(Don’t) Lower Your Expectations

Last winter, I made myself this hat.

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I was disappointed with it, at the time. I wanted a slouchy beret, and I hadn’t made it long enough or large enough. Blocking it with a plate inside didn’t help. The color was wrong, not warm enough against my skin. I believe I told Twitter that it made my head look like a mushroom.

It wasn’t what I expected.

This wasn’t going to be a post about a hat. It was actually going to be a post about a conflict Jon and I had last week over what “doing the dishes” entails, and who should do them, and when, and how. But that made me feel petty and ridiculous, and I didn’t have any pictures to go with it, so here’s this hat.

I think, “Lower your expectations,” is terrible advice. I know the idea is that if things go well, you’ll be pleasantly surprised and if they don’t, you won’t be disappointed, but that’s acting as if your expectations don’t influence the way things go, and they absolutely do. I expect myself to get good grades, to be at work on time, and to speak kindly to people. If I didn’t expect it from myself, do you think I would do those things? Because I think I’d lie on the couch marathoning Battlestar Galactica for the third time and telling my family to leave me the hell alone. Thoughts have power. Lower your expectations and you won’t get anywhere–or knit anything.

On the other hand, you can’t quit knitting because your hat didn’t turn out quite as planned, and if half a sink full of dirty dishes makes you want to throw something or start to cry, you clearly need to reconsider something about your life. So where’s the middle ground?

When you join the Peace Corps, they spend a lot of time during pre-training and training telling you not to have expectations. You have no idea what you’re about to get into, and whatever vision you’ve constructed in your head about your future home or work is, assuredly, wildly off-base. Better just to not expect anything at all, right?

I always thought that was such a load of crap. How is anyone supposed to not have expectations? That’s some Buddha-level shit, right there, and let me tell you, nobody joining Peace Corps is anywhere near Nirvana. But, seeing the merit of the reasoning behind the advice, I tried the next best thing–having expectations, but acting like I didn’t. I didn’t waste time frantically trying to prepare for the unknown. My bags when I left were 20 pounds below the allotted amount, and I spent the next two years trying to convince future volunteers on Facebook that they would be just fine without quick-dry towels, or anything else from REI.

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I think the trick is knowing how much to invest in your expectations. How much are you going to let them affect you? With Peace Corps, I was well warned to invest almost nothing in them–I read all the blogs, all the Wiki articles, even, “So You Wanna Be a Peace Corps Volunteer?” I internalized all the good advice about how Peace Corps is unpredictable and you need to be able to bend and not break. In the rest of life, I’m not always so well prepared.

The hat went into storage for the summer. When the weather got chilly and I found it in with my other handknits, I couldn’t imagine why I didn’t absolutely love it last winter. A few months took the edge off my emotions, and now I love the warmth of the thick cables over my ears. I love the wavy line where the hat springs directly from the cables. I love the near-perfect kitchener graft I did to join the cable band (visible in the above photo; I’m sure a knitter can spot it, but it’s almost invisible). The hat even makes my hair look good! It’s still not terribly slouchy, but why does it need to be?

On Saturday, Jon went out in supremely nasty weather because I was mired in homework and craving the warmth and comfort of red wine. He doesn’t even particularly like red wine–he just wanted to take care of me. And I’ve been doing the dishes myself, because for crying out loud, it takes ten minutes, and I do them exactly the way I want them done, and why should I expect anyone else to do that? I’m learning that the world doesn’t operate within the parameters of my expectations. The things I focus on aren’t the only things there are. Sometimes I forget that. I’m working on it.

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The hat is Scathach’s hat by Mona C. NicLeĆ²id–it’s a free pattern, and I recommend it. And the scarf, well that’s a subject for another post. (There may be another post. Blogging twice a year is still a schedule, right?)

On the Cognitive Dissonance of Compassion

I was born in a travel trailer.

Well, I was born in a hospital. But I spent many of my early months–both pre- and post- natal–in a little travel trailer on the top of a mountain in the Flat Tops wilderness area near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. My parents were there because my father was a logger, and that’s where the trees were. My mom bathed me, and later my brother, in plastic dish tubs on the slab of tree-trunk that served as our front stoop. My best baby pictures feature a rosy-cheeked baby almost lost in a sea of wildflowers.

This isn’t a Peace Corps story.

This is: Yesterday, I discovered that the two children who had mysteriously appeared in my back yard with the beginning of the summer are in fact the daughters of the young couple who live there.

Against the back wall of the compound, there’s a little two-room, concrete shed. Our landlords use one of the rooms for storage. The other houses our neighbors. It took a while to figure out what “neighbors” meant. At first, I thought it was just the one girl, barely 4’6″, a student at the neighboring university. A few months later, a boy appeared, to much speculation. Surely our landlady wouldn’t approve of a live-in boyfriend?

No, they were married. A little weird to an American eye, but okay, sure, they’re both students, they probably really need a cheap place to live near the school. But how is it, after 14 months of living so close that I can hear their indoor conversations and midnight trips to the outhouse, I’m only just discovering these two little girls, ages perhaps six and four?

Somewhere, I failed at something.

It’s not like I somehow missed two little kids for a year, incidentally. The girls probably live with a family member–a grandma or an aunt–during the school year. But still, how do you not know your neighbors have children?

Here’s the thing. You know when you sign up for the Peace Corps that it’s going to make you confront the fundamental inequities inherent in the “developed/developing” dichotomy.

(Incidentally, how I hate the term “developing”. It implies some sort of upward climb towards the inevitable glory of freedom and prosperity, like all of these poor foreign people will soon be just as happy and free and healthy as We Americans. “Developing” makes it so easy to dismiss the morass of environmental, social, and infrastructural factors in the way of that climb. It smacks of “differently-abled” to me–terms that sugar-coat the struggles of a minority are, I think, almost universally used to salve the conscience of the majority. I don’t have a better term to suggest. It just bugs me, is all.)

Anyway, you know the feeling I’m talking about. That squirmy thing in your stomach when you think about Those Less Fortunate. The one mothers of a certain generation called on when they invoked the starving children in China. The one no one really wants to think about.

And of course we don’t want to think about it! You rely on that car. That internet connection keeps you in touch with friends and family. Your smartphone is a lifesaver.

Confronting the reality that your fortune well exceeds another’s induces this weirdly possessive guilt. You feel terrible, and you know it’s not fair, and you’d love to fix it. But you’re also gripped by the uncomfortable knowledge that you don’t want to lose the things you have. You justify.

I can’t tell you how many times, for example, I’ve heard some variation on the following: “I know air-conditioning is [expensive/bad for the environment/etc.], but in [Florida/Arizona/Texas/etc.] you really need it.”

My friends, I’ve been in the Philippines for twenty months, living, like most of the population, without air-conditioning. I’m coming to you with a hard truth: You don’t “really need” it. It makes your life immensely more comfortable and, if you’re old or young or ill, much safer. There are lots of good reasons to run an air-conditioner. But perhaps you should take a moment to examine your definition of “need”.

So, back to my neighbors. I’ve always told myself that I’ve avoided engaging with them out of respect for their privacy. The personal space allotted to them consists of: a) half of a concrete shed, furnished with a bunk bed, two stools, and a rickety table; b) a roofed area outdoors with a counter and a small wood stove–their kitchen; c) a single faucet belonging to an apartment that isn’t even theirs, from which they can haul water to; d) a concrete outhouse with no electricity and no running water.

In their position, with so much of my life happening outdoors in someone’s back yard, I would want as much privacy as possible. So I didn’t pry.

But what if that’s just an excuse? Doesn’t my life–this big apartment with its refrigerator, flushing toilet, indoor kitchen, and mere two occupants (two! in all this space!)–seem rather extravagant by comparison? I love and crave those things (personal space, indoor plumbing, unspoiled food). Isn’t it rather uncomfortable that literally in my backyard these people have none of those things?

The kids pushed it over the edge for me. Suddenly, this isn’t a young couple–this is a young family. I couldn’t tell you what the difference is, but it’s there. So on my way home from a trip running errands, I picked up a handful of Filipino popsicles, called “ice candy”.

It wasn’t until after I delivered the ice candy to the little girls and their mother–how many years younger than me? I don’t even know–that I started thinking about my own mother. She spent a lot of my childhood raising two children in trailers. I mean, we always had a house, but there were lots of times when if we wanted to be together as a family, we had to go where the trees were.

For me, memories of those months are mostly of the sawdust-and-mildew smell of a logger’s trailer, and sleeping at the foot of my mom’s little bunk, and reading the same chapter book over and over. I couldn’t tell you what my mom was feeling. Was she bored? Lonely? Worried about our health? I got bronchial pneumonia during one of those winters, and in a small space with a propane stove carbon monoxide poisoning was a constant danger. But mostly, I just don’t know. I wasn’t old enough or observant enough to know what that experience meant to her.

I see my mother in young Filipina with her two children in her too-small house. I mean, they don’t have much in common. My mom married at 30 and had me fourteen months later. Without resorting to speculation, observation suggests that my neighbor was still a teenager when her older daughter was born. But aren’t they still the same? Young families, trying to make their way in the circumstances they find themselves in. Just quietly pressing on.

Here’s what I’ve learned in Peace Corps: We need a hook. As long as our compassion is colored primarily by guilt and discomfort, how are we supposed to get anywhere? We have to find that link, something that surpasses the internal conflict of wanting-to-care with wanting-to-have. That bridge from Other to Us.

Guilt is a worthless emotion. Worse than worthless, actually: it arrests movement. It encourages deflection, excuses, ignorance. My exhortation, as a Peace Corps volunteer: Forget the guilt. Find your hook.

What comes after that? Well, that’s another thing I’ve learned in the Peace Corps: Just take the first step. You’ll figure it out as you go.

The benefits of religious diversity: a case study

My move to Fort Collins brought me into the heart of a social group that is quite unfamiliar to me. My roommate is an atheist and a skeptic, as are his boyfriend and his brother (my other roommate). All of this means that atheism and skepticism (not the same thing, but two related movements) have been a lot more on my radar than they used to be.

It’s a curious position for me to be in, because while I disagree with very few of the principles these people hold–I don’t practice any religion, I think science is a good thing, and I don’t really believe in God, per se–my worldview continually comes into conflict with theirs.

It’s mostly a result of my education, I think. My family would like to believe that college turned me into a godless liberal–in most cases, that’s simply untrue, but it is true that my liberal arts education is at least somewhat responsible for the fact that I am, when all other labels fail (and they usually do), a relativist. Basically, it really matters very little to me whether I believe the same things that you do–in fact, I feel like the world is a better place because you believe different things than I do. I care a lot less about Truth than I do about the richness that results from a world in which different people believe different, crazy, beautiful things.

That last bit is the part that drives my skeptic friends crazy. What kind of crazy person will outright announce that they don’t care what’s true?

I’m never quite sure how to respond. It’s been hard to work up a defense, because I’m . . . simply not troubled by the fact that Truth doesn’t matter that much to me. I’m still working on fine tuning my defense. But, while I’m working that out, I’d like to offer up a case study.

Howard and Sandra Tayler are the creative machine behind the very successful webcomic Schlock Mercenary. The comic has updated continuously (every single day without fail) for ten years. A few years ago, Howard quit his corporate job, and now Schlock Mercenary is what supports their family. They have four children, and they are Mormon.

Now, Schlock Mercenary is not a very Mormon comic, in my opinion. By that, I don’t mean that it’s full of things Mormons would object to–not at all. But, you know how you can pick up practically any book that Orson Scott Card has ever written, and just smell the LDS wafting off it? Schlock Mercenary doesn’t have that.

But this comic is a full time job, and not an easy one. You only have to spend a little time on Sandra Tayler’s blog to get a sense of what a massive undertaking it is. It isn’t easy being self-employed in a creative field. It’s even more challenging to do so while attempting to raise four children and keep a healthy marriage. But all indications are that the Taylers have been successful on all fronts.

Now, could a secular couple in the same situation succeed? Absolutely. I’m not trying to say that religion is sine qua non here. But, this kind of creative partnership, especially one that demands so much from both members, cannot help but benefit from the peace and strength that Howard and Sandra draw from their religion.

That’s not something I’m making up, either. Have a look at this recent interview with the couple. It’s intended for Mormon audiences, but I think that helps provide a better sense of how their faith matters to them. (They tend to be very tactful when discussing their faith before mixed audiences. They don’t preach–in fact, they just plain don’t talk about it all that much, at least online. In my opinion, their lives give a far better testimony than any preaching, anyway.)

Sometimes, atheists like to imply–or, hell, outright state–that the world would be better without religion. (I feel like I should make it clear that that’s a general “atheists”, not, say, my roommate, with whom I have had numerous very interesting and challenging discussions about the merits of religion.) That anything that’s good with religion would be better without it. That the drawbacks of religion far outweigh the benefits.

I say, maybe more of us would be better off like the Taylers.

A bit ruffled about education

Recently, prominent Youtuber Dan Brown (much cooler than the author), posted a video about education and the effect the Internet has and needs to have on our system of education. Here’s that video, so you can know what I’m talking about:

Now, he’s been tweeting about having ruffled a few feathers, and I think we all agree that’s a good thing. And Dan, if you’re reading this, I suppose I’m a bit ruffled.

Now, I’m an advocate of alternative education. I was homeschooled for most of my primary education, and the Internet was a HUGE part of my curriculum throughout high school. Hell, I even believe there’s some merit to the concept of “unschooling”–that is, learning through life and natural inclination, rather than a rigid curriculum and schedule.

And I agree, the Internet has had a profound effect on the way we find information. I mean, that’s a fact, so it’s not really something I need to agree with, but I agree.

But here’s the problem: Dan’s emphasis is on his own experience, and I think that’s where the thesis fails. Yes, the experience he describes sounds to me like higher education at its worst.

But it’s far from the universal state of higher education.

Last year–my senior year of college–I had the pleasure of taking a course which involved students directly in the research of the inimitable Cathy Gutierrez, a quite accomplished professor in the Religion Department, who has a blog of her own here.

Now, the fact that the professor herself has a blog might already give you an inclination of the sort of environment we were dealing with. This class integrated the most cutting edge research technology available.

Several times during the semester, we met with librarians from the college. We learned how to move beyond the rather limited world of J-STOR. Among others, we learned how to use Credo, a database which not only utilizes standard search methods, but will also generate interactive concept maps that, besides being really cool, also allow users to explore the information non-linearly.

Through the library’s subscription services, we had access to decades and centuries of primary documents, including newspaper back issues–Harper’s Weekly, the New York Times, you name it. (It wasn’t related to our project, but we even had access to documents that only exist in the BRITISH MUSEUM, for goodness’ sake!) These are huge, incredibly helpful databases that take a great deal of effort and manpower to create and maintain–it seems fair to me to require a subscription to use them, and so the access to those databases alone is a HUGE advantage of being in enrolled in an institution.

And the BEST thing about the class is that the information sharing went both ways. I personally was able to introduce both my professor and my librarian to Google Documents, Google Reader, and basically the whole concept of RSS feeds. They were excited and interested and eager to learn about these new tools. In fact, my professor actually used Google Docs to access our coursework.

In fact, Google Docs was at the center of a group project I was involved with, which involved scanning many pages of microfilm newspapers, indexing, optimizing, and tagging them, and then making them available–for free!–on the Internet.

Do you realize the full significance of that? A bunch of undergraduate students–not all of them even seniors!–created a legitimately useful source of information that would otherwise be buried on a microfilm in a tiny library in upstate New York. Dan Brown, isn’t this EXACTLY the sort of change you would like to see in higher education?

Now, I realize that not everyone has the blessing of attending a small, private women’s college. Not everyone gets this kind of opportunity. But isn’t it a step in the right direction for higher education? Dan Brown, as long as things like this are going on, I do not think it is fair to accuse higher education of failing to change with the Internet.

I’m Emma Meador, and I am out.

EDITED TO ADD: Another piece of evidence that change IS occurring: students and alumnae from my college can now text their librarians with research questions, etc. I can’t think of clearer proof that the school is trying very had to make information as accessible as possible.