Thursday, January 17, 2008

Words a PhD student never wants to hear

interesting work .. I used to work with someone who I think looked at a very similar problem to this.

Oh really .. When was that?


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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A new perspective for a new year

For probably the first time since arriving back from Italy, things are starting to feel a little 'normal'. It's hard to pin point why things are now starting to feel more normal. It could be the recent acquisition of some desperately needed furniture. It could be that both Aff and I are back at work with a routine somewhat resembling the one we had before leaving Canberra. It could be that we are able to share the cooking again (circumstances in Italy meant that Aff had to take on most of the cooking), or, it could be the very welcome return of our cat after nearly 12 months spent in Kerang. Probably a little of all these things I guess. However, I say things are "a little normal" quite deliberately. There is much of our lives thatis not yet as it was. Upon thinking about this over the last few days, I realise that we are at an interesting cross-roads, and with a great opportunity to examine the things that make us satsified, content and most importantly, happy.

It has been sometime since I last found myself in a situation where I had virtually no commitments. Prior to leaving Canberra last year for Italy, finding a night or weekend free was like discovering gold in a long forgotten river. It was very precious indeed. Once discovered, however, it had to be kept very quiet, or stoutly defended. This period was a strange mix of high satisfaction and deep felt tiredness and stress. I involved myself in a range of activities and groups, and explored different areas of interest I would not have thought to explore before coming to Canberra. Being involved in all these things brought me a great sense of self worth, which served as a great motivator, as did making new friends, and finding a sense of place and purpose here in Canberra. On the other hand, these noble pursuits also caused significant strain on myself, and my home life through the all consuming nature in which I often take things on. I was constantly filling gaps of time with things to do, and events, social or otherwise, to attend. Feeling self worth is obviously a very positive mind state to have. Feeling tired, strung out and resentful at the same time suggests the way I was going about things was probably not quite right.

And so here I am, 10 months later, with a rare opportunity to re-examine my priorities. A few things are different now. For one, this should be my last year as a PhD student, and so the Mt Everest like task of writing a thesis looms large. This alone is enough reason to slow things down in other aspects of my life. Secondly, I am married now, and as I wrote when in Italy, this has, somewhat surprisingly, re-jigged some of my priorities. Thirdly, a new appreciation for home (or at least, the realisation that its ok to do so). Seven roller coaster months in Italy, and two months of reflection since has brought about a new perspective on what makes me truly happy and content. Nothing more so, it seems, than sitting in my own backyard with a coffee, and the newspaper. This change of mindset is the most recently realised since arriving back in Canberra (unsurprisingly coinciding with finding a nice new place to live). I have always considered myself a bit of a home-body in denial, constantly trying to fight off this perceived reclusive, anti-social desire, or at least trying to justify time spent at home by filling the days around it with activities to balance the equation. This, I now realise, does not really work for me, and more importantly, is not really necessary.

This new perspective first came out during the house hunting phase. My usual determination to find a place "close to the action" was being strongly out weighed by the desire to find a place with lots of space, and a backyard worthy of sitting in (with coffee/beer and newspaper). The possibility of having a decent veggie patch was also secretly high on the assessment scale. The place we chose most certainly reflects the latter considerations than it does the former. After nearly four weeks living here, there are no regrets about our slightly more outer suburban existence.

While I have realised a desire for more "home time", I have also identified that my need to "get out of the house" does not simply stem from me wanting to fight my natural state. Quite the contrary in fact, which I am relieved to say. Upon thinking about the the motivations behind the things I do, I realise that I have a very strong desire to connect with people. I used to fear that if I gave into my natural desires, I would become a recluse, and not want to talk to anyone. This, I now know is not true at all, and in fact, if I allow myself the time to myself I need, I soon crave connectedness. I now realise that craving connectedness is a far healthier state than living in constant fear of its non-existence. It's not really rocket science, but it's always an eye-opener to examine the underlying motivators, and assumptions behind the things we choose to do with our lives.

With all this in mind, I am very much looking forward to what I hope will be a significantly more balanced, and ultimately more relaxed and measured approach to life in 2008. As for what I do with my spare time, not really sure, a couple of things I'm sure ... but then again, what's the rush?

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Friday, January 04, 2008

One minute

A minute is probably the smallest unit of time for which something can change significantly in day to day life. The total running time of an Olympic sprinter over 100 metres, from the first heat through to the final takes less time. A thunderstorm can give way to a bright sunny day in a matter of seconds. A slice of bread in the toaster can go from white to charcoal without notice. A lot can happen in one minute.

Sitting contently in the sun at a campsite near Dargo, my only concern was how I was going to fit hours of blissful nothingness into a day already devoted to completing a larger than usual crossword. Two of my fellow campers, with two young children, had decided they were going to spend the day going for a drive up the river that passed through our campsite. With my schedule already full, I was quite happy to pass on the offer to join them. My thoughts seemed to be shared by Aff, and Mick and Mel, who like me, were lounging lazily in the sun with no apparent desire to change the situation. Then came a suggestion:

"If you want, I can take you guys up river and you can lilo back?"

A minute later, our tranquil state of idleness transformed to a flurry of activity as bathers were put on, suncream applied, and lilos blown up. Within another minute the campsite was deserted, as we all piled in the back of the 4WD and headed off up the river. With 6 adults, two children and two lilos in the car, conditions seemed more akin to images of crowded bus journeys in India (minus the chickens) than to a pleasant drive though the Australian bush. After 20 minutes, we stopped at a point deemed to be fit for launching our lilo crusade.

With two lilos between four of us, it was two to a lilo. Aff and I took possession of our trusty ship, ignored the obligatory warning stating that this sturdy air-filled floatation device, is in a fact not a flotation device at all, and launched ourselves into the river. After some discussion, we opted for a two person abreast configuration, with the lilo's longest side perpendicular to our direction of motion, and our mid sections draped across the width of the lilo. This meant our arms and legs were submerged on either side of the lilo, allowing us to manoeuvre (or so we hoped). Mick and Mel were already in the water, and had adopted a similar configuration, and so we began our pleasant, relaxing float down river.

A minute passed by, and the speed of the current began to increase. In the distance, the sound of rushing water could be heard. It was clear that our pleasant river meandering was about to go up a gear or two. The sudden increase in speed was disconcerting enough, but the sudden appearance of rocks just under the surface of the water was what truly concerned me. While the lilo provided buoyancy, it did not keep my "big-boned" body mass above water. This was confirmed when the first of many rocks passed underneath me, threatening to end the family line then and there. In a vein attempt to protect my interests, I tried to push my body further up onto the lilo. This also allowed me to reach further into the water with my arms, which I hoped could be used as a buffer against incoming rocks. This was proving to be somewhat effective, although as I looked forward, I could see there was worse to come. Several large boulders lay waiting in the middle, and to the right of the river. This caused the water to rush to the left, and then down a gradual drop of about a metre. The drop was not large, but the combined forces of gravity, and the increased water pressure from the bottleneck created by the boulders, made for quite a rush of water. Adding to my concern was the further shallowing of the water due to a large collection of smaller rocks underneath the surface as the river dropped. With only moments to decide what to do, some quiet negotiations between Aff and I resulted in a decision to take it on, but to stop if things got a bit too intense.

I started paddling to position the lilo, largely to no avail. I soon realised that the strong river current had its own ideas about where to position us, and the only way to have any impact on our trajectory was to try and use the rocks underneath the water. With this in mind, I stopped paddling and instead extended my arms out in front of us. As I raised my hands to just above water level, I noticed a silvery gold flicker of light from my left hand. Sitting perilously close to the tip of my ring finger was my wedding ring. I was concerned how easily this usually snug fitting ring had made its way to the tip of my finger. I was equally concerned about how easily I was able to push it back down to its usual position (marked clearly by the 9 month old tan line it had created). My skin had clearly shrivelled up in the water, allowing the ring to move more freely. Unfortunately, with no where to put the ring, I was forced to continue with the ring on my finger. Thinking myself fortunate to have discovered this risk early enough to prevent it, I told myself to make sure I kept a constant check on it. Just as this thought registered, our lilo began the pass through the rapids to the left of the boulders. I could see ahead that Mick and Mel had already managed to negotiate this section, although it was clear from their bobbing heads that the pass was not a smooth one.

I extended my arms out, just under the surface of water with the palms of my hands facing forwards. Instantly I began to feel rocks crashing into my hands, and while I tried to push off the rocks to avoid them passing underneath us, my off centred position meant this only served to rotate the lilo. After a couple of big hits, the lilo had rotated a full 180 degrees, and so we were now travelling feet first and backwards into the unknown. With anxiety levels high, Aff and my only thoughts were to try and stop ourselves. I desperately tried to grab onto rocks in an attempt to anchor ourselves, but this would cause the lilo to dip into the water, allowing the strong current to push against it's surface. With the awkward position of the lilo, Aff began to lose grip. Seeing the futility of trying to stop, I ceased attempting to hold on to the rocks, and simply let the current take us. Aff and I both raised our legs and feet as high as we could in the water, so as to avoid the rocks below. While this probably helped, it didn't stop a number of rocks grazing our knees and thighs as we passed over the remainder of the rapid section. Within a minute of entering the rapids, we were through, and back in significantly calmer, though quite fast flowing water.

After a moment silently recollecting ourselves, Aff raised her left hand from the water. Whether she intended to check her ring or not, the flickering light from the two rings forming her wedding ring quickly caught her attention. Like my ring earlier, she noticed that they had crept up her finger.

"Ooh, almost lost my rings", she said with some surprise, having not noticed how close I had come to losing mine a couple of minutes earlier.

I looked at her rings, and agreed, thinking to myself how lucky I was to have discovered this risk before the rapids. With that thought, I raised my left hand to inspect my own treasured possession. Few emotions I have experienced could compare to that which I felt at this moment. As I stared at my left ring finger, all I could see was a band of pale white skin surrounded by the tanned exposed skin of my ring finger. Within a minute of consciously telling myself to not lose my wedding ring, I had gone and lost my wedding ring.

After a couple of seconds of shock, followed by a couple more seconds of expletives, I desperately began to paddle to the river's left bank. Aff joined the paddle, and soon we were out of the strong current, and into an eddy that had formed just after the rapid section. Placing our lilo on the river bank, we then began to force our bodies against the current, back towards the section where I had almost certainly lost the ring. This had to be where I was trying to grab hold of the rocks. Unfortunately, this was also where the water was fastest, and conditions were most dangerous. It took some minutes to get there as the current began to intensify. During the struggle, it was becoming increasingly clear that there was next to no chance of finding the ring. While I ignored this thought for a while, the inevitability of the situation began to sink in. We were soon joined by Mick and Mel, who had both returned to the scene after finding out what had happened. Being in company, I tried my best to keep my emotions in check, something I almost certainly wouldn't have done had it just been Aff and me. I was sad, I was angry, I was shocked, confused, and embarrassed. I was devastated. One minute I had a ring, the next I did not.

We did attempt to find the ring, but the fast moving water, and slippery rocks made it next to impossible. After a token ten minutes of searching, we gave up, and after some recuperation time, resumed our float down the river. As it turned out, numerous rapid sections lay waiting for us in the 2 hours of river cruising that remained, a couple even more intense than the first. Truth be told, my ring probably didn't stand a chance of making it to the end. Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and clearly I should never have worn my ring to start with. Maybe, but I doubt many would have done differently. The fact is, it was a random event, and despite all my attention to the risk I had identified only seconds before, there was nothing I could have done to prevent it. One minute I had a ring, the next minute I did not. A lot can happen in one minute.

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