Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Irritants: an occasional series

Yesterday I went to a meeting that was scheduled to begin at nine. It was a Public Service thing so we're talking fifteen or twenty people, city office, professionals, tight schedule etc etc. The meeting was due to go all morning with what turned out to be one five-minute break. A whole morning of not working (at my actual job, I mean; these meetings are bloody hard work) puts me far enough behind in the weekly schedule to get uneasy, and I'd made a special effort to get ahead beforehand.

As one who keeps owl hours, I was unable to go to sleep at a reasonable time on Sunday night so was up again at seven after five and a half hours of uneasy sleep, which at my age is not enough to get you, fully functioning, through an active day. In the car by 8.10, drive for 40 minutes through peak hour traffic including massive, extended, longterm roadworks at one corner of the CBD, find a city park, haul arse into the office and down to the bowels of the building and its claustrophobic and badly heated main meeting room.

Where we then sat for 25 minutes waiting for everyone to turn up. 'We' included one very senior public servant who is presumably handsomely paid for her time. The last latecomer (there were several) finally strolled in at 9.25 and did not apologise. After another ten minutes of faffing, the meeting finally began. The last to arrive said casually later 'Oh sorry, thought it started at half-nine.' This with the starting time in bold at the top of the agenda.

Given that we stayed behind schedule for the rest of the morning, it was inevitable that the harassed organiser would ask us if we could stay on over time, but before I could say 'Sure, if I'm paid for it', the last latecomer was -- inevitably -- the one who said 'Oh no, sorry, I have to be elsewhere.'

None of the latecomers were crucial to the meeting. We could easily have started without them at nine. And that's 25 minutes of my life I could have spent sleeping or working (or blogging), and that I'll never get back. Yes it's a tiny tiny thing, and I've said to myself several times now 'Let it go, Indy', but for some reason, and unusually, I can't. Am thinking blogging it might help. And the next time I'm running late I will try to remember how incredibly bloody inconsiderate it is of the poor sods who are waiting for you, having successfully made the effort to get there on time themselves.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Why it really doesn't feel like work

I sit on the sofa and I read one novel after another: good novels with bad bits, bad novels with good bits, good novels in whose subject matter I have no interest and bad novels whose subject matter interests me very much. The bottom line is not judgement (even though as a reviewer it is my job to judge, at least up to a point) but rather analysis and discovery: what works, in fiction, and what does not. And how, and why. If I ever get the time to write a novel of my own I will come to the task equipped with a vast armoury of brilliant models and cautionary tales.

Working through the pile, I come to a novel of almost 500 pages that is more sugary than all the iced tea in the whole of Louisiana, where it is set. But there is one irresistible quality that has kept me reading for over 300 pages and will sustain me to the end: an almost magical lust and passion for dancing, singing, eating, drinking, colour, life and beauty that never seems to desert the people of Louisiana, black or white, urban or rural, rich or poor, despite the residual dark horrors of the South and even when life has been blasted by a natural disaster that an indifferent, incompetent government can't or won't deal with adequately. It's a quality that mesmerised me in the first blog I ever followed properly.

(And one that I saw again in the Louisiana blogs (now sadly defunct) of the amazing Liz from Granny Gets a Vibrator, miraculously still well three years after the killer cancer and, though no longer blogging AFAIK, still findable as Wachendorfia on Flickr for those of you who miss her.)

And I have been rewarded for persevering with Calla Lily Ponder Chalon, a character born the same year I was, who reminds me of a cross between Magda Szubanski's Chenille (from Chenille's Institut de Beauté and House of Hair Removal), and Julia Roberts' hairdresser character in Steel Magnolias: 'Ah will not let mah own personal tragedy interfere with mah ability to do good hay-uh.'

I say 'rewarded' because on page 350, Calla Lily sits down and writes this letter.

May 22, 1977
New Orleans, Louisiana

Dear Mr President and Mrs Roslyn Carter,

I am a beautician. I work at a salon called Ricky's in New Orleans, Louisiana. I am a happily married woman who pays taxes, even on tips.

Now, Mrs Carter, you have chosen the perfect cut for your hair type. You especially have lovely hair for a woman your age, and it is very well kept. Mr President, you're thinning on top, so I think you'll strongly relate to what I'm about to say.

I speak as a beautician when I ask you to think, "How would you look as a bald couple?" One nuclear bomb would melt out all your hair. I am a professional in the field of beauty, but I don't know any cures for radiation-melted hair. And as far as I know, no one else does, either.

The human body is not a Styrofoam wig stand. I, for one, will not think you are a ninety-pound weakling if you get rid of the twenty-megaton bomb. I would like to go on waking up and cooking and doing hair and loving my husband.

If nothing else, please: Think of your looks.

Yours Very Sincerely,
Calla Lily Ponder Chalon

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson Youtube of the Day ...

... says it all.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Randomly plucked from the vast lucky dip of life's mysteries

Among the numberless occasions afforded by life for irritation, here's one that's been getting to me lately more than usual: can anyone explain to me why so many people (on and offline) who all too clearly know less than nothing about (a) literature, (b) psychoanalysis and/or (c) feminism will go a long way out of their way to belligerently trash all ideas and enterprises involving one or more of them? It seems to be mainly a boy thing. I can understand why blokes feel threatened by feminism, at least until they've actually taken the trouble to find out a bit about it, but what's the problem with the other two?

All suggestions gratefully received, although I'm expecting at least one drive-by from at least one of the types described above and I won't be grateful for that at all.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

In praise of the winter solstice

Stephanie at Humanities Researcher is off tonight to a winter solstice feast, where seasonal poems will be read. I will be celebrating Solstice Lite with ceremonial mulled wine up in the Adelaide Hills with my mate R tomorrow afternoon and proposing a ceremonial toast: roll on earlier sunrises and later sunsets. But I love the idea of a seasonal poem, so here is my absolutely favourite winter one, Coleridge's 'Frost at Midnight'.

The frost performs its secret ministry
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud -- and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
'Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which flutters on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, everywhere
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And make a toy of Thought.

But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birthplace, and the old church tower,
Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things I dreamt
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor's face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger's face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My playmate when we both were clothed alike!

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the traces of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Biblical world view legitimised: Australian feminist icon turns in grave

What with first the longlist and then the shortlist, I'm not really all that surprised that the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award has been won by what was by far the safer choice of the two front runners, a novel in which a bitter, twisted woman called Eva (geddit? geddit?) corrupts the young hero, takes away his innocence and warps his psyche for life with her nasty dangerous bent sick non-missionary sexing-on ways. She robs our hero of Paradise, that's what she does; she pushes him into his fall from grace.

Because, as we all know, that's what women do. The Bible tells us so.

I reviewed Tim Winton's Breath for the Oz and I bent over backwards, to the point of indecency really and no it's not something you'd like to see, to be fair. I have great respect for Winton's considerable fiction-writing skills, and I wouldn't like to seem to be dissing the people who like his work. Yes it's a 'good novel', no argument there from me. But. But. Butbutbut.

It's completely incredible to me that in 2009 there are still people who don't get this, but looking at comments around the blog and MSM literary traps there clearly are, so let me spell it out once more:

It's not just some simple-minded essentialist thing about equal numbers of men and women. It's not a case to be met with 'We don't need feminism any more because we're equal now' (I assume this lot are actually unconscious, or trapped in a big plastic bubble, or living in some parallel universe like the Magic Faraway Tree). It's not about 'But can't they just be chosen on literary merit?', a common bleat that begs the question of what literary merit is, whose values infuse it, whether it can ever be objective or absolute, who decides what it is, and what sorts of values have dominated literature and the judgement of literature and the formation of its canons for centuries. A quick read of A Room of One's Own is all that's needed for answers to most of these questions.

No, it's this: that the masculine world view is still the norm, the feminine world view a lesser variant; that the masculine representation of women is still accepted as the truth, while female resistance to that representation is seen as some kind of wilful rebellion; that masculine values are still (mis)taken as universal values, and feminine ones seen as aberrant and unimportant in the world. Simone de Beauvoir still puts it best, even after all this time. 'There are two types of people in this world: human beings and women.'

And spare a thought for the dedicated, hardworking feminist Miles Franklin, who scrimped and saved and ran herself short to amass the capital for the establishment of this prize in the 1950s. In her name, let me record here that in the chronological catchment area for this prize, the following excellent novels, most of which have won at least one major literary prize, were published (NB Michelle de Kretser's The Lost Dog was eligible last year, not this year, but likewise came nowhere):

The Household Guide to Dying by Debra Adelaide
The Spare Room by Helen Garner
The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville
Vertigo by Amanda Lohrey
The Good Parents by Joan London

All were eligible for the prize, within the terms of Franklin's will: of 'the highest literary merit', and dealing with 'Australian life in any of its phases'.

None of them even made the longlist.

Yes, as anyone who's ever been on one knows, the judging panels for prizes of all kinds are weird beasts, and their ways are a mystery even to themselves. Goddess knows I know that this is true.

But still. But. Butbutbut.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

From my email inbox

In the coming weeks you will be contacted by the Governor General’s office with regard to the various protocol, dress code etc associated with attending a function at Admiralty House.

Can anyone explain to me why this sentence should produce an overwhelming desire to turn up in a sweaty blue tradie's singlet and the grottiest, daggiest tracky daks I can find? The convict ancestry, perhaps?

And me the proud owner and frequent consulter of this book since 1984, too:

Monday, June 15, 2009

A girl like I

A comment chez one of my Facebook Friends this morning regarding the much simpler '"less" v. "fewer"' issue has prompted this grammar post that I've been meaning to put up for a while now, especially over the last few days when I've been reading for review a self-published novel that has all kinds of charm and interest but that makes this 'I/me' mistake on almost every page, constantly distracting and irritating the reader -- something that could have been avoided if someone had shelled out for five or six hours of a good basic copy-editor's time.

Some will recognise this post's title as a signature phrase of Anita Loos' immortal siren Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.* These tales are told by Lorelei herself and Loos puts the phrase in her mouth to signify an attempt to be proper and genteel that, ironically, actually signifies the opposite.

And there's a lot of it about, and so I offer a very simple test to apply when/if one is ever dithering about whether to use 'I' or 'me'. This is a grammatical issue to do with the nominative and accusative cases, but since that sort of discussion makes people's eyes cross, I offer a much easier way to get it right.

Alphonse and I went to the R rated movie.

The R rated movie was very educational for Alphonse and me.

The test is simply to take the other person out of the sentence and see what it looks like then. Would you say 'The R rated movie was very educational for I'? No of course you wouldn't. So if you say 'for Alphonse and I', that's wrong too and for the same reason.

*That Wikipedia entry describes Loos' husband as a 'philandering hypochondriac'. A less attractive and more infuriating combination of spousal qualities can scarcely be imagined.

Teaching writing*

Some important aspects of the craft can be taught, but the art of writing must be taught in the same way that art is taught in art school, and music in music school. Nobody would dare turn up to the door of a music school saying ’I’d like to be a guitarist, but I don’t have a guitar, I don’t have time to practice, and I don’t listen to music’, but people do that in writing courses.

From here, a long and detailed interview with novelist M. J. Hyland and a great read.

*The title I've given this post has reminded me of a particularly fraught staff meeting in my former workplace, where we were hammering out, at glacial speed and temperature, all the new subjects that were to be taught the following year, all aspects of all of which had to be subjected to the democratic process and agreed upon unanimously before proceeding. We spent at least three hours on the title of a new first-year subject that eventually sported the title 'Reading Writing', and then moved on to the question of a title for another new subject about literature and religion. Quoth the then head of department: 'Well, if we're going with the double gerunds, how about 'Seeing Believing'?

Needless to say, sadly, that one didn't get up.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

David Eagleman

This bloke was in Sydney last week for the Luminous festival, in a collaborative show with Brian Eno at the Opera House; did anyone see him?

I don't know how well his little book Sum: Forty tales from the afterlives would work as a performance, but qua book it is pretty damned dazzling. As a neuroscientist, albeit a freakishly young-looking one, he has probably spent a fair amount of time thinking about (a) how the brain orders information, (b) what constitutes a human being ('Sum' here is a Latin pun), and (c) death. The fruit of said thought is here, in forty hypothetical scenarios about what might happen when we die.

Clearly he's also a poet. Look at that word 'covey', suggestive as it is of birds and (with one change of letter) witches, which some would say are the two creatures that might produce an angel if they bred.

Some highlights:

In the afterlife you discover that God understands the complexities of life. She had originally submitted to peer pressure when She structured Her universe like all the other gods had, with a binary categorization of people into good and evil. But it didn't take long for Her to realize that humans could be good in many ways and simultaneously corrupt and mean-spirited in other ways ... Might it not be possible, She considered, that a man could be an embezzler and still give to charitable causes? Might not a woman be an adulteress but bring pleasure and security to two men's lives?

When you arrive in the afterlife, you find that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley sits on a throne. She is cared for and protected by a covey of angels.

After some questioning, you discover that God's favorite book is Shelley's Frankenstein. He sits up at night with a worn copy of the book clutched in His mighty hands ... Like Victor Frankenstein, God considers Himself a medical doctor, a biologist without parallel, and He has a deep, painful relationship with any story about the creation of life ... reading again and again how Dr. Victor Frankenstein is taunted by his merciless monster across the Arctic ice. And God consoles Himself with the thought that all creation necessarily ends in this: creators, powerless, fleeing from the things they have wrought.
There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second in when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, some time in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Now they tell me

The Flood Warning for Adders that freaked me out last night appears to have been downgraded to a Flood Watch. I wish I'd known that before I spent an hour outside in the cold this morning with shovels and trowels and garden gloves, climbing ladders and cleaning out gutters and clearing gully traps and digging drainage channels and improvising sandbags, here in this low-lying part of town where the stormwater floods straight down my concrete driveway from the road in sheets.

Covered in the mud and glop of ages but virtuous and warmed up from the exertion, am on way to shower before hitting the road to the hospital to visit Papa Cat. Who is much better: not as serious as we feared.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Papa Cat got carted off to hospital yesterday after some sort of heart attackish thingy. Not very big, but there is some damage. Have spent the last 36 hours walking past and under signs saying Emergency and Resuscitation and Critical Care, writing book reviews in hospital corridor chairs using the Notes application on my iPhone, and sending texts to my sisters saying things like 'Have you got his Gold Card?' and 'I'm in the cafeteria, where are you??!'

Tonight he is, as they say, resting comfortably: under observation in a quiet ward, no surgery or anything. But a doctor saying "I've looked at his ECG's and I didn't like what I saw" is a doctor whose face not even a mother could love.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Enough already

The first three weeks of June are my least favourite time of year. It's officially winter, it's got seriously cold, and the days are still getting shorter. I hang out for the solstice and when it arrives I make mulled wine to celebrate. Quite a lot of mulled wine.

In the meantime the Weatherpixie over there on the right says more rain and so does the Bureau of Meteorology. Apparently it's going to stop for a few minutes tomorrow and Thursday and then it's going to start again.

Yes, of course the rain is a blessing, particularly here in Adelaide where a matter of weeks ago we were staring straight down the barrel of the gun and the death of a city looked like a real possibility. For the people down at the Lower Lakes and the Murray Mouth I think it is already too late (ask the Ngarrindjeri people about that), but here in the city and out in the country it's filling the creeks and the rivers, the reservoirs and the tanks and the dams. It's saving the gardens. People's lawns are growing back unbidden. Animals are fat and happy. Paddocks will soon be covered in the soft green fur of incipient wheat and barley. You don't get that from occasional little gentle drippy rain, you get it from the regular roaring, thundering floods of the kind that washed away half my back yard last night when the heavens opened and terrified the cats out of their little furry minds.

Now whether it's my advancing age and concomitant decrepitude, or the fact that I don't trust this house and its outbuildings not to leak or indeed fall down or blow away, or the fact that the phrase 'extreme weather events' seems to describe accurately what's been happening for the last few years, or more nebulous and less tangible anxieties being projected onto the weather, or some hideous combination of all those things, is something of which I can't be sure.

But there's one thing I'm completely sure of. I really, really need it to stop raining. Just for a week or so. Please.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


The term 'empowerful', for those of you not familiar with it, was coined a few years back by the incomparable Twisty Faster, a heroine of the blogosphere, at her blog I Blame the Patriarchy. (Oh, and she so does.) If you follow that link it will take you to her own elaboration of the term, but in brief it refers to the anti-feminist line of what for want of a better word I'll call argument that women no longer need feminism because we are now already 'empowered'.

As I understand it, this 'empowerment' consists chiefly in exercising the right to choose: making, say, a choice to wear 'shapewear' (the new name for corsets) so that your body will look 'better' (ie more in line with male fantasy), or to stagger alone down a dark alley in the nightclub precinct at 3 am on a Sunday morning wearing nothing but a pink thong with vomit-clogged sequins on it, or to drift in and out of consciousness while being gangbanged by a dozen or so rugby players. Just look at the power being wielded by women in those situations. You can almost smell it.

Too old these days to qualify for any of the above options apart from the shapewear one, which would no doubt make me look marginally better but which I would be laughing too much to get into, I have opted instead for a night class called Home Maintenance for Women. Tuesday night was tiling, the main reason I'd finally got round to enrolling after years of meaning to, and although I would have been better advised to spend the evening in bed with Lemsip and a book, the prospect of learning how to re-tile the splashback space above the new bathroom sink properly (instead of the way the last person did it) was too enticing to pass up, and besides, the beautiful little tiles I have found, with stylised vignettes in subdued colours of the Tuscan countryside, deserve to be well and lovingly put up.

Not only did I learn tiling and grouting but I also did this:

Actually I'd already finished one, but our WEA tutor, the lovely Rose Squire, said no it wasn't good enough because I'd broken a few of the copper-wire filaments off short by getting too enthusiastic with the wire stripper, so I had to cut the whole thing off and start again. I predict that by the time I finally get it right, my home-made extension cord will be two metres long instead of the three I started out with. And yes there is a tool called a wire stripper, and there is also a tool called a tile nibbler which, like the wire stripper, does exactly what it says. (If you use it properly. Ahem.)

So I have useful information coming out of my ears. But the confidence and the demystification are even more important, equipping one to carry on one's researches independently and not feel like a moron in Bunnings. I won't call it empowerment, because I think it is too late to rescue that lovely word. But it certainly feels like power.

Sick as a dog

(Actually I've never understood that expression. In my experience dogs tend to be either well or dead. It's not a big liminal zone with dogs.)

Okay so I still think this lergy (see May 30 post) is not swine flu (though how would I know) but it is quite scary and disgusting enough to be going on with, with a couple of spectacularly dramatic symptoms with which I shall not disgust you. I can't actually remember the last time I was this sick but it must have been a bloody long time ago. As you can see I am up and focusing so it's not life-threatening or anything and no I'm not going to the doctor, who will only tell me to do what I'm already doing.

Only an hour and a half till the sun's over the yard-arm and I can have another hot whisky and lemon and ginger and honey, break out a new box of tissues and go back to bed. See you all in quarantine.