Sunday, 13 December 2009

Some Belated Chrissie Treats

I haven't written much while I have been back in Oz. I have been staying for the most part at my lovely family home, upon which two of my brothers with their partners and kiddies have also descended. I haven't been able to duck or weave past all the humans to get to a computer to blog, let alone the overdue catch-ups, trays of mangoes, justify-your-life-choices conversations, beach opportunities, thesis guilt and assorted attempts at writing, Christmas preparations, red wine and DVD sessions, a fabulous book I am reading, and two mammoth (and happy) Christmas celebrations.

I knew I had a draft post sitting in my folder, one I wrote when I had just returned from the health retreat. I thought it worth digging it out and posting it this morning, as it contains some goodies that I would like to share with you in general Christmas/holiday fuzzy love spirit. Here it is:

I am back from luxury boot camp. It involved Tai Chi at 6:30am on top of a hill overlooking rows of wild rosemary shrubs, families of kangaroos and rosellas, and regular patches of eucalyptus trees, separated by small vineyards. Then aqua running at 7am followed by wholesome (farty) breakfast, cardio classes and health and motivational seminars til lunch. The same again til meagre dinner. No sugar, wheat, caffeine or alcohol and restricted carbs. Nuts for treats (nature's goodies!). All organic. Massages, facials and counselling or naturopathy sessions most days. Each evening, zany, self-expression activities such as charcoal drawing in time to music; art guided by your special dancing shapes! (I would love it if Wednesday's blindfolded 'spirit dancing' was secretly recorded and unleashed on YouTube.) May make the retreat seem three water features and two resort-style pools away from being a cult, but it was actually wonderful and hugely beneficial.

Here are some of the messages from the talks and activities and, although they're melty cheese treats*, I think they're worthwhile:

  1. Take time for yourself - actually, you should lock it in at the beginning of the week. See through the eyes of the child within.

  2. Do you appreciate beauty solely when you've planned on and even paid for it? The Joshua Bell story is worth a look at.

  3. Oriah Mountain Dreamer's The Invitation is something you need to ask of yourself before you ask it of a loved one.

  4. Thoughts and feelings affect physical reality. Watch the words you use about yourself and other watery creatures. See Dr Emoto's The Hidden Messages in Water.

  5. Understand that you didn't break them, and you can't fix them.

  6. Don't be too competitive in team sports at a health retreat, especially if you're female.

  7. Forgive and forget anything that would stop an endless river of love and compassion flowing out through you.

  8. Super healthy toasted muesli recipe: 1kg rolled oats, 250g oat bran, 250g unprocessed bran, 1kg buck wheat roasted, 200g linseed meal, 350ml honey, 100ml apple concentrate, 400ml orange juice, 350g peaches dried, 700g sultanas, 260g dried apple diced, 200g dried paw paw (papaya) diced, 180g dried figs, 500g pecans or macadamia nuts. Mix oats and oat bran. Add honey and water, juice and mix. Roast at 85 degrees celsius for three hours. Add dried fruit. Store in airtight container.

  9. ''Just so long as you are trying to make things better. That's what counts." (work philosophy of beautician in response to my question whether she ever feels uncomfortable doing pedis or waxes)

*In other words, only number 6 would count as evidence-based.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Time for a Health Farm

photo by: DaveSag
Am back in Sydney. Blue skies, purple flowers, twisty trees, boat engines and bird screeches are back in my life, as are shouty ads on TV.
Thanks for all those wonderful geek hobby suggestions. Nice to have some options. The metal detector would be vintage.

I am heading off to a health retreat with my Mum and sister in an hour. The evidence for the 'wellness assessment' I have on this afternoon is contained in this blog (shuddering at the sheer indulgence, but I can't feel guilt and shame about everything!). I here provide another piece for the fair-haired, muscly armed, lady in a smart tracksuit.

Extracts from a letter I wrote to a friend on the plane:

Just after take-off. My eyes are dry and tired. I am in an aisle seat, 34D,
but there is no one in the two seats next to me. This doesn't help with the
nerves. I like being in the middle island because it makes me feel part of a
team. Sipping ginger ale. The pilot introduced the customer relations officer
and I happened to see her curtsy to herself. It's dark and grey-blue outside and
my ginger ale is circling from turbulence. We have been rocking since we took
off. Anyway, I don't want to focus on that. I am going back to Julie and Julia.
Needed something cute.

I just went to the loo. There were a couple of people waiting. Under the
lights inside, I noticed I am flushed and tired. Why does it become so awfully
hot on the plane? Healthy glow of first loo trip has turned into mad look,
especially with eye mask on as headband. Looks medicinal. I was going to ask for
the large, English flight attendant to sit with me in the empty seat for a chat, but I

Watched two episodes of 30 Rock. Americans love visual gags, like an old
lady falling over. My eyes are stinging and it's still so hot. Still haven't
managed to sleep yet.

Half way. 1am in my mind, but 9am and humid outside. A passenger's bottom
just swiped my upper arm. But on the positive, looks like I have a spare seat
next to me. That would be pretty mega ace if I could sleep along two seats.
Getting used to the Aussie accent again - that pseudo-posh, Dannii Minogue one.
Some of the Asian passengers are wearing face masks. Not good for my nerves, but
trying to focus on comic potential.

Only two hours til landing. Had three hours' sleep with headphones on
playing Flight of the Conchords. I was so tired that I felt I had to will on my
lungs to breathe - 'C'mon little guys.' They were disconnected to my racing mind
and stubbornly kept a slow place. Then I fell into those trippy dreams that you
get when you're on a plane and knackered - flashes of strangers' faces,
cloloured spots and, the most unsettling, a row of suburban houses with black,
fright trees behind them. The sound of the show helped my mind quieten. Not very
Zen though.

We've started our descent. There is an elderly, English couple
sitting in the window seats next to me. They must be in their late seventies. I
don't know how they do the long haul. Maybe you just don't care so much. Oh,
this must be the most inane, disappointing letter. Makes me realised what a load
of rot goes around my head and comes out of my mouth all day. Cabin crew is
taking their seats. We're shaking because of the rain clouds and we just had a
couple of rollercoaster drops. But I love landings. I smile at everyone around
me. I am pretty much waving at them. There have been a few more drops,
lots of readjusting of wheels or whatever makes that electronic noise.
Babies are crying. The Chinese guy in the lime green rainproof jacket has just
looked at me, grinning with mild panic. But I can see pretty Sydney out the window:
the lights of the CBD, the cars, the roads. We're rocking like a bloody dinghy,
but I don't care. We're about to land. Wow - with a thud and skittle and intense inertia.
Makes me think of how funny it would be if the plane blew up after all that.
The people are relieved and scrounging around their bags and rubbing their foreheads.

Waiting for family at arrivals. No glory for me coming through the gates.
The first to greet you at Sydney, by the way, was a customs dog, right at the
passageway. They love customs in this country. I am wearing too many layers. The
Sydney women are wearing white and blue and the men are dressed like 14 year
olds. The arrivals area is glowing and the orange in the flooring and meeting
point signs are setting off the classic airport blue. Just heard a woman, with a
child strapped to her front, say 'Noi' [this is how urban Australians say
'No'] to her husband. The last thing the customer relations officer on the
flight said was, 'For thoorse taiking connecting flaights within Australia, they
will need to goi toi Terminal Twooii.'

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Geek Pursuits

I have just returned from farewell lunch in hall with my two of my oldest Oxford friends. They're great. They're the ones who first taught me to love or at least be open to geeks. (I have had many other teachers since then). They mentioned that one of our friends has become more seriously interested in twitching or bird-watching. (No, I didn't know what twitching meant til about an hour ago.) I asked them for ideas of geek pursuits for me to take up once the thesis is over with. Brian wasn't too pleased about twitching being called geeky, but, as I told him, to me it means a lovable obsession, just as most geeks are, I have come to realise, adorably obsessive. Here is the list:
  1. Warhammer
  2. Documenting lichens in the forest/bush
  3. Battle re-enactments
  4. Chess club
  5. Coding
No. 2 has the most appeal at the moment, truly. I like the idea of being outside with a notebook. No. 5 is out as I need to vary my focal distance. Please send me some suggestions. I have a few months to decide and none of these is quite right.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Preparing for Home

photographs by: xssat

In between churning out the words and riding my bike to and from the library, I'm starting the mental and physical preparations for my upcoming England departure. I am heading home for the final (?) thesis burst and to spend Christmas and most of the summer with my family and friends. This will be my first Christmas at home in a few years. It will be lovely to draw in a waft of pine needles and mangos at the same time, to sneeze at the bright sun in the high sky, and to dive under the dauntless ocean waves. Tralalala!

One thing's for certain: I will have to face Sydney trendies. Australian trendies are like English trendies, only with a little less audacity, a lot more skin, a few more smiles, and, most importantly, beset by white light, the most unforgiving of all the lights going round. (Evidence for your pleasure included above. Click to zoom.) This makes me apprehensive. In Oxford, you would never even have to see, let alone reveal, anything from below your neck if you didn't choose to. Quite normal. Plus, in the graduate community (not to be confused with the undegrads, darling!), people tend to think a t-shirt with a clever slogan slapped on it is daring. I have to decide whether I can be bothered trying to look as interesting and appealing as everyone else or whether I should write myself off as a PhD geek and stick to the jeans, trackies and odd, excessive layers until completion (even on the beach!). Not the most significant worry...but more fun than the rest of them...and the one I am least attached to.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Rebooting the Old Blender

I have been ill these past couple of days. I had asked for it. I had been working on, but scrappily, worrying about things, letting worries feed and bleed into others. Sickness is never ideal (ideally, you would not have a backlog at all), but it has, in this case, acted as a circuit breaker by giving me the space to rest and the sense of urgency to get to the bottom of some things that had been overwhelming me.

Writing a thesis is hard enough, not to mention all the fears that a thesis comes to embody, as the supervisor of my friend, Kate, pointed out (such a smart thing to say!). Then, processing the reasons behind and emotions of a break-up (of a long relationship) and coming to terms with being alone (when you really need day-to-day kindness and connection!), on top of 4pm darkness - it was all getting too much to manage. Oh, and there's also that bloody Last Post and those sweet old men at the supermarket selling Remembrance Day poppies. Geez. Too many chunky bits for the blender!

But I am on the up! Chin is well and truly up! I just needed to get back to that whole purpose of life thing. You know that aloof little bugger that quietly asks us to to let go of things, accept uncertainty and lack of control, ground ourselves, centre courage within, and not let the past pounce.

Anyway, on a slightly less intense note (I am watching some international rugby, wearing a bathrobe over a tracksuit and Uggs, wondering whether I can muster the energy to go to fireworks and a party), here is what happened in a cafe yesterday:

Friend and me in cafe. No spare seats. I spot a man finishing off his coffee and say to friend: 'You stay in line, I will shark this table' (that is within a foot of the end of the line). I motion towards it. Then an older, shabbier and larger Ricky Gervais comes over and makes for the table (as the other man gets up). Friend says, 'Oh, excuse me, we were just about to sit down here'. Ricky: 'Oh yes, but you are in the line...' Friend: 'And you have your stuff...OK right.' I say, 'I was actually waiting for the table, while he was in the line, but anyway.' Ricky says, 'Oh! OK, you take it! I was just hoping me and this little girl here [out comes a little girl from behind his leg] could sit down and enjoy ourselves. But don't worry. You take it! You two are all grown-up, but, no, you take the table.' Me: 'Please calm down champ, this is not good for your heart.' Ricky: 'No, you sit down, go on. Sit down'. Me: 'No, really, we're not going to take it. Please.' Friend (sincerely): 'It looks like a lovely table for you to enjoy yourselves.' We then wait in line, get our drinks, find seats that have become free, then suddenly laugh, both wondering at the same time where the hell that little girl came from.

(Then since I was in the middle of Last Post sentimentalmania, the one I am thankfully shaking off, watching him share his pastry with his kid naturally made me feel sad and quietly ashamed. He was ridiculously aggressive - perhaps on visitation hour with kid? - but I didn't have to bring his heart into it. He was older than me too. Bugger. Still learning.)

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Working in the Dark

LPC threw me an easy post the other week: to provide the tenth picture of my first folder. Nice one, LPC. It must be getting across through my long silences and pissy posts that I am running up mental sand dunes these days and in need of some small victories. I am subtle and self-contained like that. Like LPC, I am not the biggest techie going round so instead I have provided an old picture that was found in one of my few folders. It's of a mother and her girls sharing stories and enjoying Autumn in the Loire Valley, France. I took it two years ago, the day after the wedding of a family friend.

I wish this were the Autumnal mood of Oxford, here where the grey clouds overtake the peach-pink clouds by 4:30pm, and the sky becomes the darkest blue by 6pm. Apparently, there are more (or at least as many) correlations between poor health and the onset of daylight saving time than adjusting to 'normal' time in Autumn. I am not convinced. The odd farmer, please excuse me, but this whole getting dark in the early evening is, for the rest of us, simply rubbish.

Evidence for the government inquiry and/or PhD student class action (leading to legislative changes): Most evenings, I have slap my own face and throw myself against my carrel wall in order to stop myself from crawling under my desk to lie down and stare and blink. As that last dark bird passes the fluffy, descending clouds, all I want is a good tuck-in and a parental kiss. Instead, frowny, I drag myself to eat dinner in College hall (something having boyfriend had spared me) where the walls bounce an orange glow that makes me squint and feel I have been woken up at midnight to join a party, but a party of people with chunky backpacks and flourescent trouser protectors. The air is chilly and makes a sound like we are all in a plane, a plane heading for the darker months and then, eventually, death.*

Tonight, I avoid hall. I am heading home to cook something with Vitamin B in it, and watch my lovely friends (some of my oldest here, the first to make me less frightened of scientists and mega introverts) play in their band, the dreamy Stornoway, on Later with Jools Holland. They're playing alongside Jay-Z, the Foo Fighters, Norah Jones, Sting and Ginger Baker, a prospect Brian, the lead singer, said made him need to lie down. Will post a clip of it tomorrow or as soon as I can (learning not to make promises during this writing time). Have significant creativity envy, but been trying my best to reframe thesis as a hugely free, infinitely creative pursuit. Please feel free to chuck me some help here.

As for the pic, I tag Aliteralgirl (whose recent post on creative living is pretty superb).

*Not a cry for help. Last clause put in solely for my own amusement.

Monday, 19 October 2009

One Can of Spam

photo courtesy of: Jackie121467

Another period of silence. I have wanted to sit down and post something, but there have been hurdles far too great, including my generally pissy mood and not having a computer in the bedroom I am current lodging. (The room was donated by an incredibly generous friend, but involves living out of a suitcase that I can't fully open, one that I reach down into as my morning mystery fun: whatever comes out goes on.) Plus, I have been wrestling this dull sense that I have absolutely nothing valuable or entertaining to say (and forget about original). The blog authorities say that unless you have something interesting to say, just bloody well keep your posts to yourself and read theirs instead. This exclamation hasn't really stopped me. It's been more about me being unsettled, hiding in a carrel, often hungry, and overwhelmed by or at least unhealthily interested in a form of self-pity only interrupted by a handful of friends, red wine, card games, Strictly Come Dancing, riding my bike fast down hills, and buying or coveting pretty Autumn wear.

I have been rewriting my introduction. This was a curious exercise in working my methodological limitations into important insights, and, as ever, trying to be respectful to the greats without getting caught up too much in their games. It's also hard to get the balance between accuracy (where those theories actually came from) and neatness (how they can be used to complement your work). But I quite like how it turned out. It will need another go at the end, of course.

I have also been working on a journal article and a chapter for a book. I wrote them a fair while back, but have had to deal with the reviewers' comments, a complication which appears mild from a distance. I am trying to work out what I think of the style of reviewers' comments. On the one hand (the bigger, robust hand), I often feel hugely relieved and grateful that someone can take another look at my work and see all those things that you can't see when you're up against the bricks. On the wussbag hand, there are almost always a couple of remarks that I think could be expressed in a more neutral way than they are. These are remarks that suggest to me that the reviewer was trying very hard to be constructive and then, as if burdened by a thankless task, just had to give a quick kick while no one was looking. These kicks are presented in this wonderfully poetic language, comments like, 'This writer seems beguiled by her topic' or 'For someone who is concerned with criticising X, she should have realised that her paper was awash with X'. But they tend to go back to the sorts of encouragement they started out with. This is the sandwich approach to feedback. I am not sure how thick the critical filling can be before the pieces of bread crumble. Going on how academics are socalised, I suspect we writers can stomach a full slab of spam in there so long as there is at least some bread slapped on each end. If I ever have the opportunity, I wonder if I will be able to resist slipping a poetic barb in the spam. After all, it's probably the only way reviewers get to have fun. Hmmm...(and 'Hmmm...' to beating my sandwich metaphor to death).

Speaking of careers, there's a lot of talk about it amongst the DPhilers in their final months or year. I've got to say, the academic hopefuls are dropping off. People aren't getting enough bread, it seems. Every week I seem to hear at least a couple of people define their end goal to be 'public policy'. They will probably do it too, whatever it is. But I sometimes wonder whether Oxford gives you a somewhat unrealistic or inflated sense of your ability and context to contribute to the world once you have left. It also suggests through various ways (like being able to organise charity events so easily here) that you will be able to leap frog to the top of these amazing government and non-government organisations and find love. Maybe it turns out like this. I will have to study where these people go and let you know. I will probably spot one of their faces on a coin one day, while I hand over the last of my change to the supermarket assistant before getting back on my bike to ride to my home on the top of a hill, just in time to watch a dance show. I shouldn't write like this. I don't even really mean it. I warned you that there was a general pissy mood going on. I have to start another chapter tomorrow.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Radio Silence

photos by: Simpologist

photo by: Pdam2

So, I haven't been in blogland for a while. On a few occasions, I have had the urge to write, but then hesitated. I think this is because I am often not sure where on the spectrum of non-fiction to fiction a blog like this one needs to lie. Most of the time, this doesn't matter - I am more than happy to tie together my entries with tripe, but when big things in life happen, it's not as easy. I feel some sense that this blog is an historical record, even if only partially reliable. I guess I am not the most willing or confident tell-all blogger. Plus, I am supposed to be talking about academic issues (whip crack), issues that become less relevant in the daily sense the more immersed you are in your thesis or perhaps they just become so narrow and iterative you can no longer (bear to) see them.

So here's the offload: I have spent the last few weeks dealing with breaking up with my boyfriend and moving out of a shared home. It took almost a week to complete the move, a painful and absurd task which involved dividing books and DVDs, gently bargaining over kitchen goods (with both of us declaring we didn't want any of it), cooking meals together and trying to keep things light and loving. Each day, the blunt reality of a house slowly stacking and emptying would hit us. Then, after my last load of things had been trundled to a friend's house in a clumsy wooden cart, I began the new experience of riding past shared house, empty and still, waiting for new tenants, evidence that the relationship, the sharing a home and more part, had vanished.

I am turning to thesis work, quite gladly in fact. I had been feeling terribly agitated about being behind my schedule, only getting a few hours' work done each day (even if I knew the reasons and understood the need for rest).

This post sounds far more grim than my life actually is. Time helps. The kindness of family and friends helps. Being older (hehe) is a very good thing too. I have also enjoyed some time out of the bubble, cruising through the vast green-brown Oxfordshire countryside to find thet the honey-coloured villages of the Cotswolds. One of these villages, Broadway in Worcestershire, was hosting a hearty fete, which was fronted up by a school jazz band, and supported by icecream carts and tea and cake stalls. I had a conversation with a few English people (one Burton-on-the-Water local, two from Yorkshire) about what they regarded as the decline of English society. They want to reintroduce the death penalty and to see more preventative measures against the increase in single parent families. I tried to feed a speckled white horse an apple, but backed out at the final moment. It had these pale blue eyes that seemed, to me, to be darting every which way. There was no agreement between us. I have never been good at feeding horses.

Anyway, I'd better get cracking with some work. I hope you're well. I will have a happy dawdle around blogland later on to see what's going on...

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Oxford: a tremendous (painfully realistic) comedy drama

A few nights ago, I had dinner with two friends at the Standard Tandoori on Walton Street. It's an institution, cherished for its kitch interiors and warm staff as much as its food. I believe a local petition stopped it being forcibly closed. That's democracy right there. Anyway, one of my friends, an American, is leaving Oxford tomorrow, while the other two of us (a Pom and I) are due to depart in the next few months or so. It was a final hurrah, at least until we arrange our graduation ceremonies on the same day. But that could be a year away, maybe longer.

The American asked us to list all of the loves and hates of Oxford. ('Let's start with HATE', she said.) We came up with a few things:

Hates: smug Rhodes scholars, thick pollution and perennial allergies, narrow range of healthy eating options (we conceded that this has improved during our time here), terrible night clubs, feeling like you're regressing socially - relying on cheap gossip and discussions of national stereotypes to bond with people with whom you do not share a common history.

Loves: being somewhere imbued with the past, riding our bikes around (the breeze on your ears and shoulders), the Isis River, the University Parks, the arrival of the blossom trees, late night conversations in college bars, the opportunity to meet so many people from all around the world, its enchanting gardens and cloisters, the benefits of the bubble (minimal academia-haters, actual or perceived!).

But, I've got to say, the conversation fizzled out pretty quickly and we moved onto the social acceptability of full mouth kissing for casual greetings and the U.S. healthcare debate.

The next day, I considered why that topic deflated and it struck me that Oxford is not a place of huge dissonance. It is not a town that you could proclaim as a love-hate affair. It is for the most part very pleasant. While it is frustrating and stifling, you quickly learn its rhythms. You can't really hate a place that dutifully serves up malaise each of the three terms during weeks 4 and 8. Oxford's lows are as reliable as May Day.

One thing I will miss about England (eventually - I am not leaving any time soon, so I really don't need to embark on this nostalgic holiday) is some of the British television. I love it. I have already banged on about Stephen Fry, Frankie Boyle and other quiz show stars in other posts. Here, I plug their tremendous (painfully realistic) comedy dramas.

Here are some clips of two of my current favourites, Outnumbered and Jam and Jerusalem. The first is about a London family in which the parents are 'outnumbered' by their three cheeky children. It is semi-improvisational, chiefly the childrens' lines. The second (recommended to me by Miranda and her Man) is about a typical English village, focusing on the characters and crises of the local Women's Guild. ('Jerusalem' in the title refers to England's most popular patriotic song).

Jam and Jerusalem teasers on YouTube

Hope you enjoy them. I haven't had much energy for blogging of late. I am positively stressed out, as evidenced by me trying to recall at 3am this morning the characters from Street Fighter II (1991) on Nintendo and connect them to their signature moves and sounds: Sonic Boom!

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Turning to Some Self-Help

There comes a time in every thesis when you simply must turn to some self-help books.

I had resisted for ages - not (solely) out of snobbery, but because they appeared to be time-wasters, excuses for not getting on with the job (said with gruff Aussie accent).

I have relented, first with Authoring a PhD by Patrick Dunleavy, and now with Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker, and, a little off topic, Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity by Hugh MacLeod.

The first book is highly technical and written in a slightly smug, 'You silly little novice' style. But it's a solid attempt at boiling down each of the components of thesis writing. If you're up for having your structure divided into proportions and number of words, this is for you. The second is more emotionally trustworthy - don't let the business speak title throw you! It follows the 'I will first come right down into your steaming mess of a mindset and only then will I help drag you out' approach, one which allows you to feel relaxed about accepting the advice (which is, essentially, how to become addicted to writing and to recognise psychological traps that stop you from finishing). The last is a bunch of swiftly dealt creativity tips from a cartoonist-blogger.

Here are some of the many tips from them (two each) that have stuck with me:

  1. See the literature review as context not conflict - new writers often feel they need to prove that other researchers got it wrong.

  2. Manage the readers' expectations with regular chapter and paragraph length and by watching the conceptual weighting throughout a chapter and then the whole thesis. Well-organized writers signal to readers what a chapter and a thesis will do. They make promises and keep them. You need to give equal weight to each issue if you say you will give equal weight.

  3. When you're stagnating, try writing about what might be troubling you: Are you worried your supervisor might not like it? Are you uncertain if you believe what you've argued? Or is there something in the material itself that disturbs you?

  4. Try to summarize each of your paragraphs in a single sentence - find out whether your paragraph has a central idea or too many ideas. This then serves as a chapter outline.

  5. Don't worry about finding inspiration. It comes eventually. Inspiration precedes the desire to create, not the other way around.

  6. The best way to get approval is not to need it.
Feel free to share any writing or motivational tips that have made things easier for you. Good luck (to me if no one else)!

Friday, 14 August 2009

Some Funny for the Weekend

I saw Bill Bailey, one of my favourite comedians, in Oxford last night. I was starstruck for most of his show - I am so used to seeing him on British TV (or iplayer, to be precise) that it took a fair old while for my wee brain to adjust. He describes himself as part-troll, 1985 Meatloaf lookalike finalist, and juggling multiple personalities: shamer, child, philosopher, rocker, and conspiracy theorist. He's unreal.

One of his gags that just about killed me dealt with his extreme embarrassment about the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. He envisions the following:

An inflated Churchill (with peace sign and cigar) on the Thames accompanied by the song, Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler? and a crew of London hip hop dancers.

Then a huge Yorkshire pudding will appear. The top will unfold and out will jump a bunch of dancers representing gravy and mushy peas.

Then we will see a giant, mechanical bulldog with Tesco [Supermarket] Proud Olympic Sponsor shaved into its scrotum.

The dog will open its mouth and the Queen will roll down its tongue on a Stannah stairlift.

A laser will beam from her crown to light the torch.

Then her head will flip back like a Pez and a corgy will shoot out with Union Jacks coming out its arse.

Comic gold. Hope you have a happy weekend.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Things Brought into My Life....

...which I want to pass on to you.

I have been receiving some incredibly considerate emails lately. Most are simply words of encouragement or quick reality checks, some set forth life lessons, while others are solid attacks on the enemy, as if it were shared. All to get me through the next little bit. I think you need all of these at various points along the way, occasionally all in one day.

I have also been given some lovely things from people who get to see me in real life (the lucky few!). I wanted to pass these on, not least because I have noticed a hefty measure of burnout in blogland at the moment - in both hemispheres. Hoping they will help a little.
This exact mug and Happiness tea were given to me by a friend, Emily. Pretend to warm your hands on it and take a sip. It's a very large mug:

The boyfriend set me up with the best, chunky (organic) vegetable soup to watch a handful of TED talks. (If you're not all over these by now, sort it out!). Here is one we watched given by (pop) philosophy essayist Alain de Botton, on a kinder, gentler philosophy of success. Some twitchy eye moments particularly when he makes his conclusions, but certainly some helpful tools to manage the Sunday (status anxiety) blues. (The comments are also worth a browse).

We also watched some oldies. Probably the most thought-provoking of this oldies lot (and certainly the most kooky) was Amy Tan's talk, Creativity:

And, finally, The Journey, a poem by Mary Oliver (not easy to find without a photograph of a sunset or waterfall), sent to me by a friend whose pretty name is so distinctive that I can't name her here:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Thanks to my supporters and as the Brits say: Chin up, tigers!

The Quick Brown Fox...

Last night, I was so angry at my thesis that I wanted to snap my DVDs from my pretty excellent collection. I didn't, but, somewhat disturbingly, it crossed my mind as a helpful option. They were the first things I spotted that were (a) fairly precious to me and (b) capable of being hurled about the room. The urge reminded me of a friend who told me that, as a child, he smashed his trophies in a tantrum and then realised for the first time that he was the one who would have to glue them back together. It's brutal. My (informal) mentor said that empirical data outfox us all from time to time. Mine are reclining in a spa bath on a three-storey appartment overlooking the ocean, sucking fat cigars, barely looking down at me on the street below.

I feel far less aggravated this morning, and less alone in it after receiving an email from a good friend and fellow PhD sucker that included this by chance:

I feel quite strong these days but I'm just a bit fed up, tired and yet still terrified of not getting it finished in time. An interesting mixture of exhaustion and panic-stricken hysteria amidst a more general attitude of stoic pragmatism. It's an interesting emotional storm!

How well-expressed! But, like her, I feel bad about whingey rants so I will stop here. I am off to start a brawl with the fox.

(I intentionally included a picture of paper fox to remind myself who's boss.)

Thursday, 30 July 2009

What's That Over There?

I have noticed that my recent posts have been distinctly non-academic, at least in the direct sense. I am in heavy thesis mode at the moment, thrashing out the very last of my empirical chapters. I will then turn my efforts to rewriting the history and context chapter, and then, only naturally, rewrite the introduction and conclusion as if I knew exactly what I was saying all along. Nothing to see here, really. I ride to my Department most days and sit in an open plan workspace. Otherwise, I walk a few hundred metres to my College library or else, I stay home (in College). It all depends on the type of thinking I need to do and whether I am in a focused or excitable mood.

Each day and all day, I receive emails about upcoming seminars and conferences, job opportunities, IT maintenance, washing up (drying and putting away) coffee mugs. I struggle with the habit of writing a good few sentences or paragraphs and then - instead of stretching (I have a clicky sternum from cowering over the keyboard), doing my eye exercises (it's all about varying that focal length!) or simply ploughing on - finding someone or something on the Internet to make me feel connected to something other than my new ideas or old ideas in tidy sentences and arguments. I am often confronted with Facebook status updates of fellow academic friends gloating about internships, accolades or some garden party or other. I get lost in the anxiety and find myself frantically clicking on a total stranger's Greek Island holiday. Each time I do this, something (probably sharpening my focus and seeing the strange couple in their swimwear) kicks in to make me stop and return to my work, vowing never to go back to Facebook during work hours.

Nonetheless, if I get up and walk to the Department kitchen for a drink, I then have to absorb the complaints of various students about how long a PhD takes, how the time required for academic tasks is almost impossible to predict, how ill-disciplined and/or inadequate they feel, how someone else in the Department published an article or received some research work from a Professor. The next day, sometimes the next hour, the same people offer speeches on how fortunate (and horribly selfish and without perspective) we all are. We vow to be more grateful. Often I hear myself jumping on these conversational trains or even, I admit, spearheading a theme. But, these days, I am actually quite bored of these types of conversations. I have little energy for anything that won't help me across that finish line. This aloofness is uncharacteristic. Sitting and typing is the way forward. I am writing a lot. This means my downtime, even at the Department kitchen, has to count as downtime.

By the end of the day, after I go for a walk or to the gym, feed myself, check my emails again, read, watch some BBC iplayer, read again, the last thing I feel like doing is writing an involved blog post about my day, the unremarkable bullheadedness that is academia for me right now. I trust or at least sincerely hope that once I am done with the thesis I will have whole spaces in my daily routine and brain to dedicate to more thoughtful, dynamic posts about the politics, vagaries and practicalities of academia. And I plan to get a whole lot more whingey too, possibly in that ultra dramatic, filthy tempered way that is quite the hip approach in blogland. Maybe not. I suspect having some sort of job security (there are degrees, I am aware) will lead to a blog reblossoming of sorts. I hope so.

So instead of battling on, trying to provide spiffy, insightful posts about academia, I will instead refer you to some far more keen, reflective and/or witty posts about the subject. I am hoping it will serve a 'Look over there!' and a counterweight function until I finish my thesis. Here we go. Some inspiration:
  1. Academic Cog (2007) Dissertators, Has This Ever Happened to You
  2. Academic Cog (2009) Lessons for Girls: Don't Just Ask Insist on Help (even if it makes you feel weird)
  3. Dr. Crazy (2009) One of My Best Qualities: Ability to Meet (Ish) Deadlines
  4. Dr. Crazy (2009) How to Succeed in Academia Without Really Trying?
  5. Dr. No (2009) Getting Naked
  6. Dr. No (2009) I Got Nothing
  7. Inktopia (2009) And then my Grading Pen Exploded
  8. Inktopia (2008) You Might be an English Professor If...
  9. Historiann (2009) What is Good Teaching, and How Can We Know It?
  10. Historiann (2009) Teaching and Tenure: What counts (and what's good?)
  11. Candid Engineer (2009) Irritation Yields Clarity
  12. Bavardess (2009) Career Angst and the Scholarly Life
  13. John Flood (2009) What is Your Research Worth?

Ok. That actually took a lot longer than planned. I intended to include around thirty as there's some excellent stuff out there. Need to stop now. Too fiddly. But if you have any favourite academia-relevant posts to share (your own or others), please do send them to me in a comment to this post. Thanks team!

p.s. Just in case there's any confusion, you're still expected to stay loyal and check my blog a few times per week. I'll still be nattering away.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Yes, It was Age-Appropriate

Here are some snappy snaps of my birthday weekend, a happy weekend that included girls' cocktails and dinner on Little Clarendon Street, a play (Tom Stoppard's Arcadia) and a picnic in St James' Park in London, and a high tea for 22 people (men and women) courtesy of the boyfriend at the Old Parsonage here in Oxford.

I managed to rake in several good books, a pretty dress, some booze, a poem, and gift vouchers for a massage and an 'experience' in London. The flowers were from some of the ladies back in Sydney. Most of the cards I received were purchased from museums. Yes, things have changed.

But then again I did close celebrations by watching (and enjoying) The Hangover followed by two episodes of The Wire, I still wore Converse to the Department the next day, and I did elect to have a dinner party for my sixteenth so probably just more of the same....although the birthday cards were definitely pegged at the 30+ market. That we can be sure of.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Can You Guess What Day it is Today?

Thanks for all your emails, messages and words of encouragement, real life and blogland pals. I feel like my hand was held a little to get to today, and this morning I feel great - cheerful, relaxed, and ready to head to my Department with my Birthday badge on (in my going out get-up, minus heels). Lots on this weekend. Will take some pretty pics to share.

Was going to kick this post off with photos of grotesque cosmetic surgery or suggest that my life was over with this little ripper, but am going for positivity for now.

[in whisper] It's just past 1pm my time. Still nothing crazy has happened to me or to anything around me. I am at my Department, happily editing a chapter and I am still wearing my frilly birthday badge. I am praying this turning 30 calmness thing spills over until submission. That would be pretty sweet. My father has informed me via email that my adolescence is now officially over. Tell that to the rest of Oxford and the academic profession, Dad! He's been really sweet about my birthday, actually. Apparently, flowers have been sent to me. In typical Oxford fashion (sometimes the paternalism is lovely), one of the porters at my College just rang the administrator here to let me know. More later. (I do know that people are dying from preventable diseases and starving and being politically repressed, and this is ridiculously self-regarding and trite, but I am 30 now so no shame.)

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Perils of Marrying a Student

On Skype (with camera) last night.

Sister-in-Law: Go and get my new BMW.

My brother shakes his head, ducks off and then comes back holding a large, rather stylish shopping trolley.

Brother: It's for grannies.

Sister-in-Law: When I bought this, your brother immediately asked how much it was. I said, 'Some women ask for a BMW and actually get one. It's my BMW.'

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Festival Gear, British Style

My boyfriend took me to a music festival, the Cornbury Festival, pretty Oxfordshire, last Saturday. It was my second time and it was super. The highlights: The Magic Numbers, the lamb, mint and potato homemade pie, and having a pretty good go at a harnessed trampoline (to aid somersaults) activity with a bunch of five year olds. It was not the same festival as the one where the above pics were taken (Wireless Festival, Hyde Park), but a variation on the same themes I am sure: music, booze, food stalls, rides, tie-dye rubbish and cheap trinket stalls, fairy outfitters etc. (One could argue, though, that Cornbury has some of the best food of any festival.)

The ladies' festival fashion wasn't far off these pics: beaucoup de check shirts, old and faux-old (Batman, scouts, Atari) t-shirts as dresses (sometimes with shorts), floral dresses (maxis are huge - haha!), charm necklaces, mixture of chunky and scrawny bracelets, leather sandals, trendy wellies, aviators, and just entered my teens hair, all tied together by a cup of Pimms or a bottle of beer and some fairy wings or glittery fake eyelashes (the posh rurals probably get into the fantasy accessories a little more heartily than the London coolies). Of course, in an instant, British festivalgoers, no matter how trendy, can transform en masse into an army of garden gnomes in dark green or black hooded, full body raincoats. I know. I saw it. It's weird.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Careers Advice

Now that you're finishing your time here at Oxford, you can either head off to Cambridge for some further studies, The Hague or Geneva to work for an international court or organisation, and then there's the States for a postdoc or policy work. Otherwise you might like to quickly get yourself to Africa or India to join or start up an NGO. Yes, that's pretty much it. Take a leaflet before you go.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Worth Worrying About?

It's my birthday soon and I am wondering whether and to what extent I should be worried about it. I am generally quite low key about birthdays. Perhaps this comes from being a twin. I have never seen it as my own, as a day just about me. Without want to invoke too much pity, add being a middle child and having (wonderful, kind but/and) unfussy, undemonstrative, cerebral parents to the birthday conditions I was working with. To be fair, there was a presents-in-bed-before-school ritual in my family until we were around ten. For the next decade or until we moved out, birthdays were essentially about being able to choose the brand of take-away for dinner (even on a week night!), take-away being a real treat for us kiddies. But I always had to share this decision. Plus, I knew the greasy feast was going to be shared with a bunch of other hungry attention-seekers, who would rip those chicken wings apart well before any formal acknowledgement of a birthday.

But this year's birthday heralds the start of a new decade for me - can you guess which? - and coincides with the final months (or so) of my thesis, and uncertainty about how exactly I will kick-start my academic career next year and where then I will be living. If I wanted to, if I really wanted to amp up the anxiety levels, I could also make this birthday a deadline of sorts for deciding whether I will ever use my womb and if so when (and why? Is 'why?' relevant?).

I am consciously watching myself come up with these thoughts to see whether they trigger anything within me. I feel like a child with a bug catcher rather than an aeroplane passenger floundering in the sea. But, I could send myself in a minor spin about them if I wanted to. I am wondering whether I should or not. The possibilities for a bit of internal mayhem were opened up further by a viewing of 'A Street Car Named Desire' (1951) on DVD on Sunday night.

Have you seen that movie? It is one angry, intense, brilliant movie. It had been on my 'To Watch' list for ages, but I had no idea it was going to be quite so forceful. Amongst and overlapping with the dominant themes of gender, violence, clashing cultures, illusion and reality (and mental health), one aspect of Blanche DuBois' character (pictured above) resonated with me: her fear of ageing and her desire to be elevated from mortality through, for her, aesthetics, chivalry, poetic language, beautiful artefacts and role-playing. Reading up on Vivien Leigh after the film (the actress who played Blanche, and also Scarlett O'Hara) did not provide any relief. Sadly, she suffered from bipolar disorder and recurring TB (which led to her death at a fairly young age) and seems to have been, like Blanche, haunted by her earthly vanity and impermanence.

Unless hiding away, doing a thesis in Oxford 'the bubble' England counts (?), I am no Blanche. But that small, concentrated part of Blanche, her temporality and her awareness of her temporality, struck me.

What does all this mean? Is this upcoming birthday actually affecting me? Does it mean I am finally old? Should I be worried about the fact that I may be in fact deeply worried? Or does it simply mean that I am a typical, melodramatic DPhil student? Should I bother obsessing about the onset of this new decade and take stock of my life in a chest-grabbing way or should I just get on with my thesis for now and spend the day having a nice time with friends over some good food, pretty drinks and dancing as planned?

I initially intended to mold this birthday musing into a light-hearted post, where you guys could then feel encouraged to giving me humorous tips for things I should do before or after I enter this new decade or cute ways of thinking about DEATH. So if you can somehow twist this post around so you can do this, please do so. I wouldn't even mind a bit of old-school, no-nonsense shaming. If not, hardcore Hamlet-holding-Yorick's-skull-style responses welcome. Thank you and have a good day.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Sunny Days = Inane Posts

It's very sunny. I have been busy this week, working at my Department instead of at home, preparing and giving a lecture to a bunch of American Political Science students down in London (absolutely loved it, good for the morale), listening to English students complain about the muggy weather, spending evenings drinking wine or Pimms on the grass, being very bright and attentive (lots of expressions etc.). But I always pay up for these things. I am not someone who can do a tonne of things with a load of people on little sleep. I guess everyone around me pays up too eventually.

I have successfully self-soothed today, having set myself up perfectly on the floor on top of my white duvet and a load of white pillows and cushions in front of Wimbeldon on the laptop. I have a carton of juice and some chocolate at hand. A cool wind is gently coming in through the large, sliding window and, if I reach my head up, I can watch people pass on their punts. There is a lot of chatter and laughter outside, but I have had my fix of Summer fun and people this week and I am content to be alone. I just spotted Ink's call to rip up our To Do List for one day. I have some work sitting near my chocolate, but it's probably simply there for extra comfort, like a soft toy. Not sure if I will roll on to a 4 July BBQ tonight. Not quite sure what I could offer to that. I guess I will go unless I feel like it is an obligation and therefore not in the spirit of my accomplishment-free day.

To beef up this inane post (there is still a pretty terrible situation going on in Iran, btw), I have provided some U.S. material for your entertainment and interest:

Fear and the Fourth of July by Frankie Martin: Noam Chomsky says that from its very founding, the US has been shaped not by a pluralistic ideal, but by fear of the other.

Barack Obama: First Nerd parts one and two: Terrifically funny speech given by comedian John Hodgman to President Obama at the Radio & Television Correspondents' Dinner.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Magdalen College Ball 2009

These are some photographs of the Magdalen College ball I attended on Friday night, courtesy of Brett Tully.

You'll have to just believe me that there was a harpist playing at the champagne reception, where the 1800 (or so) guests first assembled.

At the back of the College is a deer park with benign trees and soft grass scattered with pieces of tree and ivy, reminiscent of an Enid Blyton story. The deers had been replaced for the evening by dodgem (bumper) cars and a big top circus. There were also white food stalls (lamb and cous cous, roast pork and apple sauce rolls, Indian curry, doughnuts with cinnamon and chocolate sauce and an ice cream stand). Young couples sipped their drinks in between the buttress roots. Many of the women (or at least the ones I noticed) were wearing quasi-regency, quasi-Greco-Roman dresses, with empire lines, fine detailing, multiple layers, in white, pale golds and creams, their hair long and flowing and barely pinned back. The men were in white tie.

Then, just in front of the park, the New Building lawn housed a more modern scene: igloo-style cocktail and oyster bars, chocolate fountains, and a large orchestra (which went on to accompany the fireworks that erupted once the pink sky turned dark grey).

In obscured corners of the College buildings, there were massage parlours, hairdressers, old-fashioned performers and large vases of orchids.

When I sauntered through to the Cloisters for the first time that evening, I found myself suddenly caught up in an eerie, purple light and the honey-coloured stone. Then, through the medieval tipped windows, I caught the first glimpses of the most heavenly scene and I squealed, 'Eeeee'. From a poll in the middle of the quadrangle, strings of fairy lights gently reached each corner. Once it was dark, the Cloisters seemed more Hollywood glamour than celestial. The dance floor was a checkerboard, the singer was suitably husky, and there was a whiskey and champagne bar and an olives and cheeses tent at two of the corners.

In large marquee in a parallel quadrangle, a load of English bands rocked it from 9pm, including The Epstein, The Feeder and The Pipettes. (The last were like The Wiggles for adults, but in the 1960s. I was hooked.) Then, from around 3am, the survivors happily exchanged sweat and shapes at the silent disco as the sun quietly rose.

Yes, it was ridiculous in hindsight, and even during it, there were a few people getting a little intoxicated on their own splendour. But, it was essentially playful and truly beautiful, and, given the scale, the sort of thing I will probably only experience once.

Having quickly read my description though, it's clear that my tone is far more formal, possibly even reverent, and far less humourous than it is by nature. (That third photo is asking for something, whereas I just left it there.) Maybe the whole thing's gotten to me. That's it. The old me is finished. Lavish only from now on. LAVISH!

Friday, 26 June 2009

RIP Michael Jackson

I have woken up to the confirmed news that the King of Pop is dead. I spotted a Facebook status update just before bed that read 'RIP Michael Jackson music genius' and quickly clicked on a newspaper website on my toolbar. I felt a couple of seconds of tense hope, the same as when I had heard Heath Ledger and Steve Irwin had died but had not yet read about it. Alas, it had yet to be confirmed, but it wasn't looking good and now it's no good at all. There's something shoddy and disconcerting about hearing of someone's death over the Internet, even compared to say radio or TV news or in the newspaper, as was the case, for me, with the deaths of Freddie Mercury, Princess Diana, Kurt Cobain and Michael Hutchence. I don't like it.

I feel sad for Jacko's family and loved ones - death is banal - and a little regretful that he didn't have his massive come-back. That said, I have to say that I did lose the thread with him somewhat. He was such a huge part of my childhood lounge room dance competitions and adolescent parties and conversations, but as an 'adult', coinciding with his increasingly evident mental and physical sickness, I have felt more vague frustration, confusion and pity towards him, than any active loyalty. Kate found this more recent video, which reminded me once more of MJ's awesome talent and brilliance. I am sure I will get the tunes out this weekend and feel more and more grateful towards him. It's hard for me to feel that while reading online articles. Maybe that's just me.

Anyway (mind quickly moves to other things), it's raining outside. I have to finish off some work today (I am nearly there!), before a weekend of squishing thesis work around a College ball, garden party and pancake breakfast. Obnoxious. Most Oxford students I know get far more work done out of term time than in. Term officially ended last week, but there's always frivolity week after term ends (and another the week before it resumes). Not my fault. Oxford traditions. I hope you have a lovely weekend, including some time to bust out an MJ classic.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Writing Muppetry

photo by: Yogma

I have spent the past couple of days blindly creating and destroying lead-in material for an article. I set up the problem and background, and then slowly find myself in the thick of the main body. I then review the lead-in material and find I can cut it out or at least pair it down. Next I construct some more of the body, then realise that this is not really the body, but actually perfect lead-in material for a more interesting set of arguments so I then cut some of the earlier lead-in down and write more. The result is that the more I write, the more lead-in material crumbles away as if it can't keep up with the meaty bits. I realise this is, in part, inevitable and even very healthy or it may simply be the product of a devastatingly weak outline, but, in any case, it feels idiotic.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Calling on All Academics

Fellow academics and friends, I need your help.

Late last week, I was out at dinner when someone, who shall only be known as 'businessman', asked me the question I have been asked since the first few months of starting my thesis, 'What are you going to do next?' I tried to explain my academic plans, pointing out that it was hard for me to be as concrete as I would like because I am not entirely sure myself and that, given the nature of the work, the next years may well be spent in different positions and at different universities, but that all depended on whether I wanted to focus on teaching or research. I also tried to make it light-hearted, saying with as warm a smile as I could muster: 'You will definitely be one of the first people who knows all this when I know.'

But the conversation became very tense. Businessman made these sorts of comments (acccompanied by irritated facial expressions): 'If I were you, I would just change careers'; 'Academics have to spend so long applying for jobs when you are already so qualified, and then you have to beg for research grants and write articles for free'; 'I am used to people being paid well for what they do'; and 'I say all this because I am just wondering how you are going to pay for food and a roof over your head.' There were many other little chestnuts, which I am sure you can substitute with your own versions.

Unfortunately, at the time, I was already feeling bothered by the stupidly-generous supply of chilli in my pasta, heavy red wine, and the muggy, overcrowded Italian restaurant. I had also felt my day's takings (or word count) had been pretty lame. In short, I had taken a small amount of emotional baggage to dinner (just carry-on, nothing too fancy). Hot cheeked and troubled, a much as I wanted to, this all meant I simply couldn't articulate a grand defence of the academic enterprise.

Plus, so many themes filled my mind at once: the nature and role of a liberal education; the joys, and, indeed, necessities of intellectual freedom; the connection between thought and action in human history; the teaching and research functions of a university - universities teach doctors and support scientists (if not medieval history, then surely the health argument would work!); academics and businesspeople are driven by different motivations and interests, but both tend to value autonomy and solving problems; the prevalence of scientific, policy-based research at universities etc; universities and the private sector work more and more in partnerships anyway - the distinction was no longer as rigid (not without some negative consequences); universities have had a vocational function longer than a liberal education one.

There was just so much going on at once, including a great need to burp. These were points serve slightly different arguments and use various units of analysis and I didn't know where to begin. Some of the arguments felt hackneyed, others too intensely passionate with a basket of garlic bread in between us. On top of this, I didn't really know whether I should start saying anything to someone who never enjoyed school in the same way I have. Then I was worried I was going to be unfair, to take some of my frustrations and uncertainties about my thesis and future out on him in some twisted adaptation of the Stockholm syndrome. I was also aware that I might say something spectacularly snarky and sound like one of those obnoxious 10 year old whizz kids who shut down adults by pointing out how narrow their vocabularies are compared to theirs. I hate little kids like that. I want to remind them that they are still scared of the dark. I didn't want to leave and realise that rather than have a conversation, I had just been a little snob and, more than likely, somewhat insincere since, as much as I enjoy and appreciate what I do, I don't feel completely starry-eyed about the academic life (almost...but not quite!). I think I blurted (or burped) out something about how terribly stunted and boring the world would be if everyone wanted to be a businessperson. But I still didn't actually say much about academia itself.

To be fair to myself, it's also incredibly difficult to find the space to make careful arguments with someone who is scowling at you like you're a wastrel, and it's not always impressive, let alone useful, to rely on academic debates (such as the liberal versus vocational versus overlap debate) to someone who doesn't care for them. When someone tells you, essentially, that what you do is nonsensical, rather than cheerfully helping them understand it, it's actually very hard not to start acting like a childish patriot: all emotion, all defensiveness, all indignation. I think I sounded (or at least felt) a bit like one of those painfully dull people in the queue who you overhear telling someone how their home country is better than another.

When I made it home, I turned to my oracle, the magical interweb, to see what had been written about this and whether I could pull out something to send him. I have already read a lot on 'What is a University?' for a course I did, but this literature is written for an academic audience and will not do. I searched everything from 'What is the value or academics'/'academia', 'In defence of academia', 'Academia's role in society' to 'Why business people hate academics' and various combinations. But I have yet to find anything suitable. The closest thing I have found is a list of advantages and disadvantages of an academic career. Some of the items of this list are useful: rewarding and meaningful work, flexibility, being able to write, working with and meeting interesting people etc., but I am still not sure how to explain these things to someone who may not see these things as inherently true, let alone valuable and, of course, there are a whole lot of other things that have to be accounted for: time delays, increasing managerialism, prevalence of 'nutjobs' (as they are called in the lists above) and the prospect of slaving over an article that then has a mere 24 month shelf life. Morever, some of these are more about being an academic, rather than the broader value of academia.

I imagine because I am from a family where going to university was a taken for granted assumption and where the value of academia is tacit, I haven't ever had to master the answer to the question of why I value academia from someone who regards the endeavour as pointless or at least inefficient, indulgent and possibly a little intimidating. Plus, I am not sure how to account for the fact that I rely on the products of non-academic entrepreneurialism (presuming it can ever be fully separated) all the time. How much integrity do I need to make the arguments for academia? Also, do I need to take the high moral ground? Is academia going the same way as other professions where we simply shoo away tricky questions like these with the answer: 'It's just a job like anything else'? Whoops. I digress. These questions relate to bigger issues. For now, please let me know how you would respond to a routine encounter with businessman or any outsider for that matter being aggressively critical about what academics are and what they do.

The rules are:
  1. You have no more than 2 minutes time before outsider will change the subject or wave you off.
  2. You can't say something too harsh or arrogant as it will affect other relationships and make you feel bad.
  3. You have to see outsider again.
  4. Internal, esoteric arguments are more or less meaningless to outsider.
  5. Outsider's criticisms are not especially well-constructed and may move and remould elsewhere as you proceed. Outsider does not argue in the same way you do.
  6. You have tried humour or simply ignoring these comments many times before and would prefer a different approach (but would be willing to try it again if the only option, just need more material or motivation).
Also, if you have any come across or written any pieces of writing on this, please do send me the links.

Thank you and good night.