Violence Designer

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Recently my life has demanded a lot of speaking, a lot of speaking up, explaining, having something to Say for myself. You know; bold-face, capitalised for emphasis, sonorous Morgan Freeman voice over: Say. People have been asking a lot of questions. Being a keen kidney bean I’ve dipped a toe into philosophy before I get thrown in the deep end at Chicago and I came across this.

“The formidable injunction to tell what one is and what one does, what one recollects and what one forgets, what one is thinking and what one thinks he is not thinking.” – Foucault.

Talk about apropos! And formidable is right. All that repetition. Those balanced pairs (is vs. does, recollects vs. forgets, thinking vs. not thinking) and that cheeky little flick of circular logic at the end (thinks he is not thinking – is that thinking or not thinking, or thinking about thinking, or not thinking about thinking, or even thinking about not thinking?????) Blerugh! This is like the brain-melting logic puzzle that is my life with CFS: I have to calculate a lot. Do I medicate my headache now and not have a drink when I go out later? Should I try and drink through it, or will I just be sucky migraine-riddled company? Should I take the drugs and have a drink and ride the completely intoxicated wave?  Should I blow off the night out completely and go to bed early with a ginger tea and a book or will that mean I p*ss off a bunch of people? I should have taken tightrope walking for GCSE. Maybe it’s not too late: I could always take a class at Chicago. Life Skills 3300: Advanced multitasking blindfolded on a bed of banana skins. Set texts include A Beginner’s Guide to Juggling Study and Life and Social Acrobatics for Dummies.

Ok, so maybe that metaphor was a little strangled (for explanation of that pun, please refer to the above image) but the point is that now, on top of all the balancing acts, I have to speak up for myself!? Surely not?

All this Thinking has been brought to the surface by UofC Campus Day. Something odd happens, a kind of social alchemy, when you get a bunch of academically inclined people in a room and give them cold Thai food and beer. You get this question.

“What are you?” So maybe if you’re American you immediately understand this question. Me? I did a lot of blank staring at people and thinking “what on earth do you mean? I’m a human being… obviously?” After a lot of dumb-play and earwigging I figured out that they meant “What academic specialism do you hail from?” Not what planet. Cue penny dropping, oooooooh riiiiiight moment. But I’d hardly had time to celebrate my newborn understanding before panic set in. What academic specialism DID I hail from? I did a little more earwigging, hoping to cadge the right form of answer off someone better at this game than me. I heard a lot of things like this:

Well mainly I’m interested in the overlap between music theory and the political messages concealed in 18th century English topiary.

I focus mostly on the dawning of monochrome in the fashions of late 12th century bedlinen.

I’m in the proto-historical, socially significant observation of the interaction between 16th century history and internet shopping.

I am a poet. I live for the music in advertising by-lines, I create searing modern critique on society from them.

I look at representations of Marxist theory in Batman.

“I’m in violence design.”

Um… What?! I remained completely non-plussed! Violence design, since you ask, is to do with blocking action on stage for theatrical fight scenes. It was kind of a swim or sink-without-trace situation so I rallied and got through it by applying the tips of my thumb, index and middle fingers to my chin and nodding slowly… a lot (there was a general theme of appreciative nodding throughout.) I mumbled about Post World War II American literature and creative non-fiction. Never. Not once over the whole 48 hours did I utter the phrase “I am a writer.” I had heard a lot about “making the transition” and discovering “who you are as a writer.” I had no idea what those things meant. I have no idea who I am as *deep breath* A Writer. I just sit down, think a bit about what’s made me get that bubbly feeling in my chest recently and jot down a few lines about it, hopefully with some vibrant adjectives thrown in there too. Or maybe even… dramatic pause… a joke! I know. Scandalous! I don’t take myself too seriously: I’d never hit the little blue Publish button if I did. I just do what comes naturally. Sometimes I get grumpy when I can’t think of a first sentence. Maybe that means I’m in the conscientious study of the intricate history of writer’s block and its effects on the evolution of textual creation… or something? Maybe it just means I’m in the conscientious study of enjoying myself! I like words, I like to play with them. Sometimes I gaff (I described myself as the queen of queasy once and got a few weird looks – but I have a chronic illness that I try to make light of as much as possible… so sue me for being an oddball) sometimes I strike gold (or at least, I think I do… but right now I can’t think of an example…which seems ominous.)

So there’s all that, but there’s also some other things that have got me thinking about “What I am” or “Who I am.” Over dinner with a few friends the subject of how different I am now has come up. My mum has commented, without acidity, on how my temper is much shorter than it was. I know I can be grumpier than I used to, I have more sense of humour bypasses these days. I often think that the full spectrum of human emotions is exhausting and I’ll just stick to apathy thankyouverymuch. I’ve realised I lie a bit more than before. I never used to lie. Ever. I’m crap at it. My face just tells the truth all the damn time, which used to mean I often (accidentally) gave the stink eye to spatially incompetent strangers. Now, however, I use the phrase “I’m fine” nearly 50 times a day, and a lot of the time it isn’t true. Does that make me a fibber? Or is that acceptable? I have metric tonnes of anecdotal proof that people don’t REALLY want to know how you are, especially if the list of things that ache is longer than your exhausted arm. They want you to be fine. I don’t mean that they don’t care about you. I just mean that they want you to be fine, they want you to be good, happy, enjoying yourself. They don’t wish pain on you. How could you repay that kind of care with  ugly truths that no one can really do anything about? Much better just to say you’re fine and smile. Plus, there are always the times when you really are FINE. (Those are invariably the times when no one believes you. Three cheers for irony!)

Having said that, I reckon I need to arm myself with an answer to the “What are you” question. How’s this?

“I am exploring my voice as a writer. Academically I focus on 20th Century American literature as I am interested in the cultural differences between America and England as exposed through their various literatures. I hope to break into the visual arts and philosophy because I’m greedy for new things to learn and I can’t pick just one focus *giggle*.” (Look, one of my infamous jokes!) If that fails, I could always just get a helix piercing and start wearing bow ties because essentially I have to over-think my normal life to survive it and I refuse to over-think my academic life the same way. I refuse to define myself or title myself with a rigid academic appellation that doesn’t even begin to mean what I mean. Maybe I’m a WRITER, maybe I’m just a kid who talks too much and uses big words because its fun and they’re there to be used!?

Oooph, that was a bit navel-gazey wasn’t it. I’m off to watch a drama about firemen, look at some abs and forget all about self-definition for a bit.

xxx

Master of Arts Programme in Openmindedness

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Myriad posts since I started this mishegas have begun with an apology but this time? Nope, this time I have nothing to apologise for! Check it out: personal growth! It’s been a reasonable amount of time since my last post. I’m not playing fast and loose with the laws of chronology. I haven’t even cussed. Manners for the win.

Don’t worry, we’re done lollygagging in the world of self-congratulation. On to the point: my trip to Chicago. Man was that an emotional roller coaster.

I want to just glide quite quickly(ish) over my actual journey since I still have a touch of PTSD about it, not least because it was my first experience of the way in which America fixates on feeding you ALL. THE. TIME. My cfs makes eating a total nightmare. Near-constant nausea is no fun ever, but when you know you have to eat because the last time you took a long flight you scared the living daylights out of an Aussie backpacker by nearly fainting on him, eating becomes a complex necessity. So, two tonic waters, a tea, pretzels, chicken paella, two bread rolls, some crackers and cheese, orange and coconut cookies, an anemic salad, deep-pan pizza, a brownie and some grapes later… I popped a rennie and landed in the good old U.S. of A.

The adventure was beginning in earnest, excitement rose up in my chest to wipe out the last of my long-haul-flight exhaustion. My brain was working overtime dreaming about what I would see, who I would meet, seeing Kate again, learning more about the course I will take, will anyone mention my accent, can I really face 4 whole days of talking to new people, am I making the right choice, can I really pull this off, am I really going to move my whole life across the globe? Bubbling on the inside I hefted my hand luggage and followed the signs to baggage reclaim. I would see the famous architecture of Chicago, the prettiness of the campus, I would face the fickle Chicago weather, I would…..go absolutely nowhere for at least 2 hours.

The queue in customs was gargantuan. “Long” is too small a word for it. Monstrous, humongous, prodigious, tremendous! I was doomed. I soon found out why the line was so expansive. People are stupid. Almost no one had got their visa info right. Almost no one felt the need to give the CBP (Customs & Border Patrol – get used to acronyms, there’s a whole section on them still to come) a straight answer while ESTA (see, acronyms galore) the online system for visa waiver countries seems to have chronically befuddled entire nations. I wasn’t even half way up the line before every child in the building decided they had had enough and threw themselves to the floor shrieking like something out of a Wes Craven flick. I can still hear them in my nightmares. Decades later, to a backing track of wailing, I crawled through customs – having successfully refrained from yelling that it was worse than China but not without having to face down a shiny-pated CBP goon who unhelpfully declared UofC a “tough school” – and breathed fresh Chicago air for the first time.

So what exactly is the point of all this I hear you ask? I’m enrolled to begin a Masters at University of Chicago this coming September so I was invited to visit the campus and… well, generally be scared out of going but current students. Yep, the by-line goes something like this. University of Chicago: ACADEMIC RIGOR and don’t you forget it. Not to mention the yawning, eye rubbing and mussed hair of the current students which – since 90% of communication is non-verbal – pretty much screams “flee, flee while you still can, while you’re still innocent, while you still sleep at night and wake during the day, while you’re still sane and you remember what a party is.”

And yet… I remain excited. Who’da thunk?!

Here’s why, or as close as I can see it anyway.

The first day of my trip, before the Committee for Deterring Potential Students got their hands on me, my gorgeous hostess Kate took me for a jaunt around Downtown Chicago. Her caffeine monster was thrashing so we made a bee-line for a coffee shop. This was immediately the best thing that had happened to me since landing in Chicago because the name of said coffee house was “Intelligentsia.” Not only this, but the guy who served us had little round tortoise shell glasses, artfully sculpted ginger beardwork, a very dapper bow tie-waistcoat combo and a talent for detailed “latte art” – my coffee came with a cute little foam fleur de lis. Everyone who knows me knows I take way more pleasure than is healthy in the appearances of the people around me. So this little fella made my day, sending me beaming and carrying my newly-stamped hipster credentials into the bright sunlight and swarming crowds of Downtown. I could already sense it. Chicago felt like a place I could definitely call home and I’d only been there a handful of hours.

This feeling, it turned out, was all-pervading. Chicago, and the University specifically, seemed to be a place where all the beautiful little tattooed freaks, nerds, geeks, social-phobes, book worms and bibliophiles are free to chat Hegel, gossip over superstructures, natter about Foucault and yak on subtexts in peace. So yes, I was nervous, it was all completely new, I was desperate to make a good impression which almost exclusively leads to falling over my own feet and spilling coffee on important people who are dressed in white. Yet, while I sat in the Classics building surrounded by tragus piercings and tattoos of Poe’s face (true story) listening to a very talented Sitar player I felt a creeping sense of ease. It rolled through the room like dry ice fumes, clinging to the floor, almost unnoticeable at first until it began to climb my legs and swirl around my head, filling my nose and sinking into my lungs. (I know, it’s all very abstract and dramatic around here isn’t it.)

Everyone in the room was tapping along to the sitar in some way, a foot here, a finger there, some where even going for the full head, nodding along in full-immersion enjoyment. There were open minds everywhere I look. All were completely open to new forms of music, new rhythms in the poetry that was read to us, new politics and philosophy in the extracts from current thesis projects we heard. Nowhere could be seen even the merest hint of judgement. Inspiration crashed in waves from the podium onto the gathered prospectives, and we took each hit like some kind of science fiction force-field (you know, the ones that only increase in strength if you hit them with blunt force, think Sebastian Shaw from X-Men First Class, and if all of this sentence is lost on you then you’re probably knee-deep in the wrong post to be honest because the geek flag is flying here.) We were positively champing at the bit to get started on our own ideas, our own intellectual endeavours. Notions, theories, thoughts and hypotheses frothed just under the surface of our small talk. It was intense. It was glorious. It felt like home.

Phew, that was exhausting. And the lady next to me just ordered a cheesecake that I would swear is calling to me, so I’m going to go and order one for myself. There is more, so much more to say though and if you’re at all interested I’ll be back soon to fill you in.

Hope to see you there.

xxx