20 February 2010


Two days ago I bussed to Oxford to give a paper. Nothing very exciting - not a very good paper, and at the graduate Romanticism seminar - but it was a trip to Oxford, a city I love, and I was going to be put overnight in one of the colleges and taken out to dinner. So it would be a tiny adventure.

And an adventure it was! First I got lost on the way to the bus stop. In Cambridge. The city where I live. A bus stop I've been to about six times before. I wandered around The Area of Cambridge Near the Park for about 15 minutes, and finally I had to humiliate myself by asking a denizen. Great. Then, when I got off the bus in Oxford, it was pouring. Fortunately, I'd brought an umbrella, but there's nothing like tromping through a downpour to make you feel less than your best. So I waded through the puddles and plopping drops to the college where I was going to be put up, and they handed over the key to my guest room and a helpful map of how to walk the 50 yards to it. And I took the map, upped my umbrella, exited the college, and...got lost. A college cleaner had to guide me to my room.

Which turned out to be a hovel. And I don't mean a dubiously decorated room, or a slightly down-at-heels chamber: I mean a hovel. It was in the basement, with a single bed that was really more of a camp bed, and energy saving bulbs that burned a heavy yellow when they were fully warmed up, thus augmenting the lovely acid yellow walls and illuminating to a dull glow the thin felt carpet and rickety bedside "table" holding an even more rickety lamp. Off to one side was the bathroom, complete with icy tile floor and luxuriant paper bathmat - it was like the ne plus ultra of those English bathrooms I wrote about once before. Since the room was in the basement next to the outdoor stairs and under the indoor stairs, I had the dubious privilege of hearing every person entering or leaving the building, as well as all conversation that occurred on the stairs inside. Not that I overheard anything juicy, but I felt like the maid in a Victorian household.

This was a kind of room that I thought had vanished from England in the 1990s, when you found them in the cheaper (by which I mean cheapest) hotels. I certainly did not expect to find one as a guest room at an Oxford University college. I was so enchanted/amazed/horrified that I took photos. Yes, that is the staircase you can see at the back of the bathroom. If you look carefully at the top of the one of the room, you can see the large beam in the ceiling, though, which actually was quite nice.

As I used to say to Dr. Higher when we pulled up at one of the more questionable of the Ruhrgebiet hotels in which we stayed, Es sagt qualit├Ąt!

So, after putting on some make-up and turning on the heater so the hovel would be toasty upon my return, it was off to give the talk! Except it wasn't, because when my fraicquaintance the convener G., and the "tech guy" (that's right: I needed a tech guy - except that he was really just a classicist working on Keats who happened to know how to set up the room projector), and I arrived at the porter's lodge to pick up the key, it transpired that there had been a change in policy over the last two weeks, and all keys to all public meeting rooms in the college had to be picked up by a member of the college. The member of the college was "Susan," the co-convener, but "Susan" was off on a research trip to London for the night. So...no key would be handed over. Ah, the English. This is where they really shine. The porters just couldn't give us the key, because despite the fact that the convener with me was a member of aNOTHER college, and despite the fact that the seminar was a weekly event and so familiar to the porters, rules were rules, and if they broke them for us they'd have to break them for everybody (although no one else was in the room). I stood there thinking, Oh, my God, I'm going to have come all the way to Oxford just so I can walk through the pouring rain to have dinner out and spend the night in the room of an abused servant. But instead we all asked if there was someone else we could see about this, and the porters suggested the bursar.

So off we went to see the bursar, who couldn't make an exception for us because that would mean contravening the dean, who'd made the initial rule, and he couldn't undermine the dean's authority (despite the fact that the dean wasn't around to know, and nor was anyone else). At that point I left the room, because I discovered that I had a rage problem - and when I say, "I discovered," I mean, I discovered it because I wanted to punch the bursar in the face. So I waited in an outside room while something mysterious happened, and we were at last allowed to have the key! So we trooped back to the Porter's Lodge, where the porters acted as if they'd never seen us before in their lives, and they were delighted to hand over the key. They were also delighted to hand over the a/v bag that contained a projector, and when the tech guy explained that actually we needed and had requested the bag with just the remote control, they made it very plain that this misunderstanding was entirely his fault. Thus did they display two more areas in which the English in service industries shine: the ability to pretend as if they've never been obstructive or irritating in their lives, even if said obstruction has occurred only seconds before, and their ability to make it plain that whatever way in which they've made a mistake or behaved poorly is your fault. As my other fracquaintance A., who arrived at that moment, put it, "The customer is always wrong."

Then I gave the paper. But that's not very interesting. What's interesting is what happened afterward, when A., G., and I all went out to dinner together.

It transpires, first of all, that A. also had a pass made at her by The Bitterest Man in the World, although hers was much cruder and stronger than mine. The only reason why this really matters, though, is because she didn't know I'd had a pass made at me, too, and when she found out and asked for an explanation of how the pass came to, er, pass, my explanation involved my telling them about getting let go by Mr. Fallen (because the only reason I let The Bitterest Man in the World into my room was because I was depressed about said letting go). I said, "Well, it all started because I got broken up with by Mr. Fallen."

Silence. "Wait --" G. said, "do you mean our Mr. Fallen?" Because he is their colleague at Oxford. And then, in between telling them about how I had a pass made at me by The Bitterest Man in the World, I also had to tell them how I got broken up with by Mr. Fallen. Except I didn't get to tell it right away, because as soon as I concurred that, yes, I did mean their Mr. Fallen, G. said, "He broke up with you for the woman he's seeing now?" and when we compared notes and it turned out that yes, he had, G. said, "I just met his girlfriend last week, and...I can't believe anyone would give up you for her. I mean...that woman had no personality."

Then I told the story. And when I was done G. looked sad and somewhat startled, and A. just sat there - in fact, she hadn't moved since I had clarified which Mr. Fallon I meant. I said, "Are you okay?" And she said slowly, "I'm still trying to put you and Mr. Fallon together. I mean...he's just so not everything you are: attractive, charismatic..." I couldn't believe it! It was like the best Christmas present ever, because these people were not my friends: they didn't need to say this stuff. I said, "Well, he was very funny." She looked at me as if I were alleging a cow was funny. I said, "And he told good stories. And remember I'm not the same person in private that I am in public." And then G. said, "Well, he can tell good jokes, it's true. But...I met this woman last week, and I mean...I don't mean she wasn't attractive: I mean she was actively unattractive."

You couldn't think it could get better, and perhaps it couldn't, but it could and did get just as good in a different way, because then G. said, "Did you think you would see him today?" And I, in my figure-hugging dress with my take-me-I'm-confident boots and my calm hair, said, "Oh, well, I didn't really think..." And he said, "Actually, though, I was surprised not to see him. He comes every week. In fact, now that I think about it, he comes every week, religiously. But he's not here tonight." And this, my friends, was even better than a dramatic confrontation, for ha HA! Dr. Fallen avoided me. Or rather, Mr. Fallen avoided me. Ha. Mr. Fallen avoided me, and a pair of near-strangers considered me superior to him.

So I think we can say that a journey that began in embarrassment and pouring rain ended pretty damn well. And it snowed heavily while I was there, so we walked to the restaurant in lovely thick whiteness.

And the next day I bought a lovely pair of knickers in Top Shop. I love Oxford.

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12 February 2010

Now Wherefore Stop'st Thou Me?

When Samuel Taylor Coleridge was young, he was a child genius. Since he grew up to be a grown-up genius, you wouldn't think this would be a particular problem, but he grew up to be a grown-up genius who almost never finished anything, and one theory is that he almost never finished anything because by not finishing he escaped comparison: if nothing was ever done, it couldn't be a work of magnificent genius, but it couldn't be a failure, either - no one could ever say, "Well....it's okay, but it's not what you were when you were seven." (I think this theory is actually quite clever.)

I thought of this fact this evening while I was crossing the courtyard to print out my finished book. Yes, that's right, I've finished The Book, and I'm about to send it off to the publisher (or should that be The Publisher?). But I cannot say I feel happy. In fact, I can say exactly how I feel, because it's a feeling I've had before. I feel like I'm in shock: cold, tooth-chattery, and shaky. And scared, in that really really ominous way where you KNOW something awful is going to happen. So while I was walking across the courtyard I asked myself what the problem was, and then I listened really hard to myself while I answered. At first I answered that I was scared about the things that were supposed to happen or be dealt with after The Book was finished, but when I listened to my insides while I said that, I knew it wasn't true. Then I answered that I was scared because I didn't know who I'd be after I finished The Book, but when I listened that wasn't true either. And then finally I said, and realised it was true while I was saying it, that the problem is that I'm scared nothing will change: and mostly, I'm scared that The Book will be sent back by the publisher yet again.

I'm scared that I'm going to be this girl forever, this girl who is Working on Her Book, this girl who hasn't found a partner Yet, this girl who has a disliked First Job, but is going to get a better second one Someday. If I finish the book, then there's a risk that they'll just send it back to me again, and that's a symbol (or a synecdoche) for my being in limbo yet again, and yet longer. And, of course, as a footnote to that is the fact that if I finish The Book I am opening the door to the future, if only because I agreed with myself that certain things just wouldn't be dealt with or wouldn't happen until after I finished. But that really is a footnote. Because I'm not really afraid that certain situations will or won't come to pass. I'm afraid that in some way my future (my better future) won't come to pass, or rather that my future will just be my waiting present, endlessly repeating itself.

So I guess that's what I'm afraid of: not that everything will change for the worse, but that nothing will change, so there'll just be more of this waiting waiting waiting for things to start.

I love Coleridge's work, but I never thought to have fellow feeling for him. (wow, good accidental use of alliteration.)

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11 February 2010

La Cara Cara

Lately I have been reading a lot of poetry, both for The Book and for teaching, and reading poetry is always a very sensuous experience to me. Also, of course, it is the run-up to Valentine's Day, which means there is a lot of love-related stuff floating around. For some reason this combined to make me think about touches and gestures of love, and tonight while I was brushing my teeth it occurred to me that I think the most intimate and loving gesture in the world is a hand cupped around someone's cheek. Not the way you do it to a friend, although I suppose the only difference between the way you do it to a friend and the way you do it to someone you love is that you love the person you're doing it to when you do it to a person you love. But, anyway, I mean specifically when you do it to someone you love.

Cupping your hand around someone's cheek is a resting gesture. It says, "I'm not hurrying. I want to rest my hand here and feel you; I want to take this minute to enjoy you." Also, it somehow means, "I am aware of you; I am experiencing you," perhaps because it's a hard gesture to perform without also looking at the person. And then, the face is quite vulnerable, and wrapping your hand around anything is a gesture of protection if not of harm, in a way. Then, too, the cheek is soft (even in men), and the palm of the hand is sensitive and often soft, too, and having a cheek under your whole hand (palm, fingers, and thumb) means that all parts of your sensitive feeling instrument are covered in something that calls forth intimacy. And it's a quiet moment; it has to be, because you have to take the time and care to cup gently rather than to grab or even just to lay.

But now I realise that the cupped palm is the gesture of supplication in love, the shape we make to some extent when we hold out our hand to be held or to take a hand, the gesture that means, "Accept me." So the filled palm is the gesture of love fulfilled, and the palm fully filled, and allowed to rest, is I guess the most fulfilled of all.

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05 February 2010

Extrinsic Motivation

This picture makes me so happy. I just love things rendered in incongruous sizes!

Extrinsic motivation is a new term I learned from a student paper today. It "refers to doing something as a means to an end," and thus is precisely my motivation for writing my book. What I find interesting is that intrinsic motivation, which "refers to doing something for enjoyment or interest," is my motivation for doing my teaching.

So. It's also quite interesting, from a psychological and perhaps social experimental point of view, to discover precisely how long one can continue under extrinsic motivation, and what the result is. Which is a fancy way of saying, it's quite interesting to me to see exactly how long I can continue grinding away on this book without a break, and how that affects me. I am about to enter my last week of book production, and for the past three weeks I have been doing nothing in my daylight hours but writing the book and supervising. In the course of a day I will take perhaps four hours off, including two hours to eat, and eight to sleep. Other than that, using this week as an example, here is my weekly schedule. For the purposes of this exercise, "book" means actual writing revision, which includes cutting up the manuscript and scotch taping bits of it back together to increase lucidity.

On Mondays I supervise three hours of Practical Criticism and three hours of Writing or Study Skills. Then there's roughly forty minutes of cycling (exercise, so good for endorphin levels), and about an hour of essay marking. So: 7 hours supervision time (including marking), plus roughly 3 hours book. Tuesdays: three hours Prac Crit plus 1.5 hours 1688-1847, plus 1 hour Writing or Study Skills, and forty minutes cycling. So: 5.5 supervision plus about 2 hours book (I'm more tired on Tuesday, because it's preceded by Monday). Wednesday is all book (about 5 hours). Thursday is my champion book day, because on Wednesdays I have therapy, but on Thursdays I have a whole uninterrupted day, so let's say 6 hours book, plus 2 to 3 hours reading student undergrad dissertations in the evening. Then Fridays I have somewhere between 2 and 3 hours of dissertation supervisions, plus about 6 hours of book. Saturday I do miscellaneous book work (let's say 3 hours), but I also have tango class and dinner, which is a nice break of, say, four hours. Sunday I do book (let's say another three hours), plus about an hour's marking. Somewhere in there I also go to the gym for half an hour and give myself a barre (let's say 1 hour. Raises the endorphin levels).

I disregard the supervision hours, because I love them. The reading, though, I dislike and thus consider work. With these parameters in mind (how hard sciences am I!), I thus conclude that I perform 5 hours of work for Cambridge per week, plus 28 hours of book (plus 14.5 hours of fun supervising). But there is about seven hours of purely social time in there.

This has been my schedule, as I said, for three weeks. As the subject of this study, how would I say I feel? I would say I feel like a large stone is pressing on me. I do not feel this physically, but this is precisely how my spirit feels. I would also say that I feel weary, not in the sense of tired but in the sense of simply feeling that all of life is rather wearying: nothing much is interesting, and if it is interesting it isn't interesting for very long. I'm no fool; I know I'm suffering from anxiety and a mild form of depression. Actually, as the researcher conducting this study I'd say that from someone who works 47.5 hours a week, working every day, and who for the four months before that worked about 40 hours a week, working every day, and whose work has been accompanied by various employment concerns, a bit of mild depression is par for the course (although now that I've added it up, I see that's really not very much work time. My uncle Thelawyerwhobelievesallacademicshaveiteasy would be proven right here).

What's interesting, though, is that you would think that such schedule, if experienced consistently, would finally break you: like, I'd run amok through the halls of my college. But that's not what's happened. In fact, I've just gone on every week, gruelled but managing. I doubt this is a revelation in social science, since it just proves "people adapt," which is hardly hot news.

Equally interesting, though, you'd expect such a feeling would be uniform. That is, if you feel wearied and endless, you wouldn't think you would feel much variation in your level of weariness or endless, or could feel much more on top of that: people adapt. But you'd be wrong! Because today I woke up with a nice feeling of low-level panic, and this evening I wanted to cry essentially all evening. Also, my friend D. was being mildly irritating all through coffee, and rather than managing it I wanted to smack him. (side note: what is with me and the wanting to cry? This has not usually been my response to a heavy workload or stress in my life, but for the past 2.5 years...). I have no doubt that all this is because the project is drawing to its end. In one more week I'll have to hand it in, and of course that induces the panicked fear that it won't be ready, that it will drag on further...

I wonder, though, if part of what's making me so panicky and sorrowful now is the sense (knowledge?) that nothing will really change after I hand in. I won't go to the Seychelles for a holiday, and although I'm considering checking into a hotel for a night to sleep in a different bed and watch TV on a proper screen, when I check into that hotel it'll be on my own, so I'll effectively be doing something I've done many times before. Or I could go out to dinner with friends, but I can go out to dinner with friends pretty much any time I want.

O. would say that this is all a matter of attitude: if I chose to view this dinner with friends as a celebration of handing in my book, it would be different from all other such dinners. And she'd be right! But I'm not sure that, after working 28 hours a week on my book, I have the energy to change my attitude.

So I have decided to change not my attitude about dinners, etc., but my attitude about life after I finish. There is a 50% chance that my life will take a turn upward after I finish, so I've decided to assume 50% of the time that that will happen (let's face it: I can't manage 100% of the time). And I've also decided that after I finish I will, for the first time in about ten years, take a genuine intellectual holiday. I'll supervise, of course, but I'm not going to work on any other articles or do anything to do with academic publication for at least two months, and maybe four. Gad, sir, I will be happy!

This summer when I was visiting my parents I spent an evening with Jennifer. We were driving around in the car, and the talk turned to the book (not yet then The Book), which was at that time expected to come out in February. We were agreeing that it was exciting, and a big step, and I said to her, "I'm still sad, though, that I won't have a partner to share this life step with." And Jennifer said, "Emily...by February you could have a partner." "Yes," I said thoughtfully and seriously, "or I could get a boyfriend, share the experience with him, and then have him dump me anyway." Jennifer laughed and laughed, and I see now that what she was laughing over was the total predictability of our responses: she comforting me by being optimistic and hopeful for me, and me not just comforting me by pointing out to myself that my wish was as likely to go wrong as cause happiness, but foreseeing a way in which even the happy outcome could go wrong.

Well well well. At some point it has to go better than wrong, now doesn't it?

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