Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Thesis Write-up Distraction number 23

My current needs and wants:
  1. Rainbow space clothes
  2. A few throwable stars made in my throwable star making machine
  3. A throwable star making machine
  4. Blonde hair (childhood is easier for you bitches!)
  5. A flashy horse
  6. Some fuzzy and non-fuzzy friends (including Buddy, a hot blue dude with a star sweatband) to do the grunt work at my throwable star factory
  7. Enemies who don't hold grudges when you put them through the ringer
  8. A job in charge of colours

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Belly Dance Faves

Middle Eastern dance or belly dancing is my principal hobby here in Oxford. It's a wonderful form of female bonding and expression, exercise, stress-reduction and confidence-boosting. I connect more with its female-only origins (fertility and marriage rites) than its relatively recent connotations as a public spectacle for men and I have found that people 'in the industry', both female and male, experience and perceive it as something beautiful, graceful and playful rather than bawdy or even primarily erotic.

For me, belly dance is a lovely excuse to wear sequins, coins, bindis, layered skirts, mermaidesque outfits, eclectic jewelry, feathers, flowers, veils, and gold ballet slippers. The sensuality, vibrancy, and fellowship of belly dance are especially dear to me while I spend most of my time by myself in front of a computer screen analysing things.

Just in case you're thinking about taking it up but are nervous about your lack of dance background: I was not one of those jazz-hands or tight-hair bun-with-glitter gel-and-scrunchie kids and I have rarely felt frustrated by it. You really can start at any level of ability and experience. Belly dance fits around you!

Here are two of my favourite performers at the moment who represent two very different forms of dance ('traditional'/ sensual and Tribal):


Samantha Hasthorpe

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Pity Party

While I often scoff at the English, I do admire their steelines (or emotional unavailability) at times. When my (English) boyfriend's friends are having difficult times they will meet at the pub, engage in playful banter of the Jeeves and Wooster variety and go home. Whenever I ask about the psychological well-being of his friends, he provides me with a few broad comments - fish to the seal's mouth - but generally no details. Indeed, Australian men also like to assuage their grief with a spot of tennis, surfing or drinking. That said, the one: one (woe is me) talk is noticeably more popular amongst men these days (along with skin care regimes and long fringes).

Women are more likely (perhaps soon only barely more likely) to share every fear, change of pulse, criticism received, perceived injustice and confrontation. Now, I don't like giving women a hard time - we're beautiful, creative, complex beings and we have enough to deal with already - but I've got to be honest, I'm a bit frustrated with our tendencies to have 'pity parties'.

Pity parties are festivities where people sit around in a cafe, college, or bedroom and go round the group to exchange long, solemn explanations of a series of catastrophes that have happened in the last 24 hours. What's more, even though the feedback is nearly always sympathetic and often very thoughtful and practical, it's not uncommon for one of the other party guests to be heard telling the exact same story of horror to a new earnest listener only hours later. Wanting problems to be validated rather than immediately solved is fine - there's nothing more frustrating than an quickfire solution when you're actually looking for reassurance. But there's also something to be said for exercising 'the right to silence', as Theodore Dalrymple has put it. In other words, not saying anything at all, just letting it pass from the mind, having a brisk walk or a dance in the living room to "Somebody Else's Guy," or even just exercising a bit old fashion suppression (not for too long, of course, and not for things that are actually traumatic and overwhelming).

I have been thinking about this for a while. It came to a particularly intense crescendo when I attended a feedback session for a Springboard (women's professional development) course I was signed up for as a last minute filler. As an aside, I would recommend certain aspects of the course, specifically learning the skills needed to ask for what you want or need from bosses, colleagues and associates. Put simply, this involves communicating in an assertive (not an aggressive or sulky) way and being aware of the 'Flossy' syndrome: the tendency of certain women and some men to work in a diligent, but approval-seeking way whereby colleagues dump more and more work on them - thinking to themselves 'great, a cheap PA as well' - while the poor sod hopes that the boss will take it upon himself or herself to translate their productivity and commitment into financial and status rewards. Na-ah girlfreeeend!

In any case (ahem), all of us decided that a couple of months after the course ended we would get together to discuss what 'specific actions' we'd set for ourselves and whether we'd meet them. This seemed like a beneficial and constructive activity. And on my way there, I had that feeling that the winds of high-spirited, unrestrained joy were going to whip my face so forcefully that I would have to put vaseline on my cheeks. But what transpired was rather the opposite: a bunch of drowsy, pitiful women with rounded shoulders expressing various forms of disssatisfaction about how their specific actions (including having the walls painted as part of the broader 'goal' of finally getting the renovations done) had been thwarted (by lazy tradesmen and unsupportive husbands). Once someone had almost finished what she was saying, at least two women would frenziedly agree and declare their equal or worse painter/tradesman story. While some of the other specific actions were more grand and therefore made me feel slightly less pathetic by association, they still engendered the same response: lots of gasps, dumb nodding faces, 'how are you coping?s' I was waiting for someone to hold their heaving bosom and break down. At least then there would be some sort of bubbling over.

I could barely hide my contempt. Actually, I didn't. My eyes became squinty and I may have chucked out a few barbed comments as a sort of tantrum. I said I didn't want to meet up again if we were just going to sit around and share catastrophes. Not too smooth. It was, of course, partly about my own inadequacies as a queen catastophiser - something that I am trying to shake off rather than indulge (I say, as I write a blog).

Clifford Orwin's description of Neitzsche's view on pity, as a kind of inhuman fear of personal suffering, chimes:

Pity, while a temptation (even the final or most powerful temptation) to the higher man, was primarily the preserve of lower ones. These, Nietzsche dared to think, wallowed in it as swine do in mud, their pity for others being indistinguishable from their pity for themselves. This preoccupation with pity, the modern epidemic (which, as Nietzsche says, glancing at Schopenhauer, “has made even philosophers sick”), was the sign of a declining life form, an anesthetic for incurable sufferers. It pointed the way toward the last man, who would feel nothing and long for nothing.

Although Nietzsche often described himself (and has been described by others) as an immoralist, his ultimate objection to compassion was an ethical one. The core of humanity was its ambition to greatness, and all greatness depended on suffering. The modern project of compassion, then, taken as the elimination of suffering, was ipso facto a campaign against humanity as such in favor of a descent into the subhuman.

I have managed to say to myself already today (in the shower as I began bemoaning my lot), 'Pull yourself together!' (I tried the 'let it pass' approach, but sometimes that's not enough.) That's what I am going to say if one of my friends calls me up for another 45-minute session about the shortcomings of her man. That or, 'please exercise your right to silence'.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Dorset Day Trip

Yesterday my boyfriend and I had a day trip to Dorset in Southern England. When I arrived, my state of mind was still critical and slightly threatened. The car journey had not adjusted my outlook of the day of study before, nor of the morning being too hot in my covers and disturbed by dreams about .... I had found the car trip down there worrisome because the brakes on my boyfriend's car are bald and so I kept imagining us careering into a 'lorry' and being on the ITV news (with a gruesome reporter at the scene and then quotes from my facebook wallposts read out).

We arrived in Poole, parked our car in the carpark that had so many "beware of thieves, together we can catch them" signs that I almost decided to can the whole idea and just go home. We bought our tickets to the famous Brownsea Island (birthplace of the scouts) from the ripe banana ticket booth. Yes, the garish colour drew us to that particular booth (and ferry company) over the more tasteful white with blue trimming one next door that was technically closer to the car park. "Ferry riders must still pay an admission fee on the island" - I wondered how many people complained of being misled before that sign was put up. Actually, I wonder how many English people did not complain about this before the sign was put up.

My fellow passengers on the unripe banana ferry were young families (with nearly every kid in pastel-striped clothes, mothers with broad bottoms, pedal pushers, singlet tops or vests, as they call them here, and streaked blond hair and fathers dressed like 14 year olds in simple shorts to the knee, boring cotton t-shirts, new sunglasses with reflectors and chunky 'sandals' and chunky watches), "I can imagine exactly what you looked like as a teenager" scout leaders defiant in their (1984 Australian Olympic team) uniforms and their befringed (and then spiked down into sections across the forehead) charges.

A few of the kids were crying. One child was crying with her mouth full of chocolate that kept falling out onto the floor, only for the mother to put more in her mouth, then the dad kept picking her up and tipping her upside down to make her laugh. She would invariably start to cry and motion for her mother. I saw this family later on the island and the little boy was screaming while the father gave him the classic 'twisty arm' (pull around the arm while slightly lifting kid off floor). He was saying 'this is not how a scout should behave!' Then his friend said to his son 'see, this is what happens when you're naughty'. At the same time, the first father gave his son a camera to take a photograph of the peacock as a kind of peace offering so the second father had to say 'I meant what happened before is what happens... Now go take a photo with Jake!'

My blood pressure did not drop or my mind ease until I was in the middle of the woods, when the trees enveloped me, when the moss from the trees blew cheeky breezes on my arms. My feet enjoyed spongy earth, pine cones, greasy foliage, grey pebbles and then, finally, a thin strip of light orange sand being covered and uncovered by the gently foaming sea. There is nothing as dramatic on Brownsea Island as the scenery one can find in Australia with far less effort. But it is a different process to be calmed by the safe simplicity and delicateness of nature (even the mountains in England host buttercups and happy horses), than to be humbled by its might and splendour. I breathed out.

After lunch, we headed to Durdle Door, Lulworth Cove. This is one of the most incredible parts of England I have seen. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is its magnificent scale that delights me. The grass on the vast hills is short and contented green, the cliffs are chalk, the water is the best water green-blue there is. I have swum giddily off this coast before. It is as though you could swim out forever, make a run for it, escape the land mass and your life for a bit. Couples who have not laughed nor playfully grabbed onto each other for a long time do. They help each other step back to their towels over the tough, fall-away stones. They moan in a way that says you are my best friend. All this splashy, splashy makes me turn to my boyfriend and laugh and put smooth (velvet, melted chocolate, silk, jelly-smooth) pebbles in a pattern on his face. He says he feels like a fish on the bottom of the sea. As we stair master up the cliff again to the car park I ruin the moment of present-mindedness by pointing out the painfully pretty flowers on the coastline and asking him whether they would make good wedding flowers or whether people would think they're not really wedding flowers. My few hours of bliss are over. It's time to get in the car and to begin getting tired and irritable again.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Self-presentation Through Facebook Photo Albums

The other night I was in an insipid bar with fellow graduate students. The mood was grim with the heavy weight of exams, thesis write-ups, and general alcohol and college food-related sluggishness. We self-consciously and frantically cheered each other up with drinking games (throwing a penny in a glass to enforce skulling), grisly dentistry and burn stories, unsubtle sexual comments and by re-enacting happier times together; what have become our collective myths.

But we rode home on our cheap town bikes with flashing LED lights feeling desperate, undignified, wanting, calculating who had received the most attention, why our jokes and anecdotes were not indulged but, rather, taken as challenges for someone else, why no one cared about our academic progress, our families, our dreams and goals since these seemed to get in the way, to be incomprehensible and dull, or to be seen as bait for the insecure and competitive.

Let's face it, most graduate students at elite universities would be more likely to share verbal gun shots than anything else if there weren't the threat of collegial sanctions, and of course if there wasn't some chance that these verbose frenemies would soon become the next leader of one's country, one's boss, a celebrity campaigner with a rainbow family, end up in statue form.

What has become a prevalent way to release envy, tension, boredom, to make things right, to restore a sense of wholesome fun, egalitarianism and community is the immediate creation and posting of Facebook photo albums. Often these albums are created seemingly at the same time that the creator is moaning about their supervisor and necking their house red. Through the creation of online albums, one can present all of those moments where one's social group is together, giggling, leaning on one another, touching breasts, intensely pouting, making silly faces, tipping beer on someone's head, cuddling, smiling crazily. This is where one can erase all those moments only seconds before the photograph was taken where we wondered what on earth we were doing with these people, again, when we wondered whether things would become more interesting if we stayed, when we anxiously hoped that we would be accepted, validated, understood, made to feel clever, funny, popular, astute and special.

Facebook is, as Alice Mathias has said:
an online community theater. In costumes we customize in a backstage makeup room — the Edit Profile page, where we can add a few Favorite Books or touch up our About Me section — we deliver our lines on the very public stage of friends’ walls or photo albums. And because every time we join a network, post a link or make another friend it’s immediately made visible to others via the News Feed, every Facebook act is a soliloquy to our anonymous audience.
Mathias was in all likelihood drawing on Goffman's (1959) dramaturgical analysis. Goffman sees social life as though played out by actors on a stage. Most of our social lives can be divided into the front stage - where we act our formal roles in our encounters with people - and the back stage - where we assemble props and prepare ourselves for these "onstage performances".

This feature of Facebook allows for a curious and disturbing form of self-performance. The photo albums we present to ourselves and to the rest of our online world can eclipse the actual experience (indeed the very act of taking the photographs can engender a sad competition to be included amongst friends). The albums allow us to deceive ourselves and each other that the past was glorious, that we are celebrated.

But sometimes we're not celebrated. I'm still waiting for one of last night's photos to include my exuberant face.

[photo courtesy of mrquicknet under Creative Commons license]