30 December 2012

First impressions

Blogging will be short and intermittent to start with here. Things are going okay so far: no surprises about Malaysia compared to other places in Southeast Asia that I've been. Suddenly you're aware that you haven't seen another white person since the airport. There's a large shopping centre nearby so we can get what we need. I took Mei and saw a bit of it through her eyes: Daddy, someone's dumped garbage in that river. Yoko's not feeling well, but otherwise we are okay. More later, when I get the Internet more regularly.

24 December 2012

Emotional whiplash

It's been a week since I finished my PhD, but it's felt like much longer. I got home after the viva and the kids pulled crackers that littered the lounge with streamers and confetti. Yoko got me wine and cigarellos to celebrate. I told the story of the viva on the phone and on Skype a couple of times, adjusting it for whoever was listening and how much patience I felt they had for the details. I can talk about it moment by moment, the things that I forgot about in the first telling, but now remember in light of the outcome. The weather had been so good that day and I faced the examiner in front of a window overlooking the football pitch and the river that skirts the edge of campus. I caught glimpses over his shoulder at times, my unconscious remembering every frustrated walk out to the river and back when I was stuck and angry.

After the girls had gone to bed, I worked fixing all the typos in the thesis that we had found and looked for a binder to deal with it within the week. I realised that if I were able to get everything done — get the whole thing bound and submitted--that I could be completely finished with all my responsibilities at the OU by the time I left the country.

On Tuesday morning, I got the go ahead from the Research School to print it. I ordered the copies online and paid the money to have them shipped overnight when they were finished, to arrive sometime on Thursday, well in time for submission on Friday. I also spent some time trying to get ahold of the woman in charge of my computer that I wanted to buy from the OU, but she didn't respond to any of my e-mails or calls. I took a heap of rubbish to the dump and threw it all away.

On Wednesday, I got up, and took the girls to school, went shopping with Yoko, then brought Naomi and Mei to the dentist, and held both of their hands while the dentist filled tiny cavities in their tiny mouths. I took them home, cleaned and sold my car, and met a friend for coffee and he took me home. A never ending list of things to do which was interrupted when I was rushing past the refectory and saw a friend and colleague I hadn't seen in a long time. I stopped and went in, something I probably wouldn't have done any other day, but now there is no time and you need to say hello and goodbye while you can.

On Friday, I got up early again (Naomi was sick), picked up my 13 kilo box of theses plus two more copies and headed to take the bus to the OU. I got there on time, turned in my theses at the Research School and then got an e-mail saying that there was no way my computer was going to be done on time. I rode the bus back to the shopping centre and looked at computers and went to London.

I taught a very small class and left a bit early, thinking I would check my bank account to see how much I had been paid from Middlesex. £44.79. No, that couldn't be right, I thought, trying to work out where a mistake had been made. It was 4:45; everything would be closed. I rushed over to HR; no one was there. I found a guy in payroll who you could tell was trying to be empathetic, but what could he do: everything was closed now. It was, after all, Christmas. There were Christmas cookies on the filing cabinet as I left and I wondered what would happen if I took one without asking: I didn't get paid, goddammit! This has consequences! 

On the underground ride home, I figured out what the problem was: my line manager had made a simple, but costly mistake. I wrote an incredulous e-mail to him in my head as I rode the Northern line down into Euston, missing entirely the fact that it was my last time riding into London on the underground. I rode the Northern line so much this year: I love how you memorise the stations without thinking. Hampstead, Golder's Green, Brent Cross, Hendon Central. What comes next, I don't know.

I met a friend at Angel, we had a pint at a pub, and he went off to meet friends. Walking back to Euston, I found a Starbucks and flirted in the way married men do with younger women serving them coffee:
Did you want the soya hot?
Yes, please, well, either way, whatever's easier.
It's better hot.
Yes, yes, thank you.
Here you are.
Happy Christmas.
You too.
I sat in a big chair upstairs, feeling suddenly heavy and bogged down. An Englishman and an Indian guy were talking about nuclear bombs, laughing about how the first real nuclear test was on Hiroshima. It annoyed me to no end, much more than it usually would: my wife's grandfather was killed by that bomb, you assholes.
Disembodied, looking down at myself, I scowled: Christ...on Monday, I had been a god. A god. Now I was flaccid and exhausted--a man in a wet overcoat waiting for a couple minutes sleep on a train rushing through the night towards the suburbs. 
On Saturday, I woke up and rode the bus back to the OU to pick up my laptop. It was raining heavily: I sat at a colleague's desk as the laptop filled itself up with security updates and Japanese fonts. I intended to ride the bus again, but missed it and opted to walk home. I packed up all the things that I had left on my desk. A coaster, a mug, and headed out to walk across campus one last time. When I got to the footbridge, the one that I had crossed every day, the one leading into the university, I turned around and looked back. As I remember it, I was smoking one of the cigarellos that Yoko had given me. I wanted to cry--I've wanted to cry all week, but there was no physical impetus to cry. I just stood and looked for a minute. All of this, all four years. Then I turned around and walked home.

20 December 2012

The end.

Wow. It's amazing what 47 hours and £194.37 will get you.

19 December 2012

More on illness

Today, I was standing in line with a friend of mine, buying coffee before we chatted for the last time after more than four years of chatting about our respective PhDs. There was gluten-free cake for sale and I immediately thought of Mei, who has been avoiding gluten because of her skin. Perfect, I thought, I'll get this for Mei: tomorrow she has a school party and Yoko was looking and looking in the store for something to get her. She got her gluten-free muffins: close enough at the time. But this: this was Victorian sponge cake. Perfect, I thought, and joked with the woman at the till about how I would be a hero bringing this home, both with my daughter and wife, I smugly announced. 

Mei avoiding sweets has been much harder on me I think than it has been on her. She doesn't seem to care when she's told she can't have something. She accepts it as being the way the world is. I, however, think constantly of how deprived she must feel, how unfair it is that she is suffering this disease alone in the family. How terrible she must feel, I think, hoisting my own fear of illness on her. I want to give her something — anything — to make it better. 

When I came inside the house, I announced to Yoko what I had brought: gluten-free Victorian sponge cake. Perfect, right? Yoko looked apprehensive: is it also milk free? Milk, dammit, I thought. In all my excitement about the cake, I had forgotten the most important thing she was avoiding, the thing that really sets her on edge: milk. How stupid to have forgotten that: it's like buying someone an accessory for an iPad and forgetting they don't have an iPad. I got angry and argued with Yoko about it--a stupid thing as Yoko has been up all night, week-after-week, trying so hard to make this better, carefully watching everything Mei eats, while making sure Mei feels nothing but love and acceptance and normalcy through it all. I said, But I want to give her cake.

I want to give it to her. しかし、あげたいんだよ。 I want to give it to her. I want her to feel better. I sulked off, both of us angry and frustrated.

Naomi and I ended up eating the cake quietly when Mei had gone to take a shower. When Mei came back down, Yoko said to her, 'Look, your daddy bought you muffins at Sainsbury's without milk or wheat: just for Mei' playing up my role in purchasing the muffins as a proxy for the cake Naomi and I had eaten. Mei smiled and went off to play.
How silly it is to feel pain for someone who doesn't feel the pain themselves.

17 December 2012

As it happened

Yoko and the girls have fallen asleep: Mei is doing much better now. We have been praising her for getting better, for avoiding sweets, and for not scratching herself. She glows when you praise her--so proud, so confident. How can you express your love for your own children. You pick them up and squeeze them and tell them again and again how much you love them. I told this anecdote today about Naomi and the wishing bone:
We both took either end, and I said, 'Naomi what do you wish for.' She said, after thinking, I want to be rich. I laughed: we pulled and I won. She was, you could see, upset by losing, so I said, 'Do you know what I wished for?' She shook her head. 'For you to be rich.' She smiled and ran off. 
The person I told this story then turned to Naomi and asked, 'What do you want to do with your money?' I want to buy mummy and daddy presents, she said.

I told this story to someone who was at a small party for me in the second floor of the Stuart Hall Building. I was sipping champagne while my daughters ran up and down the open plan office hallway, shouting and laughing. Someone commented, there used to be always kids here and dogs. Kids and dogs, I laughed. At the OU? Certainly not.

The second floor Stuart Hall Building is where I began my work as a student at the OU and where, today, I ended it. I waited all morning for the viva panic to set in, the feeling that I was actually going to have to finally stand up, stand behind my thesis and say, Yes, this is what I did, what I believed. I received an email when I arrived at work, hilariously announcing that a book I had ordered by one of my 'spiritual' guides (a Scottish writing instructor), had arrived. The book, 'How to Survive Your Viva', was one I was meant to read, but never got around to. At 11, after having responded to student emails, I thought, well, I'll take a look at it and marched off to the library. I thumbed through it on the long walk back to my desk, thinking about how none of this mattered any more: I couldn't do what Rowena suggests you do a month before the viva. What do you do two hours before? Don't read anything new. Great, I've blown it.

At 1:45, I went to the room adjacent the exam. The department secretary came in to check on me: was I okay? We chatted about how I would go about turning things in after I made the corrections, sometime in the new year. The external examiner walked by looking for the room, but smiled when he saw me and introduced himself. We had met before, talked for about ten minutes at a seminar once, but I was happy to see he was in a good mood: he went off to the room and they called me in.

I had made a report of the typos I'd found in the thesis and added the new articles that had been accepted or under review. Perhaps we have spotted some of the same, one of them said.

The questioning was not hard, but it was clearly set up to get me to talk about my work and find the weaknesses. The first real important hurdle was talking about how I had built my dataset, which the external had questions about, but I think I managed to explain why YouTube is a unique environment and why my method was the best for looking at what I did. The first question, 'How did you become interested in this topic?' was the same one from my mock viva, so I was able to tweak my answer and go with it.

The second big question was also methodological, about my use of ethnography, which I also talked at length about. I talked a lot, as I think about it. Talked fast too, probably. This was when things really turned in my favour: the internal asked why I had used community of practice theory and what I was offering to the theoretical understanding of community. I had that section annotated so I was able to point to the part in the thesis where I had unpacked and rejected one popular notion of online 'community' and explained why I used 'community of practice' instead. It was all there, in bullet points, and I could talk to it like you would talk to a slide, the exam panel following along in the book. I also talked at length about the role of the online researcher, not as 'lurker', but as 'viewer', a legitimate position in the YouTube community of practice. This also seemed to put me in good graces with the internal, who is more interested in these issues than external appeared to be. This was to be expected, though, as they both do very, very different sorts of work.

The third big question was theoretical, with important methodological implications: about how I built my semantic groupings of metaphors. This question bled into another big theoretical question which was that I more or less rejected the user perspective on metaphor and marked as metaphorical things that the users might not have intended to be metaphorical. Answering this question required covering the main positions that people have on 'intentional' metaphor, the strengths and weaknesses of those positions, and where I positioned myself. I answered this question by describing what I felt were my three options in approaching metaphor in the study, each one coming from a different theoretical background, and why I chose the one that I did. The external's comments, however, were sounding a bit like he might want either another table in the chapter or a much bigger reworking, where I reshuffled all my groupings. I basically said that although I could do that, I didn't think it would get me much further in answering my research questions and, even if I did do it again, we would end up with the same questions that we started with, something he seemed to agree with.

The fourth big question was about how I saw my methods interacting with each other and why I had chosen the ones that I had. I talked, again, at length about this, mentioning earlier research (both my own and others) that suggested why I would go the way that I had. This was probably the longest answer because it took setting up all four of the methods in terms of the theoretical background for them and my adaptation of them and my description of how I saw them interacting with one another.

There was another small question about categorisation that was quite minor.

The last question was about a postscript where I had said, basically, that all the people that argued with each other could and did sometimes get along. I talked about going to New York and talking with Joshua Stanton about the Ground Zero Mosque and how our conversation had affected me, led me to think about categorisation in a new way.

This all took about 90 minutes. Then they said, 'Okay' and looked at me, and I said, 'Don't I get to ask some questions?' and the chair said, 'Yes, yes, of course, of course.' So I asked about how it read, what changes they would make to publish it as a monograph, a question that was genuine but also strategic: the implication being that it's publishable as a monograph.

They had me leave the room and my second supervisor was outside with another colleague. How did it go? It went well, I said, I don't know — there's some chance I could have passed without corrections... They looked at me a bit shocked, Really? Yeah, I said, I don't know though: I had another friend who went through the viva, left thinking it was more-or-less wrapped up, and came back to them asking for major corrections. So, I said, who knows. We chatted a bit more and could hear everyone in the room laughing, and then my supervisor came bursting out, looking like I had never seen her before and headed to the room I was supposed to be waiting in. I went back and sat down and the chair said, 'Well, unfortunately... We've found some typos that you haven't corrected... I am surprised to say this, but the panel recommends a straight pass.' I was shocked. Really? I said. Really. I pulled off my glasses: was I going to cry? Thank you, I said: I looked at the internal, known for being very particular, always wanting changes. There was nothing else. It was done. Does anyone have to approve of it before it's bound? No: you can't change anything but the typos. It's done. Well done.
This thesis is extremely well presented, clearly structured and convincingly argued throughout. It makes substantial contributions to the 4 main areas investigated in computer-mediated, video based discourse, i.e. the study of discourse metaphor, categorisation, impoliteness and discourse positioning as well as in general to the theory of conflict communication.
I was speechless. We all had champagne. I had to say something: what do you say? Yoko came with the kids: I passed without corrections. It's done. Yoko started crying. Really? Really.

There were a lot of things I was planning to do this week, but getting my thesis bound and turned in to the OU Library was not one of them. I am, however, going to be doing that now. I will leave the UK completely done. Nothing left to do. I am not a doctor subject to anything. I am a doctor now.

Mei and Mia and Nana ran up and down the hallway of the open plan office, chasing each other, and coming back every so often to call me 'Doctor Daddy'. These are my post-graduate children, I say: Nana's the MA, Mei's the MRes, and Mia's the PhD. We, the five of us, did this--they deserve so much more than I've been able to give them. Now, however, we have time and a little bit of money. We can do things, go places. Have fun. Let's go to the jungle, I say to them: let's go look at monkeys in Malaysian trees. As someone committed to seeing the world for its complexity, I believe everything always works out--it working out is the whole point. It's the nature of things. Still, sometimes, things work out in unexpectedly nice ways.

16 December 2012

14 December 2012

The suspension of time

Get to the point. I tell my students this when I am teaching them to write. First things first, I say. What should come first.

Two stories are interweaving on this Friday the fourteenieth of December. The one that is first, and the one should be and has been and will be the first, is the continued suffering of Mei with this rash, an out-working of a skin infection. She is trying so hard to be well--she has such a persevering spirit. Yoko has been attending to her so carefully and doing everything to keep the itching and pain away. Yoko, mother first and foremost when the children are suffering and mother only, is dutifully up all night, soothing Mei with rags and cool mineral water. The house is permeated with the smells of the balms and ointments. You think, as you do, about Jesus' feet being covered in perfume and washed by the tears of the prostitute. Yes, what a waste: Mei is suffering. I stand in the doorframe watching Yoko care, thinking alternating selfish and magnanimous thoughts. The thoughts of a thirty year-old who is one part 57 year old and one part 15 year old. It's not about me/it's always about me.

The second story is the reason, to some extent, we have all been suffering, the reason we are here in England in the first place. My PhD is ending now. Soon. Very soon. I had a mock viva on Wednesday, which I feared greatly, but got through without much trouble. We spotted a large error, one that I had to go back to the literature to understand what I had done wrong. The error was ultimately not that large and, as you do, I made up a narrative to make sense of it. The narrative is true, in the strictest sense, but as I will tell this story on Monday, I will gut it of the parts that I experienced the most vividly, the deep, deep ignorance that still is present in my work. The PhD doesn't leave you feeling any more competent, just more cautious of everything, of every story a person tells you, every claim to truth, and every experience that you think to be examplar. Now, you immediately think, how can I know if this is right or not.

How can I know if this is right or not. The poet David Baker asks, in a poem comparing his wife's treatment for a chronic illness with her religious upbringing, 'Whom to believe? This is our central task.' The connections to my own life can't be more obvious. Whom to believe: you ask this constantly when holding a sick child. What am I doing, I suddenly think again, standing in another empty room, everything shipped, thrown away, or going with us on the plane. Why. Why, why, why. These 'why' questions are so easily answered, I think: we just don't like the answers. There is a complex set of factors that has led me here and that will define who I am going forward. Perhaps I will be able to identify them. Perhaps not. I am happy to find myself, after four years of epistemological boot camp (which iPad, unironically, wants to be 'book camp') less and less interested in a simple, reduced answer: a theory of everything. We have moved past that. There is no one reason, there is never one reason.

So on Monday, I will put on my sport coat which has a small hole in it that only I can see. I will open up my thesis in front of three experts with my supervisor sitting behind me, both metaphorically and physically. And I will do my best to recount the work that I have done, with the appropriate amount of doubt. The amount of doubt that I actually feel. Not the crippling doubt of packing the house. Not the unfettered confidence of standing in front of undergraduates. The appropriate amount. And on Monday evening, I will be a doctor, subject, I'm sure, to some amendments.

10 December 2012

02 December 2012

Yes, I'm here

Everything you have can go in a box. You put that box on a ship and in 8 to 9 weeks it appears at another address, one in Malaysia. An address that you memorise and write over and over again. You worry about whether the boxes will make it until you think: what have I put in these boxes that is really important to me?

When you move, you think think about currency exchange rates and get angry over the 3% to 5% you will lose in exchanging your money. You think, for some stupid reason, that money is equivalent  that one kind of money equals a real value in another kind of money. It doesn't. It's only worth what you can buy it for or sell it for. Everything you own is like that, actually. It's not worth what anyone says or tells you or writes down or blogs about. It's worth whatever you get for it.

When you move, you find yourself under an intense amount of stress. Some of it is manageable and explicit: what goes in what box. How many boxes do you need. Some it is implicit and malignant--the kind that causes you to suddenly get angry and start shouting at your wife or your kids over something that is not the problem. This stress you hate the worst: it makes you ashamed and want to eat and hide and run away. 

I want to keep up with the second person narrative, but I'm not fooling myself with it. It's never about you: it's about me. I'm the one shouting at my wife and kids. I'm the one trying to keep it all together. There comes a point when you are moving when you would give just about anything to not have to do it, but you have already signed the contract. 

Not you, I mean. Me. I signed the contract. I agreed to do this. I looked my wife in the eyes and said this was the best thing and she looked back and said that this was the best thing. And we can't go back now: there's nothing else to do but keep going forward. It's like having a baby. It's like jumping out of an airplane. You can't stop. You keep going forward.

The most important thing I own is my guitar, but I sort of want it to disappear en route.  It's like an albatross around my neck: the weight of a gift, of leading worship through college, of being in love and losing it. I don't know any songs but praise songs. I play them so well, too. It's a gift I want to lose: please ship, sink. I want it all to disappear, to have to start again from scratch. Drown all my things.

There are benefits to moving though. One is going away parties which are almost always fun. People like you so much when you're going. Another benefit: needing to drink all the whisky we have in the house. We have whisky in the house? Apparently we do. And apparently it's delicious. 

Mei is fighting the flare-up of eczema (seen in the image below) like a martyr dying for this family. Noble and kind and joyful through it all. Yoko is up all night with Mei as she cries through the discomfort of having open sores all over her body. And then Yoko falls down the stairs and bruises her tail bone: the boxes still needing to be filled through all of this. I'm the useless husband/father, trying to make myself useful--cutting tape, filling out forms, investigating shipping rates, picking up heavy things--but fooling no one. Mia stands around watching the whole thing and screeching as if to say, But it's supposed to be all about me, guys. ME. And Naomi is doing her best to support everyone: Mum and dad, I love you, she says and I want to break down and hug her and not let go: I don't deserve any of this. Any of it.
I'll be a doctor in two weeks time, I tell them--the kids.
That's what we came here for. Mei, you weren't even born yet.
Doctor Daddy.
Do people call you mister--Naomi thinks as she tries to form the question--do they call you Mr Stephen?
I lie: sure, my students do.
And she laughs, Mr Stephen. Doctor Daddy.
And then it is completely silent. Everyone is sleeping and I am swilling whisky surveying what's left to go in the boxes. Christ. What have we gotten ourselves into. Where does this land. I like the metaphor of the spinning top: the top wobbles and looks to fall. I want to hold my whole family in my arms, tighter and tighter as I did Mei this morning when she woke up. I'm sorry for this. All of it. I have invented nothing but complexity for all us: all three of my children are born of complexity.

One family, three different places each of us belongs, according to five-year old logic which allocates belonging to where you were born. But there's only one place in our future--I've memorised the address and written it 12 times now. Selangor. Semenyih. We don't know it yet, but we will soon enough. You just hold on, okay?