Monday, June 25, 2007

can you feel it?

I have been stuck in this absurd wave of synchronicity for the last few days.

The number of times the universe has read my mind (and vice versa) has blown all statistics apart: friends I speak to read my thoughts and speak them out loud, or simply add to what I was thinking, without me having mentioned what it was; I am suddenly privy to other people's thoughts too; people I think of appear instantaneously (even if I haven't seen them or heard from them in a year); the books I want to read are simply being sent to me by various friends from all over the world without me having asked for them; paradigm shifts are falling on (and straight into) my head with the frequency and impact of large hail stones (yes, the weather, she seems to be rather upset too... although the lightning-quick changes from rain to sunshine are bringing along some of the most brilliant rainbows I have ever seen); and as I emerge from sleep, poems come rolling off my tongue in languages I barely speak. And not once. Or twice. Constantly.

Anyway, it turns out it's all due to this. Can you feel it too?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

lucky (second) hand

Witness this small thrifting miracle (slightly out of season, but still). I have dreamt of having one of these traditional German candle pyramids on the Christmas table ever since first laying eyes on them sometime in the 1980's (in Bern, was it? or in Innsbruck?). They are soooo lovely. And sooooo expensive! Not this one though: it was staring at me for five full days from the window of our local Emmaus thriftstore (only open on Saturday afternoon, grrrrr!), and it then patiently waited for me to show up on Saturday (I was planning to queue in front of the store until it opened but as usual only managed to get there just before closing-time), and became ours for the very reasonable sum of 3 euros. Some bits have fallen off and will have to be glued back on, and baby Jesus (a girl, obviously) looks a bit like a snowman with a top hat, but you don't hear me complaining. In fact, I smile every time I look at it.

Another piece of second-hand good luck this week: I finally managed to locate someone who is willing to sell me their entire set of Kiddybips size S. Yes, we plan to travel the cotton road with this little one! And that's one item off my humongous list ("Since it would take us a little over a year to complete this list, and since the baby is coming in about 8 weeks, I think we might have to set some priorities", said Marc philosophically). So, only 243 items to go...

Marc left today; he'll be gone ten days and I miss him already. I don't think we've ever had ten days without any contact. Although we've agreed to think very hard about each other every day at 9:30 pm. Believe it or not, this makes all the difference. When Marc told Isabelle this morning that he was going to be gone for ten days and he wouldn't be able to phone her because there'd be no phone she said: 'Sure you can, pappa, just use your hand, like I do!' She truly gets it. It only took us what? thirty odd years? to figure it out...

Monday, June 11, 2007

one more mosquito

This is one of the loveliest children's books ever, remarkable for a number of reasons. It's a series of short (some very short) stories about a little girl's (Irah) encounters with various beasties. The illustrations are exquisite, and the text is even better: it's touchingly poetic and the way in which it addresses children's emotions, in an understated indirect way, is very moving.

Then there is of course the animals Irah meets: not your regular cow, sheep, dog, chicken, lion, tiger or parrot. They are respectively: a mosquito, a worm, a butterfly, a jellyfish, a fox and an owl.

But the most remarkable thing about this book is the way in which the consciousness of the animals, and their dialogue with Irah, is portrayed. I don't think I ever noticed before the extent to which animals in children's books are anthropomorhized (that's not a even a word...) and given a secondary role. They seem to often be no more than projections of human thought, behaviour and emotion. A mirror, a reflection of the human protagonist. But not in this book. My favourite is the one where Irah finds a jellyfish on the beach and eventually carries it in her bucket back to the sea.

While she wonders whether the jellyfish is cold, asleep, homesick, the jellyfish is only thinking water, water, waiting, sand, water, deeper, water. The beautiful thing is that they really are talking to each other, there is true communication here, albeit without words. And with the jellyfish constantly reminding Irah that her concepts do not translate directly into its world.

It's this fine-tuned dialogue between two beings, two worlds, two languages. It's Luce Irigaray, for children. It's breathtaking.


There are many mosquitoes in our neighbourhood. In particular at the back of the house, where the gardens are, and where our bedroom faces, with the big balcony doors which remain open night and day in the summer to compensate for the unbearable heat of sleeping under a flat roof. The first summer we spent in the house (seems like a lifetime, but really only three years ago), when Isabelle was just 5 months old, Marc walked around most nights beating the various walls of the bedroom with one of my slippers. It did not seem to bother him or me (or her). The second year, I was sitting on the bed one late afternoon when I caught Isabelle looking at Marc smashing some mosquito to smithereens, and I suddenly thought: I am watching my daughter watching her father killing an insect for no reason other than that it buzzed around his head once or twice approximately 14 hours ago.

Since then, not one drop of mosquito blood has been shed in this house, and we sleep the summers away under mosquito nets. Loving every minute (it's a bit like a little house, says Isabelle, it's a bit like camping, says Marc, it feels like summer, says I).

Our most recent acquisition, the Majestic, is memorable for being able to comfortably fit around our absurdly sized bed (240 by 200). This is a great improvement on all the previous systems where some of us (those with the big no-killing ideas) slept under the mosquito net, while others (those with no big ideas but with jobs they had to go to every morning) were stuck sleeping outside the net, and being visited by a bunch of very frustrated mosquitoes (who could see Isabelle, smell Isabelle, but not get to Isabelle). So the Majestic is a good thing.

And then some weeks ago, I read this article. Ten grown men spending months of their energy and time figuring out a way not to kill even one ant. Such a happy, hopeful, smiling thought!


If it continues like this we are going to have to hire fieldhands to help us harvest our two (yes: TWO) balcony strawberry plants. It's insane! Every day there is at least a kilo more that's ready to be picked... Anybody in for some lovely sun-drenched strawberries?

Friday, June 08, 2007

the story of the old Jew from Odessa

My grand-father often tells this anecdote about an old Jew who lived in Odessa at the turn of the century (my grand-father, being himself an old Jew from Char'kov, holds the prerogative of telling stories about old Jews). Anyway, this old Jew had discovered all by himself Newton's laws of thermodynamics. Since he only spoke Yiddish, he did not know that Newton had in fact come up with these laws some years before him. When finally told, he was devastated.

I heard this story often when growing up, and I heard it again on our recent visit to Moscow. Each time I hear it, and once I get over the involuntary chuckle produced by the glee with which my grand-father tells the story, I ask myself the same question: why would this man be devastated? Clearly, it has something to do with whether the idea was 'his' or not 'his'.

The importance of the originality of thought. A big thing in the world we live in, and particularly in academia.

According to this view, the impact of thought lies not simply in what is thought, but also very much in who is thinking. The thinker and the thought together form the basic atomic unit of academic tradition, of science, of knowledge.

During my short career as an academic researcher, I remember the agonies I suffered as a result of this system. The constant pressure to come up with 'new ideas', the dread once you had a good idea that you might accidentally stumble on someone else, somewhere else, in some long-forgotten or hidden article, who had already had 'your' good idea. Which would of course instantaneously make your own thinking achievement null. The fear also that as a result of so much reading, you might accidentally have an idea which felt like it was yours, but was in fact simply your brain feeding back to you what you had fed it last week. Which in turn would make you a fraud.

Surely, this type of system is bound to lead to misery and cheating, surely it is bound to lead to blindness too. Once the thinker becomes dependent on the recognition of 'his' or 'her' thought, how can thought be free to move and evolve? But never mind the disastrous effects we are all familiar with, the worst of it is: it takes away all the fun of thinking.

And to be very honest, I just never quite understood it. Just like I do not understand the story of the old Jew from Odessa. Not really, not deep down.

I was telling the anecdote today to some of my students (I know, I know, I'm still sort of hanging around academia, but I like to think of myself as a very small grain of sand in the machine, and while teaching my students how to 'write clearly' in class, I spend all the breaks secretly attempting to make them into academic anarchists). And one of them said, 'had he known about Newton, the old Jew could just have read about it, and saved himself a lot of time. The result would have been the same.' And there it is. Right on the money. The result would have been the same. Maybe it is true, about the result. But whatever happened to the process? How can the knowledge acquired through reading a book ever be compared to the knowledge resulting from a process of years of thinking? Because only the result matters. How can this old Jew ever be seen as less of an original thinker than Newton? Because only the timing of the result matters. And when did thought, and knowledge, become equated with a random fixed stage in its development, i.e. the so-called result? On a black, black day, that's when.

I am no longer an academic researcher. And in the last few years, I have slowly but surely recaptured much of my joy in thought. I often fail to quote my sources, not out of rebellion but simply because my mind no longer makes the effort to record them. I just don't know where I get stuff. I don't know whether it came from me, or from you, or from some book I read. And I couldn't care less. I am delighted if you take my thoughts and makes them yours. They are bound to travel an entirely different path in your mind.

And if I ever have a good idea, and it then turns out some Newton already had this idea, either last week or many centuries ago, well, that just makes me happy. Both for myself and for the Newton in question. For the fun we both had. For our learning process.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007