To heed the call?

I saw something on Pinterest that I didn’t understand. That in itself is not ground-breaking, I really don’t get half the shit that’s on there, particularly in the burlap-bound, flower-crowned, hellish depths that are the Weddings section. That is another post entirely though. No, this one pops up in the Travel section and a variety of “inspirational” quote boards.

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The quote is attributed to John Muir, a Scottish-American adventurer/environmental philosopher/conservation, who, by all accounts, seems like a pretty cool guy. He spent his days tramping through the wilderness of California, exploring, studying, writing. The quote is from a letter to his sister: “The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.” The last, oft-redacted, part of the quote sells it way more for me. Sounds like someone who has nailed their research topic, which is the dream, really.

Back to the mountains. Admittedly my mountain experience is limited. That comes with spending the majority of your life within spitting distance of sea level. But I climbed Kinabalu and bloody hated it. Rinjani did much to redeem mountains but I’d never been 100% sold. I love hiking and the outdoors, and I physically miss the ocean when I’m away from it for too long, but the mountains have never called to me the way they apparently call to so many keyboard climbers.

A book changed that. I’m sure that makes me no different from the Pinners that post these whimsical quotes and daydream about rose-tinted peaks, but it’s true. The book was Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, about the same events that the recent movie, Everest, was based on. I had no idea about the 1996 tragedy on Everest and no real interest in mountains but the author also wrote Into the Wild, one of my favourite books and my favourite movie, so I downloaded it for a seven-hour flight. The book consumed me. I hate reading on screens but I couldn’t stop. I ran my phone’s battery dead reading non-stop. When I landed in Singapore and got home, the first thing I did was charge my phone so I could finish. I’ve read it twice in two months and sung its praises to just about everyone who has made eye contact.

Safe to say the book had an impact. I had nightmares about storms and cold. The Himalaya became regulars in my browser search history. They were never too far from the top of my mind. It was not that the experience was romanticised. Far from it. Krakauer captured the dangers and pain of mountaineering with journalistic precision and openly catalogued the effects such a hobby has on the loved ones of those who do it. Nonetheless, I was equally terrified and enthralled. I was not exactly inspired to pick up some rope and crampons, and throw myself into a new sport but the fascination remained.

Base camp is a fixture on many a bucket list, Partner 2 has even expressed interest in the past. Not me though, the physical and mental strength that drives people uphill through thinning air is something I can only analyse from a distance, an interesting scientific phenomenon from which I am removed. But, I do want to see it. Everest. From a distance is fine. But I want to try and understand the pull. The power it has over people, who endure pain and suffering, who test the limits of the human body, and who risk their lives to stand on the summit. If the mountains are calling, then this one surely has the loudest voice.

So I guess the, long-winded, point of this post is that I get it now. I get it, John Muir. I understand how mountains can call, they might even be calling me a little bit. What I’m wary of is the rhapsodised, sepia-toned representations. We’re not always called to things that are good for us. Who says the mountain’s call isn’t a sinister one? A siren song. It’s not really a call that can be made by someone at sea level. Maybe one day I’ll find out.

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Becoming an expert

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Sometimes I wish my PhD course was a little more flexible. Just a minor thing. Like the option to weasel out of doing a literature review. I’d do terrible things to get out of it. Bad things. Not that sort of bad, you perv. Like I’ll take out the rubbish when the bag has split and then clean up the trail of garbage juice. I’ll go to the dentist. I’ll babysit the shrieking hellspawn kids next door. I’ll watch that James Franco movie about North Korea. Just don’t make me review the literature. Don’t make me talk about situating my research. Don’t make me present myself as someone with the authority to make a critical assessment of the relevant literature in my field. Do you know how crazy that is? I’ve only just found my field and cleared away some of the rocks so I can set up camp! I can’t review it yet, I’ve only just started looking around!

I’ve read more this year than I have in my entire life accumulatively. Far from feeling enriched and learn-ed (said with two syllables, while swirling a glass of cognac), I feel a looming sense of panic about everything I don’t know. Every reference suggests ten more that I probably should have read already. They say you should stop reading when you stop learning something new. What if that doesn’t happen? What if, at my completion seminar, I stand up and tell them I can’t present my data because I’m still reading? It’s a real possibility, or it seems like it at this point.

As a kind-of-external student, my isolation is a blessing and a curse. I can smash out 1000 words before breakfast but by lunchtime I may be still in my pyjamas and telling my cat that she’ll get a doctorate before I will. The cathartic, self-deprecating exchanges with fellow students over coffee are something I really miss about the studying experience. Sure, at the library I’ll share a mildly hysterical look with someone else who has a stack of books and an aura of drowning, but it’s just not the same. For now I’ll have to settle for online rants and the biannual trip home.

My last trip back did reassure me somewhat. I know this won’t last forever. I’m the post-grad equivalent of an undergrad who is fresh out of high school. The panic will pass and I’ll find my feet. By the end of my PhD, I’ll be completely self-assured, an expert in my field. Grad students and UN reps will ask me if I’ve read this insightful new book that has pretty much come up with a flawless new development paradigm. I’ll sigh indulgently, “Oh darling, I wrote the book”, and point a meticulously-filed finger at my byline on the cover. Because future me has a book and a manicure.  I suppose she doesn’t chew the sides of her fingernails so they aren’t torn and ragged and I bet she doesn’t worry about getting hepatitis from taking her open wounds to a nail salon. I bet she can write concluding sentences for paragraphs too. Sigh.

For now though, this novice will make a coffee and shamefully get the packet of cooking chocolate out of the fridge. Times are tough when you turn to cooking chocolate. I’ll make a coffee and go back to the last sentence of that paragraph. Ok, the last sentences of those three paragraphs.

Childhood reading

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My parents, those voracious hoarders, have kept all of our childhood books. Despite increasing pleas to give them away and clean up, they remain in two buckling bookshelves in the living room. In defence of my parents, many of the books aren’t in any state to be given away. The condition of the book directly related to its popularity. The Harry Potter series is falling apart except for a few pristine volumes that were replacements for originals that disintegrated. Favourites are missing pages or are splattered with food. Some look they might have taken a dip in a bathtub or swimming pool. As unattractive and shabby as they are, the books are a nostalgic trip back through childhood for my brother and I. Roald Dahl and Morris Gleitzman share a shelf with 90s YA classics like Animorphs who sit above my grandmother’s complete Narnia series (I’ll give them back soon, I promise, I just need them for another 10 years). Novels occupy the top two shelves of each bookcase, the bottom shelves are reserved for the big books. Picture books, fact books, craft books, covering every topic from The Very Hungry Caterpillar to the 2009 Book of Guinness World Records. There’s books on weather (no, actually that one is here with me in Singapore), volcanoes, the ocean, the solar system, cats, Where’s Wally, and my brother’s favourite: the choose-your-own adventure stories.

There is one book in particular that still exerts a certain degree of influence over me. I wish I could say it was Chaucer or Joyce or even Enid Blyton. It’s not. It’s a big blue book of facts with silly cartoon illustrations. It’s called “facts about everything” or something along those lines. It contains useless facts on a range of topics from motor vehicles to sport and everything in between. My favourite was the nature page. That page is the reason why, on our final day in Borneo, instead of relaxing and preparing for our flight, Partner 2 and I spent two hours on a bus followed by a 40 minute hike. All to spend 10 minutes inspecting the world’s largest, smelliest flower, the Rafflesia. We then turned around and went back into town so we could fly home. And it was totally worth it. I can vividly picture the cartoonish Rafflesia illustration in that blue book. I can also picture the drawing of a giant Sequoia with a tunnel cut into its trunk and a car driving through it to show the ridiculous size of those trees. I can see a picture of a Saguaro cactus, wearing a sombrero of course. I can also see the volcano section.

Krakatoa was there. The book wrote of its apocalyptic eruption in 1883: how the sound of the eruption was heard in Perth and Mauritius, the devastating tsunami that followed, the effect on global climate for years afterwards, and that the volcano literally blew itself up, leaving practically nothing left of the island she called home. Not the most appropriate subject matter for a child perhaps, considering the hundreds of thousands of people that died and the bodies that washed up in Africa a year after the eruption. Nonetheless, Dad in particular encouraged this one. Perhaps he had visions of having a wealthy geologist for a daughter? The follow-up book he bought me was more scientific. I read about tectonic plates and the crust of the earth, the San Andreas Fault line and the Pacific Ring of Fire, magma vs lava, about other famous volcanos: Pompeii, Mount St Helens and even Anak Krakatoa, the volcano that rose out of the ashes (volcano pun!) of Krakatoa and is growing at a rate of seven metres per year. I read about how the movement of the plates formed the Himalayas and why Hawaii’s Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world from base to peak. Unfortunately for Dad, who was no doubt mentally spending his daughter’s future geology income, this interest led to a fascination about how the continents formed which led to dinosaurs. Sorry, Dad!

Anyway, I digress enormously, as usual. The reason for all this nostalgia is an upcoming trip, perhaps indirectly inspired by that damn blue book. We’re spending Lunar New Year climbing Krakatoa. The discussions around the impending trip have been punctuated with “fun facts” and Partner 2 rolling his eyes, though he has come around since he watched (of his own free will!) a documentary on Krakatoa.

The thought of setting foot on something so powerful is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. It will be hugely humbling, I imagine, to be in the presence of such a violent testament to the strength and volatility of nature. An explosive reminder of who’s really in charge around here. Because for all our technological and medical advances, for all the seismographic equipment and forecasting models, if a volcano’s erupting, you run. If there’s a tsunami coming, you run. If there’s an earthquake or a typhoon, you run. What else can you do?

Despite this talk of bowing at the altar of nature’s strength and power, I am (at the risk of my own demise) hoping for a little eruption. Just a tiny one. Just some smoke and a dribble of lava. For scientific observations, of course, and absolutely not to appease my strange inner child. So if you don’t hear from me after this weekend, you’ll know that Krakatoa, or potentially her son, got the better of me.

Krakatoa permitting though, next time I’m home, I’ll be borrowing that blue book.

Listicles are internet parasites

Listicles seem to be the bread and butter of internet websites these days. They have wormed their way up from Buzzfeed to infiltrate even the loftier echelons of the interwebs, proper news websites. Scroll down to lifestyle and entertainment, and suddenly you’ve descended into a clickhole of Dante-esque proportions. It started innocently, “5 things you should know about the situation in CAR”, then moved innocuously to “30 facts for Katy Perry’s 30th birthday”, then devolved into “10 reasons you should date a guy with hooves” and “7 signs you ate too much today, fatty”.

As entertaining as they can be, from a literary perspective, listicles are a threat. Most people would choose an easy-to-digest list over a comprehensive analysis any day, and this is starting to show. Supply and demand, baby. Give the people what they want. Even if it is to the detriment of think pieces, in-depth analyses and long-form creative fiction.

So why is this? Have our literary consumption habits been so degraded that we can only process bite-sized pieces of prose? Have our reading habits devolved so badly that we need our material obviously signposted so we know what we’re committing to?  “31 reasons Broad City is the best show ever”? 31 reasons? No time, I’ll take “5 times cats were jerks” instead.

A curse of the modern age perhaps, or the road toll we pay for the information super highway? I think it’s more insidious than that. Listicles are parasites. Feeding on us and real writing. There’s probably a few reasons for this. Firstly… No. No. You just read this whole thing, no signposts. Left to right, top to bottom, you won’t get lost I promise.

Anyway, listicles are the parasites of the internet. They are endemic, duplicitous and feed on the lifeblood of their hosts – readers and proper articles. A sneaky tiger leech, hiding on knee-skimming ferns, just waiting for you to brush past unaware so it can drain your blood. A tapeworm hanging out in mystery meat, waiting for you to make an ill-informed dietary decision. A strangler fig choking the life out of the tree who supports it for a spot in the sun. There’s a wealth of metaphors for listicles, even the word itself is a red flag. The portmanteau is cutesy, stolen from other words, it even has the syllable ‘ick’ in it!

Listicles are those wasps that lay eggs in the brains of other insects. Then the babies hatch and control their zombie hosts. I’m not even making this up. Listicles destroy your ability to make your own reading decisions, you can’t click just one. Before you know it you’ve spent an entire morning falling down a clickhole of listicles and have nothing to show for it. Listicles, like fleas and lice, are adaptable and can survive a range of conditions. They embrace mixed media openly, a trait widely-lauded in this multimediascape we call the internet. Listicles are as at-home with video as they are with music,text and images. They are laid out in order: you read the title, you smile at the .gif or watch the video, then read the paragraph that goes with it. Simple, no critical thinking, no consideration, nothing to show for the time wasted. The most effective parasites go unnoticed.

This may come off as very high and mighty but I’m not immune, I absolutely indulge in listacles from time to time. I’m not saying stop reading them, parasites have their uses in the circle of life. We derive vaccines from mosquitoes, and would we even have supermodels without tapeworms? When listicles act as a mental break in your day at work or the odd link shared among friends, there’s no problem. The cause for concern is if all we read online comes in list format. Obviously my glorious readers won’t have to worry about that, but as a whole we need to be more receptive to long reads on the internet. I love The Awl, particularly this one from a few weeks ago, New Matilda for current affairs, and The Daily Beast cultivates a weekly list of good long reads. Yes, they require a bit more time and concentration, but long reads are an investment rather than a distraction! Together we can fight back against the listicle infestation and hopefully fill the internet with thoughts and words rather than advertorials and YouTube clips. The cat gifs can stay though.

What I learned from Anna Karenina

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I have been lacking in my posts once again. My only excuse is that my thesis is in its death throes and I’m trying to deliver the final blow. Die! Die! Nearly there.

When I haven’t been contemplating my life choices and cursing word counts, I finished reading Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina.

It’s a nice, impressive one at add to the bookshelf; nothing like a bit of classic Russian literature to impress visitors. It was a surprisingly easy read though, particularly compared to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. While Anna is still sitting on my bedside table, Crime and Punishment is gathering dust very impressively in the corner of the bookshelf.

Anna taught me a lot about writing. The subject matter was dense and foreign to me, the language was littered with French and Russian phrases which required translation, and all the characters are pretty unlikeable, yet I had to keep reading.

Levin was an insecure, overly intellectual snob, Vronksy was vain, Anna was her own worst enemy (spoiler alert: other than the train), and Oblonsky was an irresponsible philanderer. But I wanted to know more. I wanted Anna to get her divorce and go to the country. I wanted Oblonsky to go home to Dolly and look after his thousand kids, and Levin… Levin, smile you miserable bastard! How did Tolstoy make me care so much about these flawed, desperate characters?

They say a writer must write what they know. It is so much more than that though, everyone knows something but not everyone is a writer. My theory is that it comes down to observation and words. The minute details of every scene, every conversation and every description in Anna Karenina make it easy to picture and imagine that you too are sitting in a box at the Petersburg opera, or sipping vodka with peasants after a tough day’s harvesting. Tolstoy must have been a perceptive observer of the world around him. But he also must have been a great sculptor of words. I think sculptor is the most appropriate word because crafting meaningful sentences is about more than stringing words together. It’s foraging for the perfect word, the right medium to convey your message, and melding it with others to create something bigger than the words along. Finished sculptures seldom resemble the clay they started as. You could be the best observer but if you can’t find the words to describe what you see, you may as well not have seen anything.

I think that’s probably my take-away from Anna Karenina. Along with some other stuff about cheating on your husband, wheat prices, and train platform safety. It’s probably a little lofty to aspire to write like Tolstoy but his descriptions are something I’d like to incorporate more into my own writing. Elaborate descriptions are a bit of a weak point for me. A background in journalism has left me equipped with short sentences and scenes heavy in dialogue. But as soon as this thesis is laid to rest, I’ll turn my attention back to basics and back to describing.

As for reading, War and Peace is up there on the list, but everything in moderation. I’m cleansing my palate of Russian Society with a biography of Hunter S. Thompson.