So let me tell you about my illuminating morning at a Sydney Writers’ Festival event last Thursday morning. It’s the first SWF workshop I’ve ever attended, and whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s also going to be my last, I must say the experience was a bit of an eye-opener. It was cannily, perhaps perversely called ‘Getting Published.’ I don’t need to tell you why I was there: when it comes to fiction, that’s a trick I’ve thus far failed to learn.
I had to go directly from the workshop to the airport for my flight to Melbourne, so I hauled my bag from home to the ferry, then right along Pitt St from Circular Quay almost to Chinatown. By the time I arrived, I was in desperate need of a decent coffee, but the workshop had already begun. I checked my watch and it suggested I was right on time, but there was no mistaking that feeling that I’d already missed something crucial. I meekly sat down and started fantasising about caffeine. At the front of the room, proceeding full steam ahead, was editor Melanie Ostell. Around the table were 14 other participants. We all took up our pens and started busily writing down everything Melanie Ostell said.
Was it useful? Well, yes, because Melanie is an insider, and therefore knows directly of what she speaks. Also she’s obviously good at her job, and for people who usually can’t get in front of an editor, that means just being in the room with her was valuable. But I will say that anyone who is serious about writing and about getting their work published really needs to do as much research as possible anyway, and so much of what Melanie was saying I already knew because I’ve consulted many other sources looking for consistent information: don’t send agents or publishers entire manuscripts, don’t send whiz-bang colourful, edible, or scented proposals, don’t harangue people for an answer, understand the difference between an agent and an editor, think about which publishers publish books like yours, believe them when they say they are not accepting unsolicited manuscripts until further notice, and so on. This is all very consistent with everything I have read and been told. Helpful for that, no question, but there wasn’t really anything new, at least not for anyone who has done a reasonable amount of research into the wiles of the publishing industry. To that extent, I wondered if the workshop was perhaps more intended for beginners, people who’d quite like to write but probably haven’t yet dipped a foot. In that case, the SWF might want to consider renaming the workshop. ‘Getting Started,’ say, instead of ‘Getting Published.’
On to the workshop side of things, which only started after the break, halfway into the 3-hour session. Melanie had run another session the day prior, so she knew time was of the essence and told us we’d each go one at a time. My palms started sweating. A mature lady at the top of the table volunteered to go first, and as it dawned on me that I’d have to actually read the first page of my MS, I clutched my stomach and seriously considered vomiting across the table. I should mention here that the room itself was frigid, thus setting the scene for my trip to Melbourne rather too well. It was the coldest meeting room I have ever been in, and I ended up wearing my coat at the table. I think it was a combination of no coffee, cold, and nerves, but I was rattling up against the people on either side of me as though in a fit.
Melanie’s suggestions to the mature lady, who was writing a creative non-fiction account of her parents’ journey from the wartime Ukraine to Australia, were really sound. She thought it had the makings of a novel more than a non-fiction book, and that seemed right to me and to others. It also took about 15 minutes of discussion before it moved on to the next person (after that first volunteer, Melanie chose, starting at the head of the table on my side and working her way down), so I started calculating what would happen if the next couple of people also got 15 minutes of discussion time. Obviously we’d run out. Fifteen participants had no chance of splitting that hour and a half evenly. Tick tock, tick tock.
I won’t tell you about each proposal, although there was a lot of fantasy (yes, fantasy… one guy had written something like 220,000 words and a cast of thousands… to give you a comparison, my PhD thesis was 86,000). I hadn’t expected that. And overall I felt like I was with a group of fringe-dwelling enthusiasts, not people who will be “Getting Published” any time soon. It was by turns alarming and disappointing going around the room listening to some of the proposals. One of those sliding doors moments, where you’re sure you’re in the wrong place, and you can’t get out.
But I will tell you that I did get my chance, and when it came time to read from the start of my MS, I had to fight back tears. The nerves were overwhelming. I’d never before read aloud from it, and this was a roomful of dead silent and occasionally kooky strangers. I found it agonising, and surprisingly emotional. I needn’t have worried, though, because Melanie cut me off before I got to the bottom of page one. She asked me to read the opening of chapter two, which of course I didn’t have because we’d been clearly instructed to bring no more than 4 pages including a one page synopsis. No matter, Melanie could still comment on what I’d just read, which she said was too expositional.
Thud. If you’ve ever rewritten something as many times as I’ve rewritten the opening page of my MS, then you’ll understand just how gutting it was to have it binned just like that. The dialogue and action starts just beyond page one in the current draft, but yes, page 1 and 2 are expository because up until Thursday I thought it was important to introduce the character and give a bit of background. I understand a reliance on exposition leads to telling not showing, apparently the deadliest sin, but I’d always thought a bit of exposition was helpful, if not essential. Nope. What Melanie said after less than a page made me wonder if I need to start the action right there on the opening page, leaving the exposition ’til after I’ve hopefully already got the reader’s attention.
It makes sense. I have even less time to impress a prospective agent or editor with a typed, mailed, slush-pile proposal than I had face-to-face with Melanie last Thursday. What I read out did not sufficiently impress her, so chances are that in the hyper-competitive marketplace of unsolicited submissions, I’m going to have to do a lot better than that if I’m ever going to impress anyone enough that they ask to see more. I may have to change my beginning.
That realisation in itself makes the workshop invaluable to me. I was frustrated by some of the assumptions Melanie made about my MS because I didn’t have a chance to correct them. She went off on some tangent about American Psycho that made me realise she must have completely misunderstood something I’d said. She gave a kind of summary of what would be in my book that was completely off the mark, so that, feeling increasingly desperate, I eventually had to break in and say “Actually, there’s a lot of levity.” She asked “Is there much dialogue?” as though the three paragraphs I read out suggested I’d written a novel based entirely on exposition (there’s a load of dialogue). It was frustrating, as I say, because there was no time to set her straight. And therein lies the rub.
Melanie’s impressions came from my synopsis, and my extract. If she was unclear it was because I wasn’t clear enough. A part of me wants to pout and say “She got it wrong,” but the other part of me that wants to build my writing practice and improve my own processes knows I didn’t get it right. Rule number one: don’t make it hard for the reader (yes, I have a rotating roster of what constitutes Rule No.1). It’s my responsibility, not Melanie’s, to alleviate that confusion about what my MS is about, and how it’s written, and its tone. How would she know, how could she know, that there’s plenty of dialogue when there’s none on the first page? How could she know that when I mentioned three novels in my synopsis (no, I did not say anything about American Psycho, I don’t really know where that came from), it wasn’t because I think my book is like any of them, but because I think they all belong to a category of writing about young adulthood that I aspire to? I didn’t say that clearly enough. Clearly. And that’s my job, after all, not Melanie’s. She did hers, and for that icy shard of criticism alone, I’m glad I went.
Apologies for the radio silence. I have been in Melbourne and unable to blog in a rather solid itinerary that involved strolling, visiting, wining, dining, shopping, and Yarra Valley vineyard hopping. It’s a tough gig, to be sure, but I survived.
And now I’m back, and isn’t Sydney stunning today? Warm, so divinely warm, which is good timing because Melbourne, whilst surprisingly sunny, was freezing. Saturday night, still nursing the mother of all hangovers from Thursday night (thank you, Miriam and Tim, for a warm, decidedly wine-soaked welcome), I actually absented myself from the one pub in the whole of Victoria that was definitely showing the rugby (it’s called the Turf Club, and it’s on Queen St in the CBD) in order to drag myself home (being my brother-in-law and his wife’s apartment in the Docklands) to recover. It was so cold that once I got there, I started convulsing, my knees started knocking, and my teeth started chattering. I turned up their heating, and I verily leapt into bed wearing flannelette pjs (very unusual, as I am quite the renegade in that department in normal circumstances). I spent the next twenty minutes curled in a tight ball blowing on my hands. Then I thought “This is ridiculous.” Little did I realise that in fact, no, this was ridiculous: I donned a woollen scarf, Llew’s socks, a woollen beanie, and my leather gloves, and got back into bed no doubt looking an absolute treat.
Still chattering, all teeth talking, I lay awake shivering, wondering if adequate circulation was necessary to keep me alive. I was wracked with cold. This went on for another three hours, and I was too terrified of the temperature outside the bed to venture out to the lounge-room to further adjust their internal heating. I just lay there with my hands tucked into my armpits thinking warm thoughts and occasionally even saying totally inane things to myself like “Hot chocolate….” and “Fire…”. I am now in a strong position to confirm that the whole word association thing is BOGUS. I shivered on.
Eventually I was still. It took about four hours, but just before midnight I peeled off the beanie, gloves, socks and scarf and just lay there. I wouldn’t say I was warm, exactly, but nor was I hypothermic any longer. I was just awake, having come home specifically to sleep the dead, dreamless sleep of the truly exhausted. It wasn’t to be. The others eventually returned from their night out (victorious, I might add), Llew came to bed and the others went to theirs, and then I, the broken little icicle, listened to the rest of the apartment fall quiet again as everyone but me fell into an easy slumber. Too tired to sleep and too cold to warm: an utterly rotten combination I’m in no hurry to repeat. How people actually choose cold climes… well, it’s just beyond me. I’ve always been desperate to go to Antarctica, but Saturday gave me pause. Maybe my blood would freeze like water in a pipe.
Is there anything quite so sweet as heading out shopping with a particular item in mind and – just once in a very long while – finding exactly what you want? Honestly? It’s a kind of ecstasy. And it happened to me on Sunday.
I wasn’t even remotely expecting to find the shoes. Once I had found the skirt to go with the shirt (and I found the skirt on Saturday), I knew what I wanted in the shoes, but I didn’t think there was any chance that the shoes would appear so hot on the heels – please excuse that dreadful pun – of the skirt. In my experience, wish fulfilment rarely arrives in an avalanche of smiling good fortune, so I thought I’d used up my retail ration for the year. I didn’t even think there was any point looking for the shoes. My luck had run out simply on the law of averages.
Or had it? As it turned out, no. And what was especially crazy was the efficiency with which both the skirt on Saturday and the shoes on Sunday were procured. How many times have I been that doleful, defeated shell of a woman skulking home empty-handed after a humiliating and fruitless ordeal on the high street? Plenty. I have been that disappointed hapless shopper too many times to name. And it’s usually precisely for the same reason the weekend’s bounty was such a rousing success: I knew what I was looking for. That dooms many an expedition before you even reach your first change room.
Not last weekend, though, for reasons I simply cannot explain. All I can say is, the impeccably dressed gods of retail (and I imagine them as the Sex and the City girls, I do) were in my corner. And they didn’t waste a single minute letting me know that my ship (or size) had come in. First I needed new black trousers. I haven’t owned a new pair since 2004 and they’re a winter wardrobe essential, so you can just imagine the state of my last pair. I found the new ones in the very first store I entered, and reasonably priced to boot (Country Road, for the record. They must have a new designer in there, don’t you think? After being so shit for years I stopped even bothering to walk through, they’ve suddenly got some really good basics again… and good basics can be hard to find, so it was a happy day in there). They were the only trousers I tried on. Mission accomplished. On the other hand, all their skirts (and I was looking for a black skirt specifically to go with my Mr Rose shirt) were unbearably awful on me, so I wasted about twenty extra minutes confirming there was no way in hell I was buying a single one of them. That done, I mooched into the Strand Arcade. I tried one black number at the Scandinavian store – Funkjis? – then cruised upstairs and into Alannah Hill. I’ve never bought AH before… too girly, frilly, frou-frou for me a lot of the time, so I don’t really know what directed me into the store on Saturday, but I’d been there under two minutes when my beady little eyes spotted a short black silk skirt. This was a good start, because my Mr Rose shirt is silk too. Mmmm… I thought, ensemble. The style was also good, as was the length, having satisfied myself earlier that the original idea of a pencil skirt was perfect only for someone who looks nothing like me. Nope, I needed it above the knee (you probably don’t care, but I can tell you it’s because all the length in my legs is in the thigh; I have stumpy little calves so pencil skirts don’t work and also make my hips look gigantic). In I went to the changeroom clutching my prize, and sure enough, GOLD! I literally scrambled out there, hastily paid and fled home before anything could go wrong with this wondrous day.
Sunday, Llew was hung over from the Buck’s Night. I was bored, so I started detailing for him as he tried to sleep through the entire day the shoes I wanted to go with my skirt and shirt. “It’s sort of almost like a tap shoe,” I said, “but with a much higher heel. Rounded toe, possibly even patent.”
Llew was naturally enthralled by this description. He lives to listen to my droning on about accessories when he’s come home trembling after a night on the piss. I could tell he was super excited by the way he lay there prone and snoring.
After he’d finally wasted the day away, he emerged – he’s alive! – and we decided to go for a walk to catch the dying light. When we got into the village, we walked into one store – one – and there in the McLean and Page boutique (another place I don’t usually shop because it can be too pricey for this little freelancer) were the exact shoes I’d described in such minute detail to Llew. They were even patent, and I don’t think I’ve owned a pair of patent shoes since my First Communion. I gulped loudly and asked the salesgirl how much. She said “Oh, I think they’re four hundred and something,” and my heart sank. “Let me just check,” she said, and wandered off. Llew looked at the bottom of the shoes. “They’re made in China,” he said. “They can’t be four hundred bucks.”
And Llew was right. They weren’t. They were a hundred and something. Certainly not giving them away, but juuuuuuuust affordable enough to come to Mama!!! My perfect shoes! My lovely, ideal shoes! I was beaming from ear to ear for the rest of the night, actually blissing out about these shoes. I still can’t get over them. I just like to look at them against my shirt/skirt ensemble laid out on the bed (tell me I am not the only one who does this). I almost can’t stand the thought of wearing what is now the Right Outfit. It Works. It doesn’t happen very often, but on the weekend I experienced Total Wish Fulfilment and a state of retail grace. And that’s it. I’m quitting while I’m ahead. No more shops for me until I need a pair of basic black trousers in about four years.
Llew has very firm ideas about the Buck’s Night tradition. He believes strongly in the best man’s role being one of honour and obligation; the Buck’s Night is as big a responsibility, if not bigger, than making sure the groom arrives at the wedding in one piece. The best man can, in a pinch, fashion emergency wedding bands out of aluminium foil, but what he bloody well can’t do is fail on the groom’s night of nights. That’s not the wedding night, by the way, just in case you’re still trapped back there in the romance period, no, the really big night of the nuptials is the Buck’s Night.
And as far as Llew’s strictly adhered to, time-honoured Code of Conduct is concerned, failing on the Buck’s Night means not booking the strippers.
Take Saturday night, for example. Llew was at the Buck’s Night of a really good friend of ours who’s getting married overseas in a fortnight. The groom instructed the best man that he just wanted a really casual night out with the boys. A piss up at the pub. And that, no more, no less, is what the best man delivered.
The groom proceeded to get so drunk he was refused entry into even Sydney’s least salubrious establishments past the princely hour of eight o’clock. Some members of the marauding tribe seemed to think it was okay, in that event, to pack him off home and get back to the pub in time for the second half of the rugby. Llew was incensed. This is Rule No. 1: Never abandon the groom. Even I agree with this one. There is, after all, no Buck’s Night without a Buck. And in fact, I applied the same logic to this groom’s bride’s Hen’s Night: it ain’t over ’til the lady says it’s over. So on Saturday, the boys rallied around their Buck and eventually decamped en masse to his house, thus getting around that whole responsible service of alcohol thing. No bouncers or barmen to deny service in a man’s own home, and a jolly good thing too. Let’s celebrate by opening another slab of beer.
Now there was just one problem: where were the strippers?
This is always the problem. At least, it’s always a problem for Llew and possibly other men who attend these things with fixed ideas about what they should involve. You see, I had a near-identical conversation with him at the last Buck’s Night he was at, where, in keeping with the groom’s instructions, the best man hadn’t organised an exotic dancer to visit them in the night. Llew and other attendees would not be dissuaded. Strippers must be procured. And then as on Saturday night, when I happened to speak to him at some point in the night, his voice was full of righteousness, of a delicate balance restored.
“We’ve finally got a stripper coming,” he said, like they’d had to overcome an obstacle course of failed diplomacy and international trading sanctions.
“Oh boy,” I said, “that’s such a relief.”
“Honestly,” Llew continued, genuinely indignant, “some blokes are bloody hopeless. It’s a Buck’s Night.”
“Well,” I said, “this is the second time in as many Buck’s Nights that this has happened. Maybe you’re the only one who has a problem with it. Maybe no one else cares.”
“Oh that’s right, Di,” he said, his voice thick with sarcasm, “I’m the only guy in the world who thinks there should be strippers at a Buck’s Night.”
“I’m just saying that it keeps happening and you keep being the one who insists on rectifying the situation. I just think that’s kind of weird.”
And I do. I must confess that it’s really off-putting to me that Llew’s one of the stripper keeners. One of the guys who helps make it happen. This time he even phoned around himself. I know because he listened to his voicemail messages yesterday, and I could hear the stripper’s voice from the night before helpfully explaining that she was waiting outside. It’s all kind of sleazy, if you ask me, and I don’t care if it is the Thing You Just Have To Do. It’s still kind of sleazy. I’m less bothered if all men believe, as Llew so clearly does, that strippers maketh the Buck’s Night, but there’s growing evidence to suggest that they don’t. Otherwise they would have been booked for the past two Buck’s Nights as the matter of course Llew’s always assured me it is. Because the best man hasn’t booked a stripper and because the groom hasn’t requested that he do, I can only conclude that strippers are in fact a non-essential ingredient for at least some men I know. And it sort of bothers me that in both cases Llew and others felt the need to find strippers whether the groom actually wanted them or not. It’s supposed to be his night, isn’t it, so why should he have a stripper if he doesn’t want one? And if he wanted one, all he had to do was ask his best man for one. That’s what the best man is for.
This probably sounds like an anti-stripper post. It’s not. I accepted a long time ago that there are differences between the sexes that are profound. Lots of men have an appetite for the bared flesh of a strange woman. Some of them indulge this appetite more fully than others, but in my understanding with my husband, it’s really only a Buck’s Night scenario where it’s acceptable for this naked woman who is not me to be in the room with him. Otherwise, what the fuck is happening here?
I don’t really understand the appeal myself, but then, I don’t need to. It’s got nothing to do with me. But when I imagine all these mid- to late-thirties fully clothed and blind drunk men gathered in a room watching a woman take her clothes off, I shudder. I shudder for so many reasons, but one reason is my embarrassment for the men in the room. I’m embarrassed for them. I try to see the room through the stripper’s eyes, and the whole tableau makes me cringe. How appallingly uncomfortable it must be for all involved. Oh, the sights these girls must see. And as I tried explaining to Llew yesterday, things have changed since men first started booking strippers for the Buck’s Night. People are getting married a lot later. Few are sexually inexperienced by the time they do. It’s hardly the same thing booking a stripper for a 21 year old virgin than it is for a 37 year old with multiple long-term relationships and a bald patch behind him. Isn’t it possible that the context has changed? Will they be booking strippers as paunchy 40 year olds when the last of the warriors finally falls? Isn’t that a rather pathetic picture to conjure in one’s mind?! What happens to some of these rites of passage when all the rites have already well and truly been passed?
Creepy. Weird. Irrational. Unsustainable. Suspect. Backward. They’re just a few of the words that immediately spring to mind when I think of the Pope’s address to the latest round of consecrated virgins. A total gift for Christ? It’s like stockpiling Christmas presents for dead people. Kind of strange.
Look, if women don’t want to give it up for the men of this world, I say hang on to it, girls, it’s yours to keep. Dress up that hymen in glitter and sequins and take it touring for all I care. Men are kind of stinky, after all, and they’re never satisfied, so if you think losing your virginity to one is your duty done to mankind, then guess again, sweetheart. You don’t know the half of it. So whatever, keep your legs closed and your trap shut if the whole thing makes you sick. But this is something else. This is saying ‘No, no, I couldn’t possibly. I’m married to Christ.’
Pity Christ isn’t around to comment on all these vows ostensibly being undertaken on his behalf. Last time I checked, both parties need to agree to a marriage. And with a couple of thousand of these consecrated virgins, doesn’t that make Christ a sort of unwilling theosophical polygamist? Hmmm. Interesting.
There’s a really base level of illogic at work here, and what’s at the root of it? Is it more Catholic Church misogyny? More abject suspicion of the treacherous female body and everything it is so abundantly and naturally capable of, like, say, the survival of the species? Because let’s be clear about the nature of the sacrifice these women are making. If women stop having sex and stop giving birth to children, then no god will save us, not even theirs.
What I think is bizarre – sorry, let me rephrase that: one of the many things I find bizarre about just what people are prepared to believe is that (leaving aside that neat-o claim to being the Virgin Mary) no one disputes the idea that Mary actually gave birth to Jesus Christ. Unlike Superman, no one’s saying this baby, this Son of God, was found out in a Kansas field (was it Kansas?). Nope, a woman still had to deliver him into the world. Why bother? I mean, if you’re God, and you’re king of world just like James Cameron, wouldn’t you have your only son ride into town man style? Why bother with such mere trifles as a full term and natural childbirth? And even if we say okay, God wanted Jesus to be one of us, then we’re still talking women getting pregnant (immaculately, or perhaps a little less than if the manger in question is actually an outback Bachelors & Spinsters Ball) and having babies. Women getting pregnant and having babies. That’s how this whole cycle of life thing goes down. So exactly what kind of gift is it for these women to save themselves for a guy who’s been dead for a couple of thousand years? Hmmm?
The last day of the annual Archibald Portrait Prize is Sunday 18 May, so you’ve only got a few days left to toddle into the AGNSW and see this year’s offerings. Once you’ve taken in the Archies, the Wynne and the Sulman prizes, I think you’ll be quite satisfied that at $8 a pop, you’ve had your money’s worth.
As always, this year’s exhibition is a bit of a mixed bag. In fact, overall there’s probably fewer portraits on display that really moved me than in previous years. But the ones that did are great. The winner is Del Kathryn Barton’s whimsical, loving, in some ways quite haunting You are what is most beautiful about me, a self-portrait with her two young children. I liked the painting more after reading the accompanying text, because the artist is so eloquent on the subject of motherly love, and it makes the whole portrait, which is technically impressive, really very affecting.
The other one that was a real stand out (as well as, for me, Grabowsky by Peteris Ciemitis and Angelina Pwerle by Song Ling) was the portrait of the late Heath Ledger – titled simply Heath – by Vincent Fantauzzo. I know, I know, I bet you’re thinking ‘Ugh, gimmicky, tacky, macabre,’ but I can assure you it is none of those things. For a start, the two men were friends. For another thing, they’d discussed the project for a couple of years, but eerily Heath sat for the portrait only shortly before he died. I can’t tell you how gripping it is, you really have to see it to understand its power. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the actor’s death probably hurt its chances of winning. The judges probably felt they couldn’t award it the prize given the timing, that it would have been seen to capitalise in some way or to bow to popular sentiment or something like that. Those issues may well have clouded the biggest one, which is the piece itself and whether it might have been a deserving winner. I think it easily stands up to the Barton, which, as I say, I do love. But in Heath, the eyes, the self, the soul, the whispering tormentors… I think it is a study of great depth, and I defy anyone to see it and not be sucked into its dark centre.
I could go on… but I’ll just mention a few other faves from other parts of the tripartite exhibition. I didn’t love Rodney Pople’s self-portrait in the Archies, but I did enjoy his Wynne entry, North South Runway, Sydney Airport. I think the judges got it pretty right this year in the Wynne. The watercolour prize went to a worthy contender, John Wolseley’s Camel Gate, Border Track, SA/VIC, and I really loved the main prize winner, Joanne Currie Nalingu’s The river is calm (except be warned that the web photo does not at all do it justice). Actually the painting itself is calm; there is something incredibly restful about it, almost like that soporific feeling that descends on one after a riverside picnic… I wonder how she managed to evoke that in the colour palette and in the deceptively simple composition. It is also quite fluid feeling, and projects something that all water courses have for me, and that’s suppressed power. Some people are surprised by the sheer strength of a hidden current, but I never am. I never forget it’s there, and it’s certainly present in Nalingu’s painting.
On to the Sulman, which you may recall didn’t get great raps from me last year. On the whole I would say it has improved, but I didn’t care a fig for the winning entry, so much so that I can’t even tell you, oh yes, it’s come back to me now, it’s the third Rodney Pople on display, entitled Stage Fright. Was it, one wonders, a consolation prize because he failed to take out either of the other two? Who knows, but it was the least interesting of his three, and certainly wouldn’t have scored my vote (it’s of an awkward looking zebra arching toward the light, by the way, referencing someone or other) in a fit. I really loved the Jeffrey Smart-esque entry by Biron Valier, Manly Wharf, I thought it was perfect, right up my alley and I wish I could buy it (which of course is exactly the response Jeffrey Smart’s own work always elicits from me – sigh), and I also enjoyed the oddness and bibliophilic quality of Vilma Bader’s Home Brewed. Julie Donnelly’s Random acts was cool, a nice, surprising piece, and the runner up, Parme by Aida Tomescu, was striking, full of personality and drama. But Stage fright? Yawn.
Anyway, I’ll finish this with another Philip Wolfhagen lament. Oh, that we had bought one of his works whilst we still might have! His Wynne entry this year, New Delirium V, confirms beyond all doubt that I am indeed a fan of this Tasmanian artist’s work. Buggery and damnation, he’s beyond us now for all time!
Okay, so lately I’ve been sweating the small stuff. I think you’ll agree that we’ve established that beyond a shadow of a doubt. But as my friend Rosy pointed out to me in response to yesterday’s post, it’s probably related to the overwhelming and crushing size of all the really big stuff. In fact, Rosy’s comment was so interesting to me precisely because as I sat in front of a blank text box yesterday, wondering what to post, I contemplated writing about the earthquake in China or the cyclone in Burma, the same current examples Rosy mentioned in her email to me as the kind of things that make her really, really cross with the cashier. Schools have been crushed flat, children have perished in huge numbers both in China and Burma, and it’s just the sort of catastrophic news that makes an impolite customer service representative in our daily lives something of a blood boiler. Maybe we cling to the small irritations because the big hits are simply too much and are always so completely beyond our control. I can complain to Harris Farm Markets about shouty man until they give me free bananas, but who can I complain to when lives and communities are completely torn apart by phenomena too scary and unpredictable and of nature to even fully comprehend?
Reading news reports and seeing photographs taken on the ground and from the air depresses me. Keeping myself well-informed about the endless sweep of disaster occurring elsewhere, always so much like a live-stream performance of DeLillo’s classic domestic/disaster novel White Noise, depresses me. So as I considered the topic of yesterday’s post in terms of current affairs, I found myself slumping in my chair at the thought of being topical and, you know, credible. Hard-hitting, investigative, thought-provoking, Big Enough on the Big Issues. Nope, I went for silly and mundane instead. Some might call that a cop-out. Perhaps it is. But it’s also how I ward off the demons, because fun is bloody important, and poking fun at my own expense is important, and sometimes it really does feel like the less said about what’s going on out there, the better. How else do we manage to laugh in the face of all that horror?
I’d like to think I’m becoming less petty with age, but there’s mounting evidence to the contrary. Things really irk me, a lot of things, a lot of small, inconsequential things that shouldn’t occupy my thoughts at all. Take yesterday. I do a big fortnightly shop at the local Harris Farm Market, and I think it’s a great business, so I’m very happy to give them my custom. Except yesterday, I’d just walked in the door, and a staff member started loudly shouting out their specials at the top of his voice as he stood turning artichokes.
“YES, FOLKS, THAT’S RIGHT, JUST INSIDE THE DOOR WE HAVE BLAH BLAH BLAH FOR YOU TODAY, THAT’S AN UNBEATABLE PRICE, BLAH BLAH BLAH…”
I frowned at him. He turned another artichoke and let rip with another deafening burst of frenzied spruiking. And here’s where it’s helpful to note a couple of things.
First, we can all read. Yep, I clocked those bargain basement prices as I wheeled my trolley through the door, and if I didn’t load up on lemons it’s because I didn’t bloody well want any. I didn’t care if they were giving them away, I already had a bag at home.
Second, Harris Farm is laid out just like IKEA, so that it’s impossible to go back the way you came. You are guided past everything they want you to see on your inescapable route to the checkout. Once you’re in, you’re in, and you have to walk around the entire store to get out again. I don’t mind this at Harris Farm because I’m there to shop, not be shouted at. So it’s totally unnecessary to have shouty man there barking out the prices, because the prices are well-displayed and impossible to avoid.
He just kept it up, pausing for breath then launching in again. I started looking around at other customers, desperate to make eye contact that would confirm I was not the only one who wanted to leave my trolley right there in an unauthorised zone – in that little crowded bit between the nuts and the eggs where it’s really one trolley at a time – and march out the In door just to show them who’s boss. Yes, I actually considered leaving. His shouting was really jangling my nerves. Like I said, small things.
It gets better, though. I wasn’t done yet. Finally he stopped, but not until well after I’d started audibly muttering “Shut up, Christ, shut up, would you?” as I furiously scowled and thought long and hard about running at him and ramming my trolley straight into his side. But then he cut out that infernal racket, and I was once more free to wander my fixed route in peace and quiet. Harris Farm calm was restored. But I couldn’t let it go, could I? Nope, I’m too petty and too particular and too prone to certain behaviour to just let some things go. So this morning I visited their website and lodged a customer feedback e-form. I told them how irritating it was, and that I hoped it was an isolated incident. I told them it would drive me from their store if it became a regular feature of trying to shop there. In a word, I spat (the dummy, that is). That’s what we petty people do: we fire off letters of complaint and hassle overweight ombudsmen (well, we would if only we knew what it was they did, exactly).
I’m having a big day of being small. The other thing that happened earlier is that I caught out my cleaners. They come for an hour once a fortnight, and I clear out for the duration, often times taking the opportunity to go for a run. But as I’ve run past at the end of lap one the last few times, I’ve noticed the place looks all locked up and empty well before time. So today, I stopped running, crossed the road, and opened my door. They were gone. It was twenty minutes too soon. I didn’t quite yell “Aha! Gotcha!” but the sentiment was there, all right, coursing through my veins. Oh yes, how briefly triumphant I felt finally having confirmation that my cleaners are actually screwing me! Only a very petty person could thrill to that heady news.
Little things like this genuinely irritate me. I wish they didn’t, I wish I was a better, bigger person, but I’m not, and they do.
Sometimes I get it so wrong. Sometimes I get it wrong precisely – precisely – because I am endeavouring to get it right. There are a number of factors that have brought and continue to bring me unstuck. One of these is my tendency to believe that people should confront their issues with their loved ones, that they should acknowledge them, speak candidly about them and thus (to my mind) defuse and resolve them. Many people utterly disavow this strategy, and I can plainly see why: they don’t take kindly to evidence of conflict if it implicates them in any kind of wrong-doing. Fair enough. That’s pretty human, from what I have managed to glean over the years. But what, then, are we to do with our conflicted feelings?
For a little while now, I’ve been experiencing an internal conflict involving a friend. I’m aware, having had to live with myself for 35 years, that if I am feeling insecure (which happens roughly on a 28 day cycle and usually involves a vicious hormonal surge that is intensifying with age), I am more than capable of experiencing paranoia about others. For instance, I might think Llew is flirting with another woman, or I may think another woman is flirting with Llew. If that other woman is a friend of mine, I am usually able to talk myself down with all sorts of little tricks I’ve picked up along the way, such as the application of pure reason and the extension of genuine trust. I tell myself that I’m the crazy one, that I need to get out more, and that it’s not healthy for anyone to live so much inside their own sick and twisted mind. Mostly this works quite well, all of the above being undeniably true.
In one recent case, such has been my approach for several months, but at a certain point I had to acknowledge that the strategy was failing to defuse and resolve my growing feelings of unease. This isn’t to say I stopped talking myself down and allowed much more sinister and deranged thoughts to fester. No, I didn’t really undergo any change to my actual base level of trust, which is massive. I’m not sure it could be greater. But feeling uncomfortable is feeling uncomfortable, and trusting all my friends not to try anything with my husband is not actually the same thing as feeling totally all right all the time about the body language some of them use when they’re talking to him. I don’t think for a second anyone I trust would betray me like that, I truly don’t, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still give a start when I look over and see body language I recognise or understand or read as female flirtation and find that its object is my husband. I do still get a jolt, even though I know there’s nothing “going on.”
So what do I do with my discomfort? Well, for a few months I’ve just tried telling myself that I’m simply not as touchy-feely as a lot of women, which is really true. Therefore I am a candidate for misreading body language on the basis of my own boundaries. I see and accept that as a real possibility. Then again, I am an acute observer of people and social rules of engagement, it is one of the things that makes me tick, so in general I would say the chances of my totally misjudging a peer’s body language are actually kind of slim. Still, when I am in paranoid mode, there’s no telling what madness of mixed feedback loops might start misfiring. So I accepted the odds, and I bet against myself. Several times.
Then I thought hey, it’s been a few months now of telling myself I’m just crazy, and I’m still not feeling great about this…it’s affecting my friendship, it’s affecting my time with my friend, and it’s affecting me. What do I do now? Well, naturally (for me), I finally raised it. I didn’t raise it in the hope of starting a fight with my friend, and I certainly didn’t raise it in order to accuse her of some wrong-doing, I raised it very much in the spirit of saying “I know this is actually a problem of mine, but I hope you can help me with it, because I am finding I keep feeling uncomfortable about your body language around Llew.”
Maybe I have different boundaries and different insecurities and different issues that make me especially sensitive. I really don’t know. All I know is I was hoping that by raising it and taking responsibility for my own discomfort, I’d be able to talk to my friend about it and have her understand me. But that was naive, I realise now, because that’s not how conflict works. Shackles come up, temperatures rise, and people get hurt, which is exactly what happened here. So now I’m left wondering what a better course of action might have been, because keeping it from my friend was eating away at me, and therefore exacting a toll on our friendship of which she was wholly ignorant, but telling her was like dropping a bomb between us. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t, but I’ll leave you with the same question I have been asking myself since: is discomfort a valid response even when no discomfort was intended? In some ways it’s like workplace harassment: are you still being harassed if the other person says it’s all in good fun? My personal feeling is that if someone’s uncomfortable, then that’s their response to the environment or the circumstances and thus must always be valid because it’s not for anyone else to determine how we feel in a certain situation. I think we have to try to respect our differences rather than simply defend our own position. And that’s probably what I was hoping for in admitting to my conflicted feelings. What can I tell you? It’s a minefield out there.
Interesting that Clinton struggled for her latest victory but Obama coasted to his… it doesn’t decide anything, but it’s sure keeping our household guessing. My gut feeling is that Obama is still going to take out the race, but Clinton is such a terrier and clearly so hungry for the ticket that I have to concede she’s probably still capable of anything at this point, like a zombie who just won’t die.
I’ve been finding myself curling my lip a little reading about their stoushes because I find it all a little unseemly and counter-intuitive. Surely, I think to myself, this just makes the Democrats look grubby? Doesn’t an all-in slanging match between the two candidates for the nomination just tarnish the image of the whole party, whilst the Republicans are looking dignified and unified by having avoided this protracted contest? This is probably quite conventional thinking, I’m sorry to say, so I’m happy to be able to share with you Llew’s rather more nuanced opinion.
During a conversation about the mud-slinging between Obama and Clinton, I said something similar to what I’ve just said above. And Llew said well, yes, that’s certainly in line with some of the commentary he’s been reading, but what about this: they’re both battle hardened now, whilst McCain is all soft and complacent and won’t know what hit him (actually, given his active service record, I think he’s a fair shot for anticipating a good fight). Also, all the dirty laundry falling off Obama and Clinton is already in the public domain. Everyone’s seen them trading spitballs. Thus far, the two Democrats have aimed whatever ammo they can find at each other; they haven’t even started looking at McCain. They’ve barely acknowledged his existence. They certainly haven’t started digging for the dirt on their Republican opponent. Well, maybe their back room minions are so engaged as we speak, preparing a dossier of near-libelous slime to hurl at him once the actual Presidential race begins… but right now, they’re focused firmly on knocking the other out of the race for the nomination. First things first.
I can see Llew’s point. In some ways it’s strategically brilliant. They’re looking pretty dusted up right now, Hils and the Big B, but there won’t be any – or many – nasty surprises either of them will have to face down the track when one of them is facing off against McCain. They’ll have been there, done that. Ho hum. And yet he’ll be a fresh, unblemished target, no doubt with his fair share of embarrassments and indiscretions just like any other would-be incumbent. Suddenly, getting all that muckraking out of the way early seems like a very canny move. Whoever takes out the Democratic nomination in the end, he or she shall be going up against McCain already extremely well-oiled and well-armoured. And that could be interesting. That could be very interesting indeed.