Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fail so far!

A whirlwind of interviews has taken over my life here in Washington at the moment, so I have yet to begin my challenge to blog about 100 people.

Someone asked my why I am doing a PhD the other day, because he knew from experience that it is personally challenging and emotionally ridiculous, and my only answer was "because it is difficult". This is precisely the reason why I chose to study Mandarin over Italian or some other language more accessible to English speakers. It's most likely the reason why I decided studying space was a great idea in the first place. So it was no surprise when I mentioned the idea of the challenge to my ever-sensible husband, he quietly asked "Don't you have enough hard-stuff to do?"

Turns out that at the moment I do. I have met lots of wonderful and fascinating people that have great stories but, that's just it, I've met them so it feels like I would be cheating and subverting the challenge. Besides I've heard stories of famous authors who lose friends and families in tell-all books. This theory may seem ridiculous given that I have only had 16 views of my blog thus far (15 of them being me before I worked out how to block my own ISP), but you never know, some day either a: I might get the courage to tell my family and friends about this blog, or b: the random 1 person that has visited it might come back with some friends and I will become viral on Youtube - famous for my singing. So there are, after all that, more reasons to not take up the challenge than there are to do it.

The final decision after all that is I will give myself a break and not beat myself up about something for once. I am going to feel good about making progress on the PhD and less bad about making no progress on other challenges I have set myself for little other reason other than they are difficult. Life is about trade-offs after all.

Having said that I think it is a wonderful idea and one day...

Cheers big ears.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Naked in Capitol Hill...

Today I have been consumed by an unpleasant feeling that I have yet to fully understand but it was related to the personal challenge I set myself - was it only yesterday? I will let you judge the outcome (so flippant - it's easy to be judged by a readership of none!). I was at the park soaking up a day that everyone wishes they could dial up as easily as a pizza - sunny, squirrely and bright - dogs and children lolling about the park - the buzz of the community interrupted only by the constant wail of Washington DC sirens. Perhaps it was that I didn't belong, I was an interloper, external to the essence of the day, that I found myself suddenly naked and vulnerable in a small park in Capitol Hill.

Of course, I am speaking metaphorically, and I am sure that my fellow park-goers would appreciate this - if only they knew! I was working away on my lit review, showering in rays of vitamin D, when a young guy came and sat about two seats away from me and began singing Kanye West - Love Locked Down. It was melodic and haunting, and I found myself thinking of yesterday's blog commitment - 100 blogs of everyday people's stories. I smiled at him several times thinking that I undoubtedly had the perfect subject there for my blog-a-thon - but, guess what happened? (I know, there is no suspense here). I chickened out. Before he had even got through the second refrain he skittered out of the park, and the look on his face betrayed his thought that he was about to be attacked by a rabid

Then I spotted my next victim - an elderly lady shuffling around the park, her socks half-mast and wilted in the summer heat, her face scorched with wrinkles scratched in with the pen of life. If I couldn't catch her with my wit I at least had a pretense under which to offer her a seat. I scrunched my bag and books up to make sure the space was available. She shuffled closer, scrutinising the pot-hole ridden brick pathway for possible obstacles. Here she came. I had the perfect opening..."You have to be careful for the pot-holes!" Okay, so it wasn't particularly creative. But she did talk back. "Yes," she said in a thick accent from I don't know where, "particularly along this bit." "Still," I hear myself saying in my simpering and lisping voice (as opposed to the sexy, strong voice that I used to think I owned before I heard myself sing) "it's nice weather for it." She nodded. She shuffled off. It's nice weather for it???? Another opportunity missed.

So there I was naked in Capitol Hill. I had exposed myself to two people and had baulked both times. They put show-jumping horses down for less. I suddenly lost heart, my uselessness verified. I thought back to my journey to purchase food. I had been stalking to the food court at Pentagon City when I was accosted by a twenty-year old Israeli girl desiring to sell me outrageously priced moisturiser from the Dead Sea. Imprisoned on the make up seat in the full glare of harsh lights and mall pedestrians, the Israeli girl had tried vainly to excoriate my face of its laugh lines. Failing to strip the life from my face she resorted to stripping my self-confidence with her fierce criticism of my wrinkles ("You surely don't use anything on that skin do you? It's in such bad shape!"). After that cruel and unusual punishment I visited the food court three times. All three times I had so little confidence that I was unable to decide what I wanted to eat, and exquisitely conscious that the act of chewing might turn my wrinkles even further into doughy, deep crevasses. Hopeless.

Introspection followed then, as it did today. Today I decided that these were issues of identity. Who am I and who I am trying to be? Being in Washington has stripped me of my strengths, of every important marker that I use to identify myself - as a wife, a mother, a friend. Instead I am left only with the bones of me. I don't have to do anything, I can do what I want, only I'm not entirely comfortable with myself, or by myself. I'm naked. But you know, at the end of a long day of soul searching I've decided - so what? Naked's okay as long as the weather doesn't change.

I'll try again tomorrow.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Everyone has a story

My husband is a wonderful communicator because he is genuinely interested in everyone's story - sometimes with the exception of mine - but to give him a break he has had not only had to live my story alongside me for the past twenty years, but for the same excruciating amount of time he has listened to me complain about it!  

But I digress - his secret is to get people talking about themselves, and importantly his motivation is genuine, so he listens with almost single-minded attentiveness.  This essential skill is part of what makes him a great physio and a great partner.  Sure he can come home and tell me about X's displaced medialus something or rather, but he can also tell me that X is a Muslim Indian who loved his wife from the moment they met at university, and whose second passion is fishing, and that he has an aluminium tinny with a 40hp motor that he takes out to the bay and a myriad of other interesting personal details.  Sure enough, the next time X has an appointment, X brings him in a gift of a small fishing lure that is guaranteed to catch a metre long flathead; Y brings in some Christmas cookies, Q brings in a bottle of red that they had discussed.  Think back in your life - you only do things like that for people that you genuinely feel a connection with.

Me, I am lacking in this department.  I flounder about - my mind ticks over everything so fast that I don't compartmentalise things effectively - so while I am listening to a seminar or someone talk, I am also mentally working out my shopping list, my things to do list, wondering if I have something stuck between my teeth, thinking about the consequences the world could be facing if Bush was legally allowed to run for re-election for a third term, reminding myself how to ask for two beers in Mandarin, trying to work out how I can afford a house cleaner, and battling with the eternal question of whether if I am capable of writing this stupid PhD.  You get the point.  It's hard to search for questions and try to engage others when you are not a genuine listener.

So I have decided to fix this because it's an area for self-improvement that I can work on, unlike my singing, which as you have seen, is an absolute train wreck and beyond hope of redemption.  I am going to challenge myself to tell 100 people's stories on this blog - I want to say in 100 days, but I think that circumstances might conspire against this - so I'll make it just a one part challenge to tell 100 stories of everyday people that I meet during my everyday existence - people who think, like me, that their stories are mundane, uninteresting, boring.  What can their lives tell us?  What lessons can we learn from others?  How similar are we to each other, or how different?  Who will I find...???

Let's see how this goes. 

Have you ever thought you could sing?

I have. For many years my singing has reverberated inside my head with more force than Hurricane Katrina. In my mind I am a combination of Macy Gray, Dido and Norah Jones - albeit a middle-aged, slightly overweight, and many-chinned version. Not for me the leather skirt, no, but I always wondered if I could achieve something with singing lessons. My husband on the other hand has always told me that my singing was really bad. I never believed him. Sure my voice wasn't great for a lot of songs, it's soft and somewhat sexy...I certainly can't belt out a rock tune - but, many friends have told me I have a nice voice, that I am a "good singer".

Of course, the singing dream disappeared under the weight of children, work, the burdens of life and, well...weight. But here in my Washington bedroom, far removed from my reality, I found myself procrastinating instead of working on my PhD. This, by the way, is the normal state of affairs, what wasn't normal was that I was alone - just me and Mac who is my inseparable companion of the last few months. Turns out it is my uncles 70th birthday today, so it occurred to me that Mac could record me singing him a birthday song! "Roll on Iphoto booth," I thought, - "may you remain unscarred by what is about to occur - and watch out Australian Idol."

Turns out, it wasn't too bad - that is if you are into a bad, somewhat older, Marilyn Monroe impersonator, who may, or may not, actually be in drag. This inspired me, in a moment of madness, to fish out my iPod touch (my other permanent companion) and video myself doing some rousing renditions of Counting Crow's Big Yellow Cab and Norah Jones "Come Away with Me" (which I am sure is not the title, but is the only line I know).

So here are the results - it turns out that my friends must love me, and they are well-meaning and compassionate, and most-likely all too aware of my fragile sense of self confidence. My husband was right, and I have just had the biggest belly laugh of three weeks. It's too good not to share...excuse the lisp - and my deepest and most sincere apologies to Norah.

It is not fair on Washington DC but...

I don’t know if writing a blog will be cathartic or not – after all it’s not much fun putting your opinions out there in the public if you have as thin a skin as I. But when you are alone the need to express yourself, to rationalise the way you feel, to tell someone – even if you don’t expect anyone to read it – becomes more overwhelming than ever before.

People that choose a singular and isolated existence must have something extraordinary, a way to gain strength that doesn’t require interaction, approval, disproval, or even acknowledgement from others. I don’t think I have that skill, but five weeks in the U.S. amongst over-achieving, extremely assertive American’s will test me to no end. I may end up curled in the foetal position under a bed somewhere, or in a wardrobe being comforted by the dust bunnies, only to be dragged kicking and screaming back to reality. Of course, another alternative is that I consume, by osmosis, the something in the air that makes many American’s just that way, and come back strong, assertive and with pearly white teeth.

But somehow, I think the assertiveness is just as much a fa├žade as some of the beautiful buildings in Capitol Hill. Scratch the surface and you will find assertiveness as a camouflage that masks deep insecurities, and sometimes dark imaginings, that affect everyone in this society. Some of these insecurities come from gender – witness the hyper-adrenalised women in Washington, carefully coiffured, in their haute-couture suits, shoulders padded out, showing deference to womanhood only in their choice of high heels, or their sharply defined, too-bright, and slightly bemusing lipstick. Or race – witness the black or Hispanic shop assistant’s deference – years of prejudice rolled up in a cool assertiveness designed to defend against attacks, serving you coldly but engaging in small talk, warm talk, with their fellow suffering co-workers. The military personnel – uniforms expressing externally set of goals and attitudes, but masking the person inside, so all you see is a walking shell. Stereotypes I know, but to the casual observer, it’s difficult to move past the stereotypes when no one looks you in the eye as they walk hurriedly by.

For the dark underbelly, you only need to watch American TV for five minutes to see how this assertiveness is gained at the misfortune and ridicule of others. Feeling shit about your life? Try watching a reality show about a repossession agent as he repossesses a car from a female teenager driver, leaving her retching on the side of the road, stranded with her friends, sobbing desperately in her despair as he bemoans the fact that the girl had vomited on his shorts. Or there is always “Rehab” which prescribes watching wretched people undergoing withdrawl from drug dependency, as a way to entertain ourselves and unwind from the travails of our day. Let's define our success by defining someone else's failures - adding to our assertiveness because ‘that’s not me’.

So what does all this mean for me? As I contemplate going to a conference tomorrow full of accomplished, strong people, some of who will conform to these stereotypes, and others who, hopefully, will not – will I take the simple advice that my mum gave to me when I was five and try to imagine them in their underwear – not real underwear, like you might imagine Pat Cash in, but long pants with buttons like on a Disney caricature from my childhood? 

It will take some gymnastics – I will be jumping over mental hurdles like an Olympic champion. I’ve never been any good at masks, except when they were provided for me in the guise of a police uniform. It was a relief when I took that mask off and, thankfully, eventually, after years of exposure to real people, I regained my humanity. But while I have never actively looked for a replacement mask, maybe my self-effacing is one that I didn’t realise that I had actually bought. I think it might be time to throw that thing into the lifeline bin and stop hiding behind it – it doesn’t work for me anymore.