Friday, December 22, 2006

Jedi mind powers

Softer, softer. Haziness prevails. Not a gleam. Nary a glint. Neon signs and traffic lights suddenly spun colourful candy floss haloes. Cars, condensation-matte, pass by with a muffled sssssssssslish, sending up a few hundred thousand more miniature droplets to hang suspended with the other umpty-billion cutting the visibility and seeping into your clothes. Rain in stealth mode. People loom out of the haze with unwittingly cinematic drama, fading in like the Death Star or horizon-breaching Lawrences of Arabia. A frozen Arabia.

Jack Frost

This fantastic shot of frost in Leicestershire by Owen at Gone Walkabout.

The frost has come. Cambridge glitters liquidly under its crackling, melting dressing of crystals, like an artificially delicious-looking roast chicken sprayed with glycerin. The relative humidity is 99%. We're walking through water. The soft, mossy, worn and greying edges of the beauty of the town are sharpened into shearing lines and planes, and everything is too beautiful. Every mote of dust, cobweb and puddle of crumbling stone is festooned with facets turning their over-pretty new angles this way and that in the watery winter sunlight. It is English history in a Tiffany's display cabinet with a halogen lamp set over it. My eyes hurt.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Tuesday haiku

Frost furred keys rattle
Young blackbird spot adjusts, puff
light technical clothes

Monday, December 18, 2006

Question hour

The third in an occasional series on the keywords with which Xtinpore snares the unwary googler.

This week's Beautiful Insanity award to:
egg yolk eyebrow growth
Yes, well. I meant it rather more metaphorically.

The Sorry I Wasted Your Time, Dude compensation prize goes to everyone contributing to this week's number one search phrase with a bullet:
being in love
You poor, poor little babies. Are you googling your symptoms? Not even google can help you. And to the person who was looking for a Gem and the Holograms t-shirt? Yeah. I was more of a Masters of the Universe girl myself.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Gettin' festive with it

This brilliant shot from Simon at eyematter

I really, really love Christmas. It's the last great Western festival. I have a passing shred of pity for everyone, including the Christians, who are trying to carve out their own bit of religious and/or cultural identity from behind the massive inflatable Santa in their town square, but frankly? Whatever. I love the fact that the "meaning" of Christmas is being lost. It's turning back into its real self -- a great big mother of a celebration involving traditions borrowed, stolen and appropriated from everywhere where it's winter in December -- an excuse to decorate everything, drink hot, intoxicating substances, and eat foodstuffs made of things preserved from the Spring. I love that everywhere is bedecked -- the shiny wooden bar at the local pub, the streets glimmering with tiny lights and large, the windows, everyone's houses. That every store is stuffed with gifts and special, luxury foods that you eat just because they're special, luxury foods and that's what you do on a festival day. The sense of everyone preparing for something, a shared something.

There's even some minimalist berry-orientated ersatz-decoration going on in the window of my chrome-and-black-leather hair salon.

Of course, as time has gone by and I have left this blog woefully alone, gathering cobwebs and electronic dust-bunnies, the pressure grows to make a big re-entrance with something Fantastically Witty, or Perspicaciously Literary, or Amusingly Misanthropic, to justify one's catastrophic negligence. But naturally, I haven't had a thought with half a gleam on it, much less the blinding shine that impresses the blogging glitterati, for literally months. Among other things, I've been distracted by the adorable baby-blue backlit keyboard of my new love interest.

But I couldn't stand it any longer. I couldn't let my blog miss out. I had to get in here and put up some tinsel.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Happy birthday to me

It's my birthday! I'm 33. Which is the same age that Debbie Harry was when Blondie released Parallel Lines, which was about to score them their first number one hit, one of the greatest tracks of all time, Heart of Glass.

As an ego-booster, this may not be the best comparison I could be making. But at least it's not the Jesus one.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Conference highlight

Poor Tom Bozzo has consumed his popcorn waiting for me to recover from my traumatically boring conference experience. The highlight, for your delectation, was the exceptionally hip all-blue recycled vending cup pencil provided in the conference pack, followed closely by the miniature doughnuts served with coffee. When I came home I had seven pencils inside my suitcase and several dozen micro-doughnuts inside me. Which isn't a bad return on conference investment, in my experience.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Sucking it up

I'm off to Seaside Town tomorrow to attend a conference. I'm giving a paper on Friday morning. $64,000 question: why am I doing this?

Possible reasons:
  1. The conference will be interesting and I'll learn about lots of cutting edge research going on in my field.

    Uh huh. Right.

  2. Excellent networking opportunity.


  3. Handy line on the curriculum vitae.

    Two days. Night in tasty dormitory accomodations. Six hours on the train. Hours of talk-preparation palaver. Distraction from dissertation writing. Only one damn line?

  4. Chance to talk about my own brilliantly novel research and burnish my high-octane reputation.

    Oh god, please kill me.

    Next entry: highlights of conference attendance. Prepare your buckets of popcorn.

Five reasons

Five reasons that today, Xtin is inclined to feel that things are right with the world.
  1. The British government has created 115 hectares of managed marine wetlands in a £7.5 million project by letting the sea back in over Wallasea Island. But in spite of the "government cares" spin, this is because the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a totally private charity formed in 1889 to stop the decimation of grebe populations which was garnishing ladies' hats with feathers, sued their asses for building a cargo terminal in Kent in the 1990s, illegally destroying wetlands protected by the EU birds directive. The European Court upheld the claim and required that the government provide habitat in compensation. High five, RSPB.

  2. Flight Commander Malcolm Kendall, whose refusal to serve in Iraq because the war is illegal led to three months in a high security prison. He's now tagged and under curfew, making it clear to the members of this nominal democracy that our own bloody government thinks he's dangerous because he reminded them that military personnel in democracies can't be required by their superiors to act illegally. Word, sir.

  3. David Walliams, an utterly un-sporty comedian, who's just finished a ten-and-a-half hour Channel swim, raising £400,000 for Sport Relief.

  4. Yesterday, I put my newly laundered sheets out to dry in the garden. In the afternoon, I was out when the thunderstorm hit, too late to save my sodden laundry. I pouted. I stamped my foot. Today, my sheets are dry again, and they smell magically of sun and rain together.

  5. I bumped into my dissertation supervisor, Professor Agent Smith. He didn't ask me about my dissertation. And as if that weren't enough, he wasn't wearing a suit. Like the real Agent Smith, it is part of the Agent's software to wear a suit. Today he was wearing a short sleeved seersucker shirt, candy-striped in red and white. That put the lid right on my mood. On the day that your supervisor looks like a smiling peppermint, everything is all right.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Martian garden

A few weeks back, Pluvialis came back from a visit to her parents with a pocketful of seed packets for the garden. One lovely spring day when I was feeling typically stifled and purposeless, we went out to dig in the dirt. I've never really plunged my hands into a garden -- when I was a kid it was my dad's rather fitful preserve. After I moved out, greening my fingers was limited to trying to keep pots of herbs alive on the back steps of apartments. The herbs never lasted past their first flush of new growth, but they made me popular with the neighborhood ringtail possums. Which was almost an exchange I was prepared to make.

So I'd never really found out about the hilariously obvious, literally figurative groundedness that you get from digging around, spading up clumps of clods, troweling sods randomly around, saying hello to the worms, smoothing the soil through your fingers like making a bed for the seeds. Well, exactly like making a bed for them. Gardens are metaphor-proof.

One of the things that Pluvialis gave me to plant, in front of our giant clump of sweetpeas, were some night stocks. The stock seed is miniscule -- tiny little brown grains like chocolate-coated crystals of sand. I'd never planted seeds before in my life, and the experience was just as cheesy and trite as you'd imagine. I was completely overawed by the idea that whole plants were somehow going to appear. Wonder-of-Nature style theme music swelled in my head, the whole deal. I was convinced that there was some kind of alchemical mystery about it that I wasn't a party to, and nothing would happen.

Three days ago, the stocks flowered. Magic! If I hadn't been so overawed when I sprinkled the seeds into my lovingly prepared mixture of dirt and worms, I might have stopped to wonder why they were called night stocks. The answer, of course, is that the flowers open at night instead of during the day. The fragrance attracts moths.

When you look at a map of the sun striking the world, night has a simple geometry. It's just where it's dark, a gauzy black sine wave licking around the longitudes. But the map lies. It flattens the eerie night topology. We understood the weird metaphysics of night when we were small. We knew that it was somewhere else entirely -- it wasn't just dark, it was different. And later, you watch shadowy footage of bats and glow-worms whose adventures are narrated by David Attenborough's silken tones, and you try to imagine what it must be like to live in a world where the night is as bright and real as the day seems to us. The harder you try to do this, the more you realise that you are dealing with something truly alien. We are creatures of daylight.

Roses smell of sunshine and birds, sweetpeas of sugary peas and bread and warm rain. I planted flowers which turn their petals to the darkness and fill the air with fragrance that belongs in the glittering night-world of bats and moths. The scent is completely otherworldly. It is sweet and greenly spicy, with an oddly medicinal, slightly metallic note. It smells like science fiction.

I think this might be what it smells like to be a bat.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Hot pigeon

It's unusually hot. I was hoping that my acclimatisation to the British cold wouldn't strip me of my native heat tolerance, but apparently as a matter of universal justice, that's a cake-and-eating-it-too deal.

In the garden, there are town pigeons, wood pigeons, three collared doves, a fledgling song thrush, and two fledgling greenfinches. The song thrush especially tugs at my heart -- with its exaggerated streakyness and wide, amazed-looking eyes, it looks like a rough charcoal drawing of a bird come to life. It is very wary. Warier, certainly, than the two town pigeons. These two are Our Pigeons. The female was the first to appear. She has the ordinary purplish-gunmetally aspect of a typical pigeon, splattered liberally with white feathery smudges. Pluvialis dubbed her Nelson, after the similarly splattered statue in London. The male, who has become spectacularly butch on corn and parrot seed served up on our back step, is an escaped racing pigeon. He sports the coloured rings on his feet with the nonchalant aplomb of a gym-muscled DJ wearing the latest charity wristbands. He is also white-spattered, with a perfect white helmet for which I named him Stormtrooper. We may or may not have found out who owns Stormtrooper, and where he was sent from when he sidelined himself over the fens. But Nelson and Stormtrooper are in love. He is a defected athlete who longs for the personal freedom that we all take for granted! And who are we to interfere in political matters?

So this morning they enjoyed an utterly democratic pigeon bath-tacular in the dish we filled against the heat, and Pluvialis and I forgot our intellectual cares watching wet pink-footed featherdusters sunbathe under the strawberry plant.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Question hour

The second in an occasional series on the keywords that lure the unwary to the babel that is Xtinpore.

This week's Sorry I Wasted Your Time, Dude consolation prize goes to:
anal hors
Not that it's any consolation really, but I assure you the d'oeuvres are good too.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Exit, pursued by a metaphor

You might have noticed that my thinking about the world is almost entirely governed by metaphors. I think that I was just born with a brain that looks to see how one thing is like another thing, but I also think I have developed it into a baroque art because it is a natural antidote to boredom. If you look at things together, you get not only all the things which happen to you but all the combinations of things. Three things happened today? Hey! That's six different combinations! Was the shopping like the article you read in the journal? Maybe the shower you took this morning was sort of like the trip to the library! Your life is suddenly deceptively well-populated. There is an everlasting supply of things interacting, even if all you managed to do on Tuesday was change the laces in your shoes and eat a ham sandwich.

Generally, I think I could do with a pretty formidable dose of restraint in these matters, because it's easy to lull oneself into a sadly deluded sense of depth and profundity by playing with all these comparisons. Sometimes nothing happens in my life except sitting around seeing how different slices of life go together. Which is all very well, but I want to actually have some slices of life, as well.

On that note, here begins an occasional series on Xtin's Found Metaphors, so that I can get my hit while making a genuine attempt to stop corkscrewing my head so far into my, uh, navel.

Today's Found Metaphor is from my Bathtub Reading Hall of Fame, Dorothy Sayer's Busman's Honeymoon. We find ourselves faced with a weepy village piano-teacher. A handkerchief, my good man, my kingdom for a handkerchief! Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers' beaky sleuth, is always prepared:
Peter came to the rescue with what might have been a young flag of truce.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Notice of intent to plagiarise

Last night I watched the season 2 finale (warning! Link contains motherlode of all spoilage) of the best misanthropy of the week, House. We pick up in the scene where the eponymous doc is nitpicking the way of the right and good with the dude who shot his wry patient-hatin' ass before the opening credits rolled.
Dude who shot House: I don't want to argue about semantics.
House: You anti-semantic bastard.
Fuck. Genius. Heads up, people. I am going to steal this line shamelessly at the very first philosophically relevant opportunity. So much the worse for any poor dolt who doesn't already worship at the House altar. Eat my bon mot-laced dust, purists with no TV!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Why I wish I was Federer

In the interests of variety in my writing avoidance behaviours, I've been watching Wimbledon. Tennis is one of the greatest of all spectator sports, because it speaks to the Ur-desire of the gladiator-deprived spectator to watch great skill wedded to War, while simultaneously compensating for their sports-wise weaknesses. For many sports (say, cricket or curling) it is difficult to be captivated unless you have a pretty good idea what the hell is going on -- especially having any kind of clue about which team or player is particularly good or impressive. (Unless, of course, the source of your captivation is the very obscurity of the endeavour, and I confess that this is sometimes very captivating indeed. But let us bracket this particular kind of spectator fetish). In the first place, tennis is damn simple. And in the second, when watching Federer, you really don't need to understand anything much at all to enjoy the impressive and surpassing brilliance of his game. Wow! Fast! My goodness! Nimble! He hit that ball with his arm all the way out to here! Criminy! How many mph was that again? Etc.

I love watching the tennis.

Like most nerds, I was not a fan of competitive sports as a kid. I was intimidated by them and withering about those who played them, I waxed lyrical (quietly, to myself) about their arbitrary pointlessness. That's pretty rich, coming from a philosopher, but I didn't know about my future in professional arbitrary pointlessness back then. So maybe, in ye olde comparison with Worthy Persons Making a Real Contribution (eg doctors with Medecins San Frontieres, cancer research scientists, primary school teachers, you know the deal), I have something in common with Federer today. But in addition to earning more money (in the sense where "more" is stretched to the point where it ceases to mean anything particularly much) and being much fitter (ditto "much") and, well, being able to play tennis, the difference that strikes me between me and Federer, or frankly any tennis player with even a hint, the merest sniff of an ambition to play professionally, is their grip on themselves. They literally can't play until their understanding of their own disappointment, insecurity, motivation, drive, aggression, envy, ability, self-regard, frustration, anything that might tweak the 150mph serve one degree to the left where it ought to be on the right, exceeds the power of those things to ruin their chances of winning. Sportspersons may be the most self-aware people on the planet.

I suck at this stuff. Dealing with a certain disappointment for me might be the work of a couple of days of mooching around pouting and reading Cadfael mysteries in the bathtub. I can go entire weeks after talking to a particularly smart person, wondering if my overall smartness is enough to get me to wherever it is that I'm supposed to be going (alert! Side issue). On days when I'm feeling especially good about myself and my philosophical thinking, I have a tendency to go outside and look at flowers or browse bookshops and smile a lot, rather than actually doing any philosophy, which I end up having to do on days of abject self-hatred instead.

Tennis is thoughtfully organised to give you various periods of time to manage your thoughts. You have between points, between games, between sets. And I suppose you have the nano-second or two before you have to get the ball in the centre of your graphite racket head. You can watch the players yank their thoughts into line while matter-of-factly dabbing their sideburns with the commemorative Wimbeldon sweat-towel, just like realigning the strings in their rackets. Two minutes, tops. And then they wander back out there as though they didn't lose the first set to the unseeded player. They're trained to do this! Why aren't I trained to do this? Of course, part of the story is that philosophy is not conducted in nano-second intervals, so you don't have to learn to deal with your shit in world-record time. You can kind of spread it around into all the gaps. You can tell your work to talk to the hand while you (don't) deal. You can do that in this discipline and still do pretty well. In fact, I tend to think that academics are aiding and abetting one another by making sure that you can spend a lot of time (not) dealing with your shit and still get along OK, because academics are often self-selected in needing a lot of time for shit-wrangling themselves, so they'd better not make it a precondition of success that you can deal with your shit on a world-class timetable.

Another part of the story is that tennis players wouldn't be as good at it as they are if there wasn't a lot of money in professional tennis, enough that it supports an entire industry of people to teach them how to get a hold of themselves in the time in takes the dude on the other side of the net to toss the green felty sphere in the air before they smash it over. I don't do what I do because I want to make a lot of money, but it would be very interesting if philosophy were lucrative enough to make it worthwhile for professional coaches to get philosophers out of their heads. If you know what I mean.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Rain dance

Yes! We have a rhythm! The crash cart was brought in and the laptop screen breathes again (I love this code blue-screen-of-death analogy, can you tell? Small pleasures, blogsters, small pleasures). A cause for celebration, n'est-ce pas? It would be, but I am suffering a profound explanatory anxiety. To wit: the damn thing was revived using precisely the same method as last time. I say precisely, and I mean that in the most unscientific and superstitious way possible.

I feel exactly like a member of those fictional ancient communities discussed by social evolution theorists and other nut-burgers (actually, I think traditionally speaking ancient communities don't have members, they have denizens. We'll go with that) who stumbles upon something really cool and useful, like say the production of crystal salt from seawater or fermentation or the use of penicillin moulds to treat ill denizens (I read a memoir of the West Country once which claimed that the local wise-woman-denizen used to keep a little bit of mouldy jam in the bottom of a jar and give it to sick kids. This is almost certainly apocryphal like this whole explanatory strategy anyway but it is still a good story). So anyway, naturally the story goes that the denizen has no specific idea about the causal relationships involved in the production of the cool outcome. I mean, she could make like Semmelweis and try to control the various factors to narrow down the instrumental ones, but that might be a pretty expensive epistemic exercise, especially if you can just remember everything you did last time and do it all again. Of course, you risk forgetting the one thing that actually did have an effect, and waste hours and hours stirring the water or waiting for the hummingbird you saw last time to buzz past again. But as long as you can remember the right part, and especially if you can develop a handy ritual for all the random parts, it's all good, right?

No way. I don't know how to handle the uncertainty. I lifted the screen bezel. I looked in there in a Laptop! Heal Thyself! kind of way. I kinda pressed a few things. I kinda blew on it a bit. I put the bezel back. And then it worked again. Was it even anything I did? Maybe it would have worked that particular boot-up anyway!

This would all be pretty minor but it provoked a mental cascade where now I'm wondering if I have a handle on the instrumental causal relations of anything in my life. I mean, maybe everything works because I sleep oriented north-south! Maybe I got the job because I licked that application pack envelope especially well that day! Causal angst, dude. I don't recommend it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Fade to black

Well, fracking bloody frack. My motherfracking laptop screen just died again. I mean, at least you can see the Blue Screen of Death. It could have a footnote that read, but hey, dude! At least your cathode ray tube's still workin'! It does not help that I used my Jedi powers to heal it the last time, because my development is totally Empire Strikes Back and not at all Return of the Jedi. Unpredictable at best.

I'd be having a goddamn breakdown right about now, but fortunately I've already got one going on. That's what philosophers call overdetermined. Not that I can be one right now, because I can't see any of my own bitted-and-byted philosophizing to check if it's like, you know, insane or inconsistent or not yet up to the ever-loving mofo word limit. I need to start doing this shit the old fashioned way. Hand me a chisel.

Mental space

Recently, a friend of mine had to help a student who had an undiagnosed mental illness. Unsurprisingly, that was a pretty significant challenge for both her and the student, and I think they both handled it as damn well as you can handle it when the universe propels shit at you at high speed.

Later, my friend said to me, "Here's something I learned from that experience. Neither you nor I are mentally unstable." I knew what she meant. We worry about it, but being around people whose reality really is fragmenting between their own thoughts is a humbling and chastening experience, and you feel arrogant and self-absorbed for ever entertaining the thought that you were losing your mind. Because we both worry about that quite a lot. It's a special worry for me. It's THE worry. Forget Death or Abandonment. The dark, terrifying thing that observes me from the corner of the room at night is Going Insane.

I have the sort of overthinking, never-off, boredom-prone, many-tracked, volatile, highly invested, intense temperament that often generates speculation about whether or not I'm losing my mind. Reality has a sort of mosaic, technicolor, neural structure for me that is sometimes too bright, or suddenly the links seem thin and fragile, or the dark spaces between the gleaming arcs of Things threaten to swallow everything. I want reality to have a sort of tightly-packed, continuous, homogenous flavour about it, but instead it has a diffuse, vaguely webbish, extremely heterogenous splinteryness. I am going to fall into the open spaces or my thoughts will upset the balance of the weave of things and the threads will suddenly dissolve and derealise before my eyes.

My great friend H, who is a terrifying savant in these matters, always knows when I am doing this -- floating in reality with my arms and legs tucked closely against my body and my eyes scrunched shut, trying desperately not to touch anything, not to think anything, because I'm going to stab myself on a reality-splinter or break apart some crucial web between two reality-bits. She looks at me and says, "Put your feet down. There is ground there."

When she says this, I know why we are friends. That sense of groundlessness, of no contiguity, of nothing linear or stepwise, is exactly what frightens me. And she always reminds me that there is nothing to be afraid of. See? There's the ground. Step down.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Tuesday haiku

Photograph © Fraser S Simpson

Duckdiving blackbirds
dead daffodils tindery
Woodlouse for breakfast

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Thoughts on no thoughts

Yesterday, at a lovely picnic involving unpasteurised camembert and some very fine olive ciabiatta, my friend Dr T told me a brilliant joke:

Q: What's red and invisible?
A: No tomatoes.
I love this joke. It is a pretty decent distillation of the kind of thing I find funny -- a happy meeting of the absurd, a slighty giddy mismatch with everyday assumptions and a kind of ruthless internal logic. But it also struck me as a miniature story of Xtin's Everyday at the moment -- and best of all, a teeny-tiny story with a wee message of hope for Xtin! Good lord, a joke that doubles as an After School Special. But we all know how much I loves me a metaphor. Or three.

My favourite metaphorical thing about the No Tomato Joke is that it's a crack about nothing. Or more precisely, some not-things. Just for some laughs, indulge me in a philosophical sidebar that brings out this contrast nicely. Pop quiz: what's wrong with the following?

(1) Nothing is better than true happiness.
(2) A peanut butter sandwich is better than nothing.
Conclusion: A peanut butter sandwich is better than true happiness.
Heh. Good one. Anyway, the thing that's wrong here is the same thing that makes the No Tomato Joke work. My life is full of metaphorical not-tomatoes right now. It gives me a spark of glee to think that there is a glimmer of humour in it.

I've been struggling pretty vainly to get out from under the stifling weight of Having To Have Ideas. You know: Thoughts. The Big Ones. The Interesting Ones. The (erk, cringe) New Ones. Pardon my attack of Germanified nouns.

I mean, you know, just an idea or two for the fracking blog would be fine, dude! But the inside of my mind has smooth, uninterrupted edges like a dimple in granite worn smooth by ten thousand million raindrops; the echo in an amphitheatre with the atmosphere of loss that comes from a millenia of no audience. Only they're both too damn majestic. It's really more like wandering the aisles of a huge supermarket, each shelf lined with a capitalist cornucopia of comsumer goods, where each one varies from the one next to it only by the shape of the New And Improved! starburst-pattern.

As a matter of fact, I am mercifully over the stage in my dissertation where I need to have any new ideas. There is enough to thrash out the pages and sprinkle The Big Idea(s) judiciously among them. But the plastic-wrapped monotony of my mega-mart mind is depressing the living hell out of me. There isn't enough time to learn a billionth of a percent of all the things that I'd love to know about, and right now I can't even remember why any of it is interesting -- or how I might take it apart and put it back together so that I can make a different Lego spaceship. All I'm having are no-thoughts. Thoughts about the no-thoughts. Thoughts about how all the non-thoughty stuff later turns into some thoughtish stuff. No-thoughts that stand around the edges of the skating rink, tottering on their rented skates and taunting me with their excruciating inelegance.

But remember our After School Special? To hell with the bourgeoise limits of non-existence! If no-tomatoes can be red, then no-thoughts can be ... something. And, dear reader, do you want to know the best part of this story? I just tracked down this lovely Platonic ideal of a nice red tomato to grace the opening of this post. Because no-tomatoes are invisible, and Google Images doesn't handle that well.

But Blogger won't upload it.


Saturday, June 17, 2006

Green eggs and spam

Spam is already the great comic motherlode of the modern age. Every day millions of women get told how their manhood can be rock hard. Something that the magical fairy Nigerian wrote long ago has been filtered and morphed and leetspeaked so many times that it verges on Beckettesque. Making jokes about spam is like watching those blooper shows which splice 450 home video clips into 22 minutes. You're thinking, yeah, but that kid smashing into the pool fence on his yellow plastic tractor wasn't as funny as the grandpa falling backwards off his lawnmower. That was funny.

However, I was actually moved to a snerk this morning. This particular bit of spam is the super hi-tech kind that uses (drum roll!) mail merge (gasp!) It strips out the part of the the email address before the "@" and uses it as the greeting. So check out the addressee on this little number:

Yo [name of my department]-phds!!!

A Genuine Univers1ty Degree 1n 4-6 weeks!

Have you ever thought that the only thing stopping you from a great job and better pay was a few letters behind you name?
All the time, dude. All the time.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Question hour

And, inspired by Tom Bozzo's Question hour over at the brilliant Marginal Utility, here begins a series of occasional posts on the search keywords that bring webpolloi to Xtinpore.

This week's Beautiful Insanity award goes to:

"pink spider" poetic analysis
basketmaker's related injuries
The first of these landed my post on the Swedish overachiever from hell. Genius. Bostrom is now codenamed Pink Spider.

The Sorry I Wasted Your Time, Dude consolation prize to:

mini-razor northwest
I'm sure Roger Thornhill would know exactly where you could get one of those.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Happy birthday EIIR

I'm watching the BBC1 live coverage of the service of thanksgiving for HRH the Queen's 80th birthday. Her actual birthday was on April 21, but the deal, set up before central heating and goretex cold weather gear, has always been that if the monarch's birthday falls in the winter the official knees-up is in the summer so that the subjects can get out and par-tay.

For a republican, I love the pageantry and sweetly enthused deference of these occasions far too much. Fortunately, like most academics I'm disturbingly gifted at managing internal conflicts. That also helps with compartmentalising the God Factor. The cathedral is beautiful, the choir raises the roof with gorgeousness surpassing understanding, and the Archbishop cuts an impressive figure and is an accomplished and intelligent speaker. I just hum over the one-true-god-wretched-sinner parts.

At the end of the service, there is the blessing.

Be of good courage.
Hold fast to that which is good.
Render to no one evil for evil.
Strengthen the fainthearted.
Support the weak.
Help the afflicted.
Honor all people.

Well. Dare I say it? Amen.

Silver lining

Yesterday's problem (another feature of Displaced Importance syndrome as mentioned in my previous post) was that I couldn't get any pictures to post with Blogger. This is very annoying. I love pictures. They make me feel like I'm publishing in Vanity Fair or something. Plus, I get to mess around for hours with Google Image and Flickr and Wikimedia Commons and all those other fabulous online toys which are the digital equivalent of a huge pile of your mother's old magazines, a pair of scissors and a bottle of paste. Admittedly, nothing can really replace the bottle of paste, the touchstone of every childhood, but I've gotta keep my regressive tendencies in check. Or something.

In my efforts to fix this issue, among other things I thought I'd clear the cache, which I haven't thought to do in, oh, a couple of lifetimes. I actually had to go and make myself a cup of coffee while my poor little P4 chugged through the job.

Well, gee whiz, Batman. I pimped my browser! It's running like a hotrod with giant exhaust, flaming cannonball decals and red leather racing steering wheel!

Can I paste post some pictures now?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Filename incomplete

Browsing New Kid's blog today, I noticed she sported a lovely word counter in the sidebar. So now I have one too. Mine doesn't look as nice as New Kid's, because the border feathering doesn't work on my Doom-'n'-Gloom® black background. I find that disproportionately disappointing (in keeping with the law of nature which governs the fact that things like the formatting on your blog and the ordering of your cutlery in the kitchen drawer become Very Very Important during the writing of theses). This makes me wish I was more of a hacker. Or anything of a hacker, for that matter.

So in the interests of full disclosure, the number controlling the level of the mercury in my little temperature gauge there is pulled directly out of my ass. OK, so no PhD student is surprised. But the thing that got me was the idea that anyone would be able to make sense of the progress of their dissertation in this way. Are there really people who start at 0 words, and then by some process akin to the geological, reach N words? That sounds so soothing. I wish I were fossilising the dinosaur bones of my ideas in this way. As it happens, I have vastly more words written than the N required for submission. But in my world, that has almost nothing to do with the neat, linear, soothing incrementalness of the schematic in the sidebar.

My writing is much more like one of those little plastic hand-eye co-ordination games we used to have as kids -- the ones with some small steel ball-bearing type beasties inside and a corresponding set of little dimples that you had to get the little ball bearings to sit in. You'd tip and turn and nudge until all the ball-beasties were sitting in their allotted spots. Your nudging and tipping had to be juuuuust so, because otherwise you'd get one beastie in the dimple, and then in the process of getting the next one in, the first one would be knocked out of position. And so on and so on until you stuffed it under the car seat in frustration and played I Spy with your brother instead.

It's pretty clear when you're finished with one of those games. All the balls are in the spots. But the point of this analogy, roundabout though it is as always, is what you're going to say before you're done. Suppose your mother says to you from the driver's seat while you're messing with one of these things, 'Say, honey, how are you doing with that?' So far, you've got five beasties in the dimples, and there are seven left. Do you say, 'Great mum! Five down, seven to go!'?

Maybe you do, because it's a dumb question and you just want your mum to stop talking so you can concentrate on perfecting your nudges. But the truthful answer would be, 'That all depends.'

Two minutes from now, you might have no balls in the dimples.

But this doesn't mean that you don't have any ability to know how close you are to finishing. If you know you're very good at this game, then having five out of twelve is closer to being done than not, because you can make a reasonable assumption that your skill will prevent you from going back to square one before you get finished. But you know that there are some random factors you have no control over, you know that your skills aren't perfect, and you also know (this one's the real kicker) that your assessment of your skills probably isn't perfect either. So there's lot of noise into your judgement about how damn close you are to finished.

So you've got some vague, fuzzy-edged, unreliable information about how done you are. But to the nearest helpful approximation, there are only two states you can know you're in: not done, and done.

My word counts are just balls in dimples. Tomorrow they might be spinning pointlessly around the edges again, waiting for a nudge. Or flung out the car window. So don't ask me how close I am to done, because the answer is "That all depends".

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Tuesday haiku

Raindrops spot puddle
the news. Small round lenses on
A letter or three

Blinding flashes of the obvious jitsu

I am a form of ninja. My martial art is exploding minds by my otherworldy ability to state the obvious.

Me in the garden last week, picking a huge bunch of pink sweet peas from the explosion that has appeared in the British sunshine:

Xtin: [holding the sweet peas to her nose] MmmmMMMmmm. Hey! They smell like peas! Only kind of sweet!


Housemate Extraordinarie: [cocks eyebrow]
Xtin: Uh ... yeah, um. Of course.

Stay tuned for the story of Xtin deciding that a chocolate-coated coffee bean tasted amazingly like mocha.

The awesome ninja graphic copyright the genius minds of preshaa.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


I've been thinking about some maligned emotions. Of course, emotions generally are pretty maligned -- particularly any real breadth of emotions. We're apparently supposed to exist in a constant state of moderate satisfaction or vague annoyance. No big emotions, please. Big emotions aren't emotions, they're overemotional. Kindly stop overreacting. Pardon me? I'm reacting too much? Heaven forfend.

Which brings us neatly to those famous sins. The one that's been exercising me lately is that gleaming, metallic-flavoured behemoth, Envy.

I keep hoping that over time, life will gradually wear away my various and spectacularly robust kinds of cluelessness. Progress is slow. My skull apparently supports sanctuaries where it will always lurk. A few years back, however, while wondering in that diffuse sort of way about the diffuse sort of malaise I was labouring under, I managed to uncover the interesting fact that I was bored out of my mind. Gadzooks! So simple! I rubbed my clammy palms together, cackled like a sugar-hopped fiend, donned my supervillain alterego duds and set about un-borifying my life.

Success has its perils.

I have tracked the interesting people down. I live in a world of wall-to-wall smart people. And I have some friends. Friends who've written prize-winning books, who've thought thoughts, who've, you know, Done Things. Some have money. Some are famous. Some have written works which are on the syllabus at this very university. Some understand things of which only two or three people in the world have any sort of grasp. Some are the sort of people who are so brilliant, so charismatic, such human works of art that even when they are standing around minding their own business eating a sandwich and looking at the clouds, they attract others like them, so that you know people who know people who run countries and sell the movie rights and hang on the walls of the Tate and inform governments and are members of secret societies and good god knows what else. Some of these people are the same people. And they're such people. There are some assholes around here, and these people are not they, I assure you. They're so sweet, so warm and real and funny that seeing them is like discovering that out the back door of your house is a huge garden full of trees and flowers, bees and flashing-eyed wild creatures, that somehow you've never been able to get out into before.

Sometimes I'm so envious I can feel the oxygen in my lungs prickle up and turn to microscopic snowflakes of desire. I want what they have! The effortless brilliance, the casual irony of complete mastery, the mild-eyed matter-of-factness about the mosaic of genius and general stratospheria that has become the wallpaper of their world. I drink tea and coffee and talk about something-or-other and breathe gently through my frosted lungs and long to make the air hum as they do.

Deadly sin! If strength of feeling goes for anything, I should be eating my heart out over this. But I don't believe it for a second. My envy is big, but with little fangs. The kind that chew slippers or maybe old tennis balls in the garden. It bites fast, and holds on tight, but it doesn't want to tear out your jugular. OK, once in a very long while it wants to tear out your jugular.

Maybe if I was feeling happy-clappy I'd say that all this is just a kind of generous admiration for the wonderful and accomplished starlets I know and adore. But that would be a crock of shit, it really would. I want want want. I don't want to take it from them, but I still want it. Oh, how I want it. And how frightened I am that somehow the garden gate will be closed and I won't be allowed in any more!

But still. It's the last and sincerest word in flattery. Not that any of them will know that, because in the first place my snowflake-lungs are a secret. And in the second, even if they read this they'd never suppose that it was about themselves.

They're way too bloody unassuming. Bastards. Anyone would think they have insecurities and envy of their very own.

Childhood hero

This, dear readers, in case anyone needs a primer, is Linus van Pelt, friend to Charlie Brown and Peanuts' resident philosopher.

My childhood home contained a complete and warmly dogeared collection of the paperbacked Peanuts anthologies from the 60s, accumulated by my mother, and Peanuts was an inextricable component of the vernacular of our family. Our language and humour was larded with references to it. There is an immortal photograph of my father in the early 70s, perched naked in a tree with his knees against his chest and his eyebrows beetling fabulously. Sometimes I worry that an anthropologist of the future will find this photograph and have no idea what he is doing up there, and there will be no-one to tell her. Naturally, he is doing an impression of Snoopy's impression of a vulture.

Linus has always been my favourite, and sometimes I wonder if my identification with him wasn't hopelessly foreordained. My mother knew she'd spawned a tiny Linus before I could even read, much less understand the comic genius of Miss Othmar and the eggshells.

Linus quotes DWMs, endures his parent's high expectations, wants to be outrageously happy when he grows up (or maybe a great philanthropist with someone else's money) yearns for love, and notes that sometimes it is easier to keep things in the language of the layman. He knows that he is never quite so stupid as when he's being smart. And in perhaps my mother's and my most favourite strip of all, his heart sarcastically bleeds for the Snicker Snack Company. Linus loves to think himself into a puddle, but he's never at all sure that he can think himself out of one. Linus, my hero.

As it happens, I wasn't thinking about Linus when I was inspecting the de rigueur chic baby section of one of the terminally tasteful homeware-vintage-beads-cards-and-Cath-Kidston type of store we have around here. It contained a selection of security blankets. Yes, indeed. Just like Linus. They were inspired. Soft and creamy coloured and with nubbly bits and fringy bits and creatures embroidered on them and really just exactly the sort of thing you'd want to wrap around your nose if you were feeling a little freaked by, oh, I don't know, life in general.

I played with them, nonchalantly not wrapping one around my nose. I cast around in my mind for likely infant suspects of my acquaintance, and came up blank. No zwanger homegirls, either. Curses! I wandered away and toyed disconsolately with silly coloured-glass candle holders and faux rustique herb pots. And then, criminally slow on the uptake for a lifelong Linus-lover, it comes to me like a snowball to the side of the head. I can have the blanket for myself.

Mock if you will. But this here Linus worshipper and stressed-out dissertation writer went to sleep twice as fast that night with her blanket wrapped tightly around her nose.

How to win friends and influence people

So after my recent petulant return to the blogosphere, I would that I throw some lightness into the mix. But after housemate extraordinaire H brought my attention to this tasty little piece of rank hatred, apparently I am sticking with the bile-spewing theme.

I'd very much like to be able to comment articulately, sanely, and in detail about exactly how offensive this craven piece of spin is, because I wouldn't want to lower myself to simply devising more and more creative ways of hoping that everyone responsible burns in hell. Because, don't you know, that isn't very mature. Not to mention perilously close to the conspicuously braindead self-righteousness of said persons.

Suffice to say that the part which overtaxed my relucantly suppressed hellfire impulses is the pearl of oxymoronic blithering act of assymetric warfare.

You mean, when one of you is wearing battle fatigues and an assortment of automatic weaponry and the other is wearing a hood, an orange prison jumpsuit and ankle restraints? Well, naturally the guy in the restraints counts as a combatant. This is war. But well, my goodness! How can he engage? Wait -- I have it! He kills himself! Genius.

You murderous bastards. I hope you all burn in hell.

Yeah, I know. But my self-restraint sucks right now.

[edit] What she said.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Tuesday haiku

Wrinkled pillowcase
an escaping feather and
one or two loose thoughts

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

How beastly

Well, I've been hiding under a rock. Even from my blog. But who could resist Antichristmas as a return to ersatz-public life? So. Piece of cultural information. The emergency services number in the UK is 999. Bet you never really thought about what the emergency service number would be somewhere else, did you? I thought not. Me neither. Culture shock is the combined impact of ten thousand things like this. Plus, I have the added bonus of being Australian, the culture for which British people have a complex and rich stereotype. So my culture shock is actually the tasty chocolate crust of British culture, plus the creamy centre of what British people think Australian culture is, neither of which bear any relationship to me. But I was going somewhere with the 999 thing before my raging expat issues distracted me.

Joke based on piece of cultural information:

Q: What do Australians dial in an emergency?
A: 666.

Uh-huh. Hilarious. You mean, you don't call Beelzebub when things go to hell?

So today, I got carded. Say what? Recall, dear reader, that the age of majority in this country as it applies to alcohol, purchase and consumption thereof, is eighteen. It had to have been at least conceivable, in the mind of the minion in the tasty Sainsbury's orange-fleece corporate wear, that I was seventeen years old. It is important to keep in mind, while I tell this story, that lately I have been feeling aged in the extreme. My eyebags are so big they cast their own shadows. My face holds up little placards which read "Gravity: Operating here for thirty-two years". So the right response to to the orange minion is surely, good heavens, how wonderful! How dewy, how fresh and carefree I must look today! I am not the crumpled kleenex of a human I thought I was!

Instead, I wanted to tear off her eyebrows with my teeth. Are you kidding me? I was making a newspaper cutting scrapbook project about the Challenger disaster before you were even born, sunshine! And now you won't let me have this cheap-ass bottle of New Zealand semillon blend which has too many damn food miles on it but I wasn't giving a rat's furry buttocks about that right now because I just want to get home so that I can keep trying to get this stupid degree, which by the way is my third? Fine! Go shove it up your multimillion dollar corporate conglomerate nickel-and-dimed ass!

If this is not evidence of the presence of the Beast, I don't know what is.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

On being in love

Quite regularly, I wish I was a cultural historian or a literary theorist, because then I would know something about the ways that very clever people have parsed aspects of, well, culture or literature. I tend to be just well-read enough to know that such thought exists, but not well-read enough to know what it says. Even in some received-wisdom, tradition-waiting-to-be-deconstructed kind of way.

On the one hand, perhaps that makes my thoughts about those things refreshingly personal, especially since I'm not usually given to expounding on them, so no-one else has to suffer. On the other hand, perhaps I'd be a human sophisticate beyond my wildest imaginings if I knew a couple of things about Lacan and Freud. I try not to think about it.

Today's chestnut is the strange, leaky boundaries of love. The object of my adoration (and I use the term advisedly) is my dissertation supervisor, Professor Agent Smith. Now, although I might have meant that I am desperately tearing out my heart over him and direct Jedi death-rays at his wife whenever possible, that (thank the small gods) is not it. And, naturally, it is at this point that I am convinced that some English Literature undergraduate could immediately furnish me with five hundred tasty years' worth of brilliant musings on the nature of the beast, taxonomies from monks and madmen.

It is not that I think of Agent Smith as flawless, although I once did. There was a period when my adoration was worship. The Agent manages his worshipability with a practised hand -- not, I should emphasise, so that people will worship him. The Agent is a fantastically charismatic teacher and philosophical conversationalist, but outside the lecture hall and seminar room maintains that particular species of aloof distance that successful academics achieve to preserve their sanity and personal lives. Which, naturally, just makes them all the more alluring because we never really interact with them, we watch their performances -- they are the popstar whose poster is on our wall, into whom we can read whatever personality we like. The Agent maintains his aloofness with a peculiar kind of glad-handing bonhomousness, greeting everyone who has reason to believe he knows them with an almost animatronically cheery "Hi!" Sometimes, you might get asked how things are. If you watch closely, you will see that while this is going on, he is thinking about something else. Of course, this is not an uncommon phenomenon with academics. Most academics (especially those for whom you count as a student) are very evidently thinking about something else while they talk to you. But with the Agent, you have to watch closely.

The Agent can extinguish anything he doesn't like in ten seconds or less by ignoring it so perfectly, so completely and seamlessly, that it disappears from existence. It took me two years to detect that this was happening, and then another six months to realise that it was happening to me. Sometimes it will take me several days to remember that I suggested some development or angle or objection to some aspect or other of my work, and then I wonder why I forgot about that. After careful reflection I'll finally uncover the fact that The Agent behaved as though it had never been said.

The silent deadliness of this in seminars and group discussions of any sort, much less meetings about one's PhD, makes The Agent like a thought-guiding ninja. These are not the droids you're looking for.

The Agent's particular intellectual talent (because we're taking it as read that he's scathingly brilliant) is his ability to reduce any argument at all, anything, no matter how crazy or continental, to a couple of perspicacious sentences from first philosophical principles. Then he mounts a single-strike blitzkrieg objection to what he calls his "cartoon version". It's taken me four years to see that on occasion, this strategy is unfair. Because when he does it, he makes it look like an ice-skater doing a triple-axle over the heads of chimps on rollerskates. Your eyes go wider and wider and your little intellectual heart sighs like a bobby-soxer.

So much for the worshipability. This is not why I'm in love with The Agent. I'm truly, madly, deeply in love with him because in spite of my best efforts, and I mean my best, most passive-aggressive and manipulative strivings, he has never for an instant given in to the giant, seething monster of my philosophical neediness and insecurity. I have sat opposite his monolithic desk and angled like the angst-professional that I am for something to shore up my academic doubts, for a word of guidance about what next; I have dallied and pussy-footed in the face of a question about direction in the hopes that he'll tell me the answer; I have cravenly set up opening after opening for him to tell me that I am clever and that he believes I can do it. Not a single bite. Nothing but oceanic blue eyes containing perfect and uninvolved benevolence.

I have hated him for this. You sadistic, unfeeling bastard! Do you know nothing about encouragement, about praise? Do you enjoy watching me twist in the wind?

The truth is that when I pull my shit together and actually do something, write something, think for myself, make my own decisions, have someballs, for Christ's sake, he pats my wodges of paper in a satisfied manner and says "Excellent".

I'm in love with The Agent because he's the first person ever in my life to expect me to be an adult.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

It's only natural

Not only is nature terribly pretty, but it is also an inexhaustible supply of nifty metaphors. Bears! Bulls! Stags locking horns! Mad hares, early-awakening birds, rabbits with ... certain enthusiasms.

Perhaps the best aspect of nature metaphors is that Nature is big. There is a (literal) smorgasbord of animals, trees, bugs and butterflies, flowers and fish to choose from. No matter what your metaphorical needs, you can pick one with attractive spin. Even pejoratives like shark still get to carry along all of the Cool Deadly Predator connotations that come with them.

Lately, I've been sleeping a lot. I've been eating oatmeal for three days straight because I can't be bothered to go to the store. I've been watching repeats of Star Trek: Voyager and a whole bunch of other daytime television not nearly as illustrious as my hero Capt Janeway and her ragtag crew. I've spent hours watching sparrows and dunnocks flirting in the garden and flitting around like they can't contain their excitement over the coming of spring. I creep out of my bed at supermodel hours, and later creep back in into the same hollow in the bedclothes I made earlier. I've had many strange technicolor dreams. I've curled on the sofa and let my mind wander over the inside of my brain until I can't remember how to spell. I've ignored snippy emails collecting in my inbox. I've unplugged the phone. I've taken hot baths and inspected my toenails.

I've eaten a lot of chocolate. I'd have eaten more, but fortunately getting out of the house to where they sell it often didn't seem worth the trouble.

It's been wonderful.

Naturally, the thing to say is that I am a chrysalis. Mental exhaustion set in as soon as I landed the job, and now I am sleeping inside my gorgeous, jewel-like cocoon, decorating the twig of a tree until I emerge to display my brilliant new colours to the world. These quiet moments inside my cocoon are natural ... indeed, essential! Without them, no metamorphosis.

Wouldn't it be lovely? It's a wonderful thought. Not only am I about to turn into a butterfly, but I am decorative as well. And moreover, this strange sofa-bound period is an indispensible component of My Future Growth™. But I confess. I don't buy it for a second. I think actually, I'm more like a big, white grub. Sitting in the cabbage patch, mindlessly chomping through someone's prize brassica. Chomp chomp chomp. There is nothing in the mind of the grub except The One True Cabbage. And best of all, the more Cabbage the grub eats, the less there is in the mind of the grub, until eventually, a massive surfeit of Cabbage rids the grub's mind utterly of any thoughts at all.

I can't wait. I'm not too sure how conducive this is to dissertation writing. But on the other hand, it seems to me that PhD theses have more than a few things in common with boring, single-minded fat white grubs. Pass the cabbage.

Monday, March 27, 2006

First sign of the apocalypse

There is a terrifying development in advertising lately. You might call it honesty. Or perhaps not. Either way it has the mark of Evil Genius. This afternoon I had the pleasure of watching a pitch for the pictured product, which is an omega-oil supplement for children. The commercial has a soundtrack of childish conversational babble, such as you might hear in a school hallway. The visuals are some pretty footage of a school of sardine (school! Fish oil! Kid's brains! Geddit?), looking all tornado-ish and zippy and generally photogenic.

The voiceover says:
There are hundreds of omega-oil supplements for children. But only one is called Eye Q.
Huh? Seriously?

A prize for the most pointless advertisement ever! But the Evil Genius of this is that it is true. Pointless -- vacuous, even -- but true.

Now, for anyone born after 1960, commercials, and their particular brand of jingly colour and movement, invoke your default skepticism. Your jaded subconscious is primed to reject anything that smacks of Big Fat Lie. You don't even have to be paying attention.

Everyone understands in principle why a lie is bad, and by extension that you oughtn't to purchase a product about which you just heard one. By contrast, it's not nearly so clear cut how truth ought to influence your buying decisions. What's relevant in that case is how what is said or represented relates to your buying decision -- and that's not at all straightforward. If a tomato is hand-picked, does that mean you ought to buy it? Maybe. Who the hell knows? The point is, that takes some thought. If I give it a minute, I conclude that actually, I'd rather buy a machine-picked tomato, all other things being equal, because the person picking a hand-picked tomato is probably paid one dinar a day. But of course, I'm not giving it a minute. Instead, I insidiously come to believe that I ought to prefer hand-picked tomatoes. And why? Because the advertisement mentioned it. And why would they mention it unless it was relevant to my purchasing decision? And as long as it's not a lie ...

Hundreds of people are going to buy this stuff because it's the only one called Eye Q. God help us all.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Be prepared

Naturally, I don't have to say anything about the genius of North by Northwest. It's a truism of modern culture-vulturehood that it is a work of genius, so it would be interesting for me to get all controversial on yo' asses and contest this assessment. Only that would be insane. Of course it's a work of genius.

This here is just a wee fragment of worship for Cary Grant and his everyman alter-ego, Roger O-stands-for-nothing Thornhill.

Late in the movie, Thornhill has learned that The Icy Heroine (the gorgeously attired Eva Marie Saint) is going to be leaving the country with The Villain (James Mason, usurped as the world's greatest and most paradigmatic bad dude only by Basil Rathbone). Right now, Mr Thornhill is in a hospital room with the CIA man who's been masterminding the whole thing that got him ensnared in the first place.

He's playing along with the government man, innocence smoothing the lines in his immaculate tan. He casually and efficiently gets into the new set of clothes he's been brought. Even more causally still, he gets rid of his chaperone on a pretext (he asks for a quart of scotch. Only in 1959!).

Quick! Now's his chance! He grabs the first new shoe from the box, pulls it on without bothering with the laces, hopping up and down on one leg. On with the second shoe, smacking the heels against the hospital linoleum.

And is he out the window the second his shoes are on? Is he hell.

He picks up a white handkerchief, folds it, and puts it in his trouser pocket. Now out the window.

Oh, yeah. That's what I call a man.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Why ...

... in the name of all that is holy, is every single pair of women's trainers at my local sports superstore resplendent in shades of pastel pink, blue, and silver? Is there a giant market of off-duty Barbie princesses who long to give their itty bitty princess tootsies with the silver-glitter pedicure a rest from the glass slippers, but still need something to match their eye-watering pink wonderland outfit?

The men's department is wall-to-wall Big Bad Coolness. Everything is designed to look like the kind of thing you'd wear if you were an urban superhero who needed to serve Justice, fast, down wet alleys, in the dark. I want these shoes.


The current Nike Women advertisement, which makes my eyes slitty with resigned aggravation, involves women being very athletic in one way or another with a voiceover that explains how little kudos they get, and closes up with a defensive challenge to "try to tell them that they're not athletes".

The point of the advertisement is evidently supposed to be that the women involved clearly are very athletic, QED. Fie on this supposed end. The assumption is that that real athletes have stadiums of people cheering for them and earn bucketloads of cash, and notably are men, thus, most egregiously of all, women need to defend their status as athletes in the first place.

I'm not an athlete. But I'd swallow Nike's shrill equality message without choking so much if the damn shoes weren't telling me that I'm supposed to be a Barbie princess.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


My first grey hair was detected today! Possible scope error. Perhaps the first detection of a grey hair, because with the Crazy Mane of Insanity which lives on my head, god knows how long the little bastards have been living in there, deviously subverting the youthful plans of my other follicles.

Egad! I am being dragged kicking and screaming into the world of enforced maturity! Someone pour me a scotch.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Nest egg

In our garden, there's an ancient and buckled nest box attached to the wall outside the scullery window. It's behind a hydrangea bush and is currently overgrown with goosegogs (Sidebar: H says this stuff is actually called "cleavers", but that word is doomed in my vocabulary because when I came to Britain and first had it wrap around me like a sticky and overly friendly green lizard, she called it "goosegogs", which is apparently kid-ese for it. Whatever. Goosegogs is, like, way more cool a word. End of sidebar).

A couple of weeks back, a blue tit and a house sparrow duked it out for occupation of the box. The hydrangea bush shook with tiny ornithological rage as they dashed around making displays of birdly manhood. Eventually, the tit managed to make it in through the hole and poked its head out, blue crested war helmet perched so far forward on his itty-bitty skull you'd think he was trying to impale something. And indeed, as the sparrow came in for the final thrust, the tit parried him at the very doorstep of the disputed zone. Little black beak, nothing! That day it was a miniature bayonet of sparrow-terrifying proportions.

The blue tit won.

So today, we went out and H bought a sparrow nest box. In fact, it's an entire sparrow condominium, with three studio apartments. Tomorrow we'll put it up on the fence opposite the kitchen wall. And with any luck, the tiny bayonets will henceforth be sheathed in Le Jardin Xtin & Pluvialis.

The last time that H and I looked at nest boxes we were at our favourite garden centre just outside of town. It has a brilliant collection of resident parrots, including an African Grey that likes it when I whistle showtunes (especially Oklahoma!) and a truly mind-blowing collection of ornamental carp arranged in order of price, which means size, and at the end of the room there are carp which should only be found in the ponds of Zen monks who've tended them for six hundred years, chanting longevity songs and feeding them fragments of lotus dumpling. Yours for only 159.99. I love this garden centre. Anyway, we were wandering around and I was getting nostalgic for Australia from sniffing the leaves of greenhouse-grown citrus trees, and we came upon the display of nestboxes. Nestboxes for every possible need! But mostly, nestboxes for the little songbirds beloved of British gardeners. They were attached to cardboard sleeves letting you know what species would be best suited to each one.

One of them had a little sign stapled to the sleeve saying DISPLAY ONLY. NOT FOR SALE. I thought, good heavens! Why on earth would you need a display nestbox? It's not like they're shrinkwrapped or anything -- you can pick each one up and look inside it, and open its little hinged doors and check the craftsmanship or whatever you do before you buy a nestbox. It's not as if they suffer a great deal from shopsoiling, either, I mean, for heaven's sake, this display is outside!

cheep cheep cheep cheep

What was that?

cheep cheep cheep cheep

I looked at the display again. And I noticed that three of the boxes had the little signs stapled to them. It was because the blue tits had already found them. Right on this shelf, with the price tags still attached. And inside, the chicks were mistaking me for something that could fit through the golf-ball-sized opening with a beak full of tasty arthropods.

cheep cheep cheep cheep

I love garden centres!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Has he a beard, Mr Godot?

First, trivia. When the Queen offers you a knighthood, you can't refuse. I take it this is because by the time the Queen has anything to do with it, you're already kneeling on the little red cushion with the gold tassels. Anyway, so the story goes, this means that knighthoods come your way couched in the fantastically handy subjunctive conditionals so beloved of philosophers, to wit:
If HM The Queen were to offer you a knighthood, would you be so good as to accept?
If so, bring on the red cushion. If not, everyone backs away with dignity and good grace. Or something. Philosophers, on the other hand, do not love subjunctive conditionals because they allow everyone to save face. Heaven forfend. It is because they are devious little bastards. The philosophers, I mean. Well, the conditionals too, for that matter. You'll notice, dear reader, that nothing about our little knighthood sentence says that anyone is going to offer you a knighthood. It's as airily hypothetical as your post-prandial port-soaked musings about what you'd do with a billion pounds.

'Course, you might argue, there's some happy-looking implication in there. I mean, why ask? But on the other hand, you can just see the other kid in the playground yelling "I never said I'd give you a lemon sherbert! I just asked whether you wanted one!" Philosophers are highly sensitive to playground bully mentality.

So much for the preliminaries, and on with my story. A couple of weeks back, on Thursday, March 2, I was blearily fumbling the pod into the coffeemaker when the clink! of the mailslot in the front door sounded. MMmmmm, I love the smell of rejection letters in the morning. This morning's effort was particularly crunchy granola, exhorting me to "not be discouraged by this news" and also (god bless their charred, blackened hearts) that I should not interpret it "as a reflection on my work".


I used it as a coaster for my coffee.

With a totally pathetic effort to straighten the slump in my beaten shoulders, I wandered off to the office and pulled up my email. The usual dreck fashioned from a combination of spam and useless calls-for-papers for confererences on topics like The Eucharist and Eating Disorders. And ... one whose subject line contained the name of another job I was up for. And not just any one, the one I really wanted.

Well, shit. They'd have called if I got it. Shit.

Right at that moment, I wasn't in the mood to be two-for-two. The odor of napalm was pungent enough, thankyewverymuch. So I graded some student papers, and I polished my fingernails, and I stuck sticky notes into books at relevant-looking pages as a surrogate for actually reading them. I whistled nonchalantly to myself. I considered whether my bank statements needed filing.

To hell with it. Click.

Inside, dear readers, was the subjunctive conditional of the century.

At a recent meeting of the [selection committee] it was agreed to recommend to the [board] that you be [given a very cool job]. If the [board] agrees to this proposal would you be willing to accept?

I stared at it like a spaniel mesmerised by a piece of kibble balanced on its nose. I started from the beginning and read it over again. And then again, more carefully. My god! Did someone just give me a job?

I sat very still. That is important if you don't want the piece of kibble to fall off your snout. I replied to the secretary who'd fashioned World's Greatest Conditional, appropriately conditional-flavouredly. Actuality peeped around the corner tantalisingly. The slightest of slight conditions waited. A mere formality, everyone assured me.

Uh huh. Don't talk to me about modality. I've just spent the last eight weeks establishing the sense in which water might not have been H2O, and you think I'll find possibilities about committees compelling? Talk to the hand.

So godstrewth, I have done nothing but balance the kibble for nearly three weeks. I have not done the happy dance. I have walked carefully, slept carefully, I have stared at it with my big baleful brown eyes. I have known its madly delicious aroma.

And yesterday, wonder of wonders, I got to flip it high into the air and snap! Actual kibble. A real job. It's still dawning on me. And apparently, my metaphors will need a long time to untangle themselves.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Tuesday haiku

Sunrise over slates
Faultlined dreams go tectonic
Good morning, quake wake

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Hide the sausage

Our friends Dr T and Dr E have just returned from la belle France with a saucisson lyonnais, which is stuffed with pistachios and truffles. They've invited me and Pluvialis over to eat it. Good god almighty, and if the sausage itself weren't enough to make my day, Drs T & E are what is technically called Good Peoples and are all sorts of fun to hang about with eating delicacies francaises or whatever is the comestible of the day. Dr E is the one with extensive scholarship in things French, but her fabulously civilising influence has moulded Dr T into a man who looks very much as if he just stepped in from a leisurely stroll by the Seine.

For a nauseating, vertiginous moment, a scheduling problem threatened to scuttle the saucisson consumption plans. Thus did the following grace the university server:

Dr E: Well... I'd only been planning to mark translations, so I'm sure there must be some way around that... My place at 8?

Dr T: Super! Division of labour is surely the answer. Two of us can eat the sausage while the other two mark translations. Then we can swap.

Pluvialis: But academia, philosophy, aesthetics and sausages are all the same thing. There's a great quote, I think from Escoffier, which I've never been able to forget:

"The appearance of a hot sausage with its salad of potatoes in oil can leave nobody indifferent ... it is pure, it precludes all sentimentality, it is the Truth."

Dr T: Did you make that quotation up? It's wonderful! (Btw, I had always idiotically assumed the word "scoff", used to mean grub, food etc, came from a corruption of "Escoffier". It doesn't, alas.)

Pluvialis: No, it's absolutely hand on heart true. Elizabeth David quotes it in one of her books.

[some minutes pass]

Dr T: Zounds! It's written about THE VERY SAUSAGE we propose to consume! (It
turns out to be Francis Amunategui, writing of "Saucisson Chaud a la Lyonnaise" quoted on p. 228 of French Provincial Cooking)

Anal academic? Me?

Dr E: Seigneur! I'm going to bring all of this into my supervision on Rabelais.

Dr T: Elizabeth David herself says this of La Cuisine Lyonnaise:

"...when one actually reaches this fountain-head of French provincial cookery one is conscious of the sense of anticlimax."

Oh no! Is the sausage rubbish??? But wait...

"Of the renowned charcuterie, only one product, the cervelas truffé comes up to expectations. This is a large, lightly cured pork sausage, liberally truffled, which may be eaten sliced as an hors-d'oeuvre, or poached and served with potatoes, or even used whole as a stuffing for a piece of boned and rolled meat."

Only one product! And that product will, with any luck, be safely nestled in our tummies by about 9pm.

[A pause of ten minutes]

Dr T: Ignore everything I have written. On closer inspection there are NO TRUFFLES in our sausage. Merde!

Pluvialis: Oh well, we'll have to look forward to a slightly sentimental, impure, and approximately True evening, instead.

Dr T: It's not all bad news. We will indeed be eating the simpler sausage Amunatégui refers to, but it's not the cervelas truffé that ED gets especially excited about. ED isn't too snooty about our one, but I can't help thinking this isn't entirely fulsome praise:

"Given a good sausage and well-seasoned potatoes, it is a most delicious dish, which will not be despised by the most fastidious."

Pluvialis: Is not ED saying "will not be despised by the most fastidious" rather like Ernest Shackleton saying "it's a little less than warm, don't you think?" while on the Endeavour?

I am looking forward to the sausage. From ED's description, it also sounds like the kind of thing Poirot would stuff his face with (not in front of Hastings or Miss Lemon, of course).

I have just returned from hieing myself to the brilliant wine shop around the corner (150 single malts! But that is another post) and my digestive system is right this moment moulding itself into saucisson shapes in glorious preparation.

So, in short, dear readers, what I have to say is this. When I whine about my life, (which, with 60 all-too-motherfreaking-short days until The Submission, I am going to do more than usual, which is already copiously), pay no attention.

I love my life. I love these people. I am the luckiest woman in the world, because my inbox contains emails with the subject line C H E A P!!! V!AgrA!!

But also ones about saucisson lyonnais and Shackleton. Which just goes to show, you never can tell what will be sharing whose bed between the sheets of intellectual history.