Thursday, 15 January 2009

The Measures by which We Judge Success

When I was little I wanted to be an artist. For a while my dad spoke of giving neighbourhood art classes and advertising for kids to attend. His first two pupils were my brother and I. I think we only had about 2 classes (both still-life). Back then there was never a 'purpose' to making anything. I drew lots, and came up with other ways to make stuff (often beginning on a project without knowing what it was going to become).

Later I decided that artists don't make any money and probably have to live horribly financially constrained lives. I decided to be a writer (insert belly laugh here). I liked reading, and the idea of wagging a pen for money seemed too good to be true. I never felt compelled to write fiction - I made this decision when I was old enough to know that there were such things as non-fiction. I never read any of it but I was aware of its existence. I think this is more or less what I decided to do with myself when I eventually had to seek gainful employment.

I went to school and did pretty well. I excelled in maths and sciences, especially stats, calculus, and chemistry. I loved chemistry, and stats too (insert sounds of retching and moans here). Some people assume (judging by the questions they ask me), that I decided to forgo sciences for humanities because I wanted to be a writer. I think it's an easy misconception to have about English literature students - you study literature, so you want to make some, right? Why study coaches if you're not going to be a coach-maker?

In high school I was faced with deciding what to do in university, which at the time felt like choosing the shape of the rest of my life. I remember sitting in the school corridor with my closest friend at the time, discussing our future options. Her father was a dentist, and she has always wanted to be one. Perhaps in part because she admired her father - but if so she never cited it as an explicit reason. She was a very practical girl, and mostly (from what I recall) explained her desire to become a dentist as a logical means of attaining the lifestyle she wanted. I remember her telling me that I could do well in computer engineering (my chemistry teacher recommended me to do engineering of any sort). This was the 90s, the net's boom time - among us starry eyed youngsters few options seemed more appealing than computer engineering (followed by, I assume, founding a successful company, selling it after a few years, and retiring a multi-billionaire by 30 - wild parties on yachts and the uniform adoration of friends and family).

Obviously I didn't choose that route. I can't very adequately explain why I chose English. Somewhere I recall thinking that science meant subjects with correct answers. If the answer to a question is 4 and you get 5, you're fucked. No two beans about it. English, on the other hand, can be argued. I come from a family of pathological arguers. I like arguing. But one thing that bothered me is the fact that in Canadian universities English is reminiscent of the joke about art school: 'How did you even get into art school?' - 'Same as anybody else. Failed my exams and applied' (if you recognize this joke from Red Dwarf, I salute you, fellow geek). Back then the entry requirement for English at some of the top Canadian universities (Toronto and Queens ranked high on my list) seemed retardedly low. The only prerequisite was English at an OAC level (Ontario Academic Credit, that standard which expired the same year I graduated, amidst panic of a 'double cohort' and the lack of room in Canadian universities as two years graduated at once), and an average of 70. Not to flaunt my adolescent intellect or anything, but I could get a 70 by pissing on my books all year. Amongst my Chinese friends, we joked that an 80 was a 'Chinese fail'. It was fashionable to tease each other about getting an 80. If we had gotten 70 we'd probably have crumbled and died. Or simply ceased to exist, because it would have been a universal impossibility.

I considered the prospect of entering my university level studies with dimwits who only managed a 70 to be bleak indeed. I attended a 'International University Fair' where most of the exhibitors were from the US (several from the Continent but as I am only proficient in English I discounted them). I have not very flattering opinions about life in the US - I've had them a long time. I found the only 2 exhibitors from English speaking countries outside of North America: the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Stirling. I've never heard of Stirling. I took a brochure for Edinburgh.

I also applied to Oxford that the interviewed was a bit of a debacle. At least to my mind it was. I think the missed the point altogether and was only mildly confused at why the woman across the table was being rude and pointlessly argumentative. I refrained, partly out of confusion and partly out of politeness, from telling her that I think she's being a bitch and an idiot to boot. I still have my doubts about the interview system.

In Edinburgh I had time to do well at school and also branch out a little. I learned to swing dance, juggle, appreciate a fine pub, and eat lots of meaty pies. I also got really into medieval Scottish literature, and enjoyed being the odd one out in terms of my academic interest. The idea that had formed sometime in high school - that since I was good at studying, I should just carry on and make a career of it - took root around this time. I met people who seemed to be living happily in the academic environment. I considered myself to have the potential to become one of them. I felt obliged to realize my potential.

Which brings me here: propped up in bed in Oxford, in my room.

As much as I am inclined to believe that it doesn't matter what other people think, the opinion of others still affect me - especially when they are uber-intelligent human beings. In Oxford I see smart people day in and day out. A good portion of them have chosen the Oxford life of an academic and it seems to suit them well. I am awed and fascinated by some, and I respect them and the work they do (if I didn't respect them I wouldn't mention it on my blog anyway). The whole environment seems to beckon like an alluring partner who is intelligent, stimulating, beautiful, and fascinating - he/she wants a long-term relationship, a commitment of time and energy, and I think, the best of much of what I have to offer. (I don't know if there are academics at Oxford who's heart is only half in what they do and use the job only as a matter of convenience out of appreciation for the lifestyle. If so I am heartily impressed that they manage to give anything but their damnest to their work.) I had lunch in the Senior Common Room today. The food was excellent. The table cloths were thick white damask. The butlers came and brushed crumbs off the table with a little brush. The toilets had fluffy white face-towel sized hand-towels. The conversation was fun and the company exciting (ok, exciting in its way). Did I mention the food?

Surely every student who passes through this place hears themselves think 'This could be mine.' Many of them probably strive to make it so. While food in hall is generally what I would call appalling, the two times I have been invited to partake in SCR fodder (lunch today and high table dinner during the scholars' dinner), I have been impressed by its opulence. ('But us poor academics! we live an ascetic life and know not the pleasures of the world! why not look at multi-billionaires with golden yachts and point your fingers at their lifestyles?' Shut up. It's opulence, and that's the long and short of it. There's people in Zimbabwe right now dying slowly and painfully of cholera due to the lack of public sanitation. You want to consider the multi-billionaires? why not put the rest of the world into the equation.? Anyone who has flushing toilets is living in opulence in my books. Shame if they don't realize it).

So do I hear myself think that? Funnily enough when I think of Keble College I see myself in one precise spot in my mind's eye: walking past the dinning room of the SCR, about to turn the corner and head into the main quad (you know, where there's an extremely thorny bush growing at the corner of the building. I have taken to considering that bush my friend. Don't ask me why). It's the place where I have often looked up and seen SCR members dinning by candle light. So of course I have thought 'Hmm. Not bad.'

But that is not all.

I think of myself as a go-getter and if I want something I'd just throw myself whole heartedly into obtaining it. I usually know pretty well what I want so when my friends tell me of their variously dithering situations ('not sure if I like this girl, she's a bit quiet and hasn't really opened up to me - I'm not sure how to interpret that. God knows I've tried to make a connection but...' Well for goodness sake, either you are burning with passion for her or it's just a casual fling not worth agonising about. If it's the former, go and accost her, woo her, assail her. If it's the latter then get drunk together, fall in each others' pants and be done with it already), I'm generally puzzled. I have now found (kind of) myself (a little) dithering about my life/career options.

The main thing though, is that I like to try new things. Have you ever watched this youtube video of Miss Pole-dance Australia? When I see that video I wish it could be me (don't give me the fun and fitness bullshit, ladies - this is about SEXY. If I do that, I don't want no giggling friends shouting 'You go, girl!' I want oggling men creaming their pants. Yes, you heard me. I'm not afraid of being the object of male (or lesbian) sexual desire. I don't think it's degrading. I think it's fan-fucking-tastic.) - and I don't want to stop at wishing.

When I was younger I used to listen to The Who and wish I could be a rock star. Now I listen to music and wish I were a pole dancer. I've had 2 lessons and I can honestly tell you that it was one of the most awesome things I've ever done. Excuse me for using the word 'awesome', which contradicts my pretentious robot (with a rude mouth) persona - it's the only word that I can think of. From what I recall it's just that: awesome.

Other than that I look into my future and see a studio - with a book press, lots of sharp instruments, dress forms, and textiles. I see a shop selling everything to quell your consumerist desires all made from environmentally friendly or recycled materials. I see a soup kitchen where I can feed people who need feeding, everyday. I see a charity where I can make sure poor girls are nicely dressed for their proms, and people who are starting their first job since they stopped doing heroine can come to me and get some decent looking work clothes.

I see myself getting blisteringly drunk and having a really, really good time.

Sometimes I see the SCR - but less so.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I need to remind myself of how I judge success - because that's what I would like to be: successful. I think I will have succeeded if I manage to do even just one or two of things in my dream-vision (and do it/them well). In comparison, whether I ever get a PhD or fulfil my academic potential seems less important, but it's hard to let that go when I have felt that it was the thing for me for such a long time.

Actually, to be honest with you, when I was in high school I used to say I'm only good at two things, one of them I wouldn't chose to make a living out of, and the other one is studying - so I'd better become an academic. People would ask me what the other thing was, and I'd tell them 'giving head.' I could explain to you why I was that way but it'd take too long and is outwith the scope of this rather long blog post. What I want to tell you is that in my heart of hearts I knew that academia is the safe choice for me, the wide path. Of course I was unaware, and remain less than fully knowledgeable, of its difficulties and perils - but you can't tell me that giving head for a living would have been easier, mmm? But I digress.

This kind of leads me back to the beginning again, to artists. I have noticed that I like to be able to go back the beginning at the end. When I was little I was pretty fearless (mainly out of sheer ignorance), and striking out into the world as an artist didn't scare me a bit. Well, even though I would no longer like to be an artist (unless you call any of my dream-vision professions being an artist), I think I'll need some of that fearlessness. Hopefully when the time comes I'll just know what to do to make myself the person I would like to be and live my dream-vision life.

Of course I might end up realizing (somewhere half way up a pole with bruises on the back of my knees from training, sweating buckets, getting naked, writhing to the bass line of some song, with an audience of men and lesbians drowning in a pool of their own drool) that medieval Scottish literature is where my talents truly lie. But Oxford's not going anywhere.

P.S. Hi Toph! Of course you are in my dream-vision too, all of it.
P.S.S. the photo of the studio is from The Design Sponge, and the inspirational quote at the beginning is from Creature Comforts.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Academic Ambitions

Would like to perform a pole dance routine wearing nothing but my scholar's gown - to an audience of academics.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Charitable Donation of the Month

This month's charitable ten quid went to Oxfam UK' Zimbabwe cholera crisis appeal.

I didn't make the donation on line but in person at the Oxfam bookshop on Turl street, where I stopped in to buy my mother a birthday card (and was tempted by a book about the history of the Orient Express).

What's cholera? It's a bacteria which spreads through contaminated water supply, and gives you severe diarrhea. It starts out watery brown and goes to just being a pale fluid - until you're drained dry. Death can occur from 12 to 18 hours afterwards, but can also persist for days. The principal treatment is oral rehydration therapy, and maybe a bit of antibiotics to shorten the course of the illness. Topher would like to add that it is essentially a disease associated with government breakdown, refugee camps etc. - where there is no public sanitation, and raw untreated sewage is allowed to run into the water supply (usually the river). It's completely avoidable given adequate investment in basic sanitation.

To me cholera is almost too horrible to contemplate in detail (a normal stomach upset is bad enough). I live in Britain, where there is almost nil chance of catching cholera, and oral rehydration sachets (blackcurrant flavoured) are available at every chemist's. In Zimbawe there are people who have no access to clean water, no public sewage works, and no healthcare.

According to the Oxfam website this is how they are responding to the humanitarian crisis:

A women collects water from a borehole rehabilitated by Oxfam in Kotwa. Photo: Robin HammondOxfam has launched an appeal to provide support to 1 million people in Zimbabwe. We have been responding to the growing crisis since October by rehabilitating water sources, carrying out hygiene promotion and providing soap, disinfectant and clean water.

So far our response has been focusing on three worst hit areas: Beitbridge on the South African border; Budiriro, a suburb of Harare; and Mudzi, an area bordering Mozambique. We also plan to start moving into areas where cholera has not hit, to proactively prevent the spread of the disease.

The thought of clean water sounds pretty good to me. So, if you wish to make a donation towards this appeal, visit the Oxfam website, or pop into one of their shops.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Imagining things in the library...

The Keble library can be a bit eerily quiet during the holidays. Open twenty-four hours and awful quiet once the students take off, it has large cubicles in old wood, lots of books, dim lighting, and a certain creakiness (as well as vaulted ceilings and red brickwork). Recently I saw a trailer for The Strangers, and can't stop my overly active imagination from firing away while I am suppose to be reading Chaucer in the library.

I sit right by the main entrance, and can hear the door slamming shut as people come in. There is only one entrance to the library (i.e. one exit). What if I were to see the masked man walk intently in, holding onto a cleaver?

Luckily so far all that I have seen are other harrased looking students.