If academia was a sport: the press conference

“So, you’ve fallen in the latest Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings, do you think that will effect your ability to recruit the top ATAR students next year?”

“Look, we acknowledge that we have fallen in those rankings but you have to take into consideration the particular measurements they use. Like all rankings they place weight on some areas and not others…we’ll look at the numbers once we get them in full and address any concerns that may be there.”

“Are you worried you will lose your high flyers?”

“No, not at all. We have a number of ECRs who are performing well at B and C level. And what pleases me is that they’re cross-disciplinary in their approach. They keep an open mind and that in turn gives the University options, it is beneficial for the broader good.”

“So you’re looking at the future, you’re not convinced you’re going to keep hold of your stars?”

“That’s not what I said. I have no doubt that our “stars”, as you put it, have as much faith in what they are doing here as I have. Sure, we have a few out on sabbatical at the moment but that is part of the tradition of this institution and to do without it would be damaging to this institution, and to academia in general. I don’t see that as a negative, I think anyone who did would have to question their commitment to scholarship.”

“You’re midway through your term as DVC, how would you rate your performance?”

“I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess, that’s not for me to gauge. Like all academics, you do at times feel fraudulent, but that comes with the territory. The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. If you think you know it all, you’re obviously not meant for this environment.”

“What do you say to claims that your University is losing its appeal?”

“I am not sure what you mean by “appeal”, it’s not a term I would use when talking about higher education or scholarship in general but I know you need an answer so I would say that it’s not a concern. We’re still here. Cancer still needs to be cured.”

After all this time

Stack has been moved from server to server, template to template, cared for lovingly and ultimately, somewhat ignored. I am very glad it is still here in some way, even though it ceases to serve the purpose it once did.

If anyone is interested, I am trying to blog my research proposal, which will hopefully turn into my PhD. It’s about libraries, books and design. Start at the bottom of the page.

Cutting my grass

I like my lawn neat.

I like to do the edges and I don’t mind doing the verge. In the country everyone mows their own verge because the Council will never do it. In the city no one does their verge, because if they did the Council would never do it.

My father likes his grass tidy, as do my brothers. Hours are spent in our yards. We try to resist the urge to cut the lawn short. Too short and it gets burned, bald and brown. This urge has to be balanced with the displeasure of cutting the grass and not having it look mown. We can’t give our lawns a trim, we have to cut.

I learned how to clean a spark plug from my brother. I learned how to clean out the fuel pipe from another brother. I learned from my father how to angle a whipper snipper just right to get the edges. When I bought my own house my grass just had to be cut, no matter the heat. Lawn-mowing sweat is like no other. You become covered in dust and grass that sticks to you tight, it gets in everywhere. I used to like to walk inside and see my face filthy in the mirror. I had done a good job. If I was looking like this the lawn would be looking smart.

Our family drive to keep our lawns short is tempered by our difficult relationship with the tools. Mowers never start. Whipper snippers are no better. I’ve worn blisters on my hands wrenching starter cords over and over. It’s as if there is something in our chemistry that snuffs out spark plugs. We swap and change our mowers, passing around the ones that work, cursing the ones that won’t. We walk them through the streets of our small town like prams. My father holds the record: he walked two mowers from my house to his with a whipper snipper balanced across both.

When I had to leave my little house with the big lawn and move back to the city I was imprisoned in a house with no yard. A small courtyard was all I had, two metres by three metres and covered in stones. I was hemmed in.

I went into denial. I didn’t miss losing my weekends to a recalcitrant mower and a haughty whipper snipper. Not at all. I almost forgot about them. Yards and lawns and gardens didn’t exist anymore, not in my world.

Until we moved house. A big three bedroom Federation with a front and back yard. Grass. Long and looking for attention. We were here two weeks and I went and bought myself a mower. I dug out my boots and my yard hat and put on some old shorts. The mower started first go. I had to resist flicking the blades down to the lowest level. After all this time I knew I had to take it easy, not rush in. The lawn was long, it wouldn’t take to being shorn low. I had to be patient.

I did the back, I did the front. I stopped the mower and stood there with my hands on my hips. The verge was looking untidy. Surely just this once won’t hurt. The Council won’t notice.

The catch

Fishy fishyThe farm was at the end of a dirt road that had deep drains gouged on either side. We crossed three cattle grids to get to the house, on the steep bank of the river.

A single piece of fine wire roped off the roads, keeping the cattle in their place. When I decided to take my bike off the dirt road and into the paddock I found myself on the ground, strong-armed off my bike by the almost invisible force of the single wire. The bike lay across it. I grabbed the handle bar and felt a deep throbbing into my body. Electricity. I left the bike and ran back to the house.

My parents were friends with their parents and we went there on weekends sometimes and stayed overnight. We loved the sloppy joes made by their American mother – mince cooked in tomato sauce and served on white bread – and we loved the river. It was wide and made no discernible movement toward the sea, 50 kilometres away by river, less if you drove. We thought it must be deep. We wouldn’t swim in it, we didn’t know what might be in there. I saw my legs kicking and swirling with kilometres of water underneath, nipped by catfish and eels.

My brother and I fancied we’d catch something in there. The river was so big and so full of possibility. I got the feeling my father never really liked fishing, or perhaps it was just that he didn’t like fishing with his five kids in tow. When we got the chance to fish at the farm it was special. We had once caught a crab and a bream off a small wharf at Ballina. My brother caught a catfish at a local creek. We talked about these catches for months. This river would surely deliver us something that would outdo these.

We went to a part of the bank that was flatter than most. Us kids had hand lines and they didn’t really work through the grass and rocks at the side of the river. We moaned about needing a boat but I knew if we had one I would be nervous about it tipping over. My father had a long beach rod. It was maroon with little loops of yellow along its length. There were two big round handles on the simple reel, neat and perfect wooden mushrooms.

The meal we were going to eat when we caught our fish! Mum was going to be surprised when we bought the fish back. Dad would be happy and we’d go fishing again after he saw what we could catch. We threw our lines out and dragged them back in almost immediately. Got snags. Had some of the food packed in the picnic basket. Got no bites.

Until something bit Dad’s line. We could see the rod bending right over, the line running off the reel really fast. It must be HUGE. Dad struggled with the reel and wound it and wound it and bent the rod from this side to that side and then flung the rod back violently behind his head. The catch arched up and sailed through the air and back onto the bank, some way up the hill behind us. We ran to where it landed to see what it was. An eel was flinging itself around in the long grass. It was almost green and had some spots near its tail and sort of wings that ran along its body. It was the ugliest thing I had ever seen.

Originally posted to Pool as part of the Rivers project.

This piece was recorded and broadcast by ABC Radio National.

Waves of anxiety

This is a small, surfing town. Groups of teenage girls and boys wander from the beach to the convenience store, hanging around, girls sometimes in only bikinis, boys without shirts. I often catch myself marvelling at the boys’ bodies. The effortless muscle, lean and supple. I rarely went to the beach when I lived here as a teenager. It is pretty obvious why: it’s the body thing. And I was skinny. Effortlessly so. I didn’t know this at the time but putting in so much effort now for little result makes me realise how good I had it. I wasn’t comfortable in swimwear and I was frankly a little scared of the girls who did hang out on the beach. I had read bits of Puberty Blues and I was pretty sure these girls were the same and I wasn’t having a bar of it.

I gave up surfing when my family moved here, in the 80s. I had tried for a number of years to surf when we lived further north. Mum and Dad would fill up the Kombi and drive us to Byron Bay every weekend. I really loved surfing at the Pass. On good days the waves rolled gently for miles down the beach. When the tide was full they didn’t come straight into the beach but rather went alongside it. On those days I could catch a wave and have it take me softly along, without much speed or violence, until I could ease myself off it down the beach. Paddling back wasn’t too much of a chore. I lost my mother’s signet ring at that beach. I’ve never forgiven myself for it.

When we moved here I was 13. I lost all my confidence in the water. I lost interest in surfing because my fear didn’t allow me to continue. It’s come as a surprise then having moved back here, I have granted myself a little window of interest again. My son has become fixated on surfing. He badgered my brother for a board, knowing he had four or five of them lined up in his front room. They stand there like boards in a surf shop. As a child my brother would have wet himself with excitement if he knew one day he would grow up to have his own RACK of surfboards. The little pieces of wood that stand perpendicular to the wall between the boards are even wrapped in foam to protect the fibreglass.

On the second last day of the school term my brother brought learner’s softboards around to our house in his newly-purchased 1969 Ford Galaxie. I couldn’t believe he bought the car, and from e-Bay no less, but I secretly admire his ability to ignore practicality for the sake of owning such a incredible thing. On the night of the school Christmas carols he picked up Dash and I and we rode along with his wife and their three kids in this hulking, low, pale blue beast as he crawled it through the streets. It’s so big it has the unearthly air of a train. My brother borrowed the boards from the high school so Dash could spend some time learning to surf over the holidays. There is one short red board, for Lou, and a long, blue board, for me. One day I had mentioned that I might like to give surfing a go again when the waves were small and rolling. My brother didn’t forget I had said it. I had fantasies of catching waves in a clear ocean on a day when there is no breeze. I conveniently forgot there would be 50 other people trying to do the same thing, and they could actually surf.

Once Dash has an idea in his head he doesn’t allow anything else to jostle with it, he spends all his time thinking about that idea and verbalising the thoughts most of us keep in our heads. It drives me crazy. Surfing is his current idea and until I took him out on that board he wasn’t going to shut up. As soon as my brother delivered the boards he wanted to go. I tried to explain it was too late, the morning would be best. I promised to take him the next day. This didn’t really placate him but the fact that it was soon going to be dark meant he couldn’t really argue anymore.

The next day I packed his board into the car, sliding it from the boot, through the back and in between the front two seats. We went off to the headland to check the best place to get into the water. It was pretty windy at home and remembering that as a child we spent many hours agonising over wind, hoping for still days, I knew that the beach was probably going to be un-surfable for a small, skinny boy of six and his overweight mother. The tide was also at its peak. The waves would be full and lacking sufficient, even break to provide a satisfying, safe ride. When we got onto the beach my fears were confirmed. The wind lashed us from the north-east and the waves were scraping at the beach from various directions. This was not a good day for surfing, we should come back later. He wasn’t having this. I saw him tear up. I wasn’t going in the water, it would be a disaster. I told him we’d come back in a couple of hours, when the tide had gone out a bit. I promise. Somehow I managed to get him back in the car.

Of course, two hours barely made any difference and the waves were pretty much useless for learning to surf. He caught two or three, me pushing him onto the waves as they came through, and promptly the nose of the board dived down and he slid, legs splayed on each side of the board, off and under the water. This put the fear into him. He refused to come out again and stood in the shore break, battling to keep hold of the board.

The next time we went down to the beach wit both the boards and he did the same thing. He stood next to the board and wrestled with it as waves broke just ahead of him. I tried to get him to paddle out but he was not doing it.

I shouldn’t point too much at his fear, it took me an age to get the board into the water. When we first got to the beach we went towards the spot where there were a lot of surfers. Most of them were on long boards as the waves were small and full-ish but had a good form. They were graceful on the waves. Some of them would walk up to the end of the board and back as they rode just below the crest. The blokes on shorter boards would smack their rides up and down trying to generate some kind of speed. It was not one of those days. It was a day for longer, slower boards. Just the kind of day I had wanted.

There was no way I was going out there. All it would take was for me to break one of the rules and I would be done for. I also knew my limitations. I hadn’t surfed for more than twenty years. I took Dash up to another corner of the beach where there were practically no waves and no other surfers. There was a bloke in the water having trouble balancing on his expensive-looking board and I didn’t really want to have people looking at me in the way I was looking at him right now.

Putting the board in the water felt ok. I leaned on either side and pushed it through the white foam. A whole heap of physical memories came back. They took me by surprise. I heaved my bulk onto the board that had looked well wide enough in the shed but now felt narrow. I was trying to balance a sausage on a pin. I paddled and immediately realised how strenuous paddling can be. When you watch a bunch of surfers meander about in the water beneath the headland it all looks so easy. The effort felt good. I paddled out until I felt I probably couldn’t stand. My boobs pressed hard against the board and it hurt. I tried to lift my upper body off the board to give them some space but trying to keep your shoulders elevated with several kilos of fun bag strapped to them while laying on a slippery board is not easy. I sat up on the board, almost involuntarily. Where did that come from? It just felt like the obvious thing to do. I had to work hard with my legs to stay balanced. I swirled them around underneath myself in small circles, working to keep everything the right way up.

I knew the waves weren’t really there for catching but I didn’t honestly want to catch them as I didn’t know what I would do when I did. I need to work on paddling and balance. In the end I just had to give it a go. I paddled hard trying to catch some but they were too full, not close enough to breaking. I could hear Dash saying “Go Mum, go Mum” as I worked my arms hard through the water. I turned the board around and waited. Finally. One came through that I could catch, even if it was only going to give me a short ride. I paddled hard, hard, hard, and the board was moving at the speed of the wave. I felt the wave take over. I was on it. I immediately grabbed the rails and made to stand up but thought better of it. I focused on not nose-diving the board and managed to stay on it. I landed on the sand, beaching myself, as it were, but I hadn’t fallen off. I looked up and my partner was sitting on the beach laughing. I started laughing. I picked the board up and headed back out and I didn’t care who was watching.

The perfect machine

As part of my quest to get back on the football field next season I have returned to the classes in the surfclub or what is known locally as ‘Block-Chi’. (The classes are run by a bloke nicknamed ‘Blockhead’, don’t ask me why they’re called ‘Chi’ because they are far more violent than any idea of Tai-Chi I have). I attempted the classes last year and ended up in this. This time I have eased into it with a lot of prepartory swimming and stationary bike work. This got my fitness to a decent level before I even tried to approach the dance-floor of doom that is Block-Chi.

A few weeks ago Block was showing me how to use the rowing machine. He felt that I had been ‘bludging’, which is probably true. I walked in and he was stretching his legs on the bar, his left leg well above the horizontal with his head resting on his knee.

“Hey Block”
“GEORGIE! Rowing machine. 200. First 100, 35. Second 50, 38. Last 50, you can wind it back a bit.”

I just looked at him incredulously and absent-mindedly rubbed my pectoral muscle.

“Hang, on I’ll show you.”

He guided me down the hall toward the ancient, rusting gym equipment.

“Flexing at me are ya? Feeling ya muscles?” He laughed at how ridiculous this obviously was and the joke he made.

He walked just behind me. I could tell he had already worked up a sweat from the heat he was emanating.

“Pull in yer guts. C’mon” he said softly. I tried to pull the guts in.

“Stick yer tits out. Don’t be afraid a havin’ big tits.” He touched me lightly between the shoulder blades. “We’re gonna work at getting rid of THAT”. He was referring to the stoop in my back, developed over years of slouching to hide, yes, big tits.

He continued, without waiting for any kind of disagreement from me.

“C’mon, I know what yer doin’. What all women do. Hiding. Always checkin’ if everythin is alright. Now get on the machine”.

He had seen right through me. Seen right through the tights that were not skin tight and always black. Seen past the long, fitted singlets that I wear under everything to smooth out the creases and hide the muffin top. He has seen through my discomfort with women fitter and leaner than me, even though they are significantly older and have had more children. Women like his wife who watched me in the mirror last week as I laboured through 200 on the rowing machine. She laid on a bench and lifted weights at a measured and disciplined speed. I wasn’t scared or worried about her. I just wondered why she can look the way she does and I look like I do. A barrel on fat legs. She is always friendly towards me and never misses a chance to encourage me. She calls me ‘Darlin’. I suspect she doesn’t remember my name. Her gaze made sure I didn’t quit early even though I knew she couldn’t possibly be counting.

I sat down and Block squatted next to me.

“Grab the handles and pull. Go ON”.

I pulled it with more of a struggle than I expected.

“Ugh. That’s heavier than last week”.

He got up and adjusted something and the tension eased off a bit. I pulled the handle and began sliding backward and forward on the little seat a few times while he observed.

“Don’t hit yourself in your guts. It’s in the front part of the foot, getting yer arse back and forward. Use your legs”. He stood and watched a couple more pulls. “This machine is perfect,” he said as if he were looking at a Ferrari rather than an old rower that has seen better days, “perfect for taking you wherever you want to be”. I believed him.

“200, don’t go over 35”. Something made him revise down his estimation of my ability. “And don’t slack off. By the time you come out of here I want to see you red in the face, puffing and blowing”.

I go through my 200. I imagine this machine taking me where I want to be, back on to the field. I imagine myself using the guile gained through 20 plus years of football to fool women half my age. I imagine the ball coming off my foot and curling into the top corner of the net. I get to the end of the 200 and I can’t imagine any more, only focus on my face in the mirror above the machine. I am red and breathing hard, grimacing on each pull but I feel ok. Slightly dizzy but not nauseous. I guess this is probably enough.

After the rowing I walked out of the small gym to the large room with the dancefloor, had a sip of my water and tried to catch my breath before Blockhead saw I was finished and gave me more orders. The rest of the class were skipping, hard, to Jet’s Cold Hard B***h. Due to my stress fracture I can’t skip or do any of the more bouncy routines Block takes us through. I run up and down the stairs or I spend a lot of time marching up and down on the spot, lifting my knees high and pumping my arms into the air. I’ve now started to use weights while doing this. I’m sure people who come to the class and haven’t seen me before must think I’m some dork and a fat one at that. I don’t give a shit about people like that. We’re all at the same level in Block’s class. There is no one who is better than anyone else, we all get the same treatment: a stern talking to when we’re bludging and a gentle ‘good girl’ when we’re trying, even if we’re getting it wrong. Small, genuine mistakes are forgiven, laziness is never tolerated.

I left class that night feeling strangely deflated. I didn’t bounce out the door feeling like I could jog home. I felt like someone had given me a firm but gentle punch to guts. I felt found out. The novelty of the class had been punctured, I looked ahead and saw only months of hard work.

HE’S a fan

Sticker on car at Toormina

Sticker on car at Toormina

I’ve been tooling about, trying to write something about football and my (perhaps very misguided) decision to get myself fit so I can get back on the field next season. As part of this I’ve been thinking about why I like football, and sport in general, so much and why not many people I know can understand this. Of course, there are men I know who totally get football and they fully understand why I like it, even while questioning, I suspect, whether a woman can really get football. There are a whole lot of others though who are openly confused and slightly put out by my obsession and I am continually feeling apologetic for allowing something as barbaric as sport play a large part of my life. The message is: in the scheme of things sport should be allowed to provide only a small amount of meaning to one’s life. It is merely a set of games intended to amuse.

I feel apologetic about my sport but at the same time I feel inferior in my obsession, when compared to men. I feel I need to make up for being a woman by taking it very seriously. I need to be sure of my facts and always admit when wrong. I never try to make out I know more than I do because I suspect I will always be found out. (However, I am not afraid of telling a bloke he doesn’t know what he is talking about and once got into a mild argument with a man at the Spanish Club in Sydney over how much Chelsea paid for Chris Sutton when he moved from Blackburn. It was 10 million, I was right).

The other day I read a review of two books about football fans and noticed this:

“For me, the study of diehard fans is essentially about men. I don’t mean that women’s stories are uninteresting, or that their fandom is any less valid…But there is a way that men support their clubs that speaks more powerfully to their behaviour in other spheres.”

At first I thought, what tosh, women can be just as loony as men! Of course they can be serious fans. Of course their fandom speaks volumes about the rest of their lives!  A MAN has written the review hasn’t he? I started thinking about it and thought perhaps there was a bit of truth in that. I love football, I love my various teams, from the local club to the overseas club I follow  but if they lose, my life will not be ruined. I do not fall into a deep depression. I get annoyed, yes, but I am usually distracted by other things closer to home soon enough. Like the dishes. Or ironing the school shirts. I was mightily pissed off when we lost the Ashes and I could appreciate the ‘cultural’ significance of it and enjoyed the tactical discussion of each Test but I was not about to allow some gloating Poms to ruin my day. (And besides, the Australian cricket team is in a ‘rebuilding’ phase, just like our rugby team, so these losses are feeding future triumphs). I enjoyed watching the Ashes while it was on but when it was finished I didn’t mourn the loss or the end of the series.

I don’t know whether I allow myself to be distracted because it provides a defense against sport-induced depression or because I know it just DOESN’T REALLY MATTER. Anecdotal evidence gathered through discussion with a very small amount of women points to a prevailing opinion that sport can be interesting and that it plays an important if somewhat over-emphasised role in society but that, as a football manager might say, at the end of the day, there are much larger things in life. (I could compare its role and importance to art or literature here but I am not going to do that right at this point in time because I will be here for a long time and I want to post this today). Women are fans, they enjoy football and can be fanatical but is there something in them that doesn’t allow them to get to the same point as men, simply by virtue of them being women or because sport doesn’t act as an extension of their role in society or how they see themselves?

I can’t really provide any answers to that right now but I can try to put my finger on how I like to see my obsession with football: as a semi-intellectual engagement with a seemingly meaningless but major part of our culture. Football, (and sport), is kind of like this:

“Football is the love of form. A spectacle that scarcely leaves a trace in the memory and does not enrich or impoverish knowledge. This is its appeal : it is exciting and empty.”
Mario Vargas Llosa

Maybe I like it precisely because it DOESN’T mean anything.

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