Monday, October 31, 2011

Writing with Feeling

You know what's been lacking in my life as of late?
A little bit of writing that resonates.
All the while I've been writing about writing but failing to find those words that sound right in my body.
I've been distanced from feeling like syllables carry meaning and forgetting that my first love for words occurred when I wasn't buried in constructing sentences
but surprised
by what the words did to my heart rate before they registered in my head.
A couple of words
carefully connected can reveal new insights that change your life.
That's what she said
when she spoke of horizons swallowing up the earth with a kiss
how the ocean is so much bigger than this
from nowhere
I sense that you have to learn something true to spell it out like that.
And I guess that's how experience translates into painting and poetry.
We replicate what is otherwise hard to communicate
and its frustrating if our words fail to demonstrate
that which we want to share and celebrate
with others about
our insights about
how we love what has come to be without
regretting everything it took to get there,
that sometimes nothing is more trustworthy than how it simply appears.
And so we conclude by saying,
I guess you had to be there.
To get it right
you gotta know what it feels like
cuz without raw experience you can't project beyond what you already fear.
Thus, this language seems limiting.

But there's also a chance that the most gifted with speech might pen
into the present a space to be free
to think more clearly about how what we say affects you and me
with consequence on levels more deeply
than what we merely can see.
Metaphorically speaking, the power of words to foster new imaginings is probably frightening
for those who don't want to admit
of a world where painting and poetry can deliver a hit
like a bag of bricks.
Potency and brevity are catalysts for a chain reaction of resistance.
Put them together and you get a message that sticks.

Like "I am the 99%"

So as I continue to write
I wanna show thanks to those who have reminded me that my philifesophy could never be framed in terms of a mind over a body.
At the same time
I can't privilege philosophy over poetry.
The latter gives sense to sentences which otherwise fall short of a love of wisdom.
Like jazz and poetry, philosophy should emphasize the spaces in between.
The silence where one encounters genuine creativity.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

for a friend, far away

today has been a strange day. i woke up with anticipatory dreams, verging on psychic predictions--that a phone charger would be left behind on a loved one's travel, that a conversation with a long-term supporter would address the lessening need for our time together because life and things just continue to get better and better. and in the waiting room, a journal of medicine was resting in the chair next to me, different from the usual copies of AARP. I glanced at the table of contents--new patient-oriented methods, placebo treatments of asthma, and something about leukemia.

i thought of my friend.

it had been a long time since i heard from him, but that was not unusual. for the four and a half years that we have known each other, we didn't stay in frequent contact, but we were always in touch. little emails here and there, short messages that mostly noted how we wanted to write more letters to one another, how we should have a phone conversation. it was clear that we were frequently thinking of one another, even if we didn't always communicate those thoughts directly.

the first day.

when we met, we had both traveled from the west to Pennsylvania. i came from Colorado. he flew in from Arizona. i ended up wearing his shirt since my luggage got lost in the Philadelphia airport for days. and we were about the same size. we laid in the grass in front of old main on the campus of Penn State and i confessed that i didn't know what i was doing at a week-long summer camp for underrepresented people in philosophy. i had only just started studying philosophy, anyway. but there we were, both excited about doing philosophy, graduating, and with hopes of going on to grad school. he noted multiple times in the seminars that he loved the later Wittgenstein. i didn't even know what that meant. i still don't.

the first night.

as we were walking with two others to grab a beer at the corner room, i told the others about my nerves around crossing streets. he told me it wasn't unfounded. his husband was killed just ten months prior from being hit by a car in the cross walk. i remember him telling me how difficult it is to hold the love of your life in your arms knowing that modern medicine can't put brains back together again. and he said that he never wanted tim to have an ipod in the first place.


each day for the rest of the week, the two of us would wake up before everyone else in the seminars. we would meet in the lounge of the dorms, share milk for our cereal, and talk. we called it our family time.


we made a point to get dinner on our own, just the two of us, for at least one night. i had my first meal at kaarma with him,  which, after moving to state college has long been my favorite indian restaurant. he ordered chicken marsala. i don't remember what i ordered. as we ate, a giant thunderstorm rolled in. i ran barefoot through the rain back to the dorms, dodging lightning amongst the tall elm trees and black chains in the promenade, juggling styrofoam containers filled with our leftovers. the next night we went to dinner again. at the green bowl. as usual, the conversation was lovely. the meal itself, slightly less memorable.

sidewalk benches.

late in the week, he started to get pretty sick. i found him during one afternoon lying on a bench on allen street, outside of chili's. he said he had been coughing and had a fever, but that it was probably just the flu. we walked across the street, bought him some medicine, hoping he would feel better soon. then the seminars ended, we all flew back home.  later on i learned that he had been admitted to the hospital one day later and was diagnosed with leukemia.

my plans for graduate school continued. in the fall i applied to various programs. he had to put it off for a year. and then some. i went to penn state. he stayed in arizona.


the last i heard from him was in a letter that he wrote me, about a year ago i guess. he was excited to be going in for his last rounds of chemo, though weak, he still was biking to every treatment and was committed to keeping it up until the process was over. impressive, yes, but from him, it wasn't a surprise. over the years he had been through a lot. and his strength seemed unending.  like, for instance, when he underwent a bone marrow transplant thanks to donations from his sister, which his body eventually rejected, and still commented on how beautiful life was. he made his friends know that they were loved, and he made lots of people smile.


turns out that as our world keeps spinning, time keeps going, and people don't just freeze where we left them, only to reanimate the next time that we make contact and be in touch. i thought of him today after seeing the journal of medicine next to me and i thought of writing him a note on facebook to drop a little hello. i was struck by the posts from others on his wall, and it only took a moment to gather that he had died. i scrolled through older posts, from july, from march, from february, only to finally learn that he passed from cancer on january 3, 2011, just days before his 31st birthday. friends are still noting how hopeful they are that he and tim might be together again. and they write about how much they miss him. all the while, i didn't know precisely how i had missed him.


aeyn edwards truly was one of the most amazing people i've ever met. he was an inspiration, a lovely friend, and a blessing to many. he wrote numerous times about looking forward to the time when we would be able to break some bread, share a pint, converse about love and life face to face again. all we ever had in person was that week in 2007. i'm sad that i didn't know about his passing until now, that we were out of touch despite my feeling like we were actually always very close at heart. just goes to show...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Think for a Change (17): It's Okay to Be Gay!

In light of National Coming Out Day, I discuss arguments for gaining legal protection for LGBT people which target subjective moral judgments, such as the belief that homosexuality is wrong. Rather than arguing in apologetic terms for mere acceptance and tolerance, I suggest that recognizing the role of choice in sexuality does not inhibit making simultaneous demands for LGBT rights.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Public Philosophy and Me

Over the weekend I attended the Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy Conference in Washington, D.C. Thanks to my involvement with the Rock Ethics Institute and the Public Philosophy Network over the past year, I have already met a number of people who have been helpful and supportive of my interests in philosophy. This weekend, however, came with many very pleasant and very unexpected surprises.

The two weeks leading up to the conference left me feeling reluctant to go anywhere and do anything at all related to philosophy. I was feeling exceptionally overwhelmed, very emotional, and like a breakdown could happen at any minute. After a death in my family and feeling far, far away from my loved ones, forgetting my phone charger in another city, the breaking of my laptop screen without a replacement in stock anywhere across the country, and realizing (yet again) that whatever progress I thought I had made on my prospectus was not really progress at all...avenues for communication and connection were not working. The last thing I felt prepared to do was drive myself to another city, attend sessions and present my own at a conference, talk with lots of other philosophers, be engaged and thoughtful at all times, and stay positive about the current relationship I was having with my work. So when I set out to DC on Thursday afternoon and the barista at Starbucks made me the wrong drink that cost nearly $6, I sort of started to tear up over it. I knew it was ridiculous, but I was just that emotionally spent.

It didn't end there. Once I made it through DC traffic and finally collapsed on my bed in the hotel, I read an email from my advisor about our need to set up a meeting to re-frame my dissertation topic. Feeling like I am already pushing my time limit and that this turn in the project (although very necessary) is already months too late...I broke. I cried. I panicked. And, unfortunately, that crack was enough to sufficiently prime me for the rest of the night. An hour later, when I went to the first plenary session of the conference and gave my initial "hello, good to see you again!"s and people asked, "How are you doing?" I couldn't hold the tears back anymore. They had gained their own momentum, so I would say, "I'm doing okay" and try to leave the conversation before any more questions were asked. Yes, to answer any doubt, it was very awkward. I was extremely embarrassed and uncomfortable.

I wasn't so much uncomfortable with the fact that I was emotional though, because I knew multiple reasons as to why I was especially sensitive that day (I was stressed, but it also had a lot do with the abruptly increased levels of synthetic hormone that were coursing through my body). I think I was also uncomfortable because over the previous two weeks the worrying that I have done for years about what to do after grad school dramatically increased. After my second year of grad school I tried to keep the worrying at bay by simply deciding to only focus on one short term goal: get the PhD. But now, as that gets closer and closer, I have started to freak out about the next step. Do I go on the job market next year? What if I'm not sure about how I fit into academia (it's been painfully evident for so long that if I fit into it, I do so very unconventionally at best)? What other options are there? I don't know!!! And what about other important things in life, like nurturing relationships and pursuing other passions. What if I don't want to do a long-distance relationship for years on end and what if I really enjoy talking to people while cutting their hair all day long?! But at the present moment in DC, an equally pressing lurking concern was probably that of  "What if they're on to me?"

My session with Chris Long on Philosophy and the Digital Public

The amazing thing about this conference though is that it is perhaps one of the most appropriate places for me to have a break down of this sort. One of the main theoretical themes of the conference was to ask, "What is publicly engaged philosophy?", and while perhaps the majority of people there would answer in terms of forming public policy, there were also a handful who share my values in doing philosophy more publicly. If there were to be a place where academic philosophers would be sympathetic to wanting to make philosophy accessible and relevant for people outside of the academy, this was probably as good as it could get. Fortunately, that meant that when I would start feeling really frustrated because people started to talk about philosophy in ways that made it sound like either an exclusive club for only the most arrogant of experts or a mere luxury that we do simply for our enjoyment, there was probably another person in the room who shared my sentiments.

Thank goodness I found them.

I was encouraged to hear comments from people whose departments automatically begin with questions of social justice and where one can equally identify as an academic AND an activist. I appreciated the questions from tenured faculty members who willingly challenged a defensiveness about maintaining certain "standards" for scholarship if/when that defensiveness stems from an unwillingness to change with the social climate. And I was intrigued to hear about academics who are planning on leaving academia, even after getting tenure and becoming chairs of their departments.

Dinner with Rock Ethics Institute and Public Philosophy Network folks

In addition to meeting plenty of new, sympathetic, and supportive folks, I was relieved to actually have honest conversations about my academic and professional queries with the people with whom I work most closely. Rather than hiding the fact that I am curious about what other options really are out there for people with PhD's in philosophy, I noted my concerns and was met with great support. Of course people are still pushing me towards taking an academic position when that time comes, and that is greatly appreciated because I am certainly not opposed to the idea of being in academia. What I am concerned about, however, is how to be in academia and still be able to do the kind of work that I want to do, how I want to do it.  To that, the best response I got over the weekend was, "We'll do what we have to do, even if that means putting together a resume for you instead of a CV." Okay. Wonderful. Thank you.

What I could not have anticipated is the terrifically positive, understanding, and warm response I got from people at this conference. I didn't know that I would leave feeling so encouraged, but thanks to the conversations and the connections that I actually did end up having, that was exactly how I felt when I left DC. I felt excited, relieved, and motivated. This wasn't the sort of conference experience that was all about networking and rubbing elbows (though I always resist doing that in these situations anyway), instead it was an opportunity to openly and genuinely discuss questions about philosophy and what it means to be a philosopher today. And it felt good to passionately talk to people about the things that I am passionate about. It also was very rewarding to think that I actually have a voice that can contribute to those conversations in meaningful ways.

Despite my shift in emotional valence, I know that nothing has really changed after the conference. While I have been assigned a new research project for my work on the Public Philosophy Network, which is finding out what people have done outside of academia after earning PhD's in philosophy, I'm still a graduate student with a terribly uncooperative prospectus to write. I still have no clear direction for what happens after graduation, and in many ways I have very little control over that in the near future. People still expect for philosophy to be done in a certain way in order to "pay one's dues." I get it. I know. And the people who are wonderfully supportive of me are speaking from their tenured positions with job security and good salaries. They know that I know that, too. So, my position still feels tenuously underdetermined and overdetermined at the same time. But at least I was able to do one thing. At least I was able to be honest.

Being pretty blunt and upfront is my M.O.  Most importantly, though, I was reminded again of why it's important to be forthcoming: so that you give others the opportunity to respond to you. They may not like what you show them or they might surprise you and become one of your biggest advocates. People might disappoint or pleasantly surprise you. But you have to give them the fair chance at doing one or the other...or something completely unexpected.

I know that my future does not depend solely on me and my actions. I can be a good, diligent, passionate, and honest hard worker, but others are and always have been involved in terms of blazing paths, opening doors, and presenting me with new opportunities. For those people in my life, I am grateful. And I'm thankful for things like academic professional philosophy conferences that are part of the whole process. :)

You can listen to an engaging and wonderfully supportive conversation that I had with Christopher Long, Mark Fisher, Ronald Sundstrom, Jessica Harper, and Vance Ricks on Chris's Digital Dialogue podcast here:

You can see a picture of it here.

Notes from Noelle McAfee's blog:

Chris and I also had a previous conversation last year about the Public Philosophy Network, which you can find here: