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I think it’s psychosomatic.

Yesterday I felt elated at it being the first day of the new year, the year of 2013.

The year in which I will turn 23.

The year in which I will submit my thesis, have my viva, and gain my PhD.

The year in which I will start jobhunting in earnest, and hopefully land in a decent first post.

The year in which, after nearly 20 years in full time education, I will cease to be a student, at least officially.

Yesterday the rain that had been drizzling miserably over a cold and overcast London finally stopped. The sky was clear and the air clean and crisp.

Yesterday I felt hopeful that good things will happen this year.

Perhaps that feeling is yet to return.

But for the time being, today, I feel sick. I’ve spent the last 10 days or so, since Christmas, pushing myself to the limits of my sanity trying to rewrite Chapter 1 of my thesis. Surprisingly, the process proved less difficult than I had anticipated, and although I am only about 85% finished today (I had hoped it would be fully written by now), I have come into the campus to type up and send to my supervisors what I have written.

I am not at my desk in the office.

For some reason I feel estranged from it, and from the people I know will be there today. And if not today, then tomorrow, or Friday, or next week. They will have to come in eventually.

They’re not bad people. They just make me feel sick.

I’ve come to feel sensitive at the mention of names, places, things. Some of them remind me of the past, and some of them remind me of things inside my head. Things that may or may not exist, but that stay with me and make me feel sick anyway.

It feels like a kind of knot in my stomach that makes it impossible to eat, like my appetite has dwindled slowly to nothing. Throwing up doesn’t seem to be out of the question. I’m sitting in relative darkness in a deserted corner of a computer lab. I’m feeling sick, and also the constant, numbing pressure to stop procrastinating and type.

I’m probably going to be here until 4 or 5 this afternoon.

I can’t afford to procrastinate.

Other things have happened, too. A paper I had under review for the last 3 months came back with the request to revise and resubmit. Apparently the two reviewers were in almost direct disagreement; one was positive, the other suggested rejection. The comments were fair, I’m not taking it personally, but nevertheless the prospect of revisiting the same material to make revisions, and then going through another round of the holding-my-breath-for-the-decision process after resubmission, is daunting. It’s making me feel sick.

My viva is in July. Before, it felt like July 2013 was light years away. Now the calendar doesn’t say “2011” or “2012” any more. The neat little 2013 in my diary pages that I will work my way through as I write – I flick through them like one of those flipbook animations. The time is going to pass so quickly, I’m going to be confused, baffled, bamboozled. I’m not going to know where the days have gone.

I feel sick in my stomach, and half asleep in this dreary darkness of a deserted computer lab. The tap-tap-tapping of my fingers on the keyboard is the only sound I hear.

I’m going to start typing now.

So much for writing-up being dramatic. It’s the most underwhelming experience ever.

I’ve been in confinement for a week now, venturing outside my home only twice to pop to the supermarket in search of food. Other than that, I’ve been holed up in four walls, trying hard to write my thesis. I have, actually, done some writing – Chapter 1 needed redrafting and that’s about half-finished at the moment, but I seem to spend much more time doing things other than writing – like sighing, pacing the room, drinking tea, and staring at the ceiling. I mean, I’ve probably spent at least 6 hours in total, just on the sighing.

It’s been a wet Christmas in London. Wet, grey, and slushy. Actually, that’s lucky. Other parts of the UK have been completely flooded. Here in London, it’s just been drizzling miserably, in a long, relentless kind of trickle. It’s a bit underwhelming.

Sometimes I miss the sudden, extreme, all-heavens-breaking-open downpours we used to have at the end of 45-degree summer days in Melbourne.

“There’s a cool change on the way,” they’d say on the radio, and after a while the branches on the plum trees in the garden would start swaying in the wind and the thunder would clap under gathering clouds. Then the rain would start. It would rain like it had never rained before and like it would never rain again, water pouring over us, drenching everything in sight.

Then it would stop. I’d go outside again sometimes to look at the snails on the driveway and to smell that fresh, grassy, straight-after-rain smell.

I used to look forward to being able to smell that smell. It’s an exciting smell, a smell of freshness and newness and of young things coming alive. I would sit around in the house, reading a book, or listening to Neil Mitchell on drivetime, and wait for the rain.

It’s a bittersweet kind of nostalgia I have, this time waiting not for the rain to start, or to stop, or to do anything really, but for my thesis to hurry up and get written. I’m waiting for all heavens to open and put the inspiration into my brain that I need to push out the words, sentences, and paragraphs that will comprise my thesis.

There is no more Neil Mitchell. Instead, I listen to LBC talk-back, or Radio 4. I miss the rolling repetition of ninety-six, ninety-six, twelve seventy-eight in my ears.

Sigh. Pace. Sip. Stare.

The pen touches the paper.

I’m probably going to be at home with my nose in a book, but I’m hoping RT will stream it live.

He’s given assorted interviews over the past 6 months, plus his new book Cypherpunks has recently come out, but rumor has it tonight’s address is going to contain a few surprises. Oh, the anticipation! What will we hear next? More details about the plan to join the Aussie senate? Launching the new WikiLeaks political party?

For all the festivities and fun of the season, it’s a shame we still live in a world where Assange is holed up in an embassy he can’t leave, still hasn’t been charged with any crime, and is probably worse for wear in terms of his physical health. It’s sad that we live in a world where people – peace heroes like Manning – who dare to show the public the war crimes committed by governments are preyed on by liberty-forsaking powers and hidden away in classified locations for weeks, months, years on end.

Whatever Assange says tonight, I hope we will soon see both him and Manning, and all people struggling against political persecution in their quest to show us an alternative view of the world, free to speak their minds and free to do what they believe is right.

 

 

 

My supervisor is going to be here in just over 4 hours. Perhaps I should clarify – my second supervisor, with whom I am meeting this afternoon, is a retired emeritus professor and lives in a small village in the middle of nowhere, a good three hours’ commute away from London. Fortunately, after several distasteful altercations with our head of department, she got permission to claim for travel expenses to come to London once in a while and discuss stats with me. She wouldn’t hear of me being given a replacement supervisor. “I will supervise you no matter what,” she said. God bless.

Except that now that she lives three hours away (on a good day), however much she has much more time to spend on our own research, I feel guilty about calling her in to see me because of all the time and stress it involves. And now that I have called her in for our meeting today, the pressure is on to show her that it was worth it!

My second supervisor is a little different from my first, although ironically, the two have known each other for donkey’s years and are the best of friends. My second supervisor is very focused, likes to get down to business immediately, and hates it when you make a fuss about anything. Until recently, she seemed to be irritated even by simple social conventions like saying “How are you?”, at the start of a meeting. I always felt silly asking her this, even though I would ask out of genuine interest rather than just paying lip service to British politeness, because she would give me a cold reply like “OK.” and not even return the enquiry. Fortunately though, perhaps because we have had some very in-depth debates about stats and psychometric theory in which she really seemed to enjoy herself, she has warmed up a bit and now actually asks me how I am back.

Now that’s progress.

Anyway, the fact that she has warmed to me isn’t the point here. The point is that she has a very focused way of working in which she likes to examine things in detail in advance, have a think about it, and only then hold a meeting. I’ve known this for some time and have, since then, always emailed her my datafiles and notes in advance. Whilst this helps her understand my questions better, and allows her to come prepared, I’ve found I feel very stressed between emailing her my stuff and meeting her, simply because of my anxiety about all the embarrassing mistakes I imagine she’ll find in my work. I keep thinking, “I’m a psychologist. Psychologists have rigorous academic training in statistics and research methods from year 1 right up to PhD level. I’m supposed to be on the ball with everything stats related. And here I am still having to look up ANOVAs in a textbook! I’m hopeless! My supervisor is going to eat me alive! I’ll never amount to anything! My thesis is going to suck! I’m going to fail my viva! And end up homeless and penniless on the streets!”

Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

These irrational thoughts are still stuck in my head even now, as I write this. It’s maddening. I know I have put in a good effort to try my hand at the analysis, so as not to make my supervisor feel like I am dumping my work at her feet and saying “Here. Just tell me the answer.” She hates that. She hates dumb, needy students coming to her and begging her to just tell them the answer, or, worse, to actually do their work for them. But still, I feel like I’m not going to be able to live up to her standards, like I have not done enough work to impress her, and like I am going to be left feeling like an idiot – not just for not being smart enough, but for wasting her time.

I have 4 hours to get my head straightened. I have to review my analysis, make sure all my datafiles are saved on my flashdrive, reread my notes, pick up the keys to the meeting room, and get everything set up early. I concede these things will not actually do much to get my head straightened, but they will, hopefully, distract me from the madness that’s brewing inside.

As a psychologist who thinks she almost has her PhD, I’m conscious that I’m being a little conceited when I say I can redefine chaos theory. But I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway.

I can redefine chaos theory.

Right now, less than 6 months away from the (scheduled) end of my PhD, I am up to my neck in data, analyses and literature that need reading, re-reading, interpreting and writing, up to my eyeballs in anxiety about how I’m actually going to put my thesis together and have a fighting chance of passing my viva in July, and just about buried under my incredulity at being asked to teach a workshop series for 11 weeks next semester to a group of rowdy undergraduates. On top of all that, I also increasingly need to think about my life after my PhD (assuming I actually finish my PhD at some point, which still seems impossible at times) and keep up with a host of irritating errands that seem to keep popping up…like eating and sleeping. And showering. I seem to need to keep showering. According to my mum, these bizarre errands form part of something known as ‘everyday life’.

Huh.

Anyway, what I’m trying to illustrate here is that apart from the chaos of all of the above, I very often feel at a loss with regards to my work because my mind is in a state of chaos as well. This is especially annoying when my supervisors, whom I otherwise adore, tell me with apparent admiration that I am such an organised person. Actually, I have been told I am organised by quite a few people since I started grad school – at least two of my lab colleagues, a professor in another department whose research methods seminars I took for a semester, two of my three supervisors, the Dean of my department, and that bloke from Queensland who processed my passport renewal application at the Aussie high commission in London a couple years ago.

I’m telling you, people, I may seem the picture of organisation on the outside, but my mind is like a minefield littered haphazardly with all manner of academic and non-academic junk such that the phenomenological Me wandering through it in a vain attempt to understand myself and the significance of my work (if it has any significance at all) has frequently to jump, hop, swerve and somersault through the mess in order to navigate it, and even so does not make much progress in comprehending it.

I mean, a mind that can even produce a sentence like the one just above has got to be in for trouble when it comes to writing a thesis – a long, complex document that desperately requires a clear, logical, flowing structure and narrative.

More chaos to be added to my week:

Tuesday: A day trip to Wales to present a paper at a conference. I SWEAR I’m not doing any more of these until I have submitted my thesis!!!

Wednesday: Spending all day running my final analyses and probably getting confused and frustrated.

Thursday: More work on analyses.

Friday: Writing up the analyses and sending off the data files, output, and notes to my supervisor in advance of our meeting next week.

The weekend: Resolving to work on my thesis, but more likely finding something otherwise educational to do by way of active procrastination and convincing myself I’m still being productive…like reading some more of The Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels, as I did this weekend.

Well, bring on the chaos! Let’s finish this thing!

It started snowing lightly in London early this morning as I was walking in to the office. It had stopped by the time I popped out mid-morning to go to the bank, but nevertheless there is a cold snap right now – at least by my mild Melbournian standards – in other words, perfect hibernation weather. I wish I could stay home in bed all day and sleep without the worry of having a thesis to finish in record time.

I’m just glad that, in a couple more weeks’ time, I really will be going into confinement at home to write over Christmas, and I may only venture out to the library’s silent study rooms in the New Year for a change of scene.

It’s going to be a dreary winter. And a dreary, rainy, losing-my-will-to-live home run on finishing this PhD.

Well, not really. I’m going to central London today – something I don’t, to my regret, do very often – to attend an event at one of those posh old stone-building universities.

Van Gogh is one of my absolute favourite artists of all time. My fascination with him began when I was about 17, and in a way that is probably unconventional – in an introductory psychology seminar.

As part of our first semester classes we were required to take what was then called a ‘scheme module’ – a mandatory class not affiliated directly with our department but taught by departmental staff all the same. The particular scheme module we were assigned to was known as The Psychology of Everyday Life, though, again unconventionally, the sorts of topics it contained were far from everyday, and most weeks we would find ourselves sitting in lectures concerning anything from paranormal phenomena to celebrity stalking to colour psychology.

It was a great module.

The only assessment in the module was a 2500-word essay on any of the topics covered in the lectures. Unconventional as they were, most of the topics on our reading list didn’t appeal to me. I was young, and angst-ridden, and a rebel at heart, and I desperately wanted to exert my efforts on something more profound than poltergeists or the meaning of red.

So it was that I gravitated to the psychopathology of van Gogh.

It was a time when madness and insanity fascinated me, especially their social construction and their subjectivity, and the way social and cultural changes across time and place meant that mental disorder was something undefined, misunderstood, and inherently mysterious. I was fascinated by the strangeness of mental illness before the 20th century, the way young women would inexplicably become hysterical and be committed to sanitoriums for rest and relaxation, never to emerge again.

Vincent, on the other hand, was no delicate young woman. He was a contradiction of sorts – equally rough and gentle, violent and serene, lucid and insane. People tend to romanticise his madness, but in fact his poor health frustrated him and he yearned to be well. He loved painting, and he painted everything from flowers to landscapes to portraits. Especially in the Arles period, he loved painting canvases that were vivid with colour, drenched with sunshine, oozing with blues and greens and fiery reds, and emanating, especially, a dazzling spectrum of yellows. He loved yellow. I imagine it reminded him of the sun…and happiness.

This still life of sunflowers in a vase – one of eleven he painted over his life – is in the National Gallery in London and I have been there more than once to just stand there, gazing at it as the crowds buzz around me. His use of yellow is amazing. On one visit I was joined in my gazing by a class of primary school children sitting on the floor, pointing at the different shades of yellow as they were directed by their teacher. Sunny yellow, pastel yellow, lime yellow, mustard yellow. It’s like the entire canvas is an orchestra, playing chords of yellow in octaves high and low in perfect harmony.

My essay considered the various theories of madness – schizophrenia, Asperger’s, syphilis and bipolar. But I argued that I didn’t believe Vincent was mad. He was just one of those people whose greatness is not appreciated until it is too late – and the many sadnesses and rejections he endured in his life made his yearning for happiness, and his pursuit of it, ever more frantic.

When I think about Vincent during moments of near insanity in my PhD, I remember his persistence to carry on with what he wanted so badly to do, and the beauty and elegance he portrayed in his work despite being a complex and imperfect person.

This is something I strive to do.

And in closing he was ever the gentleman…

Handshakes!

It is a small victory for the sisterhood that it is the words of a female poet – Emma Lazarus – that grace the pedestals of the Statue of Liberty in New York’s great harbour.

What a shame that those words have come to represent an ideal that, in practice, America may never reach. Because the fact is, however much we idealise  equality among all people, regardless of their backgrounds, and however much we believe that we must protect those at the very bottom of society, we are still shamefully unequal. And for all the rhetoric of “difficult times” and “making do” used by politicians, our inequality is unjustifiable, indefensible, immoral.

Not long ago, Jon Ronson from GQ Magazine drove across America to interview some of the richest and poorest people in the country. In this striking story, the comfortable, protected life of a Forbes billionaire is put in contrast with a migrant from Haiti who lives in a slum and washes dishes for a meager wage. Inequality in America is, actually, still as bad as, if not worse than, it was in 1774. And that’s got to be bad, considering slavery was still in operation back then.

Today, we still live in a world where inequality prevails, where the rich hold power, and where the poorest masses are silent in the face of injustice.

In a world where those who dare to show us the truth – like Assange or Manning – are held captive by authorities that have long exceeded the powers granted them by constitutional law.

In a world where the tired, the poor, the huddled masses find no ‘world-wide welcome’ in the countries that hold equality ideal.

In a world where they find themselves, instead, destitute, and this destitution is more appalling in America and in Western cradles of democracy than it is in countries poorer, because it is here in the West that so many others bask in needless wealth, and in the greed that justifies holding on to it.

And here in London, in Stratford where I live and work, at what was the heart of the pomp and the glory of the 2012 Olympics, the homeless men and women still sit silent on the benches in the mall, wrapped tight in tattered clothes, smelling of garbage, a few bags of belongings tucked under their legs. In a country where £11 billion was spent on the games, how can it be fair that these unwanted castaways are no closer to decency and dignity than they were before?

If the West is really a ‘Mother of Exiles’, why did it not build shelters, open kitchens, create jobs and education programmes for its homeless?

And in its blind celebration of needless expenditure why, why can it not see the homeless, the tempest-tost on whom it treads?

 

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame.
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)

In a break from tradition, today I just want to post about food. Because it’s quarter to twelve in London and I’m hungry.

Not starving. Just hungry.

I can’t stand it when middle class and even relatively well-off working class people in developed Western countries dash panting into the office at 10 o’clock in the morning and lament “I’m starving.” You’re not starving. You’ve woken up at a leisurely hour, left yourself no time to have a decent breakfast at home, rushed out of the house and needlessly spent £2.65 on a questionably sourced caffeine fix from Starbucks, and arrived at work in a sweat only to need to rush back out, this time to the on-campus Starbucks to needlessly spend more money on an overpriced late breakfast.

Bulk up.

Children in Palestine desperately waiting for humanitarian aid to sustain themselves, millions in some of the most deprived and war-ravaged nations in Africa, the homeless even in the rich West who rely on spare change from passers by for their next meal – they’re the ones who are starving. People on self-imposed hunger strikes protesting political injustice and persecution and abuses of human rights. They’re starving.

So, I am hungry.

I came across an interesting blog today. I can’t link to it because they probably wouldn’t like what I’m going to say.

The blog is about a university student’s daily meals – where and what they eat and how much they pay for it. I happened to come across yesterday’s entry and, fascinated, went back to look at the previous day’s, and then the day’s before that. Every day seemed to be composed of a breakfast of a buttered breadroll and something to drink, a lunch of an energy drink, chips, and donuts, and a dinner of more energy drink and occasionally a packaged meal. Wow, I kept thinking, doesn’t this person ever make an effort to eat properly (and save money at the same time)?

Firstly, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It’s usually the first food you eat after having ‘fasted’ for 8-12 hours overnight and it restores your blood sugar levels and sustains you throughout the morning. The morning hours (8-11am) are the hours when attention and other cognitive processes have the greatest potential, meaning if you’ve had a good breakfast, you’ll be much more likely to work productively. Lunch doesn’t have to be a big effort. If more people kicked their own arses to cook a meal for dinner in the evenings, the leftovers would do just fine for the next day’s lunch. You can cook a meal easily in an hour or so, providing you pick up some simple groceries from the shop.

I always cook, whether I’m living alone or not. Because I like it. I like buying supplies and using them to create different meals and rising to the challenge of achieving it all cheaply and quickly, because I’m a student. I find it bizarre when I have people round to eat or when people ask me in the office and they seem to think it’s such a huge effort to actually go to the shop and buy groceries and come home and cook a meal. That seems like a lot of effort, why don’t you just buy it? they ask. I couldn’t imagine buying three meals a day, seven days a week. I’d be out of pocket but more than that I’d get sick. Really. Many people seem to think it’s healthy and acceptable to consume bottled fruit juices, packaged TV dinners, boxed sandwiches. I get sick if I eat these more than once in a while. I get purple circles under my eyes and I start to feel permanently tired and I get headaches. It’s bad for you, even though it looks healthy. Please don’t eat it.

And you know, much more than being out of pocket and sick, I won’t eat commercially made food because it makes me feel like a slave to irresponsible consumerism. Today we live in a world where many people can’t imagine how they would survive without the convenience of being able to buy a sandwich or a roast dinner from the supermarket. People who don’t have the slightest idea how to make soup, even the simplest kind. People who actually hate cooking meals for themselves, because they think it’s tedious or boring or a waste of time.

Bulk up!

I don’t want to be one of them. I don’t care if the research is coming out of my ears or if I’m up to my neck in teaching. I will spend an hour to cook for myself and I will enjoy it.

Now I will have lunch.

Friend of WikiLeaks

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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!