Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Egg Head

This is the kind of lunacy that ensues when you find smiley faces printed on your free range eggs.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Spanish Inquisition: Part One

I am reading Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. In order to keep myself on task and so finish this 940 page tome, I have enlisted the support that your presence will provide to urge me to continue reading. I will post a record of my progress here at irregular intervals, as well as any comments and questions that are provoked by the text along the way.

I. Which treats of the frustration of the author as she reads of the quality and way of life of the famous knight Don Quixote de la Mancha and his squire Sancho Panza.

Since I first announced to you that I was reading Don Quixote I’ve barely progressed in my reading. I was at Chapter 19 a week ago and now I’m at Chapter 22. During this time I composed a few impatient questions, which might also serve as a partial summary of the novel so far:

Why does Sancho Panza follow Don Quixote? The narrator explains that Sancho is a labourer ‘without much salt in his brain-pan’. Don Quixote offers him the possibility of reward in the form of the governorship of a yet to be won isle and on this flimsy pretext Sancho Panza abandons his wife and children. Even in view of Sancho’s initial naïvety, it is not long before he is all too aware of Don Quixote’s delusional view of his surroundings. At the sight of ‘some thirty or forty windmills’ on a plain in the distance, Don Quixote says,

Look over there, friend Sancho Panza, where more than thirty monstrous giants appear. I intend to do battle with them and take all their lives. With their spoils we will begin to get rich, for this is a fair war, and it is a great service to God to wipe such a wicked brood from the face of the earth

Sancho cannot see the giants and regarding the view to which Don Quixote refers he says,

Take care your worship... those things over there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails, which are whirled round in the wind and make the millstone turn.

Don Quixote is convinced only that Sancho is not well-versed in the matter of adventures and so commends himself to his chosen muse, another product of his imagination, the Lady Dulcinea del Toboso, before proceeding to attack the windmills in a ‘fierce and unequal battle’. As in most of his adventures Don Quixote falls off his horse, the long suffering Rocinante, and Sancho rushes over to his master’s prostrate body:

‘Oh my goodness! ... Didn’t I tell your worship to look what you were doing, for they were only windmills? Nobody could mistake them, unless he had windmills on the brain.’

Even after this exchange, Sancho still accompanies Don Quixote and, up to the point I have read, he does not question the veracity of the promise of vague rewards he is offered for his sacrifice as the errant knight’s squire. I am not entirely certain about what to make of Sancho Panza at this stage. I keep thinking of his wife and children. Does the family rely solely upon him for their income? Or does his wife routinely dismiss him as a useless scoundrel whom she and her children are better off without so she can go about the business of earning a living without catering to his various appetites, which seem to be substantial? Is Sancho as light in the head as Don Quixote? Or is he simply poor and understandably seduced by the prospect of a life in which all of his needs are met and more?

Another question which has nagged at me throughout the first chapters of Don Quixote arises from reading the translator’s introduction. J.M. Cohen writes that Don Quixote ‘even in his most preposterous battles with the here-and-now has always our loving sympathy’. Old DQ has elicited no such emotion from me. I am more inclined to agree with the next section of Cohen’s sentence: ‘too often we may have to hold our thumbs for him, as we might for some reckless child who has strayed on to an unrailed roof with a sheer drop to the street’. I would be only to pleased to hold my thumbs for an inattentive child but for this middle-aged man, I would not be compelled to raise a pinkie. What does DQ do that might invoke his readers’ sympathy? I am puzzled. He races about, charging up to people going about their business and demands that they acquit themselves to him. What, he wants to know, are they doing, so he may judge whether, as a knight errant, he will spear them with his sword or rush off to avenge them against some wrongdoer. The trouble is that DQ, thus far, has rarely waited to find out the character of the travellers he confronts, since they are so surprised and confounded by the sight and disposition of the knight, they react in a way that evokes an immediate attack by their inquisitor. As a matter of fact almost everyone who bears the wrath of the knight’s rush to arms has done nothing to warrant such treatment. Thus far, DQ has accused two St Benedict monks of being ‘perfidious scoundrels’ and drawn himself and Sancho into a sword fight with their attendants; he has charged a flock of sheep and its shepherds as if they were enemy knights, a battle in which one might say DQ deservedly lost his teeth; he has attacked a funeral procession, wounding its mourners by brandishing his lance and causing a white clad attendant to fall off his horse and break a leg; he has set upon a barber travelling between villages to steal his brass wash basin, convinced it’s a golden helmet to which only a knight such as himself has any right; and he has set loose a chain-gang of self-confessed convicts after injuring the sergeant employed to transport them.

On the website that Ms Tartan recommended, 400 Windmills, a contributor of one of the early posts feels sympathy for DQ because he sees that the knight, while misguided and clearly as mad as ‘batshit’, is seeking to uphold ideals that should be treasured in society i.e. championing the down-trodden common man [sic] and expressing love for our nearest and dearest. The writer condemns the actions of those who collude in DQ’s delusions for their own profit. It isn’t that I disagree with the latter statement, but DQ has just as much to take responsibility for. What do DQ’s actions amount to but an abdication for the well-being of those he encounters in his day to day existence and thus those to whom he owes the most. Here my thoughts return to Sancho, who invariably bears the brunt of DQ’s ill-considered adventures, not least by way of considerable and ongoing injury to his person.

I’ve read more of 400 Windmills than I’ve referred to here and it looks like many of the first impressions of Don Quixote that I’ve recounted are challenged ahead in the posts on that blog, as well as in the pages of the novel itself. I’m looking forward to having my initial impressions contested. I hope it will lead to some further appreciation of the central characters on my part. At the moment I feel as though I am distracted by the adverse effects of their actions on minor characters and those the book doesn’t introduce (or hasn’t yet) such as Sancho’s family. If I’m constantly annoyed at how self-absorbed DQ and SP are, I can’t see that I’ll ever come to care enough about them long enough in order to complete Cervantes’ opus.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Rhythm 'n' News

Before yet another film I’ve recently enjoyed gets superseded from the ‘Now Screening’ list with nary any other mention, I should take a moment to reflect upon Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney 2005). It tells the story of the makers of See it Now, a television news program which aired in the USA in the early fifties. In particular the film catalogues the program’s response to the methods used by Senator Joseph McCarthy as he sought to expunge his country of communists and their sympathisers through his inquiry into allegedly un-American activities. Anyone who has ever studied Arthur Miller’s The Crucible will be more than familiar with the kind of criticism that has been directed at McCarthy’s hysterical accusations. And just as Miller turned to an historical event to comment upon contemporary affairs, so Clooney, both writer and director of Good Night, and Good Luck, opines on present-day North America by revisiting the media’s response to the McCarthy Senate Committee. In taking this approach, Clooney implicates today’s journalists and media managers and owners in the witch hunt of our time, all the excesses and injustices that are perpetrated in the name of the inquisition into terrorist activities.

More than a criticism of the actions and policies of the current US Administration, Good Night, and Good Luck seems to take issue with the surfeit of opinion and the entertainment values that characterise present day journalism. In the case of the former, the film establishes its critique by showing how the See it Now production team builds its argument against the tactics of Senator McCarthy simply by showing footage of him addressing the senate inquiry and the North American public. Clooney also utilises this convention in his representation of the senator, by avoiding the use of an actor to play McCarthy; the film seamlessly splices the historical footage of McCarthy’s filmed appearances with the contemporary film stock. Of course, even unadulterated footage offers a perspective that precludes others, however the apparent integrity of the investigative journalism practiced by the makers of See it Now is contrasted sharply to the preoccupation with entertainment values in news which, it is stated, contributes to the eventual demise of the program. In Good Night, and Good Luck, the managers of the television business cite the demands of the audience who want more entertainment with their news, to whom they are obliged to respond in order to ensure the ongoing viability of their programming. Clearly, Clooney is sceptical of this argument, as is the presenter of See it Now, Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) who, pre-empting Theodor W. Adorno, calls for the deployment of television as a medium that might inform and educate.

More than the examination of the events surrounding the McCarthy Committee inquiry, what I most enjoyed about this film was its representation of television as a nascent medium. The re-creation of the live broadcasts throughout Good Night, and Good Luck illustrates the way that television developed along a model established by the conventions of radio. Television’s debt to radio is further acknowledged in the various montages throughout the film where an African-American jazz band is recording in one of the sound studios at CBS. The music contributes to establishing the film’s era, but also conveys, through the pace it sets, the sense of improvisation that must have characterised the early years of television, especially when producing such politically challenging journalism. The use of black and white film also worked well, preserving the sense of the era by smoothing the transitions between the historical and contemporary stock.

I really can’t speak highly enough of Good Night, and Good Luck. George Clooney’s work as a director puts me in mind of the excitement I felt when it became apparent that Clint Eastwood was a new directorial talent. I’m not sure that Clooney ever attracted the disdain for his acting work that Eastwood did for all those spaghetti westerns, but, if I may say so, it’s a bit of a thrill to learn that such a sexy man has a political conscience and prodigious talent.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

She's Leaving Home

In order to preserve the last of my sanity, I’ve moved to my sister’s for a few days. The weekend was a complete nightmare, again, due to the mf neighbour. Monday afternoon when I felt and heard the music start up… Let’s just say my reaction did not count as anywhere near my finest hour. One of the things I did was bang on the floor above his flat. In response to my frustration he had the temerity to tell me that I should respect my neighbours. I was incredulous; this from someone who thinks nothing of having regular karaoke sessions between the hours of 1.30 and 4.30am. He seemed to have no clue about why I might have stomped around in the first place. Nevertheless, I did have an awful moment of self-realisation about the depths to which I had plunged. After a storm of tears, I called V. and asked her to take me in for a couple of nights. V’s fiancé picked me up and we all arrived at V’s place at the same time. V had just been to the gym and gave me a big sweaty hug by way of greeting and sympathy. My sister is lovely, even when she’s sweaty.

Monday night I slept in an air-conditioned room accompanied by V’s dog Taffy, whose head is easily turned away from any loyalty to his owners towards their guests. He’s a total floozy, snuggling beneath the sheets and licking you without ceremony. Tuesday morning while everyone else had gone to work, Taffy alternated between chewing various toys and snaffling an apricot pit which he then proceeded to eat! I let him have the stone thinking he’d lick it a few times and then reject it as inedible, but no, he crunched right through it. I thought after he’d broken it up I’d have to pick pieces of it from all corners of the room, but no, there is nary a skerrick remaining! He’s sleeping on the floor at the moment, but probably only because he’s exhausted himself by charging into the yard and barking at the slightest passing butterfly. Although, if I get up to go to the toilet or check the progress of my toast, he follows me and regards me with big eyes. In the instance of my visit to the toilet, and later the shower, when I emerged from those small rooms he was sitting in front of the door, patiently waiting for me to reappear.

Rather than dwelling on the cause of my involuntary exile—I’m sure you’re all over hearing about it—I thought I’d make better use of my energy and review the various additions I’ve made to my sidebar. I’ve added the section, ‘Now Screening’, which, following the template of the ‘Reading Order’ list, is a chronological record of the films I’ve watched lately at the cinema, where 1. is the most recently viewed. If you didn’t blink, you may have noticed that for a brief moment I’d included a couple of DVDs in the list, Mystic River and 21 Grams. I have owned both of these films for what must be at least six months now, but before the Christmas period I hadn’t felt compelled to watch them. I suspect my reluctance derived from the fact that I prefer to watch films at the cinema in the conditions for which they were created. Sitting down at home for the amount of time required to watch a feature-length film on a television screen without breaks is not something I like doing. It just feels wrong. An hour long television program, complete with commercial breaks suits the home environment and all its attendant distractions far better. Even when I watch television programs on DVD, there is at least an obvious point at which to stop the program and wander around the house for a bit. Between that respect for the differences in the two media (although the inability to sit still and focus could just be a symptom of a poor attention span) and the fact that I still have episodes of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under to make my way through, to say nothing of the copious amounts of free to air television I record, I just haven’t had the time or inclination to watch either Mystic River or 21 Grams. When I finally watched 21 Grams, I could see why Dr H had kept asking me whether I watched it yet or not. Since she was overseas when I finally did watch the film, and therefore not around to talk about it with, I included it in the ‘Now Screening’ list as a way of indicating, however minimally, how much I liked it. But then I went to see a few more movies at the cinema and because of that, the inclusion of the DVDs was going to push off the list another film I had yet to have a good discussion about, Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch 2005).

The few people I had encountered who had seen Broken Flowers had not particularly liked it. The criticisms were based on the representation of the women in the film. The argument was that the female characters were stereotypes and satellites to the central male character played by Bill Murray. I know there was a time in my life when I would have made a similar judgement of the film, but I think in the case of Broken Flowers it’s important to consider which actresses accepted the roles of these apparently formulaic women. Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton are not stupid; they are smart, talented and successful women whose feminist credentials are part of what they bring to any role. I have loved watching Sharon Stone mature as an actor, I was thrilled to see her in this film and I had the same reaction to Frances Conroy’s presence, since I am a fan of Six Feet Under. Just looking at Conroy’s history of television appearances as well, I notice that she made guest appearances in a lot of the MTM productions of the 70s and 80s, including Hill Street Blues. Jessica Lange’s filmography is peppered with classics of contemporary American cinema; and Tilda Swinton first established herself, as far as I am aware at least, in the film adaptations of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando and Louise J. Kaplan’s feminist classic Female Perversions. I am not naïve enough to suggest that women, especially in Hollywood, are spoilt for a choice of characters who are not accessories to their male counterparts, but it’s important to know that Jim Jarmusch is not a ‘Hollywood’ filmmaker. When I asked the people who didn’t like Broken Flowers if they had seen other films by Jarmusch, it turns out they hadn’t heard of Dead Man, to say nothing of Coffee and Cigarettes, Ghost Dog etc, etc. I thought that Johnny Depp’s role as William Blake in Dead Man would have ensured they would at least know one of Jarmusch’s films.

I think the lack of familiarity with Jarmusch’s body of work might offer part of an explanation as to why his new found audience—at least those members I’ve encountered—hasn’t necessarily embraced Broken Flowers. It is recognisably a Jarmusch film, from the episodic narrative structure and the road story, to the shot composure, especially in the awareness of transport in the tracking shots and the general absence of low and high angles. If you’re aware of Jarmusch’s visual style and thematic concerns then your appreciation of this film is amplified by that knowledge. Of course the counter-argument posed to me on this point was ‘But, shouldn’t any film stand on its own merit?’ The short answer to that question is ‘Yes’.

The long answer to that question is, even if you put aside Jarmusch’s body of work, then you have to at least pay attention to his engagement with the story of Don Juan, which is signalled early in the film as a film version of Don Juan is shown on a television (the presence of that appliance is yet another ‘Jim Jarmusch’ moment). In Broken Flowers, Don Juan has travelled, figuratively, to the USA. The relocation of Don Juan has happened throughout various media since he was first created by a monk in Spain in 1630 and so it is in this tradition that Jarmusch writes Don Johnston. Don Juan. org, a website dedicated to the ‘travelogue’ of Don Juan, suggests that in spite of his constant migration, ‘[s]trangely, Don Juan's adventures remain largely unchanged, they take on, with not a little subtlety, different national characteristics and allow the authors many opportunities to express themselves on the morals of their countries and of their times’. And so we have Don Johnston (Bill Murray), the North American Don Juan, who is not to be confused, although he often is, with Don Johnson from Miami Vice. Don Johnston is a contemporary libertine, a bored and wealthy computer entrepreneur who seduces women with little pause until he receives an anonymous letter from one of his former lovers claiming he fathered a child over twenty years ago. While Johnston is not motivated to contact his child, he is urged by his neighbour, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), to pursue the mystery, and so he embarks on a journey to visit the women he knew at the time of the alleged conception.

At this point I think the title of the film is significant (sorry for stating the obvious) to the extent that ‘broken flowers’ shifts the subject of the film away from the libertine character towards the women whom he has used and abused and even had mutually satisfying relations/hips with over the years. Don Johnston is confronted with the consequences of his emotionally nomadic life, but the film also presents a portrait of contemporary North American femaleness in all its diversity. Following the ‘women’ link on the England 17th Century section of the Don Juan website, I learned of the playwright, Shadwell’s version of Don Juan, The Libertine. Shadwell was writing in the context of the Restoration Theatre, a movement that saw more opportunities for women to play female roles on the stage. Apparently Shadwell’s Don John was drawn to be critical of noble society and is thus unrepentant as he goes about indulging his every whim which includes a not insignificant number of murders and rapes. Another innovation of Shadwell’s is reported to be the character of Maria, who disguises herself as a man in order to avenge her fiancé’s death at the hands of Don John. In adopting her disguise, Maria is afforded equal status to the principal male character and thus she is a significant portrait in a society where women were ‘often reduced’ to slavery, especially through the institution of marriage as it stood at the time.

In the contemporary North America of Jarmusch’s portrayal of Don Juan then, how can the women characters be interpreted through a more sophisticated lens than the one that renders them as nothing more than caricatures? To begin with, I think that Don Johnston’s crime in this film, more than his fleeting relationships with women, is his initial reluctance to take on board the responsibility a father owes his child. Murray’s character, indeed his whole existence, is shown in stark contrast to his neighbour, Winston, who embraces a whole passel of offspring and just one woman, his wife Mona (Heather Alicia Simms). In approaching Jarmusch’s women characters then, we are potentially encountering a woman who is a single mother, who has over the years assumed all of the care for Johnston’s child and ensured his or her well-being. The first of Don Johnston’s former lovers whom we meet is a single mother, but not to the hero’s child. Laura Daniels Miller (Sharon Stone) is the primary care giver to the very precocious Lolita, who tests her burgeoning sexuality on Johnston by appearing naked before him while he waits for her mother to return home. Johnston goes outside to wait for Laura, who promptly invites him in for dinner and they have sex for old times’ sake. The next of Don’s old flames is Dora (Frances Conroy) who is puzzled to see him; she is now married to a real estate entrepreneur and together they live in curious suburban dream without children from any relationship, current or former. Jessica Lange’s character, Dr Carmen Markowski, an animal communicator, has well and truly moved on from her liaison with Don, claiming not to eat or drink in order to avoid catching up with him over either fare. Further, Don is summarily sent on his way by Carmen’s assistant and current partner (Chloë Sevigny), who suggests he never returns as she flings the flowers he bought as a gift for Carmen through his car window. The final woman that might have sent the letter to Don is Penny (Tilda Swinton) who now lives on a remote and run-down property. It isn’t clear what prompts her reaction to seeing him again, but it can’t have been any fond memory that has her screaming ‘So what the fuck do you want Donnie?’ before calling for back up from a couple of tough looking men. I haven’t mentioned the woman who we see leaving Don in the first moments of the film, Sherry (Julie Delpy), but I think that she, along with all of the other women, demonstrate that none of their lives are defined only through their relationship with Don Johnston.

There is a lot more to say about Broken Flowers but, if you haven’t seen it, that’s probably enough plot spoiling on my behalf, and indeed enough posting full stop. Dr H has returned from overseas (bearing a very nice gift of Venetian glass for me) and I finally got to have a discussion with someone who knows Jarmusch’s work. She said she didn’t like Broken Flowers either, a reaction which she attributed to not liking Bill Murray as an actor; it’s the old Woody Allen conundrum, for her Bill Murray is not credible as a romantic lead. And she found it difficult to believe that one man would be attracted to so many different kinds of women. There is also the fact that she watched it nine times in a row on the flight to Milan because her monitor on the Cathay Pacific flight was stuck on that channel. I still like it and even want to watch it again, but I will draw the line after the second viewing... perhaps the third, at least if it's in succession.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Tilting At Windmills

I have assigned myself a project, to read Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. I bought it several years ago with the same intention, but I wasn’t successful. This time, dear reader, I hope to draw upon your assistance so that a better outcome might be achieved. I’m not asking that you read it with me—although if you decide to, it would be good to compare notes and such—but rather that I will utilise the fear of public humiliation your presence will invoke to encourage me to stay focused on the task at hand. If that makes you sound rather stern and judgemental, it isn’t my intention to do so, but clearly there is something in my psyche, where in the absence of a task master, I believe I must invent one in order to achieve my goals.

This doesn’t sound like much fun so far does it?

I am rather daunted by the size of Don Quixote, it runs to 940 pages and the font is quite small. Personally, I’ve always liked Jeanette Winterson on the subject of fat books, she says that to write a long book is arrogant—or something similar—because it assumes that people have a lot of time in which to read. It’s been a rather neat defence of my preference for books that don’t exceed 450 pages that someone as literary as Winterson has offered such wisdom. I read Winterson’s opinion a while ago, so I’m not sure if she still adheres to that view, but even accounting for her consideration of her readers’ limited time, I cannot, at the moment, claim to be lacking in that resource at all, so as grounds for not reading a hefty tome it is rendered completely invalid.

The desire to read Don Quixote arises purely from my obsession with interest in Paul Auster’s writing. References to Cervantes text occur throughout his oeuvre and I suppose I want to understand it further. I have a whole reading list from the references throughout Auster’s books, whether I will get to them all is another matter. I don’t consider myself a great reader, I go through stages, sometimes I don’t finish books, and I tend to read contemporary novelists over those whose work is considered part of the canon. I’ve only recently read The Great Gatsby in a way that I would consider ‘properly’—not because it’s a set text book—because Dr H reads it serially and has declared it ‘perfect’. I was curious as to what a perfect book might look like. Even after reading it, I don’t think I really have the sensibility, or that I’m widely read enough, to judge the perfection or not of Fitzgerald’s work. Of course it’s written well and I think I learned something about the formation of sentences. It’s made me want to give up my over-reliance on the semi-colon, which is proving exceedingly difficult; if only I could give up my sub-clausal thinking! I found The Great Gatsby a finely restrained portrait of not-sufficiently-requited love and thus in Jay Gatsby an unbearably sad figure. I won’t go into the whole commentary on the American Dream, because it would be the subject of another post entirely and it’s enough at the moment to attempt to write coherently about Don Quixote and Paul Auster.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’d recently re-read Timbuktu. The blurb on the back cover explains the story is about an itinerant, Willy G. Christmas, and his dog, Mr. Bones, told from the latter’s perspective. Willy’s lifestyle has taken its toll on his health and so before he dies he wants to ensure the preservation of his life’s work, a locker full of his unpublished writing. Willy and Mr Bones set forth to find Willy’s high-school English teacher whom he has decided to entrust with his legacy. Part of the blurb reads: ‘Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza before them, they sally forth on a last great adventure…’ Within the pages of Timbuktu, Don Quixote is not explicitly referred to, certainly not as he is in the closing pages of ‘City of Glass’ where Daniel Quinn wonders ‘why Don Quixote had not simply wanted to write books like the ones he loved—instead of living out their adventures. He wondered why he had the same initials as Don Quixote’ (129).

I can only speculate that Don Quixote was drawn to be so foolish because Cervantes was using him to demonstrate the folly of reading too many of the ballads about knight’s errant, the romances of chivalry, that were popular amongst those who had access to books on the cusp of the 17th Century. There’s a scene after Don Quixote returns from his first adventure, before he goes off on another, this time accompanied by Sancho Panza, that Don Quixote’s priest and housekeeper hold an inquisition into his library and throw most of it out the window in preparation for burning as so much dross. I’m intrigued that even on the cusp of the 17th Century there was criticism of the ill effects of popular culture. Is the damage to psyches that some researchers and commentators attribute to watching television, or playing computer and console games, simply a contemporary version of Cervantes criticism of the ballads, through which he has Don Quixote attack windmills with his sword, convinced they are marauding giants?

The translator of the version of Don Quixote that I have, J. M. Cohen, argues

If the book had gone no further than this variation on a theme … Don Quixote would have been little more striking than that other madman of Cervantes' invention, the student in one of the Exemplary Novels who imagined that he was made of glass, and took precautions accordingly. But … Don Quixote came alive in his author’s hands (12)

I’ll admit that part way through Chapter 19, I am yet to be convinced of either Don Quixote or Sancho Panza’s charms. I’ve read past the point that Cohen nominates as the moment where as a character Don Quixote exceeds the original intent of Cervantes work, where he declares, ‘I know who I am …and I know that I am capable of being not only the characters I have named, but all the Twelve Peers of France and all the Nine Worthies as well, for my exploits are far greater than all the deeds they have done, all together and each by himself’. While many who encounter the self-appointed knight humour his delusions, playing along with his sense of reality, I suppose at this stage of the novel, I’m finding it quite difficult to accept the conceit of Don Quixote and his adventures. Sancho Panza hasn’t convinced me he is a ‘common-sense’ peasant, capable of bringing his master down to earth. I don’t feel sympathy for Don Quixote when he is amidst a delusion, attacking all and sundry in the name of chivalry and mistaking inns for castles, windmills for giants and women of ill repute for noble women; I feel impatience, and then, since this is a canonical text, I begin to think I’m not reading properly. What am I missing? Do I lack the sense of imagination of which Pi accused agnostics? Of which Willy G. Christmas accuses his old college room-mate, a writer called Paul Omster (or something like that surname)?

Perhaps as I read on, I will enter more fully into the world of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. I can certainly see how the exploration of the effect on reality of a powerful imagination relates to Auster’s work, so I will persist and hopefully come to enjoy Don Quixote on its own merits. As I make my way through the rest of the book I’ll post some summaries and thoughts along the way. If anyone has read this novel and loved it, I’d appreciate your insight.

Friday, January 20, 2006


I debated what to call this post. I toyed with ‘Cranky’, ‘Pissed’ and a whole range of offensive expletives. I decided against the expletives since it’s not your fault, dear reader, that I’m in this state, a state that feels like a hangover—headachy and jittery—but involved none of the fun that usually precedes the condition.

If you’ve read my last few posts, you may have already guessed the cause of my distress. Yes, it is the offending neighbour at work again. The timeline is this:

11.30pm. The pounding of bass music begins. The whole building reverberates, especially, it seems, the section of floor just below my bed, in which I’m trying to sleep. I know! Who would have thought that anybody would have been asleep at that time on the cusp of Thursday and Friday? It’s outrageous.

12.30am. I have spent the past hour trying to distract myself from the repetitive thuds that seem to shake me at a cellular level. I have read about the theoretical possibility of time travel; I have breathed deeply and tried to meditate above such an earthly distraction. All my efforts are to no avail. I am too outraged. We have had a quiet few days which lulled me into a regular sleep pattern. Now, as soon as the weekend—and therefore lack of instant contact with the property manager—is but a day away, the problem behaviour begins again.

1.30am. I have an idea, one that is even more precariously balanced on the edge of insanity than peeping through windows at 4.30am. I debated with myself about taking the course of action I have thought of. I know it will affect my other downstairs neighbours as well. I reason that they are likely to be asleep, or at least trying to be, and will probably not be that adversely
affected for the moment. I take the risk and pray that they will forgive me. I take the action—it really is too unbalanced to reveal here, if the authorities ever read this they will track me down and arrest me—and return to bed. Aaaah, blissful silence.

6.20am. The house is moving. N. from downstairs has discovered what I’ve done. I get out of bed, make myself decent and tiptoe to her door and knock. I explained the risk I took. She said she had a brief moment upon waking of ‘Wha- what time is it? I’m late for work!’ I am mortified and apologise profusely. She is a very down-to-earth New Zealander, who simply replied ‘No worries, mate’ and then asked me whether I’d given the letter to the property manager. I have. The other downstairs neighbour that I worried about inconveniencing smiled and said what a good idea I’d had and said if I wanted to do it again, go ahead, just let him and N. know. Now I am being encouraged to engaged in dubious tactics—it will not be good for me in the long run.

6.45am. I return to my flat and make some coffee. I read some of the Pocket Penguin I bought last week, The Unabridged Pocket Book of Lightning by Jonathon Safran Foer. Soon, thank goodness, I feel like sleeping again.

11am. I wake up to the smell of the over-cooked coffee I left sitting in the filter machine four hours ago. It is the thought of this ruined coffee that gets me out of bed for the third
time this morning. I decide to drink it anyway. Of course it tastes bad. As does the can of ham flavoured baked beans I accidentally bought. The grain loaf I made in my bread-maker is soft and crumbly.

12pm. I read some blogs. Michelle and Heather are back from overseas. Michelle’s mother is still making remarks that frustrate her no end. I look at some of the blogs nominated for various categories of the Australian Blog Awards. My unlimited internet account that I had with one of my teaching jobs has come to an end. I managed to fly beneath their radar for 7 months, which is not bad, but I’m still sad. Now I’ll have to do with 200MB per month. I suppose I won’t have to download copious amounts of Tarzan paraphernalia now that I’m not teaching; that’s the only time I ever exceeded my quota, which lead to the prized unlimited account in the first place. With all of my recent online activity, my right eye has started to twitch in protest. I’m disgruntled and ill-tempered. I feel I have wasted a perfectly good day because of that mf downstairs. After I post this I will have a shower and perhaps go into the city to buy some fancy
chocolate. That should make me feel better. I wonder what’s on at the movies?

'Near a solar-mass black hole the effects would be so strong they'd spaghettify an astronaut in pretty short order' Paul Davies How To Build A Time Machine (2001: 60-1)

Thursday, January 19, 2006


the weird habits meme, which requires the blogger to fess up to his or her five weirdest habits, as the name might reasonably lead one to expect.

My first thought upon accepting Ms Tartan’s meme was about a habit I acquired from one of the zine publishers I interviewed in the early days of my Master’s degree. S. happened to be visiting from interstate so I met him at a landmark well-known by travellers to Brisbane, the Roma Street Transit Centre. We walked further into the city centre before catching a bus on the way to the University. As we were walking, I noticed that each time, after we had crossed the street at traffic light intersections, he paused to push the button that indicates someone is waiting at the crossing, before continuing on. As an inveterate walker, I thought it was a fantastic idea. Who hasn’t waited endlessly at a crossing looking for a break in the traffic only because you didn’t push the button at the right time in the signal’s cycle? If you’re familiar with the traffic lights in question, it’s even more frustrating to know that normally you would be able to cross, but because the pedestrian stage in the signal cycle has been missed you are left on the side-walk twiddling your toes. Thus the first weird habit I will admit to, in a list arranged in no particular order, is:

1. I push the walk button at traffic signal pedestrian crossings after I have traversed the crossing

Contemplating the task of the meme further, I wondered what weird habits I could confess to that I hadn’t already enumerated in detail in other posts on this blog. What I found thinking by thinking about those quirks I’ve already admitted to was that I became aware of previously unconsidered habits that were related to those I had already written about.

I’ll start with the weird tendency revealed in my last post. I didn’t frame it then in terms of strange behaviour on my part, but I’m sure you all thought it was a little on the edge of sanity:

2. I creep around the outside of my apartment building at night time and peer in my disruptive neighbour’s window

Alright, some people might consider that being a peeping Thomasina is in fact criminal behaviour. I will plead temporary insanity. What my creeping reveals is that when I am indignant about something, I will stop at very little in my pursuit of evidence that can be used to bring about an end to the cause of said indignation. I have since composed a letter enumerating the disruptive neighbour’s infractions and it has been signed by two thirds of the other tenants. On another occasion, when I was mad at the traffic/pedestrian arrangements made to accommodate the sports crowds that flood my neighbourhood, I sent five copies of a letter to various levels of government and facilities/business managers expressing my displeasure. Soon I had local members, community liaison officers and police sergeants contacting me to discuss the issue... Actually, now I’m scaring myself. Moving right along.

The next thing that others have indicated they consider to be weird about me is:

3. I let a spider keep its web just outside my front door

When my neighbour, N., came around to read a draft of the letter to the property manager, she asked me if I was keeping a pet. I mumbled something about how I had ‘thing’ about destroying spider’s webs. When my sister V. visited me, she looked at it and suggested that I use a stick to relocate it to the mango tree. The thing is, I don’t really want to risk touching the spider. She’s not in my way and she has learned to cope with the opening and closing of my windows each time I leave home and return. I explained to my sister that I’d seen a report on global warming and climate change on the 7.30 Report and that in addition to the usual plethora of disappearing frogs, they had shown a picture of a spider, thereby suggesting they were affected as well. It confirmed what I had noticed over the past few years. When I first moved into this flat, I couldn’t walk through the green block next door without encountering at least two spiders’ webs stretched between the trees, but in the last couple of years the passage is always clear. I’m not sure that house-training spiders is the solution, but I always think of the news report when I see the spider’s eight eyes looking at me.

Related to the concerns this spider habit reveals is another. It’s important to know that I don’t think of it as weird and so it won’t be listed as one of my habits, but in the context of being in an English and Media Studies environment, I have been assured that this behaviour renders me a ‘geek’. This charge against my person occurred when in casual conversation, several days after the screening of the AFI Awards, I said that I hadn’t watched them, instead I had watched the final of The New Inventors to learn who the Inventor of the Year was. I was quizzed, ‘so, you’re a teacher and scholar of film and television, and you didn’t watch the AFI Awards?’ ‘No’, I said, ‘did you know the Inventor of the Year has discovered a way to effectively recycle every aspect of tyres? It’s amazing! Think of what an enormous global problem old tyres are; think of the environmental revolution about to take place!’ ‘Oh my God’, they said ‘you’re a geek!’ ‘I bought the New Inventors Magazine, as well. Did you know...?’ ‘You’re a geek!’ So, I liked science at school. I nearly went to uni to become a food technologist. Make something of it.

I’ve recently learned another thing about myself that might be construed as odd. The discovery was prompted by reading the list of weird habits of Lucy from Always Listen to Your Pig Puppet, another recipient of Ms Tartan’s meme. Lucy never wears black, she thinks it’s depressing, even if her mother is convinced it suits her the best. Lucy’s revelation provoked a train of thought, which goes like this:

When I was a teenager I wore black a lot. My friends wore black too. Once an old man harassed us as we emerged from Sportsgirl in Cairns, demanding to know why we wanted to wear black. Of course we just ignored him. The Smiths were an influential force at that time in my life, I still recall the song lyric, ‘I wear black on the outside, because black is how I feel on the inside. And if I seem a little strange then that’s because I am...’ Well, it’s taken a lot of work, but I have finally moved on from that depressive teenage state. I still have a fondness for black, however, which cannot be wholly attributed to lingering in the halls of English departments. I buy clothes, on average, two times a year. I am very systematic about my shopping; I’m not an impulse buyer at all, something which can probably be attributed to being a student for so long. When I shop for clothes it’s because the season dictates I must have short or long sleeves or I have worn out the purchases from last year’s season, so I go with a very practical mindset, asking myself what I will get the most wear from that will be suitable for a range of occasions. This is where black comes in, and white for that matter. I always buy a black shirt and a white shirt when I go shopping because they go with everything—I wear neither of these ‘colours’ in skirts or trousers. I usually get a blue shirt as well, because I am vain enough to want the compliments I get about my eyes when I wear blue. Lately I have gone crazy and added a pink shirt to my list, because that widens my options for coordinating with the darker brown skirts and trousers I own.

While you might think this approach to clothes buying constitutes a strangeness on my part, in fact the strange part of it is yet to come:

4. I only purchase clothes from Sussan’s, absolutely nowhere else

When it comes to underwear, I do branch out and buy that in sales at Target, but probably only because Sussan’s doesn’t sell it. It’s just so much easier, the sales staff don’t bug you, and ‘this goes with that’ and all that, means I can always match my clothes in the most economical way. I really don’t enjoy shopping for clothes at all.

The quirk that will complete my fulfilment of Ms Tartan’s meme begins with a reflection on something that is probably all too apparent to those readers who are still awake at this point. Since starting this blog, I have noticed that behind the most fleeting of my thoughts lies one thousand words of explanation—at least. I seem incapable of writing short posts, in fact, I have given up apologising for rambling on and on and on. Is this an endearing quirk or just annoying verbosity? Another explanation for the length of my posts is in the aesthetic realm. I’ve mentioned before that I prefer to display only the latest post on my index page, the problem with this decision is that I have an aversion to the look of that page when the side bar exceeds the length of the latest post, thereby leaving a wasteland of space on the page. As the length of the side bar is dictated by whatever I decide to add to it, the longer it becomes, the longer my posts have to become in order to avoid having that black hole on my index page. At the moment the posts need to be around a thousand words to assuage my discomfort. I’m not uncomfortable if the post is longer than the side bar, the space on the right hand margin makes aesthetic sense to me.

This compulsive obsession with filling inappropriately empty spaces extends, for me, to the writing of text messages, thus:

5. I like to use all the space available to me when I send sms messages on my mobile phone

Obviously, sometimes I just need to get over this tic and the same goes for the blog posts, so often a very stern internal dialogue takes place, to the effect of ‘Get over it’, and it works, but it still bugs me. On the text messages, I guess I also think if you’re going to be charged the same for sending ten characters as four hundred and fifty-nine, then you might as well write the latter. This goes to the role of text messages in my life. I think one of the things that cemented my friendship with Dr H was text messaging. Since we both worked at far flung university campuses that required a lot of to and fro bus and train travel, we had a sort of unspoken agreement to keep each other company during our respective travels. If you’d had a bad class, you could emote about it and bolster each other’s sense of self worth. We have also used text messaging to keep company in our respective homes. I appreciate the value of sms for letting people know you’ve been caught in traffic or to locate someone in a crowd, but Dr H and I have also discussed topics like the relative merits or lack thereof of Heidegger and Wittgenstein via text messages. Dr H has noted that my text messages are perfectly punctuated and grammatical, and it’s true, that is another text related quirk I have; I hate the mangled language you get in many text messages. My sister F. is the worst, I have told her I feel like a four year-old struggling to comprehend the black bugs in front of me when I read her messages.

The rules of this meme business dictate that I pass this on to other people, so on that note I will end the litany of my weirdness and pass on the baton to Spam (aka dogpossum) and Tseen, who writes Banana Lounge. I hope only two batons is still fulfilling the meme codes of conduct. I didn’t like to send it on to people whose blogs I read but haven’t ever commented on. I worried that it would be rather presumptuous to introduce myself with ‘Hello, you’ve never heard of me, but you’ve been memed’. Is there an agreed upon etiquette about this?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

It's 5am In Amsterdam

See another situation update below.

Actually, I have no idea what time it might be in Amsterdam, but when it’s 5am in Brisbane, this is how I know: the pounding of the bass from the music being played in the flat below sends a constant vibration through the wooden structure in which I live; the voice of the tenant from the flat below is clearly audible as he shouts into his telephone at someone he doesn’t care about; fury, which has built in the last half hour since I was woken from sleep, is consuming my person to the extent that I yell out the kitchen window, ‘Keep it down; it’s 4.30 in the f******* morning!’—to absolutely no effect.

When it’s 11am in Brisbane, this is how I know: as I walk past my offending neighbour’s open door on the way to the bin he slams it shut, a habit of his that drives one of my other neighbour’s crazy; I talk to yet another neighbour, who is also being driven insane by the offending neighbour’s habits; I learn that the offending neighbour constantly asks the other smokers for cigarettes; that he sits out the front of the flats on weekdays to beg for more from passers-by; I learn that the offending neighbour roams around the flats in the wee hours of the morning, jumping up on the brick fences and practising pseudo-martial arts moves against the walls; that he practises those same moves in the interior of his flat, resulting in all sorts of bangs and breakages; I tell how the offending neighbour overfills the communal washing machine and leaves his wet and dirty washing in the laundry over night, raising the possibility of damaging the machine while preventing me and others from doing our washing; I learn that his mother comes over and cleans for him; with my eyes hanging out of my head, I say I’ve called the real estate agent to make a noise complaint and I ask whether my neighbour lodged a complaint last week when the offending neighbour played discordant violin music at full volume; I learn that it isn’t only me who has changed the way they live in order to avoid encountering the offending neighbour—while I invent reasons to go out, another neighbour hides in his flat.

When it’s 2pm in Brisbane, this is how I know: I’ve just sneaked back into the flats after wandering up the street to buy the paper and browse the shelves of the organic food store; the offending neighbour slams his door again, then again; I swear to my empty flat until my head begins to hurt; I’m tired and angry; I resolve that if the property manager hasn’t returned my call by 2pm Monday, I will call again and demand action.


Monday 16 Jan. 06, 9.30am

Last night while I was finishing re-reading Timbuktu, I felt the now familiar vibration of the bass rising from the offending neighbour’s flat. The clock showed 10.38pm. Soon I heard voices raised not in argument or admonishment but by means of a microphone in a poor imitation of every rap and hip hop track you’ve ever heard. I was curious, because there seemed to be more than one voice, so I donned a bra, a skirt and some thongs and exited my flat via the door that leads from my shower, because it takes me directly into the back yard away from the sight of the offending neighbour should he be near the entrance to his flat below my kitchen window. I was going to see one of my neighbours that hadn’t been around earlier in the day, to ask her to lodge an official complaint with the real estate’s property manager, using the evidence of this latest imposition, to add weight to my complaint and those of the other tenants. She wasn’t home, or at least her lights weren’t on—I know that one of my other neighbours whose lights were also not on was definitely home. He’s the one who has taken to hiding in his flat. I wasn’t angry this time, instead I felt a curious kind of calm as this latest behaviour added weight to the substance of the charges against him. On the other side of the building, opposite to my flat, I saw that the offending neighbour’s other door was open, so I walked back around to my flat and out of the gate that leads to the driveway. In darkness, I made my way quietly down the driveway until I was able to see through the window of the offending neighbour’s flat. There, through the backlit lines of the vertical blinds, I saw the silhouettes of two people, one standing, dipping from side to side in a dance that matched the contorted rhythm of the improvised lyrics, while the other sat, adjusting dials on what I can only assume was some kind of recording equipment. The dissonant trip lasted until around 1.30am.

Now I can feel the vibrations through the floor again, and I have just spoken to the property manager. She says I have to write a letter and get the other tenants to sign it so she has verifiable grounds to evict him. She already has permission from the owners to take this action. She told me that the offending tenant claimed he has lived in the flats for five years, and she seemed to think the record of his leases supported that. I said he had barely lived there five months. I can’t bear to think that he has forged any documentation that would secure his tenancy further. The property manager also let slip that the offending tenant had been in her office screaming at her to the extent that she’d had to call security. Quite frankly, the offending tenant needs to be in supervised care, and it is completely unethical of his mother to secure rental agreements on his behalf, when he poses a danger to others around him who are not equipped to manage whatever his illness may be.

Tuesday 17 Jan. 2006, 3.00pm

I'm feeling a bit sheepish about that last sentence. I know it's not that straight forward. I'm hanging my head in shame.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Holy Polar Bears, Batman!

Yesterday, after I had posted here, the rain cleared up and blue sky and a beating sun emerged. The reversal in weather reminded me of some comments by a fellow student, who was from India. She expressed frustration with Brisbane’s weather, remarking that one could go into a shop on a sunny day only to emerge fifteen minutes later into a torrential downpour, without an umbrella. She far preferred the weather in India, where it was either monsoon season or the dry season, and you could adequately prepare for either. She would have gone mad in Melbourne I think, where Four Seasons in One Day is not just a song lyric. I suspect, however, that she would have preferred travelling on public transport in the southern city. One of the other aspects of Brisbane that R. commented upon was the hills; she couldn’t understand why they hadn’t been flattened, they turned bus travel into an experience of sea-sickness! Not to laugh at R’s queasiness, but I found the prospect of flattening Brisbane’s hills particularly amusing. That’s what Sir Joh and the Deane Brothers should have been excavating in the middle of the night instead of grand old dance-halls. Anyway, in the event of clear skies, rather than staying sequestered in my humble abode, I ventured into the world washed-anew and so was able to scan the old photographs for the intended post.

This post is dedicated to my Uncle. I have never met him, or my Aunt, but I will when they come to Australia in a few months to attend my sister’s wedding. A while ago, in anticipation of their visit, I invited my uncle to read my blog as a way of getting to know me before they arrived. In my email, I warned that reading my blog as a way of introduction to my person might be a case of too much information, since it documented the minutiae of my existence (yawn). When he wrote back that he hadn’t been able to locate my blog with the URL I had given him, I felt a strange kind of relief, that I’d had a close call with the kind of embarrassment I might never recover from, brought on by a rash invitation issued in a moment of sentimental longing for a concept of family that I’ve never experienced (Since my parents migrated to Australia, my siblings and I have grown up without knowing an extended family). Just recently, however, my Uncle wrote to say he had read my blog and so I experienced that mortifying moment of painful self-consciousness that I believed I had avoided. I scoured my mind for memories of posts that would have caused me embarrassment when I imagined them viewed through his eyes. Suddenly the attempt to honestly convey the frustrations and hurts of family disharmony loom as revelations of profound flaws in my character—why do I have to malign my mother in this semi-public forum?

This experience of exposure made me wonder to what extent other bloggers make their writing public to their families? I haven’t told anyone else in my family about this blog (actually, I do recall telling my brother, but he has given no indication that he’s followed it up. I’m not sure if the reader from Nunawading, Victoria is him or his wife, or someone else entirely). When V. asked me why I was taking photos of the blueberry pancakes on Boxing Day, I just pretended it was a strange quirk I had—not that you got to see those photos; seen one blueberry pancake seen them all. I’m not sure what to think that V. accepted that explanation so readily! Anyway, I know the Fake Doctor’s mother reads his blog, a fact he attributed to the improvement in his writing style; she apparently expressed some concern that he swore so much in the early days of his blogging. Clearly he feels comfortable expressing why he will never become an anaesthesiologist in the manner he does in her presence. I wonder if Michelle’s mother and father read her blog? Michelle is frank about her disappointment that they can’t accept her relationship with Heather as one that is a life-long commitment. I suppose she is well beyond circumscribing her life according to what her parents think if she has travelled overseas so that she and Heather can marry.

I’d be interested to know what other bloggers think on this topic. For myself, I’ve had moments of hesitation that my Uncle might have inadvertently revealed the existence of my blog to other members of my family through telephone conversations, in those instances where he would already have known the details of what we ate for dessert on Christmas Eve or that I had received a scholarship. I’ve had no confirmation that this has happened, but if it has then it’s just one way that people come to know about particular blogs. As to whether my Uncle has concluded that I’m a fatally flawed character, at the very least I know he’s realistic about the difficulties of family relationships. What I’m more concerned about is that he and my Aunt will have read about all the creatures that inhabit my experience of Brisbane and be put off in a way that would make the Minister for Immigration content. If my Uncle, or indeed anyone else about to visit Australia, is reading this, then let me assure you, by means of photographic evidence, that in addition to bugs and sharks, crocodiles and jellyfish we also have Polar Bears.
These are the old-fashioned photographs I scanned. They're from a trip V. and I took to Sea World a little while ago now:

And if any of the aforementioned creatures should get out of hand well, Batman and Robin, that irrepressible crime-fighting duo, can be called upon to save the day! These photos record a visit to Movie World--strictly for research purposes--earlier this year:

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Let It Rain, Let It Rain, Let It Rain

At the moment I'm formulating a couple of posts for this blog, and last night as I was writing one of them, I began to plan my schedule for today because one of the posts requires me to go to the University to use the scanner to convert some old-fashioned photographs into digital form. But then last night, I was woken up by torrential rain which continued through to this morning and so I changed my mind about braving the world outside. I did peek my head out to take these photographs for you...

This is one of the views from my 'balcony' (I've put that in scare quotes because it's really too grand a title for my little entrance platform that hangs in mid-air). The church is St Bridgid's Catholic Church, its colour gives the suburb of Red Hill its name.

Here's a picture of the spider that guards my front door. Isn't perspective a wonderful thing; it makes her look as big as the recycle bin across the road. Even though you can't quite see the detail of her web, the drops of water mark its presence.

This picture is for dogpossum. I know if she saw it in person it would send her allergies crazy, but I think she will appreciate looking at its fat witchetty grub flowers, which are just so luscious the way they overtake the foliage. It attracts bees too--somewhere there is some very nice honey to be had. If you look in the top left-hand corner you can see the edge of the mango tree that nurtures the hairy caterpillars right before they crawl into my flat, transform and learn to harrass me in another way, as moths that dive bomb me when I'm trying to read in bed.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Student Teacher

I was offered some teaching for next semester by Aspro yesterday. I said no, which was a really difficult thing to do. But I had made myself a promise that if I got a scholarship to do my PhD, then I would use it wisely and take advantage of the opportunity it would afford me to concentrate on my research without worrying about how I might pay rent or buy food. I learnt the importance of the privilege presented by a scholarship the hard way, of course; I was also awarded a scholarship for my MPhil and I didn’t appreciate its value at all. At the time I accepted my first scholarship offer, I felt invincible. I had a first-class honours, a letter of acceptance into a sandstone university—as well as the scholarship—and so I thought I could do everything, and my thesis. I soon learnt otherwise. The online journal I spent most of my time contributing to and co-editing was indirectly funded by a number of postgraduate scholarships, including my own. I’m proud of the work I did helping to establish that journal, but perhaps it wasn’t the best use of the funding for my purposes. When I did actually get around to doing the proper work of my thesis, it was self-funded by teaching and other jobs.

I think it’s out of habit that it seems wrong to say no to teaching work. You get used to grasping desperately for any morsel that falls your way because you’re constantly thinking about the periods in-between semesters that you have to earn enough money to cover. To my mind, the best thing about the forthcoming scholarship is that I’ll be able to relax on the question of where my money will come from, for the next three years at least. In refusing teaching, there’s also the fear that you won’t be asked again. Since you’ve said no once, they might not think of you again, you’ve slipped off their radar as someone to employ. I nearly blurted out, ‘No! Don’t accept my refusal, I will teach’. The thought went through my head that I could easily manage my time to accommodate teaching while remaining on schedule with my thesis, but that kind of thinking hasn’t worked out so well for me in the past, so I stood strong. Sort of. I crumbled slightly on the one year promise, saying I wanted to concentrate on my thesis for at least six months, at which time I would reassess the situation. You have to leave room for the possibility that you just might become as fantastic a time manager as you’d like to be. Heh, heh.

I also have to reconsider my qualms over saying ‘no’ from a career perspective. I have enough teaching experience for the moment. Over the summer period I’ve consolidated my Research Assistant experience, and although I think I need to work on more recent publications, that isn’t as urgent now as getting a PhD. If I’m going to pursue an academic career I have to get a doctorate, there isn’t any point in applying for a full time position without that qualification, particularly in the Humanities. It’s good practise for me to decline teaching; I’ll consider it part of an ongoing lesson in the art of prioritising, a skill that I can extrapolate into other aspects of my professional life.

I’m sure I will get asked again by Aspro to teach; and if he doesn’t, then I’ll remind him of my existence in an email.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Caterpillar Girl

It’s that time of year again. Yes, it’s the annual migration of the hairy caterpillars from the mango tree outside to the interior of my flat, where said caterpillars seek out suitable places to cocoon themselves and so make the transition to fuzzy headed moths. What constitutes a suitable place is a mystery to me; there is no pattern I can detect. I think they are emboldened by their hirsute armour, because I find them everywhere: on the side of the bin in the kitchen; on the mat in the toilet; curled up on the carpet near my bed; making their way across the sitting room into my dining area, oblivious to the threat of my footsteps. Sometimes I open my front door and they rain down, landing on the ground tucked up into small pom poms, thwarted in their attempts to squeeze in under the door frame. The first time they arrived, I gathered them up with a dustpan and brush and put them outside on the grass. On occasion, when I was feeling particularly encroached upon—and still not sure to what extent they presented a danger to me—I would tip them out from my kitchen window and watch them plummet to the concrete below. I have become much calmer about the intrepid hairy visitors in the seven or so years I’ve lived here now—the longest I’ve lived in one place in my entire life (actually, that milestone was passed about three years ago)—but that first summer, well, I was not so sanguine.

The trouble was that the caterpillars were not the only creatures who had established migration routes through my flat. Once I came home and discovered that one of my pot plants had been seconded as a nesting ground for grasshoppers; there were at least a gazillion of the little green critters a-jump-jump-jumping on every available surface radiating outwards from the fern. (That time I had a flash back to another time in another flat in Brisbane, when I was in the shower—nekkid—and, instead of water showering upon me, a squillion baby spiders parachuted down).

Then there were the wasps who created a paper honeycomb nest which hanged from another pot plant, this one near the front entrance to my flat. They liked me so much they also came back over consecutive summers and felt welcome enough to build another estate just underneath my letter box (none near or on my very close neighbours’ boxes mind you). I suspect the wasps also issued an invitation to their cousins, the hornets, who have never displayed any compunction about creating their little mud caves on my ceiling fan, in the folds of my curtains, on my kitchen wall... My balcony railing and a window frame are currently anchoring a spider’s web from which I’m convinced it monitors my comings and goings.

Before the council took to mowing the block next door on a regular basis, I once hosted an amorous mouse couple. I tried to encourage the adult mouse I first saw to take its hanky-panky to a more suitable environment, but it didn’t respond to my efforts to relocate its boudoir. In the end I had to resort to poisoning—they were far too wily to be caught with traps—but meanwhile they shredded newspaper together, dined each evening at my fruit bowl, and created a little mouse door in the skirting board (nowhere near as finely an engineered arch as those made by mice in cartoons). It wasn’t only the mice who were attracted by the rat poison, cockroaches also seemed to find their way to the boxes of little green pellets I put around the place. If I found the dead mice in the middle of the dining room, forever suspended while running home, then I also found cockroaches who gorged themselves on the poison until they just died on the spot. Mice are cute little creatures, so I mourned their passing—if only they had stayed amongst in the grass—but I had no sympathy for the cockroaches. The kind that horrify me the most are those that fly in the windows on a hot summer’s evening. I was describing these to a colleague, recently moved from Melbourne, once. They are reddish brown and at minimum 5cm in length. They’re so large that their heads seem to be separate entities to their bodies. Their heads are strange and alien as they turn to look at you; that is if they don’t misguidedly fly into you first. *Shudder*. Upon hearing my description, my colleague exclaimed ‘Oh, are they those big glossy flying ones? They’re beautiful!’ I don’t think we were talking about the same type, but still... *Shudder*.

There is only one species, amongst those that visit me, that I like to encourage to drop by at any time. ‘Mi casa, su casa little gecko’. They roam the ceiling, lingering near the light bulbs when they’re switched on at night, waiting for exactly the right moment to dart in and catch the small moths that dance around the light. Sometimes they’ve been known to dash out from under the fridge or from behind a picture on the wall to ambush a cockroach and trap it in their mouths, head first. I watch their young grow up from tiny little wriggles with no survival instinct. I rescue the little ones from the kitchen sink, where they’ve chased after a splash of water without any forethought as to how they will climb out up the wet stainless steel sides afterwards. I admonish them as I create a wooden spoon bridge from the sink, telling them they’re lucky they’re not outside where they would have been pecked by a bird by now. I see the teenage geckoes become wary as they scurry away when I enter the room or turn on a light, in spite of my gentle greeting: ‘Hello, little gecko’. Sometimes their tails are stumpy, in recovery from a near death experience. Most of all I like to hear them talk and squabble in their high pitched tones. ‘Chuck, chuck, chuck’.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Happy New Year

I began the new year like most people, I imagine, toasting friends with champagne and watching a fireworks display. After the last of the pyrotechnics had faded into smoke someone asked if anyone had made a new year’s resolution. One friend joked that she was already perfect and so had nothing to resolve. I said I hadn’t made any resolutions, reasoning that I didn’t want to burden myself with expectations that I would most likely fail to fulfil. M admitted that her resolution this year was to be happy, which provoked a question from the group of academic types gathered as to what precisely would enable the achievement of that state for her. I’m afraid I can’t recall the details of M’s reply; I suppose I was distracted by my own thoughts about happiness. I’ve always been intrigued by Nietzsche’s questioning of the primacy of happiness as the most apparently desirable state of being.

He writes:
‘Are we not, with this tremendous objective of obliterating all the sharp edges of life, well on the way to turning mankind into sand? Sand! Small, soft,
round, unending sand! Is that your ideal, you heralds of the sympathetic affections?’ (Daybreak 174)

Without succumbing entirely into the soft sands of happiness, I have spent some time over the last week wriggling my toes on the beach:

On Christmas Eve, my three year old niece, H, whispered to her mother that she wanted to give the first of the cards she had made to Auntie K. I watched her quiver with excitement when she opened the umbrella I gave her for Christmas. In the absence of actual rain, I was drawn in to making pretend raindrops to pitter patter down upon her. I was surprised when H whole-heartedly ate the Walnut and Brandy Chocolate Cake, persisting even when the bitter taste of the walnuts lingered after the first mouthful. Then I remembered her penchant for eating fresh lemons and limes. She knows she only has to enquire, ‘What taste is that Auntie K?’ for me to waver over the (arbitrary?) distinction between foods for adults and those appropriate for children. When I hugged her good-bye, her arms lingered on my shoulders and she sat back and just looked at me with a secret smile on her face, before she said, very formally, ‘I would like to see you again, soon’.

On Christmas Day, I made blueberry pancakes for my sister, V, her fiancé, P, and myself. We ate them with maple syrup, ice-cream and strips of bacon. We drank coffee and Chandon Sparkling Wine that I had bought in the Yarra Valley a year ago. Later we spent several hours in the spa. V explained the physiology of the effects of drinking champagne in a spa. The blood truly did vacate my head and gathered in my extremities producing a very pleasant state, suitable only for lolling the afternoon away.

I received some lovely presents from friends and family (and myself in the Boxing Day sales!)

On the 27th of December I finished reading The Book Thief. I cried the morning I ended this wonderful book. In the evening, I had dinner with a friend visiting from Tasmania. R used to be my neighbour. In fact she alerted me to the vacancy at the flats where she lived first and I subsequently moved in. At the time it was a bit like being distant flatmates, living next door to one another and going out for cheap dinners up the street. We revisited an old haunt and five years just slipped away.

The next day I started Life of Pi. One of the review quotes promised that it would make me believe in God. I acquired a new phrase: ‘Jesus, Mary, Muhammad and Vishnu’. I didn’t agree with Pi’s stance on agnosticism:

It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gesthamane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. ... But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.

Later Pi imagines the different responses of the atheist and the agnostic to the moment of death:

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My
God!”—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might
try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing
oxygenation of the b-b-brain,’ and to the very end, lack imagination and miss
the better story.

Perhaps the first quote explains why I walk; and I suppose that public transport could sometimes be described as immobile. I wouldn’t, however, characterise doubt as static. I think doubt is the opposite of stasis. Doubt is a state of never arriving; surely it’s resting after the arrival at an imagined certainty that produces inactivity?

I don’t really wish to argue the point of that last sentence. I don’t want to reproduce Pi’s (Martel’s?) binary in a mirror image, valorising doubt above faith instead. I’m not against faith; I believe in the concept of God to the extent that as an idea s/he has an affect on the way people live and act. I’m not just talking about conflicts between faiths that might be pointed to as a factor in wars , but a whole range of human thought and action. I would reject some aspects of ‘God’, but there are others that I think are beneficial, not only to individuals who believe in God/s, but also to those who don’t believe or who have doubts.

On the question of stasis, not even Pi is entirely against attributing value to immobility, admittedly as a temporary state. After his ship-wreck and castaway ordeal, when he goes on to live in Canada, he studies the thyroid gland of the three toed sloth whose ‘only real habit is indolence’. The sloth is a comfort to his shattered soul. Perhaps I am being too literal in my identification of stasis here, but there is another moment where Pi comments that:

Christianity is a religion in a rush. Look at the world created in seven days. Even on a symbolic level, that’s creation in a frenzy. To one born in a religion where the battle for a single soul can be a relay race run over many centuries, with innumerable generations passing along the baton, the quick resolution of Christianity has a dizzying effect. If Hinduism flows placidly like the Ganges, then Christianity bustles like Toronto at rush hour. It is a religion as swift as a swallow, as urgent as an ambulance. It turns on a dime, expresses itself in the instant. In a moment you are lost or saved.

I suppose the purpose of highlighting these examples of indolence or positive stasis is to question Pi’s otherwise negative characterisation of stasis as necessarily inferior to movement. In my Master’s thesis I wrote in the chapter on my methodological approach about the ‘stasis induced by ethical quandary’. While I was living through that stasis it was an awful, awful time but in a strange way it was a productive kind of immobility (Nietzsche would probably approve of my pain).

The other aspect of Pi’s (Martel’s?) thoughts that I take issue with is his assertion that agnostics are ‘beholden to ... yeastless factuality’. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting what he means by agnosticism here. In the popular sense, isn’t agnosticism uncertainty about the existence of God/s. Not knowing seems to me to offer countless possibilities for the imagination. To admit honestly not to know about whether God exists surely allows not only the deathbed possibility of ‘failing oxygenation of the brain’ but the equal possibility of the discover of love and faith, and a whole lot more But if agnosticism is to only believe in that which is materially verifiable then maybe Pi is right to decry a preoccupation with facts? Is there a place to express doubt about the existence of God/s yet still enjoy a good story? Surely there are whole realms of imagination that are precluded by both agnosticism and faith (and atheism, for that matter) that offer boundless possibilities for the imagination?

I fear this has all been too much philosophy so early in the new year...

Happy New Year! Whether that entails spending time lolling on the beach or being buffeted by the winds and waves of adversity in order to become a ‘higher person’—I will do both—I wish you well for the year ahead.