Thursday, 28 November 2013

TechAbility 2013: Two Days at Google Paris!

Google Paris office car
I can vouch for the presence of this car in the Google Paris offices. There's also a cow sculpture outside, a shrine to wine and VERY good food. Macarons, pizza, Google wasabi peas - the whole shebang.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I mentioned a little trip to Paris I had planned for this week. This was for the Google TechAbility 2013 programme, which certainly deserves a post of its own.

TechAbility is an offshoot of EmployAbility, a scheme to get students with disabilities or dyslexia working with prestigious firms for internships, grad roles, events or work experience. And when you think of prestige in the business world, Google will probably come to mind. Yes - Google. EmployAbility has pretty good connections, right?

I certainly wasn't planning on turning down the opportunity to spend two days at Google Paris, and I'm glad I didn't think twice before booking my flight. The event was superbly planned, and the work of EmployAbility's Tab Ahmad and Google's Clare Bass has been remarkable. As someone who is looking for ways to reduce the stigma surrounding disability, particularly mental health, their work seems incredible to me.

On Wednesday, the main day of the event, fifty participants - each with a disability or dyslexia - gathered together in the Google Paris office to learn more about Google and its products (both new and existing), 'grill a Googler', get tailored CV and interview advice, and meet likeminded students. Having the opportunity to ask Google employees about their own job roles, work history and thoughts of Google is something I can't underestimate.

Google Paris building
Google Paris: it's awesome.
Also, the projects and achievements of the other participants, regardless of their disability, was nothing less than awe-inspiring. It wasn't like "oh, what's your disability then?" at any point, but rather there was an environment of acceptance and non-judgmental communication. I didn't tell anyone except the EmployAbility team what disabilities I had, and I never felt pressured to. Both my physical disability and PTSD were considered throughout the application process and the event itself, which is, apart from the work of my wonderful university, unfortunately something I'm not used in the working world.

On the Thursday, as one of seventeen participants chosen to participate in the twelve-week Google TechAbility mentoring programme, I returned to Google Paris once more. We had an initial introduction to the mentoring programme before meeting our mentor for the first time, although as my mentor works for Google Wroclaw and couldn't make the trip over, we made do with a one-hour conversation over Google Hangout.

My good luck continues as my mentor seems to be so friendly and helpful, and I'm sure she'll be of great help when it comes to developing Tolstoy Therapy - and associated ideas - further and making the most of my time working for a travel startup in Barcelona. Could a trip to Poland be in the pipeline? Perhaps!

Also, by participating in the TechAbility programme, it should be made easier for me to apply for an internship or graduate role at Google. Let's see how that goes!

If you're an undergraduate, postgrad or recent graduate with a disability or dyslexia, I couldn't recommend more highly that you check out EmployAbility and the schemes they offer. They're working so hard to break down the barriers that disabled students so often face, and it really is something that you can make the most of.

Google goodies
Google-related loot to induce envy in friends, family
 and colleagues.
If you'd like to ask me more about the application process or my experience so far with EmployAbility, TechAbility or Google, don't hesitate to get in touch through my contact form. I'd definitely try to help you out with any questions or advice.

N.B. This post also acts as a convenient start of my plans to use the blog to reduce mental health stigma. I'll still be focusing on books - and particularly bibliotherapy - in many of my posts, but I think making use of the platform I've built here will be so much more effective than starting a separate website at this point. Keep an eye on the blog for more!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Changing My Mind About... NW by Zadie Smith

NW by Zadie Smith
NW by Zadie Smith - an intelligent novel
or just jumbled? Source.
I haven't read any other reviews of Zadie Smith's latest novel, NW, yet, despite it being published during Autumn last year. However, I'd like to write my review first to avoid getting too caught up in the thoughts of others. Here's a brief summary of the novel:

Zadie Smith's brilliant tragi-comic NW follows four Londoners - Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan - after they've left their childhood council estate, grown up and moved on to different lives. From private houses to public parks, at work and at play, their city is brutal, beautiful and complicated. Yet after a chance encounter they each find that the choices they've made, the people they once were and are now, can suddenly, rapidly unravel. A portrait of modern urban life, NW is funny, sad and urgent - as brimming with vitality as the city itself.

NW was not an easy read by any means. I started it on my way out to Spain towards the end of August, and I've only just finished it now, in late

November. This has something to do with the reading difficulties I've been having (which have become more bearable after I discussed them here on the blog, alongside my choice to read more audiobooks and paperbacks than ebooks), but the choppy, unsettled tone and structure of the book was mostly accountable.

Before I finished the novel last week, I was thinking that I definitely wouldn't be reviewing it here on the blog. For one, how could I encourage others to read it if I hadn't enjoyed it? Moreover, what would I fill a blog post about it with?

Yet here I am, writing about NW, and I think I'll use this post to outline why I changed my mind. Perhaps it's interesting to note here that Zadie Smith has a collection of essays entitled Changing My Mind - maybe I will turn to these at some point!

To be brief, my problems with the book were the following:

  • It was often dense, confusing and difficult to read
  • It wasn't something I could spend large chunks of time reading
  • I often felt like I wasn't getting anywhere with the book.

Zadie Smith author
Zadie Smith, author of novels including NW and On BeautySource.

However, the following factors changed my mind about NW:

  • Zadie Smith's descriptions of race tend to be fascinating. I studied the treatment of race in her previous novel, On Beauty, at length during my last year of university, and spent a lot of time listening to my lecturer's thoughts on hybridity, transatlantacism, and mixed race identity. Smith expresses a focus on race throughout her writing, and it's particularly interesting to see how she presents mixed race friendships in a city as multicultural as London. 
  • NW also got me thinking about Paul Gilroy's use of 'roots' and 'routes' in his critical work on race, with 'roots' referring to someone's ancestry and origins, and 'routes' referring to the journey that they take (for instance, the routes of slaves from Africa to America). 
  • Keisha Blake (who becomes Natalie Blake in adolescence) undergoes a compelling transformation from poor council estate child to successful lawyer. For various reasons I tend to enjoy novels in which the characters transcend hardship. 
  • The virtue of working hard comes into this, although I'm not sure if this is with some irony. Does Smith truly believe that by working hard anyone can escape life on a council estate, or any poverty or deprivation for that matter? Are there not limits? Does Zadie Smith's personal experience come into this, whether she's being ironical or not?

NW is an infuriating novel, but it gets you thinking and leads to conversation. I think a novel is truly bad when you can't find anything to say about it, and NW has given me a lot to talk about. Will I ever return to the novel? Almost certainly not. Will I read other novels by Zadie Smith? Certainly.

Also: Check out Brian's lovely review of my ebook over on his blog, Babbling Books!

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Reading OCD: A Confession of Why I'm Not Reading

Yesterday evening I was planning to wind down with my Kindle and a cup of my 'buenas noches' tea. I've been looking forward to reading Brené Brown's Daring Greatly for a long time now, ever since I first watched her TED talks, and I think it's the perfect time for me to learn from her lessons on vulnerability. I've also been wanting to get on with other books that are in varying states of progress. 

There's just one problem: my mind is doing everything it can to stop me from reading.

Last night, I settled down with the Brené Brown book readily downloaded on my Kindle and I read the first sentence. I wasn't sure I had read it properly, so I read it again. I moved on to the next sentence, but then I couldn't remember what happened in the sentence before, so I went back to the beginning. I moved on to the next sentence, then the whole process repeated again. 

With each sentence the tightness in my chest grew stronger, alongside the growing panic that I hadn't understood it properly or read it correctly. This isn't the first time it's happened by any means: the last few months I've experienced it almost every moment I've spent reading. I know it doesn't make sense at all and it sounds really pathetic, but I'm struggling to work out how to control it. And it's intensely painful. 

Perhaps now it makes sense to you why I've only read five books since the start of August. I've been reluctant to admit that I've been facing this problem, and I haven't really let myself think about it, let alone tell anyone else. I can tell that it's bad because I've only just Googled it: normally I'm the first person to type my symptoms into a search engine and become paranoid about all the possible problems.

Google provides the following answer by Jonathan Grayson, Ph.D., as outlined on a a blog by someone who seems to be experiencing exactly the same thing as me:

“The core of the problem is having the feeling that you don’t understand what you read. As a result, you reread a sentence or a word over and over before going on to the next sentence. Unfortunately, this contributes to destroying the flow of what you are reading, so the feeling of understanding becomes even more unattainable. Generally, the more important the material, the greater the anxiety. Schoolwork becomes torture.”

Now that sounds familiar.

I've never really gone into my OCD that much on the blog, and I've never pursued any help for it (apart from being diagnosed a few years ago). I felt that there were more pressing issues to deal with, and that my compulsions would be something I could deal with singlehandedly with time. However, now I'll listen to Brené Brown and give in to my vulnerability. Or at least try to.

In my early teenage years, it was a need for neatness and order that affected me. I'd spend hours arranging drawers and smoothing the creases from my bed. I'd be on the verge of tears if someone moved my pencil case from how I'd put it on my desk. Yes, it was by all means the stereotypical 'OCD' behaviour that's dismissively described by everyone these days. But things were out of control, and I was desperate to control what I could. I really needed to read Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations back then.

At university, I became terrified that I'd sleepwalk and end up outside my halls of residence. I'd spend a good hour before bed putting my desk chair in front of my door and something in front of the window to stop me going near it. I would check the doors and windows again and again. It was almost laughably bad luck that I dropped the window key out the window and into a drain underneath.

These habits persisted throughout both my first and second years of university, and my nighttime anxiety developed into fears that people I loved were in danger. If I didn't count in a certain way (usally groups of four), a family member would fall sick. And I couldn't just do it once and everything would be ok: I'd have to repeat the counting until it felt right. That could take a while.

To make matters worse, about a year ago the counting became more physical, and I'd have to tap my head in groups of four a certain amount of times whenever bad thoughts came to me. If you ever met me and saw me tapping my forehead and trying my hardest to make it look like I was scratching an itch or moving my hair, that's that was going on. I'm embarrassed to say it still happens several times a day and without fail every night.

It's fairly easy to understand why I keep all of this quiet from people. The tidiness and the furniture rearranging and the bad thoughts and the head tapping have all been - and often still are - very hard to deal with, but not being able to read is by far the worst-case scenario for me.

Unlike my other compulsions, I don't get any sense of order or relief from giving in and reading sentences over and over again. The stress just gets higher the longer I spend with the book, and I'm so angry with myself that I've let this develop into a ritual. But the thing is, by the time I realise that something has become a ritual, it's already a full-blown problem.

I'm looking into solutions, and particularly into whether this is something I can deal with on my own. I know that I'm going to have push myself and go ahead with what scares me even when it's pulling me apart. I'm aware that it's going to be really challenging, and probably exhausting too. Even writing this post has made me feel incredibly vulnerable, and it's going to take a lot of courage to press 'publish'.

I know I'm going to have to dare greatly, and so I might as well start by reading the Brené Brown and kill two birds with one stone.

Can I possibly find a way to use bibliotherapy to treat the panic and fear I'm experiencing in the face of books, the literature that has always meant so much to me? It's going to be a challenge, I'll give you that.

N.B. In the time between writing this and publishing it, I've decided to give an audiobook a go. At least for the time being, it looks like something that could work for me. Do any of you listen to audiobooks? What do you think of them?

Marcus Aurelius on 'The quality of your thoughts'
Marcus Aurelius: the eternal provider of wisdom! Image source.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

A Book About Books: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
The End of Your Life Book Club: a
bibliotherapeutic book for booklovers!
Image source.
"Why didn't I buy the paperback edition?" is the question that I seem to be forever asking myself these days. It generally happens after I read something remarkable and I want to share it with everyone. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe is one such book.

If you love reading as much as I do - and I know most of you do - then I'd love for you to get a copy and let me know what you think. It's perhaps best classed as a memoir, in which Will Schwalbe celebrates his mother's life and their shared relationship with literature; something which becomes most prominent following his mother's diagnosis with pancreatic cancer.

His mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe, truly deserved to have a book written about her life. In fact, I think it was necessary. She spent a great deal of her life in education, teaching and overseeing admissions (including some time at both Radcliffe and Harvard University), but during her last two decades she dedicated herself to working with refugees worldwide.

She spent six months in Thai refugee camps, was shot at in Afghanistan, and was an electoral observer in the Balkans. She founded the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, and persuaded the International Rescue Committee to set up a UK office. Towards the end of her life, her work to fund a library project in Afghanistan reflected her love of reading and her belief in its power to change.

Will Schwalbe describes Mary Anne as the 'air traffic control' in their family, as the person who would automatically assume responsibility and control over others. You notice this characteristic of hers throughout the book, not least in how 'Will's' blog posts about her health are in fact written by her. In some reviews people criticise this side of her character, but I appreciated how Will wrote so accurately and honestly about his incredibly philanthropic and kind, yet always on the go, mother.

The 'End of Your Life Book Club' described in the title encompasses the literary bond between Will and Mary Anne that is strengthened with Mary Anne's deterioration of health. Before her check-ups and chemo appointments, the mother and son discuss the books they have both been reading. As they choose to read (or reread) the same books together, their book club of two people is formed.

I love that there was a balance between classic texts and new fiction in their book club. Thomas Mann's tomes and Tolkien's The Hobbit are discussed at length, but so are novels such as Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Will and Mary Anne both provide their own insights into each text, and in the case that I'd read the book too, I also considered my own thoughts.

By reading this book you're invited into Will and Mary Anne's book club, and this is perhaps what I enjoyed most about it. Not only could I join their discussions of great books, but I could also find recommendations of novels I'd perhaps enjoy as much as they did.

After finishing The End of Your Life Book Club this morning, I'm going to send an email to my local village bookshop asking them to stock The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly and Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro in time for my trip back home next weekend. I'm in need of some real, tangible books, and Will Schwalbe's remarkable book has provided me with the perfect ideas to start with.