Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Oh, The Humanities.

A while ago I came across the Twitter account New Real Peer Review, whose curator supplies abstracts of, and links to, recondite journal articles by academics in the fields of gender studies, queer studies, women's studies, postmodernism, deconstructionism, post-deconstructionism, post-post-deconstructionism, and what-not. It seems that if you want to make your mark in these disciplines, you must search out areas of experience hitherto innocent of concerns of sexuality and ethnicity and any other identity you can pinpoint, and try to open them up to such considerations whether the subject matter resists them or not. Black disabled lesbians and Scrabble? As yet up for grabs. Marginalised gender identities in the BBC shipping forecast? I'm coming to that. How about sex and accountancy? Accountancy has to be a real weenie-shrinker, right? Spreadsheets don't get most people horny, so accountants probably save up their lust for the evenings and weekends, like almost everybody else. Well, here we are told that: 'There is a paucity of research on sexuality within accounting studies in general, and next to nothing on lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* (LGBT) sexualities in particular'. (Rumens, 2015) Bet you'd never thought of that - proving the author's point! At the Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) 99% of our Chinese students study business and accountancy related subjects, so this paper could make for illuminating reading on next year's pre-sessional courses. 

Picture the reaction.

The other week a young French lady asked me to help her write a commentary on The Wife of Bath's Tale. (I do language, not content, you must understand.) She told me that she was expected to set the tale in its Mediaeval context and then ponder whether or not Chaucer had written a feminist piece. This struck me as dumb: how can you set the piece in its Mediaeval context and then claim it as feminist piece 500 years before feminism? I'm not saying Chaucer wasn't a feminist avant la lettre - I know fuck all about literature, after all. However, it does seem you get points from your lecturers if you can lasso a bit of feminism together with pretty much anything else. 

But what speak we of mere undergrads when we have an example here direct from the top floor? Harvard's Dr Jennifer C. Nash has opened up black women's arseholes for us to look into. 'I place my work in conversation with other anal theorists, showing how my investment in black anality both builds on and departs from existing scholarship' (Nash, 2014). I didn't know you could be an anal theorist. 'So, what do you do, then?' No doubt breaks the ice at parties. Anyway, Nash reckons that black women's sexuality is regarded as 'toxic' (buzz word) and 'wasteful', hence it's connection with the ring-piece. How likely is it that many people think of black women's sexuality as 'toxic' and 'wasteful', or agree with Nash's assertion that black women are generally seen as 'grotesque' and 'unfeminine' when so many black women are so beautiful? But this is another key to keeping your job in gender studies: bang on at mendacious length about how oppressed and marginalised you are, even if you are a professor or student at an Ivy League University and thus one of the most privileged and self-determining people in the history of the planet.

Another thing you must do is make your abstracts as inscrutable as you possibly can:

''This essay undertakes a critique of recent trends in affect theory from the standpoint of the “human motor”: a trope that presupposes a thermodynamic psychophysiology distended between energy conservation and entropy. In the course of reanimating thermodynamic motifs in Marx's labor power metabolics and Freud's trauma energetics, the essay broaches entropics as a poetics of depletion that offsets affect theories promoting open-system metaphors. Open-system affect theory sometimes amalgamates emancipatory post-humanist gestures inherited from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari with neuroscientific terms. In the course of “liberating” affect from subject-oriented topoi, this “liberation-scientistic” admixture expropriates organic matter's degeneration over time. An “entropical” perspective also challenges Antonio Negri's Spinozaist affect conceived as a capacitating power that encounters... ''(Ball,2015)

OK, that'll do. You get the idea. Or more likely, that dispiriting verbal sludge make it impossible to descry any ideas, thus defeating the object of writing a fucking abstract. Now, we can take the piss out of this tosh as much as we like, but we need to consider too that people are paid to produce and teach it, and students pay to learn it. Can someone tell me what conceivable intellectual worth this pretentious horseshit could have? What benefit do this writer's students derive from being taught by someone that cranks out such minge-dribble for a living? And what can they do with the knowledge other than perpetuate the insanity? (For some background to this article, go here, where the journal editors manage to illuminate matters hardly at all.)

Anyway, reading the abstracts on New Real Peer Review inspired me to write one of my own, and I'm considering submitting it as a proposal to some upcoming conference, my own small Sokal-style hoax. It's no more or less barmy and pointless than these papers presented at the American Culture Association National Conference in Seattle earlier this year: 

  • Sensual Folds, Textured Erotics: Centering the fat queer man’s belly as site of sexual pleasure. 
  • Grunge Feminism: the subversive hypertextuality of the queered voice performed through the body.
  • Boys are from Mars, Girls are from Venus, I’ve got a Yum Yum, Mom has a Penis: Gender-blind voice casting and butch desire in Bob’s Burgers.
OK, this is mine:  
Sailing By: Intertextualities and Intersexualities in the BBC Shipping Forecast.   


Using non-interventionist externalities as a heuristic, this paper explores queered, quasi-queered and non-queered maritime spaces in an attempt to deconstruct and problematise issues of self-positioning and othering that stem from the placing and subsequent re-positioning of marginalised identities within sea areas. Practices of emancipatory gender negotiation and renegotiation embodied within existing socio-linguistic paradigms are critiqued and found insufficient to account for deviations from - and challenges to - hegemonic discourses of masculinity and / or ‘masculinities’ as reflected in gendered nomenclatorial systems, e.g., 'rising quickly' or 'falling more slowly'. We call for a more critical interrogation of the aforementioned praxes and narratives and argue for more nuanced, imbricated and critical connections between mimesis and affect, with a view to destabilizing hetero-normative articulations of subjectivity, and positioning a meta-stable externality as a paradigm for anti- (or non-) normative shipping inclusivity.

Key words: queer, maritime, sea, gender negotiation, to, for, a, heteronormativity, and. 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Developing a civilisation calls for grit and spunk.

A group of students from China and Thailand are discussing the inventions and discoveries that have contributed the most to the development of civilisation and the quality of modern life. Among anaesthesia, refrigeration, the compass, etc., they include semen. 'Yes, semen has very big influence on civilisation,' they agree.

Chinese and Thai speakers have a strong tendency to place stress on the first syllable of a word and to simplify consonant clusters, so after the discussion I have to drill:

SEmen Oo


It makes a difference, folks.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Intercourse and Erections

No, it's not what you think.

A colleague was working on summary writing with her class. She asked the students to discuss their favourite leisure activity. Many Chinese students will not discuss a topic without first checking their dictionary aps at length, often in mid conversation. As this is extremely trying for the listener, it is discouraged or forbidden in most classes - a ban difficult to enforce in a large group. Anyway, after the students had discussed their preferred activities in pairs, the teacher asked one or two to tell the whole class what they like to do in their spare time.

A Chinese female student says 'intercourse.'

'Sorry, did I hear that right?

'Yes, intercourse. I enjoy it very much here. It's not the same in my country.'


'My country, no time for intercourse, but here even strangers doing intercourse, specially in the pub. I like very much.'

You, dear reader, have understood by now that she had looked up 'socialising' in Chinese and chosen the wrong word from the list of decontextualised items her dictionary proposed. How my colleague dealt with the matter her e-mail (from which I took the exchange above) doesn't say. I'm not sure how I would have handled it either. 'You've just told a large group of near strangers that you really enjoy a good fuck, sweetheart. Do you want that to stand or would you like to amend the statement now?' Universities are prudish and censorious places these days, deeply into censorship and repression in the name of diversity and inclusion. To correct the error might be seen as 'lexis-shaming' or 'connotational colonialism' or something.

A while ago I was teaching a group of Chinese students language for presentations. Such phrases as 'moving on now' and 'I'd like to turn now to...' are known as 'signposts'. I drew a signpost on the whiteboard and asked if anyone knew the English word. My question, as usual, met silence. Then one timid young lady offered:

'An erection?'

Saturday, 15 October 2016

By the way,

I need to point out to my new Taiwanese student that in English, we put given name first and family name last. This way 'Hung Dennis', as he signs himself, will avoid overselling himself on campus. I also have a Queen Wang. So fancy that.


I'm teaching a module on research methods for our TEFL MA. I have not done this before and was afraid of being shown up as less than omniscient - see blog title. The first two sessions with a group of extraordinarily enthusiastic people went well. I could congratulate myself for successfully stimulating and moderating some very lively debate. I do, sometimes. But most of the time I feel more like I put up enough front to fool everybody, and got away with it.


HR sent me a form to complete for my contract. There were sections requesting information about one's religion and sexual orientation and these annoyed me, as it seems to me that neither is relevant to any of the teaching I do and therefore nobody's bloody business. Back in the 80s I would have ticked the box 'Gay Man' with pride and probably highlighted it in pink. Of course nobody would have attempted to elicit the information then; it was necessary for us to be in-your-face about it to dispel the miasma of prejudice and lies about those of us who are homosexually inclined. I now agree with the view expressed by Gore Vidal thirty-odd years ago that gay and homosexual should be adjectives to describe acts rather than nouns to designate people. I'm a gay man only when having it away with another man in reality or fantasy and 'gay' does not apply in any other circumstance. HR is basically asking what makes my cock stiff, and they can fuck off.

I am reluctantly and resentfully ploughing through a compulsory on-line 'training' course in diversity and some other-buzz word that temporarily escapes me. Along with some useful stuff pertaining to the law, there is an intolerable deal of poker-faced piety. You are asked if you think it's OK to shake a student's hand. I don't know what the university's official position on hand shaking is: maybe these days it counts as 'inappropriate touching'. But when you work with people from Saudi Arabia or Algeria and quite a few other countries, you could give offense by not shaking their hands, so it depends. Context doesn't appear to matter to the designers of this course, though. They want to know if you think it's OK to make jokes about someone's sexual orientation. Well, again, it depends. Who's making the joke? What is the joker's relationship to the one at the receiving end of the joke? Is it a good joke? Obviously if you want to pass the course, you cannot say what you think. You will have to whip out the sal volatile and flute 'gracious me, no, whatever next?' This small measure of self-censorship grates on me and I fear an even greater degree of tongue-holding may soon be required of us if university students over here become as censorious and irrational as the ones in this nauseating video from Canada.

Sunday, 11 September 2016


Our courses now are ended. Six hundred odd students are melted into air, and left not a rack behind. Well, actually, no: there are stacks of files that will be chucked into some oubliette and ignored for the rest of time. To those of you who have proper jobs, it probably sounds rather pathetic to hear that back in June we were all daunted at the prospect of twelve unbroken weeks of five-hour days, but only those who teach can know how preparing 25 contact hours a week can eat into one’s evenings, weekends and dreams, and after the first eight weeks induce what feel scarily like signs of early dementia. I walked into my classroom the other week to find a colleague standing at my computer looking puzzled, first at what was on the monitor screen and then at my presence at her side. She was setting up her lesson in my classroom and hadn’t noticed that the assembled phone-prodding students were not hers. The other day I retrieved my card from the ATM on the campus, put it back in my wallet and walked off leaving my tenner poking out of the cash dispenser, flapping in the breeze. This morning it took innumerable text messages to a colleague and finally a phone call (‘You been on the fuckin piss, mate, or wot?’) to get straight in my mind which days I’m teaching next week.


The twelve weeks flew by and now for a spell I’m down to eight hours. I have a small group of students from China, Taiwan and Thailand. They are a fantastic bunch, head and shoulders above the language and maturity level of the students in my summer class. The summer bunch needed unremitting alternation of cajolement and bollocking to get them through the work: this lot pretty much teach themselves. One of the Chinese students requested that he be addressed by his family name, after the Thai contingent had delightedly informed him that his given name, Hui, pronounced (more or less) hway, is Thai for ‘penis’. I checked the register to see what his family name is. You have no idea how much I wanted it to be Wang: the odds in favour were pretty high, after all. Unfortunately life’s not like that and it’s actually Luan. 


Tuesday, 30 August 2016

In passing...

We’re testing this week. Today, the students did group presentations: ‘…and now I’m going to hand over to my colleague Ben, who will show you his piece.’


Three young Chinese men are looking for room 2.29 of the Harold Shipman Building. They enlist my help. I cannot locate room 2.29, and soon we have decorators, AV support staff and cleaners all combing the same corridor as if looking for a very slim volume on a bookshelf, baffled that there’s a 2.30 but no 2.29. Not even a broom cupboard. I take the three young men to another building that I know has a 2.29, but this is reserved for some seminar for health workers, so I drag them to the Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) office and dump them there.  As I am leaving the reception area, one of the young men runs after me to thank me for my help, and thrusts two Kleenex tissues into my hand. My first thought is that I must have dropped them, then, as I joked to a colleague on the stairs, that he was saying ‘have a wank on me’. Then of course I realised that he felt he had to give me something for helping him and his mates locate the elusive room 2.29, and tissues were all he had on him. That’s sweet.

I shall have it given out that it is customary in the UK to reward such selflessness as I displayed this lunchtime with bottles of good single malt and therefore students should carry several at all times.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Fear no more the heat o' the sun.

It's been hot and damnably muggy this last couple of days and we were sent guidelines, set down by some kindly soul in Human Resources, for surviving such hellish conditions. We are in the West Midlands of England, not the Taklamakan Desert, but you can't be too careful.


1) Keep windows and doors open to encourage air flow. Amazing! We’d all been near to fainting in the heat and you know, opening the window really helped!

2) Use fans or mobile air conditioning units if possible. OK, install air con and we will. (Then you’ll need to issue further detailed guidelines on how to activate it without risk of electrocution or mental breakdown from trying to decipher the instructions.)

3) Where you have blinds keep them closed to keep excessive light/heat out. So THAT’S what they’re for!

4) Avoid extreme physical exertion. I took an executive decision and skipped the Pyongyang Happy Comrades Collective Aerobic Tai-Chi warm up yesterday. Students came in, sat down and the lesson proceeded normally. Hope that's OK. Bit of a glitch today though - see 6) below.

5) Take regular breaks from the work/the area you are located in. How?

6) Wear light, loose-fitting cotton clothes. The student who died this morning was found to have been wearing a parka and thermal drawers under his T-shirt and shorts, and I didn’t notice. Mea culpa. It won’t happen again. Well, probably not.

7) Drink plenty of cold fluids, and avoid alcohol (???), caffeine (???) and hot drinks. Fuck off.

8) Eat cold foods, particularly salads and fruit with a high water content. Haven’t seen anyone piling their plates with bangers, spuds and gravy today – and it’s all because you care, H.R.

9) Turn off non-essential lights and electrical equipment (including computers, printers, scanners, photocopiers etc.) – they generate heat. So they do, so they do – you really know your stuff, don’t you?

Someone is paid to churn out this patronising bilge. It is probably the work of the same person who composed the note on the lift doors asking us to cede our places to the infirm, the elderly, the unfit and other such Untermenschen that we might otherwise contemptuously kick aside. The note adds reassuringly: 'Nearby stairs provide access to upper floors.'

Saturday, 9 July 2016

End of Course 1

Some while ago the international office of the university decreed that The Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) would change its timetable this summer. We always ran three hectic five-week summer courses with a week’s break after each one. These would now be collapsed into twelve unbroken weeks with longer days, they told us. So there.

‘But this is silly,’ we said. ‘The students will be saturated by the end of week two and with no break in sight, demoralised and resentful.’

‘But their parents back in China will be happy that they are paying for twelve weeks’ accommodation instead of seventeen’, they replied. ‘And anyway, we’ve told everybody now so it’s a done deal and there’s nothing you buggers can do about it. It’s us administrators that call the shots in universities, not teachers. Get with the programme.’

‘Well it’s still silly,’ we muttered.


The International Office lot will be feeling vindicated now. as a record number of students from the Middle Kingdom enrolled. The summer will be a bumper one for the good people of the Little Chef. It’s sweaty, muggy and knackering, but pecunia non olet: I'm going to get the living room painted on the proceeds. I’m still not sure this timetable is good for the students, though. We have come to the end of week four and everyone’s as zonked and saturated as we predicted they would be. For my students I feel alternating exasperation and compassion, and unfortunately exasperation is the more frequent emotion.

Last year a student told me ‘in China, teacher is talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, and student just play with phone.’ This must be why they tend to treat me much as they might a pub pianist: they occasionally sing along with me for a few bars but I'm definitely secondary to competing stimuli. They don’t expect to be involved in a scenario, be co-creators of context or contributors to a discussion. They just expect to be bored and to zone out with their smartphones. Boorishly loud yawns often attend my warm-up, and material other groups have taken and run with turns to mud.

They have the attention span of gnats. (This may be to malign gnats: I’m no entomologist.) We have to remind them over and over to put away their phones, unless we have sanctioned their use for research purposes. Every student will have to be reminded several times in each lesson, and frequently tapped on the shoulder so that he realises it’s him we’re addressing. As a last resort, I often snatch the offending instrument from the kid's sticky mitts. If asked to find some information on the internet they will need to be policed to ensure that they don’t research using Chinese sites. Reading Chinese doesn’t help you to improve your English. You’d have thought this was obvious, but apparently…

Instructions have to be checked and double checked. And often checked again.

‘So, what are we going to do? Jerry?’

‘We read.’

‘Yeah, and?’

Silence. I smile encouragingly. I raise an eyebrow. I tell the rosary. I play the Mahler Symphony No. 5 on the CD player. Jerry’s still thinking.

‘I… dough…know.’ Or particularly care, by the look of it.

‘I want to tell them that I don’t enjoy teaching them, and it’s their fucking fault’ a colleague said at the beginning of the week. ‘How can I do that?’ she asked. Well, you can’t. ‘You lot piss me off big time, but I’m fucking stuck with you for the coming eight weeks.’ Not likely to improve matters, really. I should point out that these students are in their early twenties and two thirds of the way through Bachelor’s degrees, in case you’re assuming. not unreasonably. that they are no more than fifteen.

The students had progress tests last week. Most of mine performed brilliantly in the reading, less well in the listening, and their writing consisted mostly of all-purpose IELTS-type phrases stitched together for the occasion: on the one hand swords were double-edged, nevertheless on the other hand coins had two sides, moreover on the other hand there was a downside to everything. (Three hands.) One student ignored the essay title (the quintessentially IELTS-y 'Causes and effects of globalisation'... yawn) and wrote about mobile phones instead. At first I thought 'dumb ass', but now I wonder if it was his protest against the banality of the... No. Reading too much into it.

Of course, the students think it’s us that are peculiar. Why don’t they just rattle on about grammar and let us text our friends in peace? Why are they constantly eliciting our opinions? Why is ‘why’ their favourite word? We spell out our rationale for all this repeatedly, but it makes no difference. My end- of-course reports, composed yesterday and to be handed out on Monday, contain dire warnings that some of them might not be recommended to do the third year of their BAs with our university unless they participate more in class and stop faffing with those wretched phones. 

Next week the second course of the summer begins. I lose one of my Chinese groups and instead get a new group of graduates with a mix of nationalities. Graduate groups on past summer courses have invariably been a delight to work with and indeed it always has felt like collaboration rather than teaching - or pushing a heavy truck uphill. With my other Chinese group I get a new room, big, airy, modern and custom-built instead of the cramped sweatbox with screeching ambulances tear-arsing past that we have been stuck in for the last four weeks. I’ve been pestering the course director for a better room for ages. (I actually stipulated one with a spa and espresso bar, but small mercies.) So I am feeling a bit more optimistic about the remainder of the summer, especially after the troop-rallying pep talk my Chinese group is going to get on Tuesday morning. I will spell out the rationales for our approach yet again, always with the knowledge they may reject them. Wish us luck.   

Saturday, 25 June 2016

An Inspector Calls

Hell, I’m not used to this. I'm fucking knackered. Most of this year I’ve been a gentleman of leisure, rising when I pleased, going to bed when I pleased, going into work on the odd day, afternoon or evening and just about surviving financially. Then suddenly we received the news that twice the expected number of students had enrolled for the first course of the summer, and since the 13th inst., nobody at the Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) has had time to take so much as a leisurely shit. Not only is there wall-to-wall teaching, but every four years we subject ourselves to voluntary inspection by the British Council, and the inspectors left on Thursday last after probing into every facet of the Little CHEF’s being, like the drug squad searching for cocaine.

Like everyone else, I had prepared fifteen hours’ worth of detailed lesson plans, as every teacher is observed during an inspection. ‘Are you scared?’ one of the students asked me when I told them an inspector would drop in at some point in the week. I snorted unattractively. I’ve observed literally hundreds of lessons myself and had dozens of people observe me for one reason or another, so I’d be interested to meet the inspector who could faze me. That said, I was glad nobody was observing me between two and three on Wednesday afternoon, when I trotted out some materials I made for the same period last year. My group of 18 Chinese twinks just didn’t get it and sat there for about half an hour in that mental deadlock Chinese kids do so well. You ask a question and they just stare at you. You reformulate the question, and they just stare at you. They don't understand but feel that to convey any sign of incomprehension would cause the teacher to lose face, so they simply try not to convey any emotion at all. You feel as if you are teaching a group photograph. You abandon the task in sheer exasperation and the next thing you do takes off and there's loads of talk and laughter and you wonder if they are the same kids. One colleague told me he felt his observed lesson had been somewhat less successful than one could wish: ‘I might as well have dropped me kex* and shat on the fuckin’ desk.’ He had apparently omitted to make a photocopy of his lesson plan for his own reference and thus been fain to ask the observer to hand back his. This is rather as if an actor playing Macbeth spotted an audience member following the performance with a copy of the Penguin edition of the play and felt it necessary to cadge it off him.

As no Briddish Kyncellor came to my classes on Tuesday or Wednesday, I knew I could expect one on Thursday. Somewhat anticlimactically after I'd spent most of the previous weekend making materials and lesson plans, he sodded off after about ten minutes. This was either because i) he knew a consummate professional when he saw one, or ii) he was pig sick of observing lessons after three days. Anyway, at a focus group for students the inspectors asked what mark out of ten the students would give us for the quality of our teaching. They said 'eleven'. 

In summer, I always hope for groups of graduate students but this year I have two groups of Chinese undergrads. They are lovely kids, (well, early twenties) friendly and funny, but Jesus, I’ll swear their concentration spans get… hang about, I need a refill… shorter every year. I’ve moaned before about their dependence on their smartphones. On Friday, I made everyone switch them off and surrender them to my safe keeping. Twenty of the damn things lay dead in a row on my desk, and I knew a brief moment of triumph. But it was brief. My colleague Sophia informed me today that there is such a thing as FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. This is anxiety caused by the nagging thought that your friends might be having a marvelous time somewhere and you have not been informed, hence the constant need to be checking your e-mails and texts. I don't suffer from this, because I know damn well that other people are almost always doing something more exciting than I am and I'm resigned to the fact. Apparently FOBO, or Fear Of Being Offline is also a thing. When deprived of their phones, my students' FOMO/FOBO seems to cause a complete mental shut down, an inability to be: they just bloody sit there and stare holes in their books. Well, they are going to have to get used to unsmartphoned moments and learn to bloody concentrate. I’m not indulging FOBO (FFS) all summer.

Ree-speck, by the way, to our course leader for his unfailing patience, empathy, courtesy and good humour in the past week, and always. At least in public: he might have a collection of cloth dolls at home that he stabs with pins. In his place I’d probably have punched somebody by now.


*Kex = Lancashire for trousers.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Anybody out there?

Well, I'm still here. Don't know if you are. I haven't said a dickybird since December.

Recently I was down to four hours teaching a week and what I earned in April and May will just about cover the June rent and a few standing orders. CVs sent to other establishments have gone unacknowledged. (Bastards.) If you know anyone who's thinking of going into English Language Teaching, beg them to reconsider. The unpredictability and lack of career structure in ELT were what attracted me back in the eighties and nineties, but now they are a source of persistent anxiety and it's wearing me down. My blood pressure has hit some alarming spikes lately. On the brighter side, blood tests revealed last week that I have the liver and kidneys of a hero, and a mean prostate. The anxiety grinds on, though: all day my stomach feels like a washing machine full of tennis balls.

In the short term, things are looking good. The other week we learned that 141 students from the Middle Kingdom are arriving mid-June, and thus the predicted fifteen hour working week for June - July is whacked up to 25. We have a frantically busy summer ahead of us with a record number of students. Even so, I can't look beyond September. All sorts of possible courses have been suggested but until they are approved and have enough participants to be viable, we know not if dearth or foison follow. This is a pain in the balls.


Periods of anxiety are not uncommon for me and although they usually have a real-world cause, while they last my perception of reality gets rather skewed. At three o'clock last Thursday, when I was gloomily convinced I had wasted everybody's time for four hours, several students came up to me to tell me how useful the day's session had been. It was as if they had shaken me awake. I'd spent something like eight hours preparing four hours' worth of teaching and had no reason to denigrate my efforts, but was doing so anyway. Three years ago, when my mind had soured and curdled, colleagues were complaining (not to me) that I had become distant and uncommunicative, whereas it seemed to me that everybody around me was pestering me to death and I wanted them to leave me the fuck alone. And yesterday a young Saudi lady gave a perfectly acceptable presentation and then had a meltdown in feedback because she was convinced she'd made a complete balls of it. (That isn't quite how she put it, of course.) I spent ten minutes restoring her self-confidence, and told her of my own experience last week of thinking a good day's teaching had been an ignominious flop. She left smiling - I could see her lips through her tear-soaked niqab.


In order to clear such mental smoke, I do two or three fifteen-minute sittings of zazen each day and attended a Buddhist meditation class on Friday evenings until the course ended. Carrying the peace of meditation into the rest of the day is quite a challenge but you feel more positive if you accept it. You need to watch your emotions with a kind of detached interest. 'There's fear / boredom / irritation again', you observe, then you let them pass by like clouds, as they will quickly do so long as you don't spin a narrative around them. The rolling stomach and butterflies in the chest will blow over: they need not become part of a mental scenario in which you are old, poor, cold, infirm and alone, a recurring image which has been freaking me out for the past month.    

In Ambivalent Zen, Lawrence  Shainberg recalls an exchange with Zen teacher Kyudo Nakagawa:

'So, Roshi, how are you today?'
'Fine! Fine!
I'm not sure why, but his answer annoys me. 'Come on, Roshi, you always say that. Nobody's fine all the time. Don't you ever have bad days?'
'Bad days? Sure! On bad days, I fine. On good days I fine.' 
His answer annoys me too, or rather, frustrates me, because it tightens the double bind that Zen deliberately traps you in: you want to feel that sense of freedom and detachment and the very wanting is what keeps you from it. 'On bad days, I fine. On good days I fine'. If I said 'well, I'll have to think about that,' I know the answer would be 'not thinking, Steven San! Thinking, this why you problem!' Before anyone objects, 'not thinking' in this sense means not succumbing to the kind of mental bad weather created by random, unacknowledged thoughts and judgments. It doesn't mean suppressing cool, deliberate cerebration.

'Don't keep any mind! Don't hold onto anything! This moment. This moment. No fixed ideas. No pictures. Anyway, don't worry, Larry San. Be patient. To be born is to suffer. Now you suffer girlfriend. Next week you suffer something else.'

Yeah, well, I'll have to thi...

What you think doing Buddhism will be like.
What doing Buddhism actually feels like.

Shainberg, L (1995) Ambivalent Zen New York: Vintage Books

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Mad Metaphors #2


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