Saturday, April 29, 2006

Spanish Inquisition: Part Four

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.

IV. A Very Very Long Post On Literary Doubts and Questions Which Are Worthy Of Being Known And Related.

A few weeks ago in the Review supplement of The Weekend Australian, there was an article on Edith Grossman, the translator of the most recent version of Don Quixote. She was visiting Australia to attend the Ibero-American Cultural Festival in Canberra.

I was aware of Grossman’s 2003 translation of DQ through 400 Windmills—it was the version the site’s contributors had elected to read. From reading their enthusiastic comments about Grossman’s translation, I had begun to wonder whether some of my impatience with the novel might be attributed to an outmoded translation. Although I bought my copy of DQ in the late 90s, the translation by J.M. Cohen is dated 1950. Perhaps Cohen was one of those translators who subscribed to the notion of the ‘invisible translator’ described by Bernard Lane in his interview with Grossman. Cohen writes an introduction, but he is very clear that he has included as few notes as possible to avoid replicating the ‘long notes in the more ponderous editions of the book’. The trouble with Cohen’s approach is that the allusions he doesn’t bother to explain, because they were ‘topical’ at the time Cervantes was writing, renders his DQ bereft of its social and cultural context and, thus, much of its meaning. An example of the ramifications of this stripping of context for someone who is not terribly familiar with the 17th Century is upon the introduction of the village priest: ‘A learned man, a graduate of Siguenza’. One of the contributors to 400 Windmills says that Grossman’s notes explain that ‘Siguenza was basically the 17th Century equivalent of a party school’. When I read this, I realised how differently I would have perceived the priest and his literary judgements if I’d known about the dubious calibre of his qualifications in the first instance. It took me ages to figure out the priest (if indeed I have), when I could have been aware from the very beginning of the irony of his inquisition into Quixote’s library.

In the absence of knowing the 17th Century context of DQ, I have had to interpret the novel in the context of this century. Again, the contributors at 400 Windmills provide some guidance on this. One contributor approached DQ by trying ‘to imagine what kinds of changes would be made to the characters and plot that would let us as 21st Century readers relate to the novel ... as 17th Century readers did’. He concludes that the 21st Century equivalent would be hard-boiled private detective fiction. He writes:

Picture the plot of DQ reimagined for contemporary times; of this middle-aged college professor who goes nuts from reading way too much crime pulp fiction... and suddenly starts wearing a Sam-Spadesque outfit all the time (the trench coat, the fedora) roaming the streets of New York, butting into situations when he clearly shouldn’t, attempting to solve crimes, sticking up for the little guy, making up some long-legged femme fatale with whom to be in love...

Well, here’s the Paul Auster connection. Even if the contributor was unaware of Auster’s work, he has loosely described a number of his novels, especially The New York Trilogy, but also those where the characters (not necessarily employed as detectives) roam across America in pursuit of various dreams, and always the notion of one’s life’s work which informs the protagonist’s reality. The contributor goes on to make some disparaging remarks about popular crime fiction. A female commenter takes up the contributor’s line of thought by trying to think of a contemporary female equivalent to DQ. The contributor suggests Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, citing her age, her loose grip on reality due to a popular form of entertainment—silent films—and her fantasy life in which her past glories are experienced in the present. Personally, I keep thinking of Nigel, from the documentary series Nigel’s Place In France, a real life Don Quixote moving country and opening a restaurant all at the behest of a beautiful woman. Nigel’s friend Nippi is the equivalent of the priest, trying to talk sense into the quixotic hero. Reza is Sancho who is quite mad himself but enables Nigel in his quest to open a restaurant and, when that fails, a bed and breakfast; there’s probably a little bit of Sancho as well in the real estate agent who procures all the property for Nigel’s whimsies. And what about poor Sally Ann? She could be Sancho’s wife, DQ’s niece, or perhaps his housekeeper: the long suffering woman who picks up the slack, while the men folk pursue fantasy lives. Sally Ann lives with Nigel in his tent and does all the hard work at the B&B while Nigel goes off on yet another quest; this time he has visions of being a hired hand on a boat and sailing the seas of the world.

Here I come to the core of my frustration with DQ. In the absence of the 17th Century context through which to read the novel, I am reading DQ with the 20th/21st Century tools I have at my disposal including a feminist critical perspective. If Harold Bloom and Les Murray are to be believed, then there is no point my going on either with reading DQ or studying it, even in this self-imposed fashion. According to The Weekend Australian, Bloom and Murray have recently announced the death of literary study in Australia, because a respected Sydney Grammar School asked its senior students to consider Shakespeare’s Othello from either a Marxist, feminist or critical race perspective.

This may seem a little tangential but, please, bear with me.

I am probably a bit sensitive at the moment to the kind of criticism put forward by Bloom and Murray, and so disingenuously reported by The Australian. I have recently read The Human Stain by Philip Roth and there’s a character in that novel, a young female scholar who advocates the kind of ‘ideological’ readings that are routinely condemned by proponents of humanist and universal approaches to literature like Bloom and Murray and academic-hating journalists everywhere. In The Human Stain, Delphine Roux is French and she arrives in the United States with her Continental philosophy and proceeds to ruin the reputation of Coleman Silk, a classics professor. I haven’t done Roth’s work any justice with that description, there is much more to it and Delphine is not really a major character. There are many places where The Human Stain is deft, but Delphine Roux elicits little sympathy and I suppose I found that quite confronting. Delphine likes the theoretical work of Julia Kristeva and looks to Milan Kundera and his fiction as a barometer of the ethics of her actions. She champions the students who maliciously accuse Coleman of racism and she is the worst kind of opportunist, exploiting the awareness of sexism to preserve her reputation with the despicable outcome of besmirching Coleman’s even further. She is desperately lonely and really desires Coleman in a sexual way and wishes he would return her interest. Yes, really. I would describe her as a frustrated ‘crocodile’ feminist, and it isn’t surprising that Coleman didn’t like her, even before she targeted him. Why would anyone like her? I certainly didn’t. What troubles me is that this insincere kind of feminist who advocates a ghastly caricature of complex, subtle theory is used so often to trivialise important political work; work that seeks to address the norm of Anglo-middleclass male perspectives by identifying the real exclusions that many women, people of lower socio-economic classes and racialised others experience on a daily basis in contemporary Western society.

I am sensitive to the dismissal of so-called ‘ideological’ criticisms because, as is probably abundantly clear to anyone who has been following my struggle with DQ, much of the source of my exasperation with the book arises from exactly those critical perspectives with which Bloom and Murray are so appalled. Through the lens of class, I have worried about Quixote’s exploitation of Sancho and his ill-treatment of the barber, including his appropriation of the basin with which the barber makes his living. From a feminist perspective, I have been concerned about Sancho’s abandoned wife and children, as well as the improbable beauty of all the noblewomen—there is no physical description of the servant women . And what of the curse, in the final pages of the first part, upon the ‘fickleness of women, their inconstancy, their double-dealing, their unkept promises, their broken faith and, last of all, the lack of judgement they show in their choice of objects for their desires and affections’? It is, however, also from this viewpoint that I cheered Marcela when she gave a passionate defence of herself at Chrysostom’s funeral in Part I Chapter XIV.

Another aspect of DQ that I had been preparing to write about here, concerns the assumptions of race that are throughout the novel. I was somewhat taken aback when the narrator of DQ tells of how he learned the story of Quixote:

Now, if any objection can be made against the truth of this history, it can only be that its narrator was an Arab—men of that nation being ready liars, though as they are so much our enemies he might be thought rather to have fallen short of the truth than to have exaggerated. So it seems to me; for when he could and should have let himself go in praise of so worth a knight he seems deliberately to have passed on in silence; an ill deed and malicious, since historians are bound by right to be exact, truthful, and absolutely unprejudiced, so that neither nterest nor fear, dislike nor affection, should make them turn from the path of truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, storehouse of great deeds, witness of the past, example and lesson to the present, warning to the future. In this history I know that you will find all the entertainment you can desire; and if any good quality is missing, I am certain that it is the fault of its dog of an author rather than any default in the subject (Part I Chapter IX).

Ahem. Then there’s the moment where Sancho begins to worry that the kingdom he expects Quixote to bestow upon him will be populated by black people:

One thought alone distressed him: that this kingdom was in Negro country, and that the people he would have for subjects would all be black. But he at
once invented a good remedy for this, saying to himself: ‘What do I care if my vassals are black? I’ve only to put them on board ship and bring them to Spain,where I shall be able to sell them, and be paid in cash. Then with the money I can buy a title or a post on which I can live at my ease for all the days of my life. I’ve got eyes in my head, and I’m fly enough to sell ten thousand subjects in the winking of an eye—or thirty thousand even. I’ll shift ‘em, the little ones with big ones, or any other way I can. Never mind how black they start, I’ll turn them into whites or yellows.’ (Part I ChapterXXIX)

Hmmm. In the chapters that concern the captive’s tale we are introduced to Zoraida who has converted to Christianity. She and the captive send letters back and forth in which they orchestrate his escape on the promise he will take her back to Spain and so free of her Moorish father. In one letter Zoraida writes: ‘Do not trust any Moor; they are all deceitful’.

Given these passages and others like them, I don’t think it’s that untoward to consider DQ from critical feminist, race or class perspectives. It’s worthwhile to get a picture of the views in Cervantes’s time (which is also Shakespeare’s) about those things that concern us now, so that we can reflect upon the state of humanity and everything that encompasses. A discussion about the narrator’s characterisation of Arabs, for example, could enable a productive critique of Western discourses about Arab nations in the 21st century.

I suspect that much of the hostility towards these ‘ideological’ analyses arises when they are thought to displace approaches to literature which focus on the appreciation of the work in and of itself, that is of the language and narrative, the craft of writing ( and performance in the case of Othello), and the contribution of the writer, if any, to the form (novel, play or poetry). If critics such as Bloom and Murray are concerned that more traditional methods of literary appreciation and criticism are being neglected, then it’s a shame that their discomfort is articulated in such defensive terms, in a way that denigrates critical feminist, race and class perspectives, when surely what they want is to encourage a love of reading, in the best way they can identify. When they attack ‘ideological’ criticisms, it seems to me they are distracted from their argument. But perhaps I am giving them too much credit? Perhaps they do mean assert a humanist view of the world and thereby marginalise any articulation of difference?

For now, in reference to reading DQ, any work that is a translation inevitably removes the idiosyncrasies and nuances of the language in the original text, so it is difficult for me to judge how well it might have been written. This is especially the case if the translation I have is not ‘good’ according to whatever standards are applied. I understand from talking to Dr H that Cervantes was writing against the contemporary literary form by producing a novel, long before anybody in English did, and the extent of his creativity and innovation is certainly to be admired. Dr H also told me that Foucault like Don Quixote, because for him it demonstrated that truth was relative, everything is discourse. I quite liked that idea, but I’m not sure that Bloom would approve of that reading. I quite like that thought too. When I asked Dr H to tell me what she loved about DQ, she said that when she first read it as a child (!I know!) she was able to picture the knight and his squire very vividly in her mind. She also said she had found it very funny. Here, it’s worth knowing that she read it in the context of being familiar, as a child, with Alfred Lord Tennyson (!I know!) and other tales of chivalry, so she could appreciate its humour much more.

I will persevere.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Pick Me! Pick Me!

There are probably few people who have not, at one time or another, lamented the old adage about not being able to choose your family. Well, as if further evidence is required to prove that blogging is changing life as we know it, I present to you another blog-based revolution. Through this latest development it has become possible for each and every blogger to choose his or her relatives, or at least cut off, bloodlessly, those he or she may wish never to speak of again.

I encountered the possibility of choosing one’s relatives in the blogosphere through Bloglines. This is the moment when I have to admit that I subscribed to my own blog (you can add that to the growing list of my psychological perversities). I subscribed to Galaxy not long after I discovered Bloglines. I was curious to see how many people had voluntarily signed up to read my ‘deliberate outpouring of emptiness’. At that time, there was one subscriber other than myself, and I’ve been completely thrilled every time someone new has come along, even if I don’t know who they are. Anyway, recently, after clicking on my own blog and lamenting, once again, that Bloglines completely subverts all the effort I afford the visual aesthetics of my blog, I clicked on the link ‘Related Feeds’, located just above my blog’s name. There, I discovered a list of blogs, which, according to some Bloglines’ criteria that I have no idea about, are related to my blog.

Now, since I had read all the blogs I subscribe to, and since they weren’t sustaining me through my bouts of procrastination (no criticism intended), I decided to subscribe to all of my blog relatives to see what we had in common, to fathom why Bloglines had declared us related, and, yes, to see if I could co-habit with them.

I had encountered some of my blog relatives before, these were bloggers who commented fairly regularly on a couple of the blogs I already subscribed to. In these cases I can only assume that the relationship is asserted because those bloggers have common subscriptions or there is some consistent degree of separation between us, if you know what I mean.

Since I don’t need two hands to count the number of blood relatives I have that I’m aware of, I’ve found the sheer number of blog relatives somewhat overwhelming. When this many people have something to say, suddenly there are 300 posts to read, and even I don’t procrastinate that much. I’ve had to make a decision to not read archives, or even last week’s posts. For the moment, I will have to get to know said relatives as their updates pop into My Feeds.

We are family (until you disown me)*:

A Cunning Plan; A Fugitive Phenomenon; A Wild Young Under-Whimsy; Ampersand Duck; Azzybee Blog; Barista; Because I Said So; Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony; Comicstriphero; Dackel Princess; Fluffy as a Cat; For Battle!; Go Away, Please; The Jake Silver Show; Jellyfish Online; Jo(e)’s Page; Pavlov’s Cat; Personal Political; Phantom Scribbler; Scrivenings; Skip to My Loo Loo; Sorrow at Sills Bend; Sterne; The View from Elsewhere; You Cried for Night

When I first attempted to post this, I provided a link to everyone of my blog relatives, but Blogger frustrated my attempts to introduce them to the world by failing to recognise my blog (apparently) when I attempted to publish. I will attempt to provide the links when I'm at the University and the connection is networked rather than dial-up. Meanwhile, if you want to meet my relations, you could just Google and spend hours wondering what I have in common with someone in training in the US Airforce.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Climb Every Mountain

This weekend I went to stay with a friend who lives at Mt Nebo, which is about an hour's drive, maybe a bit less, depending on traffic, from my inner city abode.

This is a view from a lookout near Mt Glorious, just up the road from Mt Nebo.

These are some King Parrots, only two of many who squabbled over the sunflower seeds in A.'s bird feeder. Apparently sunflower seeds are the chocolate of the bird world.

When we held the seeds in our hands they came to feed and they dive bombed one another to get at them. They landed gently and their claws didn't hurt. They nuzzled our hands until the very last morsel was gone. This is Dr H. in Ranger Stacey mode. If you look carefully you can also see some female birds, who are more cleverly disguised with green heads.

I just liked the colour of this growth on one of A.'s balconies. Apparently when the sun hits at the right angle, it glows like fluorescent light.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Criminal Intent

Yesterday I filled in a survey as a favour for someone whose daughter is doing a PhD in psychology. The survey is one that is apparently given to members of the prison population and, as part of the PhD project, the researcher is administering the survey to the general population. I didn’t ask too many questions about the project since it was an anonymous survey, but of course I was curious. I wondered if it was a project that sought to trace similarities or differences between the two populations. My curiosity was further piqued when I read the first part of the survey. Aside from demographic information, the survey asked about the extent to which the participants watched television, with a particular emphasis on crime genres. It asked the respondent to indicate whether they had watched any of the listed programs. They were all forensic-based programs, whether drama or non-fiction, and I refrained from writing ‘not if you threatened to remove my toenails!’ next to CSI and its franchises. The survey offered space for the respondent to write down any other ‘crime’ programs s/he had watched. I debated whether Oz was a crime show, since it didn’t focus on criminal investigation. In the same vein, I had an internal debate about whether to write down The Sopranos. This is what happens when you think about television and genre on a regular basis, you start to complain that the creators of psychological surveys haven’t addressed genre hybridity in their attempt to assess the criminal propensities of the general population from their television viewing habits.

Then I began to be suspicious that I was taking part in a dubious Effects/Cultivation Theory study because the next few questions asked me to assess the extent to which I believed I knew about forensic science (nothing) and criminal investigation (next to nothing). It was only because I like the person who asked me to fill in the survey that I didn’t toss the whole thing in the bin then and there.

The second part of the survey asked a number of questions about the respondent’s perception of their illegal activities. For the purposes of the survey in its ‘general’ population incarnation, jaywalking or lying could be considered illegal. Luckily, I have stolen 1 ¼ dozen eggs in my life time, so I didn’t have to resort to such sophistry so the researcher might glean insight into the criminal mind. The survey asked whether the respondent blamed society for his or her resorting to illegal acts. Here I refrained from writing an essay on entrenched structural inequalities—but only just. One of the other questions I remember concerned the extent to which the respondent might rationalise his or her criminal activity as harmless by comparing it to the large scale corruption that occurs in state and corporate enterprises. For a brief moment I wondered if I should feel worse about my egg thievery, but then I realised I have already expressed more regret about that than the AWB and Federal Government ever have over their role in the distortion of the UN Oil for Food Program.

Before I put the survey in the envelope and handed it over, I began to go through my answers, trying to second guess how they might expose something psychologically untoward about me. I stopped when I realised I had probably already revealed an untreatable degree of perversity when I’d circled a grammatical error in one of the questions, and perhaps something else when I’d crossed out a row of unnecessary and confusing numbers.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Little Gecko

I have a new lodger. S/he's so new, I could take flash photos without him/her scurrying away.

No survival instincts yet, I guess. S/he will grow into a bit fat gecko with my ant population.

If they don't keep sucking on the Ant Rid...


Look at these tasty treats: lemon and garlic green olives and marscapone stuffed bell peppers.

I’m addicted to both of them. Nibbling on these for dinner will perk me up after a big day at school.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Nothing Much

I don’t really have anything to say, but for some reason I feel like blogging. Partly this is because Channel Ten is showing an episode of Medium that I’ve seen before; I find it slightly annoying that they interrupt the flow of the current season to repeat episodes from other seasons (even worse, from earlier in the current season) during the school holiday period, or when any other channel is hosting a major sporting event, or for no reason whatsoever. At the moment I think that if I watched the repeat then I’d just be watching television for the sake of it, and although I watch a lot of television, I am engaged while I’m doing it. It may seem strange to those who regard television as passivity-inducing, but I truly don’t watch TV just to ‘veg. out’, whether I’m watching Survivor XII or Six Feet Under.

Another reason why I’ve decided to post tonight is that I’m aware I’ve been comparatively lax in attending to this blog since I began my PhD, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to, well, not do something about it specifically—that would take a long term commitment to regular posting—but, at least, make more than one post this week. I think it’s probably quite proper, given my propensity for long posts, that I don’t post as frequently as I did when I first started this blog. I should be devoting most of my time to working on my thesis, rather than spending too much time composing posts, which I have a tendency to do.

The observation that I don’t post as regularly now as I once did goes to the heart of why I started to blog. Effectively, I was highly educated, yet underemployed; I was used to having an arena in which to express, through discussion and writing, a whole range of thoughts, theories and arguments. My decision to start a blog was not dissimilar to why I concluded many people self-publish zines: it was a use of a highly developed literacy that was enabled by my proximity and access to a computer and the Internet. I also found—and still do—that having a blog allowed me to think aloud, but in a way that pushed me to follow my thoughts through and articulate them as clearly as I could. Sometimes my thoughts are expressed in a rather elliptical fashion, and I quite enjoy being able to drift along in that way, since, aside from zines, there are no other readily accessible mediums that would allow me to write non-fiction in this style. Other times I’ve liked the self-imposed project of working through a thought. It was in this way that I found out I need a minimum of 1000 words to say anything. It was also by pursuing my fleeting thoughts in writing that I came to realise I was capable of producing more words per day than I had previously believed. What a great thing to discover upon entering a PhD program! Of course I recognise that a blog and a doctoral dissertation are vastly different genres, but from a confidence boosting perspective, the realisation was invaluable.

Even while I’ve been talking about writing fewer posts, I remain committed to this blog for reasons that develop the above observations about the specificity of the blog as a medium. I know that some people hope to turn their blogs into books, or at least use them as a kind of rehearsal for writing material that will inform their work in other media. I have no difficulty with this use of the blog form—the ease of self-publishing on the Internet lends itself to such applications—but that’s not my intent. Rather, in the blog form, I feel that I’ve discovered a place to write that is uniquely suited to my non-academic register. I learned a while ago now that I’m not a fiction writer; I’m not compelled to write in the way that many writers of fiction describe, and when I read fiction, I know I don’t have the talent to be published. But since I began Galaxy, I’ve discovered that I do want to write something other than academic prose.

A question that arises at this point is ‘Why not just write a journal’?, especially in view of the often personal nature of the content of this blog. To that I’ll begin by saying—if you haven’t already noticed— that I’m an inveterate theoriser. This tendency to pontificate seems to lend a political, if not necessarily public, dimension to my writing, and those moments where I draw conclusions for a broader audience from my personal experience, seem to demand the attention of said audience, and blogging allows me to easily distribute my brand of writing to them. Or at least 5 or 6 of them.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Hannah in Melbourne

I just got an email from my brother in Melbourne. He writes:

I was walking downtown Melbourne on my way to work the other day & look at the attac. , I couldn;t believe my eyes, I took a snap & here it is.

At first I wasn't sure, but the girl in the daisys is my niece, Hannah. The picture is a detail from a photo taken on the day she had her very first babyccino at an eatery on the top of Mt Coot-tha in Brisbane.

I'm not sure what to make of it. Should I be freaked out? As far as I know the photo wasn't digital. I have a copy of it at home stuck in a daisy photo holder. Have any of you Melbourne folk seen it? I asked my brother for more details of its context, but he's yet to reply.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

And The Crowd Goes Wild

Isn’t it always the way? During the week, when I impose a timetable upon myself, I always struggle to get out of bed in the morning. I regularly wake up and turn off my alarm, which I optimistically set for 7.30am, and then take at least an hour to convince myself to wake up. Sometimes I fail miserably to talk myself around, especially when I have my periods. As I grow older I find they’re taking more of a toll on me. On Monday, I held them entirely responsible for my failure to start my day before 11.30am. I don’t even remember turning off my alarm, but I do remember that when I did wake up, I had a stern word with myself. On Saturday, the day I’d given myself permission to loll around with nothing more stressful to do than rearrange my pillows, I was up at the crack of dawn, wide-eyed and restless. I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep, to no avail.

My alertness had to do with a dream I was having. It was a dream that starred various members of my family and it ended when I punched one of them in the face. The force of the blow woke me up and the residual anger I was feeling left me agitated and unwilling to try and recapture the thread of the dream the way I do with more pleasant reveries.

The night before I had contemplated that I would walk up to the other university the next day, to do some of RA work I’d been asked to do. I’d thought if I felt like working on Saturday it would be useful, although not completely necessary, to get it done before a meeting in the coming week.

I made myself some coffee and ate some muffins, while watching some television I had taped the previous night. I was a bit confused that SBS had shown an earlier episode of Unit One; why were they showing Episode 10 when the series was up 28 or 32 or something like that? I know I haven’t watched every episode but what time warp had I been through? Gaby and Johnny Olsen were still smitten with one another; Fischer still had long, slicked back hair; Ingrid was still shattered by the loss of her husband; Kirsten had left Ulf and decided to move back in with IP. I found out at the end of the episode that an adults only episode had been screened later on Friday night, and now it was Saturday morning. That’s what you get for watching a mediocre episode of Dalziel and Pascoe and recording Unit One to savour later.

Since the day stretched out before me and I had no money to distract myself with a movie, I packed myself some lunch and walked up to the other university. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky yesterday; it was finally hinting at the brilliance of a Brisbane winter. As I approached the campus I saw someone putting up signs to direct people to a youth festival that was being held in the central court. I guess it was Youth Week this week. I had a brief flashback to the times when I was going along to those kind of festivals, more than likely doing some kind of performance as part of the youth theatre I was involved in. Once I got covered in mud and, along with the rest of the group, danced in front of a set that was spinning with fireworks and later deliberately burnt down in a spectacular blaze, all accompanied by live music and choral singing.

Inside now, I noticed the stationery from the bank, that I’d first ordered over a month ago, had finally arrived. Unfortunately, not before I’d had to turn into a demanding harpy on the phone. The bank employee shouldn’t have lectured me about my responsibility to order more stationery, or told me that it had only been five working days since I’d last phoned them and that the usual period between the request and delivery was five to seven working days. I asked if she had not been listening to me? Had she not heard me tell her I’d first ordered the stationery via a form provided in the last pages of the stationery? When I received no stationery from that application, I’d called up and ordered some on the phone. 10 working days later, I had called up again and explained the situation and my concern that I wasn’t able to process what I had to. I asked to speak to a supervisor. She put me on hold for 5 minutes and came back to tell me that her supervisor had advised her to tell me—. I asked to speak to a supervisor, again.

I finally got rid of the backlog that was making me nervous—all those cheques and credit card details lying around (I hasten to add they were kept under lock and key). The pile was also becoming confusing, as I had tried to do as much of the work as possible. I’m convinced that some people have received multiple receipts.

I looked out the window and saw that the coffee shop had unexpectedly opened. It was closed when I’d checked earlier, so I had resigned myself to drinking water. I’m not sure if it normally opens on Saturday morning. It was too early for the theatre crowd, although perhaps not the cast and crew. Were they hoping that the ‘yoof’ would spend $6 on a chicken sandwich? There were three young men buying coffee and chocolate chip muffins, but they were discussing the event in cynical terms, noting that it was a drug and alcohol-free day, and that if you wanted to you could join the Army then and there. The man at the coffee shop registered surprise when he saw me and asked what I was doing there on a Saturday? I said I didn’t know. He agreed he didn’t know what he was doing there either, he just wished he wasn’t.

I sipped my coffee back at my desk, taking pleasure in a well-made brew. Despite my current ‘poverty’ (let’s not lend it too much weight), I did budget for one bought coffee per day. I suppose even I think this is somewhat frivolous—$3.50 x 8 = $28—shouldn’t I be buying real food? A can of tuna? Go back and pay for those eggs? Well, usually the partaking of coffee is a social occasion and the perk I derive from it is exponential to the caffeine boost, but it’s more than that. There’s something that happens when you’re down to your last few dollars, suddenly you only want the things that you shouldn’t, the little luxuries that aren’t necessities, those things that attract the GST. I have a friend who will work out how to afford cigarettes before he’ll spend money on potatoes. We’re educated, so that’s not the issue. What about another friend who’ll spend the last of her money on NW Magazine? It seems that the strength of the craving for chocolate is inverse to the level of one’s bank account. We’ve discussed this at great length and come to the conclusion that when you’re obsessing over how to spend the last of your money, the calculation that occurs is not about what is wise or of what the moral majority will approve, it’s about the amount of pleasure you will receive from that last act of consumption, something that will act as a moment of reassurance, of well-being, a buffer between you and the harsh reality of having little or no money in a capitalist society.

I checked my Bloglines feeds and read Ms Tartan’s account of reading a reflection on jeans by Umberto Eco. I was reminded of a paper I saw at a postgraduate conference. The presenter was confined to a wheelchair and she spoke of the difficulties she had encountered with jeans. She wanted to wear them because of the various cultural meanings attached to them, but for her they weren’t the easiest garment to get in and out of if she needed to go to the bathroom. Her solution, to enable her to wear something other than skirts and dresses, was to adapt various pairs of jeans to meet her specifications for accessibility. I can’t quite remember the details of the adjustments she made. I think the plan was to make her model more widely available, but I’m not sure how that went.

Ms Tartan’s post wasn’t about jeans so much as it was about surveys of fiction where readers were asked to identify which works had affected them in a way they deemed significant. I tried to think of some instances from my own reading. My examples weren’t transforming in any regenerative sense, quite the opposite. I remember reading a book in school—my memory isn’t reliable as to whether I was in primary or high school—Z for Zachariah. It was set in a post-nuclear holocaust era and the central character was a teenage girl who thought she was the only survivor. She was thrilled when she encountered another living person, a grown man. Soon the man sought a sexual relationship with her and, since she wasn’t willing, she made the decision to leave and search for other possible survivors. The man began to shoot at her, to stop her departure, but he wasn’t trying to kill her, simply maim her so she was at his mercy. Surely, I must have been in high school? I remember being horrified; I found the depravity of the man’s actions inconceivable. I think Z for Zachariah shocked me, probably because it brought home the concept of rape; I couldn’t fathom that anyone could be so cruel to anyone else. If I remember properly, the girl had to go out into the unknown, away from any human contact, out of the protective valley that had enabled her survival, towards the almost certain death from the effects of radiation if the suit and oxygen she had didn’t last her to another haven.

After I’d finished dealing with the bank stationery debacle, I took to completing the other small things I’d been charged to do. I’m helping with various tasks related to compiling a grant proposal. Pursuant to an earlier discussion about academic role models, I’m finding it quite illuminating to see how people, who’ve written successful grant proposals, go about the work of thinking and writing to convince the government to fund them for three years. Beginning with the mind map on the whiteboard, I’ve read through various drafts of the proposal and seen the critical feedback the members of the research team have given one another. It’s amazing in a ‘boy, how else would I learn this?’ kind of way to be privy to the process.

While I was arranging meetings and filling in forms, one of the research team came in with his one year old baby. Yet another perspective: an Associate Professor re-enacting the morning’s swimming lesson in which the child is in a pretend motorboat. Heh.

I arrived back home and decided to have an afternoon nap.

When I started writing this post, I had just been woken up by the roar of the crowd from the stadium across the road.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Egg Thief

Do you remember the post where I confessed that I hadn’t paid the correct amount for half a dozen eggs from my local convenience store? Instead of paying the full price for the free range organic eggs I took to the counter, I said nothing when the shop assistant charged me the lesser amount the shop was asking for the cage eggs. At the time, I was waiting for my scholarship payments to start. The last of my money was going towards the purchase of the eggs, so the $2.00 difference I saved was a small, but welcome, reprieve. That extra $2.00 felt like a lucky break exactly when I needed it; the universe was providing, and all that.

Yesterday, I found myself in an almost identical situation to that which I experienced 2 months ago. This time my lack of money, only a few days after receiving my scholarship payment, was attributable to several factors. First, I’ve been paying off couple of outstanding debts—one is a student loan from the University, the other is a demand from the tax department. You cannot argue with these people. Second, I completely forgot that I had to buy more contact lenses, so I hadn’t budgeted for them. $150 later... You get the picture. Finally, in anticipation of saving for white goods, so I can move out of my current flat, where the rent has gone up again, I have probably been a little over-generous in the amount of money I agreed to have direct debited from my bank every fortnight into a savings maximiser account.

On Sunday, I put myself to work in the kitchen, with orders to figure out how I was going to mete out my remaining money into enough meals to last a week and a half. At this point I wondered about all those carbohydrate-free diets that are recommended these days. How credible are carb-free diets in those cultures who build their meals around a foundation of rice or pasta? I remember watching a documentary once where Coca-Cola stated its aim was to supersede tea as the most popular beverage in China. Even the ‘yoof’ who liked Coke laughed at that one! Surely the reaction to the suggestion to limit the consumption of rice or noodles is similar to Coca-Cola’s agenda? The only way I knew I was going to get through to my next scholarship payment was by eating rice: brown rice in salad, arborio in risotto, and basmati to fry up with chopped omelette, spring onions and peas. For variety, I knew I would be eating left over eggplant sauce stirred through penne rigati, and for a special treat I would be making the charmingly named ‘whore’s pasta’ consisting of tinned tuna, anchovies, olives, fresh basil and some slightly-worse-for-being-left-on-the-bench egg tomatoes. The old peasant and vegetarian cultures of the world would provide me with some nutritionally rich and balanced meals using inexpensive ingredients. CSIRO and Sam Neill be damned!

Still on Sunday: I made some cumin and carrot soup, using my last potato. I made enough megadarra (lentils and rice with onions) for five meals, using the last of my brown lentils and onions. I made brown sugar meringues, finally using the four egg whites that have been in the freezer forever. Instead of the usual raspberry oat bran muffins, I made cranberry oat bran muffins, using the last of my frozen cranberries and eggs. I’d had to be particularly creative with the muffins since I didn’t have enough apple sauce, which is the main source of liquid in the muffins. I was inspired to create my very own Cran-Apple Sauce—a strange North American concoction if ever there was one—by throwing the cranberries into a food processor with the apple sauce and a few tablespoons of water. Voila! Cran-Apple Sauce. More than enough to make the required cup of puree.

Since my cooking activity had left my kitchen slightly barer, on Monday after school I stopped into a fruit shop. In my basket I placed three potatoes, two Spanish onions, some dried apricots (a vegetarian ‘hero’ food), four oranges (to assist the absorption of iron and zinc) and a dozen free-range eggs from Tenterfield (Time is a traveller, Tenterfield saddler...). I put my goods on the counter and had a similar conversation with the shop assistant about grocery bags that I had 2 months ago. This time I hadn’t brought my own bag to the shop, so I had to take a plastic one. The assistant offered me a second, separate bag for the eggs, but I said no, they’re fine just sitting on top.

Clearly it’s the ‘bag conversation’ that’s the clincher in distracting the shop assistant from the task at hand, that is, making an honest woman of me by charging the correct amount, charging me at all, for the eggs. This shop assistant told me the total price, and I thought, ‘That’s cheap. Hmmm. Maybe I’m being so careful, I’m being overly generous in rounding up when I’m doing the calculations in my head as I shop, that I’ve completely overestimated the total. I’ve never excelled at maths. Excellent’. Then, when I was sitting on the bus on the way home, I chewed on an apricot and looked at the docket and noticed I hadn’t been charged for the eggs at all.

‘Hmmm. They were supposed to be $4.00’.

‘Hmmm. Now, I can have a coffee at the University tomorrow’.