Thursday, 26 February 2009

On Being a Twin

photo by shashchatter

A friend, make that a great friend, asked me to describe what it's like to be a twin. I wish I had more time and energy to write a proper, coherent story about it, but as it is, with 30 000 words due by the end of the weekend, I can only manage stream of consciousness-style snippets.

I am a fraternal twin, which is very different to being an identical twin, but not as different as you may think. We're both female.

I see being a twin as entering a marriage in the womb. It's intense, with all these feelings of joy, security, investment and trust in the other. But seeing as it's a marriage that starts when you're a bunch of cells, you don't have all the skills and presence of mind you need to manage this relationship in a healthy way throughout all the different phases of life, to let the other person grow, be loved by other people, to allow their needs to change. It requires a constant building and rebuilding to work.

When you are young as a twin, you don't know what it is like to have your own time, and when you do have it, say on a humid Saturday afternoon, it feels like an act of defiance or betrayal (either yours or your twin's).

I always felt bitterly insulted when cousins and friends only invited one of us to play, which was usually her because she was less likely to be bitter about anything as a child. I remember I made a rule to myself at a school friend's birthday party once (I'd say I was 7 or 8) that if the two older sisters were nicer to my twin than to me, then I would have to take some action. I was sick of being the one who introduced us both at the door, but got no recognition for it. As I had predicted, they picked her up and tickled her. She laughed more freely than me and had lighter hair and a lighter presence. I felt completely justified in taking a take-home lolly (sweet/candy) bag up to my friend's room and eating them on her bed. It wasn't comfort eating (I am less likely to eat when stressed), it was the world's punishment.

I remember my childhood as connected to my twin, brimming with this simple affection of ours. We sang songs to ease the other to sleep, stuck to our agreements about who would turn off the light each night, gave each other back rubs, washed each other's hair in the bath, walked to the shops and the park together, organised our clothes, role played with our antique doll collection (instead of Barbies because new toys in our house tended to be more "male", like Transformers, Lego, Star Wars figurines and The Castle of Greyskull), we made up dances and plays. We liked to keep things equal between us, which meant we would make sure any gifts, lollies or food - any external goods really - were allocated evenly between us. We had a little commune situation going on.

My twin was a prodigious gymnast and athlete, and made friends very easily because she was so warm and theatrical. Whenever she had public successes of any sort, I would feel immensely proud and even possessive in the way I imagine a parent feels. But it's different when you're in a little body that is bursing with exultation. It's quite overwhelming. Later on, I would sometimes feel regretful that I could not show this pride to her as easily as I did when I was younger. I felt like someone who had been abandoned, the forgotten parent who knows they will only get acknowledged at the end of the movie when the hero says that they were in their heart all along.

A perfect day was usually at the beach during the Summer holidays when I organised where we would put our towels and she would encourage me to swim further out towards the surfers.

We made each other laugh a lot. Sometimes just a facial expression or a hinted gesture would be enough. That's all it takes when you know someone.

If things were momentarily distant, then an easy way to bridge the gap would be to tell the other person about some routine injustice or unpleasant incident at school or at home, which would be followed by ritualised comfort and support from the other. Sometimes this would amplify into formal pledges to stick up for each other against anyone and anything. Often my twin would cry if I was crying about something. It made me feel so safe to have one person who I knew was on my side and who understood my position in the world.

This promise to defend one another was most often implied. A twin is always very careful not to outright disagree with the other. We learn (the hard way) to suggest the things the other may not like to hear, just as you need to do in a romantic relationship. But ultimately we know early on that we have to make our twin aware that we're on their team regardless of how irrational or sentimental we think they are being. I have noticed this in many twins. If you breach this secret code, it is the most tragic, awful, crushing thing. It's a form of treachery. That doesn't change, from times when you join in schoolyard teasing of your twin or choose a team of any sort that isn't the same as theirs, to shaming or rejecting them in front of your high school friends, to siding with siblings in adult confrontations, the list goes on. These things don't change.

Twins hurt one another in a way that no one else can. This means that they can also soothe and love one another in a way that no one else can. It's an intense affair.

photo by il0vePullip

Growing up, my twin was involved in all sorts of accidents, medical emergencies and physical injuries. I still remember all these things so definitely: a near drowning at three while I stood paralysed by the pool and watched her red, panicky, crying face bob in and out of the water, on a skiing holiday having to let go of her 8 year old hands to let her fall off the rising chairlift that hadn't scooped her up properly, around the same time hearing her plummet into an orchestra pit at a ballet rehearsal and me laughing in the wings because I was so full of adrenaline. She chipped her head twice, and was severerly allergic to bees and various bushes.

When you are a twin, you watch suffering and illness from a vantage point that you wouldn't as a single child even with siblings, especially when you share a room (as we did until we were 15!). I never got used to hearing my sister start to cough in the night because she was choking on a nose bleed. You hear the other person have restless or tearful nights.

I developed a sense of super-responsibility for my twin, something I came to resent later on, in my early teens because I was far more interested in creating the right impressions in front of my friends. I struggled with it again in my early twenties as we both sought to separate from the family, and particularly the twinship bond that seemed so heavy.

My twin is very generous. From an early age, she would often tell me that she would have a child for me if I could not bear my own. I used to tell people that she had made this promise. My twin said something to me a decade ago that checks my behaviour to this day. She said that being stressed and tired is not a valid excuse for repeated unkindness.

I think my twin and I developed as a perfect human but in two separate bodies. If you put us together we would be one of the most intelligent, compassionate, athletic, talented, creative, courageous, humourous and socially capable people going around. I am not saying we only got half these things each or that there is a clean demarcation of traits (we are still full humans, not to mention siblings in a wider community of people!). But it would be true, I think, to say that we fostered certain aspects of our personality in response to the other. If we thought that the other twin was probably going to be more successful in a certain area or find a certain personality trait or skill a little easier to ripen, we'd more or less hand it over. This was in part out of generosity, and in part out of competitiveness.

This growing against each other was a result of both nature and nurture. Looking back now, I would say more nurture than nature. Outsiders (even if well-meaning), particularly family members, tend to categorise twins; to put limits on the identities of the two people involved. This can be done in small, but significant acts, like asking a twin who is better/smarter/sportier/prettier/taller/skinnier/more popular etc. It can also be done in big ways with labels, entrenched expectations, and favouritism. It was hard as a young person to resist all these divisions and we started to define ourselves against each other and even take some pride in those concepts. Then we began to hate the concepts.

We both tend to become anxious if we spent too much time on our own, and like to reach consensus and understanding with people. We're used to having a partner in crime, someone to share life with. We both find it difficult to let go of relationships of any sort even when they may not be good for us.

Someone in Oxford recently said that I don't seem like a twin. But I know I have the mindset of a twin - the well-being of my twin has always affected my own even while I have been so far away from her. If she is not 100% healthy and happy, I am not. No matter how positive my own material and emotional circumstances, if she is not at peace, I am not. I identify with the life of my twin in a way that is distinctly different to the ways in which the rest of my family's lives impact on my self-concepts and behaviour.

You always give a twin another chance, which is something that is abused over and over, but also something that allows you to be truly tender and gives you a quiet sense of freedom from everything else.

photo by +fatman+

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Six things

photo by niznoz

Was just transmitted a meme by Inktopia. Am now compelled to create a list of six things that make me happy. If you're reading, you're now a host too.

  1. Lady parties - the ones where the group hormones are aligned, and there's intellectual, sincere and (at its best) playful conversation between women

  2. Witty, affectionate banter with just about anyone, strangers will do

  3. Middle Eastern (Belly) Dance classes with the zany menopausal lot

  4. "Cracking the Code" or finally working out how to structure academic material that had up til then been right hooking me in the jaw

  5. Reading, walking or picnicking in the park, with my man, friends, the birds, flower and grass smells, distant chatter and squeals, the breeze - the classic combo deal

  6. Come to think of it, I'd trade in 5 to explore somewhere vast, dramatic and preferably watery any day

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

A Little Biscuit for Being so Good

click images to zoom in

I have finally had a major breakthrough with my thesis. Up to this point, I was a slave to both my data (allowing it to live in a cave in the mountains) and the pre-existing literature (worrying about the significance of every finding). I have finally written up the terms of their arranged marriage and they are to be wed in the next week. They will just have to learn to live together.

To celebrate, I have reproduced (with permission) a selection of delicious pics from She's Jack, a prodigious (high school!) photographer. Some of the images are clearly depictions of adolescence, but they do represent aspects of how I am feeling right now and the imaginations and silliness that are keeping me going.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Things to Do This Weekend

  1. Clarify the functional and analytical differences between chapters 5, 6 and 7. Maybe chapters 6 and 7 will have to be merged.
  2. Continue on chapter 7.
  3. Email abstract of book chapter to editors in Australia.
  4. Come up with a catchy name for my conference paper/presentation and email to organiser.
  5. Watch at least three episodes of The Wire.
  6. Avoid any College bops, specifically those two you've been invited to and therefore feel twitchy about. There are always more and you're not getting much enjoyment from them anyway.
  7. Avoid large crowds of all sorts as you know you will end up feeling exhausted from excessive and theatrical story-telling.
  8. Avoid email - there are no crises taking place or at least none that requires your input.
  9. Do the washing-up that you've pretended was not real this whole week. This activity is applicable to you.
  10. Go for a long walk in the most dramatic landscape you can find in Oxfordshire.

photo by: mariecoppia

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Woes of the Heart

photo by: .sw_in_shift

Two of my (30+) Aussie friends face the same woes of the heart - how to deal with residual romantic feelings for someone other than their current partners - and have asked me for some counsel. I don't really know what to advise. I suspect that most people experience this kind of chaos over the course of life, probably repeatedly, and it's just another thing that's kept from us as youngsters. This secrecy means that when we, as young adults, come to face these challenges we feel guilty and alone, which, amongst many other things, then serves to endow our illegal love object with an unhelpful aura of enhanced meaning.

I can already sense comments (either written or mental) along the lines of "true, adult love is about working hard at it and not being selfish." Yeah, well, they're kinda valid comments, thank you, but, in these cases, and I probably didn't make this clear enough, we're not just talking about that cheap sizzle of newness, but also crucially important variables: being a little older than twenty and therefore more certain of your relationship needs (but conversely more fearful of giving the new relationship roulette wheel another spin).

So (and this is stream of consciousness advice, competely unplugged, so I hope you are still onboard: toot-toot!), I think it really boils down to whether your absolute needs are being met in your current relationship. I think you have to have an honest look at your relationship as it stands, why you are with the person (fear of being alone should not be a top answer!), and whether you are compatible. I spotted this site called Relationship Gym a while back when I was supporting a friend going through a break-up. You should have a look at it. It's all about identifying the person you want to be with by examing your respective needs, values and goals. I imagine the guy who runs the site as Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise's character in Magnolia), but that says more about me because actually he seems very good at his job (his approach has an in-built bias towards the current relationship) and he not a hater of women. And no, I would definitely not tell illegal love object. That would just cause a lot of trouble for a lot of people, most especially for you. If you're going to leave your current relationship, you have to be able to do it without the safety net (which will end up being a sticky web) of a new relationship.

Finally though, I am not 100% resolved on the whole issue of "you've made a commitment (of some sort) when you were a teenager/young adult and therefore should grin and bear it until you die." Even knowing what I know about human history, I feel obliged to suggest (flippantly) that these challenges are a particular function of the capricious, diposable world we leave it etc, etc, but I don't believe that. Plus, I am not sure whether worthwhile ideals like not being entitled, reckless and wasteful mean that you have to stick at something that is in constant tension with your needs (presuming your needs aren't fanciful) especially when children are not involved.

What would you advise?

* * *

Meanwhile, over the past week, four of my guy friends (all post-grads) have asked me for reassurance that they're not "idiots", that they're capable of scholarly writing at this level, and that they did not peak too early in their academic careers...Sound familiar? Goes to show that, contrary to some findings in the academic literature, women are not necessarily more likely to vocalise the emotional consequences of their work. I have boy-men revealing all sorts of insecurities and crises about their academic lives to me. Admittedly their purges tend to be shorter than those of my lady friends (who also tend to be repeat clients). Maybe we need some more female researchers asking men about their emotional labour and its effects.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Bushfires in Australia

I should be in bed, but I can't help reading about the tragic, horrific bushfires in Victoria, Australia. They're the worst bushfires in Australia's history and it's chilling to know that at least some of the fires were deliberately lit or re-lit.

I feel so far away, although it is being heavily (and sincerely) covered here in the UK.

You can donate money via the Australian Red Cross, or I just spotted that Kate, of Love You Big, has decided to donate all proceeds from sales at her etsy store next Wed 18 and Thurs 19 February to the Red Cross. Check it out.

Dummy Mummy

Photo by: Redo

One of my friends, KT, sent me this article to add to my Article Dump, The Dummy Mummy Decade: Boring, Selfish, Smug by Rachel Cooke:

In the past decade...- a decade that began, if you are in search of neat bookends, with the birth of Brooklyn Beckham - a growing number of women have reverted, 50s-style, to identifying themselves primarily, vociferously, and sometimes exclusively, as mothers. They fetishise childbirth, and obsess about all that follows it, in a way that is almost, if not quite, beyond satire, and which makes me feel a bit sick.
I feel sympathy for Cooke's position and agree with most of her opinions, but I definitely don't feel quite as angry about this development as she does. Plus, I think it's a bit creepy (and boring, selfish and smug?) when she says how lucky she is that most of her friends have not turned into dummy mummies. Must be nice trotting past your pals on a high horse and judging them.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Sunday Night Blues

When any fit of anxiety or gloominess or perversion of the mind lays hold upon you, make it a rule not to publish it by complaints but exert your whole care to hide it. By endeavouring to hide it, you will drive it away. Dr Samuel Johnson
I have Sunday Night Blues (SNB) again and I am going to publish it by complaints. My Northern Irish friend likened write-up SNB to "back to school tomorrow" syndrome, except, as she said, it's "back to that evil bloody thesis." Just when you're getting weary and would like nothing more than a hearty soup and thirty minutes of a beautifully written novel, just when you should experience the inner glow of knowing that you are living your passion and that you have (in fact) enjoyed lovely company all weekend, and just when you hope to gently close your eyes with a soft sense of wellbeing, self-dislike for not doing enough (or sometimes any) work over the weekend comes and ruins it all. Then, just for a laugh, your inner voice asks questions like:

  1. Why have you still got so much write-up to go?
  2. Did you peak academically at age 22?
  3. What are you going to do after submission?
  4. How are you going to support yourself in that awkward, in between thesis and job/post-doc period?
  5. Why don't those students in their early twenties, the ones in College who you are fairly nice to, but don't particularly want as active or enduring friends, seek out your company?
  6. Why do you still seek the approval of those you don't particularly know or admire?
  7. When are you going to get married and/or have children?
  8. Why do you generally not feel particularly fussed about either, but then sometimes feel inadequate when others talk about their achievements in these areas?
  9. Why do typically handsome men (like those two beefy, prominent-jawed guys at the Aussie bop last night) always want to engage in "banter" with you in a completely humourless and therefore slightly aggressive way, and why do they seem so attractive to nearly every other woman?
And I've found that Dr Johnson is right. Coming up with reasonable answers to these questions is not nearly as effective as suppression and sleep. To bed

I have had another read of this post and comments, and I have concluded that if you're in a "fit" then simply acknowledging your worries (in a blogpost, if it's not going to be an amplifier) and moving on to something immediate and tactile is the way forward. I know I could never be so thoroughly English as to dutifully follow the Dr's advice. In any case though, you do have to wait for a calm, cloudless moment to start to come up with answers. I seem to often forget that even after all my years of meditation and reading.

Friday, 6 February 2009

What a piece of work!

W. Somerset Maugham is one of my favourite writers* and by Jove he was witty and acute...I suspect he was quite spiteful too. I say that and then I feel like I am being rough, especially if I take into account his personal hardships. Taking on board this combo of traits and analysing the photo above, what do you think: pal, enemy or frenemy?

To help you decide, here's an extract from Cakes and Ale, a satire of literary poseurs: (I have italicised my favourite bit - which I am hoping to elegantly drop into the conversation at my friend's birthday dinner this evening.)

But why writers should be more esteemed the older they grow, has long perplexed me. At one time I thought that the praise accorded to them when they had ceased for twenty years to write anything of interest was largely due to the fact that the younger men, having no longer to fear their competition, felt it safe to extol their merit; and it is well known that to praise someone whose rivalry you do not dread is often a very good way of putting a spoke in the wheel of someone whose rivalry you do. But this is to take a low view of human nature and I would not for the world lay myself open to a charge of cheap cynicism. After mature consideration I have come to the conclusion that the real reason for the universal applause that comforts the declining years of the author who exceeds the common span of man is that intelligent people after the age of thirty read nothing at all. As they grow older the books they read in their youth are lit with its glamour and with every year that passes they ascribe greater merit to the author that wrote them. Of couse he must go on; he must keep in the public eye. It is no good thinking that it is enough to write one or two masterpieces; he must provide a pedestal for them of forty or fifty works of no particular consequence. This needs time. His product must be such that if he cannot captivate a reader by his charm he can stun him by his weight.

And The Razor's Edge is one of my most treasured books.

Article Dump

photo by: Animaux

For a while now, I have been collecting articles that I have taken my fancy for one reason or another. Here is a bunch of them that may serve as a nice afternoon read:
  1. Domestic Disturbances by Judith Warner: the dark side of people's faux-familiarity with the Obamas
  2. How an Emotion Became a Virtue by Clifford Orwin: a history and assessment of "compassion"
  3. The Myth of Multitasking by Christine Rosen: the downsides (neurological, educational and cultural) to multitasking
  4. No Hay Banda; a Long, Strange Trip Down David Lynch's Mullholland Drive by Allen B Ruch: a superb explanation of the obsessions and fantasies that make up this "puzzle-box of a movie"
  5. Thoreau's Worst Nightmare by Michael Agger: Are the new ascetics masters of self-denial or just self-promotion?
  6. A Study of Self-Presentation in the light of Facebook by Sasan Zarghooni: an essay on the adequacy of current theories of self-presentation to account for Facebook, as an online social network
In any case, as my mother often says, "Be of good cheer!"

Thursday, 5 February 2009

What's Going On

photo by: The Boy

Here is a lazy description of what's been going on:

1) It's been snowing. A lot.

2) There are a couple of Italian, male visiting scholars in our Department. One of them is fulfilling expectations: he is outgoing, cheeky and flirtatious. The other one has tattoos and a moustache.

3) I have been having some animated and fairly interesting conversations with women this week. We've covered topics like whether and on what basis: the media frames women in their thirties who have not married or had any children as products of the ills of Western society (we decided, essentially, that it's a luxury not to have to make those choices and that women should not have to bear that symbolic weight alone if at all); it is necessary to pretend that our theses have wider (non-academic) purposes and audiences in order to feel motivated and special; there is relationship between achievement and birth order; Sex and the City had any merit whatsover in terms of the questions it raised or whether its starting position (that women like to buy expensive shoes and bags) automatically negated its value; we can accept that highly ambitious, "save the world" men will probably also have overbearing egos and insecurities etc. (etc. = cheat)

4) I nearly suffered a palsy when my supervisor smacked an email on my desk, mid-paragraph, and said, "I am not going to comment" as she walked off. I thought the worst: that the Faculty had agreed that I was in danger of never submitting my thesis and had decided to let me go or that a colourful, carelessly-worded email of mine to a family member had accidentally been sent to my supervisor. It was, in fact, an email from a College pal, who is also the head of men's rowing, to my supervisor saying that she had to tell me she was going to "fail" me unless I coxed for them.

5) I am not coxing this term. I may never cox again.

6) A Canadian student with a deep voice who I met through a mutual friend came into my Department today and spotted me at my desk. She submitted in December and told me that she has already sorted an ESRC one year postdoc in London and was today being interviewed at my Department for a three year postdoc after that. Wowsers. Four years sorted. Good night. I wound up my shame-screen up even though she was just being frank and even sympathetic.

7) One of the College porters is enraged about a media conspiracy to sell the snowfall and the financial crisis as more serious than they really are.

8) I am pretty content with how my work is going. Still a long way to go and I can see my face drop and my eyes age by the day. I am also waking up frowning and buzzing. But, apart from all that (ahem), it's peachy times. I do feel lucky to be writing my thesis, and I have decided that I picked a good topic to develop my academic writing style, to make it more discursive and engaging.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

A Man's or a Woman's Work...

photo by: Guille

A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. Albert Camus