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Category: Archived (Page 2 of 8)

Who has an Entitlement to In-Person Family

This piece was originally published on Medium on 25 May 2020.

Can you really be family if you need to spend time apart? I know that, at least from the reactions from the general public in the UK, and the exact points of indignation regarding the Cummings fiasco* in terms of rule breaking versus public endangerment and government-allowed mass death, the sticking point seems to be the idea of “the rule.” The idea of “not being allowed’’ to see family that has become ill or being able to mourn those who have passed, while he “got to” seems to be more of an issue than the fact that so many have needlessly become ill or died as a point of government neglect. In essence, the biggest impediment to feeling “normal” here seems to be being told to not see family, in a society that seems to have put a particular emphasis on physically seeing family, even if it is the best course of action to keep everyone – especially at risk family members safe. There is an entitlement to seeing who you want when you want at play here, something I think that is very much reflective of how insular some sections of society can be, not only here, with no true scale of what life is like for so many people in the world as a matter of normalcy.

I remember when I knew that we were different growing up. It wasn’t because some other child said something about the way I looked or asked if I was really an American (though those things, of course, both happened more than once). It was when every year around major holidays and school breaks, kids would come back from school, and they would talk about not just vacations, but vacations with aunts and uncles, seeing their cousins, and spending time with grandparents – and how much that access to face-to-face time with extended family was taken for granted. Learning to counter questions like “is your grandma dead” because that was the only rational some people could settle on for why we weren’t off to the grandparents’ house at Christmas or Easter was an early lesson. But like many other students whose parents might have chosen to live in the US from somewhere else, seeing grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles every year simply was not a given. But that never meant we weren’t close to them.

Every birthday, every holiday, meant calls from relatives around the globe – they would be very quick, especially before Reliance and other global services were a thing – but nevertheless, it is how I met and developed relationships with aunts and uncles and cousins, with my grandparents and their generation of siblings. I met my grandfather once in my life, but I nevertheless felt incredibly close to him. That in-person meeting was reinforced by conversations, the interest he took in me from afar. When I was able to see my grandmother in person again a couple winters ago, well, it had been 23 years apart. And yet, the familial closeness remains. My family is far from unique; we’re simply global, like many other families who find themselves in that position by either choice or circumstances. We span continents; we have learned that there is no distance that cannot be bridged. We know that sometimes when you leave, you end up being gone far longer than you meant to; it doesn’t change the fact that the family bonds are still there. And also, as much as wants might play into anything – wanting to go home, wanting to see and hug the people who mean most to you – well, want has nothing to do with what is right for all.

My biggest fear is that, in pursuing a degree in another country and getting married there too, I’ll have left my home for longer than I intended simply because it is not so simple to just fly back and forth between the US and the UK right now. Forgetting the logistics of it – the ethics of it are far too much to bear. There has been no question since January, as our wedding RSVPs started arriving, that our wants and our plans would be completely secondary to the global situation. Our lives and our families are global. It was no longer a balancing act of easiest places for the most people to fly into taking into account various levels of xenophobia versus approval to enter the country. It was a deadly calculus; do we wait and risk old age and circumstance meaning that some of our most dear cannot be part of the celebration, or do we risk holding a global super-spreader event that would likely cost our loved ones their health, if not their lives. Framed that way, there was not even a question, or even multiple courses of actions. Personal wants, whatever we think our ‘freedoms’ might be or what we feel entitled to as a ‘normal’ course of action, need to be put aside when such wants and entitlements put other people at risk, no matter how odd the times or how disruptive they might feel. To do anything to try to rush past this fact, for the sake of personal wants, is nothing short of selfish, nothing short of lacking awareness of what kind of hells so many others have gone through and what they have sacrificed.

Unprecedented is a word that gets thrown around a lot right now. And it is not really accurate – its not accurate at all actually. It simply is the easy way of sidestepping the phrase “things like this aren’t meant to happen to people like ‘us.’” Despite SARS, MERS, H1N1, and Ebola all happening in recent memory, despite refugee crisis upon crisis, natural disasters, worsening impacts from climate change, and so many other ills, on top of the ‘normal’ postcolonial phenomenon of people risking everything and moving across countries with no idea of when they might see their families again in search of a better chance, some people have no concept of separation, of the difference between a ‘want’ and an entitlement. It gets wrapped up in what multiple experts in recent weeks have referred to as a ‘childish’ conceptualization of freedom, to be sure, but also, in a very odd cultural construction where rule following is about the image of following the rules, while also internalizing a feeling that this is done out of one’s good graces, but really, they don’t have to do what they are doing.

Entitlements are all about exceptions – all the reasons why draconian rules should not apply to an individual. It’s not about what someone is allowed to do but rather, the ways in which they have the the ‘right’ or ‘freedom’ to be above the rules, because of who they are inherently. When something that seems like an intrinsic part of life is suddenly limited, of course it is difficult to bear. But in those moments there is a choice: we can either dig our heels in and challenge the forces that we see as impeding our ‘rights’, or we can embrace the opportunity to consider what other peoples’ lives might be like. The bitter truth is that in this modern world, more people have to leave their loved ones behind – live, love, die and mourn without being ever able to be near them – than get to hold both their futures and their pasts. This is a chance to reflect on the fact that what is normal for some, is not really, the ‘normal’ for all. This is not to say that isolation is easy, or that the new world of pandemics that probably could have been prepared for is something that doesn’t require significant adjustment. It is to say, however, that the obsession with rule following versus a personal understanding of a duty to communities in difficult time is something, quite frankly, that a lot of people need to grapple a little harder with before bemoaning the length of current lockdowns in envy of those who are openly breaking them.

Isolation is hard; I merely struggle with the situation I have known my entire life, worrying if I have accidentally left another branch of my family in a way that I will not be with them for many more years than planned. But I’m a third-culture kid who grew up in a global family before internet-tech made these relationships easier to bear: I have the tools to survive that. It is downright painful for so many friends and acquaintances who are in epicenters, who are without other humans in their households, who are without their friends and found-families and have been without them for months. And I watch as these friends and acquaintances screech their anguish into various voids, and then in the same breath reiterate their same commitment to bearing the loneliness for the good of their societies. I have the tools to handle prolonged isolation from family, like every immigrant does, like every child of immigrants does. And this is not specific to immigrants; this is a skill that can be developed with acceptance that the world you live in is different from the way you might think it should have been. Entitlement, however, is insisting that you don’t have to learn to use the skill, because you’re not like those people who do have to, who have to build different networks, and get by with different, made and found families – and then without them too – every day. Entitlement is focusing on the rules, and who broke them, and who gets to do so with impunity, who gets to lie about it, and how unfair that is, without looking at the bigger picture. One day I’ll hug my family again. One day I’ll go home, and friends will no longer be completely alone in their spaces and we’ll feel a little better about breathing fresh air together. But until then, there will be phone calls and video chats, texts and snail mail, and I will also keep thinking about the next country I might just be calling myself an immigrant in, and continuing the pattern of distant closeness without the entitlement to being family-in-person, but being a family nonetheless.

* the breaking lockdown multiple times fiasco, not any of the other ones — I know, it is hard to keep track

Conquering the Home Office: Some Things to Keep in Mind

This piece was originally published at on March 23, 2020.

Even before we all had to start taking measures against the spread of COVID-19, I pretty much worked from home full-time. As much as I enjoy working in various libraries and cafes, it is not always feasible for me given that my research can sometimes require watching films side by side multiple times a day. It’s not really quiet work, involving things like listening to clips of scores as loud as possible to isolate instrumentation. So, I find myself for the most part working from my apartment where I have all the things I need, but sometimes, not a lot of company. Graduate work, whether masters or PhD level research work, can be an intensely isolating process that becomes especially compounded if you work primarily from home. However, after three years of building my little media-infused work bubble, I’ve come up with some things that help me maintain focus, break up the monotony and develop healthy work habits.

NB — a lot of this advice was written pre-isolation measures becoming a necessity. I’ve made caveats where necessary, but anything involving being in public, or meeting other people, well, use your best judgement in the service of public good and public health. However, noting that this period might also make working from home a lot more normalized post-pandemic — and there WILL be a post-pandemic world with a new normal, I am still making note of things like, going outside and having real human connections, which will become more and more important as we build a new reality.

Have a distinct work space — if you can

This one is a little tricky as everyone is encouraged to work from home and not everyone has their own space, but, if you can manage having distinct areas for work for all the people in your shared space who might now find themselves cooped up, it will make a difference. For example, when my partner was still commuting to London, my work/writing space was in a separate room from the main living area so that I could close the door and keep writing while he had room to decompress in the evenings, and I did anything movie-related during the day while he was at the office. We’ve flipped things around now so that he has a space to shut the door and take conference calls, and I’m perfectly happy bouncing between the couch, the desk and the dining table (it’s where the snacks are) without having to worry about my noise ruining his work.

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Have distinct start, stop, and break times

Structure is really important because working in the same place that you live the rest of your life in means that it can be hard to not feel like you should always be working. But it can also very easily feel impossible to start work because you’re surround by all the other work of daily life. This is a mistake in both ways. Treating your research like a job, with designated break times, and a designated stopping point, can help make the day contained, manageable, and more productive. Tracking time can help — whether via software like Toggl or just on a sticky note the way I do.

Take Breaks Shame-Free

I’ve worked in offices proofing audiobooks, writing articles, editing copy, and doing a hundred other things, and I’ve freelanced from my own workspaces at home across many jobs. I can tell you one thing, whether working at home or from an office no one can work an arbitrary working day without some sort of breaks built in. So, if you can go outside take a walk (maintaining appropriate distancing techniques), call a relative, meet someone for coffee (do this digitally in these days), visit that college you’re a part of but might not spend a lot of time at and just pootle around (when we’re not in the time of a global pandemic of course) — but feel free to step away without any shame of “not working”.

Don’t take your work to bed

This is less about screens and sleep habits, or where you work (though personally, I have had to bar myself from working out of my bed because I won’t sleep if I do), and more about making sure to leave some buffer time between when you work and when you sleep. A bit of space for your brain to decompress, do something else, and get ready to rest. If meditation works for you, great, or reading something off-topic. Personally, I like to watch cartoons or fashion design, house design, or baking shows before bed to wind down ­ — so long as it is nothing that I can incorporate into my current work.

Cultivate a hobby or two

Sometimes the biggest problem with academic work is that we don’t get the validation of being “done”. We don’t get to finish discrete completable tasks on the day to day, and it can be hard to figure out if we are making progress at all. When I’m stuck, that is when I step away and bake something, or cook something. I also started knitting and crochet again. There is a satisfaction in looking at a completed project, which can help mitigate the stress of carrying long term work projects to completion. Also, my hobbies in particular are activities that consume my attention — and the use of my hands, meaning that I have to be absorbed in what I’m doing for the amount of time I’m doing it.

Have “days off”

Somewhere in my second year I decided I was just going to build in days where I went to London to DO SOMETHING different. I would bring something to read on the train, but then go see an exhibition, or visit somewhere I’d never been. While this time to study feels very limited, it is a unique period in life where it is possible to be flexible with how we use our time and explore things. Though leaving Cambridge, if you’re still here, might be less feasible at the moment, there are a ton of museums who are putting their works and exhibits online. There are also a lot of places like the Met Opera and other production companies putting opera and musical performances online, so even if you can’t GO to the theatre, you can take a theatre trip. Be creative, get friends to all watch the same movie marathon together, or try Zoom-based fitness class. Find a bunch of at-home science experiments for kids and make a day of it (mentos in the soda bottle is never not great, if incredibly sticky). Have an at-home spa day. Options are endless.

Exercise is neither punishment nor reward

Anyone else decide they can go for that jog or hit the gym only if they hit a certain word count or finish a certain number of tasks? I am currently working to deprogram that sort of thinking in my own thought processes, scheduling how I work around what I do to take care of myself. For me, this means, yoga, walks, classes, etc get scheduled first, and then I plan how I’m going to execute my work around that. It’s a work in progress; it’s hard to not feel guilty about stepping away, but even after making this shift for three weeks I can see the positive effects it has had for me. With the switch to more indoor time, this has meant finding digital solutions for the time being, and even investing in a couple of yoga and pilates DVDs (and not feeling guilty about making using them a priority).

Eat! Snack!

“Food is fuel” is a phrase more associated perhaps with athletics, but your brain needs energy to run, also. Find an eating plan that works for you — maybe you like three squares and nothing in between, or maybe you’re more of a grazer. But most of all, do not forget to eat.


Water is life. Coffee does not count. Tea does not count. (The jury is out on wine and G&Ts and assorted delights.) But seriously, a hydrated brain and body is a happy brain and body. It’s so easy to forget to do it, but maybe keep a water bottle by you even if you’re working from home. It is how I keep track of how much I am drinking. Also, I’ve become very competitive with myself in terms of tracking my daily water intake in the fitbit app. If water is boring on its own, try having some cut citrus fruits or cucumber on hand, and drop some in the glass or bottle.

Find a working method that works for you

If you’ve gone to any of the FERSA writing or working groups, you might have come across different time management methods for productive work. Pomodoro is a very popular one in group settings because of the off-and-on break structure and how it divides time into manageable chunks. For other people, a daily word count goal or a to-do list might work better. Find a system that works for you and make it a habit.

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Be proactive about seeing people and getting OUT (so to speak)

The most important thing I’ve found about working from home, is leaving it. Even if I’m not necessarily going to meet someone for something specific, just getting out into the world, where other people are, helps to lend some perspective to the work process. It’s easy to forget that even as academics we are people, and people need the presence of other people. We need society, even if we walk alone among it. Now, this might be a little bit harder in the days of quarantines and self-isolation, but it’s still possible. We’re all talking about zoom for teaching — what about setting up a Google Hangouts coffee/tea date with friends, or even an evening happy hour. The Chrome extension Netflix Party lets you sync up with friends to have movie nights or binge-watch all of Project Runway together remotely. The social distancing phase does still allow for being outside — take a walk in the fresh air (while maintaining a healthy distance away from others).

Working from a home office has its benefits, and is currently definitely a necessity for those of us who can do it, but it definitely requires its strategies to maintain healthy habits. Hopefully some of my habits can be of help if you find yourself a little lost in setting up a home-working routine. Do you have any other tips about how to manage working from home? Please share them on Twitter, @anjirbaguette and @fersacambridge using the hashtag #FERSAWFH.

Michelle Anya Anjirbag is a 3rd year PhD at the Faculty of Education, and a co-editor of the FERSA blog. Her dissertation is on depictions and constructions of diversity in fairy tale adaptations by Disney, but sometimes also writes about the intersection of fantasy, magic, and institutions. Her work has appeared in Social Sciences, Jeunesse, and Adaptation. You can find her on twitter @anjirbaguette (she really likes bread), or instagram @michelle_anya

Baking a Cake at the End of the World

This piece was originally published on Medium on 8 May 2019.

Wait for the implosion, the collapse, the explosion. The bang or the whimper. The hypocrisy fueled confrontation. The too-strong memory resurfaced. The world slows, and in that quiet bubble before the crash try to breath, try to collect yourself.

Collect your ingredients:

Butter. Eggs. Sugar. Flour.

The world ends every day, just a little bit. I am not talking about nightfall; for no comprehensible reason, the universe sometimes cracks in the most mundane ways. It becomes hard to breathe while trying to send email. It becomes hard to get through the next task on the list, or remember why the list matters anyways. It’s not grief, this overwhelming feeling – or if it is there is an uncertainty in terms of what exactly is being grieved over. It’s not anger or despondency, but somewhere in between, with some exhaustion mixed in, too. The pace of the world becomes relentless and it needs to stop. It doesn’t stop, though, ever. It simply falls to pieces and it becomes impossible to put the pieces back together again fast enough. And so, in imprecise, imploding chaos, the world ends, and is always ending. The oxygen is sucked out of rooms, gravity compounds upon itself — it becomes too hard to breathe or move. The only sensible thing to do as things fall apart is to put something together, to reach for the ingredients that will never fail to become more than what they were if handled the right way.

Baking Powder. Vanilla Extract.

Baking is meant to be about precision, but life is so far from that. Perhaps that is why when things fall apart it becomes necessary to turn to the comforts of the hearth — the sweet, the orderly, the controllable. Both chemistry and alchemy, it offers a relief from the too much that has become contemporary life.

Chocolate. Sea Salt.

We take the sweet with the salt, always, whether through salt itself, or tears, or blood. I was taught by friends, and before, by people who knew better that the right way to make latkes was hand shredded, with a few drops of blood entering the mixture. Blood is memory, and so blood is a seasoning. We cook, we eat, and we remember the pain of living along with the warmth and joy of eating with family, having the opportunity to remember at all. Cake is not so different in this way. Sweet things mark bright days, big events. But there is no sweetness or happiness without the moments we compare these things to.

Orange Liqueur. A Pinch of Chili Powder.

So what goes into a cake, that lets us savor the sweetness and the complexity? What goes into our lives that make us aware of when we’re happy or when we’re not – when it is time to take refuge in comforting processes and the memories and rhythms they might evoke? Mom used to add Cointreau to the truffles mixture, right before the mandarin oranges went into the pot, citrus and a hint of something else hitting my seven year old nose before we’d dip a finger into the grainy chocolate waiting to be cooled and then rolled. That something else gets made stronger with the heat that recalls breakfasts that only my family makes. A dash of chili – not for spice but warmth and color. Alcohol and spice, like memory, like the end of the world, make eyes water, call up a touch more saltwater for the batter. Cake, like life, becomes complex.

Bake. Remove from the Oven. Let Cool on a Baking Rack.

Is the cake the cake, or the recipe? Can it be what it is meant to be without the transformative heat of the oven? What does it take to bring us from unformed batter to a more formed self, and how do we know when it is enough. Precision, science, magic – it is all the same to the batter bubbling and expanding, transmogrifying into a new form, one that will make it more appealing. It’s part of the process (right?). It takes force to change us, and it is scary and painful, harsh heat that melts us and forms us into something different. And after the change, there is the same need for rest, the need to become accustomed to a new form. Don’t touch the cake lest it collapses, attempting to reclaim what it used to be. It can’t go back to what it was. We can’t go back to what we were. So we cool down where no one can touch us and try to face the new reality, where we have become something new made of all the parts of what we were before, mixed and blended til the old pieces can no longer be separated. We Become.

For the frosting:

Butter. Cocoa Powder. Vanilla Extract. Powdered Sugar.

The end of the world is not what it seems, not just an end but a beginning. The beginning of everything that might come after if you can just get through this moment. We’ve tasted the salt, the bitter, cleansing burn of the liquor; there must be some sweetness to balance it. Transformation leaves its marks. After falling apart we can put ourselves back together as we choose. The world will still be there in some fashion (won’t it?).

Orange Zest. Chili Powder. Milk as required.

Frost the Cake When Sufficiently Cooled. Let Stand.

Complex sweetness might wait beyond the end of the world, when we can face it as something different than what we were before we fell apart and the world fell apart around us. Hope is sweet; the jammy, berry kiss of early summer sun, and the whisper of wind through the trees after the world is washed clean by an autumn thunderstorm. It’s the one thing that remains with us, even when we dare not think of it. It brings the parts together into a whole, and lets us put something back into the broken world. It’s the beginning of the end of the world, and the beginning after the end of the world. It is the promise that something can always be made, always be built back up, the promise we can always find ourselves again even when all we can do is try to put the ingredients in the bowl and hope it will turn out okay.

Remember this Recipe the Next Time The World Ends.

It’s not about the cake (was it ever really about the cake?). It’s not about the actual execution of the recipe, of making something (except for when it is). It is about remembering the process, the recipe, the way one might put something back together from the mess left behind when things start to fall apart again.

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