Heatwaves and macho spaces
Reflections on whether its at all possible to "win" the career game without playing it. And some comments on the pump.
Some intense days of a freakishly hot Berlin summer are behind us and the rats are starting to look a little bit less like life is not worth living. And I almost think Hermann has forgiven me for the baths I tried to give him hoping it would cool him down. Facetious rat analysis aside, there is something quite scary about these temperatures, knowing that each summer it’s going to get just that little bit worse.
I was googling “eco-friendly air conditioning alternatives” just to see what the nerds are coming up with for a point in time when Berlin will be as hot as Canberra (that’s apparently 50 years away). I hope they are working hard on this, because it is a Big Deal. But then there are a lot of Big Deals that the nerds must be very busy with -- they might be quite overwhelmed as it is. Maybe I should email them pictures of my sad rats as motivation.
“Breaking!” screams a tweet from The Independent. “The world is woefully unprepared for the risk of life-decimating volcanic activity,” (or something to that effect). Well. I mean, first of all. Is that Breaking News? The World is Woefully Unprepared for a lot of Things. It already shut down for two whole years over a stupid virus (as in, a stupid virus that posed a very real threat to a lot of lives, obviously), completely underestimated the threat of populism, and orange-faced presidents and a horrible gnome-faced man in the Kremlin. We underestimate a lot of things, really. It’s what we do. That, and overthink the things that don’t matter.
I don’t know. The solution is obviously to ignore all these problems and focus on small wins, like finally crossing the 50kg mark on your clean and jerk after months of going down deep and dark questioning tunnels questioning everything you ever knew about how to move a barbell swiftly from your thigh to your shoulders, and building up a back muscle infrastructure along the way.
“But why would I want to do that?” This is a question that has actually come up a lot, and one that I don’t really have an answer to. Most recently one of the older guys in my building, who wears a flap cap and compliments me on my mastery of Bach (cool!), but also seems to be a bit weirded out about how fond I am of carrying Eric around. Eric is my 15kg slam ball.
I’ve been neglecting him, lately, just as I’ve been neglecting my explosive strength (the most fun of all the strengths) and fast twitch muscles in favour of an astonishing dull hypertrophy-focused programme my training buddy wanted us to do that is supposed to make our muscles “pop!”. Is this really what I want? I have no idea. They are popping a lot as it is, according to an increasing influx of comments.
Anyway, back to flap cap man.
”Why would you want to build more muscle?” he asked. “I don’t know,” was my response. “But if anyone is giving you trouble, you know who to call”.
Maybe flap cap man doesn’t realise that resistance training dramatically offsets osteoporosis in women and has a lot of other health and longevity benefits. Should I have explained this to him? Maybe, but the truth is I find that most social interactions are improved slightly if you leave them communicating very little except that you’re a dangerous person. It makes people more polite and less likely to offer unsolicited comments about your body.
On this note, it has come to my attention that I might need a bit more help on the communication side, both professionally and personally. So I have sought guidance. Now I know that when called upon with a question that challenges me, I have a tendency to break eye contact, sigh loudly, and waffle. I can see how this might not come across well.
The thing is I never wanted to be the kind of journalist who cares more about their presentation skills than their work. That I kind of get from my father.
“Filed more memos than he did stories,” he once said of a former colleague who went on to be a hotshot lecturer. Newsrooms can be awash with them. These talkers. They talk so much and expect you to nod in awe and wonder, especially if you are female. A friend of mine stuck at a famously “boys club” newspaper struggled a lot with this. She was highly competent and couldn’t figure out why she never got promoted. It was something she complained about pretty much every time we met. For years I sat, listened, and commiserated.
Our friendship was born in a newsroom and the challenges of surviving in such macho spaces is what had united us initially (alongside my appreciation for her devilish humour). We, I suppose, “trauma bonded” over being managed by chaotic bullies. Editors who would walk up to your desk and bollock you loudly for something that was actually their fault. She would be reduced tears and I would take her out for coffee and make her promise me she wouldn’t submit and apologise.
"Hold your ground, otherwise he wins,” I’d tell her, preparing my eyes for a week of glaring in her editor’s direction, contemplating whether it would be weird if I started growling whenever he approached our desk.
She in turn helped calm me down when I’d get a similar treatment from my editor. Where she’d burst into tears, I’d stand up and shout back -- a response that won me endless adoration from the subs' desk, but which wasn’t very strategic in the face of middle management’s endless power play.
But anyway, back to why she wasn’t getting promoted (beside the obvious sexism). After listening to what might have been her 1000th rant about it, I finally spoke up.
“You know, your problem is that you’re really not good at hiding when you’re unimpressed. I kind of like it because you’re funny and I always know where I stand. But I’m guessing your boss doesn’t.”
My Texan friend -- marathon Maria -- had a similar work problem. “I just hate kissing ass,” she used to say, also complaining about never getting a promotion despite being a total workhorse. She’d then tell me that she refused to look her CEO in the eye because she disagreed with some of his strategies (and his very Texan “ass kissing” style of networking).
“You don’t have to marry the man, Maria. But it probably wouldn’t hurt your career prospects to not be openly hostile to him,” I said.
“That sounds like ass kissing to me, Sarah,” she replied flatly.
The thing about handing out career advice to friends is it’s way easier to do that apply sound judgment to your own life. Which is why sometimes you do have to suck it up and seek external advice on what it is you suck at so you can suck at it a little less.
Besides working on my presentation skills (there are now a billion videos on my computer of me explaining my work and I think it’s only the last three in which I don’t look like I want my audience to die suddenly of something horrible and painful), I’m getting coached on self-advocacy.
The thing is, so much of a good journalist’s toolbox is about advocating for others. But I’m learning gradually that so much of being able to have the time and energy to do anything well hinges on being able to advocate for yourself. (and, by extension, your rat children. Mama needs to buy them a little fan).
In which our weary writer investigates the lure of DIY napalm, and whether we can ever truly know someone.
A journalist friend of mine once said that going on dates is like interviewing a source. You show up, keep things light and breezy while delicately accumulating all the data points you need. I mean, ideally, along the way, you have fun, too.
Besides storytelling, the journalistic skill that came most instinctively to me was interviewing people. I know how to ask the right questions, and how to gently and unobtrusively steer a conversation in a way that delivers the goods. I know how to build trust, how to shut up and listen, how to encourage in the right moments, and stimulate if a conversation feels to be running dry.
I know how to shoot rapid fire, sharp questions with the intellectual fast talker types who seem to need that rhythm and tension to pay attention to me, but also, when to play ‘dumb’ enough to get eloquent quotes and not convoluted jargon. And I know when to start being that little bit difficult and annoying if someone who owes me an answer is being evasive. My mentor, Joyce, who used to be White House reporter, said that when she interviewed officials, she’d often deliberately ignore social cues.
“People would get so uncomfortable, they’d just say anything to get rid of me”.
Of course, the key difference between going on dates and interviewing sources is that only one of those activities is supposed to be in service of a story with your byline on it.
Recently, I was at a bar with some friends where I wound up talking to this guy for three hours. I got that look your friends give you when they think you think you’ve met someone pretty cool -- when actually what has happened is that you’ve discovered you’re talking to a recovering firebug and DIY napalm expert and you want to learn everything you can about their little hobby.
Through the course of that evening, I found out:
For the record, I had disclosed early on in our interaction that I was a journalist, and, in fact, he was the one who pushed for the interaction to be pursued at a later date with the aim of a story coming out of it. He said he felt like I really understood him.
At that point, I felt kind of guilty. I wondered: Did I really understand him, or was I just really good at making him feel understood so that I could satiate my own curiosity about him?
As I read this back I also think, what if I was the one who was actually getting duped that whole time and he’s not a firebug but a pathological liar who’ll say all sorts of stuff to pique and sustain a journalist’s interest?
For anyone who is interested in the power games often at play between journalist and subject, I’d recommend Janet Malcolm’s The Jounalist and the Murderer, a seminal work in the murky ethics of our game and a must read for anyone in our industry who wants to do what we do with something approaching a clear conscience.
Malcom interrogates the work of a journalist, Joe McGinniss, who covered the trial of Jeffrey MacDonald, a man accused of murdering his own family.
In putting together his book, McGinniss got the convicted murderer on side by lying to him that he believed he was innocent, when in fact what he published was a damning story of a ruthless psychopath.
Malcolm meticulously interrogates the trial and how it is reported. She interviews the documents McGinniss accumulated, studied, and transformed into the material he needed to support his thesis. She also interviewed the accused murderer -- who claimed innocence -- to gauge his character herself, and found what I love about her work: no definitive answers about who he was and whether the evidence against him stood up.
She observes rather a person “characterless” enough to serve as a canvas onto which McGinniss could paint the perfect murder story, and sell a lot of books. There’s a really nice passage she has about the work journalists do in interrogating our fellow humans as we commit their story to paper.
She writes that the truth is people aren’t characters in books -- they’re a lot harder to pin down than that. They change, surprise us, confuse us, bore us, behave in different ways with different people, contradict themselves. The rules we apply in trying to make sense of them are never that stable.
Fun, isn’t it? To force oneself to get out there and already be drawing parallels between your own ‘research’ and the study of an accused murderer.
Joys of not fitting in etc.
In which our writer summarises what it is she has been doing with this blog for the last three years.
Recently I’ve been wondering about why I've been carrying on with this blog. For sure, It helps me organise my thoughts and feel a bit like a character in an ongoing story, which I guess is nice. But surely there must be a purpose beyond that?
I thought back to why I started writing and working as a journalist in the first place. Ultimately, you want to share the things you’ve discovered and learnt in a way that helps people. I wonder, how can I make my work more helpful?
This blog began on my return to Europe from Hong Kong. In that time, I’ve lived like everyone else has through a seemingly unending pandemic. I navigated the ups and downs of a career path here that has involved trying to make comprehensible dense computer science topics, alongside a lot of other things.
I’ve studied Europe’s media landscape and tried to process the highs, lows, and frustrations and despair that came with covering one of the world’s most fascinating and maddening places in the five years that preceded my time here. And I took pains to ground myself in a city I had childhood memories of that I might be able to call “home.“ I swam in the frosty Norwegian fjord of my mother's home town, ran my first half-marathon, said goodbye to my battle-axe Mormor my brainy grandmother, and my lovely uncle Paul, and tried and failed to master a confident armbar.
I also persisted in what has been probably my most comprehensive research project to date: trying to find a way to live in harmony with my own story and all the complexities, challenges and joys that have come with that.
So what are the key learnings that I’ve uncovered since this work began? Here’s a list:
To Hermann or not to Hermann
How to bounce back from bodily rebellions: Our research-addicted writer's ongoing workbook.
Another one of those quirky dreams struck the other other. I was wandering around a dimly lit Norwayville-style toytown without teeth. There was an operation I was meant to be at to get my face fixed that for some reason had been missed. Rather than resolve the problem I had instead chosen to wander the streets forlorn and despondent. Quite sure there’s no symbolism to be gleaned here at all.
If life is about choices, a lot of them still seem to be made entirely by my body’s visceral reactions to how I’ve been treating it. After a relatively heady but also stressful month, my body revolted in its favourite way. My “moon cycle” as the hippies call it, announced itself with a level of brutality that had me vomiting up painkillers all over my balcony after a night of agony I’d gladly swap with being pummeled by a Muay Thai fiend. Time to clean up my act, apparently, and clean out my system.
Out with the late nights and enraptured conversations with people I’ll probably never see again, in with the nerdy focus on health protocols, energy systems, cortisol levels, early mornings and exceptional sleep. Along the lines of saying “yes/no” to a variety of things, I experimented with a fast that lasted four days, and slept very well.
“And what about your performance?” asked my training buddy who had scheduled a hefty mix of hack squats and trap bar deadlifts alongside all sorts of uncomfortable lat-building exercises. This was a few days after the fast ended. Well, I guess I had lost some strength. But what is apparent is an improvement in cardiovascular endurance (or maybe just a lighter-footedness?), which I think is something I value in a way that she’s not so concerned with. This is because I associate it with giving me a greater resilience in bouncing back from stressors that might otherwise have floored me.
Still, if I truly wanted the engine back that I had in some points of Corona -- when I wasn’t smoking at all and when I was out running most days, had a limited social circle and lived comfortably with my nose in a lot of books -- I’d have to go all in and throw my cigarettes out of the window.
The logic obviously goes that in order to do away with a bad habit, you have to find a replacement for it.
Meditation or breath-work, or even punching Nigel, could work. (Nigel is the heavy bag that lies on my floor wearing a jumper with arms I’d stuffed a few months back so as to practice submissions). But sometimes this isn’t really enough.
Especially when trying to put yourself through your own regimen of exposure therapy so as to refrain from doing a Hermann whenever life hits you: I.e. running away and finding a hole under a kitchen cabinet replete with all your favourite shreds of toilet paper with the aim of living there forever.
A concluding sentence is required here: but the reality is that I don't have one. Just need to keep pushing my limits and learning to regulate accordingly.
Summer of yes and no
In which our hitherto reclusive writer resolves to Get Out There, master the drunken bench press and say no to unnecessary drama.
Berlin summer is in full swing again, but this year, everything feels quite different. This summer, Berlin has come alive.
Everyone is eager to get out and about, the rats especially. The furry and plump renegade that he is, Hermann has committed himself to several break out attempts, his most devious being enlisting Kotti in a misdirection plot that had me chasing both around our odd little vampire-inspired apartment in a nightgown like a lunatic straight out of a gothic novel.
Hermann has found a hole under the kitchen counter that he’ll retreat to, victorious, for several days, until hunger humbles him enough to return to his plush cage where the usual choice selection of mascarpone and seasonal vegetables awaits.
Sometimes, if he’s feeling especially rebellious, he’ll pull apart a roll of toilet paper and carry its shreds into his man cave with him, and I’ll leave a bowl of water out to show that we’re still friends despite his endless mutiny. I worry what will become of him if he carries on like this, though.
Beyond the confines of our testosterone-addled apartment, which has for various reasons been overrun by Irishmen alongside male rats for the last couple of months, I’ve noticed a number of graffiti tags across the district with the single word: “rat”. I am assuming he has found a gang of fellow miscreants and I wonder whether I should start saving up bail money should he get into real trouble.
Still, I have taken a leaf out of Hermann’s book and resolved to plot my own Berlin adventures to offset the years of confinement that came with pandemic life. I am trying to be a “yes” (wo)man. That is, finding excuses to say yes to the outside world and all its invitations.
That has meant: yes to: improvisational jazz concerts helmed by a friend who’s a wizard on the synth. Yes to trekking to an abandoned factory in Steglitz to help build an enormous perspect eyeball headed for Burning Man and dreamed up by a neuroscientist. Yes to boozy dates that descend into drunken bench pressing or fussball tournaments in which, I’ll admit, I perform pretty well.
And yes to being wide awake, and excited to meet the world in all its technicolor wonder with the downside that saying yes to somethings ultimately means saying no to other things. Like good sleep, and happy, tobacco-free lungs.
When my mentor, Joyce, coaxed me into taking that newspaper job in Hong Kong all those years ago, she did so with the line “life is about choices”. One area of my life that I’m experimenting with saying “no” to is the world of conflict.
Let’s not overcomplicate this or politicise it. Having initially resolved to commit myself to a summer of martial arts practice, I did a 180, and decided to see what happened if I avoided conflict altogether. As in, point blank, didn’t register it even when it was glaring at me in the face and taunting.
This was inspired by how my training buddy, a gorgeous, statuesque German with a fascination for the bodybuilding world handles small annoyances like having plates rudely claimed without our consent at our gym’s squat rack.
“If someone is rude to me, I just *blows them a kiss*. See, if I get angry at them, it shows that I care what they think. It’s better not to care about what they think.”
She’s honestly my hero.
In the absence of martial arts, I’ve -- physicality nerd that I am -- now, doubled down on the other training modalities that have helped manage my moods and energies for the last four years. I temporarily took a break from CrossFit and tried out simpler HIIT formulas. Some of these involved heart rate monitors that proved something I probably already knew:
I have a strong and resilient heart which I’ve learnt to control with my breathing so as to manage a severe anxiety disorder. The strong and resilient heart is genetic, I think. The last time my VACCINATED 67-year-old mother caught COVID, she still went skiing (even though I told her not to…) and got in about 12 k without much fuss.
The funny thing about HIIT and heart rate monitors, is that the name of the game is actively raising your heart rate, which is the opposite of what you want to do if you’re trying to circumvent a panic attack. So it feels counterintuitive if you’re used to using sports to manage anxiety.
However, through trial and error, I found that deep and intense -- but still controlled -- belly breathing mid-sprinting does raise your heart rate such that you can “win” the heart rate monitor game you play during HIIT, while maintaining a state of calm.
Anyway, with that specific problem solved, I’ve returned to CrossFit, which, to its credit, poses slightly more complex fitness problem solving games without having to get punched in the face.
The real problem that lies in front of me, now, is, how do I say yes to optimal movement, without having saying no to optimal other things?
My other brilliant friend
Good things happening to good people, and memories of Beijing.
One more revolution around the sun. The rats marked the occasion by sneaking into my chest of drawers and leaving a pile of dried cranberries in one of my bras.
The freedom-loving rat mom in me is slowly becoming replaced by a more sobre version hankering after not only a semblance of order but also some modicum of respect. This is especially the case given the troubling new habit of Kotti’s to climb up onto my lap when I am working and pee on me. I am assuming this is a gesture of dominance. I am not OK with it.
Suddenly my mother’s frustrations with raising me feel a bit more justified. “You just never did what you were told. I would tell you to do something and you’d just do the exact opposite. Every time”.
Maybe, in a past life, I was actually a rat and this whole experience is the real homecoming I was after all along. Maybe, overidentifying with rats is some new regressive activity of mine that I should work on keeping in check. Who knows. *pees on keyboard*.
Ronja of Sandessjoen
Two major, wonderful things happened this week. One of my favourite people in the world finally got into grad school after years of trying, and my niece was born in a tiny town in the northern Norwegian wilderness. So it’s been a great week, despite the rat-agro (ragro?). Oh, and the fact that my mother got harassed by a rampaging black grouse that ambushed her and which she had to beat away with a stick. I have promised that on my return to Trondheim, she will be avenged.
I would tell you more about my niece, Ronja, but I don’t really know her yet. From the photos I see that she is very small and that her skin has a rubbery, pinkish-white texture to it.
She has been named after an adventurous Astrid Lindgren character in a coming-of-age story about a girl raised by a family of thieves. Ronja Rövardotter ventures into the troll-addled wilderness and thereby discovers her own way and her own moral code. The VHS my brother and I watched terrified us when we were little, in a way that was quite instructive.
Now, on mountain hikes (and by hikes I mean actual hikes -- not whatever it is citydwellers say they do when they find a country trail and a handful of trees) -- I always know to watch out for troublesome roots that might have a family of elves living underneath them. I also check overhead for rolling trolls and by that I mean rolling boulders.
Ronja’s own education will be just on her doorstep. Her only neighbour will be a roaming elk, her best friend a little black cat with gawking yellow eyes. Seven white peaks will make up her skyline and the air she breathes will always taste faintly of seaweed and pine trees.
Hoedowns in Beijing
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in dusty and sweltering Houston, my best friend received a phone call she’d been dreaming of for years. She then called me up, at 1am here. I was glad to pick the phone to what turned out to be great news, not a catastrophe. I texted her the next day with the line “Marathon Maria always makes it to her finish line”.
I’ve known Marathon Maria for just over a decade now. We couldn’t be more different, and more alike. She’s the strongest and kindest person I know. She also kind of looks like Eva Mendes, and says things like “yoga every damn day” but will headbutt a can of beer to open it if appropriately goaded.
She grew up helping her mum sell snow cones and clean houses in her free time. Two years ago, while working with the US census department in running door-to-door surveys in Houston’s Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, she had a gun pulled on her.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I said ‘Sir, put your gun down’. And he did,” she replied.
We met in Beijing as part of the same cohort of booze-addled English teachers in a city that felt a little bit like a Wild West to us, all the more so because its watering holes most often served up a “fake” alcohol that went to your head a bit quicker and more aggressively than the real stuff.
It was the year Xi Jinping rose to power. A strange year to be surrounded by a bunch of people who just wanted to party and capitalise on their native-English-speaker privilege as anti-foreigner rhetoric bubbled in the background.
I would join in on the fun and come home to my little place in Andingmen hutong to write at times despondent and at times acerbic notes in my journal. I would also write for a magazine about bars and gigs and even ended up interviewing a friend of a friend who turned out to have a disturbing Hitler-fetish. That story got me into J-school.
Notes from my journal:
We have our own frat boys. As suspected, the group is a little bit too American to function. Funny how old school inclinations resurface when cliques start to form. “He noticed me!” ffs. Fleeting though, and followed by feeling repulsed by myself. Will be living by myself. Maybe I’ll finally start writing more. Maybe I’ll become a hermit in a cloak. Hermits look good in cloaks.
Westerners overheard in a hutong cafe:
“Do you think we’re, like, obliged to do things for people we don’t know? What about people we do know? What about ourselves?”
Phantom nosebleeds and the Beijing shakes. City sprawls like Guangzhou. Girl crying in front of McDonalds.
Elegant, swish, black and white floor
Gin+tonic 35, shisha pipes
Soul music/ house
Not overly Xmas decorated.
Modest dance floor, bronze pillars
Justin Bieber/ catwalks on 2 flatscreen TV
Coaster: “sealing your memories here”
Lone wolf makes a lifelong friend
As a hangover from the obsession with Decadence poetry that had marked my final year at Oxford, I was reading a lot of woozy depressing stuff by a writer called Remy de Gourmont, chain smoking and finding black goo in my nose from all the smog. None of this was very healthy.
Maria was the quiet one in our cohort. Everyone else was so loud and eager to draw attention to themselves. She’d watch us all with the steady eyes of a cat. And, cheesy as it sounds, some people just have a really strong aura of love about them. She is one of those people.
She got into a tight spot when her roommate failed to cough up her side of the deposit they needed for their flat, having already contributed her share. She lost that deposit. I offered to put her up in my studio for as long as she needed, reiterating the point enough times that a person like her, i.e. quite proud and unwilling to accept help even when it’s really needed, couldn’t really say no.
She ended up staying for a month, and we’ve been fiercely loyal to each other ever since. She’d come with me on my lone nightlife writing expeditions and have these funny and fresh quips that would help neutralise my always teetering on pompous prose. She’d talk me down from the panics I’d sometimes get when I’d drunk too much of the ethanol-cut stuff and had wound up sitting in the corner of a club scribbling manically into a notebook.
And a couple years after we’d both left Beijing and had reunited for a holiday in Bali, she threatened to throw my laptop in the swimming pool while I was editing something during what was basically my first holiday in three years.
“Stop worrying about your career and sort your life out,” she said. My arms and legs, at the time, were pockmarked with hundreds of inflamed mosquito bite scars that refused to heal that I could never be bothered to get checked out, and my brain was so fried I could barely tell my left from my right. I was doing good work, but she was right, everything else was in tatters.
Our friendship, which has unfolded more on Facebook Messenger and now Whatsapp than face-to-face, grew even stronger through the pandemic, where the unconditional rooting for one another through all the stagnation and uncertainty has provided us both a lifeline. The thing that always astonishes and inspires me about her is her resilience and chipperness in the face of some really unfair odds. I’ve witnessed her apply and reapply, growing more disheartened with every year, but never giving up.
I honestly can’t think of anyone else in this world who deserves to make it to their finish line other than Marathon Maria. I hope she rules the world someday.
P.S. Maria has run at least four marathons.
Bad fights, good fights
In which the writer contemplates the war in Ukraine, and talks about martial arts as a vehicle for good.
“Please stop talking about your bloody rats” my mother says as she sits in front of her computer screen across from mine.
For various reasons, I’d spent the week working from her flat in Trondheim, observing the news of the Ukraine war as told by Norwegian TV reports and the ever-reliably depressing 24/7 bitesize atrocity-horror that Twitter delivers.
Talking about rats in an increasingly gushing albeit manic manner has been my way of offsetting my own reactions to the event, a veritable “happy place” that has prompted my best friend to send a Daily Mail article of a woman with 50 rat children of her own. “I love you, but please don’t turn into this woman,” she wrote.
Point taken. In the case of my mother, I reverted, as per family tradition, to the subject of news, something there rarely ever was much of a break from -- for better or worse -- in our home.
“Mum, why did you send me an article about rapist Russian soldiers just as I was walking home from the gym. I paid 200 Kroner for these endorphins, please just let me enjoy them,” was one conversation we had. This is how boundary setting looks in a family that -- for better or worse -- has always marched to the beat of current events.
Children of the revolution?
I was born in Budapest in 1989 on my father’s hunch that the Soviet Union was set to crumble. He reported on those unfolding events in what was ultimately described as one of the “best years in history,” according to one historian. The good guys won.
The yoke of communism was crushed. In some cases -- as in Czechoslovakia -- thanks to an entirely peaceful movement. The nickname I accrued as a result of the timing I chose to begin existing in the world was the fond “child of the revolution”. I ceased growing at the age of three and took up the hobby of shattering window panes with my voice shortly thereafter. Joke. Sort of. Another nickname I enjoyed was “Sarah Screamer”.
After 1989, we all didn’t exactly live happily ever. But at least we could vote for our own leaders and no one needed to worry that much about whether their neighbours would shit talk them to the secret police. There was genuine hope for a better and fairer world after decades of oppression.
“OK, OK, yes, sure,” my mother replied when I asked her to hold off on the news horror after 6p. We ate Hungarian chicken soup, watched the cascade of snow outside our window, and settled on an X-men film in which the things being blown up were fictional things and not real people’s homes and where the good guys ultimately won. What a relief that was.
A nose for news?
Facetious comments about rats and sport and war aside, there isn’t much genuine escaping to be done, and there’s only so much respite available from the pervading sense of powerlessness that comes with bearing witness to an event like the war in Ukraine.
As journalists, our task is to make as accurate assessments of the unfolding events as possible in a way that determines the most likely future outcome.
That’s actually really tricky, especially when so many of our own biases come into play, and when the stakes are so incredibly high. When the intensity of emotion is all-pervasive. I’ve -- in the past -- been told to “trust my gut” and “smell out a story”. Savvy journalists are spoken of as having a ‘nose’ for news. When a beat is as broad as it is these days for most journalists -- i.e. the world and everything in it -- I’m not sure how accurate that nose can actually be.
Being told to trust your gut is as useful a piece of advice as it is unhelpful. The gut is a wellspring of emotional data points accrued via personal experience and the passing down of family experience. There is wisdom to be gleaned here, but it does not tell the full story, and never can.
Such rhetoric carries the same weight as being told to trust your intuition and apply only that in all facets of life, as if emotion alone carries all the relevant data points we need to live a good life. By good I also mean an ethical one of sound judgment, as opposed to the pursuit of pure personal fulfillment.
This is basically the same intellectual maneuver Paltrow advises women with her new age goobledee gook, and Rogan touts with his blustering macho fight talk. Compelling in its simplicity and in how it frames the individual’s place in the world, but ultimately unyielding, potentially immoral, and highly corruptible.
Putin --a real Judoka?
Journalists and analysts who remember the Cold War have come out in force to analyse the new chapter (a much needed slice in the analysis pie, of course). They will also need to do the work of acknowledging their own blind spots and their own hubris. The world is different now. And the idea of the all-knowing journalist was always a facade anyway.
This is especially the case in determining the outcome in Ukraine based on one extremely troublesome variable: Putin. What is going on in that man’s head? Think pieces abound.
There’s talk of his machismo, his imperialistic designs, his (supposed) love of risk, his brooding mistrust of the world and everyone in it, the little violin he pulls out and plays to the Russian people about how mean NATO is to him, his KGB background and all the deviousness that comes with that, his underpants poisoning and his ridiculous long table.
But what game is he actually playing here? What losses is he willing to count at the end of all of this. I don’t think he even knows the answer to that.
If he is the chess player so many think pieces have described him as, his game isn’t exactly masterful and no one -- except maybe the fleet of dolled up flight attendants he filmed himself explaining his motives to -- is impressed (actually, one suspect that they, too are rolling their eyes). He’s just a boy with an armory of war toys that don’t even work that well.
If he’s not a very good chess player, then maybe we should think further out of the box and ponder his other hobbies. The fight nerd in me reflected on his Judo background. I have no Judo training myself. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (and perhaps wrestling) is the closest martial art I’ve come into contact with, and which I understand has a lot to do with rolling with the (metaphorical) punches, calmly working various levers of pain, confusion and power to force your opponent into submission.
But done properly, it’s also a strategic game. Fighters put in a great deal of research ahead of the event to determine their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses and thereby develop a strategy which of course becomes their big secret.
The stronger fighter can work on strong-arming maneuvers, the weaker will have to think a lot more carefully in terms of applying clever levers and evasive movements. Both will want to pull out of their hats new, unpredictable repertoires that their opponent cannot anticipate.
But as I said, Judo might be different. I spoke to my neighbour, who I knew had taken Judo pretty seriously since childhood. “I was a pretty crazy kid,” he had previously told me, rubbing his shoulder which was recovering from an injury that had forced him off the mat for a long stretch of time. “My mum didn’t know what to do with me, so she sent me to learn Judo. That calmed me down”.
I asked whether, from the perspective of a Judoka, Putin’s maneuvers seemed somehow recognisable.
“Oh my God, he’s not even that good at Judo, it’s just all part of his bullshit propaganda,” he said. “Sure, he’s a black belt, but his fights are staged. They bring in these top fighters and basically tell them to lose. It’s really embarrassing. I’m so glad the Judo Federation kicked him out when the war started”.
So there we have it. Even Putin’s so-called love of risk and blustering man-on-man tussling is a Potemkin village. I can’t really think of a better example of toxic masculinity’s cowardly underbelly than that one.
Strength and self-esteem
But the matter remains, that a coward cowering in the Kremlin with his big boy war toys has accrued a dominant enough position vis-a-vis the world to unleash heartbreaking destruction in what is ultimately a plea for attention and recognition. And we spectators have to do the work of paying him that attention when there’s so many other pressing issues to address.
For my own part, the witnessing has brought up experiences of my own, among them, the creeping sense of powerlessness that came with witnessing Hong Kong’s beleaguered fight for freedom. I’d like to pretend that 2019 was the year Sarah “child of the revolution” came out in full force. But she did not. She had burnt herself out worrying about the weight of the world and was checking out.
That was the year I really got into sports, having never shown any aptitude before, having channeled most of my emotions into my work -- for better and for worse -- up until that point.
For many reasons, I fell in love with gym culture and ultimately martial arts. And not for the boring reasons. The silly slogans and the sexy bodies, and the weird competitiveness of it all. The inescapable, eye-rolling machismo.
In the face of the crushing nihilism that runs through the fabric of our generation, it was just nice to get a high five for lifting something heavy. I went from seeing the racking up of numbers on my barbell as something so arbitrary to work on given all the other terrible things that required my attention, to something to get excited about.
I remember the first time I realised I had “freakish” strength. I was pissed off about something silly, and, tasked with throwing a ball at the ceiling, I made the room shake with a force that caused dust to stream down from above. The owner of the gym -- the city’s first professional female MMA fighter -- came up and removed the ball from my hands. “I’ve never seen that before,” she said.
Self-esteem ultimately derives from feeling like you are doing something well, and is very much helped along by being recognised for that. As I felt I was losing my journalism mojo (at a time when it was really needed, actually), I’d found something new that I could take pride in.
MMA the “blood sport” gets a bad rap for its brutalism. But it can be much more than that, it really depends on how you are operating, with whom, and with which motives. Not everyone just wants to throw their weight around and show off. In fact, those are the fighters that kind of get shunned if you’re training at the right place.
MMA as therapy
One woman I often paired up with talked about MMA as a way to contain and process her emotions around the unfolding events. She had recently launched a new business that was struggling due to the protests. She was in a position many Hongkongers struggled with. Understood the value of the pro-democracy movement, worried about their own livelihoods. That’s a very uncomfortable, ambivalent space to be in.
For my part, it has helped do a lot of emotional work. I like working with my mind when it is a place of high-octane problem solving, and I like the mover in me that is brought out under stress. Playful, assertive, quick-footed, kind of incorrigible.
I like saying “nice” when someone outsmarts me with a clever combination, and I see the value in working to rewire some of the faulty algorithms of conflict management that do take place on an instinctual level.
I noticed that recently on my return to mat prompted by the emotions this war has brought up in me. Over-relying on my ability to withstand pain, I ate far too many punches in a tit-for-tat with a woman I’d previously floored (using my favourite trick -- goading a roundhouse kick, trapping the offending leg under my armpit, gently pulling it towards me such that the my opponent starts to lose her (or his) balance, and the swinging it in the opposite direction as she takes a tumble. Really, it's a very fun sequence if you can dampen the initial force of the kick quickly enough and stay stable yourself. Low centre of gravity ftw).
She was coming on strong and I was retaliating, and ignoring the fact that my reflexes aren’t what they were after a long break from the sport. Hubris right there. I paid my price for it, felt stunned and dizzy all the way home, which at least provided a nice little break for this brain that still too often overheats itself with thought and worry. Next time, I’ll be more careful, I’ll remember to leave my ego where it belongs. The bin.
Most of all, what I like about fighting is being able to put my emotions to bed after a session, and taking on the day with far more rationalism than I would otherwise. And I like knowing I am brave, and strong, and can get back up again quickly when I fall.
Our writer adopts a pair of lovely rats, and meditates on politics, power and precarity.
Two perfect angels moved into Dracula’s mansion last week. When I say angels I mean rats. The transgressive and withdrawing Hermann and the convivial and attention-seeking Kotti. They are named after two U bahn stops near us.
Their human had regretfully placed them in my care having developed an allergic reaction to them. She loaded me down with their plush blankets, a pot of their favourite treats and their multiple toilet trays. She also warned me not to give Hermann too much coconut water -- it’s making him fat -- and not to smother them.
Rats like doing their own thing, and, like cats, prefer to approach their human for affection as and when suits them. After spending the day running around the flat, which is now filled with all sorts of rat toys, they retreat to their elaborate cage to munch on greek yogurt and muesli and nap in a hammock I wash each week.
Perhaps there’s a comment to be made here about the gentrification of pets. I don’t know. The more pressing point to make is that rats make excellent company. Even Hermann, whose intrepid spirit means we sometimes wind up playing a prolonged game of hide and seek in which he always thinks he’s outsmarted me -- even when he’s tucked under a pile of clothes with his tail poking out (“nothing to see here, lady”), has scampered his way into my heart.
Kotti likes to have the side of his face stroked, this is heaven for him. And if I’ve been out for long, I’ll come home to find him pressed against his cage waiting for a greeting. I put my finger through the cage once, and he reached out with his little hand (hands, not claws) placed it on my nail, and looked into my eyes. When I give them treats, they take them so politely with both hands you’d think they’d gone to butler school.
Ludvik Vaculik's Guinea Pigs
Caring for them has made me think of a Czech novel I studied at university. Ludvik Vaculik’s The Guinea Pigs is a dark comedy set in Cold War-era Czechoslovakia by a dissident writer. Here’s a passage:
“The hardest thing in the world, girls and boys, is to change your life by your own free will. Even if you are absolutely convinced that you're the engineer on your own locomotive, someone else is always going to flip the switch that makes you change tracks, and it's usually someone who knows much less than you do.”
It tells a story of a banker living under the absurd and hopeless conditions that characterize corrupt authoritarian rule. As an escape, he turns to his pet guinea pigs for solace. He takes refuge in their vulnerability, in fact, it empowers him. He finds himself playing games with them that help him feel powerful where elsewhere he is powerless. At one point, he finds himself, well, waterboarding them:
“Take a paper bag, place it open on a table and let the guinea pig crawl inside. Then twist the bag shut, just so the air can get in, and go to the movies. When you get back, you'll find everything just the way it was when you left. Take a glass, fill it with water, then change your mind and pour the water out, and take the glass and turn it upside down over the guinea pig. You can observe the guinea pig through the glass walls, watch it sit there in astonishment, its nostrils quivering in excitement, its tummy undulating nervously, and yet it doesn't even try to determine the penetrability of the wall around it, at least not during the first hour”.
Monkey see, monkey do. Especially when it comes to the exploitation of power.
Nightmares about war
The day I picked up my rats from their human, she told me she’d slept badly that night. She’d had a nightmare about a war she’d have to fight in. I’ve been having nightmares too. An elaborate one about trying to stalk down a murderer who was after a friend of mine. Another in which my teeth are pulled out. One counting dead rhinos, a whole field of them.
I have a friend in Russia who is eight months pregnant. I send her pictures of the rats doing silly things and she responds with hearts and kisses. It seems crazy to think that not even a year ago we were walking through Tempelhof together talking in German about how much we liked foreign languages. She was planning to learn Arabic. I agreed that the script is beautiful.
She’s one of my only Russian friends. Another one once falsely described Chopin as Russian. She backtracked very quickly when I pointed out that he was Polish. That was the end of that conversion. We quickly went on to discuss how great corgis are -- a far more comfortable conversation.
My own family history means that I’m wired to mistrust the Russians, it’s been a bias I’ve had to work on.
I view pictures of the Kremlin the way my Hong Kong friends think about Tiananmen. Creeps me out. So I’m not as shocked about the decisions that have been made within the Kremlin by a certain steroid-addled gnome-faced freakshow as maybe others are, but I am of course horrified.
I went for drinks last week with a journalist friend from New Zealand who's been covering the Middle East beat for almost a decade, so she is not surprised by the level of brutality that has been on display. She took in a Syrian sniper a few years ago, when she asked him what made him join the resistance.
“It was a gradual thing. He didn’t think he would fight initially, he just joined the protests. But then he did,” she said. The righteous indignation made him take up arms.
“I was thinking, if the war came here, would I stay and fight? I think I would,” she said. “Would the Germans, though. Would they stay? Are they ready for something like that?".
I don’t mean to be alarmist, and I’m not interested in making any predictions about how this war will end and what role average Europeans outside of Ukraine and Russia will play in it. As a reminder, few people predicted the fall of the Iron Curtain in ‘89, that deeply traumatic event for Putin.
A new precarious era
I think the fact that this horror feels closer to home than most Europeans of our generation are used to is worth examining.
These are the conversations we are having as we enter a new era of global uncertainty and precarity, and in which the faultlines of authoritarianism versus democracy have been clearly drawn.
If it came to it, would I stay and fight? Like those Ukrainian women cutting down their lacquered nails to hold AK 47s? I know I’m in the physical shape for it. But the mental game? And the threat of rape? Let’s move to another topic. A clip from a female Ukrainian politician who has stayed to fight plays out in my head a lot. She talks about going to bomb shelters and teaching children to “drop down and play turtle” when the siren goes off.
“What our generation wanted was for our children to grow up without trauma. We failed them,” she said.
I went for drinks with a group of non-Europeans this weekend, hoping to get a break from the doom scrolling.
We were in a very Berlin bar where burlesque dancers poured hot wax onto one another and complained about a meddling neighbour trying to shut them down. An American had been saying that, if push came to shove and they needed to get out of Europe, Central America would be their exit strategy. Imagine that. Leaving Europe for the safety of Central America.
“I’m sick of how Eurocentric the coverage has been,” said another friend of Asian descent. These were words I didn’t really want to hear, given how painful the last couple of weeks of witnessing have been. But there is a point there, too.
Living without the precarity of a looming war (with, albeit, the threat of the looming climate crisis) has been a privilege here. As has living with the assumption that freedom can be taken for granted. That was something that really depressed me when I first came back to the city two years ago, having witnessed Hong Kong’s bitter fight for freedom.
That’s changed now, at least, perceptually.
Nothing can be taken for granted.
My Brilliant Friend
Our writer remembers her Oxford University years, and the friendship, trauma and lessons that defined them.
The other night I’d dreamt I was lost inside the roots of a tree so large an old friend of mine had made a home of it. And while she was nowhere to be found, mutual friends of ours were lost in there, too, listening out for a voice that proved impossible to follow. In my wanderings, I came upon a pile of her clothes, tried each on for size before stripping off.
My brilliant friend is short like me and in the time I remember being close to her, took painstaking care in dressing for it. She'd pull haphazardly from a pile of clothes that swamped the floor of her room a building opposite mine at university, trying not to knock over the paper cup of black coffee teetering not far from that pile near a separate pile of papers she’d scribbled all over in red pen.
We became friends quickly, in that first-week-rush of tribe-finding undergrads are told to relish but which most find nerve-wracking and exhausting and during which I’d spent drunk enough to feel permanently likeable. Her sardonic wit had charmed me instantly, and I left her very little choice but to be my friend, inserting myself into her life and the circle she orbited. They were a group of equally sarcastic smokers that congregated outside the library attached to our college. That library was housed in what counts as one of Oxford’s oldest deconsecrated churches, where we stood, smoked and postured among gravestones of bodies exhumed well before our time there.
There’s a saying, a very old-fashioned one, thankfully, that a woman applies to study at Oxford with the aim of accomplishing one of three goals. A first, a blue (that is, an athletic award), or finding a husband.
From day one, it was quite clear that my brilliant friend was unabashedly gunning for academic excellence, which she went on to achieve -- and then some. A talented and published philosopher, who has spent her career moving between Oxford and Cambridge, she’s remained at the top of her game, and, speaking selfishly, continues to set this benchmark of excellence I know I’ll never reach however hard I apply myself to this subconscious project of playing catch up with a mind that continues to dazzle me.
Ambition and its opposite
If my brilliant friend had her sights set on that first, I entered Oxford with no idea of what I wanted to get out of the experience. She applied with the dream of finally finding friends with whom she could discuss Keats. My own application had far less erudite motives.
My brother had earned a place a year before me, and by some fluke that had stumped everyone involved, my grades had matched his -- so applying seemed worth a shot. We’d moved a lot growing up, so he had always been the most consistent, closest figure in my life. It made sense, in a way, to follow him.
I’d applied to read joint honours in German and English, having had to dispense with the dream of studying art when I floated the idea with my father, who suggested I might as well start working at supermarkets straight away to avoid the pointless expense.
A fading table
Studying a literature-heavy degree with a language as solid and respectable as German seemed like a viable compromise, and, during the interview process, I had the fortune of meeting my professor Chris, who had a glorious white mostache, and is one of the nicest and most encouraging people I’ve ever met.
A medievalist approaching retirement, his cleverness came from a place of gracious curiosity, and being interviewed by him was one of the nicest experiences I’d ever had. It felt like there was someone inside me he’d woken up and invited to sit at a table I didn’t know I had a place at.
The story goes that I hadn’t impressed the English department all that much, especially given the lukewarm references my teachers had sent in. But that Chris was willing to pull whatever strings were available to him within the modern languages department, to get me a place at the university.
I should have been pleased, but all I heard during that conversation was that I had been rejected, that that place at that table had disappeared. I retaliated by turning the offer down, convincing myself that I hadn’t actually wanted to go and that the promise of four years of partying at a ‘normal’ university was far more enticing anyway.
Some time passed, and I changed my mind. Milan Kundera was my favourite author at the time, so joining the university’s tiny and mad Czech department in lieu of its famously old-fashioned English one didn’t seem too much of a sacrifice, even though the language itself proved ridiculously complex. Chris responded warmly to the decision with a letter I wish I’d clung on to.
He wrote about how that library that was once a church had in the 14th century served as centre for followers of religious reformist John Wycliffe. Wycliffe had had strong ties with Bohemia’s Jan Hus -- a key predecessor to the protestant movement, who met an especially nasty end in Lake Constanze when he had been falsely promised safe passage by the head of the Holy Roman Empire, who instead branded him a heretic and burned him at the stake. ‘Wycliffe and Hus were rebels, like you. So I think you’ll be in good company,’ Chris wrote.
On my arrival, we met and he said another nice, Cheshire-cat like thing: ‘You’ll feel like you don’t belong here, and that’s because you do.’
Friendship and aspiration
Oxford’s own C.S. Lewis has a quote about friendship that is quite overused now: ‘Friendship is born at the moment one (wo)man says to another ‘what! You too? I thought no one but myself..’
For that first year at that university, there was no one in this world I thought understood me better than my brilliant friend, no one who completed my sentences as cleverly. No one could leave me in stitches as she could. No one knew how to so elegantly stick a metaphorical middle finger up at anyone whose argument didn’t fall in line with hers. No one could so engagingly articulate a vision about how the world should be such that any other possibility would fade from view. Her thoughts flowed like a powerful river whose water was crystal clear. Mine felt, by comparison, a stagnant, muddied pool. ‘I don’t need my journals anymore,’ I told her, once. ‘I have you’.
In later years, in one of the many long and agonised phone calls we’d have in which we’d pick apart the emotions, the motives and wider meaning of everything we did and everything that was done to us -- she, always, with more astute observations than mine -- she pointed out my bad habit of hero-worshipping as a way of bypassing responsibility. I’d complained of heartbreak wrought by a journalist whose work, swagger and professional stature I’d envied. I’d idolised him - and fabricated a connection - to the point that the person he was in my head resembled nothing of the person he actually was, an infatuation as silly and egotistical as it was a distraction from the real task that lay in front of me: that of establishing my own career.
‘You’ve attributed to him qualities you deny in yourself,’ she said, with her trademark mic drop. ‘It’s the sort of thing women do all the time.’
Words on belonging
Chris’ words on belonging only made sense on reflection and in hindsight. Of course I felt like I didn’t belong there. I wasn’t like any of my peers. I didn’t work as hard as they did because I didn’t care as much as they did, so of course I couldn’t contribute with the effortless confidence they all had, with their glow of intellectual brilliance.
I’d arrived through a back door, buoyed by a series of episodes of great luck - the mysteriously good grades, and having happened to have been taken a liking to by Chris (and Ray, and Wes, ...and Jim). Being on the course itself, in those surroundings, was a reckoning and a challenge that I wasn’t, for a whole tome of reasons, prepared to take on, and which I pushed back against with an apathy I still sometimes think about with regret.
I masked my insecurity in a party girl persona that gave me one thing to have over these swotty (albeit still pretty ‘rad’) nerds, boasted about the desperately cool raves I’d go to with my London friends, made my room available to anyone who wanted to show up after night outs, wasted and obnoxious enough to carry on debates on topics I had never read enough books about to warrant my inclusion.
But as Chris had implied, this quality I had that made me feel so anxious about where my thoughts came from and whether they were correct. This insecure, questioning quality is what tied me most to my peers, a quality that can turn you so far into your own head sometimes it takes you everywhere and nowhere at all. Maybe.
Chris’ words also recall the popular aphorism; ‘don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.’
On Kleist and fragility
Come second year I would start to find something of my intellectual stride. The joy I’d once had in writing had evaporated in first year, in which every essay I wrote read like someone trying and failing horribly to parrot the confidence and the language of the authors of the secondary literature we were tasked to pick apart as if we were cleverer than all of them. My writing was so bad, I even had one tutor ask me, in the nicest possible way, whether my heritage made me struggle with English.
I told my friend this and we had a good laugh, and she joked about my being a ‘foreign child’ in a way that I think she’d now be horrified by, especially given how hard both my parents had worked to be assimilated into British life.
My writing began to improve after a eureka moment I had late one night trying to read a piece of student journalism reviewing the Alien films that was so obscure and obfuscating and bewildering that it said nothing. I think I read it three times before arriving at the conclusion, that maybe, just maybe, sometimes -- if I didn’t understand what I was reading, it wasn’t because I was stupid, it was because what I was reading was badly written.
I applied that new insight to my own work, strove to simplify as opposed to obscure, and found the stirrings of a voice that could express itself well enough in this world. I started actually enjoying the essay writing process. My friend and I, we’d write side by side in last-minute all-nighter sprints in which we’d take breaks to read passages to each other, or else run to the kitchen and complete the writers-block-busting ritual we created together which involved hopping around playing air violin to The Devil Went Down to Georgia. Honestly, these are some of my fondest memories of my time at Oxford.
So things I think were going kind of OK until my life turned upside down. That is, when, one day, I think it was a Wednesday, I was drafting an essay in my head about feminism and folklore in 19th century Czech literature when I was mowed down by a car that accelerated into me. My body was fine, but my face.
Well, the impact was great enough that I’d lost my two front teeth and fractured my jaw, injuries which took two years of complex, painful and expensive surgeries to fix, which certainly wasn’t the easiest situation to juggle alongside an Oxford degree that had already challenged me. The driver shouted ‘dumb bitch,’ left me bleeding in the middle of the road, and sped off.
Luckily a small crowd had formed and taken care of me. The driver returned I think some moments later, having realised that someone would have noted down his number plate. He came up to me and explained that he’d intended to brake when he saw me crossing the road, but had accidentally put his foot on the gas. I apologised and claimed all fault, which he of course quoted in the paperwork he filled out when my Dad filed a lawsuit against him.
Sometimes, when randomly bad things happen to us, we blame ourselves because it helps us restore the sense of control we lose during a traumatic experience.
At the time I got quite into a German playwright called Heinrich von Kleist. He was one of the two German authors I specialised in for my finals (the other being Günter Grass). Kleist enjoyed a revival in the 70s onwards, having spent the majority of his career in the late 18th and early 19th centuries feeling like a failure. As far as I can remember, German literature’s golden boy, Goethe, was especially dismissive of him (although I’m having a little Google now and it seems like they were both as bitchy as each other).
Anyway, Kleist wrote a number of plays, but his short stories are especially good. There’s an expression around which a lot of his thinking and works orbit, that of the Gebrechlichkeit der Welt, the world as having this fragile property to it we only discover when something about the life we know shatters. His characters are often painted grasping at moral absolutes that end up being their downfall.
A couple of weeks after the accident, I told my friend that I felt I had become too fragile. She picked up a glass and said: ‘This glass is just as fragile now as if I had dropped and broken it. The fact that it is fragile does not change whether or not I break it.’
What was she saying? That I was brittle, like that glass, and had broken? An accurate assessment, actually. But not what I needed to hear at the time.
Beginnings and endings
As I stepped into a dark tunnel whose end I was very uncertain about - my body didn’t take all that well to a lot of treatment, which wasn’t that surprising given how badly I was treating it at the time. But yes, as I was falling apart, my friend fell in love. With my other best friend, of course. Someone I’d nudged her towards, knowing that they were well matched.
I think under other circumstances I would have been happy for her. In fact, I was happy for her, for them both. But then, the closer they got to each other, the more disposable I felt, especially now that the one thing that I had to offer them - I think what my friend had once described as a ‘swashbuckling charm’ - had completely gone. She had also once told me that I was the warmest person she knew. And, well that wasn’t exactly true anymore.
We drifted. She became more and more engrossed in a life beyond the refuge we’d established in one another, with her boyfriend, and her studies, where she was just hitting home run after home run. I fell back on the self-sabotaging and hedonistic habits of my high school years that now had a much more nihilistic flavour to them.
Luckily I was able to get away for a year as part of our course, and being elsewhere helped stop the spiral I was in. I performed quite well in internships despite the fact I spent most of the time talking with my hand in front of my face. I suppose trying to avoid opening my mouth at all costs helped sharpen my writing.
I returned to Oxford for my final year having adapted to the rhythm of term time interspersed by operations. I’d grown closer to the students on my course and different friends from college -- friendships that didn’t have the intensity of connection that my brilliant friend and I shared, but with people who were caring and considerate and special in their own ways.
My friend was studying for her masters, but we rarely saw one another. She showed up at the end of my last exam, and, as per tradition, was part of the group of friends who dowsed me in Champagne and confetti and incited me to jump into the river Cherwell, which of course I did without hesitation, having jumped in it regularly in our first silly years there - before the accident when I was game for most things. She left quickly after the celebrations to join a party of philosophers which I took a glimpse at and which, I’ll admit it (I write this fully aware of how obnoxious and bitter this comment makes me sound), looked pretty lame.
Through that time, I never actually told her how mad I was at her for abandoning me in my darkest hour. It felt like she had broken the oath single women (who aren’t like those women) enter into in which we don’t treat each other as placeholders until the ‘real thing’ comes along.
In Arcadia Ego
My final exam and my final operation behind me, I left abruptly for China, returning two years later to get my journalism masters, much of which was covered by the compensation for the accident. I lived at home, to save money.
I hadn’t really planned to go back to Oxford, but then my Czech tutor Jim passed away and I was invited to his memorial held at my old college. My brilliant friend was working on her PhD at the time, and I reached out to her and she was happy to put me up.
The reunion was lovely, and staying at her place, hanging out with the coterie of postgrad friends she had made and who were kind and curious and welcoming and sat around discussing interesting things with far less pomposity than any of us had while we were undergrads. That made me reflect a little bit on how insecure we all were, how challenged we all felt to perform in a certain way and relative to each other that met the expectations of such a uniquely intimidating environment.
I was also able to observe all the qualities in her that once delighted me. The way her whirling mind meant she often struggled with insomnia she could only assuage in listening to Harry Potter audiotapes. The way, for all her brashness, for the fierce adversarial spirit she has that always made her the most convincing voice in the room, she could be extremely sensitive. Those lame philosophy parties she was always running off to? Well, the prospect of not being invited to just one of them would send her on a spiral of existential despair. The way there were so many things she just couldn’t be bothered to do because they didn’t register as at all important. Like remembering to lock the door when she left the house. Like cleaning dishes.
A few weeks later I was at her doorstep again, this time with a suitcase. I had been offered a job in Hong Kong. I needed a place to stay while I completed my final paper, took my exams, got my thoughts together before abandoning everyone for my new life. And just like that, she slotted into the role I’d always assigned her, that of my saviour.
Light and shadow
eWe’d both grown up a lot all that time in which we’d drifted apart, she especially in the context of herself and her work. After wrestling with institutional biases that had relegated feminist philosophy to a lesser realm, she had a rebellion of her own and is now an important and strident voice in this arena.
For my part, living in China gave me a chance to re-establish myself as capable and independent. After bursting into tears several times trying to navigate the crazy traffic, cars stopped stressing me out so much, and I learnt to flag down taxis with confidence, developed that pushiness you need to get things done over there.
I worked as a teacher alongside a lot of colourful characters from all walks of life. One of them especially left a mark. An ex-alcoholic turned magician from Australia who gave his 120 per cent in every class, creating colourful, wild and thrilling pedagogical experiences that lit up the minds of Chinese students who had up until then conflated learning English with the terror of their high school years.
Thanks to him, I realised that there were many ways to have an impact in this world, not all of them had to involve dazzling your clever friends or professors with a brilliant theory or a gripping read. I also grew out of my habit of instinctively hiding my face, mostly because for a lot of language learners it helps to really see what their teacher is doing with their mouth.
So when my friend and I slotted back into an old friendship, it had a new texture to it. But an intellectual differential persisted. It was like there was a light she could only hold and I could only grasp at.
The last time I saw her in person I was getting on a coach that left for London, where I’d stay one night at her ex-boyfriend (and my best friend)’s place before getting that flight to Hong Kong.
We remained in sporadic touch while I was in Hong Kong, where I started seeing a therapist who helped by holding up that light the way she had. Of course, the whole point of therapy is that you’re taught to hold your own light, but that’s something that still seems like a lot of responsibility to take on, something that a little frightened voice inside keeps telling me people like my brilliant friend are better equipped to hold.
But of course, even the smartest person in the word is not fully capable of understanding the specificities of our lived experiences, nor can we expect them to commit any more than they are willing to offer in trying to.
She ended up in Cambridge for a bit, for her work, and then back to Oxford. Her career was going really well, but I don’t think she was ever capable of taking her success for granted. Whenever she had some kind of application she’d just get so stressed out.
As an outsider looking in, I never understood why. All I’d seen in the entirety of our time together was her getting what she wanted. She fell in love, again, and got married. I missed the wedding. I know I should have gone, but flights were expensive and I had a lot of work on. Besides, part of me worried that she didn’t want me there. That I’d cast a shadow.
We lost touch. I felt she was drifting from me, again, and lashed out to tell her how much her abandonment had hurt in the second year. That blind sighted her. All she had really heard from me until that point was how grateful I was for her friendship, her support, her wisdom. And all I could really think of was this need I had for her guidance, this dependence I had developed on her mind that had grown selfish. I’d given my power to her and was mad at how she couldn’t hold on to it. That had created a structure between us as brittle as that glass.
I’ve apologised since, clarified that in articulating certain hurts I hadn’t forgotten about much she had helped me. Owned up to a thread of victimhood that lived inside me that had made me feel entitled to a level of support that ultimately it was her choice to offer to give. For my own part, I’ve come recognise that maybe she doesn’t have all the answers. Maybe she’s not the perfect fantasy friend. Maybe there’s no one in this world who can tell us what to do with our messy lives. Maybe not all friendships are meant to last.
We’ve remained civil but distant. I still read and admire a lot of what she writes. I still wonder about whether she reads me, what she would say if she scrutinised my work as she did at university, when she’d clean the mud from my sentences with that clarity of thought I don’t think I’ll ever have. I still feel glad that I met her.
Bright lights and cobwebs
A historic vaccination enters our writer's bloodstream.
A great triumph of science entered my bloodstream last week, an event that involved the bizarre, post-apocalyptic experience of entering an ice-skating stadium turned makeshift vaccination centre and being told off for taking photos of men in army suits.
‘It’s a historic moment,’ I told the nurse who stood over my shoulder and made sure I’d deleted each one.
I was surprised by the extent to which my body reacted, its weakness, and the strange fever that followed the night of the vaccination, in which I’d dreamt of my brother strangling me. It’s one of my most recurrent nightmares, but this time had the twist that I’d fought back.
I’d had assignments that week -- interesting ones -- and was annoyed by the slowness of my mind, worried that attempts to preserve my sanity through lockdown had dulled the critical faculties I need to perform well professionally. Sometimes, it feels like when you turn a light on too bright you don’t notice the cobwebs you’re supposed to as a half decent journalist.
I ask myself the question - In making concerted efforts to be happy, had I turned my back on my own intellect -- and at what cost? And where’s the middle ground between living a life of joy, and a life of purpose?
I’ve been making concerted efforts to follow and scrutinise the news again, properly, and in German, writing out each unfamiliar word as I used to, back at university when the fear of blowing up my brain had no hold over me, when everything was a frenzy of learning, and where everyone was unapologetic in their love of knowledge, complexity and of depth.
And more than willing to put up with the discomforts that came with that sort of cognitive stretching and scrutiny. But now I’m romanticising a time that was also really challenging, and an environment against which I’d actively rebelled sometimes, too.
Seems like wherever I am, I find a way not to fit. But maybe that’s just where I’m meant to be.
P.S. I'm towards the end of Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet, and it's literally the best thing I've read in five thousand years. Highly recommended.
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.