Tuesday, 28 April 2009

How to Deal with the Others?

photo by: Ali Edwards

Wouldn't it be satisfying* to confuse a thesis examiner with the words of Frank O'Hara (a NY poet who features in my new book)?

I have a feeling that the philosophical reduction of reality to a dealable-with system so distorts life that one's "reward" (a minor one at that) is illness both from inside and from outside.

I should make it clear: I don't have to formally defend my thesis for a fair while (I haven't even submitted) and, truth be told, this week has been particularly positive and productive for me so I am all about picking up that dealable-with system and rubbing it all over my face and gleefully licking my fingers.

But I guess what this is all about is that I have some unhelpful uncertainty and defensiveness about the connection between your research, the research community, and potential audiences. I am certainly well past phase one (in which you attack the pre-existing scholarship as misguided and invalid as a defensive strategy), but I would like to have some healthier ways of thinking about "the others", other scholars, examiners and audiences (real or imagined), as I write. Please share.

*at least momentarily

Sunday, 26 April 2009

A Curb Day

I introduced a couple of friends to Curb Your Enthusiasm last night. (I know, I know, no excuses, they should have been forced fed it years ago, except that I only met them a few months ago.) Then this morning, on the way to the shops with my boyfriend, I had a Larry moment. A very short man was walking towards us with his two very small, young sons. They were all wearing banana yellow Lycra tops and had spiky blond hair. I thought he had a pole with him for cross-country walking or some other physical pursuit. Anyway, the sight of them didn't rock my world or anything, but I did say, loudly and carelessly, "Oh, look, that makes me laugh to myself." As they came closer, it became clear that the father was blind and was in fact holding a cane. My boyfriend looked at me like I was a patronising cow and I didn't manage to convince him otherwise. It set the tone for the rest of the morning. I was duly warned to keep my mouth shut at the gym this afternoon as these Larry moods tend to last a whole day. We call this "having a Curb day."

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

How to Survive Social Interactions in Oxford part 2

photo by: Arkadyevna

I know someone who regularly uses this social tool in group situations:

When someone is in the middle of telling a story or giving an opinion and everyone else is listening, this person will single out one of the listeners and ask loudly whether he or she has read X (an obscure theorist, poet or novelist). The person who had the floor then becomes confused and offended, and the person who was asked the sudden question feels either flattered or embarrassed. Either way, everyone ends up abandoning the conversation to pay respect to this person's intellect and taste. That's just one of the ways of asserting control around here, of redirecting traffic your way. (I use my blog instead...control, control!)

Basking in Some Poetry

photo by: Sunday Grrl

I came home last night to find on my desk The Great Modern Poets: An Anthology of the Best Poets and Poetry Since 1900 (edited by M Schmidt). It's an ideal (re)introduction for someone like me who has not studied poetry in any sustained way since high school and who doesn't have the frame of mind for a tome. Each of the 50 poets is given a short introduction, and some historical and critical context for his or her work. Plus, the book itself looks pretty and feels precious. I will resist taking it around with me today for show and tell.

The usual team was called up - Hardy, Houseman, Frost, Yeats, Frost, Pound, Eliot, Graves, Auden, Thomas, Hughes, Plath etc. - to join names I hadn't heard of before. I was quite surprised to find an Aussie in there, Les Murray (1938 - ). After reading a few of the heavies (it is ordered by poet's date of birth), I came across him and was taken back to the muggy classroom of my teenage years.

I want to share one of his poems here, not because it was necessarily the most pleasurable or insightful of those I read before bed (although I don't think I was being particularly discerning, I was just happy to have my new book!) and certainly not because he is an Australian (you may already know about my ambivalence towards patriotism). I have chosen it because his poem threads many of my recent thoughts about academics, particularly those in consuming spells of thinking and writing. Also, it's reminiscent of a fair few religious/spiritual and philosophical ideas I have read or heard over the years that have appealed to me.

The Meaning of Existence

Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe.

Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom
of my talking mind.

Anyway, I am off to my Department. It is far too bright and warm for it and my legs are rebelling against the idea. I am quite certain this will be another day of students talking about admiring and smelling flowers and worrying about their inability to focus or finish sentences.

Feel free to point me to your favourite poems - who knows how long this zeal with last! Hope you are feeling uncluttered and positive about things.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Thesis-Related Neuroses

photo by: Jef Safi

I was talking to a friend on Friday night and we both agreed that no matter what personality you have - whether you're the retiring type or the sassiest person around - the last six months of PhD studies in a concentrated, iterative environment like the one we are in invariably beats you down. It magnifies all sorts of worries and insecurities and even though you have another narrative going about how silly and temporary it all is, you still fall in all sorts of psychic traps, rookie traps you thought you'd left at high school. My friend suggested it's because we're all so narissistic. It’s hard to know how much is you, and how much is the space. I guess the fact that I wrote that last line suggests an inordinate self-fascination that is closer to narcissism than not!

One thing I have been thinking about way too much recently is how I have always been pretty hopeless with having unresolved issues with people. I am hard-wired to seek understanding and consensus. This probably means some sort of addiction to approval and acceptance, but, more charitably, I am sure it also means that I am a kind, community-minded and fairly responsible person. Whatever the reasons, these tendencies can be really unhelpful when you're dealing with certain people or situations in this (last six months of thesis in Oxford) context, a context where pretty much everyone's thinking lacks perspective and their behaviour lacks consequences.

I emphasise ‘certain’ because I have met many bright, energetic, conscientious people here, I have a terrific bunch of friends and I still feel very open to meeting new people. But there are dangers. One is that I am not good at dealing with tension or conflict with people who haven't known me for very long. Fortunately, it doesn't happen often, but when it does, it really throws me and I can find myself enmeshed in these heavy analyses of the situation and crazy polarities about myself, the other person, and others generally. In these conditions, where the lightness vanishes quickly, I keep trying to make whatever's at issue (whether it's a simple action, a series of points or an entire relationship) workable, even rosy, for the other. I have never been particularly stellar at cutting my losses, but here it seems, if it means good will might be restored, I am willing to keep putting my hand back in the blender until all my fingers are mangled and I have expressed regret for things that happened well before I even met the person. This has come to the forefront recently and it sucks.

I must say, around these parts, this sort of obsessive behaviour is rife. Students here seem more likely to discuss the minutiae of their daily interactions than any urgent political event or current intellectual debate. Loads of people I know here take anti-anxiety medication. Of course, I come into contact with a skewed sample of highly-strung people, but, still, I think there is something particular about this environment that dramatises these dispositions. As another friend recently said, students here become so fretful about whether or not to accept social invitations that they end up not committing to anything, worrying about it for days, and then falling apart on the night and staying in with a curry.

To manage my own thesis-related worries, I write a blog post, belly dance, see friends, read or go for a walk or to the gym. Plus, I always feel essentially optimistic, unrestrained, and loved so the balance is never out for very long, usually just for a few hours. But it can be a tough gig: our powers of analysis and senses of control and grandeur which are so useful for our theses and other acts of awesomeness conspire to turn against us sometimes. A while back, I tried a guided meditation podcast to help counter-balance this absurdness. It was all about going into your brain's mainframe and rewiring it. The Windows shutdown sound followed by "all files have been erased" was rather disconcerting for me so I haven't been back to it. Nonetheless, it did have some judicious words for my brain, including turning frustration into gratitude.

So, instead of continuing to celebrate frustration, until the next post, I present here some things I am grateful for:

  1. Being taught a belly dance-club fusion class yesterday by a teacher who was probably the original choreographer for the Fame dance sequences. Our dance started with a Michael Jackson sideways hop and ended with a street pose. Sick!
  2. Having a midnight chocolate milkshake and chat with a top pal last night.
  3. That I am soon to receive this glorious book of poetry in the post.
  4. That my twin is happy.
  5. My boyfriend's gentle but twisted sense of humour.
  6. A holiday booked for Italy in early June with two gorgeous ladyfriends.
  7. Any evening bike ride that includes Queen’s Lane to the Bodleian.

Please feel free to share things for which you’re grateful and/or send me some wise words about thesis-related neuroses and/or letting things go.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Nordic Treat

photo by: just.K

I just discovered this pretty special (and very manageable) Spotify playlist, Vantapamig, posted by a Nordic sweetie. Try this if the other link doesn't work.

I am as quick to join in on a rant about the dearth of letter-writing as any other toff around here, but bless the magical interweb. I am so grateful that I didn't have to meet this person on a Contiki tour and then hope she would indeed send me that mixed tape she promised in exchange for my Crowded House tape, the one that had been playing (along with Counting Crows) on the bus during the entire trip of 73 countries in 6 days. That would suck on so many levels.

Judging from her last name and her careful selection of moody, but accessible songs, I think she's Scandi, but I will say Nordic to be safe since the girls from that part of the world are fierce. Scandis have the low contextuality (ie directness of speech, fewest words to convey meaning) of Australians mixed with that intense pride that comes from being from a set of countries that are apparently so much more evolved than everywhere else. They just don't seem to care if you like them or not. Anyway (ahem), it's been getting me through today's writing session. Thanks Alexandra.

Feel free to (please) send some more study/work playlists my way. I'd like something upbeat to join this one, but not something that will trigger any automatic robo-dancing.

Oi, Weak-Beaked Swan, Get Over Here and Dance for Your Master!

Ink and GEW made me do it.

Ten Top Trivia Tips about Academic Hopeful!

  1. Astronauts get taller when they are in Academic Hopeful.
  2. Moles are able to tunnel through 300 feet of Academic Hopeful in a day.
  3. Humans share over 98 percent of their DNA with Academic Hopeful.
  4. Early thermometers were filled with Academic Hopeful instead of mercury.
  5. A bride should wear something old, something new, something borrowed, and Academic Hopeful.
  6. All swans in England belong to Academic Hopeful.
  7. Over 46,000 pieces of Academic Hopeful float on every square mile of ocean.
  8. Academic Hopeful is actually a vegetable, not a fruit!
  9. In the Spanish edition of Cluedo, Academic Hopeful is the victim!
  10. A Academic Hopefulometer is used to measure Academic Hopeful.
If you're feeling scatty today, rather than doing 5 minutes of helpful, desktop Yoga why not get a quick hit of your own surrealist trivia from the Mechanical Contrivium?

I have set myself up by publishing facts 1, 2, 3 and 8. I trust that you are too sophisticated to go for these sitting ducks...or swans (Rahaha! Oink. Swig of champagne whilst reclining on my live bird couches).

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Ugly Woman Comes Good

Just in case I've been misleading you in any way, I am not the best with cutting edge stuff (hence even being a day or two off the pulse with this attempt). But, I thought I'd dip into the current pop TV-YouTube-media controversy which, if you haven't already heard, is Susan Boyle's appearance on Britain's Got Talent.

Susan, a 47 year old, unemployed, Scottish woman who, as she said, lives alone with her cat and has never been kissed, astonished the sniggering Cowell and co. and the hooting crowd with her performance of I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables. She brought them to tears and to their feet. She has now become a YouTube celeb with over 11 million hits, and, with Mr and Mrs Kutcher among her fans, the ugly woman has come good.

And now commentators are offering up reasons for this extreme response. Some say it's simply the surprise factor: a rough, frumpy woman with an enchanting voice. Others go a little further to say it is because, through Boyle, we are afforded a rare glimpse of human dignity and grace in a world obssessed with physical beauty and the right packaging. I was just sent an article from The Guardian that, I think, represents a more compelling take on the British (and worldwide) reponse to Boyle. Yes, it's excessive, but it pegs down the gauntlet completely (and the comments are fairly interesting too). Read it.

Monday, 13 April 2009

True Love

photo by: CreativeSam

My Boyfriend just said, "I would still love you even if you were so badly burnt that you looked like you were wearing the Scream mask."

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Lessons for Next Time

photo by: Rustman

I was at a three-day conference this week. I met up with some academic friends from the circuit, I attended a few fascinating presentations from various fields (something that always makes me feel less isolated and more inspired about the academic enterprise), and I received a lot of positive feedback after my paper.

However, it was also terribly exhausting. These days, even heading to the shops can be a small test of character so I am not sure how I thought mingling with over two hundred cerebralites would be a supple experience. I have been assured that this general ickiness is thesis-related. But just in case things don't change after submission, I have written myself a list of things I need to read before the next conference:

Your Pre-Conference Reminder

  1. Arrive with some sense of stillness. You are always zonked by the time you walk past the first set of publishers' stalls after registration. Pack earlier. Leave the evening before for relaxation.

  2. Give a positive comment before questions and comments (because you're almost always enthused by the research going on out there!).

  3. Avoid responding vocally to phrases like 'transferable skills' or 'employability' in other people's presentations unless you have written down my question or comment beforehand. It's essentially an emotional response and should probably be left to eye-twitching unless an answerable question can be posed or a measured comment can be made.

  4. Remember to take a watch or finally buckle and trade in your 2004 phone for one with some useful applications (and some degree of attractiveness). Having to ask a fellow participant to provide your wake-up calls each day (via mobile phone) isn't smooth.

  5. Avoid the biscuits at afternoon tea. They make you zone out during the last session and contribute to your erratic responses to certain buzz words.

  6. Be more accommodating and subdued when accepting feedback. Maybe don't say, in response to someone suggesting you read more Bourdieu, that while you like his work, you think that most empirical researchers tackle the agency-structure problem by producing one paragraph that summarises his concepts of disposition, field and habitus and then simply present their findings. That's probably unwisely presuming that audience members (in front of their peers) know that the spirit behind very nearly everything you say in any context is good and that of course you appreciate their advice.

  7. Red wine at the social events is not your ally. It doesn't matter that everyone else is drinking loads of it. (Actually, I think you learnt this from last time and did well on this front. Keep up the good work!)

  8. Account for the extra time needed to unwind before falling asleep each night. Travelodges, one of the premier destinations for student-participants, are strange institutions with lots of noise and pinewood, unnervingly young staff, arbitrary heating and no phones (and therefore no wake-up calls). You know you need optimum conditions for a restful sleep.

I like the picture above as it suggests coyness (which is how I feel about my reminder list), but I realise that toes touching also suggests feminine meekness, and may be anti-feminist of me. I may go off it and change it.

Creativity as Frippery?

My grandmother is accomplished. She's fiercely bright, high-spirited and decisive, she's a doctor and a giver, and she's creative and thoughtful. She's also from one of those generations that doesn't exchange complaints all the time. A short while back, she helped my family move house (and sort through thirty years of encumbrances) and was, I recall, the only one of us not to grumble. Part of this package deal is modesty - she would see my description here as possibly gushy or improper and definitely unnecessarily fussy.

One of her hobbies is photography, and from time to time she worries that it amounts to mere frippery. I think it's interesting how certain types of creativity are harder to justify to oneself than intellectual pursuits or the service of society (or the market!). But I guess there is a scale of things in life, right? And pure commitment to aesthetics would preclude so many other possibilities in life. Although, I am not sure who has the authority to judge the useful from the (merely aesthetic?) rest. Do we need to justify these things? Some claim that usefulness is hideous, and that art is serious. How do you guys see your creative endeavours, including, for instance, your blogs? Is it essentially about having both in your life, about covering both bases - the useful and the aesthetic?

In the meantime, these are some of her beautitful photographs that were recently highly acclaimed by her peers. How delightful are those droplets?!

Monday, 6 April 2009

Elite University Syndrome (EUS)

Early symptoms:

  • Feeling exhausted and inadequate after social interactions with other Elite University students, but not knowing why.

Later symptoms:

  • Recognising a growing resentment towards the insatiable ambition and completely unoriginal self-promotion of certain Elite University students, and yet a striking weakness when it comes to doing anything about it.

Signs that you need to go to A&E:

  • When all your friends are in fact frenemies, but you can't risk losing them because there's a chance, you think, that they will be able to influence your future status in some way, and one may even become the leader of your home country very soon.

I have protected myself against EUS, not with an inoculation (like doing some NGO work in a developing country or starting pentathalon training), but by staying out of infected areas and wearing a mask; I have been focusing my attention on smaller, intimate dinners and drinks with people I truly like and admire (ie those who are super smart, but relatively cheerful and lazy). But the bug is undoubtedly spreading, making loads of people around me question their intelligence, capabilities and future careers. EUS seems to correlate with flu time (early Spring and late Autumn), but I am sure some arsy stats whizz could isolate more likely variables and let me know (after reliving a recent, hugely successful fundraising event he or she organised of course).

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Sydney as a Bathtub

Hey, I found these wonderfully zany films yesterday. The artist, Keith Loutit, uses techniques such as tilt-shift and time-lapse photography to make the world appear as figurines and miniature toys in a giant's playground. Watching them took me straight back to my hometown, Sydney; they capture superbly much of the colours and lifestyle. Louit has selected some great, quirky soundtracks too. Bathtub IV is brought to life by Megan Washington's adorable and affecting song, Clementine - definitely worth a listen to and look at on its own. His most recent short film uses a song by Shawn Lee called Throwing Shadows at the Wall and the video for this song makes me terribly sentimental.* I can't really cope with senior citizens singing the words of someone else's song.

*until the dancefloor part.

Bathtub IV from Keith Loutit on Vimeo.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

When it Comes to Siblings...

photo by: Iapidim

A while back, a reader asked me to help her improve her relationships with her siblings. It has taken me a while to tackle this because I think I was subconsciously pooped after analysing my relationship with my twin.

I come from a vast litter so I feel reasonably qualified to say something about this. From my experience, deciding and being prepared to work (for a long time if required) to redefine the terms of engagement with your brothers and sisters is crucial. It's not a given that these relationships make the transition from childhood relationships (and the mentality that goes with being needy, super-sensitive little people) naturally. This, of course, involves being honest about what you're bringing to the relationship table and whether and how you're allowing it to grow or not.

You can start by stating (calmly and sometimes repeatedly) to yourself and potentially to your a sibling things like, "I do not want to talk to you like this. This is a negative pattern that may have been OK when we were younger, but we're adults now."

I have had to say statements like this (in a more natural, me-form) to certain family members, and it's definitely been the general ethos for my own reflections. It's a delicate blend of big and small things. The small things, in my experience work better.

To this end, I have asked myself things like: Are my brothers and sisters balcony or basement people? Are they cheering me on and affirming me or dragging me down? Which one am I to them? I have borrowed these phrases, by the way, rather recklessly from Joyce Landorf, whose work I have never read and whom I am fairly certain is more clappy (and giving, and great!) than me. But I think it's a wonderful metaphor for nicely streamlining people in your life (often just for a short while) and also for being more honest about your behaviour towards others.

Of course, there is a lot more guilt and obligation when it comes to family and sometimes, particularly with parents and older relatives, you can never fully escape these expected patterns of behaviour. It's often very difficult and unsettling for family, particularly parents, to revise their concepts and expectations of you.

In some distressing cases, I think having a clean, finite break is healthy. It's often hard enough to be kind and aware to strong, positive people around you, let alone people who are emotionally greedy and manipulative etc. so sometimes you need a circuit breaker. You don't have to announce this in some impassioned way. You can just quietly give yourself some time and space to recharge.

I think when there is tension with family members the main things to work on from your end are being aware and self-disciplined about your own mental state before entering conversations, and carefully watching how much emotional baggage you bring into an interaction.

I think that last point's essential, really. You have to be able let go of the trailer of rubbish from the past; to not expect some kind of definitive, consensual, formal family statement of what exactly happened in your childhood and adolescence and who was treated how and to what effect. Part of being an adult, I think, is to decide to endorse your own version of reality, knowing that memory distorts and tends to focus on the negative, traumatic, mortifying experiences over the more normal, and even blissful ones, and then to put it away on the shelf.

Of course, siblings often want you to sign off on their versions too, which can sometimes mean getting embroiled in history wars. This requires knowing when to validate or gently test their histories and when to simply avoid these moves. You have to make your own boundaries according to what you're prepared to suffer and lose (sometimes you just don't want to lose a couple of hours of your time trawling through the archives and then an evening after recovering).

As with all relationships, relating to siblings is about constantly working on being present, calm and assertive (using as much 'When this happens, I feel...' language as possible, as distinct from 'you are a...' language). I read somewhere that often we think we're being adults when we criticise others by using behaviour-based examples, but this tone can often disguise a childish tendency to start introducing evidence from every part and time of the other person's life. Sometimes we get empowered by others (finally!) agreeing with our frustrations and that can give us a surge of energy to start tackling all the grievances you've ever had with that person. That's not fair.

Another thing that is often not fair (or useful) is that, with siblings, we are so much more likely to solve their problems when they actually seek validation (simple recognition of the underlying emotion). To make it even more fraught, we're also more likely to bring in examples from ten years ago, or to stitch the incident to another one, or worst still to use it against the person as an example of some wider, less functional characteristic they have or have had. These approaches are too blunt to make any pretty affinity shapes and should be traded in.

It's a big deal when a family member gives you a compliment. We're often still like little doggies in need of a Pedigree Gravy Bone. Give compliments, laugh, enjoy them.

I am lucky that my family is loving, fairly open, intelligent, humourous, and very supportive. Sometimes we can sometimes be a little rough in our delivery (the funny and the harsh are not always distinguishable chez nous), but I think for the most part we try to be gentle and positive with each other. There's an implicit understanding that now that we're all over 21 and living our own lives, it's a choice to be in each other's lives beyond family get-togethers. "You can go off people, you know"- this is something I say to my family sometimes to playfully remind them that my love and admiration are not unconditional! No, really, I think we actually want to be friends and simply like each other and these make it easier.

The last thing I would say though is that it's very important not to catastrophise when you have a tense or horrible interaction with a family member. You have to avoid linking the incident to the many other similar instances stored away in your file. You also have to challenge thoughts like, "We are never be able to get along" or "[name] is always going to be a negative influence in my life."

At the risk of sounding like I am trivialising individual cases (there's a spectrum of hurt and complexity in family backgrounds), sometimes when you argue with siblings you're just hungry, overworked and/or tired, and simply don't quite have the mental resources or social sanctions (that help regulate other friendships) not to fall back into bad habits. But that happens and you have to forgive yourself quickly and just try better next time.

For what it's worth, I have to deal with that pattern daily with almost everyone in some small way. I am often saying snippy things, declaring my worries or painting potential crises to my loved-ones only to realise after that I just needed a hearty meal, a walk outside, a quick kip or a kind word. So, yeah, being able to feed, walk and assure yourself and put yourself to bed when necessary are also important skills in adult relationships, including kinships.

Anyone else have any ideas for dealing with sibling difficulties?

Family: Please read 'comments' for clarification. I am certainly not in any conflict with any of you guys. It's all very peachy and positive (and tacit), as it is, thankfully, almost all of the time...

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Pretty, Floaty Thing

"Tender is the Night" by: KT Lindsay

This is a picture of and by one of my closest friends, Kate, in the angelic dress I bought her (on behalf of a few of us ladies) for her birthday last week. The detailing on the front is a collection of black roses. She is watching over Istanbul as part of her celestial duties.