Catherine Gracey

Living Life, One Misadventure At A Time.

Three Years In The Game

Before I began studying architecture, my body had found an internal balance. My life still felt restricted in many areas, but I was not having dramatic flare ups of pain. Stability was a fantastic feeling, and it came with seductive ideas about trying new things and pushing my boundaries.

Within the first week of returning to university, I had a list of aches and pains nearly as long as when I first destabilised myself. It was bad – a sit down on the floor and cry level of bad – but I reduced my course load for this semester, got some treatment in Melbourne, and pushed on.

Over the last few weeks, I have been seeing a new chiropractor in Canberra. He has tried a new technique with me. I don’t entirely comprehend how it is supposed to work, but it seems to be primarily focused on teaching me to relax muscles and reduce the tension in my body.

After a few weeks of this, I am back to sitting down and crying. There must be some progress, because instead of sitting on the floor to do it, I am now making it to the couch. Sarcasm aside, I have to mark this one as a bewildering failure and try something else.

I find my various aches and pains very suspicious. People don’t just hurt without a reason, and moving her arm should not reduce a grown woman to tears. I don’t appreciate waking up in the middle of the night with large portions of my body numb and half frozen. Pain is sometimes the only thing that keeps me awake during the day after a night where no amount of sleep will provide me with proper rest.

A constant refrain from well-meaning people over the last three years has been that just I need to get my head in the game. If you have ever suffered from chronic illness or pain, you will appreciate what a singularly unhelpful and damaging statement this is. My head spends a lot of time in the game; unfortunately it tends to take my body with it, and that’s when the trouble starts.

Today is a bad day following a bad week, and I am forced to confront a demoralising question: can I afford to keep my head in this game? Architecture is a long and expensive qualification, requiring three years of full time undergraduate study followed by two years at masters level. At best, I will be 35 when I finish. Biology suggests that I also need to have my family within that time, and pregnancy is hard work. If I can’t find someone who can tell me what causes my pain, those years will probably stretch beyond my comfort level.

Is this qualification worth the risk of crashing my body again? Will architecture provide me with enough satisfaction and fulfilment to make all the tears and painkillers worthwhile? Am I likely to earn an income sufficient to pay off not only the course but the medical treatment it will probably require? Will I even be able to work at the end of this?

The problem with all of my questions is that they require crystal ball answers. Every medical professional I meet is convinced that they have the solution to my problems. I was assured that I would be strong enough to return to full time employment two years ago. Despite all the optimism and effort, I am treading water without further progress.

While the obvious game is my education, the main game is my health. This is the one where I am struggling to maintain my focus and push on. I don’t want to keep my head in this game. I want to stop playing, to just feel normal again. That might be too much to ask for, but I would sacrifice a lot if I knew how to have it.

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Architecture Studio Pro Tips

One of the best things about studying architecture is that it includes a lot of experiential learning. Instead of sitting for hours wading through theory so dry you can never imagine an application for it, you get to spend hours experimenting with things. It can be hard work, but it is also playful work.

This liberty comes at a price: the studio critique session. This is when your studio group and your tutor will sit around and tell you all the things that are wrong with your presentation. Depending on your fellow students, their critique will be either compassionate or fair. Your tutor, on the other hand, is paid to point out something wrong with every single piece. With that in mind, I have a list of pro tips that should help you to survive your critique sessions with your ego intact.

  1. Read the assignment brief. Don’t rely on your friends to tell you what to do, because there is no guarantee that they have understood correctly.
  2. Submit an assignment that resembles the assignment brief. It is much easier to answer “why did you choose to make a model in this scale?” than to answer “how does this even relate to the assignment?”
  3. Submit all of the assignment requirements. There is no point spending 20 hours building a perfect model only to forget all of the supporting documentation.
  4. Read the assignment brief. The only people who will be impressed by your badass rebellion are the people who will be repeating the studio with you next year.
  5. Face your studio group and talk to them while you’re presenting. Facing the wall or your model will just get you told off by your tutor, and your fellow students might be friendlier to look at than your tutor seems to be.
  6. Remember that the critique is about your work, and not about you. If your tutor says “I don’t like it”, they aren’t saying “I don’t like you”.
  7. And, finally, read the assignment brief.

Studio critique sessions can be a great way to improve your understanding of how other people view your work, so that you can learn to improve your work. They require a thick skin, but you should be able to develop that after a few sessions. If you can’t, try writing some emotional poetry and submit it to an amateur critique group; studio critiques will never feel as bad again.

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Architecture at UC

Last week, I accepted an offer to study architecture at the University of Canberra. It is a three-year bachelor degree, followed by a two-year master degree. Regardless of how hard I push myself to study and complete units, I will be doing this for a while.

It is exciting to have finally made a decision about what to do with my time. Architecture is something I have been interested in for years, especially after I designed my first house. It feels like an elegant puzzle with real world applications.

My decision to apply came after I watched several fascinating lectures about architecture online. The presenters were doing some seriously cool things in their careers, and I found myself wishing I could be part of what they were creating. After my fascination set in, I asked myself a simple question: why not me?

Until recently, I had perceived architecture to be about designing cookie cutter family houses, where the greatest creativity would be in moving the occasional wall. I was blind to the commercial and industrial buildings, the museums and public spaces, and the complicated development projects. My focus had narrowed to work that would give me job security and predictability, and I am the sort of person who turns away from the secure path.

After telling a few people that I had enrolled in architecture, I quickly realised where my prejudice came from. I was asked if this means I will now be a draftsperson. I cannot imagine studying for five years, only to accept a career where all I do is draw someone else’s ideas. If I am going to approach this with an attitude of ‘why not me?’ then there is no place in my thoughts for shrinking my vision. I have to aim for the career position that I consider the highest place to go.

It is daunting to realise that I will probably graduate at 36 with a family. It is even more daunting to realise that I probably won’t be able to complete the full five years of training at a single university. Because I will probably need to transfer at some point, and I will be entering the game at a much older age, I already feel the pressure to achieve excellent marks.

I hope that life experience will compensate for the POTS as I work through this degree. I’ve learned a lot of tactics to cope over the last few years, and they are approaches that will help me here. One week in and I have had my first physical crash, but I have caught up on the week that I missed and feel confident that I will keep up with the pace.

Despite the pressure I am already inflicting on my mind and my muscles, I have been swept away by the excitement of a dramatic life change. For good or ill, I have something new to focus on and think about. New possibilities are opening up, decisions are being made, and the variables are reducing. This is already such a positive thing for me, and I am eager to see where it takes me.

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