A small selection of books and magazines I’m (mostly not) reading.

The Poetry of List-Making

This post is in response to a Wordpress prompt, which I think, to my shame, is more than a week old now, on List-making. The link is above – clicking the link will take you to all the posts written in response to this prompt.

Poetry is beyond me if I’m going to get this post published today, so – look, behold! A non-poetic list of the books piled up on my bedside table, for all the world as if I’m reading them, and then, another list, providing a bit more information about where they sit on the scale of being read or not being read, or something in-between.

List 1: Books on my bedside table

  1. In Fact – The Best of Creative Non Fiction – Edited by Lee Gutkind
  2. Olive Kitteridge,  by Elizabeth Strout
  3. An Intimate History of Humanity, by Theodore Zeldin
  4. The Memoir Book, by Patti Miller
  5. Raising Girls, by Gisela Preuschoff
  6. Wassily Kandinsky – Concerning The Spiritual In Art, translated and with an introduction by M.T.H Sadler
  7. The Artist’s Way (A Course in Discovering and Recovering your Creative Self) – Julia Cameron
  8. 2 different copies of The Monthly, an Australian magazine focussing on “Politics, Society and Culture”
  9. 1 copy of Believer, an American literary magazine
  10. 1 copy of The Canary Press, an Australian “story” magazine

Books on bedside table

 

List 2:  Notes on the books on my bedside table:

      1. In Fact – Time spent on the bedside table: about 4 weeks so far. I just started reading this about a week ago. The essay that made the greatest impression on me so far is the first one, Three Spheres by Lauren Slater, a piece about a psychologist who finds herself treating a bi-polar bulimic woman in the very same unit where she had been treated for the same disorders a decade earlier.
      2. Olive Kitteridge has been there only about a month. It was given to me by my partner (who constantly finds and buys cheap books at Op Shops/Thrift Stores) so went straight onto the bedside table. It’s a novel, and winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, so must be worth reading, right?
      3. Half read, has been there about 3 months. I was ploughing through An Intimate History of Humanity and enjoying it’s unusual, and, yes, intimate, take on history, with chapters entitled How some people have acquired an immunity to loneliness, and Why there has been more progress in cooking than in sex, but then came to a grinding halt, suddenly felt bored, and decided to read some fiction, so that’s what I’ve done over the past few weeks. Planning to go back and read the rest…sometime soon.
      4. Time on the bedside table: a couple of years. It’s there for guidance: I read bits and pieces of The Memoir Book intermittently when I need inspiration for writing, as it contains some good ideas for writing exercises. Have never read through the entire book from start to end.
      5. Raising Girls has been next to my bedside table, possibly since my daughter was in primary school. She is now in year 11 and I have yet to open it. At this stage, my modified plan is to wait until she is 21, and then read it to find out just how much I got wrong.
      6. I love Kandinsky’s paintings – but then again, there are a lot of paintings I like. My interest in Kandinsky is no stronger than my interest in any other artist of his era. Nevertheless, about 3 years ago, completely unprompted, a work colleague brought this book in to work to lend to me. I have to admit, I have not made much headway with it. It sat there for about a year before I opened it. At that point, I gave it a try, and got about as far as the end of the introduction. It’s kind of awkward now to give it back and say that I haven’t read it, so it continues to sit on my bedside table. We stare at each other sometimes, that book and I, but then I pick up something else.
      7. The Artist’s Way is another book that my partner found in an Op Shop and brought home for me, sometime within the last year. He obviously thought, very sweetly, that it would be inspiring for me, so I put it on my bedside table. I have not opened it yet.
      8. 2 old copies of The Monthly were purchased for about $1 each in an Op Shop, probably 5 months ago. I picked one out because I mistakenly thought it had a portrait (the written variety) of our previous prime minister Julia Gillard in it. My interest in that was mainly because I needed to write a portrait of someone, as part of a writing course I was doing online, and I thought it would be useful to read an example. But the article turned out to be a general one about sexism in politics in the time that Gillard was prime minister – not what I was after. The other copy was their Summer issue, with a long list of authors on the cover, so I bought it on the assumption that it would include lots of short pieces of writing to read and learn from. So far I have not opened it.
      9. About 2 years ago, my partner gave me a subscription to The Believer magazine for my birthday, knowing my interest in reading essays and pieces of non-fiction writing, or perhaps mainly because Nick Hornby writes the music criticism and we both enjoy Hornby’s fiction. There seemed to be some kind of stuff-up with the subscription though, so it took about a year before the issues actually started arriving. This must have been the final issue, which probably only arrived early this year. I’ve read most of it but perhaps didn’t finish it. It includes a short story by Miranda July, a contemporary artist who dabbles in all sorts of media, including films, and writing short stories. I’ve enjoyed any of her writing that I’ve read so far. I found some articles in Believer were a bit too dry and intellectual for my (very average) tastes/abilities, and there are a lot of interviews with people I’ve never heard of (eg in this issue, Michael Schur, Ronald Cotton, Jerry Stahl, Megan Rapinoe) so of course, that has the effect of making me feel as if I’m not the culturally aware (and American) intellectual they are writing for. Has probably been there about 6 months.
      10. The year before that, my partner gave me a subscription to The Canary Press for my birthday. It was  a risk on his part, because the magazine only publishes fiction, and my interest in writing lies more in non-fiction.  I read fiction, although not normally in magazines, where I mostly look for non-fiction articles. Still, as it was a gift, tentatively, I gave it a go. Well, to my surprise, I fell instantly in love with this magazine. It’s the best literary magazine I’ve ever found, largely because the editors have such a sense of humour about their endeavour – which is definitely NOT to say that all the writing they publish is humorous, nor that the magazine should not be taken seriously.  I loved it so much that the following year when my copies of Believer were steadfastly failing to arrive, I found myself thinking back fondly to the days when I had a subscription to The Canary Press. Eventually, I just took out another subscription myself. (It was surprisingly well priced!) The stories constantly surprise me with their creativity and are unlike anything I’d ever think to write, yet if I aspired to writing fictional stories, I could do worse than aspire to write something suitable for this magazine. Each issue usually includes one piece by a well-established writer, such as Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proux, which I re-read in a previous issue with great pleasure, having completely forgotten that it was a short story, mis-remembering it as a full-blown novel. I think I finished reading the issue that’s on the bedside table, so I’m not sure how long it’s been there, or why it is still there, either. I put it down to laziness. Or fondness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Television, Man.

Not many CVs include it under Hobbies, but a popular pastime these days – amongst people over 30 with nothing better to do, anyway – is to binge-watch entire series of television shows all in one sitting.

Way back in the prehistoric era – that is, when I was in primary school – we’d have to wait with bated breath, from 9pm Sunday night right through to the next Sunday night at 8pm, to find out if Laura and Mary Ingalls would finally get a cute puppy to guard their little house on the prairie from ferocious wolves and bears. Oh, the anticipation! (Others apparently had to wait a whole summer to find out who shot JR, but we were never allowed to watch television shows with Adult themes so we were spared that agony.)

Whole decades later, not much had changed in this regard, or not in Australia anyway. Right through the 1990s and first decade of the 2000s, viewers without Foxtel (by the 2000s, this was possibly just me) were still kept on the edge of their seats, waiting a full week for the next episode of NYPD Blue, or CSI Miami, or sometimes even a show that wasn’t an American police drama, such as The X-files. Sometimes the show wasn’t even American, believe it or not, in fact, I never watched any of the shows mentioned above, but I did sometimes turn to SBS and watch Austrian police drama, Inspector Rex.

Things only changed recently in this regard, in Australia, at least, with the arrival of streaming services over the internet (I hope I’ve got that terminology right. If you have a complaint about incorrect terminology  please send it to the PO Box address at the top of the page, allowing up to 4 weeks for Australia Post to deliver, but only if you live in the next street. If you are further away than that, we recommend carrier pigeon, which is cheaper and more reliable.) Of course, everyone with an internet connection – basically anyone except my parents, who still enjoy sitting back to watch an episode of Ma and Pa Kettle on VHS – has access to streaming services like Netflix™ or Stan.™

Ma_and_Pa_Kettle

Ma and Pa Kettle, still going strong in the Ma and Pa Blathering household.

Pic: dvdclassicscorner.com

Released from the shackles of free-to-air TV, no longer do we have to wait a whole week to find out what disastrous conniving Frank Underwood will come up with next. In fact, there’s nothing but but sheer self-discipline to stop us from succumbing and watching through a whole series of our favourite show all in one sitting, so completely absorbed that we even forget it’s bin night, only remembering with a shock the next morning, when we are woken by the clank of the garbage truck, realising in that same moment that we’ve missed the garbage collection, and, what’s more, that binge-watching TV is destroying our lives and the lives of those around us, who now have to put up with an overflowing rubbish bin for a whole week.

Overflowing_bins_1672021c

After a few weeks of binge-watching TV those bins can get out of hand.

Pic: The Telegraph

The only hitch for me in this delightful new model of leisure-time activity is that I seem to have trouble fully succumbing. I’m still bothered by a niggling need to be doing something. Of course, in this context, I use the term something fairly loosely. Since something pretty much means anything that is not nothing, then I guess I could blow my nose and that would suffice, but I am driven by the need to something that feels just slightly more useful, or productive, or meaningful, than nose-blowing. Only slightly, mind you.

Even reading a novel fits my category of something that’s more productive than watching TV, since reading a literary book these days feels as virtuous as engaging in any other equally quaint and archaic pursuit might do. In terms of how virtuous I feel about doing it, I may as well have with baked my own bread from wheat that I’ve grown and harvested in my tiny inner-suburban backyard, or sewn my own clothes, from fabric that I’ve previously woven on the loom I keep in the attic. All the above activities involve using technology that is slowly dying out, to achieve an outcome that – some would argue – can be achieved through much more efficient means.

If a book doesn’t feature a celebrity chef, celebrity sportsperson, or celebrity celebrity on the cover, or promise to supply you with the tools to change your life, then reading it seems to be an activity that is looked on with bemusement by most people. This vocal majority cannot fathom why we bother, when there are so many games available to download from the App Store, feeds to follow on social media, and shows to stream on Netflix. Plus, the Olympics are on, or so I’ve heard.

But I digress.

Because of this annoying compulsion to be productive, my absolute threshold for bingeing on television shows is 3 episodes in a row of House of Cards, after which time I feel compelled by forces beyond my control, to go and do that useful something. Up I rise, from the couch, and off I self-righteously trot, probably straight to my laptop, where it’s likely that, although intending to write a witty post on my blog, I’ll spend the next 45 minutes idly scrolling through social media posts, or trying to locate someone I haven’t seen since 1976 (not actually with any intention of contacting them, you understand, more out of curiosity to see if they still have any hair).

After a good part of the next hour has been lost for ever, I’ll be overcome with guilt at all the time I’ve wasted, and scramble to do some hurried edits on a half-written post that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere – most likely, deleting a comma and then, with a flourish, inserting a dash instead – before packing up and going to bed, with a sense of satisfaction at another day put to good use.

But, as regular readers (hi Mum!)* will know, I do binge occasionally, only, it’s usually on music. In fact, this very blog is to blame. Yes, that’s right, as far as blogs go, it may look as though butter wouldn’t melt in it’s mouth*, but it’s been the cause of more than a few musical binges before, during, or after I’ve mentioned some music while writing a post. Maybe I used a lyric as a title to a post – next thing you know, I’ve listened to an entire back catalogue four times while writing the post, and had a particular song stuck in my head for about three weeks until I can’t bear to catch myself humming it yet again.

But, my friends, those musical binges will have to be a tale for another post. Today’s post, which has been slowly written over a week, including sessions where I probably did do little more than delete some commas and insert some dashes – hopefully with outstanding results – was really about the major conflict experienced in modern life: being torn between indulgently binge-watching our way through a whole TV series, whilst also experiencing an annoying urge to be creative and/or productive.

The moral of today’s tale is, quite clearly: those who binge-watch too much TV will end up with a row of overflowing smelly garbage bins, and those who are all smarmy about how they don’t watch much TV at all, are probably lying; or just have really bad memories – and, furthermore, likely to be the sort of person who drastically overuses the dash.

 

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*I’ve never understood what butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth really means, or rather, I get that it means that someone looks innocent when they are not, but I don’t understand how the analogy of butter melting in someone’s mouth came to be used to convey that concept. If you know the history to how this became a common turn of phrase, please write to the PO Box at the top of the page, or if you don’t trust Australia Post not to return your mail by accident, then please write your answer in the comments section. All correct answers will receive an honourable mention in next month’s newsletter.

*Observant readers will have picked up that my mother does not have internet at home, so for her to be reading my blog regularly, it would need to be available as an animated version transferred onto VHS tape. That in itself is a fantastical option, and if you add in the need to post them to her via Australia Post, you will realise that whenever I refer to my mother reading my blog I am cracking a halarious inside joke, which never fails to be amusing to at least one of the persons writing this blog.

 

The Australian 2016 Census, now with prompts from Talking Heads

Census can handle 1000000 pings per hr

It’s time to play your part in shaping the future of Australia by filling out the Australian 2016 Census of Population and Housing. Since the first national census in 1911, the census has played an important role in charting Australia’s history and shaping its future.

Times have changed since that first census in 1911, and this year’s census will reflect those changes. Firstly, it can be done online. And secondly, the Australian Bureau of Statistics is bored with hearing the same old analytics – numbers of occupants, occupations and incomes, BOR-ING, so this year, we have structured the survey like a game of Jeopardy!™.  Below we have provided you with lyrics from Talking Heads songs. For each lyric you must respond by devising a suitable census question.

We encourage creativity, however please be aware that wrong answers may incur a fine of up to $180 per day. For those filling out a paper form, please use only a black, ballpoint pen to write your answers.

Census experiencing an outage

 

psycho killer  Please enter your password

Say something once, why say it again? Enter your password again for verification

psycho killer  Enter your password again for verification. 

Television Man  What is your name?

I’m not lost but I don’t know where I am. What is your address?

Give us time to work it out. How many people are present at this address on 9 August 2016?

Who took the money, who took the money away? Do you agree that large corporations deserve tax cuts? What is your annual income before tax?

I turn myself around, I’m moving backwards and forwards, I’m moving twice as much as I was before.  How often do you engage in physical exercise?

I’m driving in circles, come to my senses sometime  Do you live in Canberra?

Census error code 9 -the system is busy

People on their way to work say baby what did you expect? Are you ever confused or caught out by the MYKI card system?

I feel nice when I sing this song, and I don’t mind, whatever happens is fine. Do you enjoy your life? Are you on any medication?

Come on, come on, I go up and down, I like this curious feeling.  Do you enjoy sex? Are you satisfied with the new speed humps your local council has installed in your street?

Watch out, you might get what you’re after. If you were British, would you have voted for Brexit?

What’s the matter with him? He’s alright!  Did you agree with the critics of the latest Jason Bourne film?

the world was moving and she was floating above it and she was   Are you aware that former Liberal Speaker, Brownyn Bishop, billed taxpayers for a chartered helicopter to fly 80km from Melbourne to Geelong?

 

Census site - there will be no fines for completing after Aug 9

 

Sometimes the world has a load of questions. If you were former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, would you have chosen a different method of answering this question?

uh-oh, uh-oh, here we go again, sometimes I don’t know what I’m saying  Surely no-one can be the suppository of all wisdom?

Qu’est-ce que c’est?  Did you use a MAC to fill in the online survey? Please locate a PC and start again.

 

Census Wikipedia entry on Aug 9

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For those playing at home, the Australian Census 2016 was supposed to take place on 9 August but, well, computers collectively said no. The Australian Bureau of Statistics website apparently crashed (see screenshots above) and people were unable to submit their surveys. There were concerns ahead of time about the security of data and there are now rumours that the data has already been hacked, but because I have not read anything more than headlines, I can’t verify if that is true. I’m just glad I didn’t panic about getting it done on 9 August. See this article for more details: Australia’s Population Now 48, ABS confirms

My day: as reviewed by Dorothy Parker

8am: read a book while eating breakfast

God, the bitter misery that reading works in this world! Everybody knows that – everybody who is everybody. All the best minds have been off reading for years. I wish I’d never learned to read. Still, if I must review the damn thing…..well, thankfully, it’s witty in parts, but it’s also frightfully dull at times. Some people are sad, others are awkward – it’s nothing more than depressing, and precisely why reading makes me nervous. In fact, I feel so nauseated I could yip.

Reading: 2/10

Dorothy Parker - The Collected Stories

11am: started (but terminated) an online credit card application 

That whole process was awfully boring! It was bad enough having to fill out anything at all, (especially when the applicant is already a customer of the bank in question – Ed.) but it asked simply sheaves of questions! By page three of the online form, the applicant was asked for a long and tedious list of the most tiresome things – income, monthly mortgage repayments, and average contribution to household expenses (weekly/fortnightly/monthly) – just for starters.

It was enough to put me to sleep. I’d rather count sheep, and I hate sheep.

Online credit card application process: 2/10

 

1pm: started (and completed) an online application to set up a Mygov online account (as of July 1, this is required in Australia before you can get a refund through Medicare for a visit to a doctor.)

From everything I’ve heard about dealing with Australian Government departments, or websites, I’m actually rather thrilled at how smoothly this went. The only glitch was on creating a password – the applicant filled out all her details, created the password, and after hitting “submit,” received one of those frightfully dull error messages. In a rather frightful fire-engine red message, she was informed that she had entered an Invalid Password. No other information to guide us as to why it was invalid. How utterly tiresome!

I was scandalised at this, especially when the applicant explained that technology exists which will alert people, as they create a password, as to whether it fulfils the security requirements of the site. I’m told it would also be easy to include instructions stating what is required in the password – for example, a mix of uppercase and lower case? Numerals, characters, dots, dashes, your favourite Gin – who knows?

However, the applicant herself, clearly used to these kinds of glitches, retained her equanimity admirably. I was assured quite calmly that as far as errors on government websites go, this instance was so tiny, it was not worth stopping to think about. She took a guess, added a few more characters to her password – and sure enough, it went through. The rest of the process went smoothly and took about 15-20 minutes.

For an Australian government website, I’m reliably told, that is the smoothest user experience you could possibly imagine.

Based on this being an Australian Government website: 10/10  because there was only 1 glitch.

If this was a commercial business: 8/10 because of the glitch and lack of support with solving it.

2pm: baked a cake

I never bake. I can’t sit still long enough for that. Baking makes me nervous. And I never seem to get good household help. But this cake is delightful, I can’t believe you made it yourself, aren’t you clever! What’s that about the centre? Undercooked? Oh, no, I didn’t think so. Gooey? Well, I hardly noticed. I mean, I thought it was some terribly clever sauce in the middle. Yes, honestly. And the other part of the cake is delicious, so it really doesn’t matter. Flavour – why…is it….lemon? Oh, orange, you say? Why, now that you mention it, I can taste that quite clearly, I don’t know what I was thinking. Goodness, it’s very filling, I must say…I don’t think I can finish off that last little bit.

Cake: 5/10

 

3pm: cleaned the bath

My dear, the bathroom looks divine, although I don’t know why you don’t hire someone to clean for you. Still, it’s nice to know that apparently your bath is white after all. It was becoming hard to tell, wasn’t it? Dust really can accumulate in a bathroom! Extra points for moving all of your teenage daughter’s hair products and soaps out of the way to do around the edges of the bath/shower and then putting them all so neatly back again. I wouldn’t have been so patient!

A bonus point, too, because you obviously hurt your back while cleaning – based on the fact that you are now lying flat on the wooden floor while I’m talking to you.

What’s that? It’s really not that bad? It really doesn’t look like you’re having much fun down there. Oh, no, don’t try to get up…..oh dear! It looks as though you are in pain. This is what comes of cleaning. Perhaps you should have been writing and left the silly old bath to its own devices.

Shall I make you a gin and tonic dear?

Bathroom: 11/10

Cleaning: 1/10

 

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The above includes direct quotes from Dorothy Parker’s Collected Stories.

Slippers that quiver in lonely terror at the expanse before them

Darlings, I simply must tell you about the book I’ve just read – it really was too marvellous for words. It’s a book of short stories by Dorothy Parker, titled, simply, “Collected Stories.” I’ve only just finished it; couldn’t have been more fascinating. Everybody and everything in it was simply divine, except for the restaurant at Thirty-Eight East, which was the world’s worst. The food there was absolutely poisonous, and there was not one living soul that you’d be seen dead with.

My goodness, have I really not read any Dorothy Parker before this? I cannot say yes or no with certainty, since this particular little book, bought second-hand, has been sitting in my book shelves for about 20 years, and my memory is such these days, that it seems possible  I may have read it 20 years ago and forgotten every last word.

Either way, what a treat it was to read, or re-read, this book, as the case may be.

Dorothy Parker was born in the late 1800s, and in the second decade of the 20th Century she worked as an editorial assistant at Vogue magazine, and then as a staff writer at Vanity Fair, a magazine which had already published her poems. She is best known for poetry, theatre criticism and short stories, and developed a reputation for her sharp wit. She wrote for the New Yorker and was one of the founders of the Algonquin Round Table. Later in her career she moved to Hollywood and had a successful career as a screenwriter.

Vogue, May 1917

Vogue, May 1917

My interest in Parker was kindled, or re-kindled, recently, after watching a film made in 1994, called Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh (whatever happened to her? – Ed), who is perfectly cast as the acerbic Mrs Parker. As you can probably guess from this casting choice (who has ever seen Jennifer Jason Leigh play a happy person?), Dorothy Parker was not exactly an easy-going or chilled out personality. Her sharp tongue created enemies – she was eventually fired from her role at Vanity Fair after her criticisms upset some powerful people. Much later on, her increasing civil rights activism through the 1930s and 40s resulted in her being listed as a Communist by the FBI, and subsequently blacklisted by Hollywood, putting an end to her screenwriting career.

An excerpt at the start of the book, which was first published in 1930, says that it contains all of her short stories “except a few which she did not wish to retain among her collected prose.” The stories within are largely observations of society, with a rather black humour to them. Parker gives us deft portrayals of interactions between people that reveal much about the author’s opinion of the authenticity of relationships between the genders, as well as class differences in 1920s New York.

For example, the story from which I stole part of a line for the title of this post, is called Horsie. The story focusses on a hapless Nurse, Miss Wilmarth, hired by a wealthy couple, to look after the new mother and her baby.

Her presence was an onus. There was that thing of dining with her every evening. It was a chore for him, certainly, and one that did not ease with repetition, but there was no choice. Everyone had always heard of trained nurses’ bristling insistence that they not be treated as servants; Miss Wilmarth could not be asked to dine with the maids. He would not have dinner out; be away from Camilla?

In this particular story the third person perspective shifts, sometimes allowing us to view private moments in Miss Wilmarth’s own thoughts, but mostly we see Miss Wilmarth from the perspective of the young father, Gerald Cruger, who, to his private anguish, has to face Miss Wilmarth, or Horsie, as he privately refers to her, due to her looks, each night at the dinner table, while his lovely wife Camilla languishes all white and languid on her apricot satin chaise-lounge upstairs, still too frail to come down to eat.

He tried, too, so far as it was possible to his beautiful manners, to keep his eyes from her face. Not that it was unpleasant – a kind face, certainly. But, as he told Camilla, once he looked he stayed fascinated, awaiting the toss and the whinny. 

Private conversations between Gerald and his wife show the cruelty in their attitude towards their hired Nurse:

…”Doesn’t our Horsie ever rate a night off?”

“Where would she want to go?” Camilla said. Her low, lazy words had always the trick of seeming a little weary of their subject. 

“Well,” Gerald said, “she might take herself a moonlight canter around the park.” 

Over and over, Parker reveals the cruel and selfish side of human nature, especially of those in the powerful position in a relationship, whether that is a masters of servants, or an older man having an affair with a younger woman. She hones in particularly on social conventions like small talk, which, she seems to say, is designed simply to make social interactions smoother for the person who is higher in the heirachy.

On his way home from his office, he found grim entertainment in rehearsing his table talk, and plotting desperate innovations to it.

….Lesson 1, a Dinner with a Miss Wilmarth, a Trained Nurse. Good evening Miss Wilmarth. Well! And how were the patients all day? That’s good, that’s fine. Well! The baby gained two ounces, did she? That’s fine. Yes, that’s right, she will be before we know it….

Caught in this social heirachy, Miss Wilmarth is not exempt from the same self-conscious attempts to make light conversation. Gerald reflects gloomily on how she awkwardly goes through the same routine every night, arriving late to the table for dinner:

“Well, Mary,” she would cry to the waitress, “you know what they say – better late than never!’

But no smile would mellow Mary’s lips, no light her eyes. Mary, in converse with the cook, habitually referred to Miss Wilmarth as “that one.”….

Remembering the look on Miss Wilmarth’s face each time this attempt at jocularity fails, Gerald can’t name the expression on her face, but we learn that it increases her equine resemblance to such a point that he thought of proffering her an apple. 

There is very little by way of action to this story, or most of the stories. The liveliness in them is largely in the complexities of people’s interactions – or monologues – and what is revealed about them. On reading up a little bit about Parker for the purpose of this post I notice that her writing is often referred to as sparse. Indeed, in the Foreword to the book, Franklin P Adams writes

Short stories they are, but only technically. Each is a novel, and in the unbridled hands of some of the wordier novelists – and I could name you plenty – would have become a novel of at least 500,000 words.

Take, for example, this succinct opening, which immediately sets the scene for The Waltz, which, like many of the most amusing stories in the collection, is written as one long monologue:

‘Why thank you so much. I’d adore to.’

I don’t want to dance with him. I don’t want to dance with anybody. And even if I did, it wouldn’t be him. He’d be well down among the last ten. I’ve seen the way he dances; it looks like something you do on Saint Walpurgis Night. 

This witty monologue has the narrator exaggerating her despair at being drawn into a waltz with a man who is apparently a clumsy dancer with a lack of skill and a large amount of enthusiasm.

I’m so glad I brought it to his attention that this is a waltz they’re playing. Heaven knows what might have happened, if he had thought it was something fast; we’d have blown the sides right out of the building.

The narrator’s internal dialogue, delivered as she’s being twirled around the room, consists in amusing hyperbole about just how bad the whole experience is, but is contrasted wittily against her conversation with her dance partner, in which she consistently says the socially acceptable thing:

‘You see that little step of yours – well, it’s perfectly lovely, but it’s just a tiny bit tricky to follow at first. Oh, did you work it up yourself? You really did? Well, aren’t you amazing. Oh, now I think I’ve got it. Oh, I think it’s lovely. I was watching you do it when you were dancing before. It’s awfully effective when you look at it.’

It’s awfully effective when you look at it. I bet I’m awfully effective when you look at me.

Parker’s expertise in writing is apparent also in her talent for description. We all know that description is an area where a writer must exert a high level of skill, and sparsity, otherwise it can teeter dangerously on the edge of becoming heavy and dull. Parker’s descriptions are mostly of people, but are lively even when she is detailing the attire that a character is wearing.

By the time we reach the paragraph in Horsie describing, in detail, Miss Wilmarth’s attire, we are aware of the subtext. The unfortunate Nurse has dressed for dinner, because Gerald, her employer, has invited some male friends to eat dinner, and she will dine with them. Even to a reader in 2016, it is clear that, as an employee dining with her boss and his friends, the very fact that she has dressed up for dinner is a social faux pas; on top of that, I don’t need to know what the fashions of the day were, to understand from the physical description Parker provides, that Miss Wilmarth looks unfashionable, ungainly and awkward. I will not quote the whole description here, but I think this sentence may be the most enjoyable description I’ve ever come across:

It revealed that Miss Wilmarth had clothed her ankles in roughened gray silk and her feet in black, casket-shaped slippers, upon which little bows quivered as if in lonely terror at the expanse before them. 

Of course, part of the beauty of that description is that the terror no doubt reflects that of Miss Wilmarth, on the rare occasion of sitting down to dinner with three men. Poor Miss Wilmarth. My heart goes out to those lonely slippers.

*

Reading Dorothy Parker reminded me that American literature has a tradition of very fine humorists and satirists  – after all, David Sedaris did not just appear out of a vacuum. In fact I was reminded very clearly of a book of short stories I have somewhere by Steve Martin (the Hollywood actor). I recall one of the funniest stories in it was a monologue that relied for its humour on conveying an obviously skewed perspective from an obviously neurotic narrator – I believe Mr Martin must have learned a trick or two from Mrs Parker.

The Gloaming

Darkness  (A very delayed response to a WordPress Daily Post prompt from about a week ago.) 

*

darkness: absence of light; the quality of being dark in color

At this time of the year, when I rise in the morning it’s in complete darkness. There’s always that split-second shock, where I’m dragged out of some light-and-color-filled scenario busily taking place in that alternate reality we call dreams. One moment I’m on a moving bus (incongruously about to pour peppermint tea into a delicate china cup) and the next, I’m reaching out into the cold and dark, to switch my alarm off.

It’s still dark outside while I eat toast and prepare for work, the sky lightening almost imperceptibly, so that eventually  through my kitchen window I can make out the outlines and contours of ground, hedge, fence, trees, and tool shed. Due to the absence of light, my eyes perceive these objects in varying tones of grey, dark shapes against a lighter grey background that is the sky.

Although I know that plenty of people are up at that time of morning, I’m often the only person awake in my house for half an hour, and while it’s dark, it’s easy to imagine that the rest of the world is still asleep and dreaming.

Dark Street 2012

*

darkness: gloominess, dimness; night

I am well acquainted with darkness, from years of being an insomniac. Lying awake through the night, you get to know the sounds of your night environment pretty well.

At different stages in my life I’ve felt a comfortable familiarity with my nightly soundscape. In the country town where I grew up, I would lie in bed listening to a deep silence, broken only occasionally by the sound of a truck driving through the main street, the sound of its engine reaching my ears for a surprisingly long interval, as it passed through town and then changed gears all the way up the hill, back on the highway towards Melbourne. Living in the city, I’ve listened to the rhythm of traffic stopping and starting up again at the traffic lights outside my apartment, off Punt Rd in Richmond, a busy main route that funnels traffic all day and night from north to south.

In this house, my current home, I’ve listened as evening noises (dogs barking, car doors slamming, neighbours talking, cars driving home down side streets) slowly die down, until in the depths of the night there’s just a soft hum, so soft that at first it seems like silence ringing in my ears, but then it becomes apparent that its actually the never-ceasing swoosh of traffic driving on the nearby freeway. Occasionally this is broken by a deep, thrilling rumble, that starts, quietly, to my left – in the south west – and grows louder as it travels solemnly across the sky, reaching a crescendo above my roof, and fades as it continues rumbling on, to my right, or the north-east, as a plane descends into Melbourne airport.

I like those sounds, the traffic and the planes; in the depths of the night they are proof that I’m not the only person who is awake.

*

darkness: unhappiness or gloom

On nights of insomnia, darkness can contribute to your state of mind if you allow it to. I remember nights where I’ve felt utter despair when the sky begins to lighten, because it means having to get up in an hour for work with little or no sleep, or, (at another time in my life) that I’ll need to pull myself together enough after lying awake all night, to smilingly greet my baby daughter who will wake any moment now.

In the midst of months of chronic insomnia, it’s very hard to find the strength to do what books advise: don’t lie there in the dark desperately trying to go to sleep. Get up, switch the light on, make a cup of tea, settle in, read a book. Turn on the heater, create some light and warmth. Don’t let the darkness defeat you.

*

darkness:  murkiness, shadowiness, twilight, gloaming

If we trace our history back to the stone age, we can easily see why darkness would imbue fear in humans – in those days, darkness brought with it a very real and practical fear of the wild animals that roamed at night and preyed on humans.

(Perhaps it was the remnant of this prehistoric, protective instinct, that kicked in when I was a new mother, so that sometimes in the dark of night, when my daughter was a very new addition to my previously self-centred life, I would manage to make myself more and more tense, as I imagined, almost compulsively, how I’d defend my child if an intruder entered my house and put her in any danger.)

Over the centuries, humans have developed and finely-tuned the art of story-telling, at first through a traditional of aural story telling, and then by using symbols and hieroglyphics, and then by developing rich, complex vocabularies. Across history and throughout all cultures, many of our myths and stories serve to embody our fears – in the shape of ghosts, witches, giants, demons – evil, personified into physical forms.

Inevitably, in these stories, evil is almost always encountered where light is low or absent – in the shadows, in the twilight, and in the dark of night. There’s an otherworldliness about the half-light, or the gloaming, that makes the hairs on my arms stand on end just as much as the pitch dark can do.

The contrast between light and dark plays a big part in the Greek myth of Orpheus, in which I imagine the River Styx, and the Underworld as gloomy places devoid of light. Orpheus, of course, tries to bring his departed lover Eurydice back to the daylight of the living world. The King of the Underworld allows Orpheus to lead Eurydice out, on condition that he may not look back until they are both safely back in the land of the living. But when Orpheus sees the light of the Sun up ahead, he momentarily forgets this condition, and turns to look at Eurydice, who immediately vanishes back down into the dark of the Underworld forever.

Another spine-tingling moment for me was on first encountering the Ring-Wraiths from The Lord of the Rings, who relentlessly seek the Ring. These figures, invisible but for the black cloaks they wear to give them form, are referred to as Black Riders or Dark Riders. Formerly human, they now live in a kind of limbo; only half existing in the world that humans see :

…they entered into the realm of shadows. The Nazgûl were they, the Ringwraiths, the Úlairi, the Enemy’s most terrible servants; darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death

 

Full Moon in cloudy sky 2012 (over Melbourne Airport)

*

darkness: wickedness or evil; as in ‘the forces of darkness’

Darkness is effectively used to evoke fear and foreboding of disaster in any  form of storytelling. Take, for example, the opening of this scene in Macbeth, the night when Duncan, the King, will be murdered:

Banquo: How goes the night boy?

Fleance: The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.

Banquo: Hold, take my sword. There’s husbandry in heaven: Their candles are all out.

When light is absent, the benign forces of Nature, present in the light of day, are supressed, and evil has a free reign.

I previously mentioned Lord of the Rings – in that epic journey, the heroes frequently traverse through forests covered with growth so thick that no sunlight can penetrate its depths, or down into the bowels of the earth, into caves under mountains. These places are always the abode of dragons, goblins, orcs, trolls, and similarly evil creatures, and the fear that even worser evils could be hidden in their depths. When they enter these dark, foreboding places, I am filled with the same foreboding that the heroes have. We learn that there is a the pattern to our story-telling, so we know it’s inevitable that when our heroes enter gloomy places filled with foreboding, something disastrous will occur.

*

darkness: lack of intellectual enlightenment; ignorance

Up until recently, European history from the 5th to the 14th Century was commonly referred to as the Dark Ages.

An implication in this term was, that during that period, which came after the decline of the Roman Empire, there was a period of intellectual darkness, that lasted until the Italian Renaissance in the 14th Century; a period of high achievement in art, architecture, literature, philosophy, music and science.

As noted on Wikipedia, the term Dark Ages employs traditional light-versus-darkness imagery to contrast the “darkness” of the period with earlier and later periods of “light.”

We also refer to the Age of Enlightenment, a period during the 18th Century which saw philosophers and scientists espouse reason, and scientific method, as legitimate modes of thought.

Thus even in colloquial language, a lack of knowledge equates to being kept in the dark, while gaining knowledge will throw light on a matter that was previously not understood.

Throughout history, education has mostly been the realm of a small minority, namely the rich and powerful, while a high proportion of the population has always remained poor and uneducated. In that environment, fear and superstitions are able to gain a strong hold on the collective imagination. It’s a situation that creates a ripe breeding ground for stories that instil fear; and in turn, not coincidentally, that situation creates a handy tool for those in power to utilise to their advantage.

*

darkness: secrecy or mystery

The term Dark Ages, mentioned above, used in reference to a period of European history, has a second meaning. That is, that the period was

characterized by a relative scarcity of historical and other written records at least for some areas of Europe, rendering it obscure to historians

In the time in which I write, it is sometimes hard to believe that we can’t find the answer to anything we need to know by merely typing it into Google and seeing what comes up. So it’s fascinating to realise there is a period of history about which little is known due to a lack of historical and other written records. It’s almost as if that period deliberately and obstinately wishes to remain obscured to us.

Really, what could intrigue us more, than that which we do not yet know the answers to? Humans are by nature curious; this drives our desire to learn about the world. Centuries after the Dark Ages, we have a wealth of knowledge and reasoning at our fingertips….and yet for all our supposed modern sophistication, the tendency for humans to fear darkness has lasted through the centuries, despite higher levels of education and scientific advances that should dispel the predominance of irrational fears and superstitions.

After all, who amongst us in 2016, if left alone in the dark, even in the safety and familiarity of their own home, would not prefer to have a light readily available? And be brazen enough to say that it is merely for convenience?

I will be the first to admit it: if I’m home alone, I leave the bathroom light on.

 

There’s a gap in between

On week day mornings, I am hauled from the depths of some dream or other at precisely 6.45am when my alarm goes off (to the sound of Led Zepplin playing Whole Lotta Love), and back up to the real world, where it’s cold and still dark. It’s early July, and here in the Southern Hemisphere we are almost right in the middle of our winter.

The sky lightens imperceptibly while I eat toast and drink a cup of tea, so that by the time I’m almost ready to leave, around 7.30, you can see outside, although the color is still missing from everything in the grey, pre-dawn light.

When I left my house one chilly morning recently, I didn’t notice the unusually thick, low-hanging fog as I drove to the train station. Perhaps because there was about 20-30 metres of visibility, and that is the range of my focus when driving in the built-up inner Melbourne suburb where my commute by train starts. But as soon as the V-line (country) train pulled out of the station, I settled in to my seat and looked out at the view going past on the embankment above me, and saw a sight that is unusual in the city – only a few metres of shops and houses were visible, and the rest were  swallowed up in the white swirl of low hanging cloud.

Now, I am not good at sleeping on planes, trains or automobiles, but I can occupy myself quite happily by staring out the window of a moving train any time, as I always find it mesmerising to watch the landscape go whizzing past me at high speed. On this particular morning, the view was all the more fascinating. Yes, I was awake, but the world outside the train looked like a dream landscape, or landscapes, racing past like hazy images from my subconscious.

Since I was so inspired by the fog (?!) I scribbled some notes on the train, and those (edited and extended) are incorporated into what follows, accompanied by photos.

*

Staring out the train window now, we are skirting around the outside of Melbourne’s outer suburbs, and pulling into the last suburban station before we really have left the city behind. My view is of a strip of dirt, some brownish-greenish grass, and then just a haze of white fog that has hidden everything else. Usually from here I’d see the matching rooftops of suburban houses just across the paddocks, and city buildings even further away in the distance.

 

Foggy morning from train 16.06.02-3

 

On sunny mornings I’ve stared out those same windows across those very same paddocks, and marvelled at how clear and detailed the view is for miles – I can pick out telegraph poles, as tiny as specks, far away on the horizon.

I hesitated, just a moment ago, about whether to describe the fog as white, or grey. From here, its appearance is an off-white, which I think would be on the scale of greys. (As opposed to the scale of creams, for example.) I’m pretty sure if I was trying to capture this color in paint, I’d need to mix the tiniest bit of black into my white paint. Maybe the tiniest bit of black, and the tiniest bit of blue.

As the train rumbles swiftly along, all sorts of ghostly grey shapes can be discerned by someone staring intently out the window, i.e, me. I can just make out some dark, organic, curving lumps hovering in the mist – these are trees, bushes, and mounds of dirt where digging – for a new housing estate or a road – has taken place some time ago and then seems to have been abandoned.

I notice a group of birds – is three birds a flock? – fly into the fog and vanish. The dark shape of something I can’t quite distinguish looms in the foreground – I think it’s probably earth moving machinery, as we are still travelling past a patch where work has been taking place. A bit further on, two dull yellow lights glowing – a car driving slowly down a side road, towards a railway crossing. Then for a while there’s nothing, no shapes reveal themselves. Just the hum of the diesel engine and layers of cloud hiding the world outside from view.

We could be travelling in this train along a track that runs parallel to the edge of the world. There’s maybe 30 metres between us and where my vision can see to – the middle of that paddock there. Maybe that’s where the earth just drops away and beyond that, all there is, is a swirling mass of vapour.

Imagine that: out there, in that paddock, hidden from me by the mist, is the edge of the earth, and beyond it, the unknown. I pretend that’s what the wisdom of the day tells me. How, in that case, do I imagine that unknown space beyond the world? Is it just swirling vapour, or is it a vast ocean, that the earth floats on, as some people thought hundreds of years ago?  Should we be afraid of reaching the edge, and seeing what lies beyond? When the mist rolls in, should we shiver, and huddle close, the hairs on our arms standing up, not with cold, but in fear of where the mist comes from, and what it brings with it?

Of course this is all daydreaming, and when not on a train staring out at the fog, I don’t believe any of the above, but on a morning like this, it’s easy to imagine how people living hundreds of years ago could think the earth had an edge, and that humans should be cautioned against the folly of exploring beyond it.

In those days, when mists came rolling in across the moors, or the fields, depending where you lived, it must have seemed as if they came from that dank and murky place outside of the edges of the earth.

Looking into a fog like this, hundreds of years ago, surely only the bravest amongst us could envision themselves striding out across the grass, disappearing into the swirling mist, and entering the gap that would take them across into the unknown.

 

Building in fog

 

Of course I’m not the victim of such fantasies. All the same, I’m glad I didn’t drive today.

 

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