Saturday, September 25, 2010

Rumination, depression and other emotions

The first day of the ASSA/CMEMS/IAS/ARC CHE (etc. etc.) interdisciplinary workshop on the emotions was suitably intense. We met in the beautiful wood-lined original old building of the UWA, which was at one time used as a cricket pavilion (I mean: just look at it). We are a bunch of about 20 psychologists, historians, literary critics and classicists. The workshop is called "Understanding Emotions" but it's really turning out to be about how psychology and the history of emotions can talk to each other.

As you'd expect, we all speak a rather different language — and I think this discussion should ideally have the disciplines of psychiatry and psychoanalysis here — but the format is great. It's mostly 15 minute papers with two ten minute responses and then the rest of the hour for discussion. 

Some amazing papers, but some stand-out moments, too.

A music psychologist described working with dementia patients. Singing provides an amazing restorative because music triggers various memory tracks in the brain — but the most moving thing was to think of the carers seeing their loved ones ... as they used to be. (OK, I shed a little tear here.

A psychologist's response to a paper on academic emotions described the difference between two kinds of thinking: one is the adaptive, perhaps process-driven one that helps surgeons and air-traffic controllers do their job; another is the ruminative, more open-ended kind of thinking that suits disciplines like literary studies. But it is the ruminative thinker who is apparently more likely to become depressed. (He also said there was clinical evidence to suggest that men lie "prolifically" about their emotions...)

The final session of the day was to be a 90-minute round table. We spent quite a while compiling a list of possible topics. A psychologist muttered good-naturedly, "why don't we just starting talking about one of these?" — to which I replied, "but we're ruminating..."

My paper — on various accounts of the Great Fire of London — is on today, just about as the AFL grand final is on. A dear friend is promising to stream the match in the background as I speak.

Since the poor old Bombers finished the season third from the bottom, I don't have much invested, really, in the outcome. But since Essendon is traditional rival with Collingwood, and since it is simply so much fun to have a team you hate —  Go Saints!!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The oldest, the slowest and the best

Everything had to be perfect. First, we had to find a day we could both meet the unusual and somewhat demanding schedule. Then we had to wait on the conditions. My instructions were to phone the afternoon before, for a preliminary go-ahead. Then, if all was well, we'd get an early morning call. It took nearly four months for all the pieces to slot into place.

Yesterday, the phone rang at 4.15. We dutifully got out of bed, made a small thermos of coffee and set off in the car. The streets were quiet; and the sky very dark. At the rendez-vous, we met the others and climbed into the van. We were driven into a dark little park in the shadows of the West Gate Bridge. It's reclaimed swampland, and the mutantly large mosquitoes were there to prove it. It took a while to unload all the equipment, and then the giant fan started its work. Suddenly it was time to go. I was first, and climbed in to lie on my back. Two more followed amidst a rush of shouted instructions and frantic movements in the dim light, then gradually the giant basket was tipped upright, the others climbed in, the ropes were released and we were airborne. The sheets and sheets of fabric that had looked so awkward and heavy on the ground assumed their perfect, classic shape as we rose up in the pale morning.

The city gradually took shape below us as we adjusted to the odd rhythms of balloon flight: the utter stillness and silence of moving with the wind — not a breath of air moving across your face — alternating with the rush and the yellow and blue flare of the gas burners, so loud you couldn't hear the voice of the person next to you, and a hot enough flame to make you pull your collar up on the back of your neck. There was also something beautifully earthly about floating in something made of wicker and leather.

The river and the docklands were a jumbled mixture of lights and trucks moving in jerky little patterns, but the dark green water of the river, and the jetties and little white boats beneath us were surprisingly still. We saw the two square tops of the grey pillars of the Bolte Bridge, then turned around to see the bay and the city laid out before us, as we moved slowly, gracefully, north-eastwards. The other balloon followed us as we flew in a formation organised almost entirely by the wind.

Perhaps a sunny morning would be more spectacular. We didn't actually see the sun come up, for example, and it would have been fun to see the sunlight reflected in the east windows of the city. But the atmospherics of flying not too far from the edges of low clouds and light rain were also spectacular. Weirdly, we passed over the Medley building where my office is; and then not too far from our house, as we flew over Carlton and Fitzroy, and then lower and lower over Northcote. Melbourne Cemetery looked flat, low and grey. Canning St, with its wide green median strip and bike paths, looked surprisingly wide. Trains, of course, looked like toy models. We saw our best friends' house (their car wasn't there, so perhaps Peter was already at swimming training), and then a dog out walking, utterly spooked by the apparition of us.

We landed with a skid along a football ground in Thornbury, and turned to watch as the yellow balloon came to land behind us. It was quicker to pack up the balloon, rolling it up and squeezing out the air. We bundled it into its big canvas bag, and held it down while Chris, our pilot, leaped on top and pressed it all tightly in.

There was a mild hiatus in our joy as we battled Hoddle St traffic back into the city, over the river, and back up to our rendez-vous in the Botanical Café on the edge of the Botanical Gardens, just opposite the Shrine. Chris took coffee orders while we found our specially laid table, with balloon breakfast menu, jugs of iced water and specially labelled balloon champagne also on ice. It is apparently a long tradition, of 227 years, now, of finishing a balloon flight with champagne. It was also good to have it there to toast the happiness of the young couple who had quietly become engaged on the flight, or just before, so discreetly the other eight of us hadn't noticed. We toasted their health, admired their beautiful diamond ring, and sat down to eat a perfect breakfast (I had silky, golden scrambled eggs, crispy hash browns and very fresh spinach), washed down with more champagne.

Chris moved from one end of the table to the other, answering our questions, telling us stories and traditions of ballooning (Wikipedia confirms many of them). Finally he presented us each with a map showing where we had flown, and a certificate, commemorating our courage in rather beautiful syntax. I have scanned this at work, but forgot to email it to myself. I'll add it in, along with some photos I've ordered (taken from a little camera suspended from the balloon), and some of Paul's images, in the fullness of time.

I was a little apprehensive when I booked this trip for a birthday surprise for Paul. I'm not too bad with heights, but I'm not great with things like cantilevered platforms or chairlifts when there is nothing beneath you. But this was pretty much an hour of bliss. We drove home, then set off for work again on our bikes. Canning St seemed even greener than usual, and all day I felt an extraordinary elation. Perhaps it was the champagne; but I think it was really the vision of our beloved city, seen from such a wonderful flight, that made me so happy.

Chris said it took him about ten years to qualify as a commercial ballooning pilot. Imagine how hard it would be to log the flight hours when it's so contingent on the weather. They'd done only three flights in August, too. But he proudly described ballooning as the oldest and the slowest form of air travel. It's also by far the best.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Queen of cities; queen of cheeses

If ever you were in doubt that Melbourne is the queen of cities, you need consider only this: it's possible to return from two weeks in Italy when you ate burrata mozzarella every second day, and were utterly ravished by its soft, creamy clouds and twists, then come home and on one day be offered fresh buffalo mozzarella at The European for lunch, but turn it down, because at home you have a tub of fresh burrata you bought the day before, at La Latteria, a "mozzarella laboratory", and milk, yoghurt and cheese shop that is literally on your way home. This place makes burrata and other varieties of mozzarella fresh daily on the premises in Carlton, from buffalo milk from Queensland and Mildura. I bought crumbed bocconcini, which we had last night, a tub of yoghurt cheese with chilli and mint, and a tub of two big balls of burrata. I can't wait to go back and try their cream; and their other cheeses. It's even tempting to think about buying milk there and recycling the bottles...

Paul is away tonight, and Joel is in Italy on his school trip (ahem), so I treated myself on my own: a big plate of fresh spinach, shaved avocado, a Roma tomato, salt, fresh pepper, green olive oil, and lemon juice. I then took the soft white ball of burrata — about the size of a cricket ball — out of its tub and sat it in the middle of the plate. It sat there, gleaming, wet, and shimmering. Then mustering my courage, I poked at it with the tip of my knife, and as the woman in the shop promised, the soft creamy insides spilled out, and I lifted off the outside skin. And the finishing touch? The balsamic glaze, which I used to write crazy scripts of sweet, dark caramel lines and hieroglyphs across the plate. I took myself off to the couch, and demolished the lot. It was just as well no one was there to see me eat this: it would not have been a very edifying sight.

But I'm sure it's on the strength of this feast that I wrote two brilliant sentences of Chapter Seven tonight.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

World Triathlon Championships

It's one thing to be the director of an ARC Centre of Excellence — and all power to Philippa Maddern at UWA, who'll direct our Centre for the History of Emotions. But it's another thing altogether to be the director of the only Centre that will be based at Melbourne *and* to come 7th in the World Triathlon Championships in Budapest. OK, so it was the Veterans' division, or some such, but this is the feat accomplished by my friend Geoff Taylor in the Physics department, who is not only part of the team working on the Hadron Collider in Switzerland, but shaved 2 minutes off his PB in the event; and a full 3 minutes off his biking split.

Congratulations, Geoff!

Hmm. And on a day when I'm lurking at home, not even going for a walk, and catching up on emails...

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Call for papers: "Futures"

A call for submissions for our wonderful, refereed postgraduate journal, antiTHESIS. Head here for the full call for papers on the topic "Futures."

It has become increasingly difficult to conceive of our culture as following a dialectical progression from a shared past into a collective future, whether utopian or dystopian. We find ourselves instead at a point at which “The Future,” a key concept in all branches of Western thought, creativity and experience, is replaced by myriad “Futures” of immediate relevance and consequence. How is our relationship to the future changing, and how do we actualise these potential futures?

The editors of antiTHESIS are seeking papers exploring the concept of futures to be published in Volume 21 of the journal. We invite graduate students and researchers from all disciplines within the arts, humanities and social sciences to submit abstracts. Suggested topics include, but are not limited to:

Terminus: the perceived ends of art, theory, ideology and history (and what comes after) • Alternative cultural and Indigenous perceptions of temporality • Future places and spaces • Future bodies, future minds • SF: speculative and science fiction • Futures of communication: new forms of language and media • Futures of diaspora, race and migration • Genetic futures: neo-hybridity and bio-technics • Technology: innovation, renovation and obsolescence • Retro-futurism: past visions of the future in design and fashion • Possible worlds: future political and social models • Environmental futures • Future memory and memorialisation • Apocalyptic visions •


Submissions should be sent to editor.antithesis@gmail.com by Monday, 11 October 2010.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

How to mess up a job interview

In a couple of weeks, my School will be holding a workshop for graduate students on academic job interviews. It will involve a mock interview, for which we are currently preparing a kind of script, with a mix of "good" and "bad" responses.  In this country, we are usually pretty hamstrung in the questions we can ask, which are usually supposed to be the same for each candidate.

In a nutshell, the questions would normally be something like this:



·       Why should we hire you? i.e. what’s distinctive about you and why are you a good fit for this job? (code for "how will you fit in with us?")
·       Tell us about your current and future research plans?
·       Tell us about your teaching philosophy – and give an example of how you handle difficult situations.
·       What kind of graduate supervisor will you be? This is especially hard for recent graduates...
·       This job involves a fair amount of administration (i.e. convening a large first-year subject). How will you balance the demands of teaching and research?
·       What kind of courses would you like to teach?
·       Do you have any questions for us?

From your experience, on either side of the interview table, what are the most common pitfalls for job candidates in this situation? What kinds of answers work best? What are the golden rules of academic job interviewing? We have a very talented person who will be the "candidate" in this interview, but it would be great to have some specific examples. Any suggestions and advice are welcome. And then I'll undertake to post an account of the session, with the advice from our expert.