Last month one of my dearest friends had a fatal heart attack while sitting at her computer at home. She was only 54.
Flick (whom I never once called by her actual name, Felicity Jones) was 12 years older than me and, although I never thought about it this way when she was alive, she was like the big sister I never had. I wanted to share some of the things I learned from my friend Flick because I miss her already.
Flick would have been the first one to say she was terrible with money and didn’t really like cleaning the house. When she died she left behind a truly amazing number of unpaid parking fines. Her paperwork was a mess. Although she had drafted a will, she never got around to signing it. We all managed to have a laugh about this in the terrible week after she died because it was just so typical.
None of these omissions happened because she was stupid. Far from it – she’d gone back to school in the 1990s and earned a masters by research along with a couple of other degrees. Flick just had trouble paying attention to details. Terrible trouble. She tried all kinds of things to fix her attention problems, most of which didn’t work. When she was diagnosed with ADHD at age 50 she was relieved to finally have an explanation, but the treatment didn’t seem to make much difference.
While most of us hide our failings from the world, Flick would tell funny stories about her stuff ups, with great relish and a hearty belly laugh that invited you to laugh with her. Flick’s acceptance of her own failures went along with acceptance of other people’s failings. Everyone knew you could trust Flick not to judge and to keep secrets. I think this is the reason why so many people confided in her.
So much time in academia dedicated to the pursuit of perfection it can be easy to forget that stories of failure are often more interesting – and human. I’m pleased that stories of my own failure, such as “Academic Arrogance”, “Why you might be stuck” and “the stegosaurus strategy” have resonated so much with others. While working to accept your failings you may find solutions – or not – but laughter helps regardless.
There’s only actions and consequences
Flick was a great parent because she approached it with intelligence, care and diligence. Her adult daughters genuinely enjoyed spending time with her, which I think is a testament to her success. I used to ask Flick for parenting advice because I aspire to be a parent/friend when Thesis Whisperer Jnr grows up.
Flick often talked about how important it was to equip your kids for the world, but to never fall into the trap of feeling sorry for them. The key, she claimed, was to not try to fix all their problems. If you swoop in to save your kids all the time, she said, it sends the message that you don’t have confidence in their ability to fix things for themselves. The job of a parent is to help build confidence, not undermine it.
In my view many research supervisors could take a leaf from Flick’s book of parenting.
I often encounter supervisors who think their primary job is to edit their student’s writing, but correcting is not helpful past a certain point because it disempowers people. It is far better to spend time teaching students how to avoid the mistakes in the first place, and then get out of their way. Standing back is not the same as being neglectful. Research students are highly capable adults. We need to respect their abilities and let them fix their own mistakes.
Be who you are
It was always easy tobuy presents for Flick; you knew what she liked. Her taste was eclectic and she was enthusiastic about all kinds of stuff. Someone in the 18th century would have said Flick had ‘strong affections’.
She liked steampunk, celtic tattoos, spikey high heeled boots, Led Zepplin, Georgette Heyer novels, the history Wales, Nat King Cole, quilting, cable knitting, corsets, second life, Cafe del Mar, Jamie Oliver, purple hand luggage, Vince Jones, little big planet and cupcakes – just to name a few.
The thing I will remember most about Flick and her interests will be her enjoyment of them. No matter what anyone else thought, she was confident about what she liked was interesting and worthwhile. This was an attractive quality that drew people to her.
For instance, I’ll admit that I never understood her fascination with the online community Second Life. I’ll admit I was judgmental and thought Second Life was a waste of time, but I kept my thoughts to myself because Flick threw herself with enthusiasm into it and built relationships with many people there. After she died it was some measure of comfort for me to read about the SL community’s grief for her. SL was a creative outlet for Flick; a lot of the stuff she made in there was beautiful. I’ve included one of her SL avatar pics here because I think, in some ways, the self she made in SL was the most pure expression of her aesthetic interests.
What I take from this, for research practice, is the importance of curiosity – and following your interests with enthusiasm. I like to write academic papers about odd things: whingeing, food, hobbies. Sometimes I have a hard time getting these papers into the peer review process, perhaps because these topics don’t seem important to journal editors.
I write papers on more banal topics just to ‘get runs on the board’. While these kinds of papers are much easier to publish, my heart is not in them and they take an agonisingly long time to complete. I guess Flick would say sometimes we have to stick with the things that interest us in the face of indifference of others, gate keepers or not. Eventually, if you persist, such writings will find an audience who will appreciate them.
Thank you, dear reader, for staying with me this far and indulging my need to pay homage to my friend Flick. I found writing this helped me process the loss just a little bit. Now I’m wondering – have you had a friend pass who was precious to you? Did they teach you anything about life and work that you want to share?