You ever notice the way things intensify around a full moon? I had a college roommate who was a firm believer in howling at the moon at this critical point in the lunar cycle; I joined her on occasion, and I have to say, it was enormously therapeutic. Screaming or howling or raising one’s voice against the dark often is powerfully cathartic – it marks a protest, a ‘raging against the dying of the light’ in more ways than one.
It’s not a stretch for me to imagine that we human beings – though we fancy ourselves immune to such base instincts and natural forces – react to the shifting tides and the implacable cycles of the moon. Why wouldn’t we? We know other animals respond to elements of the physical universe; why wouldn’t we? They don’t call it ‘lunacy’ for nothing, people! Llew always scoffs at my full moon theory – being that everything goes screeching off the hinges – but it’s hardly original. And okay, some of those people who believed in moon madness in days of old also believed in phrenology, and a flat earth, and the irretrievably corrupt souls of the left-handed among us… but still, this particular concept doesn’t seem so crackpot to me. I think you could casually interview any group of people huddled beneath your average bus shelter and find some fair anecdotal ammunition. Sure, sure, the stuff of wives’ tales, you may say, but… sometimes wives’ tales are true.
I’m just saying.
Because boy, has this week leading up to the full moon been a humdinger – I’m almost surprised no one’s driven a car through the side of my apartment. And I’m amazed to realise it’s been an entire week since I last posted, really amazed, but on reflection, I might have guessed I’d end up in some kind of time warp too. That’s just like the moon, casting this kind of spell on me. I haven’t been able to keep track of what day it is because I’ve been too busy ogling its fat face, watching it approaching its zenith as though I were leading a Cape Canaveral countdown.
It’s exhausting. All the tension in the crowd. Everyone craning their rubbery necks for a glimpse at that distant pockmarked lunar surface. All the malicious behind-the-scenes whispers of budget cuts, mechanical failure, and rank incompetence from the top down. Will I take off or tank? Take off or tank? Take off or tank? Take off or –
Yep. I tanked.
I tanked right across the board, really made it count. They’ll be finding shrapnel in Inuit moccasins left by the entrance to the igloo for months to come. When I bomb, I like to bomb big. I’ve always loved mushrooms, after all.
I won’t bore you with the details of all the ways in which my week was a steaming turd, I’m going to just have to ask that you take my word for it (quite likely the sole word I’ll ever have accepted by anyone, anywhere). But it was a comprehensive dump, the sort you see starting when some dog owner thoughtfully leaves it smoking on the footpath, and then some hapless early morning jogger accidentally kicks a chunk down the street a ways, and then some super pram minces the remaining pile through its wheels and tracks it down the path for another couple of hundred metres or so, at which point a woman rushing to a job interview skids in it because she’s wearing new heels and isn’t looking, and then she scrapes it onto the grass, cursing and hissing and obscurely blaming her sick mother, at which point I come along, whistling and clicking my heels, and witlessly lie down in it. There you go. That was my week.
(The only good news is significantly positive, in that Baby J hasn’t staged an untimely exit from what I can gather. Even if I am covered in shit.)
A few different topics in brief today:
- You may have wondered what happened to the busted sewerage main gurgling beneath our communal laundry. Well, it’s still there. My good buddy Andrew from Sydney Water gave me a call at the beginning of the week to tell me I’ll be the first to know when they’re all set to start destroying our backyard. Thanks, Andy… although chances are I might have managed to piece it together anyway. I get the feeling something will give the game away.
- All our appliances are dropping like flies. It’s a kitchen aid conspiracy. It started with the dishwasher, although that was months ago now. Then a few weeks ago we lost the coffee grinder and the kettle on the same day. The microwave has been making its own arrangements for quite some time, but we have to respect its demonstrated flair for keeping us guessing, so for now we’re just trying to give it room to fully express its individuality. But now we have a whopping great problem of some urgency: the fridge is dying. The freezer is currently operating as usual, but down below, all seems lost. Our first sign that it too was planning a dramatic exit was its staging of a miniature Ice Age a fortnight or so ago, in which a sub-zero surge froze everything from the milk to the lettuce rock solid. Cue much wastage of food. But the bricks of bread and petrified parsley were far preferable to what we have now: lukewarm everything, which makes our fridge full of food that’s dangerous now as well as being simply off-putting. And that’s because it’s a bacteria jungle in there, what with all these wild temperature fluctuations, and you know what that means: a health and safety nightmare for Project Baby J. It won’t do. It won’t do at all. All of which royally SUCKS, because there is nothing more tiresome and boring boring BORING than forking out a truckload of cash for white goods. Blech! So unimpressed.
- One of the benefits of my changing routine is that because I am now walking instead of running, I’ve started taking Llew’s radio with me. I decided a little while ago I needed to start consciously engaging with the world more aurally because my workaday is so silent, and I must say, I’m really enjoying listening to Radio National on my walks. I’ve heard a couple of really thought-provoking discussions – one on the concept of merit I’ll come back to in another post – heard some fascinating history – including horrific details of young Australian soldiers fighting the Japanese in WWII along the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea – and picked up a couple of great book tips I otherwise almost certainly would have missed. On the Book Show this morning, for instance, I became more and more intrigued by Frances Partridge (1900-2004), lesser-known member of the famed and formidable Bloomsbury group, and the subject of Anne Chisolm’s new biography.
I’ve not read any of Partridge’s works yet, being in the main various published collections of her diaries, but I know now I definitely shall. I’m interested in diary-keeping, being a long-time amateur diarist myself, but the interview with Chisolm about the biography made it abundantly clear that while Partridge had a colourful talent for observation, the recording of real life and real people, she had no discernible talent for fiction (despite numerous and dedicated attempts). Apparently the surviving examples of her fiction (short stories, or so I understood from the interview) just aren’t any good.
Well, I’ve worried a great deal about this very thing myself. And it’s something other people have often said to me, that my writing is better suited to non-fiction, and that I am barking up the wrong tree. I think you’d be surprised to learn how very free people are with these opinions about what sort of writer I am or should be – I’m particularly fascinated by this type of unsolicited counsel when it comes from individuals who aren’t writers themselves… I can’t quite imagine telling someone else how to do a job in which I have no personal background or expertise. Anyway, my problem is slightly different to Partridge’s (although my short stories stink too), because if consistent reader feedback is anything to go by, my fiction reads like non-fiction no matter what I do. And by that I mean, no matter what I invent using nothing more than my apparently limited imagination.
I actually rolled my eyes heavenward and groaned aloud reading the feedback from the agent who passed on the MS after a four-month deliberation, because her colleague said in her assessment, ‘I wonder if some of these experiences happened to the author?’ – Jesus!!!! Not this again!!!! While I would never pretend my own personality and experience of the world have had no bearing on the world and the characters of this MS, frankly I have created way, way too much out of thin air not to be sort of galled by this recurrent suggestion that it must be taken from my own life. It’s not, I could never make a non-fiction claim for it, it would be completely fraudulent to do so because it’s a work of fiction, and I don’t know what to do about my writing style somehow suggesting otherwise. I really don’t know what to do about it! But I do wonder if Partridge’s plight was at all similar, and if perhaps my own long years of diary keeping are in any way responsible for the current and evidently damning limitations of my fiction style. But irrespective of my own problems with the written word, I’m looking forward to reading about dear Frances’s forays.
Another day in Paradise, people. Honestly, we are so lucky it’s practically offensive. What is it about salt water that is so restorative and relaxing? I just love the feel of it on my skin. Beautiful. So… before I head back into the office for another day of violence (I’m currently in the sunroom with the bi-folds leading out to the courtyard pushed right across, listening to the Currawongs while staring out at the Norfolk pines, listening to the ocean…), I thought I’d try and fulfil my Honest Scrap Award obligations (thanks again to Graddikins for deeming DoctorDi worthy of such an honour!).
I’ve just reread Grad’s take on the matter, and I will apologise in advance for any duplication from that ‘Mean Jeff Meme’ and a past award. I really don’t think I’ve left out too many details over the years of maintaining DoctorDi, but I’ll do my best to tell you 10 things I hopefully haven’t mentioned before.
- I have dark brown eyes. Oddly, the very outer limit of my iris is a fine line of bright blue.
- I’ve always been perfectly happy with my modest endowment in the chest department. I’d go so far as to say I’ve never seen myself as a cleavage kind of girl – I’ve always imagined I’d actually look ridiculous with massive cans, and that they wouldn’t suit my appearance nor my personality at all. So, as I said to Shuckin’ Charlotte last week, it’s really quite strange to see one of the early signs of the Baby J Project is a definite growth spurt in this area. So far it’s like playing dress-ups with someone else’s boobs.
- I have something of a chair fetish. I think a chair can be a work of art, and we have mismatched chairs we’ve collected over the years from all over the place. My favourite is what we call the saddle chair, a very cool piece of furniture that we found down the south coast in 2008. I love this chair, and can happily look at it for hours. It is a perfect marriage between form and function.
- I cannot abide bad manners. Rude people incense me.
- I was unnaturally excited when my friend B sent around a left brain/right brain dominance test (you watch a girl slowly turning either clockwise or anticlockwise, depending on which side of your brain rules the roost, and if I can find it I’llattach it here because it’s fascinating. Found it!) only to find my girl clearly went both ways, which was supposedly the optimum result, and which from memory no one else on the email trail experienced. B kept doggedly redoing the exercise to no avail; I kept obsessively making sure my own girl didn’t suddenly start moving in only one direction. It’s embarrassing admitting this, but I was soooo happy that she kept switching directions. It was absolutely mesmerising, mainly because of how pleased I was with myself. What did I learn? I am incredibly vain, not incredibly smart.
- My favourite building material is sandstone.
- I quite often dream about dolphins and whales. In fact, I dreamt about an enormous whale last night. But I also had a bad dream later in the night involving miscarriage and a very scary witch that Llew said made me cry out loud.
- If I were going to learn another language, it would probably be Italian, and one day I hope to live for a time in the great ancient city of Rome.
- When we started fertility treatment last year, I started writing down names I like in the back of my IVF diary. One list is much longer than the other.
- I’m afraid I have to end on a bum note, because I started this year shamefully, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. In fact, I know I’ll never forget it. We were partying in our courtyard in the early hours of New Year’s Day with some stayers from our group night out, when I realised there was a woman sitting crouched on the other side of the wall. I engaged her in conversation; I was drunk, but something about her was definitely off. She was cagey and quite incoherent. I asked if she needed anything, help, or money, or for me to phone the police, but she said no to each of these options. Then our neighbour came home and ordered her to move on. I persuaded him that she wasn’t doing any harm and to just forget it, but at some point I looked over the wall and she was gone. Eventually the after-party wound down and we went to bed. We got up at about midday to prepare for a fresh onslaught of guests: for some unknown reason we thought it would be a sensible idea to throw a New Year’s Day BBQ (with an army of small children). When Llew opened our front door, the woman was asleep up against it, her pile of things sitting in the communal entrance. I panicked: there was an apparently homeless woman sprawled across the entrance to our apartment, and people were about to arrive. When Llew came in and asked me what we should do, I said tartly – tired, horrifically hungover, frantically trying to get the place ready – “Well, she can’t stay here.” That absolute and damning lack of charity will haunt me for the rest of my life. I didn’t even ask if she needed something to eat or drink. I can scarcely believe I was so cold and selfish – it just fills me with shame every time I think about it, which is often. Llew took charge of the situation while I took charge of the house; he called a bunch of shelters and call centres looking for somewhere for her to go. There was nothing anywhere near here. Finally he found somewhere on the other side of town, but when he went outside to talk to her about helping to get her there, she was gone, and we never saw her again. For me, this experience represents a painful failure of my humanity. I know it will guide me in future, but it was a terrible, haunting lesson to learn. It’s easy to think of yourself as a good person, right up until the moment you fail to actually be one.
Now I’m supposed to nominate 10 blogs (and there’s bound to be a lot of duplication here…). My nominees are (in alphabetical order):
Charlotte of the Burg at Charlotte’s Web
David at Quotidian Viscissitudes
Grad at The Curious Reader
Lilian at A Novelist’s Mind
Litlove at Tales from the Reading Room
Pete at Couchtrip
Piereth at Castle Green Days
Shuckin’ Charlotte at How to Shuck an Oyster
Simonne at Into the Quiet
Woo at Curiouser and Curiouser
Happy blogging, and long may it continue.
What a gorgeous autumn we’re having! There’s been what feels like another long stretch of glorious warm sunshine and clear skies, and for those of you living in Sydney, I can only say: get thee to a patrolled beach. The water is perfect, but it can’t last. Soon enough it’ll snatch your breath away, but right now floating atop the Pacific feels like a state of grace.
My day started early, about 5 am when Llew’s alarm went off. He’s got rowing training twice a week at the moment – usually I hate this time of year with a PASSION because his alarm always wakes me too, but now that I’m already springing out of bed multiple times a night to skip to the loo, well, what’s another disturbance between friends?
[Just received this text from a friend: Just linin’ up with the masses for some FREE BEN & JERRY’S!
The Ben & Jerry’s store is down the other end of the beachfront, and when I walked past earlier, their ‘Free Ice-cream Day’ had hordes of people lining up around the block, despite there being four other dedicated – and in one case very fine – ice-creameries in the immediate vicinity. Incredible!
My response: You clearly married an Englishman! I wouldn’t stand in that queue if they were handing out the secret to eternal youth. But enjoy! Xx]
At 6 am it was time for my walk with my friend T and her dog E. It’s great, a solid 45-minute brisk walk rolled into a solid 45-minute catch up, followed by a swim. Bliss! And while I was all set to have breakfast with Llewie when he walked in the door shortly after I did, I was sadly out of luck. He had a meeting first thing, so instead ran out the door waving the banana I managed to press into his hand – bah, humbug!
Since then, it’s been another day of truly arduous redrafting and now I am pooped. I can’t wait for the day when I’m no longer working on this particular manuscript. Being able to refer to it in the past tense: now there’s a dream I can really get behind! Talk about an adjustment of aspiration. I just want it off the desktop. I think it’s progressing, but I also worry I’ve completely lost perspective. Oh well. There are a couple of unpublished MS comps closing at the end of next month, and I’m going to throw the MS into at least one of them. That means I’ve got approximately five weeks of intense redrafting left to try and knock it into shape, so while the days are getting shorter outside, mine are getting longer in. No matter: it’s SO SATISFYING at the end of a good day’s work… the only real problem is that I can’t see an end to it.
One last thing before tomorrow I try and find 10 things you don’t already know about me (thanks to Grad’s generously bestowing a blog award on DoctorDi, though I fear I ran out of secrets some time ago!): ever since Shuckin’ Charlotte posted a link to a YouTube video of Julia Child making a classic French omelette, I have been obsessed. If you are remotely interested in cooking, I’ll be amazed if you’re not immediately hooked by this demonstration too. I’d never made omelettes before, but this has now been going on for months in the form of an outright mania. The real addiction came much like a gambler’s does: I had a win right off the bat. My very first omelette was a total success, even though I was using the same dinged old frypan with an uneven raised centre that I bought from Woolworths when I started university in 1992.
My delight was untold. Something so simple gave me more culinary pleasure than I can possibly describe. The glow of accomplishment went right to the heart of my love of preparing food. I was in awe of this perfect omelette, and in awe of Julia.
Then disaster struck. My omelettes kept tearing. I cursed that culpable pan, I replayed the video, I practised so often I imagined I could feel my cholesterol preparing to launch a counter-attack. But never again could I repeat that miraculous feat of my first omelette.
I was despondent. And, like a true addict, I promised myself I’d stay away, all the while chewing the inside of my mouth and fantasising in vivid detail about the circumstances in which I would hit the jackpot. I don’t think a day went by without my thinking of the perfect omelette pan. I began coveting this item with a zeal that really ought to be punishable by law.
Then we found it (because of course I sucked Llew into this obsession too): a Gordon Ramsay non-stick 22cm little number (here’s the larger version), and it was love at first sight. Finally, my friends, I christened this perfect pan last night, and it is such a thing of beauty. Oh, the ecstasy (or should that be eggstasy?)! First came one perfect omelette, and then another. And when I turned my shining face to Llew, he said, “Look at you. You’re so happy you look almost demented.”
And it was true. I was actually beside myself with glee. Giddy. A bit off my head. And that was before eating the damn thing. So how was it? Sublime.
On Saturday night, Llew and I survived our first and last visit to ‘La Premiere,’ a so-called luxurious cinema experience run by Hoyts. We were lucky – we had freebies – but tickets otherwise cost $33 per person, and that’s before you even start on parking, food and drinks. I was so galled by the chasm between La Premiere’s false advertising and the grim reality that I was moved to email them the following day:
This is customer feedback, not an option supplied so I hope this reaches the appropriate person. I think you really ought to know the “gourmet menu” we suffered last night as part of the “unsurpassed luxury” of the La Premiere experience was the worst meal either my husband or I have ever eaten. We wracked our brains but couldn’t come up with anything more disgusting and disappointing than what was served to us last night. I really urge you to send one of your senior staff in there to experience the nachos and pizza for themselves. Your “food” gave me cramps so bad that I actually jolted awake in the middle of the night, and spent the next 40 minutes or so in the bathroom in a lot of pain. I think what bothers me most is the self-evident lack of pride in their work from whoever works in the kitchen – that they weren’t ashamed to send this vile rubbish out to paying customers reflects very poorly on your entire organisation, being the corporate framework that’s responsible for so clearly under-resourcing food & beverage staff and encouraging a workplace where this is okay. Let me be clear: it is not okay. This extortionate experience was “unforgettable” for all the wrong reasons, and I’ll be sure to tell absolutely everyone I know.
Those cramps? They were so intense that they truly did wake me up, whereupon Llew and I both thought I was having a miscarriage. I then spent the hour between 3 and 4 am in the bathroom, before finally realising it was simply my body’s attempt to expel the evil presence of La Premiere’s frightening food.
Food – always an obsession of mine – is taking an interesting turn what with the fledgling mission to make Baby J a reality. In general I eat very well anyway, but I still have to make changes to my diet. And it’s not just food. I took a short list of Baby J-related questions to my GP on Friday, and I have to say, I was in for a few surprises. The first was her ‘zero alcohol’ advice. As in, none: her recommendation was no alcohol for the entire pregnancy. Now, I wasn’t planning on necking a bottle of vodka any time soon – or ever – but I was vaguely aghast at the idea that I can’t have the occasional glass of wine with a meal without worrying about it or feeling I am doing something wrong. Was even this very common, very moderate scenario for the pregnant women I’ve known included in her blanket ban advice? Indeed it was, although then she applied a caveat: it would be okay for me to have a champagne toast at a wedding.
I’ll admit to being pretty dumbfounded. I’ve known a lot of pregnant women, and I’m not sure I know any – or maybe just one – who completely abstained during pregnancy. I’ve asked this same doctor many, many times – over and over again – if alcohol was a factor in either my miscarriages or in my later trouble conceiving, and her answer was and remains a resolute no. So what harm the occasional glass of red wine with dinner? She invoked the awful spectre of foetal alcohol syndrome, to which I spluttered, ‘Hang on, doc, that’s for women who drink often and heavily, I’m only talking about a single glass of wine once in a while. They’re hardly the same thing.’ And personally, I think it’s really unfair to women who did have the odd drink here and there during their pregnancies to dump them in the threat-of-foetal-alcohol-syndrome basket, particularly since everyone I’ve asked said their obstetrician told them to go for it. Her response was that because we know about foetal alcohol syndrome, and because we know the ways in which heavy drinking affects a baby’s development, we know that alcohol can have a negative impact on an unborn baby. At what level of consumption alcohol begins to have this negative impact remains unclear, so from her point of view, it’s just better to say no altogether. Bummer!
She also advised against any marital action until after the TWELVE-WEEK scan, and, since this was turning into a real party, she then dropped the progesterone bombshell as her parting shot. I asked her if I ought to continue the course of progesterone until the 8 week mark, as I’d both read and been told this was sometimes the case for women who’d had multiple miscarriages. Her reaction was completely unexpected. She was quite upset that Dr P’s letters to her summarising my IVF treatment had made no reference to my being on progesterone at all, and she went on to impart the sort of information that gives a girl nightmares. In a nutshell, she said that prescribing progesterone used to be wildly popular, but has become far less so because they’ve discovered a link with vaginal cancer. The link is this: of women who develop vaginal cancer in their 30s, some massive proportion (she said over 90%) are found to have been babies of mothers treated with progesterone during the early stages of pregnancy.
My jaw just about hit the surgery floor.
POSTSCRIPT: The manager of La Premiere sent me a very nice email yesterday, apologising for our nightmare nosh and offering to refund the meal money. I thanked her, but declined. As I said, it wasn’t at all about getting our money back, it was sincerely just a case of the food being regretfully so truly awful that it simply demanded a response. I hope some good comes of it for those who dare to cine-dine in future.
A day of redrafting – boy, it’s such slow going I’d really quite appreciate a gigantic, tireless avatar’s taking over while I hop into the sack for a bit of a snooze – and I’m concerned it’s going to be an evening of redrafting too, so I thought I’d take a break and say g’day. It’s Archibald Prize season in Sydney, and Llewie, his sister F and I all went along last night (the Art Gallery of New South Wales opens late every Wednesday, which is perfect for those nights when Llew can sneak out of work at a reasonable hour). F works at the gallery as a photographer, so she’d already seen the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes in all their controversial glory. And in great detail, as it turned out, because she’s had to photograph them for work, so really she was there to catch up with us, not lean in and sniff the oils.
Some surprise omissions this year, including Nicholas Harding (not sure if he entered a portrait in competition or not, but I missed him!), and some surprise inclusions. I might as well come clean. After spending the past few years carefully opening myself up to it, photo-realism is really starting to grate on my nerves, and the Archibald Portrait Prize now seems to be favouring photo-realistic works to such an extent that it’s making the whole exhibition a little ho-hum. Sure, yes, skill is required to make any painting look uncannily real – and I’ve seen commercial galleries hanging a lot of photo-realistic landscapes of late, too, so portraiture is not the only culprit here – but oughtn’t the form strive for so much more than that?
Portraiture, it seems to me anyway, is so much more layered than photo-realism allows, and I fear this growing over-emphasis on the so-called reality of a painting, and the apparent vogue in Archibald selection for the most life-like rendering of a subject in situ, is really deadening and homogenising the field. What strikes the coldest blow to my heart is my fluttering fear that this homogeneity is becoming sort of typical of Australian tastes: give us safe, give us sameness, make it easy on the eye, easy down the throat, easy on the ear, easy on the mind, give us dull, dull certainty at every unremarkable turn, and please don’t make anything too hard because, well, we’re all too soft and satisfied these days to bother with anything too challenging.
Say it isn’t so!
I hope I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong about plenty of things, including my fledgling thesis that Australia’s problem is its crisis of prosperity (a nice problem to have, indeed, but there’s more to prosperity than meets the aspiring eye, and some of it ain’t pretty), but I especially hope I’m wrong about this flat-lining effect. I’m sure it’s all in my mind, which was an ever unreliable source. Anyway, to the Archies… I’ve never been exposed to the work of the subject of the winning portrait, Tim Minchin, but I did like the lush texture of this work (oil and resin on wood); the curtains draping behind Minchin appear substantial, fluid and there’s something very seductive in the small, uncertain space in which Minchin stands. As Llew said, it’s a work that eventually wins you over rather than wows you at first apprehension, and that it invites this further contemplation makes it a deserving winner, as I do not believe many of the portraits hanging engage the observer in any interesting way. The best you can say of something like the Kate Cebrano portrait, for instance, is that, gee, it looks just like her (you can view all the finalists here, but I should warn you my own favourites are not flattered by their appearance online). Sitting on the couch at home. What does it reveal of the sitter? Nothing, so who cares? There’s nothing thought-provoking or surprising contained in its smooth perfection, and I for one thought it and others elicited nothing more than a big fat yawn.
The dark yet playful, mysterious and quite movingly mortal work by Nigel Milsom, Adam Cullen (bird as prophet), scored my vote in the People’s Choice; another worthy contender must be James Money’s portrait of the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, a painting that rewards closer inspection.
Sam Leach also won the Wynne Prize, so it’s been a nice little earner for him this year, and while I quite liked his whimsical landscape work – Proposal for landscaped cosmos – I didn’t think it was by any stretch the best landscape work hanging. For a start, all three Indigenous works are truly excellent this year; Joanne Currie-Nalingu’s Calm river country is so soothing it verges on hypnotic, and Elizabeth Kunoth Kngwarray is just spectacularly gifted: My Grandmother’s country is stunning. Gosh, there were so many excellent works here (yet again the Wynne leaves the other two prizes for dead) – I couldn’t help but be reminded of Watership Down’s cover when I saw Michael McWilliams’s Rabbitscape, but those bunnies sure are beautiful; Philip Wolfhagen delights as always with Journey to the source V; and Nobody is necessary, Juan Ford’s majestically spare vision, does a good job of making one feel small.
Well, it’s been a bit of a team effort so far, so it’s only fitting that you guys should be among the first to know: yesterday’s blood test was… positive. Yes, I’m shocked too. And so is Llewie. I think we’re both still digesting the result. I went into IVF first thing, and Nurse K – another of my favourites – took my blood and merrily sent me on my way with the best of her luck. I squeezed her arm on the way out, saying, “Thank you,” and I’ve just been down to the village to pick up a card for the nursing team, to say the same thing with the help of a box of chocolates. No matter what happens with this pregnancy, whether it holds or doesn’t hold, they’ve been wonderful, and I deeply appreciate the extent to which they’ve made a fairly harrowing process almost benign. That’s not easily done, but their professionalism and care have certainly made everything easier for me. IVF Australia: I’d recommend them to anyone.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll tell you what happened.
So after the test first thing yesterday morning, I wandered around the CBD completing various small tasks while Llew continued on to the office. Then I went to the State Library to work and wait. Unfortunately, I couldn’t sit in the Mitchell Library because I needed to be able to answer my phone, and this requirement limited my options to the busy lower-ground thoroughfare linking the two libraries. Noisy, especially once the American girl at the next table took a call. She evidently had a lot to discuss, loudly and at length. I resorted to sticking my fingers in my ears at one point, hunched over my laptop muttering a rich stream of obscenities while trying to edit a page of my MS, but I was only able to hear what she thought of a student’s incomplete essay; I gathered pretty early on that she was a tutor, and her self-professed skills in this area kept her happily occupied for upwards of half an hour. I started thinking I wasn’t the only one regretting she answered her phone. I thought maybe the person on the other end was kicking walls now too.
Finally it ended, and it wasn’t so much longer before Nurse K called. I answered about a tenth of the way into the first ring. My reflexes were Olympian. But I was so aware of Tutor of the Year sitting over there preening about three feet away that the last thing I wanted to do was talk or, worse, betray any emotion whatsoever. So when I said, “Hello?” and Nurse K said, “It’s K, Diana – congratulations!” I found myself saying in a small, blank voice “Really? Wow.”
The next few minutes are a blur, I don’t really remember what was said, then Nurse K furnished me with a couple of dates, including, if you can believe it, a due date. That broke the deadpan gridlock quick sticks – I started shaking and crying, although still desperately trying to sound remote and administrative for the benefit of my hair-twirling neighbour. Then I let it slip to Nurse K that I was all shaky, and she laughed and said, “I bet you are.”
So that was that… I packed up my computer and left, calling Llew as I exited the library. He wanted me to wait to tell him in person, so we arranged to meet outside the GPO in Martin Place. He looked nervous and uncertain as he walked toward me, and I’m sure the smile I gave him didn’t help matters, being all strange and wobbly (I just came as close as I’ve ever come, on any computer anywhere, to spilling water right across the desk… my desktop calendar is swimming… what was I saying about reflexes?).
Then he said, “Really? Wow,” which made me laugh.
“That’s exactly what I said,” I told him, watching everything from disbelief to delight pass over his face.
I think we’re both in shock. And when we spoke to his mum (they’re away down the other end of the country at the moment) as we stood in the warming sun of Martin Place, she sounded like she was in shock, too. Stunned. Somehow I think we erred on the side of disappointment this time, so getting the nod is a loud, jolting thunderclap. Indeed, I’m going to have to start watching myself. All these surprises seem to have addled my brain. In the past 24 hours alone, I’ve stood in the path of a moving vehicle, rooted stupidly to the spot as vague and unseeing as any village idiot; I’ve wandered around a supermarket for an unknown length of time before leaving without the very item I went in to buy; I’ve lost all sense of where I’m putting all my pens (where? Where are they??); I’ve written ‘its’ instead of ‘it’s’ in an email; I’ve lost a train of thought mid-conversation even as I was having it. As I emailed Llew earlier, it’s like my mind has left for a long picnic without bothering to invite me along.
It’s bizarre, and not a little perturbing. I live so much in my head, and always have done, that this sudden vacancy feels like a kind of homelessness. It’s as though my brain’s evicted me, very rudely, and I’m not sure it’s planning to give back my bond. All very strange, as is the supreme tiredness that has started washing over me nightly at about 7 o’clock. As I confessed to Shuckin’ Charlotte this morning, I am making like a dormouse, no longer dancing on tables so much as sleeping beneath them.
For all that, it is far, far too early to tell if this is viable or not, and past experience dictates we temper all the excitement and curiosity with some harsh truths. While of course this result is hugely encouraging, it’s simply too early to say if it’ll last, so we have no choice but to keep managing our expectations. We shall proceed with cautious optimism. In normal circumstances, there’s a good reason why people don’t share their happy news too soon – it’s too fragile, all of it – but thanks to so many people, this has been a challenge shared, and a hope multiplied, and keeping good news to ourselves is no insurance against bad. So we’re still in it, friends, we’re in with a chance, and thanks so much for keeping me company on this lurching, turning ride.
The other novel I finished before Easter was The Ice Age, by Kirsten Reed. A debut novel, its cover carries this brief but enticing description from award-winning Australian author Christos Tsiolkas: ‘Compelling – the twenty-first century love child of Lolita and Huck Finn.’ Kerouac’s Beat rambler On the Road has also been cited in press relating to this book, which was recently shortlisted in the regional Best First Book category of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, but I read an online interview with Kirsten (I’m invoking first name rights because I interviewed her for the Varuna Alumni News) in which she denied any conscious influence of any of these seminal texts. She did, however, acknowledge that any such comparisons are of course enormously flattering (although personally I think there’s an outsized, curly Riddler-esque question mark over On the Road, which I didn’t love even though I adore road trips and road narratives), and my own feeling, particularly in the case of Lolita, is that there is value in exploring the textual links whether they were intended by the Brisbane-based, Seattle-born author or no.
I’m surprised Lolita isn’t an acknowledged influence because The Ice Age almost seems like the other half of a conversation that Lolita begins. Lolita’s narrator is Humbert Humbert, the older man of the forbidden relationship, whereas here we have the young woman’s first-person perspective instead. Remaining nameless throughout, our narrator is importantly older than Lolita’s Dolores, turning 18 before the relationship tips into the territory that makes society shudder. The additional years she has on Dolores change the landscape of the novel, but certain discomforts persist simply because she’s young and naïve, and Gunther is worldly and middle-aged.
Like Humbert, Gunther is presented as handsome and smooth (though far less arch in this Continental persona than HH). He’s intelligent. Charismatic. A charmer. Wildly popular with the ladies – the more mature variety, his peers – in whom, also like Humbert, he shows little and forced interest. He appears more casually disturbed by his actions than Humbert, who analyses his own perversity until his attentions become overwhelmingly narcissistic, but this is where The Ice Age’s narrative perspective limits our capacity to access what torment Gunther may or may not be going through. He’s a man of few words as it is, and he’s not our guide through the story, so beyond a few choice remarks when he’s ready/determined to extricate himself (as he always must, so I don’t think this is a spoiler) from this entanglement, we have no idea how he really feels.
And do we care?
Well, not hugely, because our teen narrator is a pretty cool customer, and very good company throughout. Teenagers are wisecracking and shrewd, the keenest observers of others, and Kirsten nails the voice of a girl hitting womanhood armed with little more than her sharp wit and a pair of distressingly narrow hips. She’s still so young, and she sounds it, for all her obvious humour and rapidly developing cynicism. It’s a delicate dance, achieving that balance, and it’s done extremely well here. The awakening she gets on the road – an education she receives with a disturbingly detached absence of horror – is sometimes more like a long-running nightmare, and yet somehow she doesn’t fold, partly because Gunther is not an outright creep and therefore does his best, albeit belatedly and with a stunning display of adult dysfunction, to deliver her from harm.
We share the narrator’s sad and sweet 18th birthday with her, and I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to my own. I was in Canada, far, far away from my hometown of Sydney. I’d spent my 17th birthday the exact same way, at that time having just arrived less than two weeks earlier to start a two-year college experience. Boy, I felt I’d switched planets, not just continents, especially because I had a room party with charitable strangers, my fellow students, that involved hot chocolate and muffins, instead of the underage binge-drinking debacle I could have expected to enjoy back home. What the hell, I wondered, was this? Some kind of sick joke? Am I a child? This is a stupid kid’s party! Where’s the booze?! In other words, I was so busy galloping toward a version of myself in which I was a grown-up the world was finally starting to take seriously, that I failed to recognise my measures only served to demonstrate how much growing I still had left to do. It’s very much the case with The Ice Age’s protagonist, which makes this a bittersweet read because so much of it rings true.
I think the novel’s truth is particularly significant in its presentation of our heroine’s budding sexuality. That age is so wily. Girls in Western society are often sexually active by 17-18, but their judgement is almost sure to be grossly impaired for those formative years and for an embarrassing number of years to come. They develop wild crushes on absolutely everyone, or at least I did, particularly anyone who paid the slightest attention to me. Seriously. Anyone. Practically all you had to do was meet me in the eye, and mentally I’d be off and racing, weaving elaborate trysts and spectacular fireworks out of… NOTHING. No wonder most of my ardent crushes were unrequited – those poor guys were only trying to pass the salt! But the fact is, I’d developed and then maintained a vivid internal sexual world from quite a young age, and by the time I had the freedom and hormones to match, it made me very vulnerable in an external world that teemed with possibility and promise. It made the world dangerous, and mistakes were duly made. And watching this young girl walk straight into the same minefield… well, it was painful, because somehow a lot of us fall deaf around about the same time, and so we can’t hear the straining Siren song. Mistakenly accused of causing men to shipwreck, instead I think of these mythical figures as sister spirits, trying their hardest to call us back to safety.
Note to self: in future, write blog post before heading into the belching bowels of the MS redrafting… that’s the second day in a row I’ve made the mistake of not posting first, and yesterday’s result was not posting at all. So. I must manage my writing time more successfully, or else DoctorDi will end up sailing down the sewer rapids with me. And we can’t have that. Collectively, you’re the only thing keeping me sane.
I spoke to Nana over Easter. I’d been trying to reach her without success for a couple of weeks, and I persisted in using the room number instead of phoning the RN’s desk on the ward because Nana just gets so distracted when she’s out in the general area that she’s really just busting to get off. It kind of defeats the purpose, phoning when I know she’s in an environment in which she doesn’t wish to speak. There’s no purpose in the usual sense anyway, because she can’t remember when last I called and shall have no recollection of this conversation either. Nonetheless, I know, and so I continued my efforts to catch her in her room.
And finally, success: the jovial sounding lady who, it transpired, was dressing Nana, picked up the phone, and without further ado put her on.
“Happy Easter, Nana!” I said.
“And Happy Easter to you,” she said.
“Did you have a good one?”
“Well,” she said, “I didn’t… do anything, I didn’t do anything special, but yes, I suppose I did. There are some very nice people here, you know.”
“I am extremely glad to hear you say so.”
“Yes,” Nana continued. “And there’s things… there’s someone here, actually, and there’s things all over the bed.”
“Is it your clothes? Did I interrupt your getting dressed?”
“Yes! I’m… there’s a lady here trying to dress me. I’ve got my pants on.”
“I should certainly hope so!” I said, and she laughed. “Being dressed, eh? That sounds pretty good, Nana. It’s like you’ve got ladies-in-waitng.”
“Yes,” she said. “It is quite like that, actually. I’ve got this thing on my leg. I can see it.”
“Is it a bandage?” I ventured, knowing she’s had a lot of terrible trouble with one leg and an injury that’s never really properly healed.
“No,” she said, “no, it’s not a bandage. It’s a thing. Something hanging off. I want to flick it or pick it.”
“A scab!” I felt quite triumphant, like I’d just solved a cryptic puzzle.
“Yes! A scab. And the rest of my legs are brown.”
“Brown?” I said doubtfully. “Really? You’ve been tanning up there, have you?”
She laughed this away.
“No, they’re brown. Horrible. They look awful. Brown!”
“Is it some kind of antiseptic cream? A lotion?”
“No, no,” she said. “They’re brown.”
I just couldn’t figure it out. I still have no idea what she talking about.
“Well, don’t be too hard on yourself, Nana,” I said. “You are standing around in your underpants.”
This put Nana in very high spirits.
“So how’s your love life?” I asked. “Any romantic interests I should know about?”
Nana’s tone turned instantly coy.
“As a matter of fact, there is a gentleman I’m interested in, and I think he’s pretty interested in me too. He’s a very nice man.”
“Excellent news, Nana. What’s his name?”
“Vincent,” she declared, without a moment’s hesitation.
“Vincent? Do you sit together?”
“Yes, we do. We do other things.” Oh god, I thought, please no. “There’s… there’s other things…what do you call someone who’s just…yummy?”
“Yes,” she insisted, “really yummy. There’s someone here who does the things, and I go along sometimes because he’s doing them.”
The penny dropped.
“Oh!” I said, laughing. “The activities director!”
“Yes,” said Nana. “There’s an activities roster. We do lots of things. There’s some very nice people here, you know.”
“And some spunky ones, too, by the sound of it! I should have known you’d be up to no good, flirting with the staff.” Nana didn’t deny it. I think we both know the score. “But you see plenty of Kate and Harper too, don’t you?”
“Oh yes,” she said happily.
“I saw some photos of Harper recently. I didn’t think it was possible, but I think she may actually be getting even cuter.”
“Yes,” Nana agreed. “I didn’t think it was possible myself, but I think she may… yes, she may be getting cuter. She is very cute. And how’s Llewie?”
I gave her the full rundown, and then there was a moment’s pause before…
“And how’s Llewie?”
“He’s good, Nana,” I said. “He’s working hard, but he’s good.”
“I wish I could see you,” she said.
I explained about the two rounds of IVF and Llew’s work recently slowing us down, but then told her I’m learning to drive.
“So the plan is, once I have a bit more experience under my belt, we’re going to drive up to see you.”
“That’ll be lovely,” Nana said. She just sounds so happy there, so content. It’s just the most thoroughly excellent outcome after everything we went through down here. “I can’t wait to see you.”
“And I can’t wait to see you,” I said.
“I’d better go,” she said brightly. “There’s someone here waiting to dress me.”
“Okay, Nana. Off you go.”
“Lovely to speak to you!”
“And you,” I said, but she was already gone.
I hope everyone had a good Easter break – ours was lovely. In Australia the death-and-resurrection yarn always heralds a welcome four-day weekend, so there’s very few complaints in these parts even if there’s rapidly dwindling Catholicism. And if the Vatican thought anointing our first Australian saint – Mary MacKillop, who sadly took her cancer cure with her when she swapped sides (pity, that) – was going to stem the tide of defection, I fear they were much mistaken. It’s at the point where people don’t even really say ‘Happy Easter,’ at least in my circles, where you’re much likelier to hear ‘Happy eating.’
Needless to say, there was plenty of that. In fact, I’m still going. I can’t seem to stop feeding my face…although herein commences the critically dull world of dietary restrictions, should the blast hold. Indeed, I’m beginning to suspect pregnancy – and even attempting one – is a rather elaborate plot to stop normally active and engaged women dead in their tracks: no, you can’t eat that; no, you can’t drink that; no, you can’t lift that; no, you can’t run that; no, you can’t apply for that; no, you can’t travel on that; no, you can’t wear that; no, you can’t even think about that; NO. I’m sure it’s enough to make the average hitherto very capable and freewheeling girl a little resentful. ‘Oh, you’ve got me now, society, haven’t you?’ – is that what pregnant women say under their breath, through gritted teeth, whenever someone unknown steps forward to continue the lecture? You know, I think perhaps the unstated reason women are exhorted to SLOW DOWN at this time is so society at large can catch up, sit them down (take a load off, darling, you mustn’t move around too much), and start delivering the lesson.
I’m just so glad I live in the age I do, an age in which women remain active, engaged, visible, productively employed members of society both as pregnant women and then later as mothers. I did quite a bit of reading over the long weekend, and there was an odd confluence at one point between Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and Salley Vickers’s Dancing Backwards (no, I haven’t finished DeLillo’s Point Omega, because I was home alone Saturday night, and when I got into bed with a hot chocolate at about 7:30, it felt much more like a girls’ night in, so after finishing Mantel, I started on Woolf and then rounded it out with Vickers – a most satisfactory evening with friends). Both Mantel and Vickers vividly illustrate the dire straitened circumstances of the female student resident in one of the early, few and woefully underfunded, under-equipped women’s colleges. Woolf of course famously addressed her lecture to students of Newnham in 1928, at which several decades later Vickers’s protagonist Violet Hetherington is a student when it is still one of only three colleges where women can study for a Cambridge degree. Vickers’s description of conditions might have been taken directly from Mantel’s heroine Carmel’s women’s college in London, where she’s a perpetually cold and malnourished student at around the same time Vi is at Newnham:
The poorer women’s colleges were stingy with their heating and students were obliged to post shillings into their gas meters to light their hopelessly inadequate gas fires. Vi’s grant covered only part of her fees and living expenses and the money was not made up by her father. Rather than ask for what she suspected would not be forthcoming, Vi scrimped and did without extra food and heat in her room and consequently was always catching cold (Dancing Backwards, p. 55).
Chilling in more ways than one, ladies! And if you’re really looking to curl your toes, I suggest you head into the dining hall with Carmel in the pages of An Experiment in Love. Talk about unappetising.
Anyway, this three-pronged insight into the mean appointments and meagre facilities available to women hard at work on their education in the not-too-distant past sort of relates to what I’m saying about pregnancy and motherhood at least temporarily stopping women in their tracks. If you remember how grudging so many of the gains have been throughout time – and Woolf’s text spells that out more succinctly and eloquently than I ever could – then in some way, pregnancy and motherhood both enable the lingering vestiges of that resentment and suspicion toward modern women to find contemporary expression.
It doesn’t matter how educated you are, nor how important or public or vital your role in society may be, nor whether you are financially independent or not, if you are a woman, you will still be brought indoors and your individual propulsion stalled by the decision to carry and/or care for a child. There’s no two ways about it; it goes with the territory. And I’ve already many times glimpsed the delight and horror this simple truth breeds in both men and women, who seem all to taste a measure of each. What I find most impressive about the age and society I live in is that women are largely empowered to make a comeback, if indeed it’s a comeback they choose to make.
Educated though they have been – and I know Woolf would be heartened to learn I was taught to take as given my equal standing; it was never once, not once, suggested to me that girls were any less capable than boys – and though they don’t suddenly unlearn their expertise and forget their vocations, it’s clear pregnancy and motherhood still change the playing field pretty potently for the majority of women. And that, being a matter for the grand Mother of us all, Nature, is never going to change. I guess this is why I am suspicious of and irritated by the conceptual limitations of “equality of the sexes”; by their nature, the male and female sex of the species deals in difference, not sameness; in human beings, only women can carry and (naturally) feed young. Let’s be frank: there’s nothing equal about it. But that – as fundamentally as it comes – is life. That difference means life. Gives life. Creates life. Continues the very cycle of life. That essential role does change things for women, and I think it always will, it’s too fundamental for it to be otherwise, but I do feel daily the privilege of standing on giants’ shoulders. Today I reap the freedoms and rewards of their work on our sex’s behalf, women to whom I owe a lifelong debt of thanks for all that I am, and for all that I always felt free to be. I couldn’t be here, living this life, without them, thus I can’t help feeling that in some small way, all my words are theirs.