Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Family Time

Families, they're alright. I am in Budapest with my brother, his wife and their super cute baby. My brother, who is currently singing J Buckley's Hallelujah to his son as he bathes him, had drawn up an itinerary of three activities per day before we arrived and pinned to the kitchen pinboard amongst a few random photographs and cards. He is not the most organised of people, but he is an adventurer at heart; he puts as much as he can into his hours, until he finds a café with some good coffee and some chat.

Today we were hoping to go ice-skating (He is now on Pop Goes the Weasel) as per the plan. We took the metro which is like a funride at a fair, not least because the annoucement at each stop is accompanied by something generated by an ice-cream van or honking a clown's nose. The rink was closed so we ended up (now onto You Can Call Me Al) walking for hours, past all sorts of victory monuments, romanesque, gothic and baroque tribute buildings (not because there aren't real ones in Budapest, we just happened to stumble upon the tribute fare built 100 years ago), genuine Succession buildings, and communist appartment blocks. The streets here are wide and today they were almost deserted. Today or this evening is the time for Christmas celebrations (over fish) in Hungary. I am not sure how we figured we would be able to do more than just walk and look at the few passers-by.

The women here wear a lot of brown clothing, with gaudy (orange, gold and red) accessories, their hair dyed black or red and black eye-liner drawn heavily along the bottom ridge. I write this fully aware that I probably seem like a small boy to them, like I don't make enough of my looks. The men look like weather-beaten sailors or possibly pirates, but perfectly nice ones. (My brother is now singing a demonic version of Silent Night).

As the three of us strode into the wind that was puffing up our full length coats, I sensed that we were about to do Matrix slow-motion backarches then reach into our coats for our guns to blow the crap out of something. Instead we tried in vain to withdraw cash at several cash machines (ATMs), and struggled to identify and explain the significance of various monuments – both are not so easy in a country with a complex political history. Finally we spotted a dull yellowish light and some dark movement – a cafe was open! We ordered coffees and hot chocolate (or cocoa). The cafe was airy and smoky, bohemian and potentially revolutionary yet stately, a place for scheming as well as mindless drinking, friendly yet surly, cold yet warm. This paradoxical style of writing is not only good and bad, but good and evil.

My brother and I talked about our family, everyone in it. We analysed each member's motivations and childhood traumas, factoring each of the possible combinations and permutations. We were fortunate that everything was closed today otherwise we would not have been able to have a proper catch up, which, in a family like mine, means reaching agreement on the causes behind the major frustrations, disputes and tragedies of the day, with a sense of love and humour of course.

It's root vegetable soup time.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Christmas in the Heart

I am off to Paris for the weekend this Friday evening to see Top Friend and Adorable Cousin, who happen to be an item. OK, I wouldn't have met Top Friend were she not seeing Adorable Cousin, but I don't want to refer to her as my cousin's girlfriend as it wouldn't be fair to our friendship. They'll have just arrived from the wedding of my cousin (AC's brother), so I am looking forward to getting carried away with a few gooey stories. I hope they do details. They will. I hate when people can't remember what the maids wore. Useless.

The Boy and I are then taking a sleeper train to Budapest Sunday night to spend Christmas and New Year's with my brother and his wife whom I haven't seen in three years. I will also be meeting my new nephew. I can't wait. Everyone seems to think the sleeper train will be dreamy, but I am wondering whether I will be stacked on top of smelly, overweight, hairy men like I was last time I was in Eastern Europe. There was, of course, a board-come-bed in between us and I did have weaponry under my pillow.

There's a lot of festive love going round.* I have received some generous sentiments in Christmas cards,* I have enjoyed many a mince pie and glass of mulled wine with Oxford friends, and I have been hearing more and more from my loved-ones at home.

One big Chrissy group hug

*Cf. last post.
*Cf. Droid's card that ends: "Yours in eager anticipation of 'Change' and bird flu finally kicking in next year" accompanied by a Napoleon Dynamite-style pencil drawing of a bird with a swastika in its eye.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Hurty Winter Ickiness

Team, I have another wintry post, a confessional of sorts. I have been deeply hurt by someone I regarded as a true friend. Perhaps it's hard to imagine, but there aren't as many life stairwells in Oxford as there are in your hometown and so true friendship (reliability, honesty, kindness and small acts of heroism) becomes even more important, and paradoxically rare. One of my friends told me to repeat the words from The Last of the Mohicans to myself:
[Name], you are a man [or woman] with a few admirable
qualities. But taken as a whole, I was wrong
to have thought so highly of you
This helps a little because it's probably true, but it's not the full picture.

The encouragement of two close friends (whom I dressed up with) got me to a College ball last night. The Boy had to be up North. It was hugely comforting to be amongst many friends whom I have known for a longer time.

I did not think a betrayal from a friend would inspirit much or any sympathy from others. It just doesn't seem to have quite the same kick to it in your adult life, when friendships are often shorter and more practical, and when worthy betrayals are reserved for those in romantic relationships or marriage.

But, as if knowing what I needed without any obvious cues from me, I received supportive words from various unexpected (drunken) sources, about how lovely, fun and well-liked I am, and, from one friend, that she sees me as a strong, dynamic, capable person who she looks up to (gulp). One cheeky boy voted me the most beautiful woman of the evening, which made me smile, even if I know it was essentially my pride desperately needing some mending. And then there was a young gentleman whose girlfriend could not make it who danced with me for the last few songs in a really sweet and respectful way. He had these fun ballroom moves (one quite dangerous) that he assured me were not the product of study.

It's a grey Sunday. I have to do some work and find some peace. These probably won't come together, but I am sure I will feel fine very soon. And there's always Paris.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

It was a Cold and Frosty Morning

photographs by me and The Boy

I have recently had two chapters returned to my supervisor, marked 'Redo' so I am desperately trying to rewrite and polish them before I head off to Paris and Budapest for my Christmas holiday.

I am working hard, sometimes clinical, sometimes infatuated by my topic. It's difficult to avoid all the distractions though, the farewell parties and drinks, formal dinners at Colleges, conversations about holidays, romances, the reduction in VAT, and, as always, Africa. Then there's that uneasiness that comes each year with the dark afternoons, when you have to stop yourself from hopping into bed at 5:30pm.

This morning's walk over frozen mud and grass and pools was a nice change, a distraction that was quiet, delicate and primal. Brought me to the feeling of states of nature changing: water turning into solid, breath turning into liquid.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Christmas Cheer Oxford-Style

Oxford students are always ON, or nearly always, and make that a lot of Oxford students. I am talking about switched on for the Best CV and Cleverest Ever competition. Being on all the time builds up tension and shame, which means that they often 'pass on the sting', to use a neat sociology phrase (although not one that has much weight in certain academic circles), if they see other people not keeping up with them in the bolt through life.

The other day a colleague asked me what he should buy his girlfriend for Christmas, specifically for their agreed upon cheap present exchange. He was thinking a scented candle. That smelt of mother's day or gift from a distant family friend to me so I suggested a pair of long fingerless gloves or a luxurious scarf from Topshop.

Then, from behind a computer, came this snigger from Competitor Student, "He He, that's funny..."

I said smiling, "What do you mean?"

Competitor Student said, "Just hearing you talk about Topshop in the Department, that's just funny to me."

I smiled in a slightly puzzled way and turned to my friend, but what I really wanted to say was: "WAS IT REALLY FUNNY OR WERE YOU JUST SLAPPING ME FOR NOT LINKING IT TO THE PRE-EXISTING LITERATURE? MERRY CHRISTMAS MRS CLAUS!"

Monday, 24 November 2008

Am I a True Boatie?

I experienced my first race as a cox on Saturday. It was the Nephthys Regatta on the Isis. I was in the cockpit for a women's novice crew and, quite stunningly, we made it through four races against various other Colleges to reach the finals (only to start a mexican wave of crab catching and lose by half a boat length).

The races themselves were pretty thrilling, and the outcome was clearly positive for the College boatie comunity. It was a lovely, bright day on the river and a really nice way to spend time with some new friends I have made.

But, (and I bet you knew that was coming), not gonna lie, I am still unsure of my status as novice cox. Do I want to hand my identity over to the boathouse? Subject myself to hierarchy, hugs and hand gestures?

Plus, it can be a pretty angry sport, the old rowing. In fact, I found the rage of the marshals the most challenging part of the day. Having been waiting politely out of the way, and now well and truly past scheduled start time and with the chill setting in, they would suddenly megaphone things like "[College] cox spin now or you'll be disqualified!" "You have to move now!" as though somehow you had been insolent and incompetent. They would then repeat these commands over and over until you were so flustered that you managed to get yourself sucked into a current of death (for instance) and instant disqualification seemed merciful and even fair.

There are more races this week. I think if I could be airlifted or otherwise transported to the start of the race, and thus by-pass all the nonsense involved in getting the boat out of the boathouse and to the start line, I would be perfectly happy to be a boatie for a while.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

A Picture is Worth a Lot of Write-up Time

Thanks for spotting this one, John.

Same Old Stuff Really

I am buried in a chapter. I want to finish it on Saturday, send it off to the supes. I have written 3 200 words or 1.5/5 sections. That sounds pretty grim, but I have it all in chunks (of points and empirical material) ready to write. Just saying.

Of course, because I am obsessing I have various irrelevant thoughts flitting about. Most of the activity is the same old stuff really. But some of it seems incredibly funny and/or creative and I want to share it. I just don't have the energy or focus to do so right now. They have to be put on the shelf. It's getting crowded, that shelf.

[image of Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way, slapping me hard across the face, pulling me forward by my shoulder pads and shaking me]

(I haven't read The Artist's Way. I can never get through books like this, especially when there are exercises to do.)

I will write more when I can.

(K. I don't wear shoulder pads...Gosh.)

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

And the Response is?

Chicago Right Now by Anthea Behm

I've just been reading 'The Next President', an editorial in The New York Times (at the expense of the little bastard, sigh...).

Clearly exhilarated, the writer accounts for Obama's victory in the following way:

Showing extraordinary focus and quiet certainty, Mr. Obama swept away one political presumption after another to defeat first Hillary Clinton, who wanted to be president so badly that she lost her bearings, and then John McCain, who forsook his principles for a campaign built on anger and fear.

His triumph was decisive and sweeping, because he saw what is wrong with this country: the utter failure of government to protect its citizens. He offered a government that does not try to solve every problem but will do those things beyond the power of individual citizens: to regulate the economy fairly, keep the air clean and the food safe, ensure that the sick have access to health care, and educate children to compete in a globalized world.
I then read through a few pages of comments, to get a feel for how the people (not on FB, and not from Oxford) are responding to the news. Here is a range of comments:

I must say that this is truly exquisite. The great majority of this country has gathered in shared belief and we have united in our want to progress and look forward to our shared future. This is beautiful.

— Brooklyn Confidential, Brooklyn, NY

It hit me a couple of hours ago that my 7-year old son will grow up thinking that it isn't unusual for a black person to be President. He's aware that this is important and we've talked about why, but he will grow up thinking it's pretty normal. And when the first woman, first Asian, first Jew, first Muslim, or Buddhist, etc. is elected, it will be that much more less amazing for him.

What a great legacy to grow up with. I didn't think I would see this until I was an old woman.

Congratulations Mr. President-Elect--you've given me my faith back.

— RAM, Scottsdale, AZ

Congratulations to all Americans for electing Obama. Like you, Australians also sought change and hope when we elected a new government last year, overwhelmingly throwing out of office John Howard - George W Bush's best mate. Our country is going forward despite these tough times and I'm sure that with the renewed vision of your new government, America will regain it's rightful position of honour and trust throughout the rest of the world. Well Done!

— Sharyn, Western Australia

A big BRAVO for have risen to the level of your pretensions.

Neither being black nor having Hussein for a middle name dettered you from doing the right thing.

OBAMA will be good to the USA; hopefully he will also be good to the rest of the world by leading a non arrogant and non aggressive USA.


— Omar I Nashashibi, Amman/Jordan

“Interconnectedness” and Media Support for the Obama Candidacy

The liberal media served the Obama campaign. The real losers in this election are the American people - not because Obama was elected - but because the media cast aside the once respected profession of journalism to elect Obama. While journalism has leaned to the left for sometime, this election was especially one-sided.

Why was the liberal media so invested in an Obama candidacy?

1. To the family of liberal journalist, America is the rogue state, not Iran, North Korea or Syria. America is the problem. The elite media believes that during the Bush years, our foreign policy was run by a gang of neocons who concocted a lie about WMDs, and abused the concept of preemptive war, to unilaterally attack Iraq. Bush applied “cowboy diplomacy” to bully other nations while the “war on terror” inflamed Islamic and western relations. It is the US that provoked Russia by supporting democracy in Georgia, advancing NATO to Russia’s doorstep and recognizing Kosovo. In addition, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated a limit to American power and imperialism. In the brave new world of “interconnectedness”, European diplomacy now leads the community of nations. The elite media fully believes that we have entered the post-American world.

2. The media invested in the election of the first African American in our country‘s history, but Obama’s African heritage was much less important than his liberal agenda (remember Clarence Thomas?). Obama’s policies will transform American capitalism toward European socialism.

The media realized that Obama was a flawed candidate - inexperienced with few accomplishments, and the owner of a rich history of cronyism, bad judgments and questionable associations. Even with an economy headed for recession, financial turmoil, two unpopular wars and a Bush approval rating hovering around 30%, the Obama Presidency was still not assured in conservative America. Too much was at stake in this election to rely on balanced journalism, so our media acted on behalf of Obama - much like a 527 - and relentlessly attacked the Republican nominees (especially Palin). Lower standards of investigative journalism were applied to Obama. When McCain questioned Obama’s Chicago connections, the Obama campaign - backed by the media - shouted racism to protect him.

The liberal media has lost credibility and abused their power. Consider the media’s role as a government watchdog. Will liberal journalist report government abuses as enthusiastically (or at all) for an Obama administration and a democratically controlled Congress as they did during the Bush years?

I sincerely doubt it. The world’s “interconnectedness” is at stake.

— Tom Wonacott, Boise

For The Republicans who feel the loss- don't be afraid- the world is with the USA now.

— J Madison, Sydney Australia


Congratulations Mr.Barack Obama ! for YOUR LAND SLIDE VICTORY.World has got riddance of the spectre of fear sychosis. A good Samaritan has arrived like a fresh breez to address the global problems like Terrorism and USA centric massive economic recession that is engulfing all nations .May peace and progress dawn and shine!

— jalaramaiah, ONGOLE-(INDIA)

nobama won this election because Americans don't have the stomach to fight islamic terrorism until it is defeated AND because of economic issues traceable to democratic policies around putting people in homes they can't afford.

Irony infinity.

— Adoptive Father, Los Angeles

Our long national nightmare is finally over. Godspeed Mr. Obama.

— Peter B, Massachusetts

I think about President-Elect Obama's work to do in this incredible period of humanity and remember Danny Glover's line in the first 'Lethal Weapon' movie:'This is a tough crowd. Baby, you best not stink!!

— stone1262, Missouri

Woken Up to a New World Leader-Elect

Chicago Right Now by Anthea Behm

It was ambitious of me to go to bed early last night. I was like a kid waiting for my Chrissy stash. For the sake of any future memory loss ('hi old me!'): it was the US presidential elections last night (UK time). Obama was declared victorious at around 11pm his time, 4am mine. I could hear lots of chat and laughter from the College bar throughout the night while I tossed and turned in bed. I was very tempted to throw on my dressing gown and walk on over, but I decided yesterday (of all days) to break my habit of late night bursts of energy, groggy mornings and jumpy, adrenaliny days.

It's all very exciting though. These elections have been squarely in the background of my life and everyone else's (my friends, family, fellow bloggers, international journalists etc) for at least a few months now.

On Monday night a few of us sat around after College dinner discussing a range of things from whether Australians, by nature, slightly distrust charisma in politicians (in this case Obama*), whether a black man is a more respectable form of authority than a white woman (offered up by a Hillary fan) to what reached almost complete consenus: just how deflating and stifling it would be if McCain and Palin won, and Obama and Biden lost. It would pretty much mean (or have meant!) that articulacy, intelligence, compassion and newness are just too scary. (I say 'almost' because we had a devoted Republican and huge McCain fan among us.)

*The Boy says that the Brits were similarly suspicious when Blair was first on the scene, but now expect a bit of the dazzle.

Chicago Right Now by Anthea Behm

Going off Facebook data, nearly all of my friends, especially my Merican ones, are jubilant. One Oxford pal said she will now be able to return home, her faith in her country renewed. I spotted one student say in a 'comment' that she was sad as a McCain fan but did not feel comfortable expressing her disappointment 'in these parts'. Some - mostly non-Americans - are curious, wary or even cynical about the nature of this promised 'Change' and are waiting to see how it all plays out once the god-like posters are put away. I feel positive, and definitely more curious than cautious, which is good.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Pony and Wolf

I am back in the saddle this week, the write-up saddle, that is. It's been quite slow to get the old pony (a mountain pony, as my friend says) cantering again after a week or so grazing apparently (dealing with intense family stuff).

I am in the middle of a paragraph and am clearly using this blog as escapism. But I am writing about 'ritual ordeal' which draws on the 'humiliation' literature that seems scarily relevant to my life as a DPhil student. The literature mainly comes from sociologists and psychologists interested in various phenomena, from socialization to genocide.

Scholars tend to agree that humiliation - an interaction between two or more people or countries which involves the use of scorn, ridicule, contempt and degrading treatment - is an effective mechanism to ensure the internalization or outward display of various behaviours, norms and values. Typical examples of institutions who use such mechanisms are professions (the military being the most obvious), prisons, schools and the family.

The family is an interesting one. One writer, Dr Donald C. Klein, makes the connection between the conditionality of parental acceptance and approval - a prosocial tool to shape the child into an adult - and the actute and continued sensitivity of humans (and therefore societies) to humiliation and then, in many cases, to any form of criticism.

He cites Mark Twain's The United States of Lyncherdom:

"Each man is afraid of his neighbor's disapproval- a thing which, to the general run of the human race, is more dreaded than wolves and death."
Disapproval is something we fear, but at the same time with which we are familiar. Easy love and acceptance are then often perceived as ambiguous, reckless, uncomfortable, suspicious and/or stupid. At the end of his piece, Klein wonders whether there is another way of socializing children into adults.

In the middle of reading this literature, my supervisor informed me that she was going to be "very hard on me" until I submit my thesis. I am in a strange phase of life where negative stimulus still works very, very well to a certain point (and I am in many ways grateful for the push), but I tend to prefer and am trying to rely more and more on positive encouragement, and less cloudy, fearful motivations (from myself and others).

Nonetheless, it's tough to break old habits and, I've got to say, I am often and still not very far from the humiliation model. Let me know if you have any healthier alternatives for me...I will pass them on to Dr Klein as well!

Monday, 27 October 2008

Nature's Treats

A school friend asked me for a hot tip for her weekend in Montreal. It took me back a couple of years to this gorgeous morning I had with a Professor-friend of mine at a food and flower market in Little Italy.


Fresh produce displays are perfect for photographs - kaleidoscopic, sumptuous, and, importantly, slightly haphazard and therefore cheeky - and should be distinguished from nature's nightmares: snake skin, rare skin diseases and wasp eggs.

Kate - it has come to light (by you) that you love symmetry (see last post), but would that include naturally tessellated patterns? If so, you are of sick mind and I am not sure I can help you. Actually, Kate, can you please show me some pictures of symmetrical things as phase one of my self-imposed cognitive behavioural therapy? No, really.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Sheer Indulgence!

I have been tagged twice - by Kate at love you big and Alice at The Plot Thickens, which essentially means I have been firmly prodded to write about myself. This has not taken much convincing. The main reason for the delay is that I have been overseas for the week visiting my mother in hospital. I feel very glad and grateful that I was able go over there to nurture and comfort her, and to make my father's experience a little less intense. I am about to write to my College to thank them for helping pay for my trip. They're good like that, Oxford Colleges.

But while I am on this train and just to balance out my otherwise fairly positive post, there's nothing quite like a shared room in a hospital to get one more susceptible to agitation and neurotic hand-washing (it was, of all things, clean hands awareness week at the hospital so I couldn't walk two metres without a sign reminding me of the micro-beasts going around), and probably, to slight misanthropy, which came for me in the form of resenting my mother's lung-challenged neighbour and his family. They happened to be Chinese. I know I am treading dangerously here, but the Chinese language is a more shouty than English and, generally, Chinese people are less concerned about dance space or sharing bodily fluids than others. That said, perhaps it was just that this poor guy was a moaner and that his large family (as distinct from Chinese people in general) happened to be loud-talkers with colds that needed immediate relief by violently snorting the matter out, who did not mind half sitting in my mother's section, thinly demarcated by a rather dirty sheet. As you can see, stress and anxiety about a loved one can lead to clawy, distrustful thinking. There's something in that.

Anyway, back to the task at hand. I am supposed to share seven random, curious facts about myself.

Fact 1: I am obsessed with banana smoothies. I think about them fondly a lot of the time, and excessively at least twice per week. There is only one place in Oxford - G&D's if you need to know - where one can buy adequate smoothies. The problem is that the English aren't really into smoothies or milk and fruit based drinks. They're just getting the hang of juice drinks with more than one fruity ingredient - what they often call smoothies - and their milkshakes are most often made with artificial flavourings. It's most distressing. Sipping a cold banana smoothie - soft, creamy, potassium-rich with a light bubbling on the surface - is one of life's true delights.

Fact 2: One of my strengths and beloved pastimes is working out (in less and less time) where people's features come from. I thoroughly enjoy dividing up people's faces according to what they received from which parent, relative or side of the family. I use this model when working out whether a relationship will last, based on research at the Ponds Institute (code name for research of questionable validity, usually evidenced by an attractive woman in a white coat pointing out how red dots turn into blue dots). I advise my friends to make sure that their chosen mate has some prominent features in common with themselves or with their family members. One of my brothers (who is married to someone who could be mistaken for my cousin) believes that this model could account for everyone since nearly everyone has 'noses' or 'eyes'. Of course, an explanatory theory that explains everything and therefore cannot be disputed is completely useless. But I would argue that he really doesn't appreciate its finer nuances. My sister and my aunt are exponents. They understand my love of baby photographs (particularly those with the blubbering parents nearby for comparison).

Fact 3: I love a hobby. My hobbies include life drawing, belly dancing, coxing, watching debates at the Union, reading, netball, bike-riding, watching films, listening to Stephen Fry's podcasts, happily selecting fruit and veg at the local farmers' market (with all the North Oxford parents in faux hippy threads) and going on nature walks. Yes, I do love a hobby. That said, I always feel a bit self-conscious about including my hobbies on a CV. I think writing 'reading', for example, sounds a bit silly or self-important. I tend to only include official hobbies.

Fact 4: I am a very good teacher. I love to share knowledge and ideas (not least because it also helps me learn). I enjoy helping other people learn and reflecting on how to better make this happen. I also take the pastoral care element of teaching quite seriously. The teacher-learner interaction makes me feel far more grounded and calm. I have taught various subjects to loads of people from each level of schooling since I was 15 and I can't wait to get back to it. I hope that didn't sound like a self-statement in a CV!?

Fact 5: I am a middle child and possess many of the traits associated (again see the Ponds Institute research archive) with a middle child, such as an acute sense of drama, a need for attention and assurance (sometimes a terrible combination), an informal tone, a good (thoughtful, reliable and regular) communicator and family messenger, emotional maturity and a desire to support and care for others in a quiet way, and a striking respect for authority (which does not always work well with the informal tone).

Fact 6: I have this enduring desire to learn more about Astronomy (not to be confused with Astrology, in which I am already an expert*). I have managed to buy myself Astronomy for Dummies, but I think I need some structured learning. I can't seem to get past the first few pages. I am not sure what that says about me.

Fact 7: I do not like symmetrical things.

Now in complete breach of the rules ('what about that respect for authority?' you might ask), I am not going to keep the tag going, if only because I have very few people to tag in blogland and I fear they have barely caught up with my last prod (the blog award!). But if anyone on blogland reads this - Alana for instance - please do join me on this wonderful identity-affirming slippery dip! It's fun!

Here are the rules:

1. Link to your tagger and list these rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 facts about yourself, some random, some weird.
3.Tag 7 people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blog.
4. Let them know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

*I lie.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Best of Autumn Weather Series

Two posts ago, I mentioned that Oxford had been playing the 'Best of Autumn Weather Series' on loud speaker. I thought I would put up some pics to illustrate just how lovely it has been, and for over two weeks as well! These are just a few of the many photographs I snapped happily on my way from College to my Department one morning last week. The backs of those North Oxford houses above can be seen from an adjacent street which I use almost daily. A few minutes further along towards town and I find the walled path leading to the University Parks shown below, one of the most delightful parts of Oxford. I have heard many students comment on what I too have noticed: the healing (re-energising, soothing, grounding) properties of a walk through the Parks...

Friday, 10 October 2008

Blue Day 2008

October 10 is World Mental Health or Blue Day! A day when the tech and social media community in Australia can work together to raise the awareness of anxiety and depression. Register your support today.

One of my family members has depression and one thing we spoke about last night on the phone was their frustration that depression was often perceived by others as an all encompassing trait, unlike say Diabetes or a lost limb. But they also acknowledged how hard (and I would add tiring) it is for people to know what the symptoms of depression are versus what would count for any one else as 'normal' neurotic (negative, obsessive, sentimental) behaviour or critical thinking.

Fortunately, they are feeling far more balanced these days, and probably the most positive they have felt in a decade, which is wonderful. Although, I have got to say after such a sustained period of intense lows, the sudden change has left me with some vague (and not admirable) feelings of 'Hang on a minute, I have yet to catch up! No one warned me!' Overall, of course, I am feeling excited and smiley for them.

Keep going! We're all here to share in it!

Tea and Tigers

This week's been pretty rough. I say that, and yet I am not entirely comfortable with starting out my post on that basis. I feel quite content actually. I have a welcome breeze at my side, as part of the best of Autumn weather series that we're currently enjoying, and I have a conference paper to edit before meeting a friend for a hot chocolate on North Parade this evening. I have just received an email from Apple to say that my iPhoto book of family photographs has been shipped. I have been working on it for a while now, an epic family album for my parents, and I am quietly pleased that they can only send it to me (in the U.K.) which means that I can take a quick squiz before sending it on to its home in Australia. It's a surprise present from all the kids, so don't tell them.

But it has been rough, I've got to say. My Mum is seriously ill in hospital and it is uncertain how long she will be there and whether there will be a full recovery. I was told on Monday night. I feel like a small bird making quick darts into a caged wall. Add a family emergency and some jumpy sleeps, and Oxford can shift very quickly from haven of liberal scholars to prison of self-important shits. There have been some other difficult things to deal with as well, but I don't feel like writing about them here.

Nevertheless, after a massage yesterday, and a more restful sleep last night, I feel far less overwhelmed. I am trying to keep it manageable - one day or even one step at a time, as two friends (one in Oxford, one in Oz) have reminded me. My priorities are: (1) To do what I can to make my mum feel more comfortable, loved and positive (phonecalls, flowers, iPod of her favourite music, open communication with rest of family); (2) To finish my paper for next week's conference; (3) To give myself what I need to feel less alarmed (or ready for a tiger to swipe then munch me and my babies in the night): good food, fresh air, routine, the presence of older friends, and some space from the College scene.

One of my friends here told me that things in Oxford are far more tangible and secure than they appear when you're in crisis mode. He said that I just have to reach out and lean against its walls. It's true - a lovely friend from College treated me to tea and sympathy yesterday, my College has offered to pay for a flight if necessary, and even someone whom I have known for only a few days offered to run errands for me. Note to self: just as I would always try to help out someone else in need, most people would do the same for me. I just have to ask.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Freshers' Week

After a long sojourn au countryside, I have finally returned to my College, to a new room overlooking pretty things, which is important. As I type this, in the corner of my eye there is a golden tree being lit up by soft morning light and copied in the rippling water. I am reacquainting myself with matinal lawn-mowing. The College policy is to excessively trim and blow. The leaf-blowing can make me want to crush things. But there is no leaf-blowing today. It is crisp and promising. I am feeling peaceful and ready to work.

It's the start of Noughth Week or Freshers' Week, a week that ends when everyone has Grotty Flu. I went to the College Bar last night to rebond with friends who have returned from various trips, fieldwork stints and write-up caves. I became embroiled in rowing and Australians v New Zealander banter, which didn't thrill me, but the rest was most enjoyable indeed [wobble chin]. We asked about each other's holidays, relationships, research and plans for the year. There are many lovely 'freshers' (new students) and, as a group, they seem ebullient, if a little hyper. Every year has a personality, you see. Since I have been here it has been: eccentric, brutal, earnest, and close and cliquey. It's too early to say for sure what this year's is.

I told Kiwi Fresher, who called me 'Dingo' and kept on mimicking my voice that he had a week to get over me being Australian. He said to give him two days. Deal.

You can already see the grip of College Neurosis over the freshers in their striking need for attention and acceptance. For freshers, Michaelmas Term means an almost constant drive to give sound bites, to make sure everyone knows just how carefree your personality is (It's so carefree, don't you think? Don't you think? Tell me!), to make absolute claims about what you're about and how much you know, to link arms with people you met 30 seconds ago, to give freebie rubs and strokes to everyone - even the catering staff - en route to the toilet or the tray rack, to be involved in every dinner plan (like the international dinner which apparently took place last night), punting session or dress-up activity.

In this kerazy environment, things are often misinterpreted. Last night, for instance, Outrageous 'I drink red wine every night' Fresher completely missed the ironic tone of an admittedly fairly poor (but nonetheless objectively harmless) joke I made about freshers. I didn't think it would bring the house down, but I thought it might elicit a bit of a chortle [cross/ rejection noise from Family Feud].

When I caught Outrageous Fresher alone, I told her that I think she had misunderstood my intentions. She agreed. But it was silly of me, really. Freshers' Week is no laughing matter. There are a lot of exuberant faces, wild hand gestures and petit scandals, all of which come to a crescendo at the Saturday's 'Uniform' (with a hint of slag) bop or College party, but it's all too fresh for the freshers (haha, see what I did there?) to laugh at right now.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008