Tuesday, November 29, 2005
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
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
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
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.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
Monday, November 14, 2005
These are the latest instalments in the wooden puzzle series I’m collecting. I’ve shown them in order of receipt from left to right, which is also, in descending order, the progression of their degree of difficulty.
The Simple Star is accurately described. It’s difficulty was rated at the one star level; and even if it only took a few minutes to work out, the pun provided by the publishers added an additional level of enjoyment. The literature accompanying the Simple Star recommends it as a suitable first puzzle to give to children. That recommendation made me reflect that I am collecting something; it isn’t a series of increasingly difficult puzzles I’ve purchased merely to demonstrate the development of my cleverness—tongue very firmly in cheek there—but a group of artefacts that like any collection has a range of pieces each of which represent a unique aspect of the collection’s interest. The Simple Star is an example of an introductory puzzle; the Mysterious Ball was described as ‘a totally new concept in family games: the interlocking puzzle’; and the Infernal Pyramid is a construction puzzle that is solved by an ability ‘to think in three dimensions’.
The name of the Infernal Cube suggests that it is a close relative of a previous puzzle, the Infernal Pyramid. They’re not really alike, the Cube has many twice as many pieces as the Pyramid (12 compared to 6), with a lot more internal fiddly bits, that fall out if you flip it mid-construction for a different perspective. And all sorts of trouble ensues if you put the third last piece in the wrong way.
One of the things that makes me smile about this puzzle series is the advice they offer for solving the puzzles. I’m not speaking here about the rules or instructions or even the tips they give you, as in the hint for the Elastic Cube: ‘To help you assemble your Elastic Cube once you have undone it, bear in mind that all its outward-facing corners are made of light coloured wood’. It’s the gentle coaching about the frame of mind required for success that lifts my spirits: ‘It can be frustrating as you discover that either the end of the chain of cubes sticks out, or the final cube seems to have some small cubes missing’ and ‘Be careful not to force, twist or pull the elastic in case it breaks. Everything must be done gently; patience, calmness and logic are the real keys to success’. Yoda might say: ‘Success: patience, calm and logic are its keys’
I have heeded the advice of this kind that accompanied the Cord and Ring (‘Remember to use your mind not your muscles’ a.k.a ‘May the Force be with you’). Several weeks after I picked up this puzzle from the newsagent’s, I still haven’t solved it. I’ve made all sorts of knots in it, which by some miracle I’ve been able to undo, but I haven’t been able to release the Ring from the Cord. The clues offered draw on sewing and knitting terminology and perhaps that’s the source of my difficulty with it. I can sew, but it’s always been with gritted teeth and a stitch picker. I can crochet, but I’m unable to knit. The years of knot tying as a Brownie and a Girl Guide have not served me well on this occasion.
‘Patience, my child’.
Sunday, November 13, 2005
Friday, November 11, 2005
Drug of a Nation
I’ve edited the ‘Cathode Ray’ list to reflect what I watch, which are those programs currently screening on free-to-air television in Australia. There is no Pay TV or College Network goldmine for me. And since my Internet account is dial-up and provided by the University where I teach, there are no download diamonds either, legal or otherwise. Given the self-imposed limits of the television list, I’ve contemplated creating another list: one of programs past. But then I anticipate that things will start to get muddled as I consider whether I should only include those programs that I have been watching recently on video or DVD, which would make the list fairly static, or if I should just create a Top 5, which would require that I impose some sort of hierarchical measure on the programs I like, and I always find it impossible to choose only one favourite of anything. The quandary persists.
The only addition to ‘Cathode Ray’ is Speaking In Tongues. This week the first episode of this twelve-part series began on SBS. It’s another effort by John Safran, who brought SBS viewers John Safran’s Musical Jamboree and John Safran vs. God. Speaking In Tongues has a great premise: Safran and a Catholic priest will discuss the news of the week from a spiritual perspective. Well, that’s possibly what Father Bob is going to do, but with Safran as his co-host there is an expectation of a somewhat more irreverent approach. Undoubtedly Safran will consider the events under discussion with his usual chutzpah, unafraid of provoking charges of blasphemy. Already, Safran’s suggestions to Father Bob that he should try to be less grumpy for future episodes and perhaps give up his smart car for one more befitting a humble Catholic priest, gesture to the frank and hilarious exchanges to come. In response to Safran’s advice, the priest told his colleagues, who might have been watching, to sell the car because John didn’t like him driving mental health patients to hospital in air-conditioned comfort.
I have met John Safran. The occasion was one of the four National Young Writers’ Festivals I attended in Newcastle over the course of my Master’s. Safran is a friend of Jason, the writer behind the zine Mavis Mackenzie, which was about the adventures, loves and letter writing campaigns of an elderly woman. Jason was one of the handful of zine publishers I encountered who was receptive to the work I was doing in my thesis. He had completed a Master’s in his field (something to do with hearing aids), which I think goes some way to explaining his sympathy for my postgraduate enterprise. Anyway, since I spent time at the festival with Jason, I also spent time with Mr Safran. There are two memorable occasions worth relating here.
The first is the game of Chinese Checkers we played at the backpackers we were all staying at. There aren’t too many backpacker’s establishments that can be as grand as the YHA at Newcastle. It’s a mansion, high on a hill, and a two-minute walk to the beach. It has a common area that can only be described as a gentleman’s lounge; it’s lushly carpeted, has high ceilings, polished wooden furniture and pool tables, as well as a selection of board games. I, along with some fellow postgrads I’d had to work hard to convince to come to Newcastle, an artist friend who had self-published some of his drawings, and Jason and John, spent the wee hours, while everyone else was out dancing, playing Chinese Checkers. John was very distressed that his pieces weren’t moving as quickly across the board as he hoped. I have this mental image of him standing up to get a better view of the board, with his hands clasped on either side of his head, lamenting ‘Oh no! Oh no!’ He finished last.
The second occasion worth recounting will probably be a more surprising view of John Safran than the larrikin you’re used to. Jason, John and I were sitting in the festival club waiting for a panel to start. One of the organisers, who I knew quite well (for a couple of years there, I was an eternal blatherer on the e-group established to workshop ideas for panels), approached our table and asked if he could borrow my festival program to loan to the chair of the panel. I agreed. After the panel was over, I wanted my program back, because it had all sorts of relevant scribbles through it that would inform my thesis. I noticed that it had been left on the panel table that was still lit with bright spotlights. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by stumbling on the stage in full view of everyone, so I asked the organiser if he would mind retrieving it. He did, but then practically threw it at me before delivering some stinging summation of my person that I can barely remember, I was so shocked. I do recall he just kept going at it while I sat there, completely mortified. I wondered how long it would be until the verbal assault ended, when John interrupted the organiser and effectively told him to shut up because I’d done him a favour, and was it really necessary to treat me in that fashion? After the organiser left the vicinity, I was on the verge of bursting into tears, so announced that I was leaving. In response, John and Jason seemed genuinely perturbed that I might go, so in order to recollect myself I offered to buy them a beer, which again, seemed to genuinely delight them: free beer! Then we all went off in search of food and I was teased about being a vegetarian. So, that was the time I learned that John Safran is a kind and genuine person.
Tom and Michelle
Readers with a keen eye will have already noticed the addition of two more links to the ‘WeBlog’ list. I’ve had yet another debate with myself over what should be included on this list. I’m trying to create a unique list, one that doesn’t replicate the links that are on the other blogs I read. Mostly this is about trying to find my own niche in this blogging endeavour, but it is also a space consideration that arises from a personal aesthetic preference; I like a neat index page that doesn’t require a lot of scrolling, thus a series of short lists is preferable. I regularly use the links on the blogs that I read, especially those from Sorrow, as a gateway to other blogs. I can foresee a day when the degrees of separation between other blogs and my own might be difficult to keep a track of, but for now it’s manageable.
In what might be construed as contrary to the reasoning presented in the previous paragraph, I included a link on the WeBlog list to Tom’s blog after I followed a link from Tseen’s site. This isn’t the contradiction it seems at first. I followed the link to Tom’s site because I already knew the writer’s work—and loved it—through his zine Sweet Valley Zine, which I came across as part of my Master’s research. Each issue is finely crafted, and if it’s possible for writing to be at once minimalist and irreverent, then that is the best summation I can offer (I’d also add ‘post-modern’ in the non-pejorative sense). I also briefly met the blog’s author during the time I was doing my Master’s both online, because I ordered Sweet Valley, and then in person at the National Young Writers’ Festival. I attended a reading at that event, then on another day we chatted after being introduced by a mutual acquaintance.
That I’ve met Michelle is also the reason for including a link to her blog, Not Like That. I also wanted a Brisbane blogger on the list. Michelle is a post-graduate and tutor at the University where I currently teach and where I will be doing my PhD. She is finishing her Master’s in creative writing and will go on to do her doctorate as well. It’s a case of being in the computer room at the same time, and conversation and coffee ensuing. Michelle mentioned her blog to me around the time I was considering starting this one. She said it was a good time to start reading her blog, because there were a lot dramatic posts as she recounted the arguments she was having with her mother about her decision to travel to Canada to marry her partner, Heather.
Until now, you may have thought that all I do in my copious spare time is watch television. You’re not far off the mark. If I’m not watching a direct broadcast, it’s something I’ve recorded the previous night, or a DVD of a television series (Buffy, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos). But I have also been known to read a book before going to sleep or before getting out of bed in the morning; and since I have so much time at the moment to wander into Borders and be seduced by all those smooth covers I’ve lately been going through an intense reading phase.
5. I bought The Black Album along with another of Hanif Kureishi’s novels, Gabriel’s Gift, the day after the London bombings. There were several of Kureishi’s titles on sale, reduced by fifty per cent, so of course I took the opportunity to get two for the price of one. I picked The Black Album, one of Kureishi’s earlier works in light of the events of the previous day. It’s about a young Muslim man, Shahid, who is studying in London at the time the fatwa was placed on Salman Rushdie. Shahid lives next door to Riaz, a man for whom people queue in the hallways to consult about their problems with their families and officialdom. Shahid is drawn into his neighbour’s world, defined by the master narrative of Islam, but is also encountering new ideas through his secular studies, which invite him to critique the certainties of his faith, in particular some of its more extreme manifestations.
4. Paul Auster is one of my favourite writers. I have been wanting to wax lyrical about him for a while, and soon I will do him the justice he deserves in a dedicated post. One day I want to trace the recurring character names across his works, because in addition to the layers of storytelling in his individual works (The Book of Illusions is just about the most astonishing book I have ever read on that level), there is something happening across his whole body of work that I want to work out. For example, in The Brooklyn Follies the main character’s name is Nathan Glass, which is clearly a reference to ‘City of Glass’ that was one of The New York Trilogy, and the character in The Brooklyn Follies, whom we first know as the ‘beautiful, perfect mother’ (bpm) has the same surname as one of the artists who adapted ‘City of Glass’ into a graphic novel, David Mazzucchelli.
3. Banana Yoshimoto is a recent discovery. Do you ever get the feeling, just by looking at a book, that you will like it? I’ve heard people praise another of her works, Kitchen. Perhaps it is that tenuous link, in combination with another, the cover of Hard Boiled/Hard Luck is vaguely reminiscent of A Quiet Life by Kenzaburo Oë, that prompted my purchase. That probably sounds quite a superficial way to choose what to read, but it paid off. Yoshimoto’s writing is deceptively simple but sparks off hours and hours of contemplation.
2. You will have read the excerpt from Non-Fiction that I scanned and posted to the blog. It’s a series of observational essays that Chuck Palahniuk wrote between books. It has made me want to read more of his work. His reflections on writing were in my mind when I wrote the ‘Sweet Jesus!’ post. There, I tried to relate the situation without judgement, so you could draw your own conclusions, even though I'm heartbroken that I haven’t been able to see my niece lately.
1. I’m just over a third of the way through Oh, Play That Thing by Roddy Doyle. He is another writer with whose work I am completely enamoured. There is a scene in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, where Paddy shakes his father’s hand and declares that he is very well thank you, that demonstrates everything that is good about restraint in writing. On the pleasures of understatement, I also think of the final scenes of Ken Loach’s filmed version of Barry Hines’s novel Kes. Oh, Play That Thing is musical not only in its subject matter but in the rhythms of its writing. Doyle is cognisant of the legacy of his countryman, James Joyce, which is apparent even in the type setting of Doyle’s novels. After reading Yoshimoto and Palahniuk, I had to shift gears to enter the rhythm of Play, but I’ve settled in nicely now and I’m recalling the first novel in the trilogy (of which Play is the second) about Henry Smart, former associate of Irish leader, Michael Collins.
So much for not scrolling, hey?
Monday, November 07, 2005
Generally, I’m quite good at being apathetic about going to large social gatherings. I wouldn’t describe myself as anti-social, but I prefer my social contact to involve no more that four people at any one time. I am less comfortable in night clubs and at parties meeting strangers while trying to appear interesting, than I am huddled around a table whose capacity is stretched by a quartet having coffee, eating dinner, or playing a board game. Making conversations with people I don’t know makes me tired; it’s no reflection on those people, I think it’s some kind of stress reaction (seriously.) But even I know that three invitations to the same event cannot be ignored.
I had plenty of work to follow up on after the meeting. I began to research all manner of interesting things about master-planned communities, which occupied me until the launch began (who knew that the first commandment of the master-planner was ‘Thou Shalt Include A Golf Course’?) I tidied the desk, in case the person I share that office with ever comes in, and wandered over to the building across the way and into a cavernous space where large screens were mounted onto the walls, displaying images projected from the computers placed around the room for people to browse the pre-launch website. After a frantic survey of the crowd, I saw two people I knew and immediately headed in their direction. I got a drink from the bar and joined their conversation.
People moved and topics shifted until I found myself half-listening to A., one of the original people I had sought out when I first arrived; he was having one of those high-powered-let’s-do-a-project-together conversations with a Professor, who is one of the people I am working with on the Golf Course Project. This Professor makes me laugh out loud with his blatant attempts to entice me to do my PhD at his institution. Even when I said to the Professor that I’d have to change my topic if I made the move, he insisted I wouldn’t and proposed a couple of likely supervisors. I’ve told him that he’s very good at dangling bait. A friend who did make the shift to the Professor’s institution warned me in a half-amused way that I should watch out for his attempts to poach students by offering them employment.
Suddenly, I was jolted into listening properly to A and the Professor. I realised that they were talking to me about being an RA on the project under discussion. This offer completely undermines my attempt, the last time this happened, to discourage the inference that employment comes to those who imbibe alcohol at social functions. Perhaps it’s not so much about the beer, but the ability to accept that if you receive more than one invitation to any occasion, even if your social ineptness induces twinges of narcolepsy, you should not resist the call. No. Not if you want gainful employment.
Sunday, November 06, 2005
V is reading a book which questions the assumption that God is a he.
I also knew from V that my other sister was very pleased about Mum’s revelation. F was born again 17 years ago. She had answered a share accommodation classified and met the friends of her new flatmate and then started going to church. F has since done a Bachelor of Theology at a bible college, where she met her husband. They have been married for 10 years and have a 3 year old daughter who, when she was only 2, said to me ‘Jesus loves me’. She also said ‘bocconcini’ and ‘artichoke’.
I went to F’s baptism in a small wooden church with stained glass windows covered in fine wire mesh. A board had been removed from the floor of the raised stage to reveal a long deep bath. F had worn a loose white gown and walked down some steps into the water. The pastor had crouched on the edge of the bath and pressed his palm to F’s forehead, guiding her into the water to wash away her sins. Two other adults were also baptised that day.
F and her family are driving to Brisbane to attend Mum’s baptism. Afterwards they will gather at V’s house. V said she would call me while they were there and give the phone to my niece so we can talk.
Thursday, November 03, 2005
The second trashing that The Collectors has received in The Weekend Australian, the one that I’m not prepared to overlook, is an article on page 40 of this week’s Review and is written by Mark Butler.
Butler begins by indulging in the favourite past time of The Australian’s journalists: ABC bashing. Surprisingly, for this conservative-friendly newspaper, he concedes that the problems he identifies with the public broadcaster are ‘government-decreed’. One of the issues that Butler has with the national broadcaster is its attempt to be representative of Australia by balancing the production of the major centres of Sydney and Melbourne with perspectives from the 6 other states and territories. While the programs which fill the 6.30pm week day timeslot—Talking Heads, Second Opinion, Beat the Chef, The Collectors and How the Quest was Won—hardly redress the imbalance towards the major centres, it is at least an acknowledgement that there are different viewpoints beyond ‘the harbour’, as it were.
Butler dismisses the ABC management’s regard for the ‘supposedly neglected outposts in Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Hobart’, suggesting that turning over production to these smaller ABC crews ‘ignores the sad truth that great cities tend to attract the brightest and best[*] in all fields, which means that provincial outposts are likely to be light on talent, much of which has fled to the big money and bright lights of cities such as Sydney’. The result, argues Butler, is that The Collectors and the other programs broadcast at 6.30pm are ‘tawdry, cheap and nasty’. Referring specifically to The Collectors, which hails from Hobart, he writes that if he didn’t know it was an ABC in-house production he would think that it was ‘whipped up by a bunch of high school students with a borrowed camera and a copy of TV Panel Shows for Dummies.’
I’m not sure that anyone outside of Sydney was supposed to read this. (For two weeks now, the reader of the 7.00pm ABC News bulletin has been listed in the Review’s TV Guide as Juanita Phillips. I think that Queensland has mistakenly received the Sydney version—our man in Brisbane is Andrew Lofthouse.) It’s difficult to believe that any editor or proprietor wanting to maintain a national readership would sanction the wider distribution of such ill-informed parochialism. Yes, even Sydney can be parochial. Butler’s characterisation of cultural activity in centres outside of Sydney and Melbourne not only ignores a whole range of cultural practices but employs faulty logic about why cultural producers live where they do. His ‘sad truth’ ignores the opportunities that ‘provincial outposts’ offer for new forms of cultural practice to emerge, away from the shadows which are the values of the cultural establishment. Butler’s truth takes no account of the talent that chooses to stay in the backwater; he need only read Iain Shedden’s interview with Bernard Fanning (R4-R6), which appears several pages before his diatribe, to find that money is not the only motivation in a cultural practitioner’s life. Sometimes people are far less shallow than Butler supposes; they seek to maintain close family relationships and some sunshine in their lives. Further evidence that talent exists outside of Sydney and Melbourne is in the migration of film and television producers to less expensive and competitive cities from the artificial lights that Butler deifies.
Butler’s conflation of regionally produced television with an absence of quality and value is not only offensive, it’s insupportable. Butler laments that George Negus Tonight, was ‘unaccountably dumped’[†] from the ABC to make way for the regionally-based programs. Yet this Sydney-produced program had very similar, basic production values to The Collectors. (And I seem to recall that it was also identified by commentators at the time as a mark of the ‘eviscerated state’ of the ABC.) On GNT, George sat on a couch to chat with his daily guest and leaned against a desk in the studio ‘office’ to introduce reports 6 - 8 minutes in length from journalists in the field. I enjoyed this show for what it was; George was an affable host and he conducted some good human interest interviews. Butler lauds Negus’s program above The Collectors which he asserts is ‘cheap’, has amateur production values, and ‘takes the drearily familiar form of a panel show on to which is attached a lame game-show element’.
A program even closer to The Collectors in terms of its production values is The New Inventors; its set is almost identical. In both programs, the host sits at the end of a long desk, which, further down, seats a panel of three who are informed on the topic at hand, inventions or collectibles. The New Inventors first introduces the inventor and his or her invention in a 1-2 minute film before returning to the studio for further explanation from the inventor in a brief interview with the host, James O’Loghlin. O’Loghlin and the inventor then take a seat alongside the panel who proceed to further question the inventor and comment on various aspects of the invention, including design, originality and marketability. The format of The Collectors allows for some longer stories about looking for collectibles in every place from flea markets and estate sales to auction houses and from dealers. Other stories focus on a range of collections which are stored everywhere from museums to backyard sheds. In the case of the collections that are showcased, often the collector or someone associated with the collection is interviewed in the studio by Muirhead, while the panel discuss examples of the collection that have been placed in front of them.
Butler’s criticism of panellists on The Collectors is personal. He writes, ‘[Adrian] Franklin is a sociologist, so enough said’. Well, I’m not necessarily a fan of all sociological methodologies but it’s not enough cause to dismiss an entire body of scholarship or, in the case of Franklin, a life’s work. No one would say “Butler is a journalist, so enough said”, would they? The shallowness of Butler’s argument is further demonstrated in his comments about Gordon Brown. Apparently the only time Butler perked up while watching the review tape was when he heard Brown’s ‘soft Scots accent’. It is a sexy accent, and occasionally the audience is treated to an equally sexy vision of Brown in his kilt, but to suggest that a fact of birth is his only point of interest borders on bigotry and effectively dismisses Brown’s obvious expertise as an antiques dealer. It’s just churlish. Of course Butler has very little to say about the third panellist Lauren Carpenter; he is completely dismissive of her existence, never mind her knowledge of textiles.
As I see it, Butler wishes he was watching another program. He compares Muirhead unfavourably to Wil Anderson from The Glass House: ‘Host Andy Muirhead evinces a bright affability and comes across as Wil Anderson without the acerbic edge, which is rather akin to drinking alcohol-free wine’. Here the question is begged, why does Muirhead have to be anything like a comedian-presenter of a satirical news program? It’s an unfair and illogical judgment. In another mystifying comparison, Butler holds up the British produced programs Antiques Roadshow and Bargain Hunt as superior in their entertainment value. I’m not familiar with Antiques Roadshow, but Butler’s description of Bargain Hunt reveals an entirely different premise; it is a game show with teams of contestants and The Collectors is not, even with the inclusion of segments where the panellists vie to identify a ‘mystery’ object from the collection at the Tasmanian Museum and offer the closest estimate for which an item will sell at auction. What Butler misses is that The Collectors is about collectors and what they collect, which is not always antiques and not always for monetary value. The Collectors is far more egalitarian in its focus; people can and do collect the plastic toys in cereal packets and it doesn’t mean they’re either ‘nutters’ or on drugs[‡]. It means that human beings are complex and varied creatures who collect for many reasons that are interesting. In the case of those who collect ephemera, such as throw-away toys, the motivation is about memories of childhood, for example. People who collect the artefacts of everyday life are not to be dismissed so scathingly; in the future their enthusiastically compiled collections will tell us more about our expansive society than the expensive furniture of the ruling classes (although it is always worthwhile knowing who wields power in any era). Even the collector who stored cheeseburgers in his garden shed, catalogued according to date of purchase[§], does not deserve the invective that Butler directs towards those who don’t concur with his Victorian informed notions of ‘culture’.
It’s the laziness of Butler’s article that irritates me the most. Even if he does subscribe to Arnold’s view of ‘culture’, Butler’s effort falls far short of Arnold’s vision for the function of criticism. There is only so much in Butler’s ill-thought and prejudicial article that can be explained as a consequence of the production environment of newspapers, such as deadlines. I think it’s reasonable to expect more from a weekly supplement in a national broadsheet, even on the topic of a culturally devalued medium such as television. How long can newspaper managers and proprietors continue to accept that the reviewers of one of the most pervasive cultural forms in our society remain ignorant of critical methodologies which have been developed specifically for the medium? It isn’t appropriate to apply the work of Matthew Arnold to a popular cultural form like television when it was developed partly as a response to preserve elite culture and counter the rise of one of the first popular cultural forms, pulp fiction. Many writers at The Australian continue to employ outmoded binary oppositions which position popular culture and its consumers in the most negative light. To say nothing of their ongoing and wilfully ignorant use of ‘post-modern’ as a pejorative[**]. And to make such arguments, as Mark Butler does, using the hoary old chestnut of protecting the Australian taxpayer from the ‘embarrassment’ and ‘insult’ of apparently substandard forms, well, I’d rather swallow an old cheeseburger.
[*] When will these journalists throw out their copies of Matthew Arnold’s Essays On Criticism?
[†] Don’t feel too badly for George; he was very handsomely picked up by SBS.
[‡] I saw this episode at least a month ago. Do they show them in a different order in other states? Or did they pull this article out of the garbage since Murphy appears to be sick/ on holidays and therefore not at work to write an intelligent review for publication?
[§] There was no sign of mould on one dating from 1996! Truly a comment on contemporary food production.
[**] See Nick Leys’s article on Merrick and Rosso on page R38 of the same issue of Review