How To Be Cool

James Dean had it. Lou Reed had it. Patti Smith has it. Ralph Wiggum doesn’t have it and nor did my high school maths teacher. What is it? I’m talkin’ about cool, that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

Cool is an adjective and a noun. You can be it, and you can have it, but just like hipsters never admit to being hipsters, no-one, perhaps apart from The Fonz, ever lays claim to being cool. Because to show you had any investment in being cool, would, like, definitely not be cool. So what exactly does cool mean?

It’s not unusual for the meaning of a word in the English language to evolve through the centuries. According to this article in Slate, use of the word cool (originally col) to mean a temperature that is neither too hot nor too cold can be traced back to the 9th Century in the English language. Use of the same word to convey the diminishing of heated emotion first pops up in the 10th century, in Beowulf.

By the 16th century, cool had fully evolved from an adjective of the atmosphere around us to one of the attributes within, suggesting deliberation, rationality, and calmness.(1)

In 2014, this humble, 4 letter, 1 syllable word holds many different meanings, as seen by this extensive listing in the Merriam Webster Dictionary:

cool:

- moderately cold :  lacking in warmth

- made of a light, thin material that helps you stay cool

- able to think and act in a calm way : not affected by strong feelings

marked by steady dispassionate calmness and self-control<a cool and calculating administrator

- lacking ardor or friendliness <a cool impersonal manner>

- of jazz :  marked by restrained emotion and the frequent use of counterpoint
free from tensions or violence <we used to fight, but we’re cool now>
- used as an intensive <a cool million dollars>
- marked by deliberate effrontery or lack of due respect or discretion <a cool reply>
- facilitating or suggesting relief from heat <a cool dress>

- of a color :  producing an impression of being  cool; specifically :  of a hue in the range violet through blue to green

 - of a musical tone :  relatively lacking in timbre or resonance

slang:

a :  very good :  excellent; :  all right

b :  fashionable, hip 

One little word, so many meanings. It’s not surprising that earlier ideas all bubbled up together to form yet another layer of meaning that is elusive to define: the “slang” referred to above, used by anyone and everyone, from those in their mid 60s, down to pre-teens, to mean

hip, trendy, desirable -

- eg Frankie magazine is so cool!

or, to mean everything you have just said perfectly meets what is required in this situation.

- eg, Yep, that’s all cool!

It’s difficult to pinpoint when the word came to embody the idea of cool that we associate with someone like Lou Reed.

Exactly when, and where, cool aspired to more than mere composure—to an alluring mix of style, hipness, poise, and who knows what else—is impossible to determine…(2)

According to Slate, this use may have first cropped up in the 19th Century, when a (very patronising) study on African Americans noted their use of the phrase “Dat’s cool!” (with no explanation of the context or meaning). By the 1920’s the word was used in jazz lyrics and by the 1940s was commonly associated with jazz culture. (3)

By the 1950s the word was taken up by a newly recognised demographic – the teenager – to describe someone who was fashionable, hip, very good, excellent and alright. The best example of cool entering straight into mainstream popular culture is probably that All-American sitcom set in the naively idyllic 1950s (although made in the cynical, disillusioned late-1970s), Happy Days.

Happy Days!

“Chick Magnet”, Fonzie, at top left.

Pic: TV Series Finale

Fonzie: Like I always say, you live fast, you die young, you leave a good-looking corpse 

Potsie: Hey, that’s cool.

Richie: Nick Romano said that in Knock on Any Door.

Fonzie: I think I said it better. (3)

In the late seventies, The Fonz was a role model for teenagers in how to be cool, 50s style. Slick back your hair, address adults in a way that an older generation might have found disrespectful, (“Mr C”), convey your approval with a thumbs-up gesture combined with saying “Heeeeeyyyyy!” – or better yet, develop a catch-phrase, like Sit On It!  The boys at my primary school took note, and made use of those phrases at every available opportunity. For the rest of us, Ritchie, Ralph and Potsie, and daggy little-sister Joanie, gave us hope that we were not the only nerds around, hoping to bask in the glory of occasionally associating with someone cool.

But hang on – wasn’t the coolest thing about Fonzie in the end, the fact that, despite being so cool, he hung out with Richie, Ralph and Potsie? That he involved himself in their little family/suburban dramas without judging them to be beneath him?

Thus we come to the conundrum that is cool.

Cool is not the same as popular, even though the popular kids might not realise this. Cool is not the same as “currently in fashion”. Cool transcends being fashionable. Aiming to be popular is the antithesis of cool. Any being who is truly cool does not care what the rest of the world thinks of them.

It follows, therefore, that the truly cool can hang out with the most uncool people around if they choose to, including Ralph Wiggum, your elderly mum, the IT guy, or the crazy cat woman who lives up the street, and this will not spoil their credentials as cool.

While we are on this topic, perhaps it’s useful to think about characters who are uncool. (A kind of How To Be Uncool Bonus Insert, if you like). Well, traditionally, the opposite of the cool kids has always been the nerds – think of Ralph Wiggum, Millhouse, George Constanza. All insecure, gullible, with little ability to laugh at themselves, and also physically weak, making them a target for teasing or bullies. Millhouse and George both wear glasses, neatly fitting into the stereotype of the nerdy friend in popular culture. Looking back to earlier models for the uncool, we have Ralph and Potsie in Happy Days, or Brian in The Breakfast Club. What makes these characters nerds are the traits they have in common. They are all respectful of authority, and happy to accept what they are told by others – they don’t wish to rock the boat by questioning the status quo. They don’t stand out in a crowd, and don’t wish to.

These characters are nerds. They are geeks. They are the opposite of cool.

Brian, in The Breakfast Club.

Brian, in The Breakfast Club.

Pic: Monologuedb

Yet in recent years there seems to have been a shift in the status of geeks and nerds. In the past 7 years I’ve worked with a few very smart people who I consider to be pretty cool, who are proud (or at least, nonchalant) to claim that they are “database nerds.” It’s no longer embarrassing, in fact it’s empowering, to admit you are an introvert. (“Nah, sorry, I’ve been out twice already this week and I need a quiet night in to recharge.”)  There are whole subcultures popping up around previously geeky hobbies such as knitting, home-brewing, baking, and for all I know, probably stamp-collecting. Being a geek is now as cool as it gets – but the truly cool have always known this.

For many decades, the patron saint of cool was James Dean, largely due to the character of Jim Stark he played in Rebel Without A Cause (1955). The depiction of a “rebellious” teenager in that film may seem slightly quaint now, but who is willing to stand up and say that James Dean, or his character Jim Stark, are not cool? Not I, sir.

And what makes Jim cool? It’s because despite being a surly, troubled young man who is misunderstood by his parents and picked on by the popular kids at school, the viewers sees the sincere, vulnerable kid underneath, desperate for understanding from his parents, and willing to befriend and assist another, weaker kid who doesn’t rate amongst the popular kids. (It also helps that he ends up with the girl, of course.)

Teenage Rebel wearing a tie

Teenage Rebel wearing a tie

Pic: Moviemail

Of course all the real-life people I’ve named in this post are in the music or film industry, where they have achieved some level of success (albeit very short-lived in the case of James Dean). If you want to be cool, those are the industries to be in. Another alternative would be to try your hand at being an artist – another person on my list was Andy Warhol. That’s because there’s a possibility of fame, which brings along with it the possibility of being cool. It’s a possibility, but not a given, in my opinion. There are many, many celebrities, but not many who I would describe as cool. Isn’t that right Kim Kardashian?

Of course, you don’t have to be in the film or music or art world to be cool (although it helps.) Earlier I mentioned people that I’d worked with, the self-described “database nerds.” I thought of each of those people (there are 3 I can specifically think of) were cool. All of them liked to party, all of them worked in theatre, all were fun to work with, whilst also being intelligent and hard workers. All of them had, in conversation with me or more profoundly, through their own life choices, shown that they were willing to challenge stereotypes and work to create more understanding about gender/sexuality/disability or other issues. The fact that they described themselves (on separate occasions) as database nerds made the term cool as far as I could see. In the end, perhaps cool is in the eye of the beholder?

So what is cool, and how do you get it?

Well, cool is elusive. When it comes to really defining what makes someone cool, it’s probably best to turn to the words of the one of coolest people in recent history:

I can guess, but I just don’t know. (4)

*

(1) and (2) – Slate – The Birth Of Cool 

(3) – Wikiquote
(4) – Heroin, Lou Reed

The Sound of the City

Yesterday I read a post by a fellow Melbourne blogger, on her site Sampling Station, where she asked, what does your hometown sound like?

I started to write a reply in the comments section, but of course, that became too long very quickly and I realised I would have to reply via a post instead.

Perhaps I should begin by clarifying what town I’m referring to. I grew up in a small country town about 1.5 hrs away from Melbourne, so strictly speaking that small town is my “hometown”. But I’ve already written a post about the soundtrack to growing up in a country town in regional Victoria in the 1970s so there’s no need to cover that ground again. I don’t get sentimental about my hometown – my affection for Melbourne is much stronger – so on this occasion I’ll be exploring the soundtrack to the town I’ve lived in for the majority of my life now, ie, the fair city of Verona Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Before I lived in Melbourne, it was always the city that I aspired to get to. My main goal in life was to leave home, and get the hell out of the country.

Let’s face it, as a young kid, and then teenager, growing up in a small country town, in a working class family that had to pack 8 people into a mini-van in order to take a family holiday to Mildura, it was pretty unlikely my experience of cities was going to range any further than the capital of my own state, so I didn’t exactly have a wide repertoire of cities to draw on for my choice. When I was about 14, a one-off trip with a cousin to stay with some distant relative of hers enabled me to add one more city to my list: Sydney. But Sydney was a long way away, and no-one I knew lived there. Melbourne was only a few hours drive away from home, and I knew people there. As a kid, it was my relatives, then, as a teenager, a friend moved there with her family, and after finishing high school, most of my friends moved to Melbourne to attend various universities and colleges there.

Through my childhood, I associated Melbourne with a sense of freedom and a cool, sophisticated lifestyle. To my 12-year-old mind, freedom and a sophisticated lifestyle meant moving out of home and listening to rock music without parents around to switch it off and give me a lecture on its evils. This was because my own very strict, religious parents disapproved of any rock or pop music written after the mid 1960s, and would frequently remind me of this if I was ever caught listening to it on the radio. Most of my older cousins lived in Melbourne, and when I would stay with them, all they talked about was the latest record they had bought, and what bands they had seen on Countdown! that week.

300px-CountdownLogo

Pic: Wikipedia

One of the songs that sticks in my mind from those days, which I associated with Melbourne, is actually by a New Zealand band, Split Enz. They were a quirky, new-wave (sometimes described as “art rock”) band in the late 1970s and early 80s, a time when film clips were new, and you can tell when you look at them now! But I recall sitting in the lounge at my grandmother’s house in Reservoir, in the northern suburbs of Melbourne (back then, an outer suburb with a high population of first generation Greek and Italian families), surrounded by heaps of cousins of all ages, and watching the entire clip of I Got You, by Split Enz and thinking it was the coolest thing ever.

(No doubt I was probably caught by my parents and kicked out of the room shortly afterwards, missing the second half of something like Tired of Toeing the Line by Rocky Burnett. This is why I’ve never seen the clips that everyone else has seen.)

At the time, (around 1980), this clip was very arty indeed: note the billowing curtain, the mod-ish, stylised look of the band, the special effects (as witnessed at the line “Sometimes we shout” at about 32 seconds in). Now, of course, it is amusingly B-grade, and I love it all the more for that.

Fast forward to the late 80s, when I was 17, and Australian film director Richard Lowenstein released a film about musicians living in a shared house in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond, named Dogs In Space. My friend Jane and I managed to see the film, which was R-rated, at the cinema. Our main reason for being interested in it was because we loved Michael Hutchence, from INXS, who starred in it. (I’ve written previously on this blog about being a huge INXS fan as a teenager.) I’m glad we did see the film when it was originally out at the cinema, because it has become a cult classic. It’s centred around the “little band scene” – the thriving post-punk band scene in Melbourne in the late 70s. The soundtrack was great, although it was more about setting the scene than highlighting the local “little bands” featured in the movie, and included Iggy Pop, Brian Eno and new material written for the movie by Michael Hutchence and Ollie Olsen, along with a few bands who were actually from the scene, such as the Primitive Calculators. (Olsen was part of the original little band scene.)

Jane managed to find the soundtrack on a record in a dusty old record shop somewhere, and I taped a copy onto cassette. I still have that tape, and so far, I’ve never found that soundtrack in any other format. This soundtrack introduced me for the first time to Nick Cave, via the song Shivers, recorded with The Boys Next Door, the band that Cave fronted with Rowland S Howard, who I’ve written about previously. Howard was the one who wrote Shivers but it is the version sung by Nick Cave that most people are familiar with. In this clip Howard can be seen to the far right, barely more than a kid, playing guitar. This slow, melancholy song is not really typical of The Boys Next Door, but I’ve stuck with it because it was my introduction to Nick Cave, and also because back in the 80s, there were plenty of goths around Melbourne who idolised Cave and this song.

Around 1987, Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly released an album with a band known at the time as The Coloured Girls (later changed to The Messengers to avoid any racist connotations). The album was Gossip, and went on to have track after track of hit singles. Now, I’ve never called myself a huge fan of Paul Kelly’s, but in the same way that I’m not a huge fan of Bob Dylan or Neil Young – it’s not like these people need my endorsement. I can recognise that these singer-songwriters are hugely talented, and that their songs capture themes and imagery that resonate with many people. It’s just that I always choose other music before theirs, when I feel like listening to music. Perhaps all three are just a little too folksy for me. Whatever the reason, some Paul Kelly songs made it through my “folk” filters, and one of those, from Gossip, was Leaps and Bounds. If you lived in Melbourne at the time, which I didn’t, it must have seemed like an anthem.

I’m high on the hill

looking over the bridge 

to the MCG

and way up on high

the clock on the silo 

says eleven degrees

I picture a sunny, but frosty, winter morning, at the bridge near Punt Road in the inner suburb of Richmond. Punt Road is like Melbourne’s artery, the main road to get from the southern to the northern suburbs, and usually a traffic nightmare at peak times as it’s just a two lane road in parts. Back when this song was written, (and indeed right up until the existence of the Western Suburbs reached the general consciousness in the past 10 years or so), Richmond really felt like the centre of Melbourne as it had a major train station, and it’s easy to navigate from Richmond via road or public transport to the Northern, Eastern and Southern suburbs. The Nylex tower (with the clock on the silo) is recognised by anyone who has ever caught a train at Richmond station or driven up or down Punt Road. Even apart from the inclusion of the historic MCG, Melbourne’s cricket ground, it was an image of Melbourne that was of its time.

In the early 90’s I went to a nightclub in Prahran called IDs, and discovered a live band playing there, with the rather poetic name of Not Drowning Waving. I immediately became a fan of their melancholy sounding music that combined beautiful strings (violin and later cello) with a huge percussion section (live they usually had 3 to 4 people on percussion, or sometimes everyone!) I’ve written a post previously about Not Drowning Waving. Many of their songs and instrumental pieces were, by that time, about the landscape of Australia, and its troubled treatment of indigenous Australians, however they also wrote songs that were lyrically similar to another Aussie band, The Go-Betweens, in the sense that they captured the ordinariness of life in the suburbs and the quiet despair that is sometimes hidden from view.

Not Drowning Waving’s ode to Thomastown resonated with me because I had cousins who lived in that suburb. Coming from the country, Thomastown was all that I didn’t like about the city, and probably why I’ve always been adamantly against ever moving beyond the inner suburbs. It was a depressing suburb of bright orange seventies brick houses, surrounded by cement and ashpalt, with huge electricity pylons running down the centre of the main roads. My cousins’ front yard consisted of a cement path with little white pebbles on each side of it, bordered at the front by bright orange bricks. Even as a kid I found it a bleak and disheartening environment.

Well, dear reader, as I could have guessed would happen, my word count is already too long and I should wrap this up before anyone who has actually made it this far falls asleep, yet I’m barely even into the 90s with my soundtrack of Melbourne. Oh dear. Let’s call this instalment side 1, dedicated to those who recall a time when albums had 2 sides and you had to physically get up and turn them over (or wait for the cassette to get to the end and start up on the other side) before you could hear side 2.

So stay tuned for another instalment, when I will honestly try to select only a few more tunes, for Side 2 of the soundtrack to my hometown!

Soundtrack to Melbourne:

Side 1:

Split Enz, I Got You (c1980)

The Boys Next Door, Shivers (c 1979)

Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls, Leaps and Bounds (c 1987)

Not Drowning Waving, Thomastown (c 1989)

One will die before he gets there

Hi, she says, somewhat shyly. It is a strange situation, after all. I don’t feel completely comfortable myself. Then she says, half-jokingly, I hope you’ve got some good news for me.

I take a deep breath, because a lot of what I’ve got to tell her is good. But one small, but significant part of it is very, very bad.

I’m in the lounge room of a house I lived in 10 years ago, having a coffee with 10-years-ago-me, and she wants to know what’s happened since 2004. As you would, if your future self came to visit.

So I start to fill her in. In those 10 years, my daughter has gone from being an innocent little child to a year 9 student at secondary school. That transition from cute little pre-schooler to gangly teenager had its good and bad moments as a parent.

I tell 10-years-ago-me that of course she will miss aspects of having a little child around who asks adorable questions, and thinks her mum is the bees knees. I describe instead, the teenager she will find herself with in 10 years time. This tall, self-absorbed, long-haired creature will be capable of displaying very clearly, with a roll of the eyes, her annoyance when she is bothered with pesky questions about homework and chores while she is busy texting her friends. I tell 10-years-ago-me that she has a few broken bones to look forward to as, in a few years time, her darling child will have fractured an ankle while jumping on a trampoline, fractured a wrist playing volleyball, and sustained a hairline fracture on her C7 vertebrae while…. standing up suddenly underneath a jutting-out ledge. Ouch! On the plus side, I tell her, none of the injuries turned out to be serious, something that may be nice to know a few years from now when you are in that ambulance and she’s laid out on a stretcher, in a neckbrace.  

Not co-incidentally, in the past 10 years, I’ve gone from working 2 days per week while my child was a pre-schooler, to working full time. Back then, 10-years-ago-me felt stuck in an unskilled rut in the workplace, doing part-time frontline customer service jobs that were not terribly interesting or stimulating. I tell her that the job she will take in a few years time will initially be very challenging but will provide valuable experience, a boss prepared to promote people who work hard, and also a few new good friends.

I don’t mention that one of these new friends will have died before the 10 years between us is up.  10-years-ago-me has not even met this woman yet, so that information won’t have any emotional impact and why let that knowledge hang over her when they do meet and become friends?

She asks me about the run-down, falling-down house she is currently living in, and I tell her that she will finally make a decision on it – moving out and selling it, and moving to a house where she is now very happy. She looks like a difficult decision has been made for her. Which it has.

She asks about family and friends. I falter. It’s easier to start with friends.

I name some friends that I hadn’t seen in a while in 2004 who are now completely off the radar altogether – and list others that I was out of contact with in 2004 that are now back in regular contact. I tell her which of her current close friends will still be as close in 10 years time and which ones will just be aquaintances that occasionally email and mention the idea of catching up without ever following up. I assure her that she will continue to make new friends, some through her daughter’s new school friends, and others through those new jobs looming on the horizon.

Then I get to the only topic left – family.

Mum and Dad are still going along fine in their mid 70s, I tell her. And what of her siblings? C. turned that extended holiday in Ireland into a permanent thing – she now has citizenship and a house over there. G. quit another job, or was fired, I can’t recall which. He lives at home with the parents and h’es probably in danger of being long-term unemployed, although, on the up side, he seems much happier than when he was working! I tell her, you’ll be really happy for F., who found the love of his life a few years ago, got married in 2012, and is now expecting his first child. And P has forged out a successful career in training staff, and recently travelled to the Phillipines for work. 

I hesitate – it’s already obvious that something is wrong, because in going through the siblings in order of age, I’ve missed someone, our second-youngest brother, who comes between F and P. 10-years-ago me doesn’t let me get away with that. What about J, she asks.

Suddenly I wish I wasn’t here. The idea of travelling back in time to chat with 10-years-ago-me doesn’t seem so great any more. I look down for a long moment.

Up until now, I had thought it would be good to give her the opportunity to know, ahead of time, so that she could spend more time with our little brother J, hug him harder, and tell him that she loved him. It’s only now that I recall that back in 2004,  J, who was often between jobs around then, has been a regular and frequent visitor to her house, and has spent more time with her daughter than any of her other siblings have, so he is probably the sibling she is closest to at this moment in her life.

Now that there is nothing standing in between me and those awful words, I feel a lot less sure that knowing in advance will be a good thing at all. Surely, in fact, it will be awful! What was I thinking? Why did I think this would be a good thing to do?

But what can I say, now that I’ve skipped over any news of him, now that I’ve hesitated and made it obvious that if there is news, it is bad news? I have to tell her.

J was doing great, I say, hesitantly. He stayed in Melbourne, living with P. (In 2004 he had only recently moved to Melbourne from the country town where we grew up). For a while he worked in a car yard. Then he got the idea that he’d like to work in Aged Care, and it was like he’d found his vocation. He took up cleaning in Aged Care facilities while he studied to be a Personal Care Attendant. He got work as a PCA at a facility in the Northern Suburbs, and loved it, and took great pride in the quality of care he gave to people in the high dependency Dementia ward. It was as if he’d found his calling. After about 2 years there, he applied to study nursing and got in. Around the same time he moved to a better house than that dump he’d been living in for years with P. Things were going well for him.

My rather rushed delivery comes to a sudden halt, and I look  up. She’s waiting. But when I meet her eyes she looks down – now it is she who is unsure if she wants to hear what I have to say. I wait.

I could hold off on delivering this piece of news forever.

Shall I keep going? I ask.

She hesitates. I think we are both wishing that I’d never come.

No………Yes. Tell me.

My voice comes out as a whisper when I say it. He dies…..He died.

She doesn’t want to take this in. She isn’t able to. I remember that response. Whatever she had been anticipating, this news was more extreme. More absolute. But I’ve gone too far to back out now, so I plough on, trying to soften the blow by mentioning things it’s taken me weeks, months, or years, to take any comfort from.

He died in his sleep, at home. He’d just gone on leave from work, he was about to start a new course. If you think about it, it’s a pleasant way to die, and he was at a happy, optimistic point in his life…..

I falter again. It’s not helping, just as nothing anyone said to try and comfort me ever helped me when my little brother first died. She doesn’t respond. She is thinking this through. She is trying to distance herself from it. Her best denial mechanism is that, after all, I can’t really be here, back from 2014, telling her things that will happen to her in the future. For her, it is currently 2004. I don’t blame her for being skeptical. But I also know that her little brother has only 7 years left to live.

 *

 

*The title of this post is a lyric from the song Youth, by a UK band called Daughter.

This post was inspired by the WordPress Daily Prompt, Good Tidings, from 2 days ago. I never seem to get these pingback things right but here goes: Good Tidings

 

Air Supply, Yoga mats and Celebrity Chef ears

It’s an astounding thing to contemplate: that anyone of the approximately 7 billion people in the world, given access to a computer and an internet connection could, in theory, locate my blog and read the ramblings therein.

I estimate that about 6.9 billion of you have still not managed to find your way to it, (that is something I will take up separately with my Marketing team after this session), but nevertheless it’s true that a tiny little sliver of the world’s population, representative of many different countries and continents, apparently view it on any given day. Probably for a brief second before realising it was not at all what they were looking for when they entered “4000 word essay on Macbeth” into their browser.

It’s always fun to check in and look over the search terms that caused people to end up, however briefly, landing on my blog. After all, it’s that first random selection of words entered into a browser that is responsible for introducing a reader to a new blog, and sometimes, for developing some long lasting blog-based friendships! Not only is it fun, but it’s a handy excuse to blatantly plug lovingly revisit some past posts.

A glance at the popular search terms over the last quarter reveals that leading the pack at number 1 is steady favourite, Nigella Lawson ears, followed in second place by Nigella Lawson’s ears. As I scroll down the list of popular search terms, I also spy variations such as nigella lawsons ears, nigella huge ears, does nigella lawson have big ears, and other variations on the theme. I feel a little bit bad about this – it certainly wasn’t my intention to hint that Lawson had elephant-sized ears when I wrote a silly post about her ears. Lawson has some great recipes that even I can follow and the woman makes a mean trifle, and has also been in the news for aspects of her personal life, but apparently the thing that people just can’t get enough information about is her (apparently enormous) ears. Ah, people.

Nigella Lawson

Nigella rambles as much as I do, but her recipes are better than mine!

 

Lawson’s ears have been very high on the searched terms on my blog for a year or more now, but long-time readers will recall that there have been other contenders for first place. There was a time when Lawson was vying for first place with  an Australian band from the late seventies-early 80s era, Air Supply. Well, people do still search for them, but I’m sad to report that Air Supply have slipped down to number 37* with only one search in the past quarter of a year for air supply 80’s.

Air Supply

Air Supply – going for the ‘boy next door’ look

Let’s face it, the 80’s are so long ago now that the only time you are likely to hear the words air supply and 80’s in the same sentence is when a paramedic is trying to resucitate an octogenarian.

A while back, Air Supply were in another neck-to-neck race to be the most popular search term on my blog, that time competing against yoga mats. Yoga mat still is a popular search term that remains close to the top of the charts, probably due to the silliness of this post about yoga mats, and it’s equally, if not even more silly, sequel, this post here. Other variations that people have searched include yoga matts, (hint: if your name is Matt and you run a yoga studio, I’ve got a great business name idea for you), nidra yoga pose, and yogamat.

Yoga Mat - 3 views

The question, why is there always one sock left over when you fold laundry? must have led the questioner to my post about The Behaviour of Socks, where I covered the well-documented phenomenon of the missing sock and illustrated how quantum physics could explain the disappearance of socks from the laundry. (I doubt that I mentioned anything about folding laundry, however, as I rarely do it myself. I prefer to let it pile up in the basket until it puts itself away, or rather, until members of the household make dents in the pile by taking out items when they’ve run out of clean underwear/socks/school uniforms.)

Back when I was writing the posts mentioned above, I could count the followers of this blog on the fingers of one hand, so when I first published a post about the song Hello This Is Joanie, it was read by almost no-one, but strangely, this one seems to be a sleeper: searches for that song appear to steadily increase in number each time I do this kind of review. In the past quarter, search terms have included: hello this is joanie, songs with joanie in them, sorry this is joanie, lyrics for the song hello this is joannii in sorry that im not home. Current trends indicate that by the year 2030, there will be a need for a Hello This Is Joanie iPhone app that provides wikipedia-like information related to the song, while playing the song (forwards or backwards.)

Exam hysteria must not have quite set in yet this term, as there are disappointingly few searches for another hot topic on my blog, how to write 4000 word essay in one day, (sic), nor are there the usual batch of questions about Macbeth. The only sign of a student somewhere out there, trying to write an English literature essay is this badly-phrased search: what does nothingness signified in the waiting for godot. What indeed? Nothing, probably. If still unsure you could try reading this, but it’s likely that you won’t find an answer to your question in amongst that drivel.

There are always a few entertainingly random phrases flung into the melting pot, and it’s sometimes hard to know why or how they landed on my blog. Some of those searched in the past few months include blob eating woman, reasons why year round school is a bad idea graph (that graph sounds like a good idea) and michael hutchence monologues on stage, as well as the eternal question, are 3/4 length pants daggy looking?  (no idea how that landed someone on my blog, as I don’t recall ever giving any fashion advice, but if you want my opinion – yes they are).

Finally, there are always lots of searches along the lines of these:  sudden death of my brother, only brother sudden death, letter to my brother who passed away, and my brother died in his sleep. Reminding me that there is someone out there every day, trying to find some meaning, or answer, or even just comfort, in the face of a sudden death. And that some things can’t be made light of.

We Built This City

While I wrote my last post, about the rapid changes that occurred in the last century or so, and the amount of things my grandmother, born in 1899, would not recognise if she were still around now, (she died in 1989) – there was a story hovering just at the back of my memory. It was a short story that I read years ago, and it’s a pity I didn’t go and do some research between writing that post and this one, because I can’t tell you the name of the story, nor who wrote it. I can locate the anthology online, but can’t locate the name or author of the story. It’s been a public holiday here today so I couldn’t even go in person to a library to find the book it was in. To top it all off, the dog ate my homework.

What I can tell you is that it was included in a collection of short stories called Expressway, edited by Helen Daniel and published in 1989.

The anthology was named after the painting Cahill Expressway, by Australian Artist Jeffrey Smart, which in turn was named after the road that cuts through part of Sydney, newly built at the time that Smart depicted it in this painting in 1962.  Daniel invited 29 Australian writers to write a piece of fiction, using the painting as their inspiration.

The painting, which I probably shouldn’t depict here for copyright reasons, but which can be viewed at the National Gallery of Victoria website right here, is of a depressingly empty, urban landscape. Cahill Expressway sweeps through the painting, dividing the short, fat man standing alone at an underpass on one side of the road, from the multi-storey buildings up on the hill above him. Not a single car, or other person, populates the landscape, making it feel (to anyone who has actually been in densely-populated inner Sydney), as though it must be a depiction of the day after the apocalypse, which is about the only time you would find a parking space in the city.

Like many of Smart’s paintings of urban landscapes, Cahill Expressway portrays the loneliness and alienation of human existence within a city. Daniel chose this painting as the challenge for her authors, because the contrast between the landscape and the lonely figure invites the viewer to create a narrative.

From memory, the short story collection included all sorts of interpretations of what the possible narrative behind the picture might be, most involving a backstory to the “fat man” and why he came to be walking through that particular urban landscape, but one story was very different to the others. This story, the one I can’t tell you the name of, was set back in prehistoric days. The characters were a primitive tribe of hunters, who still enacted ritual sacrifices, and the main protagonist was about to be led up to an altar to be sacrificed, when a vision came to him. That vision was the scene depicted in Cahill Expressway. But as this character had never encountered a road, a multistorey building, a man wearing a suit, a light pole, a statue, or basically anything depicted in the painting (other than sky, and a human being), he could only interpret the scene from the perspective of someone living in caveman times.

I wish I could remember now what his interpretation was, as it would make this a far more interesting read for you, dear reader, but the point of this is that the writer of that short story made a creative leap from the modern urban scene depicted by Smart, to imagining what someone a few thousand years earlier would make of it.

Of course the painting itself depicted the changes that were occurring in Sydney at that time. Cahill Expressway was apparently the first freeway constructed in Australia, opening to traffic in 1958. Post-war Sydney was embracing modernity, and getting rid of the slums that had housed poor immigrants throughout the previous century. The freeway in Smart’s painting stands as a cold, bleak symbol for the modern city devoid of humanity. According to Wikipedia, the freeway was unpopular right from the start, with protesters describing it as “doggedly symmetrical, profoundly deadpan, severing the city from the water on a permanent basis”.

(A deadpan freeway? That makes me feel kind of affectionate towards the Cahill Expressway, as if it might have a personality, something like the Blackboard on Mr Squiggle. HURRY UP.) But I digress.

So, that story, the one I can’t tell you the name of, is the story I keep in the back of my mind when I think of the rapidity of change, and wonder what someone who lived in a different time period would think of what I’ve just said, done, or used. Would it all sound, or look, alien? Would even a single word sound familiar? Would the onlooker/listener grasp at the few words/objects they recognised, and, like the character in that story, make their own meaning out of it?

Of course they would, because that’s what we humans are hard-wired to do – try and construct meaning from seemingly random occurrences and events.

I’ve just downloaded a new operating system and upgraded the security software because I think I’ve got a virus, so you should probably unplug your iPod and your hardrive just to be safe.

Pop a cup of water in the microwave and a pod in the Nespresso machine can you? I’m on FB but I’ll BRB in a mo.

Hi honey – no don’t worry, I”m using Bluetooth – just taking the SUV out for a spin, but just wondering where the GPS is? 

Forget GPS systems and iPods, what would cavemen even make of our cars, our houses, our toilets, and our domesticated animals, never having seen such things?

It’s only the more recent time traveller, someone who was around in the past 50 years, like my grandmother, who would be able to at least figure out that the contraption I am sitting in is a car, although a car unlike any she ever saw in her lifetime, and focus instead on wondering WTF the tiny device is that I’m playing music on, and what on earth a GPS is.

Hi Nana, yeah, not much, just sitting here on my laptop writing a post on my blog, which I’m about to publish online. You?

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.

*

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.

 

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