Friday, 27 January 2012

A conversation with a 17-year-old

Yet another thing Julia has written in her blog is a ten-minute conversation with her 17-year-old self. Now for her it's just over ten years ago, but if I were to address my 17-year-old self it would be bizarre. Or would it? What can you say to a desperate 17-year-old to make her listen? I would say: All your sorrows will go over and all the wounds will heal. To be fair, I'd add: There will be new sorrows and new wounds. I'd say: all your dreams will come true, but not in the way you think. I'd say: of all your bosom friends today, only one will stay with you through thick and thin. I'd say: You have just made a big mistake in your choice of education, but it will turn out well anyway. I'd say: Leave home as soon as possible and never look back. Although if she had followed the advice, I probably wouldn't be where I am now. I'd say: when they offer you that job in a student orchestra, take it! You will regret for the rest of your life that you didn't.

What I wouldn't say to my 17-year-old self, or to any 17-year-old, is: Your prince will never come, but there will still be moments of happiness.

And what would this 17-year-old, full of dreams and illusions, hopes and follies, say to me? Go jump the puddle, old hag, you know nothing about life.

Book of the week: A Monster Calls

I started reading this highly appraised book yesterday as I went to bed, and after ten pages I wanted to put it away. Every single cliche was in it: a lonely, insecure protagonist bullied in school, an absent father with his new wife and baby, a sick mother, a busybody granny, an inconsiderate teacher, italics for the voice of the inner monster, and, well, the eponymous monster. I immediately thought about an award-winning and absolutely horrible Swedish young adult novel with almost identical initial set-up, that mostly renders the female protagonist's worries about getting rid of her virginity and finding ways of getting drunk on Fridays. Every now and then she visits her dying mother in hospital. I just couldn't stand another of these novels.

However, some of my students had read the book and said it was wonderful. (Not that I trust students' opinions, but I try at least to be informed about their likes and dislikes). So I gave it a chance. Then I couldn't put the book away and kept reading until well after midnight.

There are many children's and YA novels about "coping with death". I am generally not interested in the aboutness of literature, and I am definitely not interested in how to use books for therapeutic purposes. This book is the most profound narrative of denial and reconciliation I have read.

Another blog challenge from Julia

I love these games. 31 – is it Propp's functions? And once again, you can see clearly that the questions were compiled by a very young person.
  1. Where is you mobile phone? Somewhere in my backpack
  2. Where is your significant other? Buying groceries
  3. Your hair? Neat
  4. You mother? Perhaps brewing a witch potion
  5. Your father? Since I don't believe in afterlife, dissolved and fertilised the earth
  6. The best thing you know? This was difficult. Probably walking in nature
  7. You dream last night? For once, clear and significant. I dreamed that our cat was still alive but very tired and wanted to lie down, but there was another cat, a grey tom with white socks, who kept poking at her to keep her on her feet and walking. Dr Freud, please explain
  8. Your goal? Live long enough to see my grandchildren grow up, perhaps see my great-grandchildren
  9. What do you want to be in six years? Alive
  10. The room you are in? My study at home. Large window toward the garden, and a squirrel up on the bird feeder. A mix of academic books and dollhouse gadgets
  11. Your hobby? Gardening, dollhouse/miniature making
  12. Your fear? Alzheimer
  13. Where were you last night? If it counts as “night”, at a seminar with my students, then home enjoying a good meal, a fire in the fireplace and a really good book
  14. What are you not? Territorial
  15. One thing you wish for? Health
  16. Where did you grow up? Half a mile from the Moscow Kremlin
  17. The last thing you did? Checked my email
  18. Your clothes? Since I work from home today, sweatpants and a sweatshirt
  19. You tv? Switched off
  20. Your pet? Died last week
  21. Your computer? Two-year old HP laptop
  22. Your mood? Generally positive
  23. Do you miss anyone? My children
  24. Your car? Eight-year old SAAB
  25. What do you never wear? Fur
  26. Favourite shop? Hobby shop/art supplies
  27. Your summer? Last summer, cruise on the Amazonas. Coming summer: finish a book
  28. Do you love anyone? Yes
  29. Favourite colour? Green
  30. When did you last laugh? A funny picture on Facebook yesterday
  31. When did you last cry? When the cat died. 

    Julia's original 31 questions are here.

Monday, 23 January 2012

The year of the dragon

Most people in my real and virtual social networks probably know that it is the Chinese New Year and that it is the year of the dragon. Whether you attach this fact any significance is as much your personal issue as the Zodiac signs. The year is significant for me since it completes the Big Year, the cycle of five times twelve years and returns to the starting point of the lunar calendar.

I know about the Chinese calendar from my mother who is an Oriental scholar. Like all expressions of faith, myth, superstition and other practices incompatible with the Only True Communist Doctrine, the Chinese calendar was forbidden. Somehow people would still find out when the new year started and which sign it was. We calculated who was born under which sign and what it meant, and who was best compatible with whom. Since you couldn't easily find votive pictures or figurines, we made them ourselves and gave each other as gifts. I had - and still have - a clay dragon whom I decorated with jewelry and fed from a tiny bowl of rice. I worshipped my dragon every year, but each year had its own animal who received their own tributes. I cannot say it gave the whole business a special thrill just because it was forbidden, but it was certainly less trivial when you couldn't easily get all information from a weekly magazine. I remember I was anxious when I was a couple of days overdue with my first child and he was born a Mouse. I don't think it has affected him that much.

Yet I lost track of the Chinese years when I moved to Sweden, just as I lost interest in many other forbidden and half-forbidden things. Also, to celebrate Chinese new year is only satisfactory if it's shared. It just so happened that I had no one to share it with. So my third and fourth Dragon years passed unnoticed. I bought a wonderful little jade dragon in China, and I always have it on my dressing table, but not until recently did I realise that my Big Year is coming to an end.

Reflections on age are always profound. I remember explaining the Chinese calendar to an aunt; I was perhaps seventeen. I said: "You are sixty, so it means..." She wasn't pleased to be reminded of her age. For me at that time, sixty was equal to eternity.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Julia's blog challenge

Once again my daughter offers a blog challenge which I cannot resist. Here we go.

  1. What were you doing ten years ago?
Trying to land after we had come back home from California. Fighting battles to get courses to teach and students to supervise. Finishing two books. Planning my 50th birthday party.
  1. What were you doing a year ago?
Starting on a new term. Looking forward to Burns night. Editing a book.
  1. Five snacks you like
I don't eat snacks, but if drink nibbles count: mixed nuts (no peanuts!), olives, feta cheese, carrot sticks with dip... hmmm... cucumber sticks with dip.
  1. Five songs for which you know the whole text
Would be fifty rather than five, maybe five hundred. Romantic songs, funny songs, Soviet patriotic songs, and dirty songs.
  1. Five things you would do if you were a multimillionaire
What is the definition of a millionaire? It also depends on the currency. Once upon a time I paid a million for a simple meal (late '80s in Poland, incredible inflation). But ok, it was multi-. Quit job. Pay off mortgage for ourselves and our children. Always fly business class. Get a personal trainer. Create a foundation for PhD studentships in children's literature.
  1. Five bad habits
Work too much. Work too much. Work too much. Work too much. Work too much.
  1. Five things you like doing
Gardening, walking in nature, talking to friends, reading, eating a good meal.
  1. Five things you would never wear or buy
Never say never. A year ago I would say I would never wear a hat, and then I did. I used to wear high heels, but I would never do it again. I used to wear mini-skirts. I used to wear leather pants. I used to wear synthetic underwear. I used to wear very large ear-rings.
  1. Five favourite toys
Victorian dollhouse, Tudor dollhouse, modern dollhouse, computer, camera
  1. Ten people you would like to take this challenge
Alyona, Filip, Viktor, Agnes, Kory, Lotta, Lydia, Rachel, Ghada, Clementine,

Saturday, 21 January 2012

How to write a research proposal

As anyone close enough to academia knows, the only thing that matters nowadays it external funding. You may publish tons of award-winning books, be invited to zillions of prestigeous conferences, be elected to illustrous societies, but if you don't bring in external funding to your institution, you are worthless. It shouldn't be like this, especially since so much of an academic's life is spent on writing research bids instead of doing research. Some lucky people have research assistants who write the bids for them, but in order to have a research assistant you need to have received a research grant in the first place.

From this point of view, I am a worthless employee. The kind of research I am interested in will never win large bids, and the kind of projects that win large bids don't interest me. I am an individualist and can't work in teams. I cannot hire a research assistant to do my thinking for me, because the whole point of my thinking is that I am the only one who can do it. If someone else does it, it will not be mine anymore. I cannot even ask an assistant to do a literature review for me because they won't know what I am looking for.

Still, since I have agreed to play this game I must follow the rules. I keep submitting research proposals, which take a lot of my precious time and leave me with a track record of unsuccessful bids. What I am doing is not measurable and therefore unpredictable. Following the rules, I state that such and such target groups will benefit from my research, and I know that it is a bag of %£&!!%£, so of course it doesn't sound persuasive.

As a reseach leader, I need to encourage my team to submit bids and preferably participate in some. Right now we are in the final phase of submitting a proposal that I would definitely support if I were a referee, but then I felt like that about all my proposals. Note, we are not given extra time for writing proposals so we are either doing it in our spare time or instead of other tasks we are supposed to do. If I were a department head under the present circumstances I'd give all my employees a day every week for writing proposals. What luck I am not a department head.

Anyway, yesterday we had a proposal-writing day. For the purpose, we used some old grant money to retreat to a conference centre with ambient atmosphere and nice food. We had already filled in all the items in the online form, and we had written a dozen of versions of the 6-page proposal statement to be attached. You wouldn't think it takes a whole day for a team of five people to edit a 6-page document, but it does. First we talked through it, projecting the text from computer onto a screen. Then we split in two groups and worked on a bit each. Then we got together again and put our bits together and read them, sentence by sentence. Then we had lunch and talked about unrelated topics. Then we had another go. We made huge progress, but we still had to take some homework with us when we parted.

Now, you may ask, is this a good investment of time? Five people working a whole day is actually a whole week of work, and it wasn't the first week and possibly not the last. Certainly if we do get the grant, we'll hire two research assistants and a research sstudent to do our thinking for us, pay people's travel and hotels, arrange workshops and perhaps even come up with something measurable. But if we don't get it, all these weeks will have been a total waste of time.

Never mind. The lunch was good.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Do cats know that they are cats?

For my current research I am reading about mysterious things such as emotions, memory and consciousness. The latter seems especially controversial. There seems to be no way of saying what consciousness is, what it is for, where exactly it is, or how it interacts with the rest of the world.

What has always fascinated me is the question whether human beings are the only living creatures that have consciousness. The clever book that I am reading claims, with reference to another clever book, that a bat only has consciousness if it is conscious of what it is like to be a bat. Since bats eat cats and cats eat bats, I can modify the issue. Are cats conscious of being cats?

Another question I have contemplated a lot is whether we are conscious of being alive. In Ray Bradbury's wonderful book Dandelion Wine, the young protagonist Douglas suddenly becomes conscious of being alive. Not unexpectedly, this discovery very soon leads him to the conclusion of being mortal. We all know that we will die, but are we conscious of being mortal? And are we conscious of dying when it comes to that? I know that my grandfather wasn't, the evening before he died. I wasn't there when my father dies, but according to my mother the last thing he said before drifting into merciful unconsciousness was: “So that's what it's like”. I don't know which is preferable.

But if cats are conscious of being cats, and if they know that they are alive, are they conscious of dying? Or maybe they don't have consciousness, but still know that they are dying. Maybe they are scared. Maybe they are trying to tell us something. Maybe they are trying to say goodbye. I am positively sure that Miso was trying to say goodbye

Watching a cat slowly and peacefully dying for ten days brings up lots of big questions. Farewell, Miso. You stayed with us more than a year after we thought we had lost you.

Monday, 9 January 2012


Honestly, it wasn't part of my plan for the Monday afternoon to give 200 tulips an individual spray of animal repellent. Not that tulips have a strong sense of individuality, but the beastly beasts who come and nibble the new shoots don't get the message otherwise.

I went out for some fresh air during the morning and had a look at my alpine patch to see whether the mini-daffodils were visible yet. Then I saw the tulips, or what was left of the tulips. Goodness, it's January! I saw some tiny shoots a couple of weeks ago, thought they were crazy and covered them with pine needles against frost. I don't know what happens if frost does come. On the other hand, daffodils are supposed to bloom in February here, and tulips in March, so I guess they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. It's just that the previous three winters were exceptionally cold.

I had a satchel of repellent left since last spring but it lasted for about one third of my tulip beds. S.O.T! (Save Our Tulips!) Torn between the garden and the computer, I asked Staffan to get some more, which he did, noble as he is, but I still had to spend three hours tidying the beds to find all the shoots. Bitter experience: miss one shoot, and it's gone. Meanwhile, I discovered daffodils, hyacinths, snowdrops and even bluebells. I know that animals don't like daffodils, but bluebells? I sprayed them just in case.

As every year, and more intensively each year, I feel the joy of seeing nature coming alive, every flower, every shrub, just as last year, with vigour and persistence that also make me feel envious and a bit sad. I hope there will be someone enjoying my tulips and daffodils when I am gone.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Professional knowledge

Once a month I pamper myself with massage. And every time, while she is working on the tiniest muscle hiding behind five other muscles, I ask myself: how does she know? How can she feel what is tense and what needs special attention today? And then I tell myself: because she is a professional. Because she learned how to do it. Just as you once learned how to analyse a literary text and how to recognise all the tiny details that make a literary text a masterpiece and other details that make it a pile of garbage. And just as she knows what the matter is with your muscles and what to do about it, you know what the matter is with a poor essay draft and what to do with it to make it better. So I don'r feel bad because somebody is taking care of my tired body. I am professional in my own way.