All the little miracles

Hey all :),

First off, I have to issue a warning that this is going to be a weird post because I’m quite happy right now, but all of the topics I’ve written down for the week were written in my reflective mode. Reflective mode also being my mildly-self-critical / observational / analytic mode, which entails a lower level of arousal than I’m feeling right now and is accompanied by nice complete sentences that begin with subjects and are followed by verbs and don’t get Word’s green squiggly “fragment warning!” attached. I will try my best to keep it contained.

But first off, the reason why I’m excited (besides the bouncy music I was playing while making my daily powerpoint showing the data from my participants). We had our first day of Bumps today! Bumps are a rowing thing. In Cambridge, the “river” is the Cam, which is really much more like a canal and is about as wide as a school bus / length of a boat. People want to race each other in Cambridge, but the river isn’t really wide enough for more than two abreast (and that becomes unsafe around corners) so what they do is line a bunch of boats up and have them play one gigantic game of tag. You have to catch the boat in front of you before you get caught by the boat behind you, and your race ends when either of things happen or you finish rowing the entire course without getting near your neighbors. It’s called Bumps because you have to physically hit the boat in front of you to make them concede, and then you move to their spot the next day. It’s quite… Cambridgian (Traditional? Odd?). This is a four-day affair during the afternoon, so you miss school/work/whatever you’re normally being productive doing during the day. And the races begin by bonafide cannons going off. They’re very loud, and it means that you never quite know when you’re going to start since they have to light the things.

Needless to say, we Bumped the boat in front of us. I now know the names of all of the boats in front of us and a good portion of those behind us, for which I assign incredible credit to my boat’s crew members, because I really wasn’t trying to learn these things. There was a LOT of rowing and a LOT of discussion this week of what was going to happen, and I’m so glad we got through the first race successfully. There was one moment where we were rowing back today—beautiful weather, sunshine and perfect temperature, low wind—and I just felt this complete sense of satisfaction. It went away in the next few seconds, because when I’m in the boat I’m pretty much always in a state of mild panic and focused attention trying to get the blade in the water, but that was an excellent moment. I’m hoping to force my brain into more of those relaxed enjoyment states in the future. (… Remember when I had just started rowing and I was like: “it’s only one motion, what’s so hard about that?” It is only one motion, but every stroke is different when you’re doing it with seven other people. Our bodies are amazing—can adjust to so many things without explicit attention—but I also find it astonishing that it takes so much training to complete a series of movements repeatedly and consistently.)

I’ll be completing Bumps the rest of the week, and then the week after is something even crazier: WeHorr, the Women’s Eights Head of the River Race in London on the Thames. At first, I was horrified, because we’re rowing something like 8k and I’ve never rowed that long continuously in my life (that’s like 25 minutes of rowing). But I’ve just realized how bloody cool this whole thing is. I managed to get myself in a position where I get to participate in a fast race with a fast crew on the Thames, in London, for a crazy long way with the tide and the wind and the weather, representing my College for Cambridge while I’m in England. That’s about as authentic as an I-went-abroad! experience could ever possibly get.

Hmm :). With regards to work, my participants are going well. I love interacting with them—they’re all such unique people, and I enjoy hearing about their reasons for coming here since the majority of them are international. I feel like I’m getting a much better sense of my peers in the world than when I was in the US, because even though there are international students in the US, they’re the minority and not the expectation. Here everyone is set up with the mindset that there’s no “usual” way to do things, and that makes it easier to casually discuss differences without having to deliberately delve into a conversation about “what’s your experience here?”

I’ve been sleeping a lot this week since I’m not rowing at 6:30am every day for rowing :). It’s nice to get settled into a sleep schedule again, knowing that I won’t be back in the States for a while. Something else that I’m pleased about this week is that I was able to email back and forth with someone I met at one of my graduate school visits while I was on the East Coast. We connected when we were talking at one of the events, and I’m interested to see where further conversation could lead. It’s hard to have deep conversations by writing, or to force deep conversations in general, but I feel this is my first venture into seeing if it can be pushed. (Or if I’m thoughtful enough to hold my own! It’s definitely demanding that I try to spend more time reflecting on things.)

There’s only one other thing I really want to hit tonight—that’s my conversation with Stephanie and Vasily—but there were a few things that I’d noted before then that I think will go well in bullet points. (Yes the writing has calmed down. Thank goodness. I wonder if other people feel like they’re trying to control their writing, or are watching it happen, as much as I do. So many words :)).

Bullet point #1:

My new friend and I had our conversation at this East Coast graduate school at one of the graduate student parties. We ended up talking for something like three hours, and it was a very engaging “deep” conversation. (I’ll write about it at some point in the future—brought up a lot of interesting points.) Something that he pointed out to me in further correspondence was: “I don’t know if you noticed, but our conversation did not go unnoticed—many of the graduate students were whispering or pointing in our direction.”

I had not noticed. I really had not noticed, and I can’t believe that people were actually pointing at us. That makes very little sense to me personally—like, when you’re in an interesting conversation, shouldn’t you be completely focused in on that conversation? And if it isn’t going well, shouldn’t you be frantically trying to come with words to make it better? The other case is if you’re bored, and in that case I think looking around at other groups is completely justified, but I can’t really imagine pointing or whispering at a pair. Mentioning it, sure, but whispering and pointing just seems so bizarre.

Then again, I’m not much of a gossiper—well, I’m not much of a gossiper for secret things. I’m rather terrible at secrets—if you tell me something, if it’s interesting I’ll bring it up (though anonymized if it’s sensitive) in conversation with others. I also don’t like people watching much because I don’t like to be people-watched. I guess it’s the need for secrecy—the whispering—and the simultaneous idea of it being a spectacle—the pointing—that seems so odd to me. I think… maybe I’m just too much of a self-focused person to get it. I find my own thoughts engaging, and like engaging with only one other person at a time, and that doesn’t leave much room for making observations and drawing material from outside my space.

But I love that I’m completely missing a point here. These comments are my favorites, because the concepts seem so completely foreign to me, but I know they must be just as completely logical and intuitive to some other portion of the population (perhaps a majority). I don’t think I’ve worked this one out, but it’s another one of those perspective differences that are so fun to think about.

Bullet point #2: (man, these are some long bullets)

The gender conversation. Man, this was brought to my attention. I had this deep conversation with a guy. I recounted that I had this deep conversation with a bunch of my participants (because…? See previous point about how I talk about interesting things to lots of people while anonymizing the subject. I’ve kind of always been this way, minus the anonymizing when I was younger.)

And you could just see everything change on their faces as soon as I mentioned the pronoun “he”. I had been running a bunch of female participants at the time, and the first question every single one of them asked was some version of “was it romantic / were in you interested in each other?” Keep in mind that I had brought up this story in the context of “Have you had deep conversations with people? Do you think they can be done via Skype or email?” That generated plenty of good discussion (this is why I share interesting material), but I couldn’t believe how fast the gender issue came up.

It actually made me think a lot about how I approach conversations with straight men, and how that might be a society thing rather than an individual thing. I don’t think too much explicitly about it anymore, but I used to, and I’m realizing how much implicit processing is devoted to it. But it was just so startling that that was the first thing everyone asked me. It says something both about how we expect men and women to behave in these sorts of situations. I don’t have nearly enough data or perspective to analyze it properly—I’m too stuck in my own head on this count, since I’m a bit late to this game compared to my peers, I think, plus so much of it is doggedly implicit that I’m having trouble pulling out generalizations.

But the first thing that occurred to me after I was asked this—and, in an unrelated situation, learned that I was supposed to have asked a guy friend rather than a girl friend when I was kindly gifted with two movie tickets—was: when does this stop? When I’m dating, I guess? No, probably not until I’m married. Maybe not until even after then, but marriage is probably a good barrier against people wondering about these things. Does that mean I have to be dating then? I hate when there’s pressure to date. It’s just like being pressured to drink, which I’m no longer being peer-pressured into doing but have a long history of being faced with. Are guys pressured into dating the same way girls are? It kind of drives me crazy.

Ah well—gender relations are what they are for now. I do miss Wellesley sometimes, when the expectation was to go up in arms for all of the symptoms, so that eventually headway is made on the cause.

Bullet point #3

Why do we spend so much time thinking about ourselves? Do we spend time thinking about ourselves? I certainly do, though I was talking to a participant who said he liked walking because it made him feel empty, so that he could observe things and learn things on his walk, fill himself up and feel inexplicably better. My mother recently called me self-aware—does that mean others aren’t? What’s the baseline level of self-awareness? I’m absolutely sure I’m not as self-aware as I could be. Does it matter if you’re self-aware, and does it help?

What is the purpose of the internal curiosity. That is my question. Hypotheses: analyzing previous behaviour might allow us to better predict future behaviour. Support: someone was recently telling me that we have a better idea of what we want—in relationships, in life— when we’re older. Intuitively, sorting out and categorizing past behaviour might help with this, and since we have this drive to remember things about ourselves and care about ourselves we might actually devote the proper attention to sorting through everything, rather than giving it up as too much work, which is what we often do when we’re trying to think about motivations for other people.

The way I do it, though, just seems so funny. I have to pull up examples of past behaviour explicitly, check for generalities with specific hypotheses in mind, and then try to figure out what it might mean for me in the future. It’s incredibly processing-intensive, and it’s ridiculously high-level / distant—like, anyone could do what I’m doing, if I showed them the memories I’m pulling out, and then they could look for the commonalities. It’s not—it’s not, like, a intuitive, smooth process. It’s entirely like a computer program—I can feel myself generating a hypothesis, moving through the search space and seeing how well examples fit. And it’s ridiculous because I know I’m missing so much of it, because almost all of our behaviour is unconscious, and here I am trying to sort out the conscious stuff with this super meta conscious.

I’m not going to reach a conclusion on this anytime soon, but I wonder about the purpose of being reflective, and how other people do it. I also need to get further than ten pages into Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” because that’s already influenced some structural changes about how I think of things.

(And isn’t it funny how we all have our own frameworks for thoughts? Our own key words that mean different things in our own minds, our own tropes and keyholes of view? I return over and over again to social interactions, gender, stories, perspectives, so many more than I am and am not aware of…)

Bullet point #4

Apparently I have preferences for friends, which surprises me in some aspects and completely doesn’t surprise me in others. Because, as amusing this is, I have this tremendous opportunity when running participants in my study to interview them all for being friends. It’s a crazy way of looking at it, and I startled myself awake when I thought about it that way while dozing.

You might think it strange, but I kind of think that choosing friends off of personal preference is a bit overrated. We just meet people in so many places and times in our lives, and often the people I hang out with—my friends, by the definition that they’re the people I like most in that period of my life— aren’t people who I’d choose to spend hours and hours with given the chance. People are good for different conversations, and it’s not like you’ll run into a perfect person at any point. In one sense it’s all about compromises—you won’t like everything about a person, but some will have some elements and others will have others. In another sense it’s about getting to know each of these unique entities, not broken up into components but taken as wholes you mesh with less or more at a given moment in time.

It’s so much about timing and mutual interest as well. It’s incredible, how I’ve collected the close friends I have—some of them built over years or months, some of them formed within a few minutes. It’s so hard to tell who will be a good friend, and if you don’t hit on that point of conversation that makes you realize, or they’re the sort of people who you have to spend a really long time with in order to get at their core, you can have no idea. There’s no flags, no good way to tell, and it depends so much on how you’re feeling and how they’re feeling and the context and the situation. It’s so random, in many senses. And even if you like them—if you find something you want to keep close—that doesn’t mean at all that they want to engage with you the same amount of time or the same way.

So I find it so funny that I’m doing this friend interviewing, because it’s SUCH a scientist way of looking at things. I’m literally walking into these testing rooms and sometimes asking the same question in the same tone of voice and watching people come with wildly different responses and presenting a tremendous diversity of dispositions. It’s amazing, and it makes me so glad to be human, to be able to observe this mish-mash mélange of components and diversity and randomness before us, seeing flashes and reflections off these entities.

And I’ve got preferences, we all do, but what’s so surprising to me is that preferences still work given all of these variables. I find people who I like conversing with better, and they’re the ones who also like conversing with me, and somehow we’ve picked each other out despite the fact that I’m trying the same with everyone but we still somehow end up settling. And maybe those aren’t the people I’d like settle into if we were at different points in our lives, but maybe they are—that’s the thing, maybe they are. Maybe there are things about people that I’m permanently drawn to despite all of the entropy in the world, no matter if we meet or not. I’ve listed some friends in my mind and have started categorizing traits, but this concept will just continue to blow my mind. How are we able to find our friends in the world, how do we see them and value them—how do we hold these people in this vast, effervescing world of ours?

I think it’s about time to move into my conversation with Stephanie and Vasily, since that was my original goal before this blog got away with me as per usual :). Stephanie’s at Lucy Cavendish College with me, and doing an MPhil here before going back to work. Vasily’s her husband, who’s currently back home in Germany, but he visits Cambrige often enough to frequently have brunch with me and company on the weekends. I LOVE Stephanie and Vasily—they’re labeled “awesome couple” in my notes, though I’ve spent more than a few hours with both individually, and much wonderful time with Stephanie—and I had a one-on-one with them together this weekend at a café.

I felt bad for making them come out to meet me, since I’d just visited Stephanie’s apartment two weeks before and realized how far the City Centre was for them. Especially when I found out they’d singularly come to meet me—then they were going back to the area surrounding their home for more activities afterwards. I was feeling this great pleasure that they were around—I heartily enjoy spending time with them—while simultaneously feeling that I didn’t have much to offer in return. I kept asking questions in the hope of learning interesting information—never a problem with them, they have so much experience and many interesting ideas—but in turn felt like I wasn’t contributing much. There is always this intrinsic weirdness when you have an age gap like I do with them—not quite parental age, but definitely not equals either. They’re sort of like mentors, but sort of like friends, and when it’s uncertain like that, I just don’t know how to keep them.

Then someone who had joined our table—it was a crowded café—jumped into the conversation. And that set me immediately into analytical mode, because Stephanie and Vasily started heavily engaging with her. I just wanted to talk to them—it was Monica-Stephanie-Vasily time—but those two were engaging, so that meant I probably should have been engaging. This was a learning opportunity—when strangers want to talk, you include them in the conversation—it’s the nice thing to do.

(Incidentally, this stranger complimented us on being Cambridge students, and Stephanie did the modesty thing and swept it away. I was interested to see that, because while that’s my default response, while I was visiting one of my graduate schools my host there was telling me that I needed to “take ownership of it”. Both are people (women) I respect, so I’m not sure what the right course of action is. This one’s definitely a gender thing.)

The ending was awkward, because when the stranger left the table she shook hands with Stephanie and Vasily and not with me, who had mainly been watching the three of them converse and joining in occasionally. Then everyone had to leave, so that was the end of the conversation, and I went to take a nap. I marked it on my blog to write and think about—quote—“Awesome couple (Stephanie and V), what can I give them… weird conversation with new person” and thought that was the end of it.

And then, yesterday, I got this message from Stephanie. It said that she’d been thinking a lot about me, and that I seemed sad and distant at our last meeting, and was it anything that they had said? And I was like: what.

Because I hadn’t even noticed. I hadn’t noticed what I was coming off as—sad and distant—and I hadn’t even necessarily realized I was feeling that way. There’s a lot of complexity happening in the mind at any point, and never in the mix of all of my thoughts did the words “sad” or “distant” occur to me. However, I can see how, if you distilled all of my thoughts into two emotions that had to be deciphered off of my face, this would be a completely reasonable compression.

It brings to mind several points. One, a minor but interesting one, is whether if you actually feel sad or distant if it looks the same as if you’re distilling a bunch of complex thoughts into sad or distant. Two, apparently I’m just really bad at watching how I’m coming off if my attention is occupied. Speaking of, apparently this is the same issue as the whispering-and-pointing issue above—score, a generalization! Three… well, let’s start a new paragraph for three and four :).

Three: I immediately explained to Stephanie what I just wrote in condensed form, assuring them it wasn’t anything they had said, and I hadn’t been feeling sad or distant exactly. And she apologized for not spending enough time with me—it was just that the stranger appeared so lonely.

… And I… don’t know what to think about that. Because there are people who need Stephanie and Vasily’s attention far more than I do, and it is good to spend the effort on people who need it more. I have been and often am the recipient of such generous gestures from people, and they are so essential if you’re a shy person or feeling out of place. It’s hard to say just how much I prize welcoming people—I adore people who go out of their way to help others feel comfortable and it’s one of my most highly valued traits. (It’s been a long-time struggle to watch myself interact with people and sometimes succeed and sometimes fail in spending the time and effort to integrate others into a group. It’s happening more often now, but my default seems to be taking care of myself first, though I know how it feels to be on the outside.)

So yes, the proper response was to speak with the stranger and stop speaking with me so much. I know that, and I value that so much in Stephanie and Vasily, that they’re willing to do that.

It’s just that… I guess it’s the way it made me feel, especially Stephanie’s comment that she apologized for not spending enough time with me. It made me feel on level with the stranger, I think—made me feel like I was one of those lonely people who needed a certain amount of attention to be happy, and then everyone could go on their way after a good deed. It’s such a weird response, and completely unpredictable—I hadn’t even articulated it in my head until just now. Stephanie has asked for comments on how she can improve in these sorts of interactions, and my conclusion is: I have no idea. We are inundated with all of these feelings, and we justify them and put them into nice conclusions later, but who really has any idea how what we say will affect others; what happens to be going through their heads? If I didn’t have this underlying insecurity that I was voicing earlier—if I knew how to be interesting and how to replicate it, if I knew exactly how I was valued and could push those traits forward—then this wouldn’t have been my response at all. And it certainly wasn’t anything Stephanie or Vasily said—we all make assumptions off of faces off of hidden thoughts out of how we think they’re reacting based on what we’re doing and through it all it’s a miracle—so many miracles—that anything gets understood, that communication works, that we can even try to understand our own thoughts, us biological, messy beings :).

And, too, Stephanie was thinking of me :). How funny, how amazing, that through it all she was thinking of me, that while I’d kept my focus on other things, not brushing on the topic of how to keep them because I had no idea—she was thinking of me anyway. There’s something they see, and I don’t know what it is—it’s not thoughts that come across as sad or distant, so perhaps by process of elimination—but there’s something there that they value without my doing anything. And that’s such a good point to explore as well, isn’t it? Do people like us because of what we do, or who we are—and what makes us who we are, anyway, since our actions are so tied up with our motivations? Do you need to consistently try to make people like you, or will people like you just because you’re the sort of person who will try? I often come back to this point in my thoughts—how to be interesting—and I usually think that this involves some kind of effort that’s not intrinsic, that requires growth and extending boundaries. But perhaps what keeps one interesting is the core, what doesn’t change. Who knows? All I do know is that I’m so happy to have Stephanie and Vasily in my life, and through miscommunications and biology / psychology / neuroscience, that they’re happy to have me in theirs :).

Hmmmm, another super long post and way past my bedtime :). Rowing, deep conversations, gender, people—I think the underlying idea throughout it all is that there are so many people here, and that I’m so grateful to be able to interact with all of them, see these different perspectives and think about what it means to interact with each other on all of the levels that we do. Makes me happy, too, that I’m studying this, studying people and their brains and their psychology, and that this will be my job and natural quest for my life, this framework of hypotheses, observations, generalizations :).

Comments and questions welcome as always :). Night all,

Monica

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