Holiday Healing

Around this time last year I wrote a post called Running on “empty” that resonated with a fair few readers. Sadly, it would seem that many of us are prone to the idea that we must constantly be “on” – working, creating, socializing (and all while documenting/Instagramming every moment of our lives). Often, and particularly if we’re women, caring for children or elderly or ill relatives is another constant/semi-constant occupation.

This year I made a conscious decision to not take too much on, particularly work-wise. I’ve mostly managed to adhere to this though I’m still prone to getting too absorbed by work or excited by a writing prompt/call for submissions or agitating over a book review which, inevitably, makes me work late into the night when, really, I need to be sleeping.

However, as I said, I’ve mostly managed to honour my intention. So when we got to the cottage we’d rented for our holiday this year, I didn’t have a jolt of realization that I was (and had been) running on empty; though I did come to the conclusion that information, news (and social media) overload is definitely a problem for HSPs in today’s world. I would probably go so far as to liken it to chronic stress or anxiety). It would seem that the art of living in the present is a much underrated and somewhat lost skill. And yet how vital it is for mental health, physical wellbeing and our relationships with ourselves, other people and the natural world. It is also important for those who want creativity to play a part of their daily lives. In short, it is a necessity for being authentic to one’s true self – to being wild.

 

Devon field, photo by Marija Smits

Devon field, photo by Marija Smits

 

Being in the present helps me to focus on my own needs (and desires) and those of my loved ones. It brings me into the moment with the reminder that I need to listen – not be off in future dreamland somewhere, the hazy (and sometimes regrettable) past or, much worse, thinking about the latest work problem or less-than-satisfactory social media interactions. Being in the present helps me to fully experience this moment, reconnect with loved ones, myself and the world around me. And in Devon, where we spent the week, there was much natural beauty on offer. I also got to “indulge” in some of my most favourite things – reading for pleasure, creating art just for the sake of creating art, and beachcombing for sea glass, pebbles and shells. What more could an introverted HSP want?

 

Sea glass, photo by Marija Smits

Sea glass, photo by Marija Smits

 

Now the trick is to bring more ‘living in the present’ back home with me, and to actually make it a habit.

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All the Fun of the Fair – or Maybe Not?

A fortnight ago the funfair came to our small town and set up shop. This happens every year at the beginning of July and on the Saturday of the travelling fair’s four-day-long stay the village runs a show alongside the funfair. This means that the recreational field is full of stalls, there’s an area for music and dance performances, a dog show and tug-of-war; ice cream vans and tombolas. In addition, there is the local horticultural, arts and crafts show for townsfolk to get involved in.

I like to take part in the show (particularly the art categories) – although I do tend to forget about it until the very last minute – and as they have crafting & baking categories for children to enter it’s become a bit of a thing for us. Although every year I reiterate to my two kids – it’s about the taking part, not the winning!

As they’ve got older they’ve become more interested in the show, but still, the big highlight for them is the funfair. This year we had fine weather and came away from the arts and craft show with a few prizes. So we headed to the funfair with smiling faces… First stop was the candy floss seller.

 

Candy floss, by Marija Smits

Candy floss, by Marija Smits

 

However, I do have mixed feelings about funfairs. As an HSP (highly-sensitive person) the sheer number of people, the noise (sometimes screams) of the crowd, the pop songs blaring out of the speakers, the smell of the diesel-fuelled generators mixing with the smell of frying onions and burgers, hits me with a good old sensory wallop. I worry about the kids getting lost; I worry about where they’ve put their shoes when they go on a bouncy castle or ride that requires them to go barefoot; I worry about how much money I’m spending; how I’m going to carry all the stuff I’ve brought along with me and not lose any valuables in the process; I get hot and sweaty, and worry about the safety of the people on the fast, whizzy rides (look at all those mechanical parts… so much could go wrong!) and, in general, my patience runs out pretty quickly. I long to get home, to the quiet and cool of our comfy and non-sensory-overloading nest.

 

Kids water walking, photo by Marija Smits

Kids water walking, photo by Marija Smits

 

And yet… there is something rather wonderful about the funfair. I can see why travelling fairs have ended up in speculative books and TV shows (Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, along with Heroes, immediately spring to mind) because there is something thrillingly different, mysterious even, about the funfair and the lives of the people who run them. It also makes me think of my own childhood, and in particular my early teens, when the funfair coming to town was a much-anticipated event. Oh for the gut-churning thrill of the waltzer; the super-greasy fast food; the whiplash of the bumper cars; the chance of encountering boys from the local boys’ school…

Perhaps age, then, is the main factor in my no longer being able to fully enjoy funfairs; maybe they mainly appeal to teenagers who yearn for the promise of excitement. To a limerent girl-turning-woman, the funfair was a glimpse into the future – of night-life, of thrills, of the other sex. And given the number of groups of teenagers descending on the funfair I can’t see its appeal vanishing any time soon. I can envision my own children, when older, congregating at the funfair with their friends. No doubt I’ll worry about their safety, and exactly what they’re getting up to (!), but like most parental milestones, it’ll be something I’ll have to experience and learn to navigate, if not, exactly, embrace.

 

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Marriage and the Midlife Crisis

Last week it was my husband’s and my wedding anniversary. We celebrated with hugs and kind words and time spent pottering about with our kids, getting on with the usual chores. In the evening we had a takeaway and dessert. In quiet moments I reflected on our almost 20 years together (13 of them as a married couple).

 

Teika Marija Smits, photo by Andy Rhymer

Teika Marija Smits, photo by Andy Rhymer

 

On the day of our wedding, it would have been good if, along with the marriage certificate, we were given a guide to negotiating the ups and downs of marriage, but as no one presented us with such a guide, like many other couples we bumbled along and came up with our own. Although it took a while to craft, it is, thankfully, short. It goes something like this:

  1. Love and respect each other.
  2. Communicate well.

And voila! That is it!

In the early days of marriage, when we were in our late 20s, it seemed so simple. We had it all figured out. Go us!

But you know what… we got older. We had kids. We were constantly tired. Number 2 sometimes seemed impossible. Simply because there was no time to communicate, let alone communicate well. Time seemed to have sped up and slowed down all at once. There was no time to just be. No time to be alone with each other. But equally, sometimes time stretched on forever… particularly when one of the children was ill or teething or going through a particularly challenging phase of development. You name it… it seemed to go on and on and on…. When we were childless, the importance of time spent together hadn’t even crossed my mind.

So in the glorious muddle of early motherhood I made a note to myself:

  1. Spend time together (with or without the kids, depending on their age & needs).

As the children became more independent and the hazy days of early motherhood began to clear I thought, Aha! We have more time now! We’re back on track. But you know what? We were now middle-aged. And you know what happens at middle age, don’t you? Yep. The midlife crisis.

 

The Uninvited Guest, painting by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

The Uninvited Guest, painting by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

 

But this wasn’t something that I’d ever considered in my 20s. The midlife crisis was only for men who had a penchant for motorbikes, wasn’t it? Turns out I was wrong.

Suddenly at the midpoint of our lives, it dawns on us that time is beginning to run out. We still haven’t been to Australia, won the Nobel Prize or travelled in outer space. This is the time of the midlife crisis, which Jung says is frequently marked in men by a period of depression around the age of 40, and at a slightly younger age in women.

Some women seem to hit the midlife crisis when their children have all started school and they suddenly have a bit more freedom. Others, especially those who are working full-time, seem to have a later one when the children leave home.

Jung, The Key Ideas, by Ruth Snowden

Whoa! This was serious stuff! And we both seemed to be going through it.

Not only are us middle-aged folk ‘psychologically vulnerable’ at this time, biology seems to be against us too. Our bodies are changing. Growing older. Hair falls out. Or turns grey. Hormones are in flux. Ovaries are on the downturn… For many women it is a last chance to consider having children. Men don’t experience quite the same fertility anxieties. Yet the possibility of other partners – younger spouses – often adds to the mix of the midlife crisis. As does realising that the ‘career-for-life’ (often chosen in one’s 20s) doesn’t quite turn out to be the right career. Where do you go from there – particularly when the weight of financial responsibility is on your shoulders? Job stuck. Heart stuck. Mind stuck. It all sucks.

I hope (I trust) we are through the worst of it, but you know what, it was sometimes rough. Sometimes more down than up. But what really helped was this:

  1. Communicating well.

Although there was the whole ‘figuring out how to communicate’ thing! In our 20s, talking to each other had always come easily, but real proper communication… well, first we both had to figure out how to do that. Turns out it’s dead simple. But hard. It consists of a) LISTENING to the other person WITHOUT JUDGEMENT (that’s a challenge!) and b) LISTENING to oneself and one’s own needs WITHOUT JUDGEMENT (again, harder said than done). After that, comes honest discussion, with solutions put forward for ways to work through the particular challenge. It’s about remembering that if you do still:

  1. Love and respect each other

in essence you’re on the other person’s side. So make time to talk. To listen. To find a way through a challenging time.

Also, in the midst of the midlife crisis muddles I remember thinking that self-reflection was (again) a real saviour. Figuring out that I was a highly-sensitive person as well as a limerent helped. So I added the following to add to the guide:

  1. Know thyself. (Though I think some Greek philosophers got there before me!)

Finally…

Midlife crisis, then, marks the return of the opposite, an attempt on the part of the psyche to re-balance. Jung says that this stage is actually very important, because otherwise we risk developing the kind of personality that attempts always to recreate the psychic disposition of youth.

Jung, The Key Ideas, by Ruth Snowden

So the last point I’d add to the guide is this:

  1. Be mindful of life’s rhythms, and how these rhythms and shifts in circumstances can affect a relationship. Wild beings (Wild Man and Wild Woman too) instinctively understand the importance of taking note of natural rhythms. There will be ups and downs; as long as number 1. (love and respect) is still there, one of the most worthwhile things to do is to hold on to each other and find a way through.

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Seeing Myself in My Parents; Seeing My Parents in Myself

Sometime last year I took my daughter to a friend’s birthday party. As I stood in the café area of our local swimming pool, chatting to one of the birthday girl’s grandparents, hands deep in the pockets of my bulky khaki-coloured parka, I suddenly had a moment of what can only be best described as déjà vu. Only it wasn’t that I’d experienced this moment before (because yes, I know, déjà vu is nothing uncanny, it’s just a memory short) it was that for a moment I was my dad and my dad was me. A memory of my dad had suddenly inhabited me. He was waiting for me in an equally unremarkable setting, hands deep in his pockets, rocking back and forth from the balls of his feet to his heels, effortlessly exchanging pleasantries with someone he’d only just met. I saw myself in him. And him in me.

And just the other day, driving my son to gymnastics, I saw him in the way I had splayed my fingers across the steering wheel. Another habit of my dad’s. My father also had a deep respect for science but, also, he loved an uncanny mystery. Erich von Däniken’s books fascinated him. One of the last ever conversations I had with him before he died was about the film Inner Space. He had picked me up from a friend’s house where I’d just seen it, and as we drove home we enthusiastically discussed the concept of miniaturization, whether it would ever be possible, and what its consequences would be for humans and whether or not it could play a role in medicine. (Something I explored in one of my short stories, which, one day, will hopefully be ‘out there’.)

I cherish these findings. Although of course they make me remember how much I miss him.

Because my dad died when I was pretty young (15) I never really went through the ‘I’m so embarrassed by my dad’ stage. However, I’m not sure whether or not I would have ever gone through this stage with him anyway. I’m pretty sure he was an HSP – though a ‘gregarious’ one, because he was adept at socializing – and so in public places he would keep a low profile. (Though this could’ve also been something to do with being an immigrant.) Anyway, he didn’t embarrass me. My mum, on the other hand, specialized in embarrassing me. (Although, interestingly, she is an immigrant too, and sensitive at heart. But she’s an off-the-scale extrovert. I guess that trumps all!)

For a start, she had a stint as a nude model. At a well-known private boys’ school. Then there was the Russian accent, flamboyant clothes, and a tendency to make everyone in a public place know that she was there. As an HSC (highly-sensitive child) tending towards introvertism this attention-grabbing (to my mind) behaviour made me cringe. All I wanted was to be ‘normal’ like the other kids. My mum was badly letting the side down.

 

An Important Lesson

However, from the one phrase that my dad said semi-regularly (the one thing that I didn’t like to hear him say, because of course, it meant I had a chore to do!): “Teika, sometimes in life, there are things that you don’t want to do. But you’ve still got to do them.” I must’ve subconsciously taken the following:

  1. Some things are out of our control. (Like having an embarrassing mum.)
  2. You have to find a way to get through them. (You keep your head down and promise yourself you’ll never embarrass your own kids in the future.)

Nowadays, I relish repeating his words to my kids. They groan and roll their eyes, but actually, it’s a wonderful thing to discuss, as it give us an opportunity to consider things like fairness, doing and sharing chores, and the importance of finishing tasks. It also leads on to bigger issues – must we like our work? If we don’t, do we stick with it, or not? – and other such things.

Now that I’m a lot older and understand more about my father’s background, and his home country, Latvia, which was besieged by both the Russians and the Germans in WWII, I can read far more into those words. In a wartorn homeland there will be difficult choices to make. Difficult things to do. I thank God that so far I haven’t had to make those kinds of difficult choices.

So when it comes to my childhood “suffering” as ‘being a bit embarrassed by my mum’ I see how trivial my apparent tribulations were. Still, as a child, fitting in seems to be so crucial, doesn’t it? We want our ‘tribe’ – our peers – to accept us, don’t we?

So I hope I’m getting the balance right for my kids. As an HSP my default is to keep my head down and keep quiet, not draw attention to myself. Yet there is a time and place to make a noise, kick up a fuss. My dad once spoke to me about making a fuss, going to the papers etc. if my school wouldn’t allow me to change one of my GCSEs (from Design to French) halfway through the first year of our GCSEs. The Head said it couldn’t be done; I’d be too far behind, I’d fail. When I asked him what he’d tell the school if they said ‘no’ he said that he’d threaten to chain himself to the radiators, and call in journalists. The headline would be ‘SCHOOL STOPS PUPIL FROM LEARNING!’. (We had it all figured out.) Thankfully, it never came to that. His diplomancy and quiet insistence won out. But still, his patient determination – being the discomforting stone in the Headteacher’s shoe – impressed on me. In many ways I’ve inherited this ‘rebellious’ streak, and my own ‘quiet’ acts of assertion on behalf of myself and my children when faced with ignorance, prejudice or baroque attitudes to education (or breastfeeding or whatever) have been bolstered by my memory of his fights on my behalf.

Oh, and by the way I got an A in GCSE French. (Take that, school!)

 

My Lovely Mum

I realize that this post has focussed more on my father than my mother (it can be easy to take a living loved one for granted, can’t it? I apologise Mum!) so I will remedy that now.

Portrait of Ludmila, by Marija Smits

Portrait of Ludmila, by Marija Smits

After all the “years of embarrassment” of having an extrovert mother, when I was sure that our differences were so great we couldn’t possibly be related (!) I grew up. Mellowed. Heck, today is my 41st birthday. I can finally see our similarities. Both of us find inaction abhorrent. She seems to either be cooking or washing up continuously. Or cleaning our greenhouse (only to have the kids mess it up within a few minutes…). I can’t not tidy or pick up after the kids; I can’t not be writing or planning something creative in my head. We’re both musical and emotional, cry in church or at films or at the theatre. Or well… virtually anything that even somewhat pulls at our heartstrings. We’re both pretty optimistic, and she is big-hearted and generous. We’ve both got green fingers, laugh too loud and too long at silly jokes, and as I age I have to admit that physically, I’m pretty much just a slightly younger version of her (though definitely far less attractive, as she is a genuinely beautiful woman, a bit like a Russian Marilyn Monroe). She also likes to tell me that people still knock 20 years off her age most days. I agree that she doesn’t look her age (she’ll be 71 soon) so I smile when she tells me. (Although sometimes the old teenager-me kicks in and I roll my eyes!)

Now that I’m older I sometimes look back at my much younger self and feel bad about all the times I wished away my “ugly” dumpy body or stupid name or strange foreign parents. Sitting here, in my home, surrounded by much much love, I feel incredibly blessed to have had two wonderful parents who gave me so much in the way of gifts. Most days I don’t feel as though I can live up to all that potential; I’ve certainly failed when it comes to that ‘list of things I plan to do’ which I made as a teenager. But sometimes, when I catch myself just going about my everyday life: working, writing, cooking, gardening, hugging my children, husband and loved ones (as well as our new cat) I think that actually, I’m doing okay.

 

I'm never going to behave like that cartoon, by Marija Smits

Cartoon by Marija Smits. The wonky fringe in the top picture is not a mistake.

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On Boundaries & Being a Minecraft Mum

 

Last year, when I finally got to bed on Christmas Eve I had the sudden realization that we had come to the end of an era. You see, waiting under the tree there was a certain present for our children. The certain present had lots of circuits, a screen and a keyboard. And my husband was going to put Minecraft on it. I just knew that from Christmas Day onwards everything would change…

 

Minecraft books, photo by Marija Smits

I’ve read all these books cover to cover. At least 10 times. (Photo, by Marija Smits.)

 

My husband and I had thought long and hard about this gift. For one thing, it was essential to get the kids off my laptop which was full of work stuff. Also, my eldest daughter was being asked to do more and more computer-based homework. Third… well, Minecraft. Although I knew very little about it I could already see the appeal. As a sandbox game it allows you to be creative and build all sorts, but there are also certain challenges/achievements to complete, as well as the chance to play in multiplayer mode with other people. This was going to blow our minds!

 

Creeper, by Marija Smits

A creeper. Not mind-blowing but he does blow stuff up.

 

Four months down the line I can confirm that the Minecraft era is all that I expected it to be: 1) a lot of fun 2) highly creative 3) an educational experience – it’s been a steep learning curve but now myself and my children pretty much know everything there is to know about Minecraft: mining, crafting, mobs, fighting, farming, building, enchanting, potion-making, the Nether, the End. (There’s even some poetry in it! And a creepypasta in the form of the elusive Herobrine.) YouTubers I knew nothing about in the pre-Minecraft era are now household names: Mr Stampy Cat, iBallisticSquid, AmyLee. Stampy’s ‘hic-hic’ laugh is oft-mimicked.

These first 3 expectations are positive. So far, so good. Yet the fourth is not, for it is this: addictive.

So this is where the ‘boundaries’ bit comes in. It would seem that some people have a pre-disposition to addiction – in that they have a more sensitive reward system in place, and this, most likely coupled with a diminished ‘pause-to-check’ instinct, means that they are more vulnerable to addiction. And perhaps more likely to be risk-takers.

Addiction, as a topic, fascinates me, so it’s no wonder that addiction as a theme reoccurs in my short stories (one of these stories is to be published in a litmag this summer. Yay!). But it only feels like something I can view more dispassionately now, since I feel I have a better sense of my own addictive tendencies. (Though in the past [soft] substance addictions were an issue, my addictions are now internal rather than external. I know that I am only ever a few wobbly and perilously short steps away from OCD thoughts – which in the past have stolen hours, days, weeks, months from my life. And person addiction – aka limerence – is the other.) Also, having lived with a gambler for several years and had friends with alcoholic parents (as well as the requisite uni pals most definitely [and yet not] in control of their own chemical addictions) I feel as though I’ve got a bit of a handle on the issue. And TV programmes, branded with trashy titles such as: Help! I’m addicted to sex! (or food or social media or feet or whatever) actually make for an insightful (and fascinating) watch.

Anyway, back to boundaries. Obviously, computer games can be addictive. And I’ve noticed that my son finds it far more difficult to come away from the screen than my daughter. When it’s time to stop he complains and wheedles for just another 5 minutes. I do my best to always give him at least a 10 minute countdown, but still, it can be hard for him to stop. I can empathise. I have memories of playing Tetris over and over in a darkened room while outside the sun shone, and finding it very hard to detach from the screen. (And apparently, my husband, too, was a keen computer gamer in his youth.)

Still… empathy is good. It helps my son to know that I’m on his side. But also, boundaries are good. However, when I’m setting and enforcing boundaries, I always feel as though I’m being a big bad baddie. (Something that I think many women find tricky – saying ‘no’ and ‘enough’.) But I have to remind myself that boundaries are good. I’m actually a goody for imposing boundaries, because boundaries help us to cultivate personal integrity, and create wholeness, and also, they are necessary for healthy relationships: with ourselves, with each other and with our environment. They make for a healthy society.

Many adults already know what their boundaries are. For some it means zero alcohol. For others it means a certain limit on coffee. For those in a committed relationship it means a blanket ban on ‘friending’ exes or past lovers on Facebook. For children who love screen time it can mean making sure that there are time restrictions in place. (We also don’t have phones or screens in our bedrooms – I’m trying to ensure that bedroom = rest in their minds. I’ve also found that making sure that screens are off at least 2 hours before they go to bed is a big help with their sleep and temperament.)

Anyway, so far, Minecraft has been a positive in our life, but as usual, observing, reflecting and setting (and enforcing) boundaries on a day-to-day basis are paramount for something that has, like so many other apparently innocent things, the potential to become addictive.

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Women in Science

As we’re currently in British Science Week (10 – 19th March), I thought it the perfect opportunity to write about something close to my heart: women in science.

Teika Marija Smits in the lab, photo courtesy Lankani Hettigoda

Teika Marija Smits in the lab, photo courtesy Lankani Hettigoda

Now, I used to be a woman in science, but then I left for all sorts of reasons, which I outlined in an earlier post. To clarify, it was not the science that was the issue, rather, a male-dominated environment (and the competitiveness, extrovertism and ‘blokey’ jokes that was a huge part of that environment). It was also a time when work email somehow allowed people (okay, let’s admit it – they were men!) to send pornographic images. At one university I worked at I walked past the odd computer screen seeing some things I’d much rather not have seen. This experience didn’t make me (one of about 5 women in a group with 20 men or so) feel so great about myself.

In addition, looking up the hierarchy, I could see that the female lecturers and researchers were clearly juggling so much – their careers and motherhood and trying to run a household, and, and… and still the male lecturers would make comments about the women ‘not pulling their weight’.

In conclusion: I did not love scientific research enough to continue in that career. And that is okay. I am glad I realized this sooner rather than later.

However, I am immensely thankful for the women who do love research and overcome all kinds of obstacles to pursue their research and excel in their specialism. But why is it that at the age of 40 (and even as an ex-scientist) I still find it difficult to name the contributions women have made to science? Once again, and as in so many fields of endeavour, women’s achievements in science have been overlooked, sidelined, ignored. Or been appropriated by men. In general, women scientists have been put on ‘mute’.

So when I came across this image on Facebook on International Women’s Day – from the excellent Compound Interest page – I was delighted to discover more women scientists. (Chemists, like me!)

 

And when I went to my local library the other day they had a wonderful display full of cards with inventions and discoveries by scientific women on them. Such as:

Stem cell research – Ann Tsukamoto

Kevlar – invented by Stephanie Kwolek

Semi-conductor theory/telecommunications research – Shirley Ann Jackson

The life raft – Maria Beasley

Computing – Grace Hopper

Solar-energy technology – Maria Telkes

This display was for International Women’s Day (or to call it by its other name – ‘Why Isn’t There An International Men’s Day’?). Sad but true, every year outraged men take to Twitter to wonder aloud Why oh why isn’t there a special day for men? Richard Herring, bless his heart, answers many, many of them to let them know that yes, there is an International Men’s Day. It’s on 19th November. He also encourages his followers/those interested in his cause to educate the incredulous to donate money to the charity Refuge).

And another good resource for women scientists I came across recently is Sheroes of History.

Having been a teacher (and now a parent) for a fair while now, I’m pretty sure that girls and young women have got the message that science is something that both sexes can excel at. But it cannot be overlooked that academia is very much an environment for the privileged white middle-class male. That’s not to say that boys and young men shouldn’t be encouraged to study science – they should be, it’s brilliant! It’s just that schools, universities and scientific companies need to look at their environment through the feminist (as well as racist) lens. How can we make academia more accessible to women? How can we keep mother scientists still involved in research if they don’t want to spend virtually all their waking hours away from their children? How can we get away from the competitiveness that so obviously suits highly-driven testosterone-fuelled men? Indeed, can scientific research be a cooperative endeavour? And why oh why must everything be measured by publication in the ‘big’ journals, Science, Nature et al.? Is this really where all the ‘good’ science is? Just as with poetry, there are the ‘big’ journals/magazines. That does not mean that the smaller literary magazines aren’t publishing just-as-good (if not better) poetry. They are!

Sadly, again, so much of the problems of academia come down to that monster, neoliberalism. Universities are more companies nowadays, the students the ‘customers’ – the power taken from academics and given to the bureaucrats and the private companies they fling money at. The people at the top enjoy six-figure salaries for formulating things like: strategic mission and the academic vision, innovative streamlining, the student-centred approach etc. while the academics (who are irreplaceable, because, let’s face it, how many of us have a good working knowledge of quantum mechanics, or crystallography or neuroplasticity or… or… ?) grind on, trapped between teaching, research and the huge amount of administrative tasks they have to complete. They do not enjoy six-figure salaries. And especially not if they’re women.

However, all that said, there are, of course, exceptions to the rule. There are high-earning women at the top, just as there are high-earning men at the top. Check out this link if you want to know just what the heads of some unis pay themselves. I will add two words here that are appropriate: fat and cat. But as always, there are good stewards at the head of universities, who are perhaps worthy of their salary. And there are bad stewards at the top of many universities too, who are most certainly not worth of their salary. Also, there are women who thrive in a competitive environment. And those who do not. But the lower down the hierarchy you go the more likely you are to find women not negotiating for extra pay, not negotiating for better working conditions for themselves and their families, and not speaking out about inappropriate conduct or unprofessionalism of male colleagues.

I don’t know what the answer to all this is, although I think it’s clear that separating business from academia is key. Commercialism is making science less science-y. And in these post-truth times, scientific rigour, objectivity and the pursuit of truth (no matter if that truth pains us) is absolutely vital. I also think that talking and writing about all the many women scientists of the past and today is also key in helping girls and women to know that science is something that they can really get involved in. And excel at. Lastly, we need to give young women the tools to assert for themselves so that they can make the changes to academia that are so badly needed to free it of capitalism’s grip so that it can become a true place of learning and creative investigation, irrespective of the student or teacher’s sex, skin colour, class or financial background.

 

My daughter's base + acid volcano, photo by Marija Smits

My daughter’s base + acid volcano, photo by Marija Smits (with thanks to Red Ted Art for the YouTube video on how to construct the volcano).

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The Power of Humour

So… these are dark times. Or so my Facebook and Twitter feed say. Since the inauguration of Donald Trump last Friday things have gotten a little crazy. There are many that I know who are fearful and scared. I am worried too. But before I succumb to fear I am going to be a ‘good’ scientist and watch and observe and think. When plunged into darkness it is best to remain calm and let your eyes acclimatize to the darkness. Shapes and forms and patterns will emerge. Even a little light.

There have been many positive things happening: the many Womens’ Marches and rallies, and organizations like ‘Hope Not Hate’ offering us ways to reach out and help one another. One of the simplest ones being: do a kind deed for someone today.

We all have our own ways to cope in turbulent times; I know that I tend to hunker down and look to my family and local community and see how I can help out. I also write and create art, which helps me, and (hopefully) others. Then there is the ultimate (healthy and 100% natural!) feel-good mood enhancer: humour.

I’m a serious person, and I probably don’t laugh enough. But laughing is rather wonderful, isn’t it? And of course it’s great for the body and soul.

There is a great chapter about the power of humour in difficult times in Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ excellent book Women Who Run With The Wolves. If you haven’t got a copy of this book, please do yourself a favour and get it. It is simply an incredible and life-changing book.

 In laughter, a woman breathes fully, and when she does she begins to feel unsanctioned feelings. And what could those feelings be? Well, they turn out to not be feelings so much as relief and remedies for feelings, often causing the release of stopped-up tears or the reclamation of forgotten memories or the bursting of chains on the sensual personality.

This seems like such an apt quote for this moment in time.

And remember, too, the boggart in Harry Potter? It could only be vanquished by humour. Riddikulus!

So today I’m going to share some of my current favourite funnies.

 

Number One: We Go to the Gallery by Miriam Elia

We Go To The Gallery, by Miriam Elia

 

In this book, Miriam has done a brilliant job of explaining exactly what it’s like to visit a contemporary art gallery. Which was very thoughtful of her as contemporary art confuses and bewilders many. Me included.

 

From 'We Go To The Gallery' by Miriam Elia

From ‘We Go To The Gallery’ by Miriam Elia.

 

Number Two: I-Spy books by Sam Jordison

Stocking gifts, photo by Marija Smits.

Stocking gifts, photo by Marija Smits.

Last year, Father Christmas was kind enough to fill my stocking with wine, art materials and funny books. Over breakfast (cereal and tea and chocolate currency), with overexcited children running about in their pants, I began to read Sam Jordison’s I Spy book, At the School Gate: My Mum’s Better Than Your Mum.

Now, I love a good game, and the idea behind the I-Spy books is that you have to spy as many of the people in the book as possible to win points. No problem, I thought. I’m a mum who goes to the school gates! Surely I’ll quickly rack up some points for simply seeing myself in the book.

From I-Spy At The School Gates, by Sam Jordison

From I-Spy At The School Gates’, by Sam Jordison

Sadly, I immediately found myself in minus numbers as I had to subtract 40 points for being ‘The Family That Is Always Late’. Damn you Sam! And even when I discovered that I could award myself 20 points for being a ‘Guardianista’ mum (yep I’m the one at the school gates boring everyone silly with how right I am about the current sorry state of education, and Brexit, and austerity… etc. etc.) that still meant I was only at – 20. Damn you Sam!

But I’m not going to get hateful about it. Since the kids have returned to school I’m into positive numbers, what with spotting many ‘Exercise Bunnies’ and the odd ‘Chelsea Tractor’. Yay! Go me! But Sam definitely doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to ‘Hot Dad’. This is one parent I have NEVER EVER seen at the school gates. No sirree. Nope. Absolutely not. Definitely not. Never.

Hmm…

Goodness me! Is that the time? I’d really better get a move on…

Right! On to the next I-Spy book, Pets: When Human Friendship Is Not Enough. Sadly, we are cat-less at the moment but that didn’t stop me enjoying this book. I’m not sure I’ll ever spy a ‘Dog on a Trailer’ but hell! I can have fun trying.

From 'I-Spy: Pets' by Sam Jordison

From ‘I-Spy: Pets’ by Sam Jordison

My husband also received a couple of I-Spy books from Santa: The UK: While It Lasts and Signs and Instructions You Must Obey. All most certainly very amusing and worth buying and reading. But if you’ve got children be prepared to have to explain some of the surreal humour and answer philosophical questions like: “Why are there signs that say, PLEASE DO NOT THROW ROCKS AT THIS SIGN…?” and “Mummy, would you throw rocks at the sign? Because you may have to do a lot of soul-searching when trying to answer those questions.

 

Number Three: Would I Lie to You? Presents the 100 Most Popular Lies of All Time.

Would I Lie To You?

Would I Lie To You?

I ended up borrowing this book from the library for weeks on end. Yes the lies are predictable and some of the humour too, but the book very often had me laughing so much I ended up in tears. Lie #3 – Lies to watch out for from plumbers: I need to get a part created a wonderful picture of overcharging white van-driving absentee plumbers all gathering in some crowded cul-de-sac to eat Pringles, link arms and sing their plumber’s song: We’ve gone to get a part. We’ve gone to get a part. We won’t be back for over an hour, we’ve gone to get a part!’

Ah, good times.

 

Number Four: Peter Pan Goes Wrong

But if you need some visual humour right now (and suitable for all the family) do watch Peter Pan Goes Wrong on BBC IPlayer (there’s still a few days left to view it). It is simply fantastic and really does bear repeat viewing. (My daughter is somewhat obsessed by this at the moment… and I can’t help mimicking the pirate’s odd way of talking and telling my kids to “Just give me the suewooooooord…..” at random moments. Bliss.)

 

Number Five: Classic YouTube Videos

If you’re looking for an instant (and fast) hit of humour, there’s always Cats vs Cucumbers. (Worth watching just for the dog cameo. Just be aware that there is some over-the-top creepy cackling from one of the cat owners which constantly makes me wonder: Whaaaat…?)

 

And if that doesn’t do it for you I give you babies and kids falling over and being well… kids. (The kids being caught doing “naughty” stuff and mid-lies is particularly wonderful.)

 

Number Six: As seen on Facebook/Twitter/GodKnowsWhere…

Lastly, if you like a good bit of satirical humour there is always this:

Just another one of those awful magazines. Yet subverted.

Just another one of those awful magazines. Yet subverted.

 

And lastly, I give you cabbages:

Cabbages. Just that.

Cabbages. Just that.

 

I hope that one of the above tickles your funny bone, and if not, please do recommend me some of your own favourite funnies.

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