Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about a day back in circa 1988, when I was stranded in a small beach town, with a 10 digit phone number written on a piece of paper, that wasn’t getting through to anyone because the phone it was ringing was “out of range.”

Back then, after the stress of that day was in the past, I got a lot of mileage from retelling that story. With a story-teller’s licence, I felt free to exaggerate certain elements, and downplay others, and I seem to recall that the audience was in stitches when I retold it a few years later at my friend’s 21st.

Now that its 2014, the humour is somewhat lost – it just sounds quaint. Nowadays, the main point that story serves to reveal is my age, but also, the enormous advances in mobile phone technology that have occurred in the relatively small span of history that has passed since I was in my late teens.

True, it is possible that, with some really bad planning, one could still manage to arrive in a country area with poor telephone network coverage and not be able to get in contact with your host due to poor network coverage, but, assuming that about 90% of people carry a “smart” phone everywhere they go, a lot of other aspects of that story would be different in 2014.

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Sometimes I think that my generation (Gen X) are privileged to have a unique perspective on the ever-accelerating rate of advancements in technology, and not just because technology has advanced so much in our own lifetimes. Generationally, we are still have very close ties to a past where electronic devices of any sort were unheard of. My parents, perhaps a little older than average for my peers, were born before the Second World War, when a mechanical washing machine was still relatively new technology, and a telephone was not even yet a common household item for the average working class family.

bell telephone

Bell Telephone ad (American) from 1938. Just lift the receiver and tell the operator the 3-digit number you need to call!

Pic: Ohio University Vintage Print Advertising Archive

I don’t remember my parents talking about any outings in cars as children so I’m not sure if my mother’s parents ever drove, or even owned a car. My father grew up on a farm, where a truck was certainly used for farming activities when he was older, but I know that as a small child, he walked with his older siblings the few miles from the farm into “town,” to get to school each morning, rain, hail, snow or sun, a journey that would probably take about 12 minutes by car. Those were the days when each child was given a “slate” and a pencil to write on it with, and children who were left-handed, like my father was, had their dominant hand tied behind their back until they learned to write with their right hand.

My parents, in turn, shared with us from time to time, snippets of their own parents’ lives. These were my grandparents, only 2 generations removed from me but born in the late 19th Century, and teenagers at the outbreak of World War 1 (my mother’s father was an ambulance-bearer in the war). In those stories it was the absence of modern technology that had the greatest impact, particularly the absence of the huge advances in health care that would occur in the 20th century, increasing life expectancy, and would almost certainly have resulted in my grandfather’s brothers surviving childhood, my mother’s father, and my own father not losing parents at a very young age, and my  great-aunt not having a life-long limp due to childhood polio. (a common side-effect of polio was paralysis and subsequent distortion of a developing limb, such as having one leg shorter than the other.)

Washing Machine advert, circa. 1910

Washing Machine advert, circa. 1910. Saves Nerves.

Pic: Wikipedia

My grandparents’ lives began around the time that electric lighting first hit the streets of Melbourne, and that first flicker of yellow light seems symbolic, since the technology that electricity enabled would continue to advance – quietly for the first half of their lives, and, more noisily for the second half, when it would announce itself regularly with more and more new products that were increasingly able to be modified and priced for a domestic market. Consider the huge changes that occurred within my grandmother’s life: (1899 to 1989): her grandfather emigrated to Australia from Ireland, coming by boat, a journey of many months. When she was in her 30s, commercial flights began to operate in Australia – soon the same journey her grandfather had taken could be done in a day. When she was in her sixties, humans landed on the moon. When she was a young adult, people went to the “Pictures” to see a newsreel and a black-and-white, silent movie. When she was in her 50’s, television began mainstream broadcasting in Australia (1956), heralding the beginning of the Modern Era in Australia, ie, an era where the consumer market was dominated by electronic devices designed to make life easier, which had seemed like a futuristic vision only a few years earlier. Now you could watch the news in your own home, every night.

As a child growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I have vague memories of  large black-and-white TVs, and the excitement with which we kids greeted the very first colour TV that entered our home, but by the time we finally got a “computer” (a monitor screen for an Atari computer game), I was studying for Year 12 and spent my free time at friend’s houses, so I was barely aware that this existed, and a video player never entered the house while I lived at home.

Another thing about being a Generation X-er, or perhaps more specifically, through a combination of bad timing, and parents who were “old-fashioned” for the time, it seems that a Generation X-er like myself, who left home at the age of 18, was able to sneak through my teenage years and early twenties, barely encountering the technology that was finally, and gradually, becoming more widely used.

As a student, I wrote all my essays through high school and my first university course with a pen and paper, which was still the accepted mode as recently as the early 1990s. Back up copy? No such thing. My only significant encounter with a computer in that time was when I took an optional, half-year subject in Year 10, imaginatively called “Computers”. This comprised of learning to turn a computer on and run through a basic typing course, in a pre-Windows environment of course, where we typed commands at the top of the black screen where a cursor flashed on and off. No wonder I wasn’t excited by the possibilities that computers had to offer.

I seem to recall that some people my age had video players in their family homes by the time I was about 18, but we weren’t one of those families, and I left home before my parents finally relented on that front. Living for the next 9 years or so as a poor student in various rented share-houses, myself and my house-mates generally considered ourselves lucky to have a TV, (always donated by someone’s family), and I was probably about 27 before I ever had a video player in my home – just around the time that video was becoming old technology!

Another way that my personal past is linked to the technology-laden present and future, is because popular culture in the 1970s was very obsessed with science fiction and a utopian future. There was a plethora of television shows screened in family-viewing time in the 1970s that were full of, or even based on, futuristic devices. From the videophone used by The Jetsons, to the talking computers and teleportation devices featured on Star Trek, to the robots that featured in everything from Star Wars to Get Smart, to the thrill of watching Rick Deckard (in a dystopian, early 80’s vision of the future) zoom in on a detail in a photograph in Blade Runner, as viewers we were excited by futuristic devices that seemed, to our eyes, to be creations straight out of the minds of screen writers with fantastic imaginations. In hindsight now, it seems that many of these writers were, if not actually aware of what would be possible in the future, at least riding on the Zeitgiest, creatively in tune with the potential that technology offered.

An early prototype for Skype.

An early prototype for Skype.

Pic: The Smithsonian

Nowadays, just like Jane Jetson, (perhaps less glamorously) I can call my sister in Ireland and see her face on a screen while we chat. Like Rick Deckard, I can look at a photograph and zoom in to scrutinise a detail. I don’t have a robot, but I believe Godfrey’s have a sale on them this weekend for $89. And, as Andy Warhol probably could have predicted, I can write a piece of “creative non-fiction” and in a matter of seconds I can publish it online where the entire online world could read it if they wanted to.

Nana, you’d be amazed.

My mum's mother, holding me, c 1970. (Color film not yet common!)

My mum’s mother, holding me, c 1970. (Color film not yet common!)

Out of Control

This morning, as I was driving to work, my car was hit by a moving vehicle. I was doing the speed limit, 60 kmph, along a main, 2-lane road, at the time of impact.

I’m not sure how fast the other driver was going. I had right of way, and from the left lane I was driving in, it’s impossible at peak hour to see cars trying to cross that 2-lane intersection, due to the semi-trailers that bank up for blocks in the right lane, blocking vision of the cross-street from the far/left lane, and vice versa. The right lane banks up with trucks because a block further up it becomes a right-turn-only lane onto a main route for trucks carting containers to and from the ports. The left lane, which I drive in every morning to work, usually moves along at a regular speed, because it continues straight ahead –  a road less travelled.

As I drove, I was thinking about work, and singing along to Sleigh Bells, (the band, not the instruments), and the first thing I registered that was out of the ordinary was the noise – a loud crash and the sounds of breakage. Then, for a confusing second or so, my brain struggled to understand the view through the windscreen. (Strangely, I don’t recall feeling the impact of the hit at all – at that stage, the crashing sound could have been a car hitting a car nearby as far as I was aware.)

The confusing scene I was trying to make sense of was the rapidly changing sight of cars and semi-trailers around me as I spun 180 degrees amongst them. There was noise to go with this vision, perhaps a kind of scraping sound. My brain caught up, and, putting sound and vision together, realised that my car had been hit and was spinning around.

It must have taken at least a second, or two, or who knows, maybe it was up to three, to get to that point where I had a cognitive response – time that could make the difference between life and death or horrific injury in some cases. I guess it just depends what’s nearby for your car to smash into in those few seconds, and also, on whether slamming brakes on sooner could actually be more detrimental in certain conditions.

It’s hard to tell you now, what my thoughts were during those 2-3 seconds. I can’t recall if I spoke out loud. I can’t recall if I felt any fear. I can recall seeing the long, low, steel trailer of a semi-trailer right in front of me as my car spun past it, perhaps at the moment when I began to realise what was happening and the danger I was in.

As the next second clicked over, and my cognitive thought caught up with what was occurring, and realised that my car was apparently spinning out of control, it seems to me that the only response I had in that instant was, how do I stop this? Survival instinct took over and overrode fear, embarrassment, or any other emotion I might have imagined I’d feel in this situation.

I braked, stopping my car neatly in a position at the side of the two lanes of traffic, facing directly into the oncoming traffic.

Once I had braked, and stopped my car’s propulsion around in a circle across 2 lanes of traffic, I tried to re-start the engine so that I could move the car around the corner next to where I had come to a stop. After a few attempts it was apparent that the engine had died, so I got out to survey the wreckage.

Instantly I was swarmed (or so it felt) with people asking if I was ok. There was a young man from a factory on the corner, an elderly woman, and, a little bit further off, another man who turned out to be the driver of the other car, a taxi, with its front bumper and number plate now lying on the footpath nearby. (apart from a small bit of number plate that was melded to the door of my car).  A second young man emerged from the same factory on the corner to ask if I was ok and let me know that if I needed to sit down I could come in to the factory.

As I stood there, surrounded by people who were all being as helpful and kind as possible, having the required conversations – what happened? are you alright? are you sure you’re alright? were you the other driver? did you see what happened? Call a tow truck now because you might have to wait an hour – and amidst that, calling work to say I wouldn’t be in, leaving a message for my partner, trying to take down the details of the other driver, calling the tow truck, hearing from the elderly woman how she had come over because once her car had been flipped over in a similar situation and she usually has Rescue Remedy on her but didn’t have any today – I silently surveyed my totalled car. I could not understand firstly the mechanics of how it had ended up where it had, and secondly, how I had managed to spin 180 degrees within 2 lanes of traffic, and apparently be thrust, backwards, from where I must have started out, without hitting any vehicles after the first impact.

After half an hour, the other people began to dwindle away. The kindly, elderly woman was assured that I was ok, and went on her way. The factory workers were thanked, and they headed back across the road to the factory. The taxi driver drove his damaged taxi away – perhaps it will only require some panel-beating. I stood there, alone, next to my poor, totalled car, by the side of the main road I had recently ricocheted across, waiting for the tow truck. It was a drag, sure, and it had thrown my day right out – but I couldn’t help thinking how lucky I was to be standing there for all the world like someone with a simple flat tyre.

We know that life can change in a matter of seconds but it’s always sobering to be reminded of this so clearly. I’d wasted time this morning thinking about something as trivial as what music to listen to in the car on the 10 minute journey to work, and now that car was a write-off. And if some other detail had been different, those few seconds could have changed my life forever. If the road had been wet, say, or if I’d been going faster at time of impact, I could have been seriously injured, have sustained a major brain injury, a neck or spinal injury, lost an eye, or a limb, or my life.

Is it common after an experience like this, to muse about what could have happened, or is that just something I tend to do? Perhaps, as someone suggested, it’s not helpful to dwell on the things that could have happened, but then again, I’m not quite sure. Maybe it IS useful to acknowledge that worse scenarios could have occurred, because in light of that, what did happen can be seen as cause for thankfulness rather than regret.

I just had an accident where my car spun 180 degrees in a few seconds, across and amongst moving traffic, and I walked away, minus a car, but with not a single scratch, and (so far) not even a headache.

So yes, of course I’m annoyed.

I’m annoyed that I have no car now, and at a time when finances are very tight, insurance will probably only pay me out about $4000 towards a replacement car. I’m annoyed that the next few weeks without a car will be full of tedious minor annoyances as two adults negotiate the logistics of getting to and from everywhere we need to go, and ferrying and picking up our teenage daughter from the places she needs to go, without a single car between the three of us. I’m very annoyed that I just paid over $200 to have the car serviced 2 weeks ago. I’m annoyed that I also paid $45 to fill it with petrol 3 days ago. (I pause to wonder who will benefit from that almost-full tank of petrol, and assume it will be the towing company.)

I’m annoyed that the car insurance doesn’t cover provision of a hire car when we have no car at all. I’m annoyed that just a few minutes earlier on that trip, I sat at a turning arrow and contemplated turning left and taking a different route, but decided to stick with my usual route. I’m annoyed that I just paid for a term of yoga classes I now won’t be able to get to. I’m annoyed that I didn’t leave home earlier, or plan to come in later, so that I wouldn’t have been at that spot right at that second.

But at the same time, like Pollyanna was, I’m thankful, relieved, and glad.

I’m thankful that I came out of such a scary accident unscathed. I’m relieved that the car did not flip over, or hit any other vehicle while it was out of control. I’m glad I didn’t have my daughter in the car with me. I’m glad there was no passenger, particularly that there was not someone sitting on the driver’s side of the car. I’m glad I wasn’t going any faster. I’m glad that I didn’t get there a second later or earlier, because the dangerous thing with the game of “if only,” is that you can’t know what difference a few seconds either way might have made.

I’m glad I didn’t pay to have the hole in the windscreen fixed, because what a waste of money that would have been! I’m glad I didn’t pay to have it washed at a car wash on Monday. (Something I never do but did seriously consider this week as it was so filthy!) I’m thankful that the person who smashed into me was cooperative and friendly. I’m thankful for the young men from the factory and the elderly woman who stopped and contributed her supportive presence.

I’m thankful that I’m here, writing about this.

 

I say, you say, weren’t you listening?

One summer, when I was 18, and feeling awfully adult, I took a train, and then a bus, to a small beach town where a friend of mine was staying with her family, expecting that, as we’d arranged, she would meet me when I got off the bus in town.

Porpoise Spit. An exquisite little beach town somewhere in Australia.

Porpoise Spit. An exquisite little beach town somewhere in Australia.

Pic: Some Space To Breathe

To my surprise, she was not there. I didn’t panic, at first. I waited around the bus stop, thinking that she must be running late, then waited a bit longer, thinking perhaps she had the time wrong.

After maybe an hour or more, I started to feel worried, so I went to a phone box. (For those playing at home, a phone box was a large receptacle that one could step into, and, by means of dropping coins into a large clunky telephone, and dialling or pressing buttons, make phone calls on a landline. They were also sometimes used by superheroes as handy, if not exactly private, places to change into their superhero costume).

I had no idea if my friend was staying in a house, caravan, or tent, and all the information I had was, on a scrap of paper, a phone number that my friend had given me. It was a strange looking phone number, as, at that time, local numbers had 6 digits in country areas or 7 in the city, and an area code that started with a “0” was only required if you were calling from outside a specific zone. This number had 10 digits, and started with a 0.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I dialled, but it certainly wasn’t to be greeted with an automated voice recording saying that the number I had called was “out of range,” and to try again later. I had never heard that terminology before, and did not know what it meant. My slight worry suddenly became panic, as it dawned on me that the phone number I was carrying was incorrect, or at least unreliable, and I had no other details about where my friend was staying.

That was the beginning of a very long and tiring day. I spent that entire afternoon, from about midday until 6pm, utilising every detective skill I could muster to try and locate my friend’s family. I visited the post office, and checked through phone books to look for listings under their last name. I scrutinised maps of the town to work out where those addresses were, drew myself a copy of the streets as best I could, marked off where those residences were, and then traipsed across town to locate them, only to be disappointed each time. I visited real estate agents to ask for holiday listings, to no avail.

During these investigations, I interacted with adults who were kind enough to attempt to help me. A sympathetic real estate agent took pity on my predicament and said if I hadn’t located my friend’s family by nightfall I could stay with her.  I explained to someone at the post office that the number I was dialling was “out of range”, hoping she might know what that meant, and she asked to see the number. When I gave it to her, she was as perplexed as me, and said “I think that’s the area code for Queensland.”

04 IS the area code to call Queensland from another state in Australia, but as it happens, 04 is also the standard two numbers at the beginning of the standard 10 digits that make up mobile phone numbers in Australia. But this story took place back in 1988, and mobile phones were still advanced technology, probably only utilised by people who worked in the industry, such as my friend’s father, who was a salesman of telecommunications products, for Telecom, the National (and only) phone line and service provider. Clearly when it came to the layperson, at least 2 people – myself and the helpful person at the post office – had never come across the concept of a mobile phone before, aside from Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone.

Hello, 99...Hello? Damn this shoe phone - it's out of range!

Hello, 99…Hello? Damn shoe phone – it’s out of range!

Pic: The Examiner

I didn’t know what being “out of range” meant back then, and all I could do was cling to the hope that at some stage during the day the phone would be “within range”. Throughout the entire day, as I criss-crossed town in my attempt to locate my friend’s holiday residence, I stopped at every phone box I came to and tried the number, only to have my heart sink each time when I heard the same Out Of Range message start up again.

Finally, at around 6pm, I was back in the centre of town again and figuring that I would have to go back and see my new friend the real estate agent before she closed up. I thought I would try phoning one last time. To my astonishment, this time my friend’s mother answered the phone.

I can still remember the uncharacteristic haste with which I bypassed the usual polite niceties and just blurted out who I was and where I was. I guessed there was a possibility that the phone could go “out of range” at any moment, and I needed the crucial details to be conveyed before that happened. My friend’s mother, in turn, was outraged that I’d been left to wander around town all afternoon with no-one knowing I was there, and sent family members on a rescue mission immediately. Soon after I was sitting in comfort, in their caravan at the caravan park.

At the closing of this saga, let it be noted that I was not even annoyed at my friend (who was always a sweet but slightly vague girl, who had simply got the day of our arrangement wrong) because I was so utterly relieved to finally be settled for the evening. Mostly, I think I was intrigued to meet the creature that had caused me such angst.

A mobile phone in 1988

A mobile phone in 1988

Pic: Talk Talk

It looked something like the one I’ve located in the picture above:  the battery component was about the size of a small suitcase, or a large hard-drive, with a phone attachment on top. It charged in the car, but was used in the caravan – on the odd occasion when it was in range. In 1988, mobile networks were not what they are today.

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Regular readers may be aware that often, though not always, the titles of my posts are titles, or lyrics, from songs. Sometimes I use titles, or lyrics, from Australian songs, and I realise these may not be more widely known, which may hinder some readers from gleaning that there is any ongoing “game” to the titles of my posts. So I just thought I’d clue you in that the title of this post is a lyric from a 1980’s big-hair band called Pseudo Echo. This song sounds a lot like something by Blancmange, if you happen to remember them!

 

No alarms and no surprises

A few years ago I was having a conversation with a friend at work about the gulf that exists between how we see ourselves and how others see us.

This woman, (I’ll call her Katrina although that is not her real name) is about 7 years younger than me, and at that time was probably in her early thirties. I would have described Katrina then, and now, as an attractive, petite, single woman with a vibrant personality and sharp wits, who is competent and capable at event management and directing casual staff.  Katrina doesn’t see herself that way, however. Unlike me, she is not a shy person, however she was, and is still, full of self-doubt, and anxieties, particularly, I think, because she is single, a fact that every second television show, movie and advertisement tells us that being single is a lesser state of being. At that time, too, she was also full of doubts and anxieties about her lack of any formal training or certifications in the field she was working in and her prospects with moving on in her career.

After berating her for not acknowledging her strengths in her professional role, I laughingly commented that it just shows how we look at other people and think that they are full of confidence in themselves. I said, We think they know who they are, what they are doing, where they are going, and what they plan to do with their lives. To my surprise, given that we were friends and I was frequently honest about my own flaws and shortcomings, Katrina responded by saying that I looked like I knew who I was, what I was doing, where I was going, and what I was trying to do with my life!

I was both amused and surprised when my friend said this, and wondered if it was just because I was a few years older than her that she saw me this way. Surely I’d had enough conversations with her where I expressed my own lack of confidence in certain aspects of my job and myself in general? Surely she was aware of my many unsuccessful attempts to apply for other jobs, with no particular career path in mind! Yet still her comment seemed to indicate that she thought I was on top of everything and heading contentedly along a pre-planned path towards achieving all my personal goals.

Nowadays I’m working somewhere new, and sometimes I recall her comment and wonder if I’m managing to fool my new colleagues. Do they think I know who I am, what I’m doing, where I’m going and where this new job fits into my long-term career plans?

The reality is this.

Do I know who I am?

Actually, to this question I’d answer a tentative yes. I feel as if I do know myself, and who I am – or at least, I’m far better aquainted with myself than I was 10 years ago. Dear younger readers, it IS true what you hear about being in your 40s – if there is no other consolation, at least I’m comfortable with who I am, and not concerned any longer with trying to be something that I’m not.

10 years ago, when I was in my early thirties with a young baby, I would shop for clothes, needing my clothes to make some kind of statement about myself. I guess I was trying to tell myself, and the rest of the world, that being in my thirties, and a parent, and having moved to the suburbs in order to take out a mortgage, all amounted to a very small transition from being a childless twenty-something, not the huge leap into a foreign country and middle-aged lifestyle choice that it sometimes felt like. I chose clothes on the basis of wanting to still seem young and “cool”, and as a result, I feel sure that at least in some cases, the statement my clothes were making was “I’m still grasping onto my twenties for dear life.”

Feeling comfortable with who you are does not mean being totally satisfied with who you are, of course. In terms of trying to project an image to the rest of the world, when I shop for clothes now my goal is to find clothes I like, that are flattering. As simple as that. Like most women, I don’t always like the body I see in the change-room mirror. But these days, my perception of myself is in tune with the clothes I select to try on, so I don’t experience too much angst in the change rooms, because I’m not trying to match an abstract ideal.

Feeling comfortable with yourself also does not exclude you from wanting to improve. In a professional sense, there are areas where I feel competent and capable, and areas where I feel as if I am bluffing my way through (hopefully). In my personal life, I’m aware of many flaws – impatience, sarcasm, unkindness – that I need to continue to work on. I suppose I hope that some of my good qualities – sense of humor, loyalty, recognition of others’ hard work, sense of fairness – balance out the flaws. I think I know myself, but I’d also like to think that self can continue to improve.

Do I know what I’m doing?

On a day-to-day level, in this new job, I find myself doing all sorts of things I’ve never had any training or experience in previously. I’m frequently doing things that are outside of my PD and therefore also outside of my skill set and comfort zone. Consequently, a lot of the time I have the nagging sense that someone else would do the same work with far more confidence and competence than I’m doing. If it looks to my colleagues or clients as though I know exactly what I’m doing, then there is at least one thing I’m doing right, and that is bluffing my way through.

Do I know where I’m going and what I want to do with my life?

When we are feeling vulnerable to self-doubt, tired of our jobs, upset by a recent argument, anxious about monetary worries, or in any other way shaken from a sense that all is well with our world, it’s possible to look at a stranger walking down the street, and imagine that this person is experiencing just one of a continual series of contented, self-assured, confident moments in their life. It’s possible to convince ourselves that each moment of this total stranger’s neatly unfolding life follows the next in the order that they more or less planned and expected it to and that their life is simple and easy, with no surprises, upsets or huge disappointments. Even though we know that no-one’s life unfolds that way.

Is that really how my friend Katrina thought my life was panning out? Neatly and according to plan?

It’s ironic if she did. It would be impossible for my life to match any plans I had made for it when I left high school, or at any other time, since one of the deep flaws in my personality is an inability to formulate any long-term plan for work, life or anything else.

When I left high school I had no career plan at all, and therefore began an arts degree, which I hoped would fill 3 years and give me time to come up with something. I soon dropped out because with no end goal, I found it very hard to be motivated to keep going. I didn’t have the ability to envision what I might be doing in 5 years time as many kids my age could do. Next, I enrolled in a Fine Art course, with the goal of becoming an artist. I graduated with a degree in Visual Art, which was a lot of fun, but a freelance career in a field where paid job opportunities barely existed was the wrong choice for me, as someone who really needed some structure to follow. I could eagerly envision being an artist and painting all day in my studio, but there were no entry-level jobs being advertised.

Perhaps luckily for me, there is some sense of a purpose, I guess, afforded by having a child, so in that sense I’ve had some underlying structure to my life since my daughter was born 14 years ago. It is foreseeable that at least until she is 18 and finished school, I will probably not make any sudden changes in my life that would involve quitting my job, moving across the country or living overseas. But in terms of the other things going on – my career, for example – I have no plans.

I wouldn’t even use the word career to describe my working life, because surely career means following a somewhat logical path through related fields of work. I feel as though I fell into the work I’m doing by chance. After spending all of my twenties working part-time in lowly customer service roles while I concentrated on trying to be an artist, and the first part of my thirties working part-time in lowly customer service roles while I tried to be a “stay-at-home (part time) mum,” I sometimes feel surprised that I’ve even made it into a lowly administrative role in an arts organisation. If a career means taking a job with some real responsibility and then moving from that job into related roles, I’m actually only about 7 years into my “career” at the ripe old age of 40-something. I’m not particularly ambitious, but I like to get some fulfilment out of my work, which is why I work in the arts.

So Katrina was wrong. I know who I am, but not what I’m doing, where I’m going, or what I plan to do with my life.

Maybe I’ll work those next parts out in my fifties.

I Should Have A Better Ending

It’s happened again. That thematic accident – some might say serendipity – that occurs when I choose a book to read, from the plethora of books lining our book cases, and lo and behold, find that a major theme of the book turns out to be grief, death – even, in this case, death of a sibling.

On this occasion, the book was Demonology, a collection of short stories by North American author Rick Moody. Moody is a fairly well-known author, perhaps largely because two of his novels, The Ice Storm, and Garden State, were successfully adapted into popular films. I really enjoyed both those films, particularly The Ice Storm, (which sometimes even makes it to my ever-changing list of Top 10 films!) and subsequently read The Ice Storm, but I had not made an effort to read any more of the author’s work until now.

A few weeks ago, I was laid up in bed with a head cold, and pouring over our bookshelves for something to read. I suspect that I chose this book because the combination of the rather ‘out-there’  title, and the cover picture of a large, rather creepy-looking chicken mask, made a strange contrast with the quote across the cover from Time Out, describing the book as “Honest, raw and deeply moving.” The words “deeply moving” and chicken masks are not paired together very often so I was intrigued to see how that combination would play out.

Moody novel

Reading back on the blurb on the back of the book now, I guess there were some hints of what was to come: Moody’s new collection of short stories digs deep into American society and reveals the loss of connection that lurks under the surface. The stories are about language, grief, car crashes, love…..

It’s likely that the mention of language, grief, and connection or loss of it were the final enticement to me (on top of the chicken mask), as all are topics I find interesting. It seems that quite a few of the books I’ve recently read, have entwined ideas about language, and our ability to communicate, into stories of love and loss.

As I reached the end of this collection of stories, it became apparent that indeed, a large portion of the stories in Demonolgy include a death. The reason that this fact sneaked up on me is because often, with the exception of the first and last stories, the death in the story is incidental to the narrative, a small shock for the reader perhaps, but not dwelt upon by the narrator, who merely mentions it as a side-note and then ploughs on with the story.

Now that I’ve noted that, I can’t help but be reminded of Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking novel, To The Lighthouse, which consolidated her reputation as a writer who experimented with form. In that novel, a central character from the first part of the novel, Mrs Ramsay, disappears about a third of the way through the novel, and the reader only learns that she has died when that information is imparted in a set of parentheses in the next chapter. There are other reminder’s of Woolf in reading Demonology: Moody’s style of writing in some of these stories, where he crafts a sentence that goes on for pages, or constructs a story by building it up from sentences about the same unnamed characters, perhaps also makes a small nod to Woolf’s experimental writing, such as in The Waves.

One of my favourite stories in this collection, Boys, could be described in this way, as a string of sentences. What ties them together is that they are all about the unnamed “Boys,” most beginning, or ending with, Boys enter the house, and it becomes apparent that the sentences are taking us through the lives of two brothers as they grow up, and come and go from the physical place that unites them, their family house.

….Two boys, one of them striking the other with a willow switch about the head and shoulders, the other crying, enter the house. Boys enter the house, speaking nonsense. Boys enter the house, calling for Mother. 

Moody sketches their lives out with the barest detail. There is just enough information given to allow us, for example, to work out that they have a sister, and then, as they get older, that their sister is very ill:

Boys enter the house, having attempted to locate the spot in the yard where the dolls were buried, eight or nine years prior, without success; they go to their sister’s room, sit by her bed. 

Time seems to be condensed. We don’t know if the boys have entered the house once, a few times, over a few weeks, or over a year or more, in-between each little snippet of information that we receive about them entering the house yet again.

…Boys enter the house carrying cases of beer. Boys enter the house, very worried now, didn’t know more worry was possible. 

As readers, we are left to work out for ourselves the events happening around the boys, based only on the information that we receive about their behaviour.

Boys enter the house weeping and hear weeping around them. Boys enter the house,  embarrassed, silent, anguished, keening, afflicted, angry, woeful, griefstricken. 

Based on only these snippets of information, and the sudden absence of any further mention of the sister, the reader is left to draw her own conclusion, that the sister has died. Meanwhile, the boys’ lives continue on at the same pace. Boys enter the house, on vacation, arguing about politics, with new girlfriends, announcing new professions, bringing with them their children, carrying out their own father. Life, Moody seems to be saying, continues on after a death, and life is not sentimental, it doesn’t stop to mourn.

There are other stories in this collection where the death of a minor character is just an incident in the larger narrative. The collection, however, is bookended by two stories, each told in the first person by a narrator who is deeply affected by the death of his sister. Reading the first story, The Mansion on The Hill I understood this collection to be fiction, but after reading the final story, Demonology, I was less sure where the line between fiction and fact merged. How could I consider this to be fiction when, in the final paragraph of this story, the narrator turns in on himself, saying I should fictionalise it more, I should conceal myself (…..) I should make the events orderly, I should wait and write about it later, I should wait until I’m not angry, (….) I should have a better ending….

I suspected that there had to be an autobiographical element to the recurring motif of a brother experiencing a sister’s death.

So I did some online research, and very quickly verified that Moody’s sister had died suddenly, when he was an adult and already a published author. She died in 1995, while he was writing another of his novels, Purple America. I found online a number of reviews of this short story collection, all of which referred to this devastating incident in the author’s life as the catalyst for the prevalence of sudden deaths in these stories.

It’s fascinating to see how a person with creative talent can take a devastating experience like the death of a sibling and incorporate all the emotions and memories that experience brings up, into a body of creative work. These stories were strong, sometimes funny, and experiment playfully with form and content – some stories take the form of traditional narratives while others do not. One story is presented in the form of a list of books and another is a chart showing brief notes on a character’s life accompanied by a list of the music he was listening to each year.

I feel glad for Moody, that after the death of his siter he was able to continue to work, and channel his anguish into creating something which we can all share in. These stories commemorates his sister but also offer us all a glimpse of ourselves and how we react as we encounter the deaths that happen around us every day – from being held up on our train journey by a fatal accident, to hearing of the death of an old school aquaintance that we were no longer in touch with, right through to experiencing the death of a beloved sibling.

For anyone interested in further reading:

Flirting With Disaster – New York Times (2001)

Up Close and Personal – A Death as Fiction, as Fact – New York Observer (2001)

Author Rick Moody speaks at Saratoga College (2013)

3 Days

It’s a bummer when you are not sure exactly what date to remember your deceased brother on.

On reflection, it’s probably not an uncommon dilemma. A family member is found, passed away, and the question is, did they pass away on the day they were found, or on the day prior, on which they were last seen about 1am? A coroner’s office can provide a letter with a date in it, but in a situation where they are unable to provide the cause of death, it’s easy to also assume that their guesswork includes the time of death.

So when this time of year rolls around, there are 3 days in September that feel significant in relation to my younger brother’s death 3 years ago.

One is 9th September. In 2011, 9th was a Friday, and it was the last day that John would ever get up in the morning and go to work. He did an early shift, at the residential care facility where he worked as a PSA (Personal Services Attendant), starting at 7am and finishing at 3pm. After work he travelled home on public transport, as he didn’t see the point of paying for the petrol, maintenance, registration and parking permit required to have a car in the inner Melbourne suburb where he lived. He probably arrived home and had a shower, and then relaxed, listening to Sonic Youth, or Depeche Mode, or reading, or watching TV.

As it happens, 9th September was not just any old normal working day for him, and he would very likely have been in a pretty good mood. It was his last shift before 2 weeks of annual leave he’d organised in advance. He had been thinking for a while about training to become a Registered Nurse, had recently sat the required tests, and enrolled in the course. He was about to have a rare weekend off, and start on Monday at a 2 week intensive, which would be followed by weekly evening classes. Having left school at the age of 16, he had never undertaken tertiary level study before, so it must have been an exciting time. He had a few drinks, made dinner, for himself and my youngest brother, and after hanging out until late in the night, he went to bed.

After that point, time slows down.

10th September 2011 came and went, but it sits in my mind like the twilight zone. It’s the hazy, not-quite-real, in-between date. It’s the gap in-between John last being alive, and being found, passed away, in his bed. It’s the day that seemed normal at the time, but in hindsight it’s an abomination, because it’s the day where the rest of us went about our Saturday assuming all was still right with our world, not realising there was a terrible chasm between our imagined reality and real life. In the morning, I took my daughter shopping for shoes and to the local op (thrift) shop. In the afternoon, I phoned my sister, who lives overseas, to tell her the news I’d received, that a friend of hers had passed away suddenly from an asthma attack, at the age of 39. I phoned my brother with the same news, but he didn’t pick up. I thought nothing of it, and he rarely responded to messages so I didn’t leave one.

We do not know at what time on the 10th his sleeping state was disrupted by something, perhaps, (as suggested by the coroner), a seizure, that turned out to be catastrophic. We don’t know when whatever-it-was changed sleep to something else, perhaps a coma, or perhaps death in mere moments. No detail about this was revealed by the coroner after the autopsy and I don’t spend a lot of time wondering about it because no answer to this question is any more satisfactory than any other.

I said that the 10th was the gap in the middle, but in fact, we do know that he was alive at the start of the 10th, because he was seen by our youngest brother, P. who lived with him. John got up at some time in the night, perhaps 1am, to get a drink, while P was still up watching TV. P. decided to go to bed, and that was the last time he ever saw his brother, and housemate, alive.

So this brings us to 11th September. It’s a date already loaded with images of grief and death for those of us living in Western countries where we associate the World Trade Centre attacks of a decade ago in the U.S. with that date. (Despite the telling fact that many of us could not name the dates of any other recent terrorist attacks in Western countries such as the London or Barcelona or Bali, let alone recite any details about the ongoing incidences of such terrorist activities in non-Western countries).

On 11th September 2011, the airwaves and the media were particularly heavy with collective memories as it was the 10th anniversary of the attacks. I drove to the supermarket that afternoon, listening to a radio program where people were calling up and sharing their memories of the day 10 years earlier, and for the first time, I felt my daughter was old enough to hear an edited version of what people were referring to, so I explained it to her.

11th September was to gain a much more personal significance for me an hour or two later when I was back at home, trying to think of something to write about on this blog, and the phone rang. That significant moment was drawing closer, that turning point in my life was now only minutes away. Those minutes ticked by while my youngest brother had a conversation on the phone with my partner. The last full minute of blissful unawareness that I had left, slowly disappeared as I followed my partner up the stairs because he “had to tell me something”. Now that I replay it in my mind, I hear those final seconds bang their way loudly past like a goddam drum in a symphony orchestra. They were the last few seconds of my previous life, the life where I thought everyone I loved was alive. That was 11th September.

 

The Sounds of Silence

Hello darkness my old friend

I’ve got insomnia again,

although I wish that I was sleeping,

instead my thoughts are gently seeping

and alertness has taken over my brain

and remains

within the sounds of silence

 

With restless thoughts I turn and toss,

recalling convos with my boss,

remembering the tasks I need to do,

noting most of them are overdue,

when my ears are smitten by the rumble of a garbage truck

that gets stuck

and squashes the sound of silence

 

And in the iPhone light I saw

10 000 Tweets, or maybe more

people Tweeting without speaking

people Tweeting without listening

people writing Tweets that voices never share

and no-one dared

disturb the sound of silence

 

“Fools” I said “You do not know -

Lavender oil is the way to go.

Try it now, I do beseech you.

Follow me that I might teach you”

but my Tweets like silent raindrops fell

and echoed in the wells of silence

 

And the people bowed and prayed

to the neon god they made,

and the phone flashed out its warning,

in the words that it was forming.

And the phone said the battery is low, down to only 20 percent,

nearly spent.

And beeped, in the sound of silence.

 

 

 

 

 

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