Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Living in Limbo

As I mentioned in my last post, we are in the midst of a home renovation project.  That means that the house is in chaos, since everything needed to be packed up and moved out of the rear parlor (some of the furniture from the dining room needed to be moved, as well).  The remaining rooms are crammed with towering piles of boxes and furniture and stuff.  Watering the plants in the sunroom has become a challenging exercise of tiptoing carefully around the electronics on the floor and stretching over piles of boxes to reach the various plants. I feel as though I'm doing some bizarre yoga-parkour mix.  The living room calls to mind one of those unpleasantly overcrowded antique stores, where one fears to even wander amongst the eclectic mix of vintage items for fear of dislodging a china shepherdess or stumbling over a wooden settee.  The remodeling zone is framed in translucent plastic, its cloudy film creating a sense of distance and unreality.  I stand in the kitchen, looking through the plastic sheeting, and it feels as though I am encased in a bubble, ungrounded from my real life.

(My sense of unreality might have been exacerbated by watching two unsettling films about time-travel: Triangle [you can watch the full movie here], which was excellent but full of violent and disturbing imagery, and Primer, which was hard to follow and confusing.  Both offer a vivid sense of unreality to the viewer, although in quite different ways.)

In short, I'm in limbo.  I can't sew or bead -- all of my supplies and tools are packed away.  I can't write or work for any length of time, as I need to monitor the construction work periodically.  So I watch the contractors do the work, overseeing and helping when I can, but largely I am merely waiting. Waiting for the job to be completed.  Waiting for the chance to do something -- paint, purchase furniture, unpack -- waiting to rejoin my everyday life.

For the first couple of days, I wandered from place to place, talking to the contractors and watching them work.  I felt unsettled and ill-at-ease.  In part, that was because there was no place to settle -- there really isn't much of anywhere to sit on the first floor at this point.  But it also stemmed from my lack of purposeful activity.  Overseeing the construction is not a full-time job; I need to be at hand, but not underfoot.  I spent two weeks packing and moving and selling furniture to prepare for this project, so I had been quite busy.  Now I merely wandered and waited.  I fiddled with our new floorplan for the rear parlor.  I texted Q with updates about the project.  But mostly, this was just frittering and fidgeting, and I knew it.  I needed something to do, some goal to accomplish.

What do I do when circumstances require waiting?  I read.  I read in doctor's waiting rooms, on airplanes and trains and buses, before going to sleep, during meals . . . in other words, if left to my own devices with nothing else to do (and sometimes while I am doing something else), I read.

Reading!  I have stacks of books and journals on my shelves that I haven't read yet, so this would count as useful and productive activity.  I began to read voraciously.  I read back issues of the APA Monitor (the newsletter/magazine for members of the American Psychological Association), catching up on psychology news and research.

I read three of Malcolm Gladwell's books (Outliers: The Story of Success, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, and The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference).  A number of my students recommended his work, but I hadn't gotten around to reading any of his books before this.  Gladwell is an excellent writer, mixing stories and research together in highly engaging prose.  I particularly liked Outliers, which makes the point that our success (or failure) is the result of both environmental and individual factors -- all too often, we assume that a person's success (or failure) is due solely to their own effort and ability (or lack thereof) (a bias known as the fundamental attribution error), but situational factors are also critical to understanding a person's success. One of my favorite quotes from Outliers"To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success -- the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history -- with a society that provides opportunities for all." (p. 268)

I read Masters of Sex:  The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught American How to Love by Thomas Maier.  This provides a biography of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the famous sex researcher duo who brought people into the lab to have sex so that they could measure the physiological responses during sexual arousal and orgasm and developed pioneering sex therapy techniques to help those with sexual difficulties.  It's a fascinating story, and although I have taught about their research for years, I did not know all the details about the study or about their relationship.  For example, I did not know that Virginia Johnson had no academic credentials; she never finished college, although reporters often mistakenly identified her as Dr. Johnson.  Even without a degree, she was apparently very influential in the project, providing vital insights into psychological factors that eluded Masters.  I was also intrigued to read about their struggles with social critiques of their work.  Although I knew about the controversies surrounding Kinsey's studies of human sexuality, I had the impression that Masters and Johnson's work was less controversial.  Perhaps so, but they did come in for their share of critique and they made a number of strategic choices to avoid the stigma often associated with sex research (sometimes more, and sometimes less, successfully).  All in all, it was an excellent read and I'll be sure to pass on some of the details about their lives to my human sexuality students. (Apparently, this has been made into a television drama premiering this fall on Showtime-- I haven't seen it, so I don't know how closely it mirrors the book.)

I read a number of essays in Global Woman:  Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russel Hochschild.  They explore the lives of women who migrate from developing nations to work in other countries, typically as nannies, domestics, and sex workers.  The essays raise difficult questions about this migration of caring labor and challenges us to create more humane working conditions for immigrant women.  How are we to prevent the exploitation (and sometimes outright abuse) of migrant laborers?  (Many of the stories in the book are truly shocking tales of exploitation and abuse.)  How does the narrative of the domestic laborer being "like family" serve to justify or obscure exploitation?  What does it mean that immigrant women cross national boundaries to care for other people's children, but typically must leave their own children behind to do so?  Yes, they come for better economic opportunities, but at what cost to themselves and their own families?  I was particularly struck by Barbara Ehrenreich's essay, "Maid to Order", which explores her experience working for a maid service company -- it reminded me of the questions I struggled with in an earlier blog post about the controversies and discomfort some experience around maid service.  The essays in this book force us to confront the complex issues surrounding immigrant women laborers; the authors lay bare the truths that most of us prefer not to know, because they complicate our choices.  But I think it is important to be aware of the context of the labor that benefits us; to reap the rewards of exploitation leaves us all poorer in the end.

(On the other hand, I found the issues raised by these essays unsettling; so much so that I took a break from the book -- I still have about half of it yet to read.  I, too, find these truths difficult to confront and I don't even have much of a personal stake in this issue.)

I had so enjoyed Mary Roach's book, Bonk, that I pulled out two of her other books from Q's shelf, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife and Stiff:  The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  In Spook, she explores the ways in which scientists have tried to research aspects of the afterlife -- is there some physical change at the moment of death (such as a change in weight) that proves the existence of the soul?  Can we put the claims of mediums to the test to prove that they communicate with the dead and produce ectoplasm (or is that ectoplasm just cheesecloth that was secreted in some bodily orifice and then pulled out during the seance)?  What kind of evidence would support a child's claim of being reincarnated?  It is a terrific book -- she weaves the story of her own research process together with vivid (and funny) descriptions of the scientific research.  I laughed out loud so often while reading Spook that I ended up reading sections of it to Q, who kept asking what was so funny.  Stiff was interesting, but less amusing; in this book she explores the life of cadavers (what happens to our body after death), and in some ways this is a weightier topic and one that needs a delicate touch.  Some of the material is quite frankly disturbing.  I think she strikes a good balance of respect and humor, but at times the narrative wanders a bit.  Stiff is a good read, but I think her writing is stronger in Spook and Bonk.  I'll have to get her other books, Packing for Mars:  The Curious Science of Life in the Void (about space exploration) and Gulp:  Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (about digestion), sometime soon.  I love her writing and wish I could capture that same kind of vivid and humorous prose in my own work.

I read Brené Brown's book, The Gifts of Imperfection:  Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.  I had enjoyed her previous book, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power,  in which she describes her research on shame, and I enjoyed her first TED talk quite a bit.  The Gifts of Imperfection had fewer details about her research and read more like a self-help book.  It was a poor choice for me to read, as I tend to dislike the tone of most self-help books, and particularly coming from Mary Roach's cynical discussion of imperfect and often biased science, I wanted more details of the research.  I salute Brené Brown's willingness to be open and to make herself vulnerable by sharing her experiences (I know that takes courage), but without a broader sense of the research findings from her interviews, the book seemed a bit self-focused.  I also felt that the discussion of how to approach what she calls a Wholehearted life was still somewhat vague; greater detail from her research would have given the discussion more specific grounding.  That being said, she makes some excellent points, and I don't disagree with her main themes (although I had trouble connecting to her discussion of spirituality as central to living the Wholehearted life). 

In all that reading, I have learned a great deal about science, history, economics, psychology, and the human experience.  But I got more than just intellectual stimulation and entertainment.  The books also gave me a space, an opportunity to live in the narrative, at least temporarily.  My own home may currently be in disarray, but I can always find a home in a good book.

"When you sell a man a book you don't sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue -- you sell him a whole new life.  Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night -- there's all heaven and earth in a book, a real book."  ~ Christopher Morley

“[His] library was a fine dark place bricked with books, so anything could happen there and always did. All you had to do was pull a book from the shelf and open it and suddenly the darkness was not so dark anymore.”  -- Ray Bradbury, Farewell Summer

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