This poster is on the wall of the tearoom at my department. It has a bizarrely apposite role in the iconography of my life. Quite what one's PhD might be for, or what value it might have, is often rather obscure. In my case, very often indeed. But the general panacea for these anxieties is some general thought of the form, "Of course it's not clear to you. But fear not! It is Good. Everyone thinks so!"
Which just makes me think of DDT.
Second, and assuredly more disturbingly, one of my professors (Dr X the fungi nut, not Prof Agent Smith) has likened me to the woman in this poster. Twice.
The new moon has struck! The screen of my long suffering, sadly aged Toshiba Satellite 3000 has bitten the dust. New beginnings, indeed. I must say this what not what I had in mind. XP, fade to black.
I have my suspicions that the karma bug has bitten. "My computer broke" is "the dog ate it", redux. I tell my students that I never want to hear that their HD crashed or the RAM failed or the disk got corrupted or whatever, because it is always a lie. Ahem. I delicately wiped the egg yolk out of my eyebrows as I cancelled my students for the day, what with not actually being able to read their papers an' all.
Now my laptop is plugged into ye olde cathode ray tube monitor which is playing electric chicken with my neurons via the migraine-worthy interlacing refresh rate. Yo. Me and EM radiation are like this.
Soon there is a new moon. They are the harbinger of, no kidding, new beginnings.
I hope that is true, because this blog has made me excruciatingly aware of the fact that the things that run through my mind are on a schedule like the meals at a psychiatric facility. Mondays, stew. Wednesday, roast. Sunday, pancakes. Tuesday, haiku. Thursday, existential angst.
But I do have a new pair of boots. Watch me blaze trails.
Yesterday I took a trip to my local Ikea. I say local. But, its spectacular and longstanding erudition notwithstanding, my hometown is in the sticks, so it took about two hours to get there involving multiple trains and dangerous overpass-hiking. (See note on frontierswoman spirit below).
My favourite latest improvement at Ikea is that it now offers a Home Assembly service. Of course, I am not impressed by this because I want anyone but me to assemble my Ikea purchases. Heavens no. Wielding the allen key and the vast planks of birch laminate makes me feel like an urban frontierswoman. The advantage is that the price of aforementioned Home Assembly is now marked on all of your flat-packed dream items. I have always thought that the information that one really requires on that hangtag, rather than a breakdown of just exactly how many old-growth forests that were pulped in item's production, is just exactly how much of a protracted pain in the ass the simple home assembly will be. Because it will be. Make no mistake, I can put together a 80x202 Billy in 16 minutes. (Yes, I timed myself. Which kind of tarnishes the frontierswoman effect, but what the hey). But it will be a pain in the ass, and the more parts you have, the more permutations of horror proliferate. Moving parts? Take a valium. But then don't use the cordless drill.
Of course, no big surprise that Ikea doesn't want you to know just how many blood vessels you're going to pop in building your Alve desk bureau with extension unit. But now, Ikea can hide no longer. The information is right there. They might just as well have ranked their furniture by pain-in-the-ass.
Home assembly price: £10 Pain-In-The-Ass Quotient: one star. Simple. Clank, bzzt, clank, bzzt, done. One unit Frontierswoman Satisfaction.
Home assembly price: £20 PITA Quotient: two stars. Slightly more effort. One or two expletives likely to be uttered. Possibility of one of the components going in backwards by mistake. Two units Frontierswoman Satisfaction.
Home assembly price: £40 PITA Quotient: five stars. Maddening. Sixteen different kinds of screws and other attachment technologies. Error necessitates complete dismantle. Spirited narration of sailor-blushing type. Hyper-organised borderline-OCD construction strategy involving careful sorting and categorisation of each component comes to nothing while searching for thirty-fifth self-tightening drawer-stopper screw-assemblage. Frontierswoman veneer abandoned for stiff tot.
I am undeterred by the £50 assembly price on my preferred Alve bureau. But like any good frontierswoman, I am now prepared.
The word "explicate". God, but that is ugly. It invokes someone getting sputum on the muffin I am about to buy. I am not even going to honor it by investigating its etymology, but I take it that it is a vile back-formation from "inexplicable". Because, you know, "explain" and "describe" and "analyse" or even, god help us, "deconstruct" didn't already cover the bases. You have to sound like sputum as well.
Shrinkwrap. Incredibly environmentally unfriendly, and I cannot get that shit open. Like, ever. Morally inexcusable, and makes me look stupid. What's to like?
Fonts with amazingly ugly ligatures. For the past eight weeks I have had to read a section of this otherwise perfectly respectable, if rather patchy, anthology of debates. The font in this book (10 on 12.5 Rotis Serif), an otherwise pleasant and readable type, has the most spectacularly vile "fi" ligature I've ever seen. As the wiki article helpfully notes, the point of the "fi" ligature is that the dot on the i interferes with the descending loop of the f and so the ligature absorbs the dot into the descending serif of the f, and the eye sees both the loop and the dot, although actually they are the same. The loop of the Rotis Serif f, however, does not extend as far to the right of the letter as in many other typefaces (technically, the x-width of Rotis is narrow). This means that when you delete the dot off the i in "fi" (and just for kicks, this book is in epistemology so the most usual and indeed ubiquitous instance of it is in "justified"), the loop of the f doesn't even approach the point at which you expect to see the dot. Every time the ligature appears is a smack in the eye. The automatic activity of reading, until that moment completely transparent to you, screeches to a halt as your neurons scream Alert! Bad command or filename. Abort, retry? and you blink as if a flash photograph got taken and there are purple afterimages dancing on your retinas.
Linotype claims that this face has "become something of a European zeitgeist". The .pdf sample page, which you can have a look at before you hand over your 25 euros for the privilege of hurting someone's eyes, contains not a single fi. Now there's an issue for consumer affairs ...
Sometimes I indulge in a little self-chastisement (not to say a little flagellation) in the matter of my fantastically over-earnest pursuit of Truths in (lord save us) Life. I raise my internal eyebrow at myself and note witheringly that I should get the hell over myself. Not least because maybe I'm a relativist. Probably not, but maybe.
But today I discovered that I don't know from earnestness about Truth. Not at all. I'm just saying.
It is a platitude that the great force of human creativity is a means of dealing with the relentless, bladelike grief of being alive. I'm not so sure about this, as it might just be part of the story we like to tell about the Agony of the Artist, a lie that we tell ourselves about what it is to be authentically human, that it is to be angry and in pain, so that we need not torture ourselves more than we are already tortured. But still it seems to me that there is such an exhausting amount of energy involved in this grief, and I am not a poet. I do not know the pebbled, cobbled, dirt, asphalt, grassy paths of music and I am wide-eyed and often frightened in the face of those who do. I cannot draw.
So I am sitting, marooned in the tumult, and I cannot sharpen it as They do, distil it into nib or note. Instead like the others marooned I grasp at the things which The Others have made, tearing pieces from their pieces and clutching them to myself as though I might slipstitch them together, throw them in the air over and over until they came down arranged into something I might have made.
I was in London today to see the Samuel Palmerexhibition at the British Museum. (Notice the ".ac" extension. Nice). The exhibition was wonderful. There were some drawings of trees which competed for depth and silence with real trees. There was one of a willow which H said was the first she'd ever seen which succeeded in putting the tree into a stiff wind. And she was right. My favourite was a study of some cyprus in Italy which you could have put your hand straight into and out the other side into Narnia.
Dazed with the odd satiation that comes from spending time paying attention to beautiful things, we wandered out into the brilliant glare of Christmas-shopping season on Oxford Street. Of course, the right thing to say here was how dismally the garish displays of cheap tat paled against the noble beauty of the art of the soul. But nay, dear reader, I am as easily seduced by the wonders of the boutique section at Topshop! And oh, the wonders! Aladdin has nothing on this four-storeyed Cave of Cheap Couture. I coveted the tweed skirt with ruffled hem, the Victorian-style buttoned knee boots with stacked heel, and the obi-style tops with diamante detailing. And about eleventy-zillion other things. H and I had no desire to ruin our Topshop high by actually queueing up and buying anything, so we danced down the street to the fabulous solidity and Corinthian columns of Selfridges. Which, once you make it through the completely blinged-out handbag section milling with the kind of tourist who lives only for The Bag, is beyond the wildest cornucopial dreams of the modern girly consumer. So we consumed some Krispy Kreme from the food hall. Original glazed, ma bien sur.
I cannot go on. I have not even told you about the Arts and Crafts show on the top floor of Liberty, but I am becoming verklempt. Bless you, London, and all of your great gifts.
We went for a walk in a beech wood just outside of town today. On the way there we passed a new residential development draped with that strange construction fabric which prevents pedestrians from being hit with flying debris. Or keeps the whole thing gift-wrapped so that people are more likely to buy off the plan, perhaps. Around the middle of the big gift-wrapped development there was a ribbon of enormous larger-than-life posters of people living their lives wearing expressions of ecstasy as a result of Private Leisure Facilities and Total IT Connectivity. Shudder.
Mercifully we were shortly beyond the precincts and parked in the layby favoured by the local doggers. The eroticism of this boutique activity escapes me in the same way as Mile-Highing. Aircraft toilet? How is that sexy? On the other hand, I don't know why the woman in the white bikini on the giftwrap poster with the indoor swimming pool shared by 450 Exclusive Residents was having a transcendant moment. Clearly the cultural moment is passing me right by.
The wood was gorgeous. Quiet and cathedrally, as beech woods tend to be, because there is nothing growing in them except beeches, and in this wood, a wild privet hedge around the edges. And a frost-hardy fungus or two. H picked them and sniffed their gills, because that's what you do. Neither of us knew what any of them were, though. We said hello to a blue tit, who behaved like an old guy who doesn't like neighbours much. He cocked his blue beret and let us have it. My Collins bird guide says that it was a "scolding series": ker'r'r'r'rek-ek-ek. *Lock and load* Get orf m'propertay!
Blackbirds, on the other hand, rustling like ninjas in the first fall of leaves. Shhh. rustle,rustle Silence. rustle,rus... Beady eye appears. Hello blackbird! It is huge with cold and privet berries, which are everywhere.
I'm home now, and my bird is eating the sugar sprinkles left over from a donut I bought earlier. Ah, nature.
Do you know what really makes me crazy? It is the fact that because I am five years older than most of my grad student peers and have comfy, snuggly looking boobs, I get to be the Matriarch of the Tribe. This means that I possess the putative Knowledge about ... yanno ... Sex 'n' Stuff. For god's sake. I am as stupid and ignorant and insecure as the rest of you. OK, although maybe I've had more sex.
My friend S, a brilliant and ludicrously dry and witty cultural historian, and I have lately been discussing the power of The Story of Your Life. I'd link to what would undoubtedly be her fabulously inventive and witty blog, but she doesn't have one. A travesty. (Are you listening, S?) Anyway. The trouble with The Story is that you write it into your head when you're 18 and it takes 15 years for you to realise two things. First, your Story is now officially retro. You were supposed to be doing the part that comes after happily ever after, right now. At first that doesn't really matter, because you move the Story a couple of years ahead every couple of years. But eventually, that doesn't work because the story all at once doesn't scan any more. Even if (ahem, just for example) the white charger and its worthy cargo were to arrive right now, it would be wearing last season's armour.
The second thing you realise is that this is not the only reason you need a new Story. You need it because, were the charger to gallop into view, stamping and snorting steam and jingling its fairytale bridle, you'd probably raise an ironic eyebrow at it.
The poppy seller nearest my house is not this gentleman, but he might be. He is rather taller and finer-boned, and has the kind of perfectly-combed silver hair under his beret that you are certain would have the faintest aroma of old-fashioned hair tonic, if only you could get close enough. He speaks sofly and deferentially, like those who are accustomed to being deferred to. He has the sort of demeanour and gentle, frank goodwill in his face that makes you think National Service is a fantastic idea.
I bought a poppy from him. So, apparently, did everyone else I see around here -- including the groups of ten year olds who hang out in the mall out the front of which he is stoically and benevolently parked. They probably have no idea whom they supported by buying their poppy, nor what the poppy itself commemorates, nor why it is a poppy at all, rather than, say, a piece of ribbon or a daffodil.
And you know what? It doesn't matter. Their poppies commemorate it anyway, pinned incongruously onto the faux-fur lined hoods of their pink and blue and purple winter puffer jackets.
And it is worth seeing the look on our poppy-gentleman's face as he sees that everyone that passes has a poppy. Because in truth, no matter how much any of us knows about what the poppy is for, its importance is utterly negligible to anyone but he. Clive James said of the atrocities of WWII that if we could have any idea what it was truly like, we would die of grief.
I'll wear my poppy in gratitude that I have nothing to forget.
So I'm watching The Bourne Identity, and I'm deciding that Jason Bourne is the most irresistible representation of of masculinity ever commited to film. It's a great movie. It's brilliantly shot, even more brilliantly cut, and as H pointed out at the time, glamourises Europe in a way that hasn't been managed since the heist flicks of the 60s. But all this is as naught against the hypnotic magnetism of our hero.
He speaks German and French and has bullet holes in his back. He can kill a guy with a ballpoint pen. He can escape from the US Consulate in Paris by flinging a security guard down the stairs and ripping the evacuation map off the wall; lose the gendarmes by doing a handbrake turn into the oncoming traffic at 60mph in a stick-shift mini. And (this is the killer) he has no idea who he is.
He breaks a German policeman's wrist with the kind of masculine proficiency that usually goes with a flinty, Vin-Dieselesque detachment, but instead bewilderment struggles with purposiveness in his eyes. (Sidebar: no mean thespian feat, that. Kudos to the criminally underused Matt Damon). He paranoically wipes the hotel room for prints and then sits quietly in the corner watching the girl sleep. His eyes are limpid with relief upon coming upon the first passport, for it contains A Name, only to have the hurt, betrayed bewilderment return with throat-constricting disappointment in the face of another name. And then another. And another. He takes the handgun out of the safe deposit box as though he has handled a firearm thousands of times, but there is a gingerness about it, because he doesn't want to know this about himself.
He looks at a map like he is the Terminator processing information, he runs as though escape is important but he is afraid of nothing, he drives like the car is an extension of his hands, he fights with the brutal grace of the man thinking of nothing but outcomes, a man unworried by his own power -- he can do anything, but he has no idea what to do.
The completely rampant sexiness of this combination is a stroke of narrative genius. Which is part of the reason that The Bourne Supremacy made none of the fatal missteps that usually make sequels so insipid. Sequels so often screw it up because the bewilderment is gone, the force of not knowing is gone, the whole thing jumps the shark because the epistemological imperatives are all taken away, the motivation withers to nothing and all we are left with is a car chase. Or some SFX. Or another prize fight. Or whatever. But Bourne's second outing doesn't make this mistake. Jason knows the score by then, he knows what to do ... except he doesn't. Bewilderment still struggles in his eyes along with the purposiveness.
He still has no idea what he will do next. This makes for awesome cinema. Especially since it might be using a toaster to blow up a house.