment, when I am my only audience.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Cease and desist

Dear Brain,

I hope this letter finds you well.  I would like to begin by thanking you for the excellent service you have thus far provided.  I have had little cause for dissatisfaction over these many years and have come to rely on you for everything from motor control to memory (although I must say your performance in the memory department has been rather spotty at times).  Whenever I have needed you, you were there. 

It is, therefore, with a heavy heart that I must register my current complaint.  It must seem to you a rather trivial matter, given your otherwise exemplary performance.  Indeed, I have tried my utmost to simply ignore the problem and hoped that you would resolve it spontaneously.  But my patience has been stretched to its breaking point.  I have reached the limits of my goodwill and cannot turn a blind eye to such egregious behavior on your part. 

I have endured more than a month of near-constant replay of the same tune.  It is more than I can bear.  True, there have been moments, even whole days, during which I was not plagued by the endlessly repeating musical loop.  But just when I think it is over, when I hope to be truly free of this torture, I find myself whistling the refrain under my breath.  I have done everything I know to end this cycle.  I can find nothing -- no other music, no mental trick  -- to successfully expunge this earworm.  I even attempted to replace one song loop with another to no avail.  I must, therefore, respectfully ask you to take immediate action to end your musical barrage.

It wouldn't be so bad if the music were more complex or varied.  There are some songs I could happily listen to every day.  Frankly, what bothers me most is the sheer inanity of your choice.  I ask you, honestly, who wouldn't be irritated by incessant replay of the theme song from I Dream of Jeannie -- a show I haven't seen for at least a decade, and one which at best is silly and might more accurately be described as puerile.  I mean, really -- I'm not asking for high-brow classical music, but this is just embarrassing. What are you trying to communicate to me?  Am I supposed to dress up in chiffon and live in a bottle, devote myself to servile submission to my "master" -- or are you just encouraging me to watch more television?  I cannot decode the message, if any, that is being conveyed, and I have had enough. 

As of receipt of this letter, I demand that you cease and desist your musical assault.  Prompt action on your part will ensure that no punitive action will be taken against you.  Should you fail to respond in a timely manner, I am prepared to settle this matter formally in court.  I deeply regret the necessity of this letter, but you have left me little recourse.  I hope that we can resolve this amicably and return to the mutually satisfactory relationship we have had in the past. 


Deborah C. Stearns, Ph.D.

Friday, August 6, 2010

When is it enough? Searching for meaning

Eye by M. C. Escher (1946)

When you look back on your life and contemplate what you have accomplished, will it be enough?  Will you have achieved enough, done enough, been enough?  What is enough? 

These are the questions that plague me.  I have always struggled with the question of sufficiency (or what I might call "enoughness").  Am I smart enough?  Am I attractive enough?  Is my work good enough?  I sought evidence, some kind of standard against which I could determine my quality.  Unfortunately, there is no clear standard for "enoughness," because it depends on what one means by enough.  Enough for what, exactly?  Is my work good enough to pass the class is a different question from whether it is good enough to get the top grade.  The questions never get resolved for me because I don't know what I mean by enough.  I don't have some concrete goal or clear comparison that will provide a definitive answer for the question.  Essentially, this stands in for the existential question of my worth:  Am I good enough to justify my existence?

In Notre Dame des Neiges (Montreal)
By what metric do we judge the quality of a person's life?  This requires that we identify the purpose of life, a thorny question to be sure.  One of my colleagues believes that the meaning of our lives is to be found in the quality of our relationships with others -- we live to love and be loved.  Some have argued that we are meant to seek happiness: 
“I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy” --  Dalai Lama
Or perhaps not:  
"The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them.”  -- Dalai Lama
Maybe we are meant to fulfill our potential: 
"When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me.'"  -- Erma Bombeck
Or perhaps we should savor our life and seek diverse experiences:
"The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience." -- Eleanor Roosevelt
Maybe it doesn't matter exactly what we pursue, as long as we have some goal: 

"The purpose of life is a life of purpose." -- Robert Byrne
But whatever life's purpose, whether love, happiness, service or savoring, we are still left with the question of what constitutes enough.  If you follow Erma Bombeck's guidance, how do you know if you have fully met your potential?  Did you produce your best work?  Were you your best self, or could you have been better? For Emerson, how much of a difference do we need to make to have lived well?  If we make a slight difference in only one person's life, is that sufficient?  Can Eleanor Roosevelt be sure that she has tasted her experience to the utmost?  Maybe she could have savored life more fully. 

I can list my achievements and contributions, but I don't know if they are enough.  Couldn't I have done more?  Surely I wasted time that could have been better spent.  Perhaps I should have spent more time with my students -- or maybe less time at work and more time with my family and friends.  Maybe I should have focused more on one pursuit, rather than trying to do so many different things.  How do I know if I have done enough?  I'm searching for a sense of inner certainty that would indicate that I am on the right track, but I find only doubt.  My only certainty arises from knowing that some accomplishment is definitely not enough.  Without the feeling of certainty, I search for some external metric that could answer the question.  I look to awards, accolades, affection, any of which might indicate success, but none of which tell me if I have done enough

Courtesy of Mark's Weblog
Maybe I'm not supposed to have the answer.  Maybe it's engaging with the question that matters.  After all, the open question could inspire further effort -- if I knew that I had done enough, I might get complacent and rest on my laurels.  My lingering doubt provides a driving sense of anxiety -- you're not done yet, do more, try harder, keep going -- the dire threat of failure, of a meaningless and unfulfilled life, lurking at every moment.   True, this worry is unpleasant, but perhaps it is useful.  I believe in the importance of  living an examined life, and unresolved questions keep the examination process ongoing.  

But perhaps the anxiety is merely a distraction.  Rather than being a goad to greater achievement, one could argue that these worries leach energy from my life's work.  I spend time dithering about whether I've done enough instead of just getting on with it.  What could I have gotten done with this time I've spent rambling on about my existential angst, for example?  If I could come to some zen-like peace with the question of my worth, would I really stop working, or would I be even more productive?   

It's a moot point, as I simply don't know how to dismiss the existential questions; I have no answers and I can't make the questions go away.  The existentialist and humanistic psychologists would argue that we all confront these issues -- we must face the inevitability of our death and the threat of meaninglessness as part of psychological growth.  It may be too much to ask for a definitive answer, but I could wish for a tentative one, some ballpark estimate of my life's cumulative worth as a crumb of comfort in the face of my mortality.  Instead I simply ride out the ebb and flow of doubt, presuming that I am doing things right (all the while fearing that I am not).  And I hope that, when I am at the end of my days, I will be satisfied with what I have made of of my life.  I suspect, though, that at least some degree of doubt will follow me always, as I cannot imagine myself disentangled from the uncertainty that permeates my existence. 

How about you?  How do you establish whether you have done enough?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Summer days

An afternoon splashing in the pool at my father's house with my brother and his kids

Watching butterflies and dragonflies flutter and dance

Surrounded by colorful flowers

I come home smelling of chlorine and memory. 

Friday, July 30, 2010

Creating in chalk

I rarely take commissions, but while hanging out with my niece and nephew . . .

My niece asked me to draw an "alien picture" of her -- does this look alien enough? 

And we created a curving hopscotch board that had 40 squares.

There's nothing like spending time with children to bring fresh inspiration . . . or is that desperation? ;-)

Fiber fantasy scarf: Fringe madness

I spent a couple of weeks sewing in preparation for a show, and I was excited to make more of the fiber fantasy scarves.  I had so much fun working with the recycled sari ribbons and yarns that I wanted to make another scarf using them. I had two main goals:  to create a diagonal line that avoided the typical vertical or horizontal layout of fibers and to create a more open, less dense feel for the scarf.  So I laid out the sari ribbon on the diagonal, looping it back and forth.  In between, I laid out recycled sari yarn and commercial yarns and ribbons, but without filling in the space fully. 

I used free-motion stitching to make stylized flames in red, orange, and yellow threads, and then used heavy gold metallic thread to stitch spirals along one long edge of the scarf.  The flame design doesn't really show up on the scarf, but the gold metallic shows up nicely.  If I want the stitching to show up on these scarves, I need to use heavy-weight thread in a contrasting color -- otherwise, the thread blends into the other fibers of the scarf. 

I used a different water-soluble stabilizer for this scarf (Aquabond).  I found the adhesive to be a bit weaker, but it rinsed out more easily than the Aqua-Magic I had used previously, which tends to leave behind adhesive residue.  After rinsing out the stabilizer,  I had to untangle the fringe (which was quite a task).  Then I trimmed the fringe and hand-knotted it on all four sides of the scarf.  This took a long time, but turned out to be a good task to keep me from being antsy while waiting for a doctor's appointment. 

Overall, I'm pleased with how this turned out.  The colors are fabulous -- the recycled sari ribbon and yarn really has intense, luscious color -- and I think the fringe gives it nice movement.  It's a long scarf (about 6" wide and 54" long), which means it can be worn in quite a few different ways.  At the show, this scarf attracted attention -- a number of people touched it, picked it up, tried it on.  Seems like a sign of a successful design to me!  The scarf is for sale in my Etsy shop

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Clearing space and finding words

As she came near the second of these alcoves she stopped skipping. There had once been a flowerbed in it, and she thought she saw something sticking out of the black earth- -some sharp little pale green points. She remembered what Ben Weatherstaff had said and she knelt down to look at them.

"Yes, they are tiny growing things and they might be crocuses or snowdrops or daffodils," she whispered.

. . .

She did not know anything about gardening, but the grass seemed so thick in some of the places where the green points were pushing their way through that she thought they did not seem to have room enough to grow. She searched about until she found a rather sharp piece of wood and knelt down and dug and weeded out the weeds and grass until she made nice little clear places around them.

"Now they look as if they could breathe," she said, after she had finished with the first ones. "I am going to do ever so many more. I'll do all I can see. If I haven't time today I can come tomorrow."

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Writing requires space.  I don't mean just physical space (with a nod to Virginia Woolf) -- I mean mental space, as well.  When my life is overfull (of projects, meetings, plans, and deadlines), I simply don't have the mental space to write.  To some extent, this is due to the very limited time that is left over after all of the urgent tasks have been addressed.  However, scraps of time remain -- a half hour here or there -- and writing could take place in those times.  But my mind is filled with the minutiae of work and home, and I cannot clear away the mental clutter of everyday life to construct threads of meaning.  I have enough time to live my life, but not to put it into words.  When my present is stuffed to bursting, I seem to develop a tunnel vision, seeing only what is in front of me. There is no room for detours into the infrequently traveled, often fragmentary side paths.

Yet again, I have forgotten the lessons from the garden.  I fail to thin, weed, or prune, and my life becomes overfull.  Of course, the act of clearing space itself takes time -- my long hours weeding in the garden can attest to that -- and becomes yet another contribution to my crowded schedule.  Task upon task, each of which is important and clamoring for priority, squeezing out the extras.  After a while, the habit of writing is lost, and even writing a blog post seems like an insurmountable task. 

I miss writing, though.  Processing my life, putting it into a formal narrative, creates a deeper understanding than that allowed by fleeting thoughts or casual conversations.  In graduate school, after my advisor and I had discussed an idea for a while, he would say "Good.  Now go write it all down."  He knew, and I learned, that the writing the ideas down often revealed gaps in the theory or created new ideas to pursue.  Writing helps create emotional meaning, as well, as I have found in my other blog.  In addition, writing endures:  Even the ephemeral text of the internet is captured and can be replayed, living beyond the moment of publication. 

So I promise to write, but the to-do list is never complete and the words remain fragmentary.  As time passes, writing seems more and more distant, more unlikely.  Until the day when the must-do tasks remain ignored and incomplete; the weeds and dust and piles of paper are left for another day.  Writing takes precedence, for once, and I reconnect with my inner narrative. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

New bloom

Just when I thought you would never bloom again, you surprise me.  You remind me that we hold within us the promise of new growth that can burst forth at any time.  Delicate and ethereal, you have the drive to flower that cannot be denied.  You give me hope.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mud cloth vest: How long did it take you?

Vest back
Vest front, collar turned down 

My latest wearable creation is a cross-cultural fusion, representing the global marketplace at its best.  I used the pattern for a traditional Tibetan panel coat from Folkwear, with the outside panels from handwoven mud cloth from Mali and commercial black linen fabric, which were then embellished with batik-dyed bone beads from Kenya and cowrie shells.  The vest is lined with a cotton print that has a hand-dyed look and cream-colored linen fabric.  The facings are in a wine-colored linen fabric.  I can see that this is yet another example of my penchant for wearing costumes

Back of vest, half-beaded. 
See the difference the beading made?
Vest front, half-beaded 
The beading made a huge difference in this piece. Before the shoulder pieces were beaded, the vest wasn't particularly flattering. The visual weight took the eye downward, toward the wider part of the panels. I tried out a couple of different fabrics for the shoulder pieces, but none of the colors looked right. (I don't have much in the way of earthtones in my fabric stash.) In the end, I went with a heavier-weight black fabric (cotton? silk? I'm not sure). This helped support the shoulder line of the garment, but didn't create much visual contrast with the rest of the vest. Once I sewed the bone beads and cowrie shells on the shoulder pieces, the shoulders gained greater visual weight and looked wider, creating more balance with the width of the bottom of the vest. I also like the way that the batik-dyed bone beads blur the line between the black and white spiral mud cloth piece and the shoulder piece.
Vest back, detail of beading

Vest, front left shoulder, detail of beading 

Vest, left side
I knew I wanted to put the spiral bone beads under the arm to connect with the spiral mud cloth fabric of the front panels.  I also wanted some more cowrie shells, and I figured putting them underneath the spiral beads would camouflage the slight puckering of the linen fabric underneath the shoulder accent piece.  This ended up becoming a line of cowrie shell and spiral bead fringe, which has a lovely movement and sound as the shells bump into each other.  As a happy coincidence, this creates a visual line at the waist, which is flattering, particularly in a loosely fitting garment like this.  Who knew? 

Armhole, beading detail

This vest is a great example of why I have trouble answering the question, "How long did it take you to make that?"  First of all, I don't keep track of my hours in any precise way when I am involved in a lengthy project.  Second, I tend to work on multiple projects simultaneously, and I may put aside one project for months (or even years) before getting back to it.  This tends to happen when I hit a snag in the design or construction process.  
Vest front, opened to show lining
I started making this vest a year ago.  It took me a day or two to cut out the pattern pieces; this process was complicated by the fact that I was trying to maximize the visual impact of the mud cloth design from three separate pieces of mud cloth.  There were a few places where the weave needed to be reinforced, so I backed those sections with a piece of cotton fabric, using fusible web. I also had a hard time finding a lining fabric, as I have little in my fabric collection that fits with the muted earthtones of the mudcloth, so there was some hunting and pondering time in there.  I don't remember how long it took me to sew the panels together, but I put in extra time serging the raw edges of the fabric to keep the handwoven fabric from raveling.  Unfortunately, just as I was serging the last seam on the lining, I ended up cutting into the fabric.  Argh!  This kind of snag is what usually makes me put the project aside until I feel ready to deal with it again. 

Closeup of patch on lining
What with my work schedule and other projects, I didn't get back to this vest until a month ago.  I've been on a mission to finish up my works-in-progress, so I pulled this project out as the next to be completed.  I decided to put a patch on the cut section of the lining fabric, so I had to hunt through my stash again to find a complementary fabric.  The cotton print with cowrie shells seemed perfect, so I fussy-cut a patch and fused it onto the lining, using a decorative stitch to anchor it.  It actually looked neat, kind of like a postage stamp or a designer label.  In fact, I liked it so much that I was sorry to see it partly covered by the facing.  It's nice when a mistake turns into a design feature. 

The next challenge was basting the outer layer and the lining together.  The outer layer had stretched quite a bit more than the lining, and I ended up basting, ripping out the basting, and re-basting, which took quite a bit of time as it was all done by hand.  Once that was fitted together, it was time to do the facings and the neckband, which I hand-basted, machine stitched, and then hand-tacked to the lining.  The facings and neckband alone took several days to complete, largely due to the hand-stitching.  It helped that we were snowed in, so I had a week to work on the vest (between bouts of shoveling snow, that is). 
Auditioning beads       
Then I auditioned various possible shoulder fabrics in between sewing cowrie shells by hand on the neckband.  I finally chose the black fabric and hand-stitched the shoulder pieces in place.  It was clear that it needed more beading, so I tried out various bead arrangements (more pondering time here).  After deciding on the bead design, it was just hours and hours (and hours!) of hand sewing the beads and then the whole garment was finally complete. 

I could, of course, try to estimate all the time involved in the design, construction, and embellishment of the vest.  But that isn't even the whole story.  Really, this vest began a decade ago, when I first had the idea of making a panel coat from mud cloth, and I began my search for the fabric and beads.  I got gorgeous pieces of mud cloth from African import stores in Georgetown and purchased bone beads in Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan (neighborhoods in Washington, DC).  I searched online for cowrie shells of the right size and color -- I only found the ones I used here quite recently.  Or maybe the story really began twenty years ago, when I made a Tibetan panel coat for my sister and dreamed of having one of my own (I probably should have kept that one and given her something she would have liked better -- I doubt she got much use out of it).  How do we count the hours of imagination and dreaming and looking for supplies?  

This is why I never know how to answer the question, "How long did it take you to make that?" except to say . . . "A long time."

Saturday, March 6, 2010

How well do you know yourself? The limits of introspection

Think back to a recent choice you made -- maybe you were choosing among different posters to put up in your home, and you liked one better than the others.  Now think about why you made that choice, and tell me what it was about that poster that you liked best.  How you do you figure out what motivated your behavior?  Well, you just look inside yourself and describe that inner process.  Surely you would know better than anyone why you do what you do.  Right? 
Not necessarily.  We tend to think that introspection results in accurate self-knowledge, but we often don't have access to our internal processes.  In those cases, we simply make up plausible reasons for our behavior and confidently believe that we have derived these from accurate introspection (this is called the introspection illusion).  Johannson and colleagues, for example, asked people to choose which of two photographs they liked best and then asked them to explain the reasons for their choice.  Unbeknownst to the participants, though, the researchers switched the pictures, so the participants were actually explaining why they liked the picture they hadn't chosen.  Yet, rather than noticing the switch, participants simply confabulated explanations, identifying aspects of the non-preferred photo as the reasons for their choice (e.g., "I liked this one because he has blue eyes," when in fact they had chosen a picture of a brown-eyed person). 

[By the way, if you are positive that you would notice the switch of the pictures, check out this video and this video, both of which illustrate inattentional blindness. Most people think they would notice the change, but few people actually do.]

 We simply don't have direct access to many of our psychological processes, as they happen rapidly and outside of conscious awareness.  So you may really not know why you do what you do.  But that doesn't stop you from making up some plausible story to explain your behavior.  These stories may then shape what we do, as we strive to be consistent with our perceived motives.  Let's go back to the poster you picked out for your home.  Suppose you made a gut decision; you just picked one you liked without analyzing your reason for choosing it.  Your friend, on the other hand, thought about the options and made a reasoned choice based on conscious thought.  Who is going to be more satisfied with their choice later on?  Chances are, you will be more satisfied than your friend, at least according to studies conducted by Tim Wilson and colleagues.  Wilson's resarch has found that analyzing the reasons for our feelings and behaviors can actually be unhelpful, because we may change our attitudes and behavior to match the story we made up about ourselves. 

No one is claiming that introspection is always inaccurate, but it is clear that we don't have access to all aspects of our inner life.  So what to do?  It seems to me there are a couple of options here.

  • Trust your instincts (sometimes):  Much of this research supports the idea that we are better off going with our gut when we make choices, at least in some situations.  The unconscious processes may be a better match for our real preferences than the carefully-thought-out reasons we craft to explain our choices.  However, there can be costs in following instincts, as well, in that we are prone to biases in our thinking and may make choices that do not meet our broader, long-term goals.  Our gut is not particularly rational, after all, and relying solely on instinct can result in poor choices at times. We may like that car merely because we have seen it in advertisements, not because it is a reliable vehicle.  So, instinct might be useful in guiding decisions at times, but I do not think we should rely on it in all cases. 
  • Don't overthink:  The implication of Wilson's research is that conscious analysis of our feelings and behaviors can result in faulty self-knowledge and impaired decision making.  So clearly, he would argue that we shouldn't overthink our decisions.  Again, though, this needs to be qualified.  There are certainly some decisions that are improved by careful thought, and self-analysis can be helpful at times.  No one is arguing that thinking is always counterproductive, merely that when we are being driven by unconscious cognitive processes, self-reflection can be misleading. 
  • Embrace uncertainty:  When asked why I feel the way I do, I'm quite likely to say "I don't know."  I know this response is frustrating, but I want to be mindful of the limits of my knowledge.   The introspection illusion comes from the fact that we don't know what we don't know. So maybe it would help for us to resist the desire to confabulate and be willing to admit ignorance.  The challenge here is to know when we are gaining accurate self-knowledge through introspection, and when we are confabulating.  Quite frankly, I'm not sure we can tell which is which.  So maybe it's a good idea to live with a certain amount of uncertainty at all times. 
  • Be open-minded:  One way of dealing with our lack of certainty is to strive to be open-minded.  Even when we do have a theory regarding our motives or feelings, we can still be open to other explanations.  In general, though, we aren't terribly open-minded.  We work to maintain our beliefs by searching out and remembering confirming evidence and ignoring or deflecting contradictory evidence.  So being open-minded requires active work on our part to counteract our natural cognitive tendencies.  That doesn't mean we have to throw out our beliefs every time they are challenged, but it does mean we should take extra time to consider contradictory evidence and alternative theories.  So if someone suggests that you might have a different reason for your feelings or behavior, give that idea a chance before you reject it out of hand. 
  • Don't rely on introspection alone:  If there are multiple possible explanations for our behavior, then how can we decide which one is correct?  Rather than just looking inward, we can also examine our responses over time.  If our feelings and behavior don't seem consistent with our conscious explanations, then it is worth re-examining our theories.  When we moved into our house, I had the idea that neutral, off-white walls were ideal, as that gave us the freedom to display any artwork we liked without fear of clashing with the color of the wall.  But every time we have painted one of the rooms a bold, striking color, it makes me happier.  It turns out that my oh-so-reasonable belief that I would prefer neutral paint schemes was just wrong -- it doesn't fit with my real experience and feelings.  So, in keeping with my goal of open-mindedness, I threw out my neutral-paint theory and reshaped my self-image to fit my actual patterns of experience.  Friends and family can also be useful sources of data, particularly insofar as they might recognize patterns that we haven't seen (although their image of us may also be biased). 
In short, introspection is not an infallible source of self-knowledge.  Self-reflection and analysis can produce faulty explanations for our feelings and behaviors, particularly when we are influenced by unconscious processes.  There are some contexts in which self-analysis may lead us to second-guess our instincts and make inauthentic choices.  We needn't throw out introspection altogether, but it behooves us to be aware of its limitations and be less confident in our introspective conclusions.  You may not know yourself as well as you think. 

Note:  This post was prompted by a comment I posted on Katherine A. Cartwright's blog about the role of  introspection in the artistic process.   Check out her blog for terrific intellectual discussions about art. 

Further reading: 

Johansson, P., Hall, L., Sikström, S., Olsson, A. (2005). Failure to Detect Mismatches Between Intention and Outcome in a Simple Decision Task. Science 310 (5745): 116–119. PDF

Wilson, T. D. (2002). Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, Timothy D. (2003). Knowing When to Ask: Introspection and the Adaptive Unconscious, in Anthony Jack, Andreas Roepstorff. Trusting the subject?: the use of introspective evidence in cognitive science. Imprint Academic. pp. 131–140. PDF

Wilson, T. D., Lisle, D., Schooler, J. W., Hodges, S. D., Klaaren, K. J., & LaFleur, S. J. (1993). Introspecting about reasons can reduce post-choice satisfaction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19, 331–339. PDF

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Women's Studies Silent Auction

The annual Montgomery College Women's Studies Program Scholarship Breakfast is on Wednesday, Mar. 3 (8-9:30am), which showcases the achievements of Women's Studies students and faculty.  This is also the main fundraiser for the Women's Studies Scholarship fund, and I am coordinating the silent auction part of the breakfast.  Thanks to our generous donors, we have a wonderful array of items for the auction, and all proceeds from the auction go toward student scholarships.  If you see something you want, I am happy to arrange a proxy bid for you.  Just email me by Tuesday, Mar. 2 at 5pm to let me know what item you wish to bid on and how high you are willing to bid. 

I did some new kinds of lighting for some of the pictures, as well as using some different editing options in Photoshop, and I think most of the photos of the silent auction items came out quite well.  Many thanks to Robin Atkins for her post on photographing beadwork, which inspired me to try out these new techniques. 

Silent Auction Slideshow

Monday, February 15, 2010

There's Always Time for Love

I've always loved making Valentine's Day cards -- when I was a child, I spent weeks making construction paper valentines for my family and friends.  In fact, I gave Q a construction paper valentine when we first started dating (21 years ago).  He still has it.  In recent years, I've been making him fabric cards.  This year, the huge snowstorms meant that we got to spend an entire week at home together, which was such a treat. So in honor of our "snowcation" together, I made a card entitled There's Always Time for Love.

The main fabric is an embossed velvet in a rich burgundy color, which I fused to a thin batting.  Then I reverse appliqued the hearts, using images of clocks from three different commercial fabrics (I fussy cut the clocks).  Then I fused the whole piece to a piece of Timtex (stiff interfacing).  The edges of the hearts are satin stitched in silver metallic thread (YLI brand), and the satin stitching is extended into the center of the piece in a free-form pattern.  It ended up looking like tree-roots, as though the hearts are growing together, which I hadn't planned -- but I like it. I fused a piece of one of the clock fabrics on the back and satin stitched around the edges in black -- I think I did about 4 layers of stitching before I was satisfied with the density.

It still felt like it needed something more, so I poked around in my bead stash and came up with the letter beads made to look like typewriter keys.  These felt like they connected with the vaguely steampunk air of the piece. (Q is a big fan of steampunk.) Luckily, I had all the necessary letters to spell out "TIME".  I fussed a bit with their layout and ended up moving the M to make the curve of the word feel smoother.  I also found a silver charm with the slogan "Love Much" on one side and "Laugh Often" on the other.  I originally put it in the empty left space under the biggest heart, but it looked out of place and disconnected there, so I moved it to "hang" from one of the lower loops.  Then I added the blue heart in the middle, which provides a nice glowing center to the whole piece.  All in all, I'm pleased with it, although I think some of my satin stitching is a bit less even than I would ideally like, and I suspect I could have added another stitch pattern to give a sense of overall movement of the hearts. 

This was a more elaborate card than the previous ones I've made, so I feel that I've stretched a bit.  I like the addition of beads (I think beads enhance almost every project, so that's no surprise).  And Q liked it, which was the most important part. 

Sunday, February 14, 2010

How to Build a Satisfying, Long-Lasting Relationship (through Science!)

Joined Hearts fabric card (Deborah C. Stearns, 2007)

It's Valentine's Day, when we extoll the wonders of romantic love.  And yet, it is very rare that we see concrete, specific suggestions for how to actually build and maintain an intimate relationship.  The couple falls in love, gets married, and lives happily ever after.  Right?  Isn't their love enough to sustain their relationship? 

Alas, no.  That heady feeling of falling in love (what psychologists call "passionate love") is not enough to keep a relationship going.  The good news is that there is now extensive research on relationship satisfaction and longevity, and we know a great deal about the characteristics of happy couples who stay together (as well as unhappy couples who break up).  So, in honor of Valentine's Day, here are some tips on how to build a satisfying, long-lasting intimate relationship from the science of intimate relationships. 
  • Manage conflict effectively:  Contrary to popular conception, even happy couples fight.  Having more conflict does not, in and of itself, mean that the couple will break up.  It doesn't matter whether you fight, it matters how you fight.  John Gottman's research has found that the way in which couples deal with conflict can predict divorce with 90% accuracy.  Basically, it comes down to this:  don't escalate the conflict.  Destructive communication tactics are those that make the fight worse, whereas constructive communication tactics de-escalate the conflict without avoiding it altogether.  A harsh start-up for example, in which you come at your partner with angry criticism, is likely to result in either defensiveness or stonewalling (emotional withdrawal), which is probably going to make you even angrier and escalate the conflict further.  Avoiding conflict can result in growing resentment and anger, which would be more likely to result in a harsh start-up -- it's better to deal with the conflict early on.  On the other hand, starting fights for the sake of starting a fight (belligerence), is also a destructive communication tactic and should be avoided.  The idea is to deal with the conflict without making the fight worse.  Avoid angry accusations and sweeping criticisms of your partner, which tend to elicit defensiveness.  Try listening to your partner and validating their concerns -- you don't have to capitulate, but at least you can empathize with their feelings.  This will usually reduce anger and de-escalate the fight.  If you or your partner are just too angry to deal with the conflict constructively, take a time-out and come back to it when you are calmer.  If you are really having trouble breaking destructive communication habits, a couples counselor can help. 
  • Share power equally:  Egalitarian couples (those who have equal power), have greater relationship satisfaction than couples in which one partner has more power than the other.  Do you and your partner have equal say over important decisions, or does one of you tend to have greater influence?  Egalitarian couples share decision-making power.  In Gottman's study of heterosexual couples, when a man was unwilling to share power with his wife, there was an 81% chance the relationship would end.  Do you and your partner have equal responsbility for housework and child care?  What about the relationship maintenance work, the "glue" that holds relationships together -- identifying and solving problems in the relationship, keeping in touch with family and friends -- do you share this work equally?  Couples who share these responsibilities tend to be more satisfied than those in which one person holds primary responsibility for domestic and relational labor.  This doesn't mean that you and your partner have to keep some strict accounting in which every task is appointed in turn, but it is worth thinking about whether the relationship is an equal partnership, both parties sharing equally in the duties and benefits of the relationship.
There's Always Time for Love fabric card
(Deborah C. Stearns, 2010)
  • Be good friends:  Happy couples tend to say that their partner is their best friend.  Gottman's research found that the quality of the friendship was a powerful factor in how satisfied men and women were with sex, love, and romance in the relationship.  We tend to think of romantic relationships as utterly different from friendships, but we would do better to consider a romantic relationship as built on a solid basis of friendship.  Rather than assuming that fiery passion is the key to successful relationships, we need to build intimacy, which is based on knowing your partner well and developing familiarity and companionship.  Spend time together.  Share your thoughts and experiences.  Even idle chitchat and talking over the affairs of the day can provide a sense of connection.  Don't worry if the flames of passionate love die down -- just make sure they are replaced by companionate love and intimacy.
  • Love and respect:  You thought I'd never get to love, didn't you?  But love does matter -- just not the passionate variety.  What matters is that each person cares for and respects the other. Happy couples show fondness and admiration toward each other -- they sing each other's praises and talk about how wonderful the other person is.  On the other hand, running the other person down or expressing contempt toward your partner is a bad sign.  It may be commonplace for people to disparage their spouse, but it is not a sign of a healthy or happy relationship . . . it's a warning sign of potential breakup. 
  • Positive times five:  Gottman's research finds that happy couples have five times as many positive interactions as negative interactions when they are discussing an area of conflict.  When the positive to negative ratio drops below 5:1, the couple is less satisfied and more likely to break up.  That is, even when they are having a disagreement, satisfied couples continue to express praise, love, acceptance, humor, and caring five times more often than criticism, anger, disappointment, or other negative affect.  Of course, when not discussing a conflict, the ratio was even higher, more like 20:1.  This tells us two things.  One is that negativity is very powerful and has a greater impact than positivity; one negative interaction requires five positive interactions to balance it out.  The second is that a strong foundation of positive interactions is necessary for a good relationship and serves as a buffer against the inevitable moments of negativity. 
Split Hearts fabric card
(Deborah C. Stearns, 2007)
Of course, this research is based on average trends, and each couple is unique.  Further, the research is largely correlational, showing an association between certain relationship patterns and satisfaction, and this does not prove causation.  But it does seem to make sense that if we express caring and respect for our partners, deal with conflict without escalation, and build an equitable and intimate relationship, we're more likely to be satisfied and stay together.

So, as you ponder whether to buy flowers or chocolates for your sweetie this Valentine's Day, take a moment to check in on your relationship and see if there is something you could improve.  If you are currently single, think back on previous romantic relationships and consider ways in which you could make the next relationship better -- or use these tips to improve your relationships with friends and family, as most of this research could apply just as well to any relationship.  The best gift, for you and your partner, is to build a strong and satisfying relationship.  That's the gift that keeps on giving. 

Want to read more about relationship research?  Try these books:

Blumstein, P., & Schwartz, P. (1983). American couples. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc.

Coontz, S. (1992/2000). The way we never were: American families and the nostalgia trap. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Gottman, J. M & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Johnson, S. E. (1990). Staying power: Long term lesbian couples. Tallahassee, FL: The Naiad Press, Inc.

Risman, B. J. (1998). Gender vertigo: American families in transition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Schwartz, P. (1994). Love between equals: How peer marriage really works. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Steil, J. M. (1997). Marital equality: Its relationship to the well-being of husbands and wives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Monday, February 8, 2010


We've had more than 30" of snow in the last week -- it is truly "Snowmaggedon". The snow is beautiful. Every tree is frosted with snow, each branch outlined. The streets are fresh and clean, coated with a sparkling blanket of blue-white. I've seen this emerge even with a light dusting of snow, as we had last week. But this massive snowfall transforms the landscape. Our front yard is unrecognizable -- all of its distinctive landmarks are completely submerged, leaving only a homogenous, undulating snowbank, rising more than three feet above the ground level. The driveway hosts two enormous snowdrifts which completely obscure the cars within them. One neighbor's evergreen tree is bent almost double under the weight of its snow burden, and I could swear that another tree hosts a menagerie of snow beasts -- a snow walrus rests in the topmost branches, and surely that's a polar bear underneath it.

Walking through the neighborhood is equally disconcerting. The sidewalks have become corridors, flanked by high walls of shoveled snow. When there is no sidewalk to be found, we stagger through the drifts or follow the lone tire tracks of some adventurous traveler. It is quiet and peaceful. There is a friendly camaraderie that emerges among those of us braving the weather. Upon seeing a group of children making an igloo, I'm pleased to pass on my experience of using water to create an icy shell on top of the snow. We greet those shoveling their walks and chat with those out for sledding or cross-country skiing.

It is as though the world has been remade.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why we need better sex education

Every semester, I teach a course in the Psychology of Human Sexuality at Montgomery College. And every semester, I become more convinced that our system of sexuality education is dangerously inadequate. But wait, you say -- most public schools include sex education and there is so much sexual information readily available today, so surely students are well aware of the basics regarding sexuality.

Tell that to the young man who never had any sex education before my class. His parents opted him out of every aspect of sex education at school. That is their right, but they also failed to provide any significant discussion of issues surrounding sexuality at home, beyond the basic message of "don't have sex." He was so grateful for the opportunity to have access to real sexuality education in my class.

Tell that to the young woman who was sure there was something wrong with her because she couldn't have an orgasm through penile-vaginal intercourse. She spent years faking orgasms because she didn't feel comfortable talking to her partners about her inability to climax. For the first time, she is talking to her partner openly about how she responds sexually and exploring new possibilities for herself and her partner.

Tell that to the many students who were sexually assaulted, abused, or raped, but have never told anyone about it because they were sure it was their fault, or it wasn't "really" rape, or because they thought no one would believe them. They still suffer with feelings of fear, mistrust, anger, and doubt that can have a corrosive influence on their sexuality and intimate relationships. They tell me their stories, finally beginning to believe that what happened to them wasn't just "bad sex" and that they didn't deserve it.

Tell that to the students who have never learned effective relationship skills. The chapter on love and communication is revelatory -- they realize that they have routinely been using destructive communication tactics like stonewalling, criticism, and defensiveness, and suddenly the failure of their last relationship makes sense. Most report that they have never been taught communication skills in school, and few can identify even one couple in their lives who could act as a role model for a happy, successful relationship. They walk out of my class with concrete, scientifically-validated strategies for more satisfying and enduring relationships.

This doesn't even include the students who got misinformation about STDs through abstinence-only sex "education", who never learned about the full range of contraceptive methods available (or how to use them correctly), and who couldn't label basic sexual and reproductive anatomy accurately. We need to do a better job of educating young people about sexuality. We are leaving them dangerously ignorant and misinformed, without the knowledge and skills they need to make safe, satisfying sexual choices.

I'm cautiously optimistic about the future, though. President Obama has cut funding for abstinence-only sex "education" (or what one of my friends calls "ignorance-only" sex education), and the new appropriations bill focuses on funding effective sexuality education. In other words, there is a pool of money available to fund programs that have been "proven through rigorous evaluation to delay sexual activity, increase contraceptive use (without increasing sexual activity), reduce the transmission of sexually transmitted infections or reduce teenage pregnancy" [from the 2010 appropriations bill via Newsweek's blog, The Gaggle]. I am pleased to see an approach that cares about the empirical evidence of efficacy in sexuality education. This means that we will be shifting toward more comprehensive sexuality education, which is effective at reducing rates of teen pregnancy, and away from abstinence-only sex education, which has been receiving federal funds since 1981, despite its failure to reduce adolescent pregnancy or delay sexual activity.

But sexuality education needs to be more than just pregnancy and STI prevention. We need to provide the tools to develop sexual lives that are both safe and satisfying. Certainly, we need to provide effective, age-appropriate sexuality education about issues related to reproduction and health. But young people also need to know how to enhance pleasure and build strong relationships. They need education that builds sexual agency and effective communication skills -- not only will that help reduce unwanted pregnancy and the transmission of STIs, but it would also be an important step in our progress toward greater gender equality. Until those lessons are part of every adolescent's education, I'll continue to hear the stories that are proof of the inadequacy of our current system of sex education. And I'll continue to do my best to provide the kind of sexuality education I think every person needs and deserves.