Monday, April 2, 2012

guest blogger & bioethicist teresa blankmeyer burke

new mexican casita

i met teri (as we called her in the '90's) while i was doing an m.f.a. at mills college in oakland.  i was slightly in awe and intimidated by her.  first of all, she is stunningly beautiful.  second of all she's brilliant.  and she was managing a child, rigorous studies in science, and recovering from a very recent and tragic loss in her life, and appeared to be doing it effortlessly.  i'm sure her life was anything but effortless at that time, but she made it look graceful and easy.  

a couple of years ago we reconnected on facebook in part because i "liked" the medical drama house on facebook and teri had written a chapter on dr. house's bioethics for this book:   

no surprise--house is an ethical practitioner!

teri has to be one of the most interesting people i know.  one short blogpost won't do her justice, so check out her myriad interests, activities, and curiosities at her blogs barelas babe at duke city fix and deaf echo.

1. Are you in a tight place? If so, what are you trying to do about it?

This is such a great question! As a philosopher, I want to parse out what a “tight place” is conceptually, and the first things that come to mind are tightness of space and time. And because I live in the culturally Deaf community of sign language users part of the time, I can’t help but think of what it feels like when I’m expressing myself in American Sign Language (ASL) under the constraints of tight space and time. Like most visual-spatial signed languages, one of the neat features of ASL is that once you’ve set up the space, a lot of information can be conveyed with little effort.

So, for example, if you’re telling a story in ASL, you assign different physical space to each location in the story, you set up the characters through description of their personae, you set up the background assumptions relevant to the story, and then you tell the story, using the physical space you’ve allocated to anchor the relationships of people to objects, time, and other people.

I’ve spent a lot of time setting up the space of my life – family, education, political advocacy work, and creative activity – and now, with my youngest child about to graduate from high school, I feel like the story is about to begin. But at the same time, I’m struck that this isn’t quite the right analogy, because in the process of doing the set-up, there are also stories involved. (You can’t describe a person or the background without also generating a story…) So maybe the better metaphor is that I’m working on an anthology, and a section with a different theme is about to begin.

Time is always tight for me – working as an assistant professor on the tenure track means figuring out how to balance teaching, service and research demands with family time, time for friends, and solitary time for me. I keep thinking that one year I’ll just stumble upon the magic combination, but enough time has passed in my life that I’m beginning to realize this is an illusion – plus, the variables keep changing!

I came to this realization two summers ago when I was flat on my back, healing from surgery on a shattered ankle.  I was pretty unhappy with several aspects of my life, and the accident literally forced me to take stock of things. (I’m primarily a writer and a thinker, but for three months I couldn’t really do that - you try writing on a laptop while flat on your back!) So now I force myself to walk away from my work at least once a day. I make the time to go for a walk in nature or have tea with a friend, and I make it a priority. I also took my first solo camping vacation last year, and I’m planning to repeat it again this summer!

Pushing against tight time constraints is my biological need for sleep and the need to satisfy my curiosity, which I suspect might also be biological – there’s a gene that’s correlated with novelty-seeking behavior. I work in a nascent field – bioethics focused on deaf and hard of hearing people, which I define to include both the community of signed language users, but also people with hearing loss.

These divisions typically cut across auditory status, but not always, and that has prompted my return to philosophical questions – things like what is a deaf person? How do we attach moral qualities to deafness? Should parents use genetic technology to shape their children? In the signing Deaf community, one of the forms this last question takes is whether it is morally justifiable for Deaf people to use this technology to ensure the birth of a deaf child. This is my main research project – it’s a pretty controversial area.

Asking fun questions like these means I get to meet interesting people: just this past week I hosted Moo Kyun Park, a visiting South Korean otorhinolaryngologist who is interested in bioethical issues impacting the deaf community, met with Rabbi Rebecca DuBowe, the world’s only deaf female rabbi, and attended a conference on the Moral Brain in NYC looking at the intersection of neurobiology and morality.

Space is tight too! For seven years I’ve split my time between living the family home in Albuquerque, where my children live (my son is now married and my daughter is a senior in high school) and a studio apartment on the campus of Gallaudet University, where I am a faculty in residence running a living and learning community. So there’s the challenge of living in the small physical space of a studio apartment and keeping everything organized, and also the challenge of living in two spaces. My hundred year old adobe casita in Barelas, Albuquerque   is where most of my books live, and I’m always trying to find space for more books, and wishing that someone would invent a teleportation device for my old school hard copy books that are full of my marginalia. My Kindle copy of Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals is fine for looking up passages, but when I want to look up what I thought about the passage twelve years ago, it doesn’t work so well.    

 2. What do you want to get done this year?

I’ve always got writing projects on my To Do list, but I also want to hike the La Luz trail in the Sandia Mountains just east of Albuquerque. After I shattered my ankle and had a few surgeries on it, I set a goal of hiking this trail again. It’s about 8 miles long – you start climbing at 7,000 feet and the summit is 10, 678 feet. I’ve also got a great Italian vegetarian cookbook that I want to work through over the course of this year. A. Litteri, Inc., the best Italian market in the DC metropolitan area is in my backyard, and I want to take advantage of all they have to offer.

3. What inspires you?

you can tell from the pots and pans in the background that this is a high quality gal

What doesn’t inspire me? I’m curious about everything! People working to make this planet a little better inspire me, but so does a spider repairing a web. Sometimes I get lost in looking at the patterns of the world, or at least, what I discern as patterns, which may not be patterns at all!

4. What is your favorite legwear?

This is the easiest question of all. I love my Champion black spandex running tights with ankle zippers. If I could get away with teaching in them, I would!

1 comment:

  1. I love this post. Couldn't keep from crying while reading it.