Sunday, October 30, 2005

Like A Miyazaki Heroine

I’ve had occasion to watch three Hayao Miyazaki films in the last week. I went to see Howl’s Moving Castle at the cinema, and then I stumbled across the end of one of those festivals that SBS often has where they showcase a film maker’s works over a few weeks. It truly was the end of the run, I only managed to see the last two films that were broadcast, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away.

One of the things that struck me in Miyazaki’s films is the way his heroines laugh. It’s an open-mouth laugh, expressed without any self-consciousness. It has the high, thin timbre of a young girl’s voice and its duration extends just beyond what is comfortable. It is at once unsettling, belonging only to the animated form, and liberating, in its unabashed joy.

The laughter of Miyazaki’s heroines is the best way I can describe my reaction to the following observations:

It’s not my Baghdad.

I’m not sure if people in other Australian states have a similar version of the anti-terrorism advertisements that we’re getting in Queensland. After the London bombings the Queensland Transport Authority has placed stickers and posters on buses and trains, as well as on bus shelters and in train stations. The general thrust of the campaign is to recruit the public into surveillance mode, with an emphasis on identifying abandoned luggage, suggesting that a bag by itself makes no sense. In the context of Brisbane, this is not quite true; we don’t have the incidence of bag snatching that other places have, so it’s not that abnormal to leave your luggage in sight while you wander off to a vending machine.

The print campaign is being complemented by television advertising and the observation that provoked me to laugh like a Miyazaki heroine was about one of these ads. A father and son are standing on a platform at Central Station in Brisbane when the train arrives. As they are getting on the train, the father points to an abandoned sports bag and says to the son, ‘Don’t forget your bag’. The son replies, ‘It’s not my bag, Dad’. Then the father casts a search glance around the platform before the voice over warns of the dangers of things that don’t make sense.

It’s all a little too Cold War and subliminal for me. After the initial, ‘What!’ and the ensuing Miyazaki heroine laughter, I thought, ‘Sheesh! What doesn’t make sense is that the father can’t identify his son’s luggage!’ But then, perhaps the kid is visiting his father for the weekend as dictated in the post-divorce custody settlement. I’m not suggesting that public awareness campaigns aren’t a good idea, but leave the sly aspersions against whole populaces out of it.

Even while I can critique these advertisements, I became aware the other day that they have been successful in evoking my fears about terrorism. I was going into a supermarket in the city and the turnstile at the entrance was blocked by four or five Asian people. They were quite absorbed in what appeared to be a debate about what to do with a large calico bag they had. In the end they left it at the side of the turnstile and went into the supermarket. My first thought was, why would you leave your bag there? Just take it in. Then a glimmer of the terrorism advertisements entered my consciousness. I thought about telling the group not to abandon their bag because someone might think they were planting a bomb. At that point, it occurred to me that the bag became a problem at the intersection of two discourses. (Yes, I do go around thinking this way.) Clearly, the group, whether tourists or international students, were law abiding. Entering the supermarket with a bag of groceries from another shop presented a problem for them: how would they be able to leave the shop without being accused of shop-lifting? Now, if they were belligerent anti-bag-checking shoppers like me, they would point to the brand and quality of their groceries and demand to know how anyone could mistake such a healthy bunch of coriander for the over-priced, slimy, emaciated stalks sold in supermarket chains everywhere. (May I say, I only arrived at this defensive position towards bag checking after a security guard made me the object of public humiliation as she individually passed my library books through the security scanners in order to determine which one had set off the alarm. Perhaps there was a tin of tomatoes sequestered in the pages?) But, no, they were respectful of the store’s security measures and duly disciplined into avoiding any possibility of accusation. And they had enough faith that their bag would be there when they returned. What they didn’t count on was that what was appropriate behaviour through the lens of supermarket security was potentially a cause for imprisonment—no questions asked—through the discourse of anti-terrorist measures.

Well, now I’ve strayed far away from anything resembling laughter, so I will move on...

The Future is Now

I went into the ANZ Bank in the Queen Street Mall in Brisbane on Friday. I am not a customer of the ANZ, but I thought it was about time I made a payment on the outstanding student loan that I’ve been avoiding. This time when the University sent me a quarterly statement, someone had taken the trouble to highlight in green the direction to make regular payments in order to avoid breaching my contract. Green highlighter means business, so I responded accordingly and went to make a direct debit into the account nominated by the University.

I’ve seen all the ANZ advertising, where the bank brags about its 5 consecutive titles as the Bank of the Year and extols the virtues of having solved the problem of customers waiting in queues, but I hadn’t experienced this banking utopia for myself. I walked into a hive of activity, first past rows of automatic tellers flanking both sides of the entrance hall, then past similar rows of desks behind which employees of the bank were very busy meeting with customers. I searched for the usual benches with their wads of withdrawal and deposit slips arranged to fill out with chained, rarely-working pens and only sighted one stand alone pedestal table. I made my way over to the table and began to fill out the deposit form. As I stood there, I became aware of several things. First, there was no place to put my loan reference number on the deposit slip, which would make my payment difficult to trace; then I noticed that several other people were straining to use the pedestal and serious infringements of my personal space were ensuing. Next, I noticed the bank’s solution to the queue dilemma was a ticketing system and the provision of chairs, creating the effect of an airport waiting lounge. (This airport aesthetic has taken over the world. Multiplex cinemas resemble the narrow interior of aeroplanes. Public spaces discourage loitering and encourage only movement from one purchase to the next. The shoppingtown was an early example of this architectural aesthetic, effectively eliminating the free public square, creating runways of consumerism. One of the University’s libraries is designed so that one keeps moving past the reference books of old to look for less grounded material in the atmosphere of cyberspace. And now the airport is at a bank near you.) At this point I think the designers of banks should revisit Sesame Street; remember how Ernie showed us that no matter how you arrange six cookies, it is still six cookies?

The Miyazaki heroine moment occurred at the next level of awareness, when I began to focus on the dulcet tones announcing which ticket holders should now approach the counter for service. Perhaps my reaction was influenced by the fact that I had just been to see Serenity, but upon hearing that ingratiating, mellifluous and repetitive female voice I truly felt that I had entered onto the set of a science-fiction film and it was no utopia. I was reminded of the depiction of dystopias in every film from Alphaville to Blade Runner, right up to Serenity, where screens beam advertising and propaganda to susceptible masses and expressionless, mechanised voices guide the population’s every move. Aaaagh!

Suffice to say, I didn’t make a loan repayment because I had to leave in order to preserve my individual autonomy. I’d prefer to queue at the University Cashier.

Johnny’s My Idol

The final Miyazaki heroine moment is in several parts, but the common element is the program Inside Idol. That I watch this program, in addition to the performance and elimination shows, should convince you once and for all what an Australian Idol devotee I am. This week Inside Idol had breaking news on a couple of fronts. The first of these was Marcia Hines’s admission to Kyle Sandilands that she was unaware of the concept of unsightly tan lines or that anyone could or would apply fake tan to themselves. I loved this moment: strange, freakish white people! Has there ever been a show as popular in Australian history that decentres—however slightly—the norm of whiteness?

The second revelation was from Mark Holden about the days he worked with David Hasselhoff. Mark recalled the time Johnny Depp and Kate Moss waited back stage at one of Hasselhoff’s concert with one of his CDs for an autograph.

*Laughing like a Miyazaki heroine*

What does this revelation of a somewhat dubious taste in music do for Johnny Depp’s credibility? I immediately sent a text message to Dr. H_____, the biggest Depp fan I know. Her response was, ‘See, Russell Crowe wouldn’t do that’. I’m not sure that’s anything against Russell. Actually her point was a reference to a previous conversation we’d had in which she said that Crowe took himself far too seriously. She can’t bear to watch anything with him in it, not even when I recommend it. (I told her he made me cry in Cinderella Man and she scoffed, ‘Oh, he did not!’ He makes her cry as well, just not for the same reasons.) I have to agree though, that anyone who won’t appear on Parkinson in accordance with the usual proceedings, demanding that he appear on stage by himself, does need to relax a little. Perhaps he needs an experience equivalent to that which Hasselhoff had this past week at the ARIAs. If ever a stunt was effective in popping a celebrity’s over-inflated ego, it was the actions of those young rapscallions Ben Lee and Missy Higgins when they accepted their ARIA awards. After the embarrassment of Gretel Killeen fawning all over Hasselhoff and telling him how handsome he looked in person—we’ll have to take your word for it Gretel—then, as Ben and Missy jumped on him (Ben going so far as to plant one on Hasselhoff’s lips), they effectively demonstrated the respect that is due to the executive producer of Bay Watch.

A Final Observation

I first wrote this in Word and it’s worth mentioning that when I first typed ‘Miyazaki’ no wriggly red spell-check line appeared beneath his name. Why is ‘Miyazaki’ in the Word dictionary, which can’t even cope with the addition of an ‘s’ on many words? I can only speculate that the programmers were either Miyazaki fans or they entered their own surnames into the dictionary. Hmmm.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Doctors Ain't Doctors

If there’s anyone who reads this blog regularly, you may have noticed a couple of additions to the right hand column under the WeBlog title. I’m adding to this slowly, on the one hand because I find great lists of titles on blogs a bit overwhelming—how do you read them all?—and on the other hand as a list it is a true measure of the blogs I have come to enjoy and thus do read on a regular basis. At the moment all of the blogs listed are by people who reflect on the process of working, teaching and learning in a tertiary education institution. Since this is my plight as well, I find myself learning from their observations and empathising with their frustrations, as well as occasionally laughing out loud.

The first blog I listed (chronologically, not alphabetically) was Banana Lounge. Tseen responded to my foray into the blog world by promptly listing my blog on her site. This is very characteristic of Tseen’s ongoing encouragement and support of academics who are newer than her—and she is still quite new herself. I first had occasion to meet Tseen in the first year of my Master’s. She was in the office next door to me, finishing off her PhD, and at the time she was the treasurer of the postgraduate society. As I paid my membership fee, she was instantly welcoming to the university and expressed interest in my research work. A few years later I agreed to hand over a draft of my Master’s thesis to her, to provide background to an article she had been asked to write about self-identified Asian-Australian zines. I managed to send it to her after only a small amount of self-doubt induced hyper-ventilation. I told my supervisor what I’d done, and she said that being able to part with my work to someone other than her was a milestone in the sense that it was a sign that I was willing to go public, as it were. It was a positive experience, which is inextricable from the trust Tseen inspired. My work was in careful hands, and afterwards, I was able to cite Tseen’s article in my thesis.

I know I’m not the only one to benefit from Tseen’s generosity; the comments on her blog clearly indicate that her approach to academic life has assisted other self-doubting, anxious postgrads simply through her actions (and a yum cha gathering or two). It can be so difficult to remember that it’s possible to be intellectually generous and even emotionally supportive in what is an isolated endeavour, especially when the negative experiences make twice the impression (There are such terrible stories). For me, Tseen is a role model who demonstrates that you don’t have to cling to your ideas and be intellectually superior to any colleague that gets too close to ‘your’ territory. And I think she shows that you can begin your career in that spirit and prosper for it.

The second blog I listed, Sorrow at Sills Bend, is one I had read only occasionally before, following a link from a friend’s blog that is now out of commission. I’ve taken to visiting it regularly and have recently read on it one of those terrible stories I referred to above. You can read about it yourself if you’re interested.

There are various reasons why I enjoy reading Sorrow. First of all, I can’t go past the name, which made me click on the link in the first place; it could be the title of an E. Annie Proulx novel, but there’s something of Nick Cave in it as well. It’s the tale of an emotionally isolated figure living in grinding poverty in a remote American frontier town with a dash of incest and murder and unrequited love thrown in. Of course that’s just me being fanciful; it’s more a tale of an overworked young scholar attending a university in the Melbourne area, with more than a dash of public embarrassment, film reviewing and Australian Idol watching thrown in. I read it because it’s good to compare other postgraduates’ experiences.

The latest addition to the WeBlog list was a blogger recommendation from their ‘Blogs of Note’ links. Ah Yes, Medical School tells the tale of another kind of doctor in training. The writer is funny, articulate and self-deprecating about his experience of medical school in the US, both in the class room and in the application of his newly acquired knowledge.

While reading Medical School, it occurred to me, that as a former Master’s and soon to be a PhD student, my experience of postgraduate education is different to the MD student because, while gaining a degree in my field, I also teach in that field. Such an observation may mean nothing, but I think the dual role makes for a particular kind of experience. Now that I think about it, I do recall attending a seminar where the presenter spoke about the liminality of the research postgraduate’s experience; it’s a kind of in-between space that you occupy. It’s not so long since you were a student in a classroom, so you haven’t forgotten the distractions that compete for attention with university life, including paid employment and a social life. For me, it’s not too difficult, either, to recall the fear of failure that manifested itself in procrastination and perfectionism, which in turn became many an assignment extension request. When I teach, I try to remember the chronic insecurity about my ability to write assignments. It was only when I was doing my honours year that I came into my own with academic work. Because of this somewhat less than stellar start to academic life, I try, in my own teaching practice, to remember the kindness I was afforded by the academics who nurtured me, who I am grateful to for their belief in my work (when it was finally submitted). I don’t want to be a hypocrite by saying ‘no’ to extensions; I don’t even want to penalise people who submit their work late and don’t ask for extensions, but if the other tutors in the course do, then I have to, in the interests of ‘fairness’ (don’t get me started on what’s ‘fair’ or ‘equal’.)

I suppose where I do become less accommodating in my teaching practice is with classroom behaviour. I can’t abide it when students, who haven’t done the preparation for the tutorial, i.e. attend the lecture and do the reading, turn up and either a) sit there with an insolent expression on their face, without contributing anything to the class for the entire semester, and then proceed to give you a bad teaching evaluation, b) talk, pass notes, send sms and/or leave their mobile phones to ring while others who have done the work are making valuable contributions to the class discussion, c) talk incessantly, completely off-topic, because they think it will cover up the fact that they haven’t done any of the work, or d) challenge everything you say to demonstrate that they are more knowledgeable than you about everything, while remaining completely oblivious to how their behaviour is negatively affecting the learning experience of other students. It’s not overstating it to say that I hate rude and ignorant, yet entitled, students. If, however, a student shows evidence of consistently engaging with the set material, but has a few time management issues, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, every time.

One of the best posts on Medical School, comes from the writer’s first year where he observes the behaviour of those classmates whom he labels ‘hyper-talkers’. When I read the Fake Doctor’s study of these people, I get humour envy. I think perhaps I'm too bitter about the boy who once said in my class, ‘This is boring’. In response I said ‘I beg your pardon?’. He said, ‘I did this at school’. I asked, ‘What did you do at school?’ He said, ‘The myth of Narcissus’. As I recall my comeback was really lame, but what do you say to someone who thinks Greek mythology is anything but obliquely related to psychoanalytic feminist approaches to film? If you want to read a more humorous version of how self-important incessant students suck the life out of everyone around them, then read the Fake Doctor. I mean, he categorises them into genus, type and sub-species and then he formulates an algorithm to calculate the amount of his time they have wasted! Ha ha ha ha ha! It should be compulsory ‘hyper talker’ reading.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

High Noon Tea

Today I’m feeling slightly nauseous, and it’s not only because the boy who lives downstairs insists on smoking pot on his front doorstep in the rain. Some advice to late night tokers who live in high density housing in subtropical regions: limit your habit to days on which the wind will snatch the evidence of your illegal activity away from your neighbours who are trying to breathe while they wash their dishes.

The main reason I feel queasy is because I have ingested too much sugar. Today I met up with a friend in the city to celebrate the recent return of her PhD from her examiners, complete with glowing reports that have not asked for any corrections. The traditional celebration may well be to hit the nearest bar and consume copious quantities of champagne—a fine way to toast a hard earned achievement—but for an alternative, or even another occasion to add to your celebration itinerary, may I suggest the ritual of the high tea?

There has been plenty of time to contemplate how to mark the point from which L_____ will ever after be known as Dr H_____. She has resisted being congratulated since submitting her thesis back in May, wary of stories she had heard about people who had been asked to resubmit their Doctoral project as a Master’s (That is quite frightening!) Dr H_____ was unconvinced when I pointed to the fact of her brilliance, and the attention to the detail of her work paid by her supervisor, as some kind of insurance against failure or resubmission. While the second examiner took their sweet time sending a report, there has been time enough to examine various options for a celebration.

The high tea was the preferred option because neither of us had partaken of one before thus making it a suitably special experience for the gravity of the occasion. I asked at one café that had lots of flower covered chairs and polished wood if they served a high tea. The woman there said they didn’t get much call for them, although they had the makings, if not the tiered cake stand presentation. Can it be called a high tea if it isn’t, well, high? I didn’t think so; that would make it just tea. And isn’t part of the ritual the feeling of being waited on with selected dainty morsels? Surely having to make a decision for one’s self undermines the whole nostalgia for the high Imperialist moment?

I found another place with regally cushioned booths and the requisite polished wood that had all the details of the high tea worked out for the plebeian class who were unsure of the minutiae of the ritual. We parted with enough money for the set fare and were served with a glass of champagne to settle in with, a necessity to toast the achievements of Dr H_____. Then the waiter arrived with the tiered stand that stretched so high we could only catch a glimpse of the delicacies on the top level. Dr H_____ eyed the uppermost tier and asked whether it was compulsory to start at the bottom level, which held asparagus and smoked salmon wrapped in soft brown bread and secured with toothpicks. While it’s true that part of the attraction of the high tea was its sanctioning of the consumption of multiple desserts, I thought that champagne would go better with asparagus and we should at least attempt to exercise some restraint. On the next level there were chicken mayonnaise ribbon sandwiches and individual quiches, which also go very nicely with wine of the sparkling variety. Did I mention that it was already 11.30 and neither of us had eaten breakfast in anticipation of this event? In such circumstances, champagne only travels in one direction, and that is straight to a teetotaller’s head. I still had a third of a glass of wine after I’d eaten my share of the savoury items and since I wanted to drink tea with the sweets that I couldn’t wait to eat, I swiftly drank the remainder of the glass. I wasn’t so bad, just a touch light-headed.

On the most heavenward tier there was, for each of us, a mini lemon curd tart; a chocolate butterfly cupcake; a heart-shaped biscuit sandwiched together with jam and topped with pink and white icing; and a scone with portions of jam and cream. We requested the Earl Grey tea be served, pausing to marvel at the artistry of the little creations before devouring them.

And then we slipped into insulin-induced comas.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Popcorn and Caffeine

Today I had a not-so-nutritious lunch of over-priced, over-salted popcorn washed down with a moderately more reasonably priced Diet Coke. Why did I inflict this blood-pressure raising fare on my person? It was because I’d left myself no time between the bus arriving in the city (12.30pm) and the time the movie I had decided to see, Night Watch, started (12.30pm). I had the chance to buy the drink at a newsagent’s, but the only food stuffs they sell are chocolate and other confectionary, of which I’m really trying to limit my intake. These days, I like to reserve sweet things for moments of emotional fragility in public. I guess popcorn isn’t really any better for you—the fibre content, not withstanding—especially since it only seems to be sold in mini-skip, midi-skip and maxi-skip sizes and requires submitting to the cinema’s extortionist pricing policy.

I rushed into the cinema, fumbled my way in the dark, and recognised that the film had already started and it was only 12.40pm. I wondered why they hadn’t shown the usual gazillion trailers and advertisements before the film (Undoubtedly such a prompt start is in contravention of commercial cinema guidelines which surely stipulate that no film can begin before at least half an hour after the advertised starting time). In the film there were a couple of instances of what can only be described as direct quotations from Nescafé commercials. I’m not sure if I’d be surprised to find out that as well as helping finance the film, Nestlé didn’t have a hand in its distribution and exhibition either. Wouldn’t that be a little too close to the old pre-anti-trust days?

Anyway, these two jarring moments in Night Watch are indicative of the film’s visual debt to television, not only advertising but also music clips, through the use of songs and the grungy guitar score, and console games, explicitly used by the villain to rehearse his final confrontation with the hero. And there is a respectful nod to Joss Whedon’s work. In terms of narrative, as well, it felt like a pilot for a television series. The premise is that of an ancient feud between vampires, known here as Others. The battle is between those who have chosen the light and those who have chosen the dark. The light Others are a kind of police force operating out of a power company [the subtitles say light company] building, surveying the dark Others, occasionally issuing them with licenses to transform humans, and reining in those who break the truce by killing humans. Into this delicate balance, a child Other is born, Yegor, who is of course destined to be Great, but who is yet to choose which side he is on. Yegor does decide by the end of this film, but it feels like there is much more to be worked through for many of the characters that are introduced.

I heard somewhere that this is the first of three films; it could easily be the first instalment of a miniseries. It’s one of the better attempts to hybridise the vampire and police genres—which Angel didn’t do so well—but only because the ‘police’ are vampires. I will probably go and see the next two films—that is if I’ve heard correctly—but I can just as easily see myself buying the DVD box set and going home to watch the remaining films, this time accompanied by a brewed coffee and something more substantial than popcorn.

Saturday, October 15, 2005


I have an ant problem. It’s been going on for a while now, but then I haven’t really been proactive in trying to eliminate it. In part, I think my recalcitrance is due to a lack of belief that ants are harmful. I once expressed my lack of alarm about ants to a friend who promptly assured me they were carriers of disease. I was surprised, but have never really researched for myself whether they are harbingers of pestilence. The local council has conducted education campaigns warning citizens about the need to report any sightings of fire ants so they can be eradicated, but the ants taking up residence in my abode are of the black garden variety. I did spray around my garbage bin with a can of Raid, which seemed to discourage them from gathering in that location, but perhaps a rarely used six-year old insecticide doesn’t retain its potency for so long. I also tried dribbling some Ant-Rid in strategic locations, but again there were problems with its effectiveness. I don’t think an ant has been fooled by Ant-Rid since not long after its release onto the market. And the manufacturers assume that the ants will be walking along a distinctive trail, which is not the case with my home-ants. On the whole, the ants in my kitchen are individualist, meandering types. There is some evidence of co-operation along the back of the sink, but on the kitchen bench and on the couch, they’re out scouting by themselves. Sometimes they gather on an abandoned juice glass as if at a local watering hole. Other times I see single ants struggling with crumbs twice their size. Today a few of them took advantage of the raspberry oat bran muffins cooling on the bench (I hope they burnt their mouths on the raspberries). I know when spiders come into the house, there are all sorts of theories proffered about such behaviour. Apparently it’s something to do with the rain; either they’re trying to escape it or they’re looking for water because it hasn’t rained for a long time. The ants arrived in my kitchen long before it finally began to rain, so perhaps there’s something in the latter theory, especially since they’re main residence near the taps. But do they even drink water? Don’t they get it from the things they eat? Perhaps some research on insects is in order to satisfy my curiosity...

Preliminary findings: Ants in Australia are generally more annoying than harmful. Adult ants only consume liquid food; the solid food the workers collect is for the larvae. Ants are tricky to eliminate. A lot of investigative work--the ants might call it stalking--seems to be required to locate nests.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Space Bawl

Today I was yelled at by one of the people I share an office with at the university where I teach. It’s a strange office space. There are four desks in the room. Two are officially ‘hot-desks’ where tutors leave their belongings and consult with students on the days they come in to teach. Another desk is occupied by the person who yelled at me today. She is a research associate in the School, which essentially means that she has recently completed her PhD and has access to the amenities of the university while she converts her Doctorate into a book or other publications. It isn’t a paid position, but she benefits from the institutional affiliation and resources and the university benefits through the DEST points, and thus the funding, they will accrue from her publications. I came to occupy the remaining desk on a share basis with another research associate, A___, who rarely used the space; and I was assured by the administrator responsible that I could potentially use it whenever I wanted to. I have never seen A___ in the room, so it has been the case that I have been able to use the desk freely. It has been a very useful arrangement for me, especially because I’m responsible for five tutorials, which equates to about 100 students; I’ve been able to use the drawers to hold the files I maintain for each class, rather than lugging them around between home and a park bench on the university grounds.

When I first moved into the room, I was organising the files I’ve mentioned when the research associate who yelled at me today came into the room. I introduced myself and told her that I was a tutor in the School and had been provided with a key by the administrator so I could use A___’s desk to work from and consult with students. Straight away, she began to explain to me how the room operated and inferred that as I was a tutor perhaps I had meant to sit at one of the ‘hot desks’, since the one I was setting up at was A___’s. I assured her that the administrator had specifically told me to sit at A___’s desk. The research associate kept looking at the files I was placing into the drawer and made an insincere admission that she was only going by what she knew about how the room had functioned since she had occupied it. I said to her that she could check with the administrator.

As an initial meeting with the research associate it was somewhat unsettling. If I had expected to be challenged about using the desk, I thought it would be from A___. I don’t think the administrator informed her I would be sharing her desk and I hoped she wouldn’t mind. The encounter made me wary of the research associate, and I vented—only the strength of a light breeze—to some friends about it. I learned from L_____ why A___ didn’t use the office; when she had first used the room, the research associate had her things spread over the two desks, which A___ had to ask her to move. Subsequent to our first meeting, I have had some very stilted conversations with the research associate. She has a very strange way of drawing conversation out of you then cutting you off.

So, today I went into uni because a student made an appointment with me outside of my usual consultation hour. While I usually like to confine consultations to the time I’ve put aside for it, for a range of reasons, sometimes it’s just not possible. Since I had to finalise my PhD and Scholarship applications today anyway, I agreed to make the unusual time with the student. When I entered the office, the research associate was there and she offered me a perfunctory greeting. I had a fleeting thought that I should advise her about the forthcoming consultation, but I didn’t want to disturb her. In retrospect, this was an entirely illogical thought—I would potentially be disturbing her more, and without warning, when the student arrived—but you have to understand how truly unapproachable she is. Anyway, the student arrived, and since the research associate was on the phone and my desk was covered in application papers and certified copies of Evidence of Australian Citizenship and Official Academic Records, I drew her away to one of the empty hot desks,. The student wanted to talk over the forthcoming assignment with me. We’d had a week on television genres and she was thinking about doing that assignment question, tossing up between learning something new or drawing on work she had done in high-school, in which case she would choose the auteur question. She wasn’t really in a hurry, and neither was I, so I let her talk through her worries about finding promotional material on Scrubs, which she would need to consult to do the question, using that programme as an example, effectively. The student moved on to other topics and so I found out what other subjects she was doing and the science-related degree she hoped to upgrade to. It’s a strange thing to recognise that someone is looking up to you and wanting to make a connection...

Half an hour after she had knocked on my door, the student left and while the research associate had meanwhile departed without me noticing, she soon returned. The research associate confronted me without her usual barrier of spectacles and effectively chastised me, cheeks ablaze, for seeing a student, without telling her, outside of my usual consultation time. Then she said she knew I had used the computer on her desk ( I had used the university provided computer located on her desk on the weekend when I’d come in to finish off my marking—I had not even sat down while I checked my email). I began to explain myself to her, before I thought, “I just can’t engage with this. It’s so out of proportion”. Then I went to lunch with G___. Well, he ate lunch, I indulged in emotional eating in the form of a chocolate butterfly cup cake. Poor G___, this time when I vented it was more gale force than gentle breeze.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Simple Pleasures

This is the first instalment in what is likely to be an ongoing but irregular series of posts about things that I like. There will be a lot of talk about television and food.

Mysterious Ball

The latest in the wooden puzzle series spilled its guts—which was the aim of the Mysterious Ball—after only forty minutes of concerted interrogation. I think what I like about my ability to solve these puzzles is that it reveals I’m quite good at spatial visualisation, for which I’ve always thought I had no aptitude. When it comes to determining how to get from A to B or recalling how to return to A from B, I’ve never really applied myself, relying on car drivers and public transport providers—although now that I think about it, walking everywhere does require some navigational skill in order to find the best shortcut (On the other hand, I have been known to forget which direction I’m going when I get to the end of supermarket aisles). The other thought that occurs to me here is with regard to Scrabble. I have a theory that it isn’t simply a matter of having an affinity for words that makes a winning Scrabble player—as so many who decline to play Scrabble with English postgraduates are convinced. It’s also about being able to visualise where the pieces you have on your letter holder will go on the board. At least that’s always been my reasoning for the closely pitted contests I’ve had with my brother-in-law, who, as well as being a fitter and turner by trade, has been known on several occasions to get the 50 point bonus. I think there’s something to it.

Spider Solitaire

In particular, I like the sound of the cards being dealt. I turn the computer speakers on especially to hear it while I play. Flick, flick, flick, flick, flick. Play it again, Sam! So I do until I go cross-eyed, determined to win so that the computer will exclaim its congratulations in a blaze of animated fireworks. All achievements should be rewarded in such a manner.


Or, more specifically, being teased by students. This week we looked at star images, how they’re created and how they articulate, and circulate through, various discourses. One of the things I do is get the students to tell me everything they know about someone they’ve identified as a star, as distinct to a celebrity. After they noted that one only has to be a human being with functioning eye sight—perhaps not even that, I’m not sure the extent to which gossip magazines are adapted for the visually impaired—to know about Brad Pitt at the moment, I got to writing on the white board as much as I could capture of what they were telling me. One of the observations about Brad was that he was noted for being fashionable, with an ever-changing hair style. The exact words were ‘funky dude’. I wrote ‘funky/fashionable’. They insisted I add ‘dude’, so I did.

I’ve debated with myself over the years whether to write on the board at university level; it feels so high-school-ish, and I’m not a school teacher. I got some feedback in a teaching evaluation once that suggested I should write on the board, rather than sit down and just discuss things verbally. My first reaction was along the lines of ‘this is not the performing arts; learn to listen and take your own notes’. To some extent I still agree with this, but as a device to use during a brain storming session, so students don’t forget the examples that have been raised, scribbling on the board adds a visual element to reinforce what they’re hearing. It’s all about colour and movement. That doesn’t mean I’ll start wearing a yellow skivvy, but I might be tempted to yell ‘Wake up, Jeff’.

Carrot Salad

Yes. Just look at its carroty goodness. You know you’ll feel virtuous after a serve of this. When I first made it, I didn’t quite have all the ingredients. So I took the advice once given to me by the proprietor of an Indian grocers, which was cook with what you have. It’s been invaluable advice in helping me loosen up in the kitchen. I’ve always been a stickler for following recipes, and despite assurances from my chef brother that technique also makes a good cook, I’ve always felt that I lack imagination in preparing food. Anyway, on the maiden attempt at this salad, I didn’t have enough carrots, so I supplemented what I did have with finely sliced red capsicum. The recipe also called for an orange in the dressing. I used to eat a lot of oranges but, recently, I’d be surprised if I’ve eaten one in three months. Suffice to say, I didn’t have an orange either. I had plenty of lemons though, so I used those and then added some palm sugar to sweeten the taste. I also added some orange essential oil to take the place of the orange rind that was required. You may be able to tell from the picture that there are sesame seeds in the salad. When I was figuring out what to replace the absent ingredients with, I was trying to determine whether I would replace them with Asian ingredients or Middle Eastern ingredients. At first I went for Asian, because of the coriander and sesame already in the salad, which is when I decided upon the palm sugar. But then I noticed that the dressing asked for some more sesame seeds to be toasted and pounded in a mortar and pestle. While sesame seeds are an Asian ingredient, when you start to pound them to tahini, then you are definitely entering into a Middle Eastern use of them. Just thinking now, I guess the grated carrot and orange juice was probably another big give away that the recipe was heading West. I do think that you could create a more Asian inspired dressing for this salad, using lime and fish sauce, that would go equally well with the carrots and coriander.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Australian Idol and the Meaning of Style

I’ve never been shy about admitting I’m an avid watcher of Australian Idol. I’ve been in social situations where people have dismissed the top thirty contestants as ‘no-talent wannabees who can’t hold a note’ and demurred. While I don’t have any Christina Aguillera or Anastasia in my CD collection, there’s no doubt that Roxane Lebrasse and Kate DeAraugo can do those artists’ songs justice. Clearly the lengths to which people seek to distance themselves from admitting to enjoying Australian Idol and the talents of the ambitious young performers is premised on the perennial high/low culture distinction. I’m still surprised by how much work I have to do in tutorials before students will admit to the guilty pleasure of Australian Idol. I have to create an Oprah Winfrey-like environment where I reveal the identities of the contestants I vote for on a weekly basis before anyone will confess to rushing home on Monday nights to watch the elimination show. I’ve been even more surprised in conversations with academics in the fields of media and cultural studies, when sms voting fans are discussed as curiosities, and admitting to voting oneself feels like a career-damaging faux pas. Then there was the time on an email discussion list that I was charged with encouraging political apathy amongst my students for talking about voting for the Australian Idol in the same week the Australian Federal Election was held (in a subject with the subtitle, Developments in Mass Media, I might add(!?)).

Despite my unabashed enjoyment of Australian Idol, even I felt despair tonight when I listened to self-identified punk Lee Harding admit that the lyrics of the song he performed—'Holiday' by Green Day—meant nothing to him. What! Has anybody ever heard of an apolitical punk? Sure, so-called punk politics are often individualistic and sometimes nihilistic, but to have no thought about the lyrics of a Green Day song, not even in a half-hearted sort of ‘Yeah! Stupid George Bush’ way is... Well, words fail me. At this point, surely all of those people who have been voting for Lee, thinking his colourful hair and piercings signified some sort of refusal to conform to an established music industry mould will be disheartened? His ‘style’, both musical and sartorial, means nothing more than Emily Williams’s suit; in fact his style is vacuous in comparison to her’s because she at least declared her outfit suitable for her song choice.

‘Just cause, just cause, because we're outlaws, yeah!’


‘Here we are now, entertain us...’

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Infernal Puzzle

A friend I did my honours year with contacted me recently. She works for the British Library now and wanted to ask me about zines in relation to an aspect of her job. I did my Master’s research on zines in Australia, so I was able to help her out. We had lost contact over the years; she went on to complete a PhD and, since I always go the long way around, I decided to do a Master’s and even managed to find some further detours along that circuitous route. That’s not to say her road has been exactly easy. In our email conversations, one of the things I learned was that someone had attempted to sue her for something she had written in her doctoral thesis. She didn’t go into detail, and that’s probably for the best, especially since I’m writing about it here. You do your best to ensure anonymity in a blog, but I’m sure, like those smudged and pixelated faces that appear on the news, if you know the person in question, then their identity is all too apparent. Clearly, for whatever reason, the threat was not acted upon, nevertheless it must have been a traumatic experience.

As I finalise my application and research proposal for the PhD I intend to do, L___’s experience is yet another occasion to reflect upon the motivating impulse to pursue an academic career. It’s not an easy route, even without being threatened with a law suit (or indeed a ‘blowhard asshole’, which is the worst thing I was ever called by a zine publisher.) It’s certainly one of those professions mentioned in Money that ‘require a great deal of time and money in graduate education, offer working conditions that only passion can excuse, and there may be such a long run for the roses that you forfeit prime working and child-bearing years just to achieve a salary that college peers were earning a decade earlier.’ I’m not worried about having children (I have an adorable niece) or a large salary (I’d rather have an ongoing income with holiday and sick pay), but I do have qualms about the investment of time. It isn’t enough to be good at teaching in universities; there are no rewards, in terms of career advancement, for the time spent preparing and presenting lectures and tutorials, and marking assignments with carefully worded feedback. If the students even recognise the amount of effort you put in, and decide not to tick all the lowest boxes on the teaching evaluation forms for their own amusement, then the university still expects you to secure the renewal of your employment contract by promoting them and attracting funding through the delivery of conference papers, successful grant applications and a prolific publication record.

Every time I mention to my doctor that I’m going to do a PhD, she says ‘Hmmm’, and last time she said quite pointedly that I’d have to work out how I was going to balance the various aspects of my life to ensure ongoing mental health. In view of the demands of academic life, the doctor’s advice is more cause to hesitate. Is there a fledgling academic who hasn’t been advised to abandon any semblance of a social life in the pursuit of their higher degree? (I think those who offer this advice should read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein again, and ponder the consequences of Victor Frankenstein’s pursuit of knowledge to the exclusion of all else.)

I suppose, while I’m apprehensive about beginning a PhD, I almost feel as though I don’t have a choice about this career path. For all the agony of academic life, I would rather be in pain than numb.

If anyone has wondered about the fate of the wooden puzzles after the Evil Star debacle, the next one in the series was the Infernal Pyramid, pictured here. As you can see it’s comprised of six pieces, which interlock to form the pyramid. This one proved to be more of a challenge, occupying me for a couple of hours as I half-watched television. The guidelines for this puzzle expressly warned against studying it too closely while you first dismantled it, thereby proving to be much better advice than offered previously.

I picked up the next puzzle today. This one is called the Mysterious Ball and the object of the puzzle is to dismantle it, rather than assemble or reassemble it. I’ve looked at it a bit, and I haven’t solved it yet. Stay tuned for updates!