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