Thoughts, news and ramblings

Sad Sights

Posted on | December 7, 2009 | No Comments

It’s been a while since I last posted anything on this blog. The last six weeks have gone by in a bit of a blur, and now suddenly it’s my last evening in California for quite a while, as tomorrow I board a plane for Boston, where I’ll be living until June next year. For the past few days I’ve been wondering what to write here as a sort of end of the year reflection. Today I witnessed such a striking, moving scene that I decided to share that with you in lieu of any general comments.

Early this afternoon I was returning a load of library books to the magnificent university library (called the Doe library), all warm after a good lunch and cheerful in the bright, cool weather that I love so much. As I entered the library I saw the man who haunts the place day in, day out, a bushy red haired guy with noble, gaunt features and torn clothes, who carries a big black plastic bag around with him containing all his possessions. He’s usually to be seen reading intensely and scribbling away at a particular desk on the second floor of the main building, just by the staircase leading up to the Classics library. When I saw him today he was reaching into each of the two big trash cans outside the main doors to the building, and taking out the paper coffee cups which had been discarded there due to the library’s ban of drinks. As I looked back, having passed through the doors, I saw him pouring what coffee remained in each of these cups into a single one, about to drink what he had gathered.

Such an image was truly shocking, but people here have become so accustomed to scenes like this one that no one else seemed to notice what was going on. And perhaps for the man’s self-esteem it was a good thing that they didn’t. Berkeley is full of characters like him, all with their plastic bags or overflowing trolley. The combination of privilege and despair, wealth and poverty, regularity and eccentricity, will form much of my memory of Berkeley while I’m away. Of course there are lots of entirely positive things which I associate with this area too – the wonderful food, the variety of people, the arts, the hills, the coastline… – but, particularly at this time of year, it’s important to remember the more negative aspects too.

That’s a somber note on which to end this post and say “So long, California!”, but I’ll be back with a happier outlook in the months to come…this time reporting on life at Harvard!

“Identitas”?? There’s no such thing….

Posted on | October 6, 2009 | 4 Comments

Identity is a hot topic in Classical scholarship. Gaining it, losing it, expressing it – whether in literature, epigraphical documents or archaeology, from Ovid expressing his fear of losing his Roman identity through being immersed in the foreign lands and languages of his exile, to the assertion of civic identity in the decrees of cities under the domination of kings in Greece and the Near East after Alexander the Great. Ironically, however, there was no such thing as the word “identitas” in Classical Latin, even though people now often assume the contrary. There are expressions for nationality, for being a particular sort of thing or person, but no single word for “identity”. So while the idea of identity may have been a hot topic for the Romans too, it wasn’t something they defined in a particular way. Imposing the idea of “identity” on them could therefore be seen as somewhat anachronistic, unless one picks apart what identity really is and means.

Now let’s skip forward a couple of thousand years to me standing in line yesterday at my local Safeway store, strawberries and a bottle of Californian wine in hand. I’d just come from the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles), where I’d taken my written test, on the way to securing both a Californian driving license and an invaluable form of ID. I’d had problems before in buying alcohol in mainstream stores, as they tend to look upon my English driving license with disdain (you have to supply ID when buying alcohol here if you look under 40). But this time I happened to have my passport with me and assumed there’d be no problem at all. I was wrong. Upon seeing my passport, which I view as the ultimate form of identification, the checkout lady claimed “That isn’t a proper form of ID – only Californian ID is accepted here”. My passport!

I left muttering things to do with xenophobia and xeno-ignorance, but really what this incident revealed most of all is the ridiculous extent to which rules can be taken. Stores like Safeway have become so obsessed with the idea of customers proving their identity that they’ve lost sight of which documents actually prove it most of all. Identification = a Californian ID or driver’s license card. Period.

Granted there is or should be difference between identification and identity in this modern culture obsessed with ID cards and mechanisms. But it’s not so great a difference really, as I experienced upon leaving Safeway, feeling that my English identity somehow counts for nothing in this vast country. If you have no identification deemed valid for proving who you are, it’s hard for your sense of identity not to be knocked a bit. It seems like the more we try to define and categorize each person’s identity, linguistically and materially, the more we confuse identification and identity, the less we’re able to show and feel personal identity beyond what’s written on bits of plastic and paper.

Opera and Walmart

Posted on | September 18, 2009 | 2 Comments

Yup, you read that right. This week’s been one of cultural extremes. On Tuesday I went to the opening night of Puccini’s “Il Trittico” at the magnificent War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, sat at the very top and very back, and enjoyed every second of the three part opera, with its soaring arias sung by the highly accomplished soprano Patricia Racette. The music was wonderful and the performers were as much actors as they were singers – a combination that can be rare in opera. And the staging was spectacular, as you can see from this picture of the last operetta, Gianni Schicci:

Set of Gianni Schicci

This is culture at its best, I thought as I looked out from the opera house balcony during one of the intermissions, gazing on the beautifully lit City Hall (anyone who’s seen the movie “Milk” will know that view).

But just as the highest forms of culture can be found here, so can the lowest. For a rather different experience, the following night I joined my friends Sydney and Tico for a Walmart Expedition. They had decided that my American cultural training could be nowhere near complete unless I experienced a huuuuuuuge and lifeless Walmart in the middle of the night. So off we went at 9pm and emerged a couple of hours later, dazed and loaded with a whole lot of things we didn’t really need. The Chinese economy did well out of our expenditure that night. The sunglasses aisle alone occupied us for quite a while, as you can see:

Tico and I modeling $3 designer frames...oh so cool

And we admired the height of technological advancement in superstores – the shopping cart escalator:

The shopping cart escalator!

Sydney and Tico were disappointed that this Walmart was a comparatively small one (I quote, “I can’t believe you can actually see the far wall here”), as they’d hoped to impress me with the sheer scale of the place. They needn’t have worried: I’m not sure I was impressed, but I was certainly overwhelmed by the scope of Walmart! And they were somewhat placated upon realizing that there was a second floor…. Everything you could possibly want was under the same, luridly lit roof, from peanut butter to lightbulbs to $5 pillows to hunting gear to desk chairs to baby clothes. The only things we couldn’t find were fresh fruit and vegetables – surprise, surprise…. Certainly it’s a very useful place to go when you need to buy a lot of stuff all at once, but it’s also a soul-destroying one which can make you forget about all the interesting, characterful things that the human race has produced.

I don’t know about you, but I think that in one short week my training in US culture has come along pretty far!

My Labor Day Picnic: that’s Berkeley!

Posted on | September 7, 2009 | No Comments

Have I mentioned already how much I enjoy Berkeley?! I just returned from a Labor Day picnic organized by my dear friends Sean and Ian (Sean went to the same college as I did at Oxford and is now in his fifth year of a PhD in musicology here; Ian, his partner, is a newly qualified nurse practitioner). The range of the three other people there so completely epitomized Berkeley that I felt I had to blog about it. They were: a post-doc in biochemistry at Cal (previously at Harvard); a baker who works for the cooperative Arizmendi bakery, could name every ingredient in everything and told us how to use soaked flax seeds as an alternative to eggs in vegan cookies; and a guy who helps to design the Firefox web browser and could explain why I had problems with Google Gears. AND the origin of their friendship with one another is that they all volunteer or have volunteered at the Berkeley Free Clinic, which is one of the few “street medicine” clinics in the state where healthcare is provided free of charge. The fact that it’s in Berkeley and has been since 1969 says something about the politics, charity and liberalism of the area.

Outstanding education and research, all things gastronomic, and geeky but very exciting techy stuff, all combined with a liberal and generous spirit (and a lot of sunshine): that’s the Bay area in a nutshell!

And the budget cuts hit….

Posted on | August 30, 2009 | 1 Comment

UCB Doe LibraryDespite the fact that the University of California has been millions and millions of dollars in the red for quite some time now, it’s only been in the last week that I, as a graduate student at Berkeley, have really felt the impact of this financial crisis. I returned from the library access bliss of Oxford to find that one of the measures being taken to reduce costs is the closure of campus libraries on Saturdays until June 2010. The stacks, where the main collection resides, will remain open but the individual subject libraries will be closed. Many of them are now shut for the whole weekend (fortunately the Classics one is open on Sunday afternoon). The impact of all this on graduate students and researchers is huge, particularly as seminar and teaching commitments often mean that weekends are truly precious for getting work done. Even with the stacks open, the lack of the Classics library (which doubles up as the graduates’ study space, with spaces for our individual collections of books) makes research very difficult. During the weekdays the library is open from 9am to 9pm, except for Friday, when it closes at 5pm.

This is bad enough, but what makes my blood boil are, in contrast, the current opening hours of the main sports center on campus (the RSF): Monday – Thursday 6am – 1am; Friday 6am – 11pm; Saturday 8am – 11pm; Sunday 8am – 1am. Of course the money for sports isn’t coming directly from the same pot as that for libraries, as sponsorship brings in so much more revenue for the former. And of course it’s wonderful to have such good sports facilities, which I very much enjoy using myself. Nevertheless, the fact that the gym here is open for at least 60 more hours a week than most of the libraries are surely sends out a very discouraging message! I understand that drastic measures must inevitably be taken in an attempt to deal with a true financial crisis, but will the closure of libraries, primarily staffed by undergraduates on a low salary, really do much to help? And doesn’t UC Berkeley want to foster its reputation as a leading research university rather than give the impression that sport is valued more highly here than learning? And finally, who on earth goes to the gym at midnight??!!

“Socialized medicine”??

Posted on | August 19, 2009 | 4 Comments

A doctored (!) image used by various conservative bloggersI’m back in the US in time for the most important political debate of Obama’s presidency thus far. Every time I read or hear reports of the furore surrounding his attempts to overhaul the currently unsustainable healthcare system, I shake my head in disbelief. What is this American obsession with the “threat” of “socialism”? And the conviction that any degree of government control somehow goes against the rights of Americans, even though so many services already rely on at least some governmental regulation and would crumble if they didn’t? The deep concern felt about these issues is  certainly being exploited by the conservatives, as the deliberately misleading and inflammatory term “socialized medicine” shows. Why can’t Obama’s opponents understand that his plans do not entail complete government control over healthcare? (If they did, as my friend Tico pointed out today, then they’d be doing away with the idea of insurance altogether and stopping healthcare provision from being such a money-making business). Instead, his plans constitute an attempt to provide another option in addition to private health insurance, so that everyone in this supposedly fair country can be entitled to treatment, regardless of their wealth or type of employment.  Of course this plan needs much fine-tuning and, as Senator Olympia Snowe has been emphasizing, shouldn’t be rushed through when so much depends upon it, but its basic principles are sound and there’s time ahead for such reworking.

The overriding and very frustrating reason for such dogmatic and vehement opposition to the health bill seems to be the widespread ignorance regarding what it actually proposes, as has become so clear in the incendiary town hall meetings, where both sides (though especially the opponents) are shouting each other down without appearing really to understand what is actually at stake (for a good discussion of this from the Boston Globe, click here). Critics talk about their American right to choose without realizing that such choice isn’t being taken away. If anything, there should be more choice, with public insurance options alongside private ones for those who can’t easily afford the latter. The idea that Americans would be deprived of this right were the bill to go ahead results from the misleading, polarizing and far too simplistic ad campaigns launched by the Republicans above all (e.g. Sarah Palin on “death panels”).

There was a lot of opposition to the establishment of the National Health Service in the UK when it was first launched in 1948. Its whole set-up is far from what Obama is proposing for the US, as insurance is not involved. Our taxes pay directly for our hospitals, doctors, nurses, midwives etc., so there’s no need for the middleman insurer. 61 years after the NHS started, of course there are problems and of course there is endless criticism (as there should be, as that’s how the system can be improved), but no one in Britain questions the service itself i.e. the provision of no questions asked healthcare to every UK resident. We’ve all come to take it for granted that we can get medical treatment for free. Yes, our taxes are higher as a result, but then what we pay is in proportion to our income. There are different tax thresholds depending on the amount people earn; those who earn below the lowest threshold (as well as students and pensioners) aren’t taxed and so get healthcare (along with various other services) completely for free.

It’s funny that the NHS has been targeted by those opposing the healthcare bill in the US as the negative paradigm, while the many other public health services in the world have been ignored (think France, Canada or Germany). It’s all the more funny and irritating when I think of quite how well my family and I have been served by the NHS. We enjoyed a family doctor for 30 years until he retired and my parents still go to the same surgery, where they can get on-the-day appointments. No Briton spends more than £7.20 for any set of prescription drugs at any one time. If s/he is a student, unemployed, a pensioner or pregnant, all prescriptions are free. The contraceptive pill is free. There is choice – you can decide on which surgery to go to and which doctor to see there, and, if there’s a choice available in the specific type or brand of medicine you can take (e.g. with anti-depressants or the pill), you, the patient, can choose what’s best for you through a consultation with your doctor. And finally, what’s crucial to realize, is that there is private healthcare alongside all this too, if one decides to pay for it. That’s the luxurious option, open only to those who have the money for it. But it’s a sign of the NHS’s success that most people who could afford private healthcare (my parents included) still choose the free, public option.

The plans proposed by Obama’s government certainly need much more fine-tuning, but who can argue against the attempt to transform the current system, so that a decent level of healthcare can be available for not only the haves but the have-nots too? Apparently many can, but I fail to understand why or how.

It’s almost time to go back…home?

Posted on | July 29, 2009 | 1 Comment

Sam and I after he passed his vivaSince I’ve been over on these English shores this blog has been sorely neglected, so I thought I should write a quick note now that my flight back to the US is less than a week away. These past couple of months in the UK have been wonderful in many ways (as well as the time spent out of the UK in Paris and then the South of France), but I am definitely ready to return to the life I’ve set up for myself in Berkeley.

It would take too long to describe in words all the adventures Sam and I have had while together in the same continent, so I encourage you to see my photos instead, where some of the most memorable moments are recorded. Suffice to say here that the highlights were: Sam submitting his thesis and then passing his viva (defense in US English), as well as the drinking that then ensued; celebrating our two year anniversary in the Marais district in Paris; making dinner for my brother and his family in their new house in Oxford; traveling the length of France by train; winding up the narrow cobbled streets of the tiny hilltop village overlooking the converted barn where my whole family stayed  for a week near the Pyrenees in Southern France; realizing quite how greatly a two year old’s vocabulary can increase over just a week; being rained upon a lot after cycling to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire…and many, many more!

And now Boston and Virginia lie ahead before I finally return to Berkeley in late August, so there should be some more adventures to report before too long!

English speak

Posted on | May 1, 2009 | No Comments

I found this article in today’s New York Times a particularly satisfying read, reflecting so much of what I’ve experienced linguistically over the past year. Anyone with an awareness of both English and American cultures is likely to appreciate it too!

How time flies….

Posted on | May 1, 2009 | 2 Comments

Oh dear. This post was going to be a general one about how quickly my first academic year at Berkeley has gone by, and then I saw with surprise that it’s been two months since I last wrote one – a sign in itself of the weird time warp I’m currently in! Apologies for the silence! As is usual at the end of a semester, there is a lot to do. I’ve also been caught up in my work in a particularly satisfying and absorbing way recently, with the result that it seldom occurs to me to write  anything beyond emails and a paper on choral dancing in Greek tragedy….

As I prepare to finish up here and head back to the UK for most of the Summer, many friends have been asking me both “So what do you think of Berkeley after a year here?” and “Are you looking forward to going home?”. The latter is usually phrased as a rhetorical question, so that there’s often some surprise when I don’t look immediately enthusiastic about my journey back eastwards. Don’t get me wrong: I can’t wait to spend lots of much-needed time with my family, close friends and of course Sam. But I’m also beginning to feel very settled and happy here, both in the town and area in general and in my house (it’s good to live in the same place for more than 8 months! It’s the first time I’ve done that for years), and am reluctant to go and live out of a suitcase for 3 months. And with a move to Harvard for 6 months ahead of me for 2010, I want to take advantage of being in the same spot for a while. So you see what the answer is to the first question so frequently put to me in recent weeks: I’m liking Berkeley!

I’m also enjoying my subject in a way I haven’t done before. It’s a much longer slog here than in the UK to go through the PhD process, but for the first time I feel a real and tangible end goal there ahead of me: to become a university professor of the subject I love. That privilege is worth so much work! And the process of getting there is a pretty amazing one too: I’m getting paid (just!) to learn! This really hit home when my academic adviser agreed to let me go to Harvard for the spring semester next year: this would all be included in my Berkeley fellowship, on the basis that it would be an important part of my education. This is a lucky privilege indeed! The main danger of the system here is that such a long period of coursework (at least 3 years) before embarking on one’s dissertation could have a fizzling out effect i.e. the ideas I had upon coming here have to be put on a back burner for so long that I sometimes worry they won’t be there at the end of it all. At the same time, I’m learning so much more and developing previously unthought-of interests! At the moment the greatest of these is the representation of Fifth Century BC Greek dance in literature: its significance within the plays we have and the extent to which it can be reconstructed; in particular, the phenomenon of “choral self-referentiality”, which is when the chorus draws attention in its language to its own singing and/or movement. I realize that my subject is a difficult one for people to have any sense of what I actually do – hopefully that will give a sense of the kind of research interests that can exist within the field of Classics!

Talking of which, I’d better get back to it…. Hopefully one result of being away for the Summer and not having seminars to work for or attend will be that I can update this blog a little more regularly….

Berkeley After Rain….

Posted on | March 5, 2009 | 1 Comment

What a difference rainfall makes! Though we still haven’t had near enough rain, it’s still made the Bay area so much greener – as you can see by comparing these two photos of my house, one taken in dry August and the other in wet March:

Dry AugustWet March!

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