Sunday, May 31, 2009

Googlememe: needs

It always bemuses me a bit when people start talking about their needs, as though the mere act of declaring them were some kind of claim to entitlement. (Two real examples, that I have heard with my own ears from people who were not joking, to make the point: 'But I need to have four or five women in my life.' 'But I need to be adored.' Look on the bright side though, at least they didn't come from the same person.)

Needs are relative to situation. If you are bleeding to death, you could probably say with justification that you need a blood transfusion, sharpish. But otherwise, shelter, water and food are needs, and not much else. Maybe a bit of love, of some kind or another. But pretty much everything else isn't a need, it's just a want.

I have pinched this 'needs' meme straight from Deborah Strange Land. I've seen it before, but I was quite taken with Deborah's little annotations, which spark it up no end. The rules are that you google your name followed by the word 'needs' and then list the first ten that have come up, but my results have been skewed by the presence in some "reality" TV show or other of a Kerryn about whom many brainless opinions have been passed online, some of them very unkind, so I have substituted the ten I like best, thus:

1) Kerryn needs a housekeeper for her room.
No, she needs a housekeeper for her house.

2) Kerryn needs to be remembered.
Depends. With regard to certain people, situations and events, what Kerryn needs is to be forgotten.

3) Kerryn needs a holiday.
You have no idea.

4) Kerryn needs a thought bubble above her head.
Au contraire; her mother always said she was far too open a book.

5) Kerryn needs to start shooting.
Well, not quite, not yet. But give her time.

6) Kerryn needs to replace the one she sold by mistake.
Nah, she needs to replace the one she bought by mistake. White streaks of undissolved washing powder on the "clean" black clothes, pffft.

7) Kerryn needs an understudy.
She certainly thinks it would be very reassuring to know there was someone who could come on and take over if she had swine flu or something, yes.

8) Kerryn needs makeup like 24/7, honestly.
This is doubtless true, but luckily she is too old to care.

9) Kerryn needs work.
She already has more work than can be managed, unless this was meant in the sense of 'This proposal needs work', in which case, quite.

10) Kerryn needs to bite some chumps.
Now that is what I call a need.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Uh oh

It's been a difficult couple of weeks and it's about to get worse; in addition to the usual four novels a week I have a fifth novel, a long and major one, to write a full-length review of, plus a PhD thesis to examine, and only those who have done the latter know what a delicate, responsible, time-consuming and difficult task it actually is, and one for which the pay rate works out at about ten dollars an hour, tops.

(Back in the day, you were given three months to examine a PhD thesis, on the understanding that you were a fulltime academic and would therefore be doing the work in what was laughingly called your spare time. Now it's six weeks, which in my case are shortly going to run out, and they get very snotty with you if you're late. My understanding is that this is because funding is now directly tied to 'productivity' and one of the criteria for productivity is how many finished and passed PhDs your department/school/faculty/whatevs can churn out in the shortest possible time. It's all a bit like the Soviet Union's stats for boot production circa 1946.)

And so, naturally, I am crook.

As Laura from Sills Bend would (and indeed did) say, this is crap! Who is responsible! I woke up this morning with a sore throat that has gathered strength during the day, and has been joined by sniffling, sneezing, a temperature, a head full of cement, occasional fits of faint shuddering that have nothing to do with being cold, and a general overall feeling of utter crapitude, plus a sinister sensation that my skin is hurting. That's the one I associate with flu, as distinct from just a cold, and am muttering to myself, like the old man in Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends, 'I maintain and I maintain strongly, to this minute I don't believe it's an ordinary cold.'

Naturally I plan to examine my nose for suspiciously flattened nostrils and my bottom for any sign of an incipient curly tail before I go to bed; as you can see, the squealing has begun already. In the meantime I've just finished the hot drink I made instead of dinner, which I don't feel like at all (in my case a definite sign that something is amiss): the juice of a lemon, the last of the Scotch, the last of the Ginger Honey and a slosh of water, all heated up to boiling. The good it'll do is more psychological than physical, but that is no small thing. I still feel frightful, but I care a lot less than I did half an hour ago.

Because everybody knows that women exist only as a reproductive function

Currently featured in the 'Say What?' spot at the Doonesbury site (see links in sidebar) on Slate:

"Let's hope that the key conferences aren't when she's menstruating or something, or just before she's going to menstruate. That would really be bad. Lord knows what we would get then."

-- radio host G. Gordon Liddy on Judge Sonia Sotomayor

I know that many bloggers are too young to have any first-hand memories of the name G. Gordon Liddy, so allow me to show you his credentials.

UPDATE: According to Wikipedia, Sonia Sotomayor was born in 1954, which makes her 55 this year, so apparently Liddy is pig-ignorant as well: not only is she very, very unlikely to menstruate ever again, but she is probably well over the worst of menopause as well. So, G. Gordon, what else have you got?

Friday, May 29, 2009

This is not a review

Last night Roger Woodward played the first of two Adelaide concerts organised by Recitals Australia. Tomorrow night is Shostakovich; last night was Bach, more precisely The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, which he played from start to finish with a short interval in the middle.

Woodward looked gaunt and appeared to be unhappy -- possibly with the state of the piano, a glittery and gorgeous Bösendorfer that a harried-looking person came out to tinker with in piano-tuner mode during the interval, with (to my ears) some success; certainly Woodward looked happier at the end of the second half than he had at the end of the first.

But the music was an extrordinary thing to be in the same room as. Weirdly I have in my small CD collection some Bach music for flute, for lute and for violin, but no keyboard or choral, the things he's best known for. And I don't think I've heard any Bach live since about 2003 when I was skulking in the back row of the Second Sops in the Adelaide Philharmonia Chorus and we sang some. But I recognised every piece last night and often knew what was coming next, so I must have owned some recording of it in some obsolete technology long ago.

The thing is, you recognise Bach straight away, at least with keyboard music. His music has always been my first example of what I'm talking about when I teach writing classes on style, a shameless pinch from Aldous Huxley in (I think) Eyeless in Gaza where some character talks about style and our recognition of it using Bach as an example. It's something to do with the signature mathematical precision and symmetry with which his subjects and countersubjects, his quavers and his demisemiquavers, his arpeggios and his single notes are arranged around each other; the principles appear to the amateur listener to be essentially those of geometry and algebra.

All of that was audible last night. There was the unrelenting logic of the sort of music that forces you to realise that all music is essentially about maths and physics: the displacements of air that determine the length of soundwaves; the regular fractions of time into which notes are divided and played off against each other, as in one extraordinary piece where what appeared to be happening was that the main melody was being played on the offbeat, like a shadow or an echo of its absent self.

But within that cage of logic, logic's enemies, passion and anarchy, resist its containment. Bach's music -- especially, again, the keyboard music, where the logic of each note is so naked and so clear -- is like a heart beating inside a ribcage, or like the idea of a perfectly regular and abstract triangle that has become a red canvas sail on a blue horizon, swelling into three dimensions with a beautiful pregnant roundedness, filled with moving air, the breath of life. Shapes with souls.

I wondered whether he'd be able to stay away ...

From today's edition of Crikey:

Next week Crikey launches a new music blog from on-line legend Tim Dunlop.

Music reviews, gig reviews and the neverending search for the perfect song.
Music for grown-ups who remember when they weren't ... You know the deal, s-x and drugs and rock n' roll, and jazz, and lieder, and disco, and Gospel, and s-x, and drugs, and country, and western, and whatever else takes our fancy ...

A new addition to what is quite possibly the country's niftiest blog network.

Lookin' forward to it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Stockpiling: yes / no / oh please

It's a month since the World Health Organisation declared that the swine flu situation had reached Stage Five, the point at which the Federal Government's 132-page manual on the subject (and I hate to think how late how many public servants worked for how long to get that together and out in such a prompt response) said that Australians should begin to stockpile supplies in preparation for an imminent pandemic.

While the End of the World as We Know It scenario has thus far failed to develop, it cannot have escaped anyone's notice that there are now almost a hundred confirmed cases in Australia, with a spike expected shortly in the stats.

Over against that, some immunologists and such are saying that swine flu is actually not that big a deal, little if at all worse than just another new strain of flu. But the bloke I saw being thus sanguinely quoted didn't volunteer an opinion as to what, if not swine flu, had killed all those Mexicans.

Anyway, the manual (see para 1) appears, in its list of provisions that one should stockpile, to anticipate the scale of disaster that would see water and power supplies cut. More, erm, power to them for being cautious, but I'm not quite up to there yet. In response to that May 1 news item I linked to above, however, I have over the last few weeks been casually buying extra tins and packets of this and that, and have therefore beefed up various supplies from a list based on a quick analysis of what I couldn't go 24 hours without, much less two weeks, if push came to shove. In the order in which they came to mind:

24 hours
longlife milk (a six-pack of 200 mil cartons)
cat food
cat litter
2 x prescription meds
toilet paper

2 weeks
tinned crushed tomatoes
tinned soups
olive oil
Nurofen Plus

Everything else is negotiable, but I find myself now with a freezer full of frozen green veg and a pantry full of canned beans, lentils, chickpeas, tomatoes, sweetcorn and tuna, extra boxes of tissues and aspirin, a spare new battery for the big torch, plenty of matches, all the ice-cube trays kept full, and a serious-emergency token ten-litre cask of spring water. I figure if it gets really bad I can put on a mask and gloves and go next door to swap my neighbour some home-grown lemons, spinach and herbs for eggs from his chooks.

Is anybody else stocking up? What would you need to put and keep yourself in quarantine at home?

Mind your Qs

After almost 20 years of fearing it, late last year it finally ha ened: I ti ed a glass of wine straight into the com uter keyboard. Had to lug the old iMac keyboard into the less old eMac. And now the key between the O and the square and curly brackets is sticking on this keyboard as well.

I've been meaning to buy a new com uter for ages now, u grade my internets, that kind of thing, but I think the gods are now sending me little messages to hurry u with it.

Sticking with A le, of course, but might move on from the deskto and get one of the la to s. It would be leasant and convenient to have something ortable.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Home Maintenance for Women and the Pillars of Modernism

Tonight in Week 2 of my WEA class, I did something I've never done before in my life: I used a power drill. Unfortunately I've been too long acquainted with the works of Freud not to be a little giggly about it. As T.S. Eliot once said, 'After such knowledge, what forgiveness?'

On editing

I started this post two days ago and have been dithering about putting it up ever since, but I've counted no fewer than five articles and posts online today on the subject so I might as well toss in my two cents -- Ed.

The new editor of The Monthly started work yesterday. 23-year-old Ben Naparstek, who first offered publisher Morry Schwartz his services as editor when he was eighteen, doesn't seem from my idly curious and fairly desultory Googling to be the kind of chap who thinks he needs any luck, nor indeed the kind who will be too bruised to cope with whatever eventuates, but I wish it to him anyway. If Duke University Press is publishing a book called The Jacqueline Rose Reader co-edited by Naparstek and Justin Clemens, then there is no question but that he is every bit as brilliant as people are saying.

Still, for the peculiar job of magazine editor, at least of this or any national and/or culturally-based mag, not even brilliance will always get you over the line. Schwartz's remark that he himself was 23 when he started his own business was touching but not entirely to the point. Different skills are required. As an editor -- at least of a magazine like this -- you need to have very broadly based general knowledge in order to save your contributors from making ridiculous or expensive mistakes (including an eye for what might be against the law), and you need to be able to communicate tactfully but effectively both with your editorial board and with your contributors, many of whom (in both groups) are delicate flowers.

And both of these things can be acquired only by glacially slow accretions, through experience of the kinds it's very difficult to just target and then go out and get. When, for example, a past-it politician and author of a dull, dud book asks you on television whether you will publish an essay by him, your mad debating skillz and general chutzpah should easily get you through that quagmire of a moment, but the only thing that will get you unscathed through its aftermath, whatever that might prove to be, is life experience.

A number of commentators appear to think that it is somehow the Monthly editor's job to 'stand up to' editorial board chair and heavy-on contributor Robert Manne and publisher Morry Schwartz, something to do with a vague notion of editorial independence. I don't think people have thought this through, quite. Unless her or his magazine is a declared organ of either, an editor needs to be independent of (a) corrupt financial interests and of (b) the state, both for obvious reasons. But in the case of The Monthly, as Morry Schwartz has recently had cause to point out, it's his mag and the editor is his employee. If people don't like a magazine, they are entirely free not to read it. Critique the content qua content by all means, but criticising an editor for lack of 'independence' on a project like this doesn't really make much sense, and indicates a lack of understanding about what an editorial board is for.

That said, it's clear from recent events at The Monthly that the new editor is going to have to fight very hard for things that he wants but that Schwartz and/or Manne are less enthused about. He's also going to have to make allowance for commissions that have been put in place without his knowledge -- and nothing screws up the pre-planning of an issue quite like a long, topical piece by a big name that you didn't know was in the pipeline. In general he's going to have to keep one eye in the mirror, through the doorway and over his shoulder while focusing the other on the four issues that must be thought about simultaneously (the one about to go to press, the one you're in the process of marking up, the one you've mostly commissioned, and the one whose contents are in the planning stages) when running a monthly magazine.

The other place I think the new editor might run into some trouble -- as most editors do anyway, but extreme youth can only exacerbate it -- is with contributors and their contributions. Most writers are fairly highly literate, strangely enough, with decades' worth of experience in working, as professional readers and writers, with language and ideas. And most writers' attitude to being edited approximates something the late great Angela Carter once said about it: 'As if one would not have written it that way in the first place, if that was what one had wanted to say.'

So my very first thought -- as so often -- on hearing of Naparstek's appointment was of a passage in my perhaps all-time favourite ever book. I found it immediately to quote here because it's flagged with a yellow sticky and identified by pencil marks. The pencil marks date from 1968, when I was fifteen, so anyone thinking I'm being anti-yoof here can think again. To me, at fifteen, this passage was both a warning and a reassurance. The intervening decades have borne out its truth and wisdom.

There is a thing called knowledge of the world, which people do not have until they are middle-aged. It is something which cannot be taught to younger people, because it is not logical and does not obey laws which are constant. It has no rules. Only, in the long years which bring women to the middle of life, a sense of balance develops. You can't teach a baby to walk by explaining the matter to her logically -- she has to learn the strange poise of walking by experience. In some way like that, you cannot teach a young woman to have knowledge of the world. She has to be left to the experience of the years. ... And then ... she can go on living -- not by principle, not by deduction, not by knowledge of good and evil, but simply by a peculiar and shifting sense of balance which defies each of these things often. She ... continues henceforth under the guise of a seventh sense. Balance was the sixth sense ... and now she has the seventh one -- knowledge of the world.

The slow discovery of the seventh sense, by which men and women contrive to ride the waves of a world in which there is war, adultery, compromise, fear, stultification and hypocrisy -- this discovery is not a matter for triumph. The baby, perhaps, cries out triumphantly: I have balance! But the seventh sense is recognised without a cry. We only carry on ... riding the queer waves in a habitual, petrifying way, because we have reached a stage of deadlock in which we can think of nothing else to do. ...

Guenever was twenty-two as she sat at her petit point and thought of Lancelot. She was not half-way to her coffin, not ill even, and she only had six senses. It is difficult to imagine her.

Yes. Yes it is. I'm sure we all wish we could be 23 again, except somehow magically armed with the knowledge of the world that we have so slowly and painfully acquired since. Being 23 has all the myriad advantages of being bright of eye, bushy of tail, and young enough still to believe that the world is one's oyster, and contains a pearl.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Sounds like the tip of the Tripp iceberg to me

In today's Doonesbury (see sidebar) strip 'Say What?' feature, in a quotation from this article, we hear from one Bristol Palin.

Who? I hear you cry, and people, I cannot tell you how grateful I am for the fact that one needs to be reminded who she is; it could so easily have been very different. No, c'mon, you remember Bristol Palin: the one who could have become the US's first Second, or, if we and Senator John McCain had got seriously unlucky, first First Daughter.

Sounds as though the bonding process with the first Almost-Second Grandchild might be a tad rocky. That, or someone needed better sex education and access to contraceptives. For here is what she said:
"If girls realized the consequences of sex, nobody would be having sex. Trust me. Nobody."
Can it be possible that she thinks every other teenage girl is as ignorant and unprepared as her Mommy made sure as she was? Does she have any idea what a devastating indictment this remark is of her mother?

I really am having a bit of trouble getting my head around this one. What was she expecting, a pony?

Why they want water views: an insight

It's been nearly eleven and a half years since I bought and moved into my little house, a ten-minute drive from this beach.

Some days it's malachite and sapphire; some days it's silver and graphite and slate. Some days it's emerald and turquoise and other days it's peridot and aquamarine. Some days, like today, it's milky opal and pearl. But in eleven and a half years it has never, ever looked the same way twice.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bonding: just some slurry in bunny ears

Mere days after the volcanic explosion of a giant and pulsating boil on the muscular Aussie arse (otherwise Sarah Ferguson's 'Code of Silence' on Four Corners on May 11, including an interview with the girl who was pack-raped by involved in so-called "group sex" with a number of players and staff from the Cronulla Sharks in Christchurch seven years ago) and the resulting dismissal by Channel Nine of former player and 'personality' Matthew Johns in a breathtaking display of hypocrisy by a TV station that has done more to promote and legitimise misogyny and sexism than any other single entity in the country (I originally mistyped 'Bonding' as 'Boning' in the title field up there)... Mere days after said explosion, as I say, with blood and pus still dripping from the walls of TV studios and football clubrooms everywhere, a Melbourne non-league Australian Rules football team has been fined $5,000 for hiring a stripper to perform before a game, as -- and this was how I heard it described by a club official on the radio -- 'a team bonding exercise'.

A team bonding exercise?

Some of us think it's more just a variation on the theme of bukkake. Or possibly not even a variation. And they'd probably think that was a team bonding exercise as well.

I mean, 'bonding'? How does that work in this case, exactly? You get together to degrade a woman; that much is clear. From the Four Corners transcript (this is a different woman, talking about another different woman):

SARAH FERGUSON: There is an even more sinister side to this technology, Charmyne claims to have been shown a video recently, by a young player on his mobile phone.

CHARMYNE PALAVI: He goes we picked up this one girl and there was like seven of us on her and everything and he goes to me, and we um, but I said you're going to get in trouble for that type of thing, like you can't do that. And he goes, please, he goes we just filmed her to say that she consented to it.

And that freaked me out. This girl was actually in her 20's and told me what they did to her. He said they made her put bunny ears on cause Easter's coming up and made her give head to all of the players one after the other. Made, like I don't understand the term, like we "made her do it."

SARAH FERGUSON: Yeah, and do you know who she is?

CHARMYNE PALAVI: No, I asked him who she was, not knowing that I would even know her, and he goes oh just some slurry from around Cronulla.

So, you get together to degrade a woman ... and that gets you together? Que? How does that work? Apparently the idea of the stripper was to 'gee them up', or, as some commentator unselfconsciously but hilariously put it on the radio last night, 'pump them up', which would seem to support what some of us have suspected all along: that sport is really only a slightly more organised substitute for the raping and pillaging that all manly-men would want to do all the time if only there weren't a lot of silly laws against it.

I was offered a unique insight into the way a certain kind of male mind works when some slurry from around North Adelaide (and a total stranger to boot) came up to me in the pub one night many years ago and said, and I quote, 'Do you f*ck?'

Not 'Where have you been all my life?', 'Hello', 'What's your name?', 'Nice haircut' or even 'Nice tits', but 'Do you fuck?' The correct reply to this, which I gave, is 'Not with the likes of you, shithead,' but I later gave this question and its wording a great deal of thought. To a certain kind of man, there are only two kinds of women. A woman either 'f*cks' or she doesn't. And if she does, she f*cks everybody. Which is, like, consent, right?

And in the meantime, given the height, weight, strength, fitness, world view and subcultural norms of most rugby players, and Charmyne Palavi's own, erm, unique take on these matters, there's one thing of which I am very sure: it's only a matter of time before she finds out what "made" means.

There must be some kind of psychoanalytic logic to this 'team bonding around the degradation of one woman' business, but I'm too tired and too revolted to work it out, so I offer Prahran and Cronulla this truly charming, subtle and hilarious little video instead. I'm sure they'll just love it, and it'll give them some great new ideas.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Concentration and the absence of concentration

I love working at home. I do. Anyone still toiling in academe will see that lovely phrase 'working at home' and feel their heart rate slow down.

However. Some days you just know, from the beginning of the morning, that this is not going to be a good work day.

Two background facts before I go on: (1) my electricity meter is inside the house, and (2) many years ago I used to edit a magazine, at a time when I was a heavy smoker. I used to do the layout myself -- this is pre-desktop; we're talking galleys, cutting boards, razor blades and paste-up glue -- so I would spend one weekend in four sitting at the dining table designing and pasting up the 40-plus pages. I could sit there and work, without getting up or losing focus, for up to four hours at a time. When I gave up smoking, my concentration span shrank from four hours to 20 minutes and that is how it has stayed. Focusing and staying focused is about fifteen times as hard as it used to be.

So when you sit down to start the day's work and you are two minutes and one sentence into the thing you have to have finished by the end of the day and you hear bash bash bash rattle rattle rattle on the screen door, you just know it's a bad start to the day. Dude from the electricity, come to read the meter. Let him in, let him out, sit back down at the keyboard ...

Bash bash rattle rattle again. He's back. I appear in the hallway just in time to see him trying to open the screen door. (Why do men do this? Why do totally strange men think it is perfectly all right to open your screen door and walk into your house if you haven't appeared instantly to let them in? Women never do this.)

'This thing' (he held up an electronic doodah) 'says you've got another one in there.'
'Yes, it's the meter for the hot water service that blew up five years ago and I've had gas hot water ever since.'
'But I still have to get a reading for it.'
'Oh yes, I know.')

I flashed on the rest of the day, and I just know it's going to be punctuated by delivery men, neighbours, charity collectors, aggressive children from Optus or AGL or Foxtel trying to make me sign 20-page documents in zero point type on my doorstep in the fading light, cold calls from charity callers who will make me feel guilty or market researchers who will just make me feel irritated, and so-called "courtesy" calls (I wonder whether any of the callers understand that this term for their job is dripping with irony) that are in fact about attempting to part me from even more of my money.

In days gone by I would not have minded any of this. When one has focus by the bucketload one does not mind, indeed one welcomes, the occasional interruption. Mostly I'm thrilled to have liberated myself from nicotine, almost 20 years ago now, but aspiring quitters should not be fooled, for the downsides are very real. You will, indeed, stack on fifteen kilos overnight and you will never get rid of them. And you will, indeed, acquire the concentration span of a grasshopper and you'll never get rid of that either.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Gratitude. We has it.

Ten years ago today I was in the little Austrian city of Klagenfurt, capital of the southern province of Carinthia, teaching a four-week summer school course in Australian literature to a group of faintly bemused but entirely willing students from all over Europe, most of whose English -- their second or in many cases third language -- was arguably better than mine.

I remember this so clearly because my mother had died unexpectedly three months earlier and it was my first birthday without her. Hers was a week after mine and of course Mothers' Day was always in that mix as well; I'd spent a few days in Vienna before travelling down to Klagenfurt and the Austrians make a very big deal about Mothers' Day, so the shop windows had been full of pinkified, treacly tributes to Mutti, in large glittery print.

On the way to Austria there'd been a couple of one-off academic gigs in Barcelona and I'd gone into meltdown there one day because the Spanish ATM wouldn't give me any money when I keyed in my PIN, which was, at the time, my mother's birthday. I told this story of symbolic rejection, sobbing, to a robust Australian acquaintance who happened to be staying in the same accommodation for the same conference and she fixed me with a beady gaze. 'You do know you're not fit to be travelling, don't you,' she said.

She was right, and it made me realise I had to decide: either suck it up or go home. ThirdCat has written a couple of terrific posts recently about grief and its power and weirdness, about what it does to you in the months following a death. You can't ever tell when or where or why it will strike; all you know is that you don't know yourself as well as you thought you did, you're not as tough as you thought you were, and you need to make allowances for coming unexpectedly and completely to pieces for no apparent reason, often in a public place. This when travelling alone in a country in whose language you are not fluent can give rise to all kinds of misunderstanding, and I had reason more than once on that trip to be grateful for my sense of humour. I am not used to feeling weak, but I was too sad for feeling weak to make me cross, which would have cheered me up, so any laugh was welcome.

When I'd first told my European hosts about my mother's death they had both immediately said 'Of course you must cancel and stay home if you need to,' but I'd only given that half a second's consideration when I heard my mother's voice saying 'You get back on that horse,' as sternly, loudly and clearly as I'd heard it eleven years before when I had in fact fallen off an actual horse and was lying winded on some rocks in a dry creek bed in the hills somewhere north of, I think, Whittlesea. And for the third time, there in Barcelona, I heard it again and, in a tired sort of way, regrouped.

So there I was in Klagenfurt on my birthday, prepared to spend it alone (it was Friday, a non-teaching day) in my little room in the modest pension near the university where I was staying. What actually happened was that two huge bouquets arrived together that morning via Interflora, one lot from my father and sisters and another lot from the Bloke. Then my oldest friend L and her partner rang up from the Barossa Valley and sang Happy Birthday. My academic host's lovely wife Irene, chatting about her son's imminent 18th birthday, asked me innocently when mine was and I was obliged to say 'Um, er, actually it's today,' whereupon she whipped up a family birthday dinner complete with cake for me in the next couple of hours, no mean feat for a woman with two teenage sons and a little baby, and they all sang the Austrian version of Happy Birthday to me in perfect three-part harmony. And the next day my best mate (who was working for the UN at the time) detoured through Vienna on her way from Sarajevo back to New York and made the four-hour train trip down the eastern side of Austria to spend the weekend in Klagenfurt and take me out to dinner.

All of which is to say that if you know someone who's recently lost someone, going the extra mile for them in the way of a thoughtful and/or generous gesture might save them a black day. And they will never, ever forget it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

'A fine and fancy ramble to the zoo ...'

He thought a little and then said:

  `I have found the Zoological Gardens of service to many of my patients. I should prescribe for Mr Pontifex a course of the larger mammals. Don't let him think he is taking them medicinally ...'
-- Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh

Back in my days as an academic, my office doorway would be darkened now and then by a student at the end of his or her tether, stressed beyond endurance by -- most usually -- some combination of study pressures and personal life, complicated occasionally but more frequently as the 1990s wore on by a third source of strain, job pressure. Sometimes it would be even worse, some nightmare scenario involving an eating disorder or triggered memories of childhood sexual abuse or even mortal illness, and in those cases I'd send the students straight to counselling, but for common or garden mental exhaustion or depression or strain I'd send them, as per Samuel Butler's Mr Pontifex, to the Zoo.

I don't know how many of them went. Only one actually reported back to say she'd done what I suggested and it'd worked a treat, but, as so often in teaching, one was enough.

And I was thinking last week that I needed a break myself and that furthermore I'd not been to the zoo since I bought a digital camera, and then the orang-utan (see previous post) made her inventive bid for freedom yesterday

and rain was forecast for tomorrow, so I took the afternoon off to walk round Adelaide's beautiful zoo on a brief but glorious autumn afternoon.

Some of my fellow-creatures were just hanging around in the sun.

Some were relaxed;

others, not so much.

The hippo was sulking,

and the ring-tailed lemurs were showing off.

I don't know whether it was because I was planning a blog post as I strolled about taking pictures, but for some reason the zoo kept reminding me of the blogosphere.

Every time I go there, the Adelaide Zoo has improved yet again in this respect: there are now beautiful little settings, calming and welcoming, at almost every turn in every path.

On the walk back to the car I noticed a drama unfolding in the distance, as this picnicking couple on the riverbank remained oblivious to the fact that they were being staked out and stalked:

Even when the sneak thief was practically on top of them, they still remained unaware:

Sprung at last. I could almost hear the screams from the road.

'Perhaps they should let her run the country'

This story was on the news last night. They had to evacuate and close the Adelaide Zoo. Hundreds of Mothers' Day outings were derailed.

I was in a few traps myself when I was 27, and I didn't tackle them as intelligently as this. I wish I'd known her then; I would have called her on her mobile and asked for some advice.

One commenter here suggests that if she were preselected for NSW Labor it might boost their credibility.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A note on Australian cinema

Neil Cross's novel Burial (which is neither Australian nor cinema, but bear with me) made me feel sick for the same reasons some of the Barbara Vine ones do and it was not a good thing to be reading in the same 24 hours as watching Wolf Creek, about which I kept thinking the allusions to Picnic at Hanging Rock were very well and subtly done, not least the riveting presence of John Jarratt in two movies over 30 years apart. That thought was a kind of distancing/defence mechanism, I think. Thank God I watched it on commercial TV with ads to break it up or my heart would have given out.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The moon and the spider

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The chalice from the palace has the pellet with the poison

For a raft of reasons, some of them going back many years, I have been following the saga of (ex-) editor Sally Warhaft's precipitate departure last week from The Monthly -- most recently in a piece by regular Monthly contributor Gideon Haigh in today's Age -- with feelings not so much mixed as puréed. Let us say that I can see both sides of this story, and that I would very strongly recommend that the urgers on the sidelines saying 'Oh, it's only a storm in a teacup' (or saying anything else, really) when they don't actually have a clue what happened should treat themselves to a nice hot cup of STFU.

But two phrases keep running through my mind: there's the old maxim 'Least said, soonest mended' (the only person who appears to be paying any attention to this one is Warhaft herself, and more power to her, especially since she is apparently being ambushed at her own house by bottom-feeding paparazzi, among other things); and then there's that potent phrase 'poisoned chalice'. Whoever succeeds Warhaft in that editor's chair is going to have to be very flexible, very grown-up and very laid-back. And only one of these things makes for good editorship.