Consciousness raising, possible to be more open, things that can be learned.

Xiu Xiu: It was more after having read his books. I don’t think I could’ve written a song like that without having read his books. [laughs] I don’t know how to put this. He raised my consciousness about how far you can push something. He helped me to feel— not necessarily that it was okay to be more open— but that it was possible to be more open. It wasn’t so much that he made me feel that being open was acceptable; he served as a model for openness because he’s so successful at it— at frankness. Does that make sense?

Jamie Stewart talking to Pitchfork in 2006 (Yes, quoting from the Hipster Times on personal growth. See also burning buildings.)

Excessive red and blue in my kitchen, being impressive, calendar trivia…

Red and blue kitchen.

For a moment I was feeling disappointed that I hadn’t come up with any simple theme for the photos I’ve been posting this week. (I don’t know if anyone even noticed them, but the matching sets of red and blue and crafty ideas and so on were making me more comfortable.) I got to thinking about the ways I use gimmicks like that whenever I make things, as a way to add automatic value to whatever I produce. Obvious extra effort. If nothing else, the project will look like a lot of work, which is impressive in certain ways, by default. I’m trying to stop doing that automatically and cut to the chase more. Be more honest instead of more impressive. Probably every adult thinks about this at least a little bit, in some context. I thought I was doing alright with this personal growth project, but then at a festive feast with my extended family, a cousin’s friend commented that I seemed well read. That’s probably my number one trying-to-impress-you habit, being smart. It’s complicated, because I do like to learn things and I do like to share what I find out and not hoard it, but if I want to be your friend I will almost surely start telling you a lot of fanciful trivia related by a larger theme instead of, for example, asking you to tell me about things you seem to know that I don’t. Reading about DIY education is helping me work on this. It makes nonconsensual teaching really, really embarrassing.

So. As my early morning mind-map hopefully explains, I was all set to embrace the non-patterned nature of my really low-effort holiday posts. Then I got to thinking about how much I love the way the last week of the calendar year can get divorced from daily reality and kind of out of time. Students and lots of workers are on holiday from their regular schedules, you never know when shops are going to be open, many households have visitors or go visiting, a lot of people eat really strangely… Regular patterns don’t hold. It reminds me of an ancient Roman intercalary festival that I can’t remember the name of. So now of course, that’s my theme for this week’s little photos. Intercalary disorder. I think this sort of doubly violates my goal of not acting so impressive.

Fertility awareness, old feelings, heart connection

Galen is taking charge of his fertility'

Galen is reading Taking Charge of Your Fertility. Partway through a chapter, he popped in to do a dance of excitement about how interesting he is finding fertility awareness. Ovaries! Mucus! Feedback cycles! DIY science! He asked whether it would have been cool to learn about cycle charting when I was thirteen or so, so I could have had a lifetime archive of data about my reproductive health. Wow, that caused a lot of feelings at once.

First, go team! It is useful and friendly for bio-guys to learn about female physiology, reproductive health, menstrual cycles and all that. I still tell people gleefully about the time last year that (male) Galen and our (male) friend Nathan were discussing their favourite features of the diva cup. (“Well it has marks so you can measure your blood.”) Doing their part to make the world safe for menstruators.

But also, awww, yes I do wish I’d known interesting ways to chart when I was starting out, or had any decent period information. It is amazing to me that after a solid eight or nine years of purposely investigating menstruation and cultivating positive attitudes and general insatiable curiosity, I still get ambushed by leftover sad feelings around menstrual cycles.

I don’t seem to have had an especially negative or ignorant upbringing compared to other people I know, but I managed to accumulate a fair amount of emotional trauma about periods just through a general lack of self-determination as a teenager. Dumb everyday stuff, like I was neither in charge of buying my own underwear nor in charge of how the laundry got done when I lived with my parents, so I was constantly frustrated and embarrassed (and often getting yelled at) about dealing with period laundry. It seems like surely I could have been responsible for either or both of those things if it had occurred to me— I don’t think my parents were that authoritarian— but strangely I remember arguing about wanting to do my own laundry my own way and being unable to work out any arrangement. Even now, I often find simple plans impossible to coordinate with my parents, for reasons I can rarely even remember. It’s deeply confusing. I think part of my lingering upset about menstrual cycles is actually due to the fact that I can’t recall any coherent explanations for past conflicts on the subject. Hmm.

Galen knows all this, at least superficially. I talk about vagina-related feelings with pretty much anyone who’s up for it. The most recent neighbourhood rock club was on the theme of songs to change your past and I picked a song that might have prevented me from going on the pill if I’d heard it while I was resigning myself to modern living through pharmacology. (In The Evening by Nina Nastasia and Jim White, because it makes me feel stubborn and that’s what I needed to be.)

I am sad that I ate all those chemicals, and that it seems to have done some damage to my cervical crypts (where the infamous eggwhite fertile mucus is produced). Sad sad sad. Angry too, to feel so misinformed. Disappointed that I didn’t listen to my own better judgment, and betrayed on behalf of the part of me with better judgment. I said most of that at rock club, but I’m not sure that is something people can relate to without a fair amount of relevant experience or other knowledge. Erin afterwards said she had a grieving process about the pill. Me too, going on it and again going off.

So Galen’s latest round of excitement about menstrual cycles is complicated. I was immediately glad to have company, and also immediately lonely, realizing I’m cut off from the possibility of feeling simple, impersonal excitement about uteruses and their ways. It was good to realize that he’s in the rather privileged position of not having personal emotional baggage about menstrual cycles. Once I managed to make him all sad about my damaged cervical crypts and assorted teen angst, we had a better connection there. It’s good to be on the same team.

So. For my future babies, I keep track of books like Cycle Savvy, in case they don’t want to talk with me about their personal strategies and feelings about periods.

Quantity of notes is a useful measurement

I take notes on paper while I read, and file them chronologically as I finish with each source. On other projects, I’ve recorded just the title and the date in my table of contents, but this time I added the number of pages of notes. It’s a handy little metric! The quantity of notes correlates well with the impact a book had on me, and it’s very easy to scan.

If someone asked me to recommend a book about education or death, so far I would head for anything with five or more pages of notes in my Binder of Doom. (The notes wiki gets a filtered, delayed set of notes.)

Several pages of notes

Two or three pages

Single pages

  • Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, by Neil Postman (1 page — this sucked hard)
  • Dracula, by Bram Stoker (1 page)
  • The Future of Statues, by Rene Magritte (1 page)
  • How to Read Heidegger, by Mark Wrathall (1 page — selected chapters)
  • My Arm, perf. Tim Crouch (1 page)
  • An Oak Tree, perf. Tim Crouch (1 page)
  • Regarding Sarah, dir. Michelle Porter (1 page)
  • Surgeons’ Hall Museum, Edinburgh (1 page)
  • Volver, dir. Pedro Almodovar (1 page)

Each “page” is a double-sided sheet of paper. For some reason I am self-conscious about the amount of notes I take. I have not been recording these scholastic anxieties and old school-related wounds, but maybe I should start. That could be my next metric— awkward moments prompted by each source.

Sex, death and consensual education

Christina Aguilera as a schoolgirl in a Skechers ad.

I’ve finished reading Instead of Education, one of John Holt’s influential tomes about unschooling and home schooling. As soon as I started typing my notes into the thesis wiki, I had to make a Vagina deja vu category to keep track of all the concepts I recognized from studying women’s sexuality and reproduction over at All About My Vagina. The root of all the deja vu seems to be one single thing, and it’s one of my favourite things, too! It’s consent.

John Holt spends a lot of Instead of Education making the point that compulsory education is, by nature, oppressive and unethical. (The book is a bona fide manifesto! ‘Students, you have nothing to lose but your chains’… the whole deal. I liked it.) My favourite quotes on this topic are in the wiki:

This seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on why until, about a hundred pages in, Holt started writing about teacher-learner relationships. He insists that because these relationships involve one person assuming a position of authority and power (the teacher), teaching relationships need to be temporary, well defined, and free to leave. Maybe I’m the only person who hears that and thinks immediately of BDSM, but I think it’s a really useful parallel!

There is a huge amount of sex writing about boundaries, relationships, temporary roles, domination and, above all, consent. I think what John Holt was after was consensual education. When he talks about the impossibility of consensual education within the framework of compulsory schooling, he sounds exactly like lesbian feminists who believe hetero sex is automatically oppressive within a patriarchal society. It’s about consent, and the circumstances under which it is possible.

My favourite discussion of consensual sex is The Ethical Slut‘s characterization of consent as an active collaboration for the benefit, well-being and pleasure of all persons concerned. An ‘active collaboration’ is exactly the kind of learning John Holt promoted. E.g.,

Like a few children I know in the U.S., [unschooled children from Ny Lilleskole in Denmark] are probably much more able than most of their [conventional] schoolmates (who can only submit or resist it) to make use of [conventional] school, to get from it at least some of the things they want for their own reasons.

It makes perfect sense that a freedom loving gal such as myself would want all relationships to be consensual, but I’d never thought of teaching as a relationship. I started to wonder what other situations I might enjoy more by examining the relationships involved and finding ways to make them consensual.

I think this definitely applies to self-defense (I had trouble making sense of it until I realized that being attacked is a relationship, not a situation). Cooperation and competition in business is another one.

Mainly though, I think this might be a good way to think about dying and death. There are obvious hot topics about death and consent (euthanasia, living wills, etc), but I wonder what could be gained by trying to have a consensual relationship with Death itself. It clearly has terms of engagement; maybe I could come up with my own set of terms and we could collaborate.

Unschooling to death

So far I haven’t found anybody talking or writing about independent college or graduate level education, but there’s a whole world of literature and resources about independent education for children. Homeschooling, unschooling, self-directed alternatives to elementary schools and high schools. I’ve started with books by John C. Holt, under the recommendation of my partly unschooled friend Isak.

John Holt was feisty. I like reading balls-out manifestos— whether or not I actually agree with them, it’s exciting to see people be demanding— so this is fun. So far, in the first thirty pages of Instead of Education, he has laid out utopian visions of work, life and government, and settled on overthrowing compulsory education and standardized testing as his first strategic move. Balls out! No wonder every book about homeschooling starts by thanking this guy.

Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control our own minds and thoughts. That means, the right to decide for ourselves how we will explore the world around us, think about our own and other persons’ experiences, and find and make the meaning of our own lives.

That sentiment has quite a share of ranting for and against it, in philosophical texts (which I will look up at some point). But what I like right now is how applicable that is to my actual investigation of how to die properly. A big chunk of a happy death, especially if you don’t believe in an afterlife, is usually a happy or satisfying life. I get the feeling that all the educational theory I’m about to read will have a lot to say about how to make life meaningful.

I don’t know why I didn’t expect this. Reading about two different topics at once almost always turns them into one bigger topic, right? My friend Matt prefers to read at least two things at once, for the bonus connections. Right now it is sunny, so I’m going to take two opposite books to some place with a patio.

The vagina method of narrowing a thesis

Today I went hunting for influential works about death and dying on Amazon and got vagina-related deja vu again. Last time this happened I was reading hospice literature about rejecting the default role for dying people, and it was exactly like vaginal literature about rejecting the default role for women (or sexual beings, mothers, etc). Death is regularly compared to both birth and orgasm, so maybe my background in vaginas will be useful in more direct ways than I expected. Ha ha.

I joke about having a Bachelor of Vaginas, but I think I might start saying that more seriously. I did pretty extensive studying on the subject, but I’m starting to wonder if I may have also worked out a decent method for researching general, interdisciplinary sorts of topics, like vaginas or death. It makes me feel a little safer to realize I know how to choose books and papers to read, and how to make sense of them. Go team!

But more importantly (for me), All About My Vagina might be a workable machine for turning curiosity into thesis topics. As I’ve been telling more and more people about my indie thesis, I’ve become more and more aware of how painfully broad my topic idea is. What I want my death to be like, or how I’d like to deal with dying? That’s big, and too vague to be a real thesis topic. A book topic maybe, or a website topic, but not a new, exhaustive, academic contribution on a specific idea.

And yet, “all about my vagina” is exactly as big and fluffy a topic as this (I could call this project All About My Death, yes?) and I’ve managed to pull a specific area of expertise out of that website. Ask me sometime about women understanding ideal vulva shapes and forming body image in relation to their own childhood genitals.

I could write you 100 or more pages on it, with dozens and dozens of references including my own primary research. Except none of the primary research is actually rigorous, and I’ve never written out the whole document, because that’s not what I had planned to do with the vagina website. (What does a person plan to do with a vagina website? That’s funny.) So I think that project will stay a website, and not be any kind of thesis. But it could be, I think, in a pinch.

So here it is:

Method for turning curiosity into thesis topics using a vagina website.

  1. Post everything you know that is interesting or important
  2. Keep reading and investigating
  3. Post your new results and ideas
  4. People will ask you questions. A lot of them will be the same.
  5. Try to answer the questions. Research to find answers.
  6. Post the new results. Get more questions.
  7. Notice the things you can’t find answers to. They are thesis topics.

This strikes me as a Wisdom of Crowds type of method, where I’m kind of an aggregator. Hooray! I like thinking about complexity and information overload, and how generalists and interdisciplinary projects are useful to deal with that, so it’s kind of hilarious to see that it might work the other way, too. Complexity and crowd actions might be useful for dealing with generalism and interdisciplinary projects! (I only said kind of hilarious.)