On nerds, and dams, and good writing

It is a very pleasing thing to find that a great writer is a bit of a nerd.

On second thoughts, maybe it’s not at all surprising that a great writer is a bit of a nerd.

After all, for all the fist-fights, heavy drinking and multiple wives of your Ernest Hemingways, and Norman Mailer types, there are probably just as many introverted Emily Dickinsons or John Keats –  quiet, thoughtful, observant, intuitive souls; scribbling away at beautiful works carefully constructed from a love of words.

When I pulled Joan Didion’s famous collection of essays from the 1960s, The White Album from my bookshelves a few weeks ago, quotes on the back such as ‘Our quintessential essayist’,  and the byline, Scintillating reflections on contemporary America, prepared me for sizzling descriptions and analyses of the social and political climate of America in the 1960s.

The essays do range across events like the student uprisings, the Charles Manson murders, the music and the atmosphere of the 1960s, but what I wasn’t prepared for in this book were essays about the LA Operations Centre of CALTRANS (Bureaucrats), about suffering from Migraine, (In Bed), about Mall design (On the Mall), about Glasshouse orchids (Quiet Days in Malibu), and last but by no means least, not one but two essays about dams (Holy Water, and At The Dam). Subjects I did not expect from a collection of scintillating reflections on contemporary America – but I had forgotten that I was reading Didion.

There is certainly what doctors call a ‘migraine personality,’ and that personality tends to be ambitious, inward, intolerant of error, rather rigidly organised, perfectionist. “You don’t look like a migraine personality,” a doctor once said to me. “Your hair’s messy. But I suppose you’re a compulsive housekeeper.” 

In one paragraph on a piece about Migraine, Didion has conveyed to me what it was like to be a woman in the 1960s, visiting a doctor, who was most likely male. Simultaneously she also conveys something of what it was, and is, like to be Joan Didion, that is consistent with the picture of her that I’ve built up through all the reading I’ve done of her: someone who always feels less-than-perfect, almost as if she has failed in the roles of woman/wife/mother/human being. She immediately goes on to reveal more about herself:

Actually my house is kept even more negligently than my hair, but the doctor was right nonetheless: perfectionism can also take the form of spending most of a week writing and rewriting and not writing a single paragraph.

These little reveals are endearing but it was in her writing about Dams that I really loved her, because she is unable to contain her deep sense of pleasure and awe at the movement of all that water;  and it’s her ability to convey her – some might say nerdy – obsession that allows us to also be moved by the technical prowess and the poetic majesty contained in the movement of these huge bodies of water.

Perhaps it’s the mark of a great writer, that even when writing about something as specific and discrete as the Hoover Dam, her essay displays that famous ability to expose things about herself as well as capture the time, and the psychological and physical environment around her with extraordinary clarity. Here is the opening to her piece about visiting the Hoover dam in 1967, (written in 1970), entitled At The Dam.

Since the afternoon of 1967 when I first saw Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye. I will be talking to someone in Los Angeles, say, or in New York, and suddenly the dam will materialize, its pristine concave face gleaming white against the harsh rust and taupes and mauves of that rock canyon hundreds or thousands of miles from where I am. I will be driving down Sunset Boulevard, or about to enter a freeway, and abruptly those power transmission towers will appear before me, canted vertiginously over the tailrace. Sometimes I am confronted by the intakes and sometimes by the shadow of the heavy cable that spans the canyon(…….) Quite often I hear the turbines. Frequently I wonder what is happening at the dam this instant, at this precise intersection of time and space, how much water is being released to fill downstream orders and what lights are flashing and which generators are in full use and which just spinning free. 

This is a short piece, only three pages long, but in that space, Didion describes walking beneath the operation centre of the dam where visitors do not generally go.

…on the whole we spent the afternoon in a world so alien, so complete and so beautiful unto itself that it was scarcely necessary to speak at all. We saw almost no one. Cranes moved above us as if under their own volition. Generators roared. Transformers hummed…. 

She ends that piece by imagining the dam existing long after human beings have died out,

….a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world there no one is. 

Didion clearly fostered a love of dams, because another essay in the collection, Holy Water, written in 1977, describes a visit to the Operations Centre for the California State Water Project. Again, the piece begins by revealing her own fascination with water, or more specifically, as she explains in this piece, her fascination with the movement of water.

The water I will drink tonight in a restaurant in Hollywood is by now well down the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens River, and I also think about exactly where that water is: I particularly like to imagine it as it cascades down the 45-degree stone steps(…..) As it happens, my own reverence for water has always taken the form of this constant meditation upon where the water is, of an obsessive interest not in the politics of water but in the waterworks themselves, in the movements of water through aqueducts and siphons and pumps and forebays and afterbays and weirs and drains, in plumbing on the grand scale. I know the data on water projects I will never see (….) I can put myself to sleep imagining the water dropping a thousand feet into the turbines at Churchill Falls in Labrador.

She describes in detail the logistics of water movement around California – agencies call the Operations Centre headquarters by 9am to tell dispatchers how much water is needed by its local water contractors, a schedule is made, and the gates are opened and closed according to the schedule. Walking through the Operations Centre headquarters, she notices a reference in the communications log to Draining Quail, a reservoir in Los Angeles with a gross capacity of 1,636,018,000 gallons.

I knew at that moment I had missed the only vocation for which I had any instinctive affinity: I wanted to drain Quail myself.

The idea of this diminutive writer draining Quail myself strikes me as funny, but while I’m smiling, in those six words she has conveyed to me the strength of her passion for the topic, as keenly as if she’d slapped me around the face.

One of the strengths in her writing, it seems to me, comes from those glimpses of her own fascinations, obsessions, and flaws, as she tells a story. I’ve read other essays and books by Didion and throughout them all I put together my own impression of her personality: I imagine a very clever and quick witted, reserved, serious, careful, analytical, possibly nervous, or nervy, person. Capable of taking obsessive interest in things others might think “nerdy” – such as the movement of water. She is not a humorist, and does not write a piece like Holy Water primarily in order to be funny, but occasionally uses self-deprecating humour at her own obsessions or weaknesses very effectively, to convey that passion, or, on other occasions, that sense of vulnerability. Another example: right after the startling revelation – to herself as well as to the reader – that she wanted to drain Quail herself, Didion open the next paragraph with,

Not many people I know carry their end of the conversation when I want to talk about water deliveries, even when I stress that these deliveries affect their lives, indirectly, every day. 

Here’s her final, climactic paragraph from the essay, Holy Water.

If I had wanted to drain Quail at 10:15 that morning, I wanted, by early afternoon, to do a great deal more. I wanted to open and close the Clifton Court Forebay intake gate. I wanted to produce some power down at the San Luis Dam. I wanted to pick a pool at random on the Aqueduct and pull it down and then refill it, watching for the hydraulic jump.(….)

I stayed as long as I could and watched the system work on the big board with the lighted checkpoints. The Delta salinity report was coming in on one of the teletypes behind me. The Delta tidal report was coming in on another. The earthquake board, which has been desensitized to sound its alarm…only for those earthquakes which register at least 3.0 on the Richter Scale, was silent. I had no further business in the room and yet I wanted to stay the day. I wanted to be the one, that day, who was shining the olives, filling the gardens and flooding the daylong valleys like the Nile. I want it still.

*

All quotes above taken from The White Album, Penguin Books, 1981

That’s Not My Name

I’ve always felt as if the first name I was given by my parents does not fit me properly.

As far back as I know of, (unfortunately only a few generations) my cultural heritage is 3/4 Irish, 1/4 English, but this did not stop my parents from burdening me with a very Spanish-sounding name. I use the term burdened only because, in appearance, if not in disposition, I’m the antithesis of Mediterranean, so my name and I have never been a logical match.

Here I am, an Aussie, with golden (some say strawberry) blonde hair, and white, pinkish-tinted, freckled skin. I can’t go out on even a mildly sunny day without smothering myself in thick white 30+ sunscreen, a scarf and a hat – consequently if it’s hot outside, I’d rather stay inside, thanks all the same. I’m so far from Mediterranean that a holiday that involved lying on a banana lounge all day long on a beach, at a pool or on the deck of a cruise ship, would be hell for me.

You can see why I’ve never really felt as if my name suits me. If I was to change my name I’d choose something that, in my imagination at least, is better suited to my colouring and personality – something that sounds vaguely English or Celtic. Emma – the name of a great aunt. Angela, Colleen, Eileen, Bridget, or Therese – all names of cousins. Nora or Mary, my grandmothers. Catherine, Kathleen, or Kate – variations on the name have been given to many women in my family.

Others also instinctively feel that the name doesn’t suit me – or at least, that’s how I choose to interpret the fact that when I’m newly introduced, people commonly have trouble remembering my name, or incorrectly call me one of its Celtic variations instead. In circumstances where it doesn’t really matter (eg making a booking at a restaurant) I’ll usually just let them do that, because it feels silly to make a fuss about the fact that my name is a letter or two different to the name they are pronouncing, when clearly the more anglicised name suits me better.

But despite the mismatch, perhaps it’s because of my Spanish-sounding name that, on discovering a book on Spain in my parents’ bookshelves at home when I was a kid (searching for resources for a school project – this was well before Google), the thought occurred that I’d like to learn the language. Maybe I felt as if my name entitled me to feel some affinity with Spanish culture. Maybe some elements of Spanish language and culture felt comfortably familiar in the midst of my otherwise all-white, country town Australian childhood because I grew up watching Sesame Street on TV, which brought Maria and Luis, two friendly Hispanic Americans, and occasionally even some Spanish language, into my lounge room every week day.

*

As a child, it appeared as if the U.S. was more diverse, and therefore interesting, than Australia. I probably gained this impression largely because of Sesame Street, since, during the time that I watched it, I seem to recall an even mix of people of white, Hispanic, and African American backgrounds on the show, and later Asian Americans as well. Proportionally, I did not encounter equivalent levels of diversity living in country town Australia, or even in Melbourne when I moved there in the late 1980s. As an adult, I still believe that the U.S. is more culturally diverse than Australia, however all the way over here, I don’t hear much in the media to suggest that the U.S. embraces that diversity.

I started this post a few days ago, and wrote about the incongruity of my Spanish-sounding name, going down quite a different path with the direction I took. It was going to be a post about all the things I regret not doing – learning Spanish being one of those. I came back today and changed tactic, remembering that book, and Sesame Street, and how, as a child, I had wanted to find something to relate to, in this other culture that seemed both interestingly different to my own, while also comfortingly approachable and familiar because of characters very deliberately placed into Sesame Street. Maybe the reason my writing and thought process took me down that path today was because I had read earlier today of the Whitehouse taking down the Spanish version of their internet site.

Even as an Aussie on the other side of the world, I can understand what a significant gesture that is. It makes me feel sad. I concede that the Whitehouse has very deliberately not stated that the page is removed for good, so hopefully it will be reinstated – but it seems significant that the initial removal happened along with the removal of other pages supporting policies such as GLBTIQ rights and climate change, policies that the Trump Administration are openly against. I’m horrified about the removal of those pages too, but unsurprised. There is much that I could rail against, but I’ll just stick with this issue because it probably shows my naivety that I actually felt surprise, reading today that Trump has previously criticised people for speaking Spanish in the U.S.

Really? How sad.

What Trump doesn’t realise is that to those of us outside of the U.S, Spanish-speaking language and culture forms part of the culture that, in our eyes, is particular to the U.S; just like elements of Jewish language and culture do.

The first place I ever went to, upon arriving in the U.S. for the first time, was a little store on a hill in San Fransisco, with two or three tables, where we ordered a Mexican beer and ate burritos. The store was not particularly Mexican themed, whereas even in the late 1990s you’d have had to go to a themed “Mexican Restaurant” in Australia to get a burrito. To us, it was the perfect start to an overseas trip – getting something novel like a burrito and a Mexican beer from what looked like a little take-away joint with a few tables. From that, we immediately got that exciting sense of being somewhere else, somewhere different to Australia, where it was apparent that the influence of Hispanic culture and food was assimilated into the mainstream culture.

If he wants to wipe out the speaking of the language, will Trump also require all other Hispanic elements are wiped out of U.S. culture too – the Mexican beer, the churros, tacos, burritos, and all Spanish-Mission style architecture knocked down?

Enough on the U.S. I’m sure that there are other commentators out there who will analyse the Trump government’s actions to discourage Spanish speaking, far more eloquently and with more right to speak about the topic than I have.

I’ll just go back to thinking about how because of, or despite, my ambivalent attitude to my Spanish-sounding name, which doesn’t suit my Anglo-Celtic coloring at all, I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish. Perhaps now is the time to start.

 

Some velvet morning

The start of a new day can be a quiet, beautiful thing.

This morning: a start that was unusual. Beautiful, but only in a quiet and unassuming way. It would mean nothing to anyone else.

I left my brother’s house at 8am this morning to drive to work.

Already, this is out of the ordinary, as my brother lives an 85 minute drive from where I live, and also, as it happens, about an 85 minute drive from where I work, which, from his place, is in an entirely different direction from where I live. So it was the first time in my life I’ve got up on a work day, set off from a country town, to drive about 100 kilometres to work, on an unfamiliar route I’ve never taken before.

A sense of novelty gave the morning a particular gleam, but the golden sunlight streaming through the window at 7am was also a culprit in creating this effect. Without both things, I may have been feeling a little sorry for myself at having to rise at 7am, after a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds gig the night before, to go to work.

But as it was, it was a glorious summer morning, and I was in the country! On a workday!

I was woken by the sounds of birds singing right outside my bedroom window. I feel obliged to comment on how lovely this was, and yet, I should also note here, for anti-city skeptics like my country-loving father (in case he ever reads this blog) that we do have birds in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, where I live; in fact, they regularly chirp noisily in the tree close to my window. (I can hear at least three different varieties chirping away as I write this).

But – blow me down if birds singing outside your window first thing in the morning, in the country, doesn’t somehow just feel so much more….countrified!

So the Country Birds Community Choir did their duty, and I ate my vegemite toast with extra enjoyment as a consequence of their efforts. Being in close proximity to my gorgeous 21-month-old nephew while I ate breakfast added another layer of joy to the morning that would have applied regardless of the location, weather, or presence of a choir, whether human or bird variety.

Breakfast over and goodbyes said, I stepped out the front door of my brother’s house at 8am. The sun was already shining  brightly, with a forecast temperature of 30 degrees (Celsius) expected for the day. The sunlight felt warm, but the breeze was still cool, making it a delightful morning to be heading off on what almost felt like an adventure – if I ignored the fact that work lay at the end of it.

After only two minutes of driving, I was on the freeway doing 110m. I’ve heard there have been increases in the number of people commuting from regional towns to work in the city these days, so I was expecting something like in Melbourne, where, at peak hour, there are lights at the freeway entry ramps, which flash green for a split second every 20 seconds or so, to indicate that the next 3 lanes of stationery cars may accelerate and enter the freeway, but the numbers of commuters in the country have obviously not taken off quite as much as I had imagined. A lone car overtook me just after I joined the freeway, and after that, I and the small handful of other vehicles on the freeway that morning shared our personal space out pretty evenly. There was no need to crowd in.

Before my dad retired, he drove country roads all over the state in a truck for a living. This morning, I could see why he chose this occupation over the factory work that he started and quickly discarded. Beginning a journey on a glorious sunny morning in the country is an entirely different experience to starting out on the busy city roads I normally drive on. Your view is not filled with buildings and other cars – instead you can see more of the sky. Trees grow close to the side of the roads, causing a pattern of dappled light and shadow to fall across the road at that time of morning, and you have almost the whole freeway to yourself.

On a morning like that, in the country, it feels like an hour or so of driving is something to look forward to.

The drive turned out to be just as enjoyable as was promised by the golden sunlight and light breeze I encountered when I first stepped out the door. After about twenty minutes of trundling along the freeway, I turned off onto a country road, the C141. The Ballan-Daylesford Road was empty. A sign told me I had 73 kilometres to go, and for the next 45 minutes of driving, I passed one truck, and one other car passed me, and disappeared swiftly into the undulating curves of the road ahead.

2015-paddocks-from-geelong-train

 

Pic: © The Antipodean Blatherer

I drove through the countryside, with paddocks on both sides of me. There were sheep grazing in dry, yellow fields, right up close to the road, and in yet another paddock, bales of hay, piled up into what looked like small straw-colored cubby houses. I rounded a steep downward bend with eucalyptus trees on each side, to see a cool green dam spread out only a few feet away from the road.  Browns, golds, and yellows everywhere I looked. In some cases, the color signalled a crop, but in most cases, the beiges and light browns spread out before me were just the dry landscape in this part of the state. That’s just the color of the grass. Everything was just part of the ordinary, Australian countryside, yet all these things seemed quite wonderful, in a way, on such a lovely morning.

The slight sense of wonder stayed with me for the whole trip. Here I was, a lone vehicle driving through a landscape I’d never driven in before, way out in the countryside on narrow country roads, at 8.30am in the morning, and yet at the end of this strange and unfamiliar trip, I’d be at work, just like on any other work day.

It was the sunlight, it was the morning, it was the countryside, and it was the unfamiliarity of the trip.

I think it is a worthwhile exercise to take a different route to work occasionally.

 

 

We Float

Float

It’s a top rating story that has made world news  – the number of deaths by drowning  in Australia that have occurred since Christmas Day 2016. Consequently, there is talk of reinvigorating the push for parents to take kids for swimming lessons as early as the age of four, in order to increase their safety in the water.

I’ve had swimming lessons, but I’m not much of a swimmer. In Australia, for my generation, weekly swimming lessons in grade 6 and 7 were a standard part of the Physical Education program at school. By the end of those, I could float, tread water and swim backstroke and freestyle for 25 metres, no doubt accomplishing all those tasks with a resoundingly poor-to-fair rating.

Since that time, any time I’ve been in a large body of water, all I’ve done is frolic with my daughter (when she was a toddler), or “muck around” a bit in the waves at the beach. In other words, I’ve not had to physically exert myself to swim 25 metres for about 30 years, so whether I can swim or not these days, or how capable I am at swimming, is a matter purely for speculation.

Fortunately for me, I’ve never been stuck in a rip, or had to rescue anyone else who was.

*

In the little country town where I grew up, we were fortunate to have a busy community hub for young people that opened up every summer, in the form of the local pool. Given the size of the town, local council would have been unlikely to fund the building and maintenance of a man-made pool – a twenty-minute drive would bring you to various pools in the larger town up the road. However, luckily for us, a large local lake existed with no effort from council, and only required that they fit it out, to turn it into a local community pool.

So one side of the lake was given concrete bleachers, a wooden jetty was built to divide the “middle” pool – where the water came up my shoulders at its deepest point – from the main part of the lake, an ambitious, three-tiered diving tower was built, and a concreted, chlorinated pool for toddlers was created higher up the hill, in the shade of the eucalyptus trees.

When you are a kid, you take for granted everything you come across, so I didn’t think there was anything unusual about having a lake for your local pool. Of course, in the past, there was nothing usual about it, but these days we are a lot more risk averse than previous generations were, and generally in any populated area there will be a man-made, concrete, chlorinated pool, complete with lifeguards, Duty Managers, and lockers you can pay extra for, within a twenty minute drive.

In contrast to how they might have felt at an ordinary, 25 metre pool, with clear, transparent water and the depth marked at the bottom for all to see, this natural pool must have afforded the thrill of adventure to the 16 – 25 year olds who hung out at the lake in large numbers. Those who were 16-25 were my elders, and as such were afforded the appropriate respect and fear by me, a fearful kid. The local pool was definitely the only place in a small country town, where a child, or young teenager, could hang out in the same space as a bunch of older peers, and witness them all having a good time together.

There was added risk in swimming in a natural swimming hole. The water in the local lake was not clear, it was brown and murky. If you opened your eyes under water (we did!), you could see your own legs, and maybe those of someone standing quite close to you, but you wouldn’t see much further than that. And, right out in the middle of the lake, the depth was unknown. Unknown.

As a child, I found the concept that this lake went to unknown depths, absolutely thrilling. Rumour was that the lake had formed from an old mine-shaft. A bookish child, I’d read The Famous Five, and The Three Investigators, and some other great book about a girl who discovered a colony of dinosaurs still existing and living under a lake. So I knew that a mineshaft at the bottom of a lake of unknown depths signalled secret activities, shady figures, or at the very least, mystery.

Others were clearly more nonchalant than I, about the mystery in our midst. On hot summer afternoons, the pool was overrun with happy, carefree teens and younger adults, and an air of freedom and exuberance wafted across its surface in the warm, chlorine-saturated breeze.

I’m transported back for a moment, to a hot summer afternoon very much like today (it’s 4pm on a Saturday afternoon, and 37 degrees), in 1983, when I was 13.

I’m sitting in the middle of the wooden jetty that divides the middle pool from the wilds of the main part of the lake.

The middle pool is behind me. If I look straight ahead, I see some guy give a jubilant whoop as he dives from the 10 metre high, Top Tower. There is a queue of people chatting and laughing as they wait their turn to do the same, and queues at the lower towers, and still more people climbing the ladders to join them. I look a bit further to my right, along the wet concrete landing, to another diving board, this one lower than the towers. There’s a queue there too, and someone is doing a bomb off that board, just as I look in that direction. In other places on the concrete, people sit at the edge of the pool, or lie on beach towels.

Further to my right again are the concrete bleachers, which lead up to the public toilets and a kiosk, all permanently shaded by massive pine trees which drop their spikes all over the bleachers.  If I’m lucky, Mum will have given me enough money to buy a Peters Drumstick – my idea back then of the most heavenly thing one could eat.

peters-drumsticks-maybe-from-60s

Cake? I didn’t know there was cake as well!

Pic: Pinterest

Right behind me is the Middle pool, beyond that is the concrete landing that borders two sides of this pool, and then, up some concrete steps and fully fenced in, the man-made, chlorinated toddler pool. Behind that is the perimeter fence. If you stand up near the fence you can hear frogs and birds in the wetlands on the other side of it.

To my left, I look along the rest of the jetty, built to cut the Middle Pool off from the main pool. After performing that function, continues on around the edge of the main pool for a while, running along next to the perimeter fence, creating another surface around that edge, where people can hang out. That last section of jetty, where it’s not dividing the two pools, is an unofficial hangout for older teens, so I never go that far along. Even though they are only visiting, my older cousins can read the lay of the land, and they disappear for hours, hanging out there, sunbathing on their beach towels, or taking a dip, with the sounds of the wetlands on the other side of the fence behind them.

A map is provided for your edification. (not to scale.)

A map is provided for your edification. (not to scale.)

At this time, it’s a mysterious world to me, the world of older teenagers. All I recall is that a cousin about 8 years older than me – so almost an adult in my eyes, at any point in my childhood –  had an unfortunate incident where she dived in off the jetty and when she came up from under the water, her bikini top did not come with her.

One year my mother booked myself and some of my siblings  – maybe it was the oldest three of us – into lessons run by Vicswim (a program run during school holidays and funded by the State government) at our local pool. The lesson attendees comprised basically our family and one other local girl, and were run before the pool was open to the public, so we had the whole quiet pool to ourselves.

One busy weekend, there was a kerfuffle in the main poole, and it turned out that an unsuspecting platypus had swum too far and found itself in the midst of a bunch of humans frolicking around in the water. The poor creature continued to paddle along, into the middle pool, where I had a good view of it. Like everyone else, I wasn’t quite sure whether to be scared of the animal, or what it would do if I got too close, so I steered clear of it.

platypus-underwater-animal-profile-web620

Pic: Zoos Victoria 

*

I imagine lots of Australians have a similar relationship to water as I have. We learned to swim as kids, and have fond memories of spending time at our local pool or beach, then as adults we only ever muck about in waist high water at the beach, between the flags. For us, water at a pool or beach has been a fun-filled place to hang out. We are probably not equipped to deal with getting caught in a rip, or assisting someone else when they are.

Despite my fair, freckled skin, and tendency to sunburn, I do love the beach when the temperature soars past 30 degrees. Not in the daytime – I’m not a total masochist. But it’s a lovely place to be in the morning before the sun has heated up, or in the evening when the hot sun is losing its bite.

But because of the publicity around this spate of recent drownings, I felt an unusual sense of concern last night, as I watched my daughter head into the waves at my local beach. It was unpatrolled, but very calm, and filled with people. What would I do if I saw her get into difficulty? There was no question that I’d rush in to help her, but would I be any use or would I just make matters worse? At Australia’s rivers and beaches there are frequently tragic stories of people who drown trying to save others.

Fortunately, she was fine, and the night will become, for us, part of our blurry, happy memories of spending warm, summer evenings in the water.

*

P.J. Harvey – We float, take life as it comes.

via Daily Prompt: Float

Some kind of resolution

Renewal

We are now in the twilight zone.

It’s that time of the year that we forget exists. What, December actually continues on, past the 26th?? Well, yes, it does – but even accepting that to be true, I find it difficult to comprehend how the time seems to have slowed to a crawl, so that from the 26th to today feels as if it has taken a month already – and it’s only 30th December!

If I concentrate really hard, I am able to locate some hazy memories, as faded (and slightly orange-tinted) as those of my childhood, of the first week of December 2016.

At the beginning of December, I was at work as usual. Just like in any workplace, the beginning of December signals a shift in mindset. Everyone has their sights set on the end of the year fast approaching, and is busy dealing with the impact of that on their role. At my workplace, various staff were busily preparing for the final meeting of the Board of Directors for the year, writing grant aquittals (due, so unkindly, on 22 December), planning the Christmas Party, or working on the text and images for the Christmassy message that would go out in the final electronic newsletter to our subscribers for 2016.

From week two of December, numbers in our office begin to dwindle, as annual leave began to kick in. In an office of only 13 staff, three of my colleagues are from the UK, and all three were going back in December this year, so the numbers in the office began to decrease as early as December 5th as, one by one, those colleagues disappeared. By the final week leading up to Christmas there was just myself and three others remaining. On Thursday 22nd December, all four of us were still working hard, until about 3pm, when it became time to drink a glass of prosecco and eat cherries while we cleaned out the office fridge together and chatted. That memory could easily be of something that occurred a month ago now.

Between 1st and 25th December, I caught up with various friends for the last time for the year, drove to the country to see family members I wouldn’t see at Christmas, went to the work Christmas party, caught up with my brother in Melbourne, went to see Xylouris White play at the Recital Centre, finished my Christmas shopping, finished work, and drove to the country to spend Christmas with inlaws.

That all feels now like years ago. How is it possible that we are still not finished with December???

Yesterday, 29th December, was my daughter’s birthday. I always feel a bit sorry that her birthday falls in a weird vacuum in normal time. This was apparent when she was born – I had the Maternity Ward at the local hospital to myself for the 5 days I was there. Even births go on hold in the week between Christmas and New Year, apparently.

For her birthday this year, we took her out to a movie and dinner, with a friend of hers called Lili, a delightful girl she’s known since she was five. In conversation, Lili kept accidentally referring to “last year” when she was talking about things that had happened this year, and after making this error a few times, laughed that she couldn’t believe that it IS still 2016, because December, and even the days since Christmas, seem to have taken so long to go by.

I think it’s possible that there is some kind of rupture in the usual space-time continuum from 26 December to 2 January. I was not successful in my application for a grant to investigate that so I can’t provide any concrete evidence. It’s just a hunch.

Perhaps the slowness of this week is exacerbated this year in Melbourne by the weirdness of the weather we’ve had during twilight week. To our collective disgust, we’ve had wintery weather right through Spring, and then suddenly on Christmas day it was 35 degrees, and it’s been a similar temperature for the next 4! It’s hot, it’s humid – in short, it’s weather that is conducive to doing not much at all, just lazing around in a stupor and inventing new types of iced tea to drink. Making iced tea is in fact the most physical activity I’ve engaged in since Boxing Day.

Maybe this week is designed to be a kind of blank slate for the mind and the psyche, a time simply for rest and rejuvenation, before we rev up our motors to begin a new year.

Just as December begins with a slight mind shift into finishing up and going on a break, so January begins with another distinct mind shift. There is a sense of optimism about starting a new year, as if we are being granted a licence to start afresh. Start what afresh, you may ask? Whatever applies – professional work, personal growth, relationships – why, basically, life, in a nutshell. In December we planned our work each day as if we were heading for a finishing line of some sort. In January we start up by thinking, great, I can’t wait to file away all that stuff from last year and get things ready to go for the next year. 

That’s the fun that we find in celebrating a New Year, at least for those of us lucky enough to be living comfortable lives with a roof over our heads, where we don’t have to worry about where every meal is going to come from, or whether a bomb will be dropped on our home while we sleep. For us, the idea of a new year allows us to indulge in a harmless fantasy that we have an opportunity to start our lives afresh, or at least, to review and recalibrate, shaking off old, unwanted habits and beginning to form new and virtuous ways of living and being.

With this in mind, many of us make resolutions at the start of the year. (I’m inconsistent on this – for years I have not bothered with this tradition simply because I refuse to see it as an obligation the way some people do, but this year I might dip in again.) This desire to better ourselves is a heart-warming thing about humans. Sadly that desire is easily and frequently misdirected, by advertising and cultural pressures, into far too many resolutions, made by people of perfectly acceptable sizes, to go on diets, and/or lose a certain amount of weight, as if that is the most important thing one can do to be a better person.

But if you think creatively, it’s possible to use this twilight zone of a week, and the notion of a New Year’s Resolution, to think about what is important to you right now, and what you want to change. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to play the guitar, or maybe you want to do something concrete to help people who are disadvantaged. Maybe you would just like to make some new friends who have a similar outlook to you, and, like you, want to do some good in the world.

Whatever you decide to do, it doesn’t have to be big, significant or even noble. It would be stating the obvious to say that a small, simple action is going to be easier and therefore more achievable.

For example, my partner told me his resolution for 2017 is to learn more about music. This is coming from someone who already knows quite a lot about baroque, renaissance, classical, choral, and jazz music, at least, in comparison to most people I know.

I approve of his goal, particularly because I know he is tired and disheartened by work quite often lately. A more obvious resolution for him to make would have been to get a new job this year, but I think the New Year’s Resolution process works better if you don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Sure, he could have focussed on the goal of removing a negative thing in his life, and put pressure on himself to achieve that in a fixed timeframe, but if he failed to achieve it in that timeframe, he’d himself more miserable in the attempt. Instead, he’s thought of something totally unrelated to work, an interest that he gets a lot of enjoyment from, and how he can increase the enjoyment he gets from it. (listening to music more than he already does is probably not possible.)

I don’t usually indulge in uttering wise-sounding, advisory statements on this blog, but all the above leads me to this thought, perhaps because it’s something I am trying to follow more and more in my life:

Find the things, and people, in life that you are interested in and think about how you can engage more deeply with them. Your life will be richer as a result.

img_1138-at-somers-beach

Pic: At Somers Beach, Victoria, January 2012 – © Blathering, 2012.

via Daily Prompt: Renewal

Wordsworth v Chandler (reposted)

It rained on my Chrysler all day long

as I sat high up in the Hollywood Hills,

peering through my binoculars

past a soggy clump of daffodils;

beside the lake, beneath the trees,

till I was hit and fell on my knees.

 

Things went black for a little while

and when I woke I smelled of gin,

– not casually as though I’d sipped,

but reeking, as if I’d had a swim –

Framed, I realised at a glance,

a hasty departure my only chance.

 

A dame beside me, fairly dead,

and on the floor my bloodied gun;

a pounding in my aching head,

once again I’m on the run.

To clear my name my only hope

And catch that Stinky McFlintoff, the dope.

 

And oft, when on my couch I lie

and tell this story to my shrink,

I wonder why I didn’t try

the window high above the sink;

instead of making for the door

and ending up here in the clink.

Noir detective with daffodils

Humphrey Bogart, wandering as lonely as a cloud, o’er Hollywood Hills.

 

With apologies to William Wordsworth and Raymond Chandler.

*

*First posted in 2014. Today I had a (very frivolous) conversation (over here) about combining totally unrelated styles, or genres, of writing – chicklit and dada, & this made me think of my previous attempt to merge romantic poetry and hard-boiled detective fiction – another two deliberately incongruous genres – together. I think you’ll agree it’s quite ground-breaking. Of course, I don’t expect academics to discover its subtle complexities and put it on their  Post-Truth-Era Australian Literature reading lists for another 10 years or so.

PS – how do others repost old posts? I can’t see any simple way to do it so I copied and pasted the text into a new post, which means the old one also still exists separately. I can’t work out how to repost any other way. If you know, please share!

Bad Education

Recently spotted on the bio of a “tutor” running an online course: Joe Bloggs*, Designer, Animator and Thinker.

Perhaps I should run my own online “tutorials.” I, too, am a thinker. Why, I can spend whole afternoons thinking. I think about courses I should study, businesses I could start up, online stores I might open, choirs I’d like to join, fences I need to get fixed, exercise I should do, dinner I should make. By 6pm I’m quite exhausted by all the thinking done that afternoon, and require a glass of wine to calm down.

Along with thousands of other people, (most of whom, I assume, are normally as unproductive as myself) suddenly I realise that the next logical step is to monetise my procrastination techniques, by turning these streams-of-consciousness into online courses. You don’t necessarily need any skills to run an online course (note that I’ve said necessarily – this post is not a criticism of the many fantastic online courses available through sites like Open Culture etc), just a catchy title and the ability to talk to camera. In fact, you don’t even need to talk to camera, thank goodness, because I don’t have that skill. That’s ok –  plenty of online courses have an off-camera tutor, so I know how it’s done. You just slowly read a carefully prepared set of instructions, paired with some low quality still images that change occasionally, just to show that you’re still there.

The first thing to do will be to decide on my bio. How about: Blathering: Blogger, Creative Content Producer, Thinker and Philosophiser.  I’m happy with that, although it was a toss-up between Philosophiser and Blathering Nincompoop, but I think Philosophiser will be better for attracting students to my courses.

Right. Now for the courses. A brief peruse of topics I’ve written about on this blog suggest that I could easily put together a few 20 minute tutorials. Possible topics might include:

Where did the time go? – How to successfully waste an afternoon away thinking of ideas that you will never implement. Requirements – a notebook and pen. Actually, not even those.

Where did the time go? (The Tertiary Student edition) – How to write a 4000 word essay in a day. Requirements – preferably you should be enrolled in a course and have a 4000 word essay due tomorrow.

Where did that pile of laundry go? – Top Tips for Procrastinating on that 4000 word Essay. *Extra bonus – Students who enrol in Where did the time go (The Tertiary Student edition) can also take our highly recommended course on procrastinating, for no extra cost. Please see here for more information on how to sign up for free.

Where did the time go? (Advanced Module) – a look at the entire history of the universe in 15 minutes. There are no pre-requisites for this course, although it is advantageous to have read the back cover of Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time.

Where did the N go??? – learning to spell rhythm* and other dastardly words that don’t contain the silent letters you think they do. Pre-requisites are that you spell rhythm as rhythmn or exercise as excercise every single time, despite trying very hard not to.

I, Robot – what even IS a Google Robot? Requirement – beginner level* understanding of the internet and Google.

That’s a fairly quick list I came up with this afternoon, and I could have come up with it even more quickly but I got hungry in the middle of all this rigorous course preparation and went downstairs for a muffin. Never fear, it may be a short list, but this is just a beginning to my new and exciting career as a tutor of online courses. I dare say I can rummage up many more ideas for courses, and may eventually even need to open my own online university,  but I’m so exhausted by all the thinking that was required to write this post that I need to take a nap now.

 

*

*Joe Bloggs was not this individual’s real name.

*Beginner level is required for the course on Google Robots, as otherwise you may be able to discredit my course content.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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