ok, I’ll try learning how to run; this should be funny

The wonderful and infuriating thing about friends is that they push you to do things you think are beyond your capabilities. Yesterday, during Abbee And Mel Go To the Gym Time*, Abbee started asking me if I wanted to train for a marathon with her.

Now, Abbee is a former high-school cross-country runner. I have never been a runner; my lung capacity has been constricted by chest-tube scar tissue since I was 2 years old, resulting in a constant borderline-asthmatic peak-flow test score. In other words, imagine being on the edge of a very, very mild asthma attack your entire life. Rolfing (deep myofascial therapy) significantly improved my lung capacity a few years ago, but oxygen is still kinda hard. My temperament is also far more of a sprinter’s than a marathoner’s; I work almost entirely in short spurts and am mildly horrified by the idea of doing anything (except sleeping) for several hours in a row.

But I’m intrigued. I thought my brain was a sprinter’s brain, and so my body must be a sprinter’s body, with fast-twitch rather than slow-twitch muscle fibers. But that’s not necessarily the case. Last year, a kinesiology major watching me lift weights commented that I was powering slowly out of lifts rather than exploding through them, and that my agility drills were quick to plateau — indicating that I might have a distance runner’s muscle composition, if only I’d develop it instead of training for exactly its opposite. “You’d probably be a good marathon runner,” he said.

I laughed, and then I thought about it, and then I laughed again. And then I kept thinking about it. I do want to develop the sort of discipline that distance running would force me to develop — the long-term haul, the consistency, the quiet solitude I find so difficult. I wonder what my limitations are. So I told Abbee I’d train for a 5k with her for the end of the semester, and then we’ll decide more based on how that goes.

This post is to remind me of that decision (although I’m pretty sure Abbee is going to do that anyway).

*One of many “Abbee and Mel Do Action X” formats. Other common formats include “Abbee And Mel Cook European Food,” “Abbee and Mel Pray A Multilingual Rosary While Laughing Uproariously,” “Abbee and Mel Do A Late-Night Diner Run,” “Abbee and Mel at Daily Mass,” and dozens of other little things that constantly remind me how blessed I am to have friends like this.

not burning out during Bad Accessibility Week, and career advice from deaf academics

I burned and skidded hard last week regarding deaf accessibility — one thing after another, multiple events, multiple people, no safe “home” to relax in. It’s like running off the battlefield and coming home and taking off your armor only to have your family and friends come up and punch you in the face. At some point, you just don’t take off your armor, don’t let down your guard.

Every day, for over a week, I pulled myself away from burning out, accepting that just functioning — sleep, eat, pray, sleep, eat, pray — was sapping all my energy right now, and that it was ok to prioritize not-breaking-down over “getting real work done.”

I did not burn out. I’m proud of this. The storm’s not done, but it’s getting better.

I mustered up the courage and internal resources to reach out to friends. It’s a hard thing to reach out when the very thing you’re suffering from is a struggle to connect and communicate — you could just be setting yourself up for another blow, another frustration. And I’d like to say that it is wonderful having friends who study speech/hearing sciences and can translate your frustration into validated intelligibility, friends who study linguistics and have been the struggling-to-understand outsider in a room of native speakers of a different language — friends who make you homemade pasta and feed you tea and muffins and San Pellegrino and set up the chairs and lighting so you don’t need to strain to understand just that one conversation — because those few hours are enough to remind you that yes, this exists; yes, you belong within humanity; yes, this is what it’s like to live inside that sort of space and community, and this is how it can and should be. This is possible.

I also got some really, really good advice from other deaf academics for the first time (another side effect of reaching out was unexpectedly being introduced to a wonderful group of these people). I’ve summarized/synthesized their advice below, and placed my responses inline.

0) It sucks and we’ve been there too.

Thank you. This is so, so helpful to hear. My hearing colleagues almost never say this when I talk with them about accessibility, but I need to hear it before jumping into solutions-brainstorming. If I don’t, my subconscious keeps hearing “and it’s your fault and you should just try harder,” which makes me believe it and feel all sorts of guilty that I’m not, y’know, trying hard enough.

1) Consider only attending events where accessibility has been set up, and don’t feel guilty; there are tons of opportunities.

I may be able to do this for some (nonacademic) venues where I’m now invited to speak (instead of trying to persuade people to let me speak). None of them are accessible, but I can set accessibility as a condition of my attendance/speaking. The tricky part will be not having that “count against” other things I can negotiate (for instance, “we can pay for an ASL interpreter or your plane ticket, but not both”).

2) If you want to bring accessibility into a non-accessible venue because you’ll be attending it for decades, recognize it’ll take 3-5 years of work for them to “get” it. Build networks and allies and push your institution for flexible pools of funding for smaller events, especially during this transition time.

The two major academic conferences in my field (and the few outside it I may want to regularly attend) definitely don’t “get it,” so I think I’m in for a long-term project. I wonder how I can make this work visible and get credit for it.

3) Slow down. You’re carrying a workload that would crush any grad student, deaf or not.

I really didn’t want to hear this one, but you’re probably right. I think I need to know this isn’t a “lower your expectations because you’re deaf” thing, and that people would say the same things to a hearing student. My whole life has been full of people telling me I can’t do XYZ because I’m deaf (and being wrong), so I’m… hypersensitive to any statement about limitations, and need to stop myself from constantly trying to empirically disprove its truth value. Sometimes it’s true. It’s just hard for me to tell what’s true.

4) Delegate aggressively to the DRC (disability resource center) on campus; you and they need to calibrate that they’ll set up this stuff, not you.

This was a wake-up call. Thanks. Email sent and at least one conference’s worth of stuff delegated. I’ve never seen anyone “at my level” interact with interpreters, captioners, disability centers, etc. before, so I have no calibration for expectation for that interaction outside my own experience — and it is super-helpful knowing that I’m not “supposed” to do all this setup.

I will say I appear to be a weird first-case for a lot of things for my university, so they do legitimately need to ask me for a lot of details more often than not — but I need to recognize that as the exception rather than the rule (even if the exceptions are far more frequent than the rule right now).

5) Recognize the rhythms of the academic year for faculty — which are different than for students — and plan your workload accordingly.

The rhythm-differences between faculty and student life surprised me this year, so thanks for pointing that out. October’s definitely a crushing month for my discipline, and I’ll need to watch and plan for the rest. I’m glad I have a 3-year postdoc (starting next year) to do that in, which also gives me 3 years to get conference access set up before I do… whatever I do next.

Being deaf is: holding a hidden, uncollapsed wave function on your side of a conversation at all times.

Being deaf is holding a hidden, uncollapsed wave function on your side of a conversation at all times.

Think of predictive texting: if I type “Good” into my phone, it offers potential spelling corrections (“Did you mean ‘God’ or ‘Goods’ instead?”). After I finish typing the word and reassure it that no, I meant “good,” it offers statistically likely follow-up words: “morning,” “luck,” and “night,” because I’m more likely to say “Good luck” than “Good cucumber.” My phone is running through a word tree, constantly updating: In case she typed that wrong, what else could she have said? Based on what she’s said before, what might she say next?

My brain does the same thing, constantly, in the background. I hear fuzzy blobs of intonation, accented by body language; I turn it into English somewhere in my mind, ”constantly translating every line of language into itself,” as Josh Swiller says in Andrew Solomon’s book Far From The Tree. When I hear a word-like sound, multiple options for “what word couldthat be?” spring into my mind with equal probability. As fuzzy-wordlike-sound probability trees pile up, sentence-like shapes begin to form and snap into clarity in bits and pieces. That cognitive effort happens for every sentence of every conversation that shapes my job, my studies, my relationships, my ability to order pizza, stay informed of gate changes for my flight, or leave a building in emergencies.

I used to pride myself on being a risk-taker, good at uncertainty. In actuality, I am terrible at uncertainty. What I am good at is turning uncertainty into certainty — bounding and quantifying fuzziness, slapping error bars on everything. The moment something crosses my Line of Maximum Uncertainty — the point at which I can no longer bound that uncertainty into certainty — I snap into a grumpy monster who resolves things into black-and-white too soon, because holding uncertainty is hard, and I am very, very tired.

I’ve worked on deliberately expanding my capacity to hold uncertainty, thanks to painfully patient practice with circles of older, wiser women. They tell me when my wave function is wobbling prematurely, and they are strong enough to hold the tensions of our conversation against my stumbling and occasional fighting-back. I’m learning. It’s fascinating how my impatience in the face of something unresolved melts away in a good listening environment where people speak clearly and with intention. (And when my hearing aids are on.) I thought this impatience was part of me, but now I see how my growing-up-this-way could partially be a knot, a burl, formed in response to this fungus of silence constantly gnawing away at my younger sapling-self.

I burn through all my uncertainty-holding capacity trying to understand simple sentences in my native language. I’d rather use that capacity to hold the uncertainty of ideas themselves — tensions and paradoxes, multiple viewpoints, wonderful subtle complex things. I want to turn my (massive! but overused!) uncertainty-holding capacity towards hospitality, which is the holding of uncertainty within you — welcoming the Other into your midst while letting them remain Other, surrounding them with safety without bludgeoning them into a convenient box where they can be labelled and controlled. If I do the never-ending housekeeping of clearing out the uncollapsed waveforms that come from struggling through silence, I am left with a large space that I can gift to others who need help holding a transformation open until it’s ready to be born. That’s work I want to do.

So when you see me snapping into black and white and grumpy, now you know why. Please remind me and help me get the space I need to breathe. And when I ask for subtitles, or less background noise, or talking sticks — when I insist on captions or interpreters, or things that seem to “stifle” the conversation — know that I’m trying to wrest energy free from the parsing-of-words and direct it towards the holding-open of our mutual thoughts. Know that I’m doing this because I’m trying to stay inside this place of uncertainty with you.

Please help me stay.

Research Is Fun: Using children’s art supplies for my first-pass data analysis

This blog post started as an explanation of my personal research process for my Hacker School Book research team. We were talking about the various ways people take first-pass, rough notes on transcripts, and I offered mine as an example. Tiago Forin and I co-created this specific technique variant for our DTRS analysis, but we’re pretty sure we’re not the only ones who’ve reinvented this particular wheel.

The picture shows an interview transcript with a bunch of marker scribbles on it. Basically, it’s a way of marking codes (“themes”) in text so I can see big patterns and go back for finer-grained analysis and checking later. For instance, in an interview with furniture designers, I might want to mark all the times someone is talking about how important shapes are in furniture design. So every time I see that code occurring in the data, I write a short word for that code (“shape”) right on the data, and draw an arrow through all the text I want to encapsulate with it.


a text transcript annotated with colored markers


Important disclaimer: the document pictured (including the transcript) is entirely open-licensed, so the picture can be shared far and wide. However, to create this example, I picked random codesets (that don’t really apply to the data) and I randomly scribbled those codesets across the page with no particular rhyme or reason, so don’t try to actually read the text and figure out how in the world this sentence is an instance of “4th wall” or “model” or whatever — or even what those codes might mean — because these codes do not correspond in any way to the transcript!

When I have multiple codesets, I color-code the codesets. For instance, I might have a green codeset for “everything related to how the furniture design looks,” like “shape” or “form.” I might have a blue codeset for “acting techniques they use when presenting their work,” like “breaking the 4th wall” or “monologue” or “dramatic pauses.” I might have a red codeset for “pedagogical techniques” like “modeling behavior” or “coaching the audience through a process.” This lets me see where codes overlap/co-occur; for instance, does “coaching” often happen when people talk about “form”?

This also makes it super-easy to collaboratively first-pass code with someone, since we’ll just split up marker colors. I might take green and pay attention to shape/form as we’re going through the transcript, while you take the red and watch for pedagogical techniques. We can do this sort of coding simultaneously, discussing the transcript while we both scribble on it — or asynchronously, where I take the data to my desk and mark up all the shape/form codes in green, then hand it to you to do the pedagogy pass in red. We end up with a useful boundary artifact for discussion, which helps us do a more detailed analysis pass with better precision and sophistication. Eventually, we load the codes into a computer for even more analysis.

But that is all later — much later. This is my first quick-and-dirty step. It’s me, maybe a colleague or two, a bunch of colored markers, and a table strewn with printouts, reading quickly through these things and marking them. I can get through a 25-page transcript in less than 15 minutes if I’m only marking for a small codeset, and I’ve read the transcript before.

So if you’re in a research project that I work on, this is probably what’s happening to your transcript at some point! And if you’re working on a research project with me, you will probably be handed packages of children’s art supplies at some point. It is fun!

Unlock challenge: raise $1024 for The Ada Initiative, support women in open tech/culture, and unlock more open-licensed “programming learning styles” material!

Last year, I wrote a post asking people to donate to the Ada Initiative and support women in open technology and culture. I said:

We change the world with millions of tiny patches… our world of open technology and culture is built one patch, one line, one edit at a time — and that’s precisely why it’s powerful. It brings billions of tiny, ordinary moments together to transform the world. If we teach it for our code, we can preach it for our giving. If you’d buy me a drink, or treat an open source newcomer to dinner, send that $3-$20 to the Ada Initiative tonight. –August 30, 2013

Why do we need to do this? Well, being a woman in open technology and culture is like riding a bike on a street made for cars, where rain and dirt get kicked into your face, and you are constantly, painfully aware that if you have any sort of collision with a car… the car will win. Yes, this is happening in our world, to our friends and to our colleagues; it’s happened to me personally more times than I care to remember. The farther you are from the straight white male difficulty setting, the rougher the terrain becomes.

And quite honestly, we’re busy. I’m busy. You’re busy. This isn’t our job — we have so many other things to do. I mean, we’re all:

  • remixing music
  • playing with code
  • writing science fiction
  • co-authoring open content articles
  • redesigning user interfaces
  • <insert your favorite open technology and culture activity here>

And guess what? There are so many people who want to join us. So many people who want to help us do all this work, but don’t, because they know that work — the good work — is likely to come with a lot of really, really awful stuff, like this sampling of incidents since last year (trigger warning: EVERYTHING).

The less time women spend dealing with that stuff, the more time they have to help us with our work. And the more people will want to help us with our work. I mean, would you want to accept a job description that included the item “must put up with demeaning harassment and sexual jokes at any time, with no warning, up to 40+ hours per week”?

Making our world a good environment for all sorts of people is, in fact, our job — or at least part of it. The folks at the Ada Initiative have made supporting women in open tech/culture their entire job — supporting it, supporting people who support it, and basically being the equivalent of code maintainers… except instead of code, the patches they’re watching and pushing and nudging are about diversity, inclusion, hospitality, and just plain ol’ recognition of the dignity of human beings.

They want to support you. With better conference environments, training workshops and materials, and really awesome stickers, among many other things. (Did you know that the Ada Initiative was one of the first woman-focused tech organizations to actually say the word “feminism”?)

So please, donate and support them, so they can support you — and me, and all of us — in supporting women in open tech/culture.

Now, my own contribution is a bit… sparse, financially. I’m a grad student earning less than $800 a month, and I’m waiting for my paycheck to come in so I can contribute just a few dollars — but every little bit helps. And there’s another way I can help out: I can bribe you, dear readers, to donate.

Remember that “active vs reflective” learning styles post I wrote in August? Well, there are 3 more: sensing/intuitive, visual/verbal, and global/sequential. I’ve got them all transcribed here and ready to go. And if we reach $1024 in donations to the Ada Initiative under the Learning Styles campaign within the next week, I will release them under a creative-commons license.

What’s more: the first 3 people who donate $128 or more to this campaign and email me their receipt will get a free 1-hour Skype call with me to discuss their personal programming learning styles, and will be featured as case studies on one of those three posts (I’ll link to your website and everything).

Donate to the “learning styles” campaign for The Ada Initiative now!

“Performing” programming, and other apprenticeship-related themes in early Hacker School Book data

We’ve finally got enough interview data for the Hacker School Book Project that we can start seeing some patterns in the stories people tell. I’ve gotten fascinated by a cluster of ideas that relate to apprenticeship-style learning. This blog post describes some of my thoughts-in-progress on the topic.

Originally, I thought I’d be using the cognitive apprenticeship codebook (modeling, coaching, scaffolding, fading, articulation, and reflection) because it describes a lot of the techniques Hacker Schoolers use to teach each other. When the actual interview data came in, I rapidly realized that while I was seeing these techniques a lot in the Hacker School space, people didn’t talk about them in the interviews. So I’ve switched gears, and have these themes/codes instead.

Apprenticeship-related themes in Hacker School Book interviews (so far)

  1. accidental learning
  2. legitimate peripheral participation
  3. making thinking visible (cognitive apprenticeship)
  4. zone of proximal development
  5. talking like a programmer
  6. stage performance of programming

What do these words mean? Well, we can think of Hacker School as a place where people learn through (cognitive) apprenticeships. Instead of listening to lectures about programming, Hacker Schoolers learn by actually programming with other programmers. This ultimately helps them engage more deeply in the broader programming community of practice that stretches beyond the walls of Hacker School.

Several apprenticeship-related big ideas pop up in the stories Hacker Schoolers tell. First of all, Hacker Schoolers engage in lots of accidental learning of things they didn’t intend to pick up; a chance comment on a mailing list, a glance at someone’s screen, or a lunch conversation will spark a new idea. Second, they offer and take opportunities for legitimate peripheral participation, which refers to the creation of “entry points” where novices can usefully contribute to a real project.

Third, Hacker Schoolers make thinking visible to each other as a way of both teaching and learning; they present and demo, coach others through tasks while pair programming, work together to break down large tasks into simple ones, and so forth. They often do this as a way to help each other stay in their zone of proximal development, where they stretch their abilities by working together on things they can only do with assistance. In the course of this collaboration, they don’t just make their thoughts understandable to computers in the form of code; they also make their thoughts understandable to each other.

By making their thinking visible, Hacker Schoolers practice talking like a programmer, where using the right vocabulary words (“functional programming,” “z-buffer”), technologies (git, IRC/Zulip, bugtrackers), and conversational etiquette becomes just as important as writing the code itself. They get to experiment with their stage performance of programming and the choices they make about conveying aspects (humility, confidence, experience, etc) of their programming “persona” to others through their behavior.

Where do I want to go with these ideas?

This set of themes is very, very early and unformed — my thoughts are changing constantly as more people interview each other and more data comes in. That having been said, I feel like there’s something here — at least an indication that this is a useful way (among multiple useful ways!) to think and talk about about what’s going on at Hacker School.

One thing I’d love help/ideas on: I’d like to find a better way to phrase the “stage performance of programming” code, which draws from performance theory — the idea that we all perform roles (as if we were actors in a play) and portray ourselves as “characters” by doing certain things. For instance, part of my “performance” as a programmer might be always wearing t-shirts with a software company’s logo on them, so I’ll be seen as knowledgeable about and connected to nifty software startups. Or I might always talk really fast, with lots of long technical words, because I think it will make other people think I’m smart (…but it just makes it harder to understand what I’m saying).

In fact, a lot of the Hacker School social rules can be seen as ways to gently steer away from certain kinds of “performances” so that other (healthier, more hospitable) “performances” of programming can emerge. Things like “well-actuallys” and “feigned surprise” are negative because they’re putting on a show — doing something in order to get a certain reaction/status from someone else. So this idea of “performance” at Hacker School seems like a very important one.

However, I worry that the phrasing “programming performance” makes people think of “how good am I at writing code?” instead of “what behaviors do I adopt so other people see me in a certain way?” Can anyone think of a better way to word this?

Guest post by Gabrielle Ewall: proposal to use Bayesian statistics for understanding Hacker School learning styles

Over the next few days, I’ll be introducing the new members of the Hacker School Book research team and the stuff they’re working on — or rather, they’ll be introducing themselves. We kick this off with a guest post from Gabrielle Ewall (the team is working on getting their own personal blogs up, so this should settle down in a week or so).

Hey friends!  I’m Gabrielle.  Right now I’m pursuing an undergraduate degree in Engineering with Neuroscience at Olin College.  I am passionate about education questions such as: what motivates people to learn, how can lessons most effectively engage students, and what factors make an educational environment most accessible to learning disabled students.  I am interested in computational modeling techniques like Machine Learning and Bayesian Inference.

The questions we’re trying to answer

We’ve heard that many Hacker Schoolers are interested in the learning styles framework, and we plan on investigating what learning styles mean at Hacker School.  Specifically, we’re curious about the following:

  1. What is the distribution of learning styles among Hacker Schoolers, and how does that compare to distribution among other groups (undergraduate engineers, etc)?  Do certain combinations of learning styles gravitate towards Hacker School?

  2. How does learning style affect feelings of personal success at Hacker School?  Are certain experiences at Hacker School more rewarding for individuals with a particular learning style?

  3. Is learning style related to how Hacker Schoolers feel about their undergraduate experiences?  For example, might active learners think “college was boring but Hacker School is great,” whereas reflective learners might think “college was awesome, and Hacker School is also awesome?”  If the learning environment of their undergraduate institution does not fit a Hacker Schooler’s personal learning style, can this contribute to imposter syndrome?

We hope that information about the learning styles distribution will help us understand Hacker School as a learning environment.

How we’re addressing these questions: Bayesian statistics

The first thing I am working on is comparing the distribution of learning styles in Hacker School to the distribution in other groups.  Since there’s been a lot of research done on learning styles distributions, we already have some beliefs about what learning styles distributions might be most likely at Hacker School.  Bayesian statistics (here’s an open-content textbook on that) is an awesome tool for these kinds of problems because it allows us to incorporate prior beliefs like this into our analysis.  Additionally, Bayesian statistics allows us to preserve information about the uncertainty of our hypotheses, which is especially important given the sparsity of our data right now.

Where to get my code

The current code is living at https://github.com/gabriellee/HackerSchool, and utilizes Allen Downey’s thinkbayes2 and thinkplot modules (also included on my repository, so just grab the whole thing).

The code is very basic right now.  I initially assume that the ratio of sensing to intuitive learners at Hacker School is equally likely to be any percentage from 0 to 100.  The code updates the hypotheses of this ratio according to data from an imaginary group of Hacker Schoolers who happen to have a 50/50 ratio of sensing to intuitive learners, and outputs the probability that Hacker Schoolers have the same ratio of sensing to intuitive learners as a different hypothetical group with a 50/50 ratio.  It also produces a graph of the probability of various sensing:intuitive ratios at Hacker School.

How to run my code

The code will be more exciting to run in a little while (and we will report back with a demo at that time), but if you’re really curious right now: to run it, you’ll need ipython notebook installed.  If you already have python and are running Linux, you can type:

sudo pip install ipython[notebook]

into your command line and you’re good to go.  Otherwise, grab Anaconda.  When you’re all set, open and run learningstyles_dist2.ipynb to use the code.

What’s next

Over the next few weeks, I plan to create implementations of this code for all of the learning style categories, use a more reasonable set of prior beliefs about the likelihood of each hypothesis, and start to input some real data! Stay tuned.

Being deaf is: straining to lipread restaurant order numbers

I’m starting this series, and we’ll see what happens.

Being deaf is going to McDonalds and not being able to relax. Or Five Guys, or Starbucks, or the Greek restaurant at DuPont circle in Washington DC — anywhere they give you an order number or ask for your name and then call out when your food’s ready.

Because you don’t know when your food’s ready. So you either hover, hawklike and intent, hogging the counter for the entire preparation time, trying to lipread the person at the mic, trying to guess whether the food they’ve just put out is yours. No hanging out, getting a soda, looking at the decor, relaxing. Every fiber of your being is on high alert for 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes, waiting for the simple interrupt of “Yes, Your Food Is Ready.”

The other option is to sit down and relax and be oblivious, knowing that you’re probably annoying the person at the mic, who has to call you 3 times. That you’ll check every so often, only to find out that your food’s not done yet — or that it is done, and is now cold from waiting out so long.

The same thing happens when you’re on the waitlist at a restuarant and they call your name to seat you. If they get your name right, for that matter — you may not be pushing all your consonants out properly over the noise. “Mallory” and “Mel” morph into “Belle” (understandable), “Meredith” and “Melody” (kind of understandable), “Bethany” (at least it’s the same syllable stress pattern, and has shared vowels) and “Meth” (…I don’t even know where that came from). If they garble your name when they hear it, good luck trying to lipread a name that’s not yours. “Uh, yes. I’m… I’m ‘Meth.’”

Consequently, I appreciate the little buzzer blinky hockey pucks that tell you when your order’s ready or your table’s set. I appreciate the Starbucks at the Purdue Memorial Union, where they saw me signing with another customer and brought my drink right over. And I appreciate friends simply listening for when my number’s called — I’m still amazed that a task so difficult for me is so simple for them. (It is like having friends who all have superpowers.)

Marriage essay 1: what’s marriage in today’s culture, and what do you think a good marriage is?

My friend Abbee was excited to discover that I’m taking a 6-week course on Christian Marriage, and asked if I could post my weekly essays — so Abbee, this one’s for you. First essay topic: Marriage in the modern world. Yes, I know my citations are sloppy; it’s an informal essay for the class discussion, not a fancy thing for publication.

Ye Olde Standard Disclaimer: I don’t know what I’m talking about

I’ll open this essay with a disclaimer: I’m the youngest person (by far) and the only unmarried person in this class, so take these perspectives with a grain of salt. I am unqualified to answer questions like “What is marriage in today’s culture?” and “What do you think a good marriage is?” as anything other than a naive twentysomething who’s spent most of her life avoiding the topic (long story), but… here you go.

The purpose of marriage: a vocation that witnesses divine love to the world

Marriage is a vocation. If you’re called to marriage, that means that married-you is the best possible version of you – that your Maximum Love Throughput will come through having and loving a spouse and family and having your home be a “reflection of the loving covenant uniting Christ with the Church to the world,” as Gaudium Et Spes says. If you are married, your marriage becomes the base station from which you get your superpowers.

This is hard. Gaillardetz describes marriage as entering “into the dying… of Christ,” which doesn’t sound like fun to me. All love comes intertwined with loss and sorrow; as Shakespeare’s sonnet 64 puts it, “we weep to have what we most fear to lose.” Whyte’s commentary on Shakespeare expands upon the topic: “All the most precious things in a human life are the very things to which we find it most difficult to make ourselves vulnerable and open. To feel a joy in life is also to know it is fleeting and will pass beyond our grasp.”

When I was a teenager, I was told that marriage was good because (1) it makes babies, (2) it stops the spread of STDs, and (3) it comes with legal benefits. Oh, and there was the whole “and because you love each other” thing, and the “God Said So” argument. I didn’t buy it. You can love someone without marrying them; we love our siblings and our friends all the time, but we don’t propose to them. “God Said So” seemed like an excuse not to think about it. Besides, in a world where medicine can produce children without sexual intercourse, where sex can happen without pregnancy and disease, and where we are steadily expanding legal rights to encompass all sorts of household relationships, why would anyone ever bother with this marriage thing in the first place?


Romantic misconceptions: why I thought marriage was stupid

One of my stumbling blocks was confusing “marriage” with “dramatic romance.” This “perfect mate myth” is a prevalent view among today’s young people; according to the 2001 report of Rutgers University’s National Marriage Project, 94% of never-married singles in their twenties agreed with “when you marry you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost.” Swooning maidens in Victorian novels and dramatic musical montages in romance films!  These all seemed silly. What a waste of time and energy! As a smart, independent teenage girl, I recognized that waiting for Some Dude to come around and fix my problems was far less efficient than just fixing them myself.

Because of what I was exposed to growing up, I thought that all relationships were either (1) weak excuses to have wistful, useless daydreams, or (2) duty-bound, woman-subordinating, drudging things with the occasional good moment. Neither seemed particularly worthwhile to me, so I came to the conclusion that romantic partnership and marriage and so forth were Not For Me, Thank You. As a consequence, my high school friends (and I) thought I was asexual. (We were very, very wrong — but that’s a different topic for another day.)

The friendship of marriage: the wonder of ordinary companionship

What did I want, then? Searching and prodding and friendship. Companionship on the difficult and worthwhile path to living fully and doing good and learning how to love. I wanted — and still want — that. I just didn’t know what that was called, or if it was even a thing. And then last week, I read Gaillardetz’s depiction of an alternate montage:

Scene one shows a couple herding children into the back of a minivan; scene two shows a woman paying bills at the kitchen table while the man washes dishes; scene three reveals a woman hauling in groceries from the car, while scene four shows a man trying to give cough syrup to a screaming three-year-old. In the final scene we see the couple, finally relaxing in bed, reading together. Soon they turn to kiss each other, turn out the light, and go to sleep.” — A Daring Promise

I didn’t know that was something marriage could be. Turns out there’s a word for it — “companionate marriage,” the sociological term for friendship in marriage. That’s what my heart aches for, way more than a dramatic scene under a balcony (yes, Romeo and Juliet has beautiful poetry, but really — those kids were just bad at communicating). Companionate marriage is the blessing and the wonder of the ordinary — the privilege of loving in the ordinary way, day after ordinary day. There’s a deep satisfaction in that sort of friendship, the notion of a work and companionship that suffuses your entire life. It’s an image of marriage that makes me think: “Yes, that would be worth it; how can I do that? Tell me more.”

Rejecting the “therapy” model of perfect expectations

The question of “how can I do that?” implies an attempt to do as well as possible, but it does not imply an expectation of perfection that can’t be upheld. One common sentiment on marriage is that you should find a partner who “meets your needs” and “gives you space.” Gaillardetz calls this the “therapy mentality,” and critiques it as unrealistic; a therapist is paid to do this work with you asymmetrically (you don’t counsel your therapist back) and occasionally (for short, occasional, and temporary time periods). “All good marriages meet some of our needs some of the time, but no marriage can meet all of our needs all of the time,” Gaillardetz points out. “…to the extent that our culture offers us models that lead us to expect as much, we will never be able to cultivate a fruitful lifelong marriage with another.”

Seeing and rejecting the “therapy model” of marriage is liberating. I no longer have the expectation that I have to be the perfect therapist, the constant need-meeter, the one who always has to drive and carry and make sure things are going to be all right. (In hindsight, Teenage Mel saw a lot of this broken expectation placed on married women, which is one reason she disavowed becoming one herself.)

Stepping away from the “therapy model” also frees us from a consumerist perspective which treats marriages (and spouses) as products with a certain feature set. Spouses aren’t cell phones. When next year’s model comes out and it’s shiner and sexier, we can’t just say “whoops, I’ll divorce you so I can go get that upgrade.” That’s no way to treat someone, and no way to be treated.

Meeting each other’s needs: becoming training partners who always keep trying

Now, this does not mean that spouses shouldn’t try. Husbands and wives should absolutely strive to serve each other, meet each other’s needs, and give each other room and encouragement to grow; they absolutely should. Love is shown in service and in action. But to say we fail and have a “bad marriage” unless we do that constantly, unrelentingly, 24/7 for decades on end without a single slip-up, regardless of how tired, sick, burdened by outside factors, etc. we become… is to pretend that we’re perfect, inhuman beings. That’s always a setup for failure. We can and should always try, but we also need to recognize we’ll fall short and be shortchanged in our turn, despite how hard we try to love each other, and so we also need to constantly forgive, and there will be that recognition of our mutual humanity and an encouragement to deepen within it.

A Daring Promise describes husbands and wives as “more than the source for the fulfillment of our needs and desires — our spouse is also the mysterious “other” who cajoles and sometimes demands our growth.” To me, this is like two training partners working towards a marathon together. Yes, they should always run their fastest and encourage each other to perform their best — but this includes stopping to rest when someone’s out of breath, and getting a sprained ankle splinted and through physical therapy, and readjusting when someone catches a cold, or when it’s pouring freezing rain, or whatever things life throws at you. You adjust together and do the best you can, and recognize that your success lies in the discipline of doing the best you can — not running a 6-minute-mile pace for 20+ miles every day for years with a perfect unbroken record, because humans can’t physiologically do that. Life will happen, and to be successful, we have got to be okay with that and able to adapt.

And this is painful. Once again, this change — and supporting this change in our partners — is painful. Whyte describes the agony of this sort of work in a passage that struck me so hard that I’ll just reproduce it here in its entirety:

“ To find our partners’ desires, we must sustain a conversation with them that helps to bring those wants and desires to light. Sometimes we have to do this even when they are afraid of discovering them themselves. The deep, abiding fear is that we will stumble across the desire in them that wants a life different from the one we are capable of giving them. Essentially, we are afraid that they may find that their desire is to love something or even someone else – one of the most painful discoveries a partner can make. The crux then, the most difficult ground in the relationship, the portion of a relationship that elevates it to the level of a religious discipline or practice, is that I must “love,” must see the very part of my partner that could take this person away from me. I must keep contact with the part of the person that is pulling him or her into the future, though I risk not participating in that horizon.” — The Three Marriages

I understand why people would want to be able to receive and give this sort of support, and if one finds it within a marriage, I understand why marriage would be “worth it.” However, I couldn’t figure out how this was humanly possible.

How is marriage possible? Answer: it is both human and divine.

Well, I was right. It isn’t humanly possible. But that’s what blows my mind about the Sacrament of Marriage. After this week’s readings, I understand it — dimly, vaguely, but in awe — as a Love Transplant. In marriage, God takes human love and replaces it with divine love — which gets a little logically loopy, because God is love.

But that’s what happens; Love himself becomes the heart and center of your marriage; Love himself becomes the thing that holds the two of you together. Not feeble human will, not temporary human feeling. And not the watered-down variant of “love” that only has surface expressions of hearts and flowers. Love. The kind of love that leads people to sacrifice, even die for each other; the kind of love that keeps vigil in a hospital in the middle of the night and scrubs toilets in double shifts to send a child to school. Gaudium Et Spes says that “such love, merging the human with the divine, leads the spouses to a free and mutual gift of themselves, a gift providing itself by gentle affection and by deed, such love pervades the whole of their lives.”

By having that love pervade our marriages and lives, the nurturing and healing of relationships and the rearing of children become topics we can serve as witness to and things we can concretely help others with, because we share them. Marriage is also a secular institution, so it is common ground for those of all faiths — and of no faith. Secular marriage can point towards sacramental marriage, which always points to Christ/Love/God. However, being in the world and of the world can make it easy to forget that marriage is also divine. Hearing so many conflicting messages on “marriage” from the society around us can cause us to question the accuracy of our compass. Standing up for the truth can cause us to be labelled as intolerant and exclusionary — and I have personally been frustrated by the ignorance and intolerance of Catholics and Christians who condemn LGBTQ people (which is totally against Church doctrine, by the way) and don’t have an understanding or a sympathy towards alternate perspectives and family arrangement — and the very, very real love that lives within them. I’m hoping we will wrestle with these topics later in the course.

But I digress. The beauty of marriage is that you commit to loving someone forever — and that you’re given the grace to do that. It’s possible to do that. You don’t love them for the things they do, or even the qualities they have — you love them for who they are, as who they are, simply because they are. You love them for their sake, because they’re there for you to love, and you have chosen to love them. With all the difficulties that inevitably come up in life and in any relationship between people — how easy it is to get frustrated or annoyed or angry, how fragile these bonds sometimes are — it astounds me that us human beings are given the privilege to make that choice and the grace (if we ask for it) to keep it. I am awed that we can choose that, and I… think that it would be… a real honor to do so.*

*while still keeping in mind that it would also be a real honor to have either of the other two vocations (single life and religious life). God calls you where you’re going to be the happiest, and all that.

Some things I want my kids to learn

As I mentioned previously, my kids are going to have a mom who’s a scholar and a maker. They’ll grow up thinking that everyone writes their own software and builds their own bikes, and that “stick a microcontroller in and automate it” is a normal solution to a household problem. They’ll know how long it takes to write a book, what “sabbaticals” are (and why mom is so excited about them), and why we throw a massive celebration when one of our friends gets tenure. They’ll walk through grocery stores and be able to tell you how each mass-produced item was probably manufactured.

But I also want to make sure they think other things are No Big Deal, as my friend Sumana puts it. Working with their hands — the dignity of manual labor, the knowledge that just because they’re privileged with education doesn’t make them better than people who aren’t. A skepticism towards elitism. Respect for mastery and skill, no matter what its form. They’ll grow up seeing, discussing, and working against racism, sexism, classism, ablism, homophobia, ageism — discrimination in all of its forms, because social justice demands that we see and appreciate the infinite worth of each person. I want them to recognize and honor the dignity of those who may be different from them, disagree with them, perhaps even hurt them. I want them to know that doing this is very, very hard, but it’s the good kind of hard that’s worth trying your hardest at.

I want them to read and think and calculate, but I also want them to know the physicality of human experience — not to get stuck inside their brains, but to move through life with their entire bodies, and to let life move through their entire bodies, tackling tumbling and dancing and running and climbing with as much gusto as they tackle books. I want them to experience the bigness and the beauty of the world; so many languages and cultures, how precious it is to have the opportunity to travel, and how material poverty is the least awful kind (compared to intellectual, emotional, social, or spiritual poverty, at least). I want them to never be hungry, but I also want them to know that they are not enslaved by their hunger, and that there are worse things than going without food.

I want them to know where food comes from, and how to prepare it, and how to clean the kitchen afterwards, and how to bring breakfast in bed to their parents. (This means learning to make good tea, coffee, and smoothies early on, and learning what “lactose intolerant” means, because their genes will be at least 50% Asian). How to be kind to animals, gentle with the earth, loving towards one another, and patient in communicating (especially with their deaf mom). How to perceive and pursue the mystery that underlies reality — the practice of how one pursues growth as a human being made of and for and from love. (I call this “Catholicism,” and think of my faith practice as a sort of gymnasium for getting Better At Love.) The joy of giving.

But in the end, they’ll also come from a very human mother (and a very human father), and we’ll mess up time and time again. I want them to see that even professors mess up, that engineers make prototypes that break, and — more broadly — that human beings are not perfect, but that we are free to choose. And that one of our choices is always to stand up again when we fall down, and try again to walk the path towards everything that’s good.