Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Totally not related, but... my memoir on America's "touch problem"

Since this blog is about me writing as much as it is anything environmental--that just happens to be what I hone my writing on--I thought I'd share news about my world of academia and what's been keeping me away from the blog.         

From my advisor:

"Some lines in here are publishable, Matt. You're smart, have a good sense for telling the story, and aren't afraid to confront the monster. All the makings of a true memoirist."

That might not seem like much unless you're a writer. When you're a writer, you have to learn to compensate for the fact that your mentors will ration compliments to A) keep them from going to your head and turning you into a monster, and B) make sure you never settle for second best. As writers, we have to pretend that those compliments aren't actually 500,000% better than they seem for those very same reasons. In a sense, a good chunk of writing is learning to lie to yourself until your lies are true... or something. I'm actually just caffeinated and exhausted, so none of this really makes sense. If I'm lucky I'll manage to sound wisely ambiguous, so when you don't get it you'll think you just haven't thought about it hard enough.


Photo by Josep Ma. Rosell 
I don't think I've shared with you, my readers, what my non-environmental work is. This project in particular is a memoir, if you hadn't gathered from the quote. I've been doing research on touch in America, and especially the tendency for Americans to conflate touch and affection with sexuality. A kiss can't just be a kiss, it has to signify romantic/sexual interest. Compared to other industrialized nations, in this regard, the U.S. seems to be trailing (just like we are in so many other areas.) That doesn't mean there isn't a problem at all in other countries, but the research I've done suggests that we're the worst, and because I'm U.S.American, I can contribute my personal experiences to the discussion of this research. So, that's what my work does. It blends my personal experiences and the experiences of people I know with the research I've been doing in order to appeal both to people who want a compelling story, but also those that want objective facts and a scientific basis.

One piece of interesting research involved a survey of teenage mothers. Most of those teens admitted that they didn't want sex, but rather they wanted love and affection, to feel cared for and desired. This deficit of love and affection, the study suggested, stems from the fact that American parents are made to feel incestuous, or like pedophiles, if they try to be affectionate with their children once they reach puberty and mature sexually. It becomes inappropriate for adults to touch their children in more than just a simple hug or the like. Sex and relationships are a way for teens to fill that void.

And I said that this is completely unrelated to my environmental work, but that's not entirely true. I'm a systems thinker, and it's my "job" to work out how seemingly disparate things go together. It seems self-evident to me that how we interact with others shapes and defines out quality of life and level of happiness. Happy people make better decisions. People with strong relationships tend to rely on material things for their utility rather than as a replacement for human affection, and so are less wasteful (taking a public bus rather than a Ferrari.). Even as a kid growing up, my family had stronger ties with my neighbors than I do now, or than any people that I know have with their own neighbors. As certain resources become more scarce, it will be easy to compete with each other, trying to get more than our fair share, instead of cooperating with each other to preserve that resource. We're a splintered society, and as much as it might be ironic for a blogger to say so, technologies like the internet are part of that problem (though they can just as easily be part of the solution.) We can reach out to someone we barely know halfway across the world, but we never even say "hi" to our neighbors. What if that simple greeting is all it took to make the world a better place?

That, and a good night's sleep... which I hope to get right now. And then I face my last day of classes for the foreseeable future...

Wish me luck, and I'll do the same for you in all of  your endeavors.

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