Friday, December 30, 2005


There’s that moment after lunch on Christmas day when you’re flopped in a chair, barely able to lift your arms to clutch at your overstuffed belly when you’re genuinely convinced you will never want to eat or drink again. Then, when you’re in the car on the way home after being away for three days, you realise that you will need to enter a grocery store of some description in order to buy some milk so you can make yourself a nice cup of tea to soothe away the excesses of the recent festivities. At the shops you see that someone is ordering pizza for dinner at the local Domino’s and you can’t conceive that anyone could possibly not have a fridge full of left-overs or, at the very least, not have been sent home with various foil-wrapped plates and recycled take-away containers whose forced lids barely hold their fare. The next day, after you make your morning coffee, you discover you have nothing for breakfast except left-over Christmas desserts. You justify eating cake drizzled with alcohol before 9am by telling yourself that the French, and many other nationalities besides, have champagne and croissants for breakfast. For lunch you eat ricotta pesto, again. You taste tested it first when you made it the night before you left home. You’ve subsequently served it with grilled chicken stirred through pasta to your hosts on Boxing Day. In the evening, you marvel over how a small amount of ricotta pesto can stretch so far; and why hasn’t it gone off yet? The next day after a breakfast of Brazil nuts and Diet Coke that was pressed upon you as you departed after Boxing Day, you make a salad out of the only vegetables in your house: tinned artichokes and frozen peas. You try to recapture that post-Christmas lunch feeling of certainty; you weren’t going to eat again, remember? It is only the fear of scurvy and a strange craving for fresh tomatoes that convinces you to resume a normal routine and go shopping for some food.

Yes. Unbelievably. More.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Just Desserts

I’ve been doing a bit of cooking today. I volunteered to bring the desserts for my family’s Christmas celebration, which is being held tomorrow on Christmas Eve. Everybody else has been charged with some aspect of the day’s food. My sister V and I came up with this plan over the telephone. We thought that since we’re all going to my mother’s for the day (also our idea) it would be best that the guests brought the food. Normally, in our rather dysfunctional family, the person who is the host makes the meal and we all give a donation to cover expenses. My sister tells me that she has been invited to my mother’s for dinner on many an occasion, only to find herself preparing the meal she’s been invited for. We devised our plan in order to avoid exacerbating the already high tensions that arise when we’re all in the same room with the irritation caused by hunger.

I nominated myself to make dessert because I’m always on the lookout for an excuse to cook sweet things for other people. I like the creativity involved in making cakes and desserts, but I won’t cook them for myself at home. I need no encouragement to eat more sweet things in addition to those that I eat in social situations and, of course, if anything high in sugar and fat is sitting in my fridge or cupboard I will eat it because I have NO willpower. None. As they say, ‘Nil. Zip. Nada’.

I’ve been particularly keen to try more of the Italian-inspired cake recipes from the River Café Cookbook Easy. One year, when I was still working at the call-centre and, therefore, working on Christmas day, I stayed over a co-worker’s place and with a few other people we had an orphan’s Christmas. On that occasion I made Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’ recipe for Dark Truffle. It’s made of 70% chocolate melted together with top quality cream, which is then poured into a spring-form tin, refrigerated to set, and sprinkled with cocoa to serve. I was recently talking to another friend about this concoction, which she has also made, and we agreed that this dessert is like a shot of adrenalin to the heart. You might recall how Uma Thurman’s character is saved from a drug overdose in Pulp Fiction—that’s the level of the jolt you receive after a mere sliver of the Dark, Dark Truffle.

For this Christmas, I wanted to find something that would fulfil both the expectations people have for plum pudding at this time of the year and my desire to experiment with combinations I haven’t done before. More recently people have rejected traditional fruitcakes as well and so a new expectation for something with chocolate in it also had to be considered. I ended up choosing two cakes to make.

The first cake is a Plum and Orange Almond Cake. This cake epitomises what I love about the cakes in Easy. They don’t use much flour, using almond or other nut meal instead, which makes for a moist and dense, although not heavy, texture. I am also a big fan of grated citrus rind in cooking and this cake has orange rind added to the first stage when the fresh plums are baked, and in the final stage where rind is added to the toffee-like mixture that will coat the flaked almonds that decorate the top. This cake asks for a vanilla pod as well, which I’m always happy to provide. I like the way the plums disappeared into the mixture while cooking; it will make for a Christmas surprise when it’s cut.

The second cake I decided to make is a Walnut and Brandy Chocolate Cake. I think this cake satisfies both the old and new expectations for Christmas fare. I tipped a little bottle of brandy over it after it had cooled, which places it firmly in the Christmas category, and the 300g of ground walnuts in the mixture take it even closer to the mark. This cake doesn’t have any flour in it at all. Its air comes from egg whites which have been whipped to a frenzy of peaks. Egg whites added to cakes like this always make for a nice meringue-like crunch to the crust of the cake. I am looking forward to partaking of this one.

As you can see I’ve made way too much for six adults and one little banana-chicken-niece to consume in one day, so feel free to help yourself to a slice. There’s some Sara Lee Vanilla Ice-Cream to put on the side if you like. Merry Christmas! Enjoy!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Word Thief

In one of the books I’m reading at the moment, The Book Thief, the central character, a young German girl, Liesel Meminger, wakes up in the middle of the night—something she does a lot, usually after a bad dream—and wonders ‘at the height of her heart’. She notes that she learned the phrase from a book she was reading The Dream Carrier.

For me, this was a moment of recognition. I had only just been thinking about all of the phrases I had in my head from The Book Thief, that have slipped into my everyday existence. In my last post, I borrowed the expression ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’ to express my incredulity at the thought of anyone who would deny the contributions of the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, to ‘white European civilisations’ around the globe, in particular North America. (Actually, I’ve since done a bit of an internet investigation on this, and there are some very scary repudiations of the value of Freud’s influence, mostly on the point of his Jewish heritage). The other words I have adopted from The Book Thief are also expletives: ‘saumensch’ and ‘saukerl’. These words are the most prolific in Leisel’s foster mother’s vocabulary. They refer to pigs and are directed towards females and males respectively in order to ‘castigate, berate or plain humiliate’. Throughout the book, however, they become an awkward kind of endearment.

Clearly Liesel remembers far more poetic turns of phrase than I do. While thinking on this topic, I also recalled some of the everyday exclamations from my years of learning French that I often repeat in my thoughts. ‘Depêche toi!’ is useful when you’re trying to jaywalk and a slow moving car is affecting your timing. It means ‘hurry up!’ and I think I remember it because of the band Depêche Mode. But it’s also more satisfying to say: ‘toi!’ is a much more open sound to end such a directive with than the timidity of ‘up’. A question that I particularly like from my first year of French is ‘Qu’est-ce que tu prends, Mimi?’ It’s from a book called À Vous la France! and it comes from a conversation in a café, where one friend asks another what she will have from the menu. The pleasure of this question is all in the intonation and the name Mimi lets you do wonderful things in this respect. Somewhere towards the last years of my French language education I went and saw a film called La Hâine (Hate), about three young men, disenfranchised by French society. There’s one point in the film where one of the character’s explains his approach to life. He likens his life to falling off a building—it isn’t such a bad thing until you hit the pavement below. If I remember correctly, there’s a close up of the character’s face, rushing towards the camera, as he falls down the side of a building. In the voiceover, he intones ‘Jusqu’à ici, tout va bien’; so far, so good.

One of the most influential books on my thoughts and speech patterns at the time of reading was Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. Because of Welsh’s mastery at conveying the nuances of accents and dialects, I spent a lot of time going around thinking and, I confess, occasionally saying, ‘I dinnae ken’. The truly spooky moment of my immersion in the Edinburgh author’s work, for those around me at the time, was at a poetry evening organised by a friend. The occasion is best summarised with a limerick I wrote for it:

There once was a young girl called Vicky,
Who asked all her friends to be tricky.
She said, ‘Lovey, write us a sonnet
And we’ll ponder upon it,
Then tell you if we think it’s icky’.

I didn’t have a collection of already written poetry to take along so I composed a few for the night on the day before and I think the quality of the writing attests to the short time frame. This is the Trainspotting effected poem. Again, I have to issue an expletive alert. Feel free to leave the room screaming when—perhaps before—you’ve read it:

‘Twas in the glare of this mornin’s light
Ah was thinkin’ about this event, ahright?

An’ because Ah’d been readin’ Train Spottin’, Ah thought O Shite!
Ah’ve gote t’ write a foockin’ brilliant poem before tonight.

[A stanza/rhyming couplet I simply can’t recall]

So, Ah’ve written a few; Ah’ve done me best,
But Ah dinnae think Ah’ll be appearin’ at the Edinburgh Fest

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Enough Rope

Do you remember in John Safran vs. God when Safran interviewed the Grand-Master of the Ku Klux Klan? The blonde-haired blue-eyed Safran sat across from the military-clad Grand Master and, surrounded by a number of the Klan leader’s bodyguards, asked whether a Jew, such as himself, could join the organisation. The leader had clearly been lulled into thinking he was speaking to a nice Aryan boy and the physical jolt of his reaction to Safran’s revelation could not be disguised. The Grand Master remained civil and apparently relaxed, but the rest of the interview, which ended soon thereafter, was fraught with repressed violence directed towards Safran and his crew. Before Safran’s declaration, the Grand Master had been jocular, happily asserting a well-honed offence, that the organisation he presided over was racist; their exclusionary beliefs were the reason for their existence. While Safran pressed the Grand Master on ways that he might renounce his Judaism and become eligible for Klan membership, the sense that if it were not for the camera, Safran and his crew would be physically harmed was palpable even through the television screen. I remember feeling sick at the stench of fury engulfing the overcrowded room in which the interview took place.

Last night as I watched Safran’s current program, Speaking In Tongues, which he hosts with Catholic priest, Father Bob Maguire, I was reminded of the Ku Klux Klan interview. On this occasion the interviewee was an academic from Macquarie University’s Department of Public Law, Associate Professor Andrew Fraser. Fraser was invited onto the program following the demonstrations and riots at Cronulla Beach in Sydney to offer his learned opinion about how to prevent the reoccurrence of such events.

Earlier in the program, Safran and Maguire had interviewed a scientist, Gerard Tarulli, who explained the genetics of racial difference. He noted that the differences are miniscule and suggested that any attempt to preserve racial purity by confining reproduction to within any one race and thus promulgate a superior race is in fact misguided. Limiting the gene pool leads, rather, to the entrenchment of genetic weaknesses and thus, one might argue, an ‘inferior’ race, at least through the lens of genetics. It is better for the survival of humanity, according to Tarulli, to ‘outbreed’. On the one hand, I can appreciate the impulse to resort to the apparent rationality of science as a tool to refute the irrationality of racism. Since science presents itself as ‘truth’, to fail to be swayed by its arguments places the racist individual outside of societal norms. Tarulli was clearly sincere in his science-backed repudiation of any basis for racism, but his conviction that scientists are trained to present their findings and observations without interference from their personal emotions or judgements is problematic. In response to Safran’s question about whether scientists self-censor, Tarulli conceded that they might in order to secure funding for their projects; there is an imperative to operate within dominant discourses about what is worthwhile, and perhaps any research that purported to find a scientific basis for overt racism would not be supported. To my mind, what is more significant than the question of whether self-interest might affect any scientist’s reporting of his or her findings, is that of the plausibility of conducting any research without some sense of subjectivity on behalf of the researcher entering into the equation. In most areas of the contemporary Humanities, the recognition that subjectivity is inescapable is an old realisation, but the belief in objectivity remains a powerful myth in public discourse—the recourse to science in this debate is evidence of its pervasiveness—which is why it’s worth repeating the former view in this forum. In eras past, the public has been presented with the objective ‘truth’ about the smaller brain size of women and thus our inferior intelligence and ability for moral reasoning, and similar claims have been made by comparing the skull shapes of a Greek man and a Creole Negro with that of a chimpanzee. With the benefit of hindsight such scientific findings have been exposed as serving the interests of the dominant and powerful—historically, affluent white men—by preserving the existing power structure from which they alone benefited.

Even while science continues to make rational arguments which lay claim to the truth, how effective is that ‘truth’ in countering the apparently irrational claims of those who embrace a racist outlook? Is it possible to appeal to a world view that would exclude on the basis of appearance or even, as Andrew Fraser suggests, ‘cultural incompatibility’ with the rational discourse of science?

Andrew Fraser’s comments about the events at Cronulla and other beaches around Sydney, carry the weight of his position as an Associate Professor in Public Law at Macquarie University. Briefly, he advocates a ‘White Australia’ immigration policy. He believes that Australia is being colonised by the third world. Fraser argues that African immigrants contribute disproportionately to crime in Australia. He argues that immigrants from Asian countries are being educated in Australia with the intention of creating a ruling managerial class who will deny Anglo-Australians opportunities in their own country. Earlier this year, Fraser was suspended by his employer for articulating his views in the name of Macquarie University. He was reinstated with the support of the National Tertiary Educators' Union (NTEU) , who argued that while they didn’t agree with his views, the university failed to comply with the procedures for their action as outlined in their own Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA). The university was obliged to say that it didn’t agree with his views but would defend the role of the university as a ‘marketplace’ of ideas and a forum for vigorous debate, and therefore wouldn’t prevent Fraser from expressing his views by exacting further disciplinary action.

Can Fraser speak in the public realm without his views being associated with those of Macquarie University? If he didn’t have that position, at that institution, wouldn’t he be just another flag-wearing thug on the streets of Cronulla? I think it would be disingenuous for anyone to argue otherwise. He was introduced by Safran as an Associate Professor in Public Law at Macquarie University; that’s what the on-screen title said as well. We demand better public behaviour of our sporting stars, and the management teams of the various games are more able to respond to behaviour (including racial vilification) that reflects badly on their club and their game. Why must any university tolerate such a slur on their reputation, one that will almost certainly have a negative impact on their ability to attract not only international students but domestic students who are concerned about any defence of racism and bigotry as free-speech?

Safran asked Fraser what he would do about preventing a reoccurrence of the racially motivated violence in Sydney. Fraser explained his ‘White Australia’ position. He also suggested that Australia could entertain a North American proposal whereby (racialised) groups who currently reside in Australia, and who are deemed inassimilable, be offered whatever sum of money necessary to repatriate them to their country of origin: ‘Go back to a little village in Lebanon and half a million dollars could set you up in, ah...’ I wonder where those who were born in Australia and identify with a non-Anglo culture fit into such a plan? Indeed, where do I, someone who has to fight a gag reflex at the sight of someone wearing an Australian flag as an expression of their cultural identity, fit into this plan? Will I be offered half a million to go back to my birthplace, which is decidedly Anglo—England—because I’m not culturally compatible with whatever version of Anglo-Australian that might be proffered in Fraser’s plan? Safran went on to ask how the ‘White Australia’ argument fared in view of Australia’s original inhabitants. For Fraser the dispossession of Australia’s Indigenous population (to say nothing of the attempted genocide!) is an object lesson in what he is trying to circumvent. He counselled that we shouldn’t let the same thing happen to ‘our’ Western society in Australia. When Father Maguire suggested to Fraser that we lived in a ‘global village’, he returned ‘Tell that to the Japanese’, before citing Lost in Translation as a film that extolled the benefits of a low immigration policy.

Fraser used a similar tactic to deflect a question about whether Jews were ‘in or out’ in his proposed White Australia policy. This is the moment that recalled to my mind the interview with the Ku Klux Klan Grand Master. Fraser seem to be less articulate on his position when Safran directly asked about his own place under the proposed policy. Fraser began to note that the ‘Jewish community’ advocates a restrictionist immigration policy for Israel. Safran was insistent, would Jews be welcome in Australia under Fraser’s White Australia Policy? To this Fraser answered ‘From my own point of view... I dearly think, ah, wish that Jews would identify with European Christian civilisation. They’d be a huge asset. But if they want to keep subverting it, turning it into a multiracial... you know, then they’re a problem for white Europeans’.

Fraser’s statement, in view of his White Australia proposal seems to suggest that Jewish people cannot be ‘white’. What, then, does ‘white’ mean if it can’t encompass John Safran’s pasty white skin? Clearly, whites ain’t whites; it’s a question that was raised earlier in the program. Safran revealed that the question of whether Croatian people are sufficiently ‘white’ is currently a matter for intense debate on a white supremacist website. Surely there are millions of white European Jews? Jesus, Mary and Joseph, where would ‘white European civilisations’ around the globe be without Sigmund Freud? I wish that those who advocate such a limited definition of ‘white’ would call themselves something else. Can you be a white supremacist and of a religious persuasion other than Christian?

Safran’s reply to Fraser’s statement was, ‘Wrong answer. Wrong answer.’

The feeling that was palpable at the end of this interview was one where Fraser seemed to recognise the offence he had caused his host. Does this realisation suggest a flicker of insight into the hateful consequences of his proposal? Safran seemed unable to hold Fraser’s gaze. What would he have been feeling? The humiliation that Safran must have experienced in the face of such an effacement of his cultural and religious life (Jewish people should identify with Christian beliefs?!) was visceral. I sincerely hope that Associate Professor Andrew Fraser of the Department of Public Law at Macquarie University held onto the sensation of shame I’m convinced that he felt in that moment, at the close of the interview, when he seemed to briefly meet John Safran’s gaze.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Toot! Toot!

Today I received a big yellow envelope in the mail. In it was a letter and a certificate.

An excerpt from the letter:

"The University ... gives formal recognition, through the Dean's Commendation List, to Research Higher Degree graduates whose theses receive examiners' reports that attest to the outstanding quality and exceptionally innovative nature of the research described in the thesis. You are included on the Dean's Commendation List for 2004 because your thesis was among the small number which were judged by the examiners to be of such an exceptional standard. My judgement was endorsed by the Head of the School through which you were enrolled during your candidature.

No more than 10% of graduating PhD or MPhil students are recognised this way each year. It is my great pleasure to inform you that you have been selected as one of those for 2004 for your thesis entitled Becoming Zine: The Place of Zines in Australia's Cultural Life."


Hee, hee, hee, hee, hee.


Sunday, December 18, 2005

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

If Annie Hall is a frantic meditation on the nature of romantic relationships in which the individual is ultimately preserved, then Smoke is a gentle rumination about small acts of kindness that draw isolated people into communion...

In my earlier post I mentioned that Smoke was directed by Wayne Wang, but I didn’t say anything about the writer of the screenplay, Paul Auster. Without any disrespect to Wang’s direction, for me the main pleasure of this film is Auster’s contribution. I watched it as though Auster was entirely responsible for its authorship. In part, this is because, as I have indicated previously, I am entranced by the scope of Auster’s imagination and writing, however, the opening titles of Smoke encourage the privileging of the screenwriter over the director in this instance. It is a film by Wayne Wang and Paul Auster. In the closing titles, the film is ‘Written by Paul Auster’, adding weight to his authorship of the film, beyond that with which screenwriters are usually credited. I daresay that Auster’s well-established audience was a key consideration in the promotion of the film. The cameo appearance by Auster’s son, Daniel, as the ‘Book Thief’ is a signature that irrefutably marks the film as Auster’s, in a manner similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s on-screen presence throughout his oeuvre.

Watching Smoke this time, I was reminded of Auster’s most recent novel, The Brooklyn Follies. Both stories are set in Brooklyn which holds host to a range of isolated characters who are drawn into taking care of one another. There is something inexorable about the relationships that are formed, as if being responsible to those around them is intrinsic to the characters’ constitution. This is in spite of individual characters’ initial resistance to being more than considerate of the strangers they encounter. In Smoke, the character played by William Hurt is a writer named Paul Benjamin*. He buys cigars from a local tobacconist, Auggie (Harvey Keitel), and shields himself from others with the pain of his wife’s sudden death; she was shot, caught in cross-fire, on her way to work one morning. She was five months pregnant. Paul is drawn into the conversations which are part of the service in Auggie’s shop#. One evening, just as Auggie is closing up, Paul runs up to him, breathless, and asks him if he could still buy some cigars. Auggie raises the security grill on his door and soon Paul and Auggie are sitting at a kitchen table smoking, drinking beer, and looking through Auggie’s photo albums.

Auggie’s photo collection is a record of a ritual he has undertaken everyday for all the years he has owned the tobacco shop. Each morning at 8am, Auggie sets his camera on a tripod on the corner across from his store and takes a photo of the activity in ‘his’ corner of the world. He explains to Paul that it’s his project; his life’s work is represented in over 4000 photographs of the same corner in Brooklyn. Paul says that they’re ‘overwhelming’ and he flips through them rapidly, not really looking at them. At first, Paul doesn’t understand when Auggie tells him to slow down, after all the photos are all the same. Auggie explains how different each one is; because the earth rotates around the sun each day the light is slightly different in every one, to say nothing of the shifts in weather and thus the clothing people are wearing. Eventually Paul comes across a photo of his wife. He says, ‘Look at my sweet, sweet Ellen’.

The notion of a ‘life’s work’ is a recurring concern in Auster’s work. The nature of the obsessions that occupy the lives of Auster’s characters are often repetitive and seemingly pointless. As well as Auggie’s photographs in Smoke, there are the films made by Hector Mann in The Book of Illusions, which are produced without any desire on behalf of the film-maker that they will ever be shown, despite the interest in his work, which is exemplified by David Zimmer—also recently widowed—who devotes his time to ‘finding’ Mann. The endless walking of the streets of New York by Stillman in 'City of Glass' is incomprehensible to the character Quinn who decides to follow him on his apparently aimless meandering; and Quinn himself ends up spending his days waiting in all kinds of weather for a glimpse of Stillman after he has lost track of the older man. The point of the repetitive actions is, for me, best revealed in the opening sequence of another author’s work. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera explains his understanding of Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return:

'...the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia...

If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche call the ideas of eternal return the heaviest of burdens...' (4-5)

I’m not sure if my interpretation is entirely valid; I know that Auster references Cervantes’ Don Quixote a lot (especially through the characters who drop everything to follow their obsessions), but I don’t know enough about either Nietzsche or Don Quixote to know if the two are compatible. I suppose my referencing of Kundera’s work is premised on the notion that Auster’s characters are drawn to assume responsibility for one another through the repetitive obsessions in which they are engaged, or even just by taking time over the apparently tedious concerns of everyday life. It’s Auggie’s photographs that elicit a break in Paul’s numb façade, that enables him to finally grieve and thus to be comforted by Auggie. It’s the repeated appearances of the frightened young African-American boy who introduces himself variously as Rashid, Thomas and Paul (Harold Perrineau Jr.), who is on the run from some criminals he stole from, that prompts Paul to ask Auggie to give the teenager a job. Rashid uses the same method to get to know his biological father (Forrest Whittaker), sitting across the road from the garage he owns. It’s the drip, drip, drip of water from an overflowing bucket abandoned by Rashid onto Auggie’s stash of Cuban cigars that ends his dreams of making a fortune through trafficking the contraband. Rashid is able to reimburse Auggie the money he lost on the purchase of the cigars with the money he stole. Instead of reinvesting the money in cigars, Auggie now has the money he didn’t have to give to his ex-wife (Stockard Channing) who asked for his help with her daughter, and so he gives it to her without strings. It seems that through repetition the characters’ lives attain meaning, and they are unable to escape their responsibility to one another. The responsibility that the characters’ assume is not the ‘unbearable burden’ that Kundera first introduces us to—indeed he goes on to immediately question the negative attributes of weight—but it is a load that imbues the most apparently insignificant existences with ‘splendid’ life.

*Names are carefully wrought in Auster’s work. They are always borrowed—from the author’s life, from the author’s other works, and from other writers’ lives and works—and each new borrower carries the full weight of everyone who has borne those names previously.

#One of the conversations that is not central to Paul’s story is one that occurs in the background between three of the shop’s regulars, one of whom is played by the vastly underrated Giancarlo Esposito—seen recently on television in 5ive Days to Midnight with Timothy Hutton. It prefigures another deftly placed conversation in The Brooklyn Follies about yet another war in Iraq.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Stop Press!

This is not the post I promised you would be next, but I would be remiss if I didn't interrupt the scheduled programming to announce some breaking news...

I Got A Scholarship!

Regular programming will resume shortly.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

New York Stories

On the weekend Channel Seven screened Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977) and Smoke (Wayne Wang, 1995). They were shown at an unsociable time, between 10.40 and 3am, on the cusp of Saturday and Sunday, but still, that they were scheduled at all on free-to-air television, and together, felt like an unexpected gift. I set my DVD recorder to Extended Quality recording so it would capture the full four-and-a-half hours combined of these New York films. And now, at the time of writing (this paragraph at least)—10.00pm on Sunday evening—I’ve just finished watching Smoke. I watched Annie Hall earlier in the day, between solving Tangram shapes and a mid-afternoon sleep from which I emerged strangled by a yoke of sweat .

While both Annie Hall and Smoke are set in New York and each seems quintessentially ‘New York’ in its sensibility (or what I know about New York from films, books and television), the contrast between the films couldn’t be greater. Woody Allen’s film is filled with what became his signatures: an adult love affair which is marred by ill-timed and mismatched passions between an equally mismatched pair of individuals. Why is it that the characters played by the strange creature that is Woody Allen are partnered with the most charismatic of women such as Diane Keaton? It’s a conceit that we have to accept in all of Allen’s films. (Although the writer/director’s succession of romantic partners throughout his own life—including Keaton—would suggest the premise is less of a conceit than I am able to imagine). Many people cite Annie Hall as their favourite Woody Allen film. Even people who don’t like his films as a rule like this meditation on the progress of a relationship, from the first awkward overtures by Annie towards Alvie, through her decision to move on, to his fond reminiscence of their friendship.

Reflecting upon this canonisation of Annie Hall over Allen’s many other films, I wonder to what extent its popularity has to do with Alvie’s final summary of romantic relationships. While the film is quite prosaic in its conclusion that people don’t live happily ever after, ultimately it is quite idealistic. In Allen’s films people meet, they fall in love (?), they get to know one another, and then they fall out of love and have a mutually agreed upon separation, after which they remain friends who will enjoy each other’s company when they meet by chance on a New York street. I wonder if audiences forgive the anxious prate in Annie Hall, more than in Allen’s other films, because Annie and Alvie part without acrimony, without divorce settlements or child custody disputes, thereby presenting an ideal of the end of a relationship. It’s seductive to think that one might fondly recall only ever being gifted books on death by one’s ex-partner precisely at the moment of dividing the library accumulated during the relationship. The philosophical position that Alvie adopts at the end of his reminiscence about his relationship with Annie absolves both parties of any hurts inflicted and concludes that relationships are worth the effort despite the trouble . I’m just curious that there doesn’t seem to be any ‘trouble’ in Alvie and Annie’s relationship. What is slightly disturbing is that Alvie’s principal reason for being with Annie seems to be to educate her, to mould her into a ‘better’ woman. He takes her to see films and counts a post-relationship sighting of her taking a new lover to The Sorrow and the Pity as a ‘personal triumph’; he pushes her to take college courses with the sole aim, it seems, of ensuring she gets the references in his stand-up routines, but then asks her to give up her studies when she begins to form relationships with the interesting people he assured her she would meet; and he pays for her to see a psychoanalyst. Even when Annie’s analyst suggests that moving out of Alvie’s apartment will be good for her, Alvie says he trusts her analyst’s advice because she was recommended by his! To the film’s credit, Annie is never controlled by Alvie’s Pygmalion tendencies, and she uses what she has absorbed from college and in analysis to make decisions which are in her best interests (although moving to California to live with Paul Simon and his bad seventies haircut cannot be condoned).

Next Post: Smoke

If Annie Hall is a frantic meditation on the nature of romantic relationships in which the individual is ultimately preserved, then Smoke is a gentle rumination about small acts of kindness that draw isolated people into communion...

Friday, December 09, 2005

Simon Baker's Speedos

About three weeks ago I worked out how to add a site meter to my blog. Out of curiosity, I wanted to know how many people were taking any notice of my foray into the blog world. I’m not sure whether it’s the most accurate measure; I have attempted to set the meter so it doesn’t count my visits, but a bit of clicking back and forth reveals I haven’t been terribly successful. The counter still seems to click over. At least 25% of the total must be me checking that my updates have been effective. Despite the likely inaccuracy of the visitor numbers, the site meter offers various other statistics which I have found quite fascinating. The best of the site meter’s services is that which lets you know how people are navigating to your site. As might be expected, some visitors are referred by direct links from other blogs—thank you to those bloggers for the links. It is, however, those visitors who make their way to my site via a Google search with whom this post is concerned.

I’m intrigued by the search terms people enter that bring them to view my pages. The whole process sparks my imagination; something I’ve mentioned in passing appears in the excerpt provided with the search results and it’s clearly promising enough for the searcher to follow the link. For a moment my prose glimmers like gold dust and it is seized upon in the hope that one click will reveal a golden nugget and fortunes will be answered. A few people were referred to my blog after Googling ‘Matthew Arnold’. In this instance, as someone who has marked over 60 essays on Arnold’s ‘The Function of Criticism’, I speculated that students were looking for an accessible summary of Arnold’s work. I’m not sure what can be inferred by the addition of ‘Views On Television’ to the first search’s terms. Arnold certainly wouldn’t have had any concept of television.

Recently, someone from Western Australia has been looking for ‘Simon Baker Speedos’. I was concerned that their visit to my site would have been disappointing and fruitless, so I used the scanner at the University to copy a picture from the Who magazine that I mentioned, which would have brought the individual to my blog. On this occasion I can be thankful that making a career out of researching popular culture justifies activities such as the scanning of semi-naked men with University resources. I did find myself having to explain my activities to a couple of my colleagues in response to half-raised eyebrows, knowing grins and exclamations of ‘Alright. Hard at work?’ I hope you appreciate my sacrifice, dear reader.

While I may be sympathetic to anyone wanting to have a gander at the delectable Mr Baker (it’s all in the way he moves, I think), unless the searcher looking for ‘Young Model Strip Off’ is satisfied with the picture above, he or she is destined to remain disappointed at this site. The picture left is the extent of the nudity you’ll sight on this blog.

Even just taking three examples of the search terms people have used which have lead them to my site, a theme of disappointment is clearly emerging. Those looking for an elucidation of Matthew Arnold would not—if they are students—have found anything worth quoting. (And—wearing my academic hat now—if you think you did, cut it out of your essay right now. This is not a refereed source; my musings on the pervasiveness of Arnold’s legacy in contemporary critical practice do not resemble the measured scholarly contemplation on the topic you should be taking the time to engage with). The people looking for more information on Christina Aguillera’s wedding will not have found anything beyond the observation that she got married, which obviously they already knew, although I will add that her hair looked pretty. And, while I’ll talk about my wooden puzzle collection, I’m sorry, but I’m never going to offer the solutions. I don’t want to ruin the puzzle solving experience for anyone, in the same way that I hope I’ll resist ever revealing the end of any film I talk about. At least never without a Spoiler Alert.

The disappointment that undoubtedly ensues after the people doing such searches begin reading my blog, raises some questions about the efficacy of Googling. Of course, the results are determined by the terms entered into the search engine, which implicates the searcher. How is it possible for the searcher to express his or her query in a few words that will produce a useful result; that is, one where the search mechanism will discover the words within a context that matches that desired by the searcher? For example, when I was updating the ‘Cathode Ray’ list of my current television viewing, I searched for ‘Surface’. One of the sponsored links offered to sell me a whole range of laminate surfaces. A link to the television program did appear on the first screen, suggesting that the search engines do have a degree of discrimination, especially when it comes to titles. In the instance of those trawling the internet for free porn such as the ‘Young Model Strip Off’ searcher, however, I’m sure the results are often quite anti-climactic than not. In addition to my site, I like to think that a whole host of paint re-surfacing options for late model vehicles were also included in those search results.

The notion of the unsatisfactory referral returns me to the question of the reliability of the site meter’s counter as an indication of the level of engagement with my blog. Other statistics provided by the site meter show that most of the above searchers didn’t read my blog for longer that it took to ascertain that they’d been enticed by ‘fool’s gold’. Since the statistic for the duration of the visits isn’t displayed on my blog, no-one could necessarily confirm that only a handful of people are reading my site in any depth, nor could they deny that 100 people might buy a t-shirt on the strength of visiting my site. Aside from my ego, there isn’t anything contingent upon whether or not my site is seen to attract a large number of visitors. But the question of the affect of site meter counts and what one might do to artificially inflate them is pertinent. I’ll conclude this rather long post with an illustrative anecdote:

During the last Australian federal election, The Australian newspaper published a list of the top ten political websites published from Australia. I first encountered this list because it was stuck on the wall above the photocopier at the University. Someone had highlighted the 6th website listed, M/C Media-Culture, and written a delighted note that it was more popular than either the Green Party’s or the Democrats’ campaign sites. To think that a journal that had originated in our School was so apparently influential in the day to day concerns of the nation was, naturally, perceived as an enormous endorsement of the efforts of past and present contributors. Furthermore, the endorsement was lent further weight by the publication of the list in the only national daily newspaper. It was a heady time.

Well before the lead up to the election, The Vagina Monologues was playing at the Powerhouse Centre for Live Arts and not long after the performance a review of the production appeared in M/C Reviews, entitled ‘C*** Get Enough of the Vagina Monologues’¹. I am reliably informed by the review’s author that, according to the journal’s site statistics, it is the most viewed piece in the history of either the M/C Reviews journal or the M/C Media-Culture journal proper. E is very proud to proclaim that a Google Australia search on ‘C***’ yields a list on which her article is ranked first, thus making her’s the number one ‘c***’ in Australia! Pussy Power indeed.

1. I have no objection to the omitted word, it’s just I know its full inclusion will completely screw with my statistics.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Gonna Make You Sweat

To anyone reading from a screen in Queensland, I am going to state the bleeding obvious: it’s hot. No sooner had we entered the month of December and the news services were reporting a heat wave and predicting little relief in sight. They’ve spoken of how the very young and the very old are particularly susceptible to heat related medical conditions such as dehydration and heat stroke, which they tell us can be fatal (Gulp. That’s a gulp of water). In one interview, the head of the AMAQ explained the role of sweating in the body’s cooling system. The doctor elaborated in the context of the 65% humidity we’re experiencing along with the 33°C temperatures. Apparently when it’s this humid it makes it difficult for sweat to dry on the skin, which is ultimately what cools the body down. The upshot is that you go around impersonating a warm malodorous puddle, such as you see in the picture above left. I call it ‘Self-portrait with Sweat’. You are so lucky that smell-o-vision hasn’t been perfected. I had just had a shower and against all odds applied some make-up. The greatest exertion I had undertaken after that was to ensure my system for producing enough chilled water was operating at maximum capacity—it’s quite simple really, every container capable of holding water is filled and placed in my fridge and put into an exacting rotation from most cold to warm, straight from the tap. If filling up a few bottles of water produces such an onslaught of bodily emissions, I’m sure you don’t want me to describe what happened when I walked to the bus stop... Just let me say that an antiperspirant that can withstand this weather has not been invented; and really, what’s the point in these conditions of only addressing the underarm area? ‘Ooh, yer underarms smell nice! Too bad the rest of you is so woofy!’

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


I was side-tracked from my original intention on my last post, which was to tell you about all the exciting social outings I’ve been on lately. But then I got to relating one of my more recent traumatic experiences as part of letting you know about the conversation over dinner and before I knew it I’d written over a thousand words and hadn’t even made it to the second event of the five I had planned to tell you about.

Does this happen to other people? Do you stick to what you intend to write about? Or do you get all Virginia Woolf and attempt to write down every thought that occurs to you? On the one hand I think I should resist writing down everything that pops into my head; there’s something messy about revealing details of my life and those of my acquaintances in public—especially when the portraits of others are not always flattering. But then there’s something that happens when I start writing: thoughts are sparked and tangents beckon, or as Dostoyevsky writes in Notes from Underground, ‘I practise thinking, and consequently each of my primary causes pulls along another, even more primary, it its wake, and so on ad infinitum’. In Notes this line explains why the character isn’t a man of action—he is unable to find a foundation upon which to act with conviction—and it’s really no surprise to me that there are times I relate to his sentiments. In terms of this blog, I can only apologise for the frustration that might be caused by the ‘soap-bubble, and inertia’ of such constant waywardness. Perhaps you’ll never find out about the fifth event as it moves farther away with each thought...


The second event I went to last week was the going away drinks for Dr P. I arrived half an hour after I’d intended to, because I’d been occupied by posting a long-winded comment to another blog. I entered the staff club and marvelled that even a club for academics has its resident barflies who turn as synchronous swimmers to ogle your breasts as you walk through the door (!). Before I joined Dr P’s table I decided to get a beer and chose to try the new Coopers’ Mild Ale. I felt a small head spin after only two pots (that’s midis for southerners). I thought it was a low alcohol beer, which is why I chose it. If it is, here’s incontrovertible evidence that I need to get out more. When I bought the first beer the bar tender gave me a ticket that told me that I’d won prize number 2. Prize number 2 was a hat with Coopers embroidered on the front. I’m not a big fan of merchandise advertising alcohol, but it’s always nice to win something, and I was assured by my colleagues that a Coopers logo was infinitely better than one from Coca-Cola. L told of how the Coopers’ company provided free water to the local residents near their factory in South Australia. Dr B said something about an attempted take-over of the company, of which I confess I was ignorant. Later the logo was used as a prop to explain metonym to a fellow tutor (You know you wish you were present at that scintillating conversation!) I explained how I would wear it while hanging out my washing in an act of defiance against my neighbours who roar up and down the dirt driveway past my door in their Ute with a Fourex logo on it. I can only assume they have something to do with that factory over the way—would you hang a Fourex logo from your balcony for any other reason? I told Dr P how much I enjoyed working with her. She said I couldn’t say that with as many students as I’d had. She’s worried that she won’t be able to get the Sirena brand of tuna in London. I said she could probably just pop across to Italy and get it as often as she wanted. Then it was time to say farewell.

I caught the bus to the city and then on to the Valley, because I’d also been invited to a get together with people from the call-centre I’d worked at for nearly 5 years. Again, I was late, but I’d warned them that I would be because I couldn’t miss Dr P’s farewell. I was starving by the time I got to the restaurant, another Thai establishment, but this one was named without deference to the sensibilities of English speakers, Thai Wi-Rat. It’s a tiny little restaurant in the Chinatown Mall, just up from the call-centre. I’d managed to talk my call-centre colleagues into going there once because I had read about it in Gourmet Traveller, now it seems to be a regular haunt. The food at My Thai was good, but the food at Thai Wi-Rat is sublime. I am partial to one of the ‘Special Dishes’ which is the Thai Wi-Rat salad. I had no idea what ‘fish mow’ was when I first ordered it, but it seems to be a kind of crunchy fried ingredient that adds a unique texture to a calamari and julienne vegetable salad dressed in chilli, lime, fish sauce and other things I’m sure. My former colleagues, or as we called ourselves, the Directories’ Divas (male or female), were happy to continue their conversations while I ate my late order. Not all of the group still work at the call-centre, yet it’s almost like we’ve never been away from each other. If you’ve never worked in a call-centre then let me assure you the work and conditions are deplorable. There must be some conscientious call-centre operators out there, who look after their staff, but the company we work/ed for is not one of them. When I finished working there in February, the carpet was worn through in various places and apparently that’s still the case. In a job where customers feel entitled to scream abuse at you over the phone, the support of the employer becomes especially important, but it was non-existent. Add to that the constant monitoring of call times and toilet breaks, well, you shouldn’t be surprised that directories and messaging operators want you to answer their questions as efficiently as possible, and don’t really have the time to chat pleasantly—their jobs are constantly on the line. When I worked there, I was sick all the time, whether from the close proximity to other people in an air-conditioned building or stress-related immune deficiency. I haven’t had a single cold since I left, which I find extraordinary. The job and the environment were bad for me. But, oh the people; that a group of us is getting together after at least half the table have taken up other employment opportunities is, I think, telling. People work in call-centres for all sorts of reasons—not because they’re stupid as several callers told me over the years—and they come from all sorts of backgrounds. There are musicians, former small-business owners, consultants, tertiary students—undergraduate and postgraduate, carers, women who’ve returned to the workforce after decades-long absences, people who’ve always worked in call-centres and so on. They’re really some of the nicest, most genuine people I’ve ever had the good-fortune to work with. T especially is hilarious and generous, with a ribald humour that only she can get away with (the hand gestures alone would have anyone else out the door). She transformed that call-centre when she arrived through the sheer force of her personality. I’m sure everyone there misses her terribly. She’s a fellow Far North Queenslander so we go around putting ‘ay’ on the ends of our sentences and telling tales of growing up with tropical fruit at our feet or of our deprived existences with only the ABC and one commercial television channel for entertainment. I feel so relaxed around all of the Divas, past and present. And for a foodie, such as myself, I love the fact that everyone of them is as equally committed to eating dessert when they’re out as I am. Before I’d arrived, there’d clearly been a very earnest discussion about going somewhere for apple pie afterwards. So off we went, over to the Brunswick Street Mall, where pastries were enthusiastically ingested by all.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Open Season

The Silly Season has started! It’s that time of year when the co-ordination of social diaries seems an impossible task; multiple invitations are received and decisions must be made and compromises reached. I’ll confess to a slight thrill about being overwhelmed with choices, because there are times when I feel quite isolated living by myself and not having the best relationships with half of the members of my family. Christmas can be quite a precarious time for many people, so I’m glad to be reminded that I do have social networks which I can draw upon.

The first event that I attended in the past week was a catch-up of sorts with some of the people I worked with during the first semester of this year at one of the far flung campuses I spent some not inconsiderable travelling between. We went to My Thai, a restaurant in Auchenflower, an inner city suburb of Brisbane that we all live much closer to than the university campus we have in common. It was an illuminating evening.

I had recently heard through the grapevine that the person whose subject I had convened while she was on study leave was telling her colleagues that I didn’t want to teach there anymore because I would ‘rather drive to [a university in another city] than teach the students at [that campus]’. Well, as Dr H pointed out, I don’t drive, I catch buses and trains, so the charge was a complete fabrication down to the most minute detail. I’m not going to pretend that students who have only achieved university entry OPs of 17 (on a descending scale of 1-25) are easy to teach. There are many differences between a student with an OP of 5 and one with a score of 17, but the hardest to overcome is the lack of basic literacy in the latter student. Their lack of comprehension has been evident on those occasions I’ve asked them to read aloud. They stop at and stumble over words they should be familiar with at university level, in readings they should have read before attending class. If they’re not understanding simple words, then they’re certainly not gleaning the nuances of the advanced concepts they are being introduced to. And their writing is often a chore to decipher, expressed in sentences without active verbs and littered with malapropisms and confused homonyms. It must be a frustrating experience for them, especially when through the fact of their admission to their course the university has told them they’re capable of the level required. From a teaching perspective you’re required to do much more work on reading comprehension and writing, but really the university doesn’t provide sessional teachers with the resources to address learning difficulties that go back to primary school. In spite of expressing these frustrations about teaching—as you do—it doesn’t mean I don’t want to teach at the campus (especially if I don’t get a scholarship), which the individual in question would have known if she’d ever bothered to speak to me directly.

Clearly, there’s a whole lot more behind the misinformation the convenor is circulating. It’s not even about me. Two of the people at the dinner said that she was trying to justify buying out an under-qualified person to teach the course (not even an honours degree, apparently). They had been puzzled when she hadn’t offered to buy me out, considering that I’d tutored in the course twice and convened it when it was last held. So, this is when the grapevine started transmitting. The convenor hadn’t even given me the opportunity to refuse teaching, but felt justified in maligning my professional reputation in an environment where it would have consequences for my future employment prospects. I sent a politely worded email, not only to the convenor, but to the two people immediately her senior, who I had worked with in her absence, in which I clarified the untruth of the ‘rumour’, explained my wish to use my (fingers-crossed) scholarship effectively and devote my time to my PhD at least in the first year, said I’d learnt a lot from the students, and appreciated the support and collegiality I had been offered. I said I hoped I would be welcome to teach there in the future, contingent on the progress of my research. My email was sincere, but I wanted to call the convenor’s bluff; and it worked. The next day I received two ‘mea culpa’ emails saying she had asked another tutor to ask me about teaching; must have caught me at a bad time when I said the students at the regional university were nicer than those on the urban fringe; and was a ‘sad bear’ that I wasn’t available to take advantage of the money she’d be showered with to buy out her teaching.

The women at the dinner agreed that 7.30 on a Sunday morning was a ‘bad time’ to receive a phone call telling me that the convenor was absconding with the lap top computer in her office that I’d been using, thereby leaving me without convenient access to a computer at work in the last weeks of teaching and marking; and a sleep-hazed comment about my affinity with country folk could not be construed as a statement about not wanting to teach their students. S, who says she and the convenor are sworn mortal enemies, said she thought the convenor hadn’t asked me to teach because I’d clearly done a better job. M who rolled her eyes at the ‘sad bear’ comment agreed. I asked them how they knew. They replied that the students hadn’t been scarred for life against future learning when they’d turned up to their classes after attending mine. I told them that the head of the program had sent me an email congratulating me on the success of the semester—he said they’d never NOT had a problem with the running of the course before.

Sometimes I think I have a surfeit of these stories where people are either maligning me from afar or just plain screaming at me—you’ve heard of few of these now—to the extent that I’ve wondered what I do to attract this kind of attention. I once read in a detailed breakdown of the arrangement of the planets at the time of my birth that essentially the planets are aligned so that I attract people who want to harm me. I couldn’t bear to put store in that theory; it would mean there’s nothing I can do to stop it. Then there’s the ethos that you are treated the way you treat others, which would hold that I behave in this abominable way. I hope I make no claim to being perfect, so on some of these occasions I have tortured myself, combing over every single twitch I’ve ever made in the presence of the individual in question. I suppose some solace can be found in those situations when it’s clear I’m not the only one having difficulties with the individual, as in the case of the convenor, the writers’ festival organiser, the research advisor ... I’ve always found out that somebody else has been undermined or publicly bawled out before me. And I suppose, in finding that out, I also encounter some great like-minded people that I become friends with.

After I got home from the dinner, I was on such a high. It’s exciting to be around such funny and intelligent women, drinking wine and eating food, exchanging information and toasting everyone’s achievements.

To be continued...

Friday, December 02, 2005

Oh Christmas Tree

Every year I debate about whether or not I will take the plunge and commit to Christmas decorations proper. Ideally, I would like a tree with exquisitely co-ordinated baubles and fairy lights, but I talk myself out of it because it seems an extravagant purchase just for me. Instead, I usually find myself in a $2 shop purchasing bits and pieces to create a Christmas diorama for a side table, around which I place the presents for family and friends as I buy and wrap them. Every year the setting is created anew, probably because I think the arrangements never quite capture the sense of Christmas effectively. Perhaps, in my mind, a ‘proper’ Christmas can only be represented by a green Alpine tree—even after my rail against the appropriateness of the props of a European winter for a sub-tropical climate. So I continue to try and create Christmas with the miserly budget and spirit I afford it.

Here is a photo essay of this year’s efforts. I struck upon the idea when I was in Target. I bought a packet of gift rosettes with sticky backs which I stuck to a lamp, vaguely in the shape of a Christmas tree, that I already owned. The metal curl on the top of the lamp was the perfect hook from which to hang a Christmas decoration in the shape of a star. It turned out rather tackier than I had anticipated while I was shopping, but then poor taste is an aspect of Christmas too, isn’t it?

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


This past weekend was a relatively quiet one where I took the time to fully relax without the spectre of marking looming over me.

When I got out of bed I watched the remainder of a program I’d started watching the night before on the ABC, Frances Tuesday. I always love a good British drama; I haven’t really elaborated on this aspect of my viewing habits in the Cathode Ray list. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because I’ll even watch a not-so-good British drama; there’s something comforting about watching a program like Rosemary and Thyme, where the plots may stretch the boundaries of everyday believability but are perfectly acceptable in an Agatha Christie-esque Whodunnit. I’d be disappointed if Rosemary and Laura didn’t find a body amongst every patch of Hydrangeas they encountered. It’s the mashed potato of television and sometimes I feel I should only admit to viewing the equivalent of Gratin Dauphinois. Anyway, I made a point of watching Frances Tuesday because it had Tamzin Outhwaite in it from Red Cap, a series that also screened on the ABC, about British Military Police at a base in Germany. Outhwaite is always a strong female presence and she didn’t disappoint in the role of the lover of a people smuggler-turned witness against him. The physical changes her character took after she went into witness protection were remarkable; one of the best make-up transformations ever, in either film or television. In a coincidence which I found strangely appropriate, the villain in Frances Tuesday bore a striking resemblance to a certain Brisbane-based academic.

Halfway through watching Frances Tuesday, my oldest sister rang to arrange a wedding-browsing expedition. She’s getting married in May next year, so we’ve been participating in the (hopefully) once-in-a-life-time pilgrimage to the Mecca of lace and voluminous skirts, where brides-to-be model dress after dress, while their entourage pass judgement. Since I have been the sum total of V’s posse on these occasions it will be my fault if oyster pink really isn’t her colour. We decided that V would pick me up the next day and we’d go and have breakfast at our current favourite breakfast place before hitting the Wedding Warehouse Mega-Plex Centre (or whatever it’s called).

At midday, I had a shower and chose to wear my jeans because I planned to walk up the street to the newsagent’s and I haven’t used any depilatory products for three weeks. It was hot but I didn’t want to put any of the sidewalk diners off their lunch as I walked by. On the way to the newsagent’s there’s a section of the pathway that pedestrians have to share with some native bees entering their hive. I tend to move as smoothly as possible through the swarm while holding my breath. I haven’t been stung yet, but they don’t seem that way inclined. I bought the newspaper and the latest of the wooden puzzles (Pandora’s Box). On this regular Saturday morning/early afternoon jaunt, I also make a point of stopping in at the organic food store to see if they have any decent specimens of herbs. Often they have enormous bunches of ‘pesto basil’ which just can’t be passed over. They didn’t have any herbs that made me want to break out the mortar and pestle this week, but I got some more olive and thyme bread, which is just about the best bread I have ever tasted; it’s so fruity, in that olive oil kind of way, and is perfect char-grilled and topped with avocado mashed with lemon, sea-salt and cumin. Mmm mmm mmm! I wandered back down the hill and had a look in the convenience store. I noticed that my favourite nudie juices are now sold in the form of ice-blocks. It was only a matter of time before they started turning that juice into other tasty products. Once, I was going away for a few days and I didn’t want to waste my fire-fighter’s (raspberry and cranberry) nudie so I put it in the freezer. After I returned home, I had myself a fire-fighter slushy and a new, personal nudie ritual was born. The ice-block isn’t quite the same thing, but it’s still a good thing.

In the spirit of embracing relaxation, I bought the Who magazine for a gossip update. I really wanted to find out about Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban who were on the cover of another magazine (along with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes), but I didn’t want to buy an old magazine. I thought Who would also contain information on Nicole and Keith, but it didn’t—but, alas, plenty on that weirdo misogynist Tom. I guess I also thought that Who was slightly less salacious, but I don’t know why that would make a difference to me; I can’t bear the holier-than-thou attitude they adopt towards other magazines in their ‘Fact or Fiction’ section. The quotes they get from the stars’ publicists are moronic. Do they know what business they’re in? I guess even for the most ardent fan of popular culture those old binaries hold sway; I wonder if there’s anything I can take to get over that impulse? Anyway, it looks like the kids from the Mousketeers are all grown up. Christina Aguillera got married. Britney’s brought a new person into the world and, thankfully, has chosen a name that won’t require a cryptologist to spell or decipher: Sean. How refreshingly level-headed of Brits and Kev.

There were some gratuitous shots of Simon Baker in his Speedos, which I might have to save for Dr H. Apparently Baker and his wife have moved back to Australia. Will our industry give him a decently written role such as the character he played in The Guardian? Not likely, especially when Channel Ten ripped that program from our screens without a word of explanation, even ignoring mine and Dr H’s specific phone enquiries. In my opinion Baker’s character, Nick Fallin, was one of the most finely wrought characters of our time. He wasn’t completely likeable—his day job was as a corporate lawyer—but not in a Tony Soprano kind of way. I mean, Tony Soprano is a psychopath and therefore completely irredeemable, while Nick Fallin was the product of a neglectful childhood and self-absorbed parenting techniques. He was a functioning human being with the ability for compassion, and he had a lingering drug problem. But the facet of his character which I found most compelling was his anger. He didn’t kill people. He threw the occasional mobile phone, and once got into a scuffle with a man who stole his car park. Well actually, his father initiated that assault, but when Nick joined in, after first trying to protect his father, his involvement was not an expression of hatred towards the man he was assaulting, but a release of so much pent up anger and frustration at a whole range of the things. I suppose what I think made the character so much an expression of the zeitgeist was that he was an angry man in a suit. We’re so used to seeing young men in baggy clothes and baseball hats worn backwards—or mobsters—perpetrating violent crimes in film and television, which we can interpret as an expression of anger at social disparity or an abusive mother, but the not so uncommon rage of the apparently respectable citizen has never been so finely explored. One of the best series of scenes ever in The Guardian was when, after the phone throwing incident, Nick was court ordered to see a psychiatrist for three appointments. He attended each appointment but sat across from the psychiatrist and couldn’t have uttered more than five sentences in all three sessions. Tell me that’s not writing (and performance) genius.

On Sunday, I went, as planned, to breakfast and browsing for wedding ideas. At breakfast I began by perusing the double-side menu devoted entirely to coffee—you have to love such dedication to a beverage—before ordering my usual, a flat white; very adventurous. I had something called ‘patate di ...?’. I’m not quite sure of the name, but it was basically chips cooked with scrambled eggs, which was described as a classic Italian breakfast. I added sides of tomato and mushrooms. V had a crepe with bacon, caramelised bananas and maple syrup. Then we hit the wedding hyper-plaza. I may have made it sound bad, but it was far less painful than either of us anticipated. Did you know you can get little miniature models done of the bride and groom sitting in a fancy car? There were some examples of little people wearing spectacles driving away in matrimonial bliss. Heh. I came to the conclusion that the wedding warehouse could easily be renamed ‘2001 Ways with Vellum’. The wedding stationery business is huge.

After collecting a library of pamphlets, we headed off to one of the shopping centres on the south-side of Brisbane where V lives. I asked to drop into JB Hi Fi to take advantage of the ridiculously discounted DVD box-set of The Sopranos Season Five. I spent a lot of time touching other box-sets of television series that I love and gasping out loud. I had to rein myself in and remember that Christmas shopping is my budget priority. Even so, I did get to combine the two when I bought the first series of Creature Comforts for my brother-in-law’s Christmas and birthday presents at the ABC Shop. Ahh, the ABC, so satisfying on so many levels. At the shopping centre we dropped into a patisserie where V is considering ordering her wedding cake from. In the interests of research we ate cakes and drank more coffee.

Then it started to storm (I mean, STORM).

We had to go back to V’s to rescue her dog who was outside. Poor little thing. We found him hiding in the garden as far under the eaves as he could squash. Hale had fallen on the way back from the shopping centre and by the time we entered V’s house, the electricity was out thwarting our cravings for a nice cup of tea. We lazed around in semi-darkness and read magazines while 7000 strikes of lighting hit Brisbane and the wind blew the rain until it was flowing horizontally. V asked me if I ate much oily fish since it is apparently useful in preventing every medical condition know to humanity at the moment. I said I ate salmon sushi with salmon roe at least once a week. I recalled that I had left my overhead windows slightly open and hoped the rain was falling in the direction away from my skylight. Taffy the dog took a liking to me and kept licking my hands and chin. I kept saying ‘you’re cute’ to him.
The storm eventually stopped and V dropped me home. A strip of my carpet was slightly wet where the rain had come in, but I don’t think my suburb got quite the lashing that V’s did.

At home, I settled in to eat last night’s left over tuna pasta for dinner—I’d forgotten to mention that in my answer to V’s oily fish enquiry—and watched Da Kath and Kim Code. Noice.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Five Things I Hate About You

Well, not you personally, but from a sub-editing point of view, ‘Five Things I Hate’ is a far less catchy title.

These causes of irritation are listed in no particular order:

People who answer their mobile phones in the cinema while a film is screening. If you do this, I may have to reconsider my statement about the non-personal nature of my hatred; what is wrong with you!? I have been in films where people not only answer their phones but then proceed to speak to the caller without any consideration for other patrons who are trying to enjoy the cinematic experience. I have no problem if you forgot to turn your phone off—it happens—but to answer it and engage in an unhurried conversation in which you announce ‘yeah, yeah, I’m in the movies’ at a volume so loud that your neighbours can’t hear the onscreen dialogue... Well, sometimes the merits of a hard slap are under-rated. Last weekend Dr H and I went to see Corpse Bride and we sat next to a group of teenage girls. I kept catching sight of the light from one of the girl’s mobiles which was irritating enough, but Dr H heard their debates about the virtues of their new mobiles in relation to their old mobiles every time anything requiring the slightest bit of focus happened in the film. I heard their murmurs all the way through the piano duet between the groom and his live bride-to-be. I was hard pressed not to pelt them with popcorn. As it was I didn’t move my legs when they wanted to leave as soon as the credits began rolling, but I doubt they noticed as they stepped over me.

Woolworth’s the Fresh Food People. Has there ever been a greater oxymoron in the English language? I watch their advertising where they show the farmers of Australia showing their produce proudly and telling you about the stringent procedures they must comply with in order to get their fruits and vegetables distributed and sold by Woolworth’s. I’ve even endured that man who bounces in the front cab of a utility vehicle through banana plantations talking about specially adjusted suspension. But it seems that somewhere between all those proud grinning farmers and managers and the fruit and vegetable section at my local Woolworth’s, something goes drastically wrong. I’m sure the farmers produce fine produce and I suppose if the advertising is not false then I must take the manager’s word about the worth of said suspension in preventing the bananas from bruising. Perhaps what is needed is an advertisement in which the staff on the ground at Woolworth’s stores relate how they await each delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables; how they take pride in preserving the integrity of the chain that ensures a high quality product is delivered to the shopper. At the moment the advertising completely elides the role of the store personnel in storing and handling the fruits and vegetables they are responsible for selling. I’d like a statement where they say something along the lines of ‘if we won’t eat slimy spinach then neither will you’ as they inspect the in-store displays and throw out the offending wilted greens. I think I would like the local Woolworth’s staff to sit down to a dinner of the old, withered and even rotting produce they have the audacity to present for sale. They’d soon be more vigilant as keepers of the farmers’ wares. At the moment, both the Farmer’s Federation and the ACCC could go to town on the reputation of the Woolworth’s Fresh Food People.

Strangers who tell you to smile. On a couple of occasions I have been walking into the city and fairly deep in thought when complete strangers have told me to smile. On the most recent occasion, a few months back now, the fellow in question was exiting the Roma Street Transit Centre car park, when he stopped at the pedestrian crossing and in addition to the suggestion to smile, advised me that to do so would not cost anything. For a fraction of a second I experienced a surge of pure fury. In that moment I raged against his comment, moving through a range of responses with lightning speed. My first analysis of this kind of comment, which in my experience is only ever said by men, is that it derives from an assumption about how women should behave; we are expected to continually perform in accordance with strict ideals of femininity, which of course means we should appear smiling and carefree, and not act seriously or be thoughtful. Following on from this observation, I considered the extent to which such a comment becomes an act of power; is it an attempt to exercise control by suggesting that as a woman I’m somehow lacking because I’m not, in his eyes, behaving appropriately? I’m not sure if this is too fantastic an interpretation, but somehow after having a comment like this directed towards me I feel as though I’m somehow less than I was before. I feel erased. Then there’s just the sheer ignorance of such a comment. The comment-maker had no idea about the details of my life. If he perceived that I was unhappy, why assume that feeling has no source, that it’s something that can be just overcome through individual will. At the very least the directive is insensitive to a range of possibilities. On this particular occasion, I was interested by the suggestion that happiness was somehow free, as if the only possible source of my apparent unhappiness could be material. I was able to make a conscious decision not to react to the comment (I suppressed my impulse to tell him to fuck off). I pointed to the green light he had stopped at in order to make his comment and told him he could go. He did seem disappointed that I didn’t react, emitting a kind of argumentative groan, before obviously thinking better of it and driving on. Afterwards I had another thought about how I might have responded to his comment. The fact is that we live in a liberal democracy and we are freer than many to feel and express the whole gamut of human emotions, not least a little melancholic introspection while waiting to cross the road.

Overzealous security guards. The weekend before I saw Corpse Bride, I went to the same cinema to see Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. While Dr H and I were waiting for G to arrive we stood in the cinema’s enormous foyer which is two stories in height. There is a kind of mezzanine level from which you enter the cinemas after climbing the stairs from the foyer. From the mezzanine level you can look down upon the people in the foyer. While standing there waiting and talking with Dr H, I looked up and noticed a security guard surveying the foyer with a very serious expression on his face. He was dressed in the standard uniform and was equipped with radio communications in the form of an ear piece. I commented to Dr H that his whole demeanour seemed very aggressive; he was strangely oblivious to his immediate environment on the mezzanine level but intent for any sign of aberrant behaviour in the foyer. We forgot about him and resumed our conversation when we noticed he was marching across the foyer, again with a very intent expression on his face, heading for a couple on one of the large ottomans positioned around the foyer. The girl was sitting beside the guy who was half lying down on his side, with his feet on the ground. What was strange was that the security guard didn’t even make a connection with the girl but ignored her entirely while he unceremoniously shook the boy and told him to sit up. I’ve never seen a security guard so strangely aggressive; we weren’t in a nightclub, but at a cinema on Sunday afternoon at 2 o’clock! Usually security guards in retail and general entertainment areas don’t try and pick unnecessary fights. More often than not they ask how you are. Later when we climbed the steps he was there again pouncing on everyone for their tickets and then again when we actually went into the cinema he was demanding our tickets. I have to keep using the word strange. Not once did he look at us; isn’t observing faces part of being an effective security guard? Strange, so strange.

Snowflakes in summer. Once, a few years back, the Christmas decorating committee of the Queen Street Mall made a revolutionary decision to display Christmas decorations inspired by the weather in Brisbane during December. The displays were comprised of a number of coloured Perspex shapes of starfish and coral and suns and such, arranged into the traditional Northern Hemisphere tree shapes. I was very glad when I saw the decorations; it has always puzzled me, when Brisbane dwellers spend the Christmas period sweltering in our own juices, why our decorations are snowflakes and snowmen and reindeer pulling sleigh. I know there is a strong cultural affiliation with the Northern Hemisphere traditions, but I always thought an innovative retailer would light upon the idea of Australian themed Christmas paraphernalia and make a fortune. It would be the decorator’s equivalent of Six White Boomers. When the coral and starfish Perspex went on show, I thought they would be the Mall’s Christmas decorations for years to come. Bravo! forward thinking Mall decorators, I cried. Alas my joy was short-lived. We had those glorious decorations—pink, light green, yellow and blue—for only one year, perhaps two, when a new theme came along or, rather, the old theme was pulled out of storage and revamped; it was back to fake snow, woolly scarves and beanies to ward off the Northern chill. This year we have blue snowflakes, translucent white angels and reindeer weathering the humidity and torrential rain.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

When the War is Over

At 6pm on Monday night, I gave the last of the final essay results to Dr P, the convenor of the course I teach in. Monday was a day very similar to Sunday in terms of the energy expended on marking. I turned up to the results meeting in the morning with my head hanging low, admitting that I still had thirteen to mark. Thankfully, since I had the most students, Dr P was very understanding. She told me not to apologise and said nice things to me, which I appreciated.

This is the first time I have worked with Dr P—she was on study leave when I taught the course previously. I have nothing but nice things to say about her. She is so aware of the conditions and pay of sessional employees and that sensitivity permeates the convenor-tutor relationships she has. She is almost insistent that since we don’t get paid for attending lectures and watching the set films we need not do so. Generally, when I tutor in a subject for the first time, I do go to the lectures for my own benefit. I wish I did get paid, but I don’t resent it. I didn’t go to the lectures this semester, but I did attend one of the film screenings because I hadn’t seen the film since it was released at the cinema. When Dr P saw me at the University’s cinema she said I was going ‘above and beyond’, and she said the same thing when I told her I had sat through Lara Croft Tomb Raider on Friday night, because quite a few students had chosen that film as an example for the essay question on the ‘violent woman’. I think that being familiar with the films helps me do my job more effectively, but I appreciate that Dr P says these things. It’s a sharp contrast to one convenor I worked for, who would openly joke about her exploitation of me. I mean, everyone knows that exploitation is an unfortunate part of being a postgraduate/early career researcher, but hearing a senior colleague laugh about making you take on convenor duties for a tutor’s pay wears thin quite quickly.

Dr P had a word with the academic administrator about extending the deadline for the submission of results. (So now I’m feeling really bad—my hand is covering my face at this point). The administrator was apparently not at all mystified that I still had a few left to do. She called me a ‘trooper’. Heh. I like the academic administrator (even before this concession). Some people find her a bit stern, but from catching the same bus and having conversations with her, I’ve discovered that she’s phobic about all kinds of travelling. It’s not easy to be intimidated when you know this about someone. She sits up the back of the bus and buries her head in reading material to block out the movement. Once, in the middle of a storm, complete with lighting, she said she was going to catch the ferry because she didn’t feel safe on the bus. Later she reported to me that half way through the ferry trip home she overheard some school girls having a conversation about how water was the greatest conductor of electricity. She knows it’s an illogical fear. As a point of curiosity, I found out later that in the same storm my Master’s supervisor had caught the bus, instead of her usual ferry trip, because she felt more secure on the bus in such weather. The administrator has bought an i-pod for the bus trips to and from the university, because she can’t stand the poor grammar she hears in the students’ conversations on her journeys. She made special mention of the frequent utterance of ‘like’ as a particular point of irritation. And just the week before I had advised my students that academic writing required a different register to conversation. The example I used was ‘valley-girl speak’, where people write ‘like’ instead of ‘as’. Heh and double heh. The administrator and I have the same pet irritations; no wonder we get along so well.

This time I started my marking thinking, as I always seem to, that two weeks was plenty of time to finish the number of essays I had. But it’s slowly dawned upon me that, sometimes, after a day of intense marking, you just can’t face another assignment for an entire day. I always feel guilty on such days, as though I’m a disorganised wastrel. Then Dr H, who always seems to be so efficient about marking, said she had the same experience. I think I’ve already communicated my admiration of Dr H—anyone who can do their honours while going through a messy divorce, then proceed to complete a Master’s and a PhD pretty much to schedule, while single-handedly supporting two children is AMAZING. I am not worthy. So, even though I had about four days of disorganised wastrel-ness, I became Zen with the marking process and all that it entails; including two cups of strong coffee and 90 minutes of socialising before beginning the final thirteen.

Dr P is taking a job overseas from next year and she will be sorely missed. Not only did she prove to be great to work with, but she offered me some very practical advice about determining what my expectations were in a PhD supervisor. As a direct result of my conversation with her, I climbed up the stairs of the Doo-Hickey Tower (that’s my nickname for the building) and asked GT to be my supervisor. My Master’s supervisor and the Head of School had suggested that GT would be interested in my topic, but I wasn’t really sure if someone so prominent in the field would have enough time or the inclination to nurture me through the inevitable crises that occur throughout a PhD. Dr P said that GT probably wouldn’t do that, he would just want me to produce work. She said as long as I was aware of the way he worked then he would be a great mentor. I went away and thought about it and then came to the conclusion that after such an extended and emotional Master’s, I really would like to have a timely and professional Doctorate. This is no reflection on my Master’s supervisor, who really supported me through several crises—now that’s ‘above and beyond’—but the thought of crying in front of GT is too mortifying for it ever to eventuate. As it turned out, GT was interested in my project and has agreed to be my principal supervisor (small jump for joy!). I walked away from my meeting with him feeling as though all the myriad of things I had been worrying about had been lifted. My thesis had been effectively cut in half and a clear chapter progression presented itself. My goodness, what will I do without a chapter progression to worry about?! GT even made a comment to the effect that he thought the university had lost me as if he thought it would be a matter for regret. Well I didn’t even know I was a blip on his horizon, so perhaps the fact that he had even thought about such a prospect is an indication that he will be alright in the unlikely (yes dammit, I insist, unlikely) event of a crisis.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Bus Stop

I’ve debated about whether to inflict myself upon you this week. I haven’t been in the best frame of mind, experiencing a general feeling of malaise, the origin of which has proven difficult to articulate. Aside from giving in to eating white chocolate Rocky Road from Darrell Lea, this mood has manifested itself in flat, uninspired writing fit only for the Recycle Bin. Now, however, I find myself in circumstances where it’s too early to go to bed without feeling guilty; I should be marking the last thirteen of ninety-eight essays, which are due tomorrow, but I think demanding of an empty room how much more of this ungrammatical drivel I have to read is a clear sign to cease and desist (Of course there have been some very good essays; it’s more a case that one shouldn’t try and mark more than fifteen (?) 2000 word essays in one day. Even coherent sentences will prove challenging). Anyway, there was something I wrote about that was worth rifling through the trash for. I’ve tried to make it readable, but I may have written as badly as I’ve charged my students. Perhaps if you give me a grade for written expression I’ll feel shamed and re-evaluate the essays more kindly.

Tuesday 15 November

Watching the news last night, I learned there had been a terrorist scare in Brisbane. Apparently, someone had told the police that a bomb was set to go off on public transport in the CBD. Around midday, at least one train station was evacuated and closed, and buses were delayed until the authorities were assured it was safe for services to continue. Then, as the ABC News reported, the evacuations were repeated during peak hour.

Yesterday, I left home at 12.30pm and caught a bus to the CBD, going past one of the evacuated train stations, before transferring to another service that transported me to university. After I’d swapped the essays I’d marked at home for unmarked ones that I’d left in my office, I caught another bus, returning to the CBD and then out to the other university.

I was surprised when I saw the news report. There had been a vague email notice in my inbox at the second university, but when I followed the link they provided to the Transport Authority website, I had been presented with an error message. I didn’t think much more about it. I walked home from the second university at around 6.00pm, and had plenty of time to settle in before the news began.

I’d been oblivious to any crisis and I’m not sure what to think about that. I used to work at the Tax Office where bomb threats were a comparatively regular occurrence. It’s true to say that we were quite complacent about them; more often that not we were told to go home for the day, so any threat proved to be a cause for celebration. But that was fifteen years ago and we live in different times. In the recent London bombings, Dr H’s daughter had travelled on the Underground, along one of the targeted lines only half an hour before the explosions occurred.


On Wednesday, I caught a morning news bulletin and at that stage the hoax caller was still ‘at large’. The police knew that the same man had made the threats from three different public phones and they kept showing pictures of the phones covered in finger print dust. I experienced a moment of hesitation to think that I was going out that day with the possibility that more threats or even an incident would occur. On the news they kept showing a bus with the number of the route I regularly catch displayed. Before anyone in Brisbane could dwell for too long on any dire possibilities, the man was arrested and this time the pictures showed a man in the back of a car with a towel over his head.

The hoax caller was a delivery driver whose movements the police tracked from his delivery dockets. He has been ordered to have a psychiatric assessment.

The government has said they will be able to refine the emergency response strategy after analysing the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of their reaction on this occasion.


That’s the week that was.