2015: A Cussing Delight

2015 has been a big and surprising year, full of level-ups. Here are some highlights:

  • Doug and I got married, seven years to the day after we started going out. I got my British passport beforehand and so we were able to tie the knot at the British Consulate in Melbourne. It does feel different, somehow. But mostly it’s a public tip of the hat to something already well-established between us. The best part was having our friends and family there to celebrate. That was truly something and, looking around at who was there, I felt very lucky and very loved.
  • I spent time in Berlin and Prague. Going to Germany is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and it was everything I hoped for and more. I went there ready and willing to stay on indefinitely if that was going to work out, but I soon realised there was no place for me there at that time. However, I had a great time experiencing the life and soul of the city and it was great to level up my German language skills, nascent as they still are. And Prague was a revelation. It may sound obvious, but the experience also confirmed travel as among my very favourite and most vital pursuits.
  • I found an academic collaborator in Alan Finlayson, who agreed to be a supervisor for my eventual PhD and, more importantly, was interested and animated by my thinking about politics. Although for various reasons of timing, finance and logistics we have not been in a position to work together yet, I know he is someone who will be able to take my ideas forward and I am excited by that prospect. It also feels good to have been accepted and taken seriously by someone to whom I am completely unknown, entirely on the strength of what I have to say about things that are important to me. That also feels like a level-up.
  • I visited the UK for the first time as an adult. My background is British and British influences pepper my inner landscape. It has always felt an intensely familiar place, but never in a first-hand way. And sometimes I have resented the influence it has, and the sense of an inevitable draw that goes hand in hand with that. There is absolutely a significant part of me that does *not* identify with Englishness especially and perhaps I miss out on some opportunities because of a stubborn resistance to be open to the place, on whatever level that operates. That said, I had a great time, I fit right in while remaining somehow exotic and I’m looking forward to going back. I am fairly sure I will live there for a period in the not-too-distant future, but I also have a strong sense I won’t ever stay for too long.
  • I got a well-paying professional job. With a few years hindsight, this may even turn out to be the biggest level up of 2015. It’s hard to explain exactly the significance of this development, which was more or less totally unexpected. I applied for a similar job in Norwich in which I made it to the final two and eventually lost out to an internal candidate. That in itself felt like a level-up. Here’s my best shot at an explanation: I think what I want from work, ultimately, is status. Status is a complicated idea with several parts. It involves enjoying a certain legitimacy and standing in the eyes of others, as well as a deep trust and respect. Being granted autonomy in my job is one way of performing that trust and respect. So is having recognition of my skills and abilities and being provided ample opportunity to apply them to real problems and develop further through fresh challenges. So is a salary package and benefits commensurate with the contribution I am able to make. I have had all of these things at various times in my work before, but never at the same time. Eight months of this job has taken away an intense but distant ache – an ache for status – that has always been there and I had simply come to assume was part of my very being. But it was not part of me, it was just something that gnawed quietly at everything I did and gave it a tincture of impatience and anger. With it now subsided, I feel I have far more bandwidth and far more goodwill than I had before. And I know I will never settle for less again. That is why I am so hesitant to dive into the PhD, even though it’s something I would really like to do. It would mean a plunge in status. And until I can figure out a way to do it that doesn’t – a Danu way – I’ll keep it on the shelf.
  • I discovered a framework of portability. This one is the most abstract. I have been trying to figure out a way to make my life more portable for a while. I have always felt everything I do to be time-limited in a deep way – once I’ve solved a puzzle and understand how it works, it’s time to move on. This has been occasion for massive disruption in my life on numerous occasions, and the uprootful lurching from one thing to another is wont to give outsiders an impression of flakiness and unreliability. The challenge has been to find a way to narrate and organise my life in such a way that assumptions about frequent changes in course, direction and location are somehow baked in. This year’s travel has helped me realise that I have many homes, with friends, contacts and favourite rituals in each. I don’t have to take all my baggage with me everywhere I go – I can leave it strewn around in several places. Moving between them is just like changing outfits, only you change what you wear on the inside as well. This is the sort of observation that other people will nod at agreeably, but I’ve not met many who really seem to get it, even among the people I know who are well travelled. A home is not the same as a place you visit. And yet, the folks from Internations who I had breakfast with in Berlin seemed to understand it so effortlessly that nothing needed to be said about it at all. It’s still a new thought and one I look forward to exploring further next year and beyond. The other thing that has helped is stumbling across a vocabulary of project management, in which a ‘project’ is simply a well-defined *temporary* problem with a clear beginning and end. All my life has been a string of projects – with the right vocabulary, this circumstance could carry less stigma and more status.

Here’s what I wrote at the end of 2014 about my hopes for 2015:

First, I need to figure out what it means to be a politically engaged scholar who is interested in critiquing the legitimacy of liberal democracy. Almost certainly this means finding some kind of outlet to write for on a semi-regular basis. It also almost certainly means doing a PhD, though not necessarily straight away. I think I need to be clearer on what I want the PhD to do for me before I commit to it – certainly the hope of learning this by being ‘in the system’ is effectively nil.

Second, I need to work on integrating my system of ideas. What I have are three or four Big Ideas that relate to each other in important ways, but which I have not spelled out fully (because I have not thought it through carefully enough yet). I had hoped that figuring out what my discipline is would suggest a framework for doing this, but it is now clear that it is precisely the framework itself that is what I am trying to figure out, as no single discipline manages to hold the Big Ideas together simultaneously. This, I must say in passing, is typical of academia. It insists on order and traditions but is pathologically incapable of creating any of its own. It relies on madmen and maniacs to keep things interesting and then scavenges on their insights.

All things considered, it may be a good idea to stay out of ‘the system’ for a while, at least until I remember what it is I miss about it. Meanwhile I have a reading and a study program to be getting on with, which is the Real intellectual work. This fits in with my money/health/identity focus for 2015 as it leaves other more straightforward kinds of work available.

As usual, the flight of Minerva’s owl has shown this to be both amusingly naive and unnervingly prescient. But I suppose this is what you get when focussed willpower meets worldly chaos. It’s always fun to look back on and see who won which contests. I haven’t done as much writing as I’d like, certainly not for an audience, but I have been enjoying keeping the journal and experimenting with tossing around complex ideas in a looser style. I think I’ll keep that up for now. I have stayed out of the system while still keeping a foot in it through a more straightforward kind of work. I definitely carried through the money/health/identity focus in 2015 and it is, surprisingly enough, the indirect influence of this and the more straightforward work that has helped me think about integrating my ideas and what it means for me to be politically engaged. I imagine I’ll stay in my one-foot-in-one-foot-out stance towards the academic system throughout 2016 as well.

As for 2016, this year I am keeping it simple. I’m expecting things to be steadier and more structured than they were in 2015 (at least in the first half), so really all I have is an aspiration for things to develop steadily around a few key themes:

  • Fitness. I didn’t discuss it in detail earlier as a highlight, but I made it a key goal in 2015 to make fitness a part of my life in some meaningful way. Not as a means to an end, or really even as a ‘health’ thing, but to find a way to make health and fitness activities a part of my lifestyle, for its own sake. I had no idea what that meant at the start of 2015, and I spent a good portion of the year experimenting with different ways to figure it out. Now I feel like I have a better idea of the direction I want to go, so in 2016 I’d like to take some bigger strides down that road. That probably looks like: improving my physique, taking up a sport and spending more time active and outdoors.
  • Finance. I would be among the first to say I’m not great with money. On the other hand, I’m not completely convinced that I’m ‘bad’ with it either. I think, in fact, I just haven’t yet figured out a way to make it a part of my life that I’m comfortable with. A bit like fitness. And, like health and fitness, the fact that I haven’t figured it out yet doesn’t stop it from going ahead and happening to me anyway. There have been times when I’ve had enough money, and times when I’ve had not enough. I’ve been employed, unemployed, under-employed and self-employed. I’ve employed others, and I’ve been bankrupt. I’ve had plenty of experiences, enough to pull together and do something with. In 2016, I’d like to figure out my what my relationship with money is and start being more focussed about it.
  • Fun. In 2016, I’d like to have more of it. This is a totally selfish goal – so are the others, really. But I do know that all the best stuff I do comes about when I manage to reach and draw from a deep inner calm. So I focus on keeping my zen and whatever creativity springs from that takes care of itself. Fun in 2016 probably looks like: travel, hobbies, lifestyle.
  • Finally, in 2016 I’d like to figure out what my next project looks like, or at least catch a glimpse of it that can inform the actions I take next. My job is great and I’m enjoying it, but it won’t be forever or even for long in the scheme of things. That’s part of what makes it great, in fact. It’s a project. And, even better, a project is exactly what others understand it to be, including my boss. Will the PhD come next? Possibly… probably, even. Or not. The field is wide open at this point. By the end of 2016, it would nice to narrow it and try out making my first all-grown-up big-boy phased transition from one thing to another, without a death-defying leap in between. Not that I will never take another one of those – I tend to believe you leap first and then net appears. But unless life forces your hand, you only need to make those kinds of leaps to remind yourself to feel alive. And at the end of 2015, I already feel more alive than I have for a long, long time. Perhaps ever.

Thanks 2015, you’ve been great.