24 December, 2015

Be Careful What You Wish For

Gentle Reader, as we look back at 2015, I am forced to conclude that one must be careful what one wishes for.  You will notice that updates here at the ol' Half Dipper have been sparse since August.

Like many of us, I live my life according to the teachings of the films of Jerry Bruckheimer.  For example, in the Parable of the Top Gun, we are taught that

"Losers always whine about their best.  Winners go home and **** the prom queen." 

I take this as being an allegory for the life of an academic.  I have therefore attempted never to whine about my best, and always to go home and **** the prom queen (figuratively speaking).

What they don't tell you is that, beyond a certain level in academia, a shocking truth exists: it is insufficient merely to go home and **** the prom queen (figuratively speaking).  In fact, to succeed beyond a certain level, one must be ****ing the prom queen all day, every day (figuratively speaking).  It is probably even true that the quality has to stay consistently high - on a long-term basis, you are pretty much only as good as the last ****ing administered to the proverbial prom queen (figuratively speaking).

As you will agree, with all of this (figurative) activity, life has changed somewhat, and my ability to write articles here along with it.

Erratum: it turns out that the above verse is from "The Rock", by Michael Bay.

Now, these are not negative constraints that I am whining about.  For indeed, was it not the very same parable that taught us that only losers whine?  Rather, these are examples of (to quote another gospel) "making you an offer you can't refuse".  It is good busyness, but it is busyness nonetheless.

Combined with the never-ending Sisyphean thrill which is childcare of a 3-year-old and 5-year-old (which is itself a tremendous benefit to the spirit), time is scarce - in a good way.

it's time to wake up now!
it's morning, daddy!

- 5 a.m. Fatherhood

This leads me on to consider a recently-identified pet peeve: people with one child.  Specifically, academics with one child.  I know quite a lot of such people - this is because childcare is quite expensive, education can be expensive, and having more than one child is a big commitment.  What bothers me is not the fact that an academic might have a single child - more precisely, if you are an academic and you have one child you are absolutely forbidden from telling me how tired you are.

If you have one child, you don't know real tiredness.  You are a dilettante at parenting.  You are wading in the shallow end.  You are a part-timer, who can always hand off the child to your spouse.

While I am rocking my dual-child credentials and dreaming of spending some of my conference travel budget, my single-child academic colleagues are kicking it in the Caribbean, or are off on jollies to the People's Republic of Jaegermeister.

If a substantive part of your academic year is spent on a beach supping coconut milk from the tanned cleavage of nubile natives, and is not spent up to your elbows in soiled nappies and bedtime stories, then you are playing at parenting.  You are subsequently disqualified from complaining to real parents about your lack of time, tiredness, hangover, venereal disease, etc.

So, then, to tea.

I have one-and-a-half books of notes that I look forward to writing-up in due course, which have focussed on a QUADRUPLECTIC whammy of care packages sent by the respective proprietors of white2tea, Essence of Tea, Bannacha, and Yunnan Sourcing.  We laughed, we cried, we drank some decent tea.

However, at our vantage point looking back over the peaks and troughs of the passing year, I would instead like to describe a few teas taken away from my tea-table, which struck me as being variously significant in one way or another.

Tea #1:  The Interview in Brussels

one hundred pages
half-an-hour interview
my first EU grant

The tea was a Darjeeling, served by the quiet Fortnum & Mason outlet in London St. Pancras.  This is the last outpost of civilisation before an Englishman takes the Eurostar train to the continent.  I was heading to Brussels, to face down some Eurocrats for a grant interview.  I had written one hundred pages for this monster, and the EU grant scheme has a 6% success rate.  As I sipped my very decent Darjeeling, I contemplated the 94% of applicants who were objectively wasting their time by writing all those pages.  This is a hugely inefficient process, designed for the convenience of the reviewers, and neatly summarises the EU's approach to science.  As it happens, the interviewers barely let me finish a sentence, with constant (often incorrect) interruptions to my answers of their (often bizarre) questions.  Needless to say, I was one of the 94% on that occasion.

On the bright side, I resubmitted the functional 8-page core of the 100-page monster to a UK governmental agency, which funded it for more than the EU was offering, and with a fraction of the bureaucracy.  It's all about the prom queen, don't forget (figuratively speaking).

Tea #2:  After the Chapel Service at School

from the thin briefcase
the school chaplain produces
the large basketball

My eldest son, Xiaohu, who is now five years old, has left pre-school and started at proper school, in one of the colleges of the university.  Every Wednesday, they pile into the chapel for their weekly service.  Every Wednesday, after chapel, the parents gather in the hall for tea.  Institutional, long-stewed hongcha, of course, but tea nonetheless.

Over those cups of tea, parents exercise their "getting-to-know-you-chit-chat" gland, mindful of the fact that their sons will be in the same class for at least the next eight years.

One week, a guest chaplain gave the sermon, whose past had included being a professional member of the "Magic Circle"; that is, he used to be a professional magician.

As his sermon proceeded, expounding the need to pay careful attention to one's daily life to see the evidence of the divine in the detail, he placed a thin briefcase on the lectern and then produced a full-size basketball from it.

He bounced the basketball off down the aisle, towards the awestruck choir.

Said choir has been travelling, including taking selfies with the Pope, and singing in his local chapel (pictured).  Truth is stranger than fiction.

Tea #3: Shupu in my Parents' House

I leave you with a haiku that recounts a recent conversation between my youngest son, Xiaolong, and his mystified father over a cup of dense shupu, in the house in which I grew up, back in The Other Place.  With this, I wish you all my very best wishes for the Christmas season, and look forward to further correspondence in 2016.

Daddy, my drawing
has a tail - do you know
what it is?

a platypus? no!
a spider monkey? no!
a beaver? no!

then I don't know -
which animal has a tail?
an ambulance!