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.