Tuesday, March 12, 2013

(another) fly-by hi:

This week is squished pretty full, so I'm leaving this here as a kind of fly-by filler post while I gather thoughts for something more substantial. I'm laughing now as I look at the photo collage I've compiled, since this looks like a dream existence: all play, and no work. There's work going on, certainly -- uni and my two part-time jobs which spread themselves over four days each week -- but it's the play that makes the difference, isn't it? You can slog on through most things if there are small windows of time to be with cool people, to prepare nice food, to soak up the sunshine, to make things with your hands.

What keeps you sane?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Socially awkward penguin:

or: a very long-winded discussion by a hyper-analytical person about the discomfort (and the joys) of interacting with strangers.

At an event on the weekend -- a lovely event, so bear that in mind -- I found myself seated at a table of strangers. This can either be the best thing in the world or the WORST THING EVAR GO AWAYYYY. Though in the innermost recesses of my self I'm kind of shy, it's probably more fear of intruding in another's life than actually shyness. So it doesn't entirely stop me from striking up conversations, and once those initial icebreaker conversation-starters are over, I can talk to pretty much anyone. I like people, so it's fun.

Being stuck on a table with strangers makes it even easier. You don't have to walk across the room maintaining eye contact the whole time. No, for some reason, your hosts or the event planner have decided you and they and they and they would make an interesting social mix for a few hours, so half the work is already done. Someone's next to you, they're not going anywhere, so why not get to know each other?

It sounds logical, and sometimes this goes off without a hitch. But other times the experience is so unbearably, uncomfortably awkward that I feel myself thinking CANNOT COMPUTE. HOW DO HUMAN? It's obvious to you, then, without me explaining it, that last weekend's event was going in precisely that direction.

I was kind of on the end of a long table. Seated near me was one young couple, but my seatmate on the other side never showed up. Hmm. An empty seat already precludes one half of the conversation options. Past the vast gulf of the empty seat was another couple; after a brief hello, they got chatting to the people on the opposite end of the table, and turned to face them or each other. So I did my best with the people I was seated near, starting with something in common, our mutual friends. They smiled politely, and answered my questions, but they did not offer anything in return, nor did they ask me anything. After a respectable amount of time had passed, I sat back to allow for the customary polite pause (also to gather my arsenal of other possible conversation starters). They filled it by speaking to one another a little in low tones, but mostly just looking around. When the gap got to the point of awkwardness, I started again, but again came up against a brick wall. The ball never bounced back in my direction and I sat there like an obnoxious puppy just waiting for someone to pick it up and throw it.*

Since the people I was so unsuccessfully trying to relate to seemed pleasant enough, my usual tactic kicked in. Obviously it must be my fault.

I don't know if this is a human trait, a feminine trait, or one uniquely embarrassingly mine alone, but I tend to blame myself for social catastrophes. Maybe I'm being annoying. Maybe I'm not interesting enough. Perhaps I smell like the garlic bread that was offered for hors d'oeuvres. I'm weird. My face is communicating unfriendliness. I've accidentally said the magical word that released a cone of silence over the person I'm talking to! And so on.

If you have ever been in this dark pit of social despair, you will know the feeling. In your desire to communicate warmth and friendliness, you sit there with what you hope is a gentle yet winning smile, meant to suggest that you are up for conversation but will definitely not glom on to anyone like a barnacle. Rather, you will preserve a healthy, polite distance. What's more, you are hoping to catch the friendly glance of anyone as an entree into the conversation, but you don't want to stare outright because that would be weird.

All up, that is a lot to communicate with a facial expression that's barely there. And of course, after about ten minutes of this, you have a visage-related existential crisis. You forget how to smile at all and start to wonder if you are grinning like a homicidal psychopath, not only scaring anyone away from you currently but also scarring them with an image that will later haunt their dreams. 

Yeah. So that was my position after about half an hour of failed mingling. I began to think despairingly of how many more hours of this I would have to endure, and contemplated shrinking myself down, Antman-style, and making an escape.

The only alternative was to bridge the gaping void of the empty seat to my right and reach across in decidedly uncool fashion to leap into the smallest possible chance of a segue with the other couple. If one of them so much as blinked in my direction, I was going to do it. My chance came, and it was awkward -- and then suddenly we were talking about all sorts of things, and she and I had heaps in common, and her husband was a dear, and we nattered delightfully about subjects both light and heavy, and at the end of the night she gave me her contact details and a hug.


The difference couldn't have been more defined, but it's only today that I worked it out fully in a way that makes sense. I wasn't being a socially awkward penguin, and neither were they, particularly. Rather, they just couldn't be bothered. And -- here is where the lightbulb binged into blinding, obvious light -- that has nothing to do with me. Yes, if I was rich or glamorous or a celebrity, maybe they would have been bothered, but I don't have to feel bad about their inability to try. The difference between the dead conversation and the living interaction was that in the latter, both parties were willing.

Why am I saying all of this in an excessively-long blog post? Perhaps just as a reminder to myself and to you that all any of us can do is our best. Communicate friendliness and warmth without being creepy. If it doesn't go anywhere, it's not necessarily your fault. And who knows what backstory the other person is dragging along with them? Don't feel bad if the social engagement comes to an awkward, screeching halt. It takes two to... convo.

*so many cliched (and mixed) metaphors! Woo. Go me!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Me and yo(u)ni:

Of all the schoolday feelings and memories, the one it seems I'll never outgrow is that thrilling sense of fresh, bright anticipation at the beginning of a new school year. I'm a dorky little nerd for admitting it, but one of the most exciting things about the new beginning was shopping for fresh school supplies. Brand new, whittled to a perfect point pencils. Notebooks fat with crisp unblemished paper. Erasers without grey smudges and the corners all worn off. Lunchboxes shiny, with no dings or revolting tattered name labels -- and all of it new, clean, and smelling good.

Don't judge me for this obsession; it is an inherited trait. My mother felt -- feels -- exactly the same way. And just as the feeling's never quite worn off for her, it's stayed with me, too. I can't help it. The start of school and the assortment of fresh supplies conjures up the same response as the first day of January, or the opening page of a blank journal. The possibilities! The newness!

I'm there again now at the beginning of semester 1, 2013. If all goes according to plan (and we all know that often it doesn't), I should be finishing my five years of tertiary education (I can't believe it's been that long) this time next year. It will be exciting to have it done, but I'm in no hurry because school still gives me that same giddy eight-year-old feeling. I'm taking the part-time route with my postgrad studies, doing two subjects a semester. I am subject-greedy and would love to do more, but if I put the recommended hours into each subject (again, how often does that happen?), then it's supposed to be a 24 to 30 hour a week investment, even with just two subjects. So I'd better stick with that, I think.

This semester, my classes are Critical & Creative Writing Through Literature and Contemporary Literature, both of which are fairly self-explanatory I think. The little pile of books there represents a handful of the set texts for these classes. There are more, but I am doling the buying out like a good little budgeting person. Mostly, I'm excited about them. I am frankly blah about the idea of reading The Turn of the Screw, since it's a ghost story/psychological mindmaze. But it's short, so I'll get it over and done with quickly, and I'll read carefully so I don't have to read it twice. I finished The Driver's Seat today, which left me with a disturbing but oddly mesmerising aftertaste. I can see why it was set as a text, but it definitely feels like the sort of thing I'd read only because Uni Made Me Do It. I am currently immersed in The Princess Bride, which is of course brilliant. I keep forgetting I am meant to actually be studying the book instead of just reading and laughing.

One of the assignments for the critical & creative writing class calls for students to do a 'textual intervention' on either The Princess Bride (yes) or The Turn of the Screw (no). Suggestions include (and I'm quoting here from the course in abridged form):
  1. Interviewing one or more minor characters from either novel, to gain their perspective on the events of the story.
  2. Explore how a changed setting would affect the narrative and style of the story—e.g. how would the fairy-tale elements of The Princess Bride work if set in Tasmania?
  3. Explore how changing characters would affect the story: imagine if in The Turn of the Screw, the governess was a male tutor, or the children were much older.
  4. Consider how you would transform a scene or two into a stage play. 
Isn't that the coolest essay prompt ever? I'm going to have fun with this one.

Enough about Danielle's Thrilling Postgrad Adventures. What about you? Whether formally or informally, what are you learning lately?

/nerd out.
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