Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Peak District Bliss

The boyfriend and I escaped to the Peak District for the weekend. We stayed at Cotesfield Farm, Parlsey Hay, a working farm managed by Andy, a welcoming bloke from Scotland. From our window, we could peek at the dairy cows in the barn. Andy's only advice before we set out to explore the farm was to avoid the bulls who would "not mind if you were dead, like."

On Sunday, we cycled over 20 miles (or just over 32 km) from Parlsey Hay Cycle Hire, where we picked up our fancy mountain bikes (and stood out because we were not wearing any lycra) to Tissington and back again.

How magnificent are the dry stone walls? I cycled for the most part with my face at right-angles; the views were dreamy. This meant riding through many limestone potholes and happily copping mud spray all over my back.

I said to my boyfriend that this is surely England at its most beautiful. He agreed. I asked him where he thought Mr Darcy might have proposed to Elizabeth Bennett, even though I knew in my heart that our bearings were a little off. This kind of romantic absorption reminded me of my mother who is deeply attached to English landscapes (her father having been English) and I recalled how, in my early teens, my dad said, in relation to a converstion about our (Australian) home renovations, something to the effect that my mum still thinks she is "in some English novel where she can go and sit on a large swing set up in a rose garden."

By the time we reached Tissington, we had transformed. We felt as though the wind had blown blocks of stress off our bodies. Everything around us seemed perfectly lovely and I started to think about poetry and vowed to read more of it.

Tissington itself is a very proud, untouched village that has been managed by the FitzHerbert family for over 400 years.

Can you see the sweet little cats in the window? They've been there for 150 years.

Our half-time reward was cream tea in the Old Coach House across from St Mary's Church (built in the early 12th century, heavily restored in the 19th century). There was a bunch of very senior ramblers also enjoying the spot. Good on them, I say.

(We were far too famished to take a pre-scoffing pic.)

The scones gave us enough of a boost to make it back (uphill!) to Parsley Hay, although my boyfriend commented that perhaps I could have done with a low-GI lunch as I became a bit scrappy two-thirds of the way. Of course, once the end was in sight, I began doing mental wheelies and in fact did a skid-style brake outside the hire shop. Happy times.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

An Evening in the Big Smoke

Last night I trundled down to London for the official launch of a report I co-authored. There were many PIPs (pretty important people) and a few VIPs there, both academic and professional. Besides interacting with real people who are gainfully employed, interesting and fairly sociable, the highlight of the evening was after the event when I was given a back stage pass to the oldest and most ornate and theatrical court in the Royal Courts of Justice, the Lord Chief Justice's Court from the perspective of the bench.

Do I sound smug? Not a good start as far as the blog tone goes, particularly for a woman, but I will make sure that you think I am a hapless, harmless little creature by the end so that you still feel like you could have a drink with me so please keep reading.

Being in London dramatised the plain fact that I have clearly been in the Oxford bubble and in the write-up spiral for too long. As I boarded the train, I felt like Maria leaving the convent for the bustle of the Von Trapp household and I sensed that I was utterly provincial asking for directions at the Tube station.

Before I arrived at the launch, I made someone want to cry. That's not really what I set out to achieve each morning (as I brush my teeth) so let me explain. Having crawled out of my student comfort gear, and having made it on the train to the big smoke (which carried people I didn't know. Let's really paint the scene. There were wider factors.), I decided that I would get my hair cut with the hour I had spare. These things can be neglected. I was really looking forward to the hair wash and I don't think that was particularly unreasonable given I was coughing up £50 ("London prices", I said to myself using an old lady's voice and shaking my head).

So I was led to the basin by this young girl with diamond-textured black stockings under cute shorts, who I had tacitly assumed was (a) about 18 and (b) experienced. As soon as I lay back, ready to allow the thesis outline I had been working on that morning to leave my body, she took to my hair in a way that was no less than beastly. She carelessly pulled my hair, especially around the facial line, and grinded her knuckles into my scalp. She banged the shower head into my ear (that had been clanging the whole time as the coily bit had detached - not her fault granted, but it did not help) just as the water turned hot. I turned around and said (with very few barbs in my tone, maybe only a little one), "I am sorry, this is really just not enjoyable for me. I am not enjoying this." She asked her colleague to finish off - a little too quick to give up looking back on it.

As I lay back into the hands of a spotty boy, I thought "I am not leaving here with any hair. That's it, I've done it." And, you know, I didn't get off too lightly. The hairdresser, as she pulled my hair straight with a brush and hairdryer, told me that I had made the 14 YEAR OLD, WORK EXPERIENCE GIRL want to cry. Once coiffed, I went over and apologised to the young girl for making her feel unfairly criticised. "I am just an uptight student," I said. The hairdresser started talking about how everyone in Oxford must be intense and serious, and so then I tried to prove that I wasn't always so intense and serious, but in my black suit, and with my acute jumpiness, and lack of middle ground small talk, it wasn't an easy sell. In fact, there's pretty much no way you can prove to someone that you're a mellow person. By engaging in the debate, you're already finished. The only way to prove it is to giggle like a child or stare at them with slow-blinking eyes and a fixed half-smile until they look away. I tried to make jokes. No, I should have just given up or better yet demanded that they hurry up and clean my feet in the manner to which I am accustomed in Oxford. My exit was not particularly regal: the classic pull the door, then go to the other (locked) one to push and then go to original to push.

I have heard from many PhD students that towards the end of the slog, your capability for medium-level, respectable chat is lost; that anything irrelevant to your thesis or not complete slosh (like Lily Allen's underwear or an episode in The Wire) is too challenging. It did take me a few conversations at the event to untie my tongue and to sensibly engage. I gradually got it together, had an enjoyable time, and was asked to contribute some of my thesis work, and offered the prospect of a small research job.

Nevertheless, unless there's a very, very good reason, I have decided that I am not going to heavily populated places until I have submitted. It's simply too spooky for everyone involved.

I wrote this post this morning. I have just come back from an academic practice symposium. It was re-energising to share ideas with other students about our academic careers and communities. I have also been left with some good practical guidance for the "next step" (which I may write up as a more generic blog post soon). So maybe I don't actually need to hide away with Mother Superior until I am finished as planned. Perhaps I just need to connect with like-minded people who have had similar experiences until I am ready for that middle ground again.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

I'll give you style if you give me chocolate

Last night, my (English) boyfriend finally agreed after many attempts that Australian Cadbury's chocolate is better than English Cadbury's. By better I mean more full, rich and soft, and less brittle, buttery and bland. Being the fair-minded person I am, I told him I would concede something on behalf of Team Australia. I admitted that English women (or a particular group of English women) tend to have a better sense of dress than Aussie women. Wouldn't you agree? No matter how hard we try, we cannot pull off the shabby chic look in quite the same way as a Brit and it's not just the darker tan and whiter teeth that dimish our efforts (tee hee!). I pointed out that I was being especially magnanimous as he is not chocolate.

I have been in the Radcliffe Camera today revising my thesis outline. I was somewhat distracted by the dusty sun beams coming through the window overlooking St Mary's Church. But I did fairly well. I had figured it was time to check that my chapters were working for the same boss.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Article Dump 2

Here are some of the articles that have been sent my way by Oxford nerdy nerds in recent weeks:

  1. Shop Craft as Soulclass by Matthew B Crawford: reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence
  2. The Daily Me by Nicholas D Kristof: we may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber
  3. 'Brain Decline' begins at age 27, BBC online: mental powers start to dwindle at 27 after peaking at 22, marking the start of old age
  4. Books and Music that Make you Dumb by Marisa Taylor: Caltech graduate student's tongue in cheek research into the correlation between taste and intelligence
This is a purposive sample, but perhaps not completely unrepresentative of some of the concerns and vanities of Oxford students!

I haven't been able to blog too much of late. I have been trapped in the write-up spiral and spending any time out of it enjoying the glorious Spring weather. (Daffodils, fresias, soft breezes and good but also flitty moods have returned to Oxford. Our hunched over bodies are absorbing the vitamin D as if we had straws to a frothy milkshake.)

Also, I had a massage on Tuesday and the masseuse told me that I need more nurturing and less analysis in my life so I have been trying to replace time at the computer with dancing, walks, dinners and reading by the window.

I had my first bike ride on a friend's handlebars last night and I may as well have been in Portofino.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Relaxation for PhD Students

I am on a terrible adrenaline course at the moment. I have been upping my use of relaxation and meditation podcasts of late (from none to one every day or so). But I am using them rather like a cyclist taking a quick swig of Gatorade and pegging the cup aside rather than a full session at the massage/medical tent. It's no good.

My brother (who is returning to Budapest tomorrow: sad times) found this clip the other day that reminded me of my efforts.

It's of Alan Patridge, Steve Coogan's best known character in the UK. For those who haven't come across him before, you're missing out. But to help you enjoy the clip: Alan is a small-minded, narcisstic, socially incompetent sports reporter turned television chat show host turned regional radio presenter. Here he is trying to follow a relaxation tape:

(Make sure you watch this at least twice: first for the visuals, second for the audio. It's gold.)

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Somebody Stop Me!

photo by: Kimberley Hurst

You know when you've had too much time slaving away at the thesis when:

Purely for social terrorism* purposes, you're tempted to leave a comment on a truly beautiful photograph from the honeymoon set of your ex-boyfriend to the effect of "This is a constant reminder of pain and loss for me." And yep, he posted it on Facebook over a year ago.

*my expression for ratty, trouble-maker behaviour when frustrated and/or bored

And no, none of my ex-boyfriends look like this guy - who has something strange going on with his hairline behind the ear. Geez, they look really happy! Leave them alone, AH! Back to work!

Every Thing is Going to be OK.

Kate (of Love You Big) spotted this tile. It's by one her creative heroes, Rob Ryan. I wish this image could project automatically from the middle of my forehead over the words of my thesis whenever I sat at my computer. Editing is bringing me moments of joy (or at least intense satisfaction), but I keep on elongating my neck to peek further ahead; to count how many more hills lie between here and completion. Unwise, says the bird's second letter, unwise...

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Lowering the Tone

photo by Anie*

Dr. No recently started a (very amusing) blog post with the following:

You leave me no choice, I have to go there. If you are thinking: Where, where are we going Dr. No? Will it be fun? Should I pack a bag? Is sunscreen necessary? Should I cancel my classes? The answer, I am sorry to say, is no, no, no, and sure- why the hell not. We are going to a frightening place, a juvenile place, the kind of place where humor abounds for 12 year olds. A place where adults with graduate degrees should not go. Yet, I have to go there.

I would like to humbly invoke the same warning here. I need to share this small experience so that I can freeze it and have a good look at it. It seems to represent one of two or three types of interactions (along with intelligence and "who is more scared of this cricket ball?" competitions) I had to adapt to as someone who grew up with countless brothers. Being away from them, I tend to forget just how fantastically hectic, obscene and brash they can be. Just in case this gets confusing, I wrote this introduction last. What you're about to read was typed as the event was happening:

I just texted my brother to tell him to pop by my place before he heads off to London tomorrow. (He is staying in College, almost directly across the lawn from my place. This means he caught me dancing in my living room on Thursday and tried to mimic me.) This was his reply: "Yeah when you pull back the curtain, I'll be right at the window wearing only my Speedos and brandishing a spatula."

I just want to pull his little cheeks. I love this kind of banter. It gets me absolutely nowhere in this town, but I love it (and I can still refer to academic debates in casual conversations as well as anyone else - I just don't do it as often. So there!).

Just got another text, right now: "See, I am practising with the spatula now" and...yep, just checked, he is indeed in his kitchen waving his wooden spoon around like a drover.

I have been waving back with my phone in my hand, laughing like a proud dork. Another text has just come in: "But tomorrow morning, I'll still be on your window sill. You'll love it."

I can't tell you what precisely my reply was, but essentially I suggested that I would only love it if he whacked his own bottom and publicly apologised for something ridiculous he did when he visited last time.

Anyway (ahem), back to editing a couple of chapters of my thesis. It's Saturday night and I am on page 16/94. It brings to mind an email I received from a friend earlier today that had this in it: "Surely not too much longer." Will award that a 5.5/10 and file it away with the others. Please feel free to send in some crackers of your own for the prize of most well-meaning but unhelpful comment ever made to a PhD student/academic/writer of any sort.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Good Times (is there a mood pattern emerging?)

Hungarian posters

So I am not sure why I included those posters. I spotted them at Momento Park in Budapest over the Christmas break and I just think they're pretty terrific in a very superficial way.

My brother is in town from as a visiting scholar from CEU, Budapest (a nice connection to the posters?). It's super to have him around, although old habits creep back so quickly - like when he commented on my kitchen being "clean" (as in dirty) within the first few hours of seeing me and later when I told him quite sternly that I was not going to watch another YouTube clip that he wanted to show me. We both chose to brush off these comments instead of engage in a snip fest from the mid-90s. Well done to us! You really do have to let go of a lot of psychological baggage when it comes to relationships with adult siblings and enjoy and respect them as friends. It's a delicate thing. I have now seen him twice in three months after a three year absence - he usually lives in Africa (to save the world! Toot-toot!) and we haven't managed to coordinate our trips back to Australia.

An assortment of around fifteen friends from my Department, my College and other areas of life met up last night in one of my favourite pubs here, the Gardener's Arms, to welcome him over dinner and a few drinks. Good food, good chat, good times. One of my friends theatrically told us all how much she hates people (especially now she is writing-up). She says she hates people who want too much of her time and energy (who tell boring stories about their grocery shopping and get offended when she glazes over) and she hates people who are too good for her (who have already been published and sorted out their postdocs). She says that running is her only cure against daily hatefulness. Whatever this blog may suggest, I am going to miss this place...

It's bright and sunny today and I can see purple and yellow fresias from my window. I am working fairly effectively and I have a good feeling about the weekend ahead. I just have to avoid those afternoon crashes when I haven't eaten properly and think chocolate and Facebook will help me through. I hope you have a lovely one.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

How to Survive Social Interactions in Oxford part 1

Me in front of a Liberation Monument in Momento Park, Budapest

Some tips for casual Friday night conversation in a bar or pub:

  1. Have a few politician stories to share, from personal scandals and fashion faux pas to early promises, mottos and soundbites that came back to haunt them. Oxford students eat this up.
  2. Know something about the financial state and organisational culture of the national broadcating companies of a few countries.
  3. Be prepared for the introduction or premise to a story to be argued about. For instance, if you want to talk about how something was embarrassing because...someone might well interrupt you and question the sincerity of your embarrassment given that you're telling the story.
  4. You simply must understand or at least be able to talk about a few aspects of the current financial crisis, corporate governance and renewable energy. It's preferable to have been to a conference on one of these that week.
  5. Take along your husband or wife as back-up (yours or someone who can stand in as one), someone who is ostensibly unaffected and even unpolished that is until you're intellectually challenged by someone at which point he/she will automatically turn into a fiercely erudite lion/lioness and paw your challenger to the floor. Two is better than one.
  6. Don't underestimate the coward factor. People very rarely check anyone for poor, unkind or distasteful behaviour here partly because they fear the transgressor may rule them one day in some form or other. Of course, certain behaviour is discussed behind the transgressor's back, but very carefully and only after several qualifications and other acts of due diligence.
  7. If you want to get a cheap laugh then say something saucy and cute, but remember: no matter how much they laugh and seem to enjoy your drollery, you're probably actually going backwards in the overall approval ratings. Being funny = one step forward, two back. Think medium-term.