Some things this blog is not

Some things this blog is not:

This blog is not one of those lifestyle blogs, full of carefully styled photographs, written by a blogger who cultivates a persona that is allegedly busy and a little bit frazzled, but ultimately always upbeat, optimistic, and able to be cheered up instantly a cliched saying, typeset over a picture of a kitten.

In the ancient past, I did try to be an artist for a while, but in the tradition of the fine-art type artist, ie, one who makes their work according to where their own research and ideas lead them, not driven by commercial incentives. Unfortunately that approach incurs expenses and does not bring in much income to begin with, (just ask Vincent Van Gogh!) and thus, was hard to maintain and justify after a while, so I moved on.

Unfortunately, perhaps, I am NOT one of those people who has managed to combine their creativity with a strong entrepreneurial streak and turn it into a business, and I don’t necessarily want to. I’ve found I’m quite satisfied by earning my income working in creative companies with strong social justice agendas, doing the practical work to keep them running. This blog, therefore, is my creative outlet.

So you won’t read here about me juggling my own hard-but-rewarding business as a stylist/fashion designer and photographer with my sideline as a meditation and yoga teacher, while also just having published my very first self-help book, or how I managed all of this while mothering a brood of highly photogenic children that look amazing in pastel-coloured clothes in front of pastel-coloured backdrops in the photos that I so carefully style.

If you like reading that kind of thing, please feel free to depart from here now, because that’s not this blog! I never wear white flowing clothes, drink green smoothies, or voluntarily rise before 7.30am, and my kitchen never looks like a display home, except that it has a permanent display of dirty dishes next to the sink because I can never wash them fast enough to keep up with people who apparently drink 37 glasses of water a day, each from a clean glass.

Untidy kitchen, 2017, Styled & photographed by Blathering Productions. Limited editions now on sale.

On this blog you are more likely to read the stream-of-consciousness of someone who spends a lot of time thinking about writing, while juggling boring mundane things like grocery shopping, running errands, washing dishes, hanging out laundry and cleaning the shower. Even more frustratingly, none of those activities suggest a particularly interesting photo opportunity, but perhaps that’s just evidence that I’m not being creative enough. Suggestions for how to style photos of the above are welcome.

Here comes a stream-of -consiousness now: There are many of us out there scratching away (scratching is an analogy that doesn’t really work now that we’ve moved on from pen-and-ink to computers, and just makes it sound as if we all have fleas). After writing this blog for about eight years, it’s hard to maintain interest in it, because I feel as if I should be moving on and trying to write something more challenging. Are others still reading blogs? It’s hard to know. Despite the supposed number of people following this blog, the number of readers has never risen much over a few handfuls of people per day, from the time it began.

For those of us who enjoy writing, it can be a consuming hobby. Never does time go by so quickly as when I sit down to write. Why, already it’s after lunch time and I haven’t eaten any, nor do I have anything to make lunch with. But who cares to consider such practicalities when one’s head is in the abstract world of ideas, and absorbed in trying to craft a paragraph that’s meant to be poetically written and meaningful. (*that is not referring to any of the paragraphs in this post, by the way.) It’s a shame that often I delete the whole paragraph the next day when I re-read it and discover that it’s pedestrian, badly-written, and idiotic.

Anyway.

Another thing this blog is not, is an inspiration to others. You won’t read this blog and be inspired to clean your house, that’s for sure. In fact, many people who visit my house and simply don’t realise how much hard work and time is spent on drafting, deleted and re-writing posts for this very blog, probably think I’m lazy. That’s because there is dust on the stairs, laundry piled up in both laundry baskets waiting to be folded, and weeds growing larger by the second in the garden, but I’ll be serenely sitting upstairs staring into a laptop screen, doing what a lot of people would call nothing. That is, thinking, reading and writing, with no financial incentive for that work. Madness.

Those of you who read this blog know better, of course, because you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t value time spent in creative pursuits, like thinking, reading, and writing.

I like to think that I’m not lazy, it’s that I’m unwilling to re-prioritise.

 

 

 

 

Picture yourself in a boat by a river

It makes me feel ancient to say this, but TV was still relatively new in Australia when I was a child in the 1970s. TV existed before this, of course, but it was not until the 1970s that it became common for most households in Australia to have one.

Although they dutifully purchased a Black-and-White Television Set, my parents were never really converted. My father watched the news, and my mother would sneak into the lounge to watch Get Smart or Dr Who – other than that, they didn’t really watch TV at all.

My generation – Generation X – was the first for whom a TV was a standard item in the house from the time we were very young. There was a new realisation of the educational role that TV could play, and new programming targeted at our generation from the time we were pre-schoolers reflected this: the long-running American program Sesame Street aired its first episode in the year I was born, and the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) had developed the educational children’s program, Playschool, just a few years earlier.

I don’t remember much of the TV from the pre-school years of my life, other than those two educational shows mentioned above. My other vague memories are all shows with a fantasy element, featuring magical creatures or magical events, so I assume that magic was a popular theme in the shows of the era.

I guess there was a lot of magic, or something like it, in the air in the late 1960s. (episodes being aired in Australia in the early to mid 70s were often made in the UK or America in the late 60s). For example, I can recall a well-known magical roundabout, a magical flute, and a magic pencil.

Of all the above items, it was the magical pencil that struck me most. What a fantastic tool. All the hero had to do was draw something he needed and voila! – it became real. What I needed was one of those pencils.

(Despite spending at least 10 full minutes searching online, I can’t locate or identify the show I have a vague recollection of, featuring a magic pencil. I found a boy with magic chalk and a gnome with a magic pencil but neither of those looked right. Either the internet, or my memory, have failed us.)

Somehow, in my 5 year old brain, drawing an object and having it become real seemed even more exciting than your every day, garden variety magic, where you were (for example) granted a wish by a benevolent fairy godmother and could just verbalise your desire for something to appear. (When I was 5 this was undoubtedly still on the cards as a realistic possibility.)

Perhaps the in-built limitation of having to draw your desired item was the key  to making it seem more realistic – there was a clear restriction on what you could create (you had to be able to draw it) so therefore it seemed more like real life. As a kid who loved to draw, I found the idea tantalising.

That was 40-odd years ago now, but I would still enjoy a magic pencil. Just imagine it. Oh boy. Where would I start?

First: a cure for this damned head cold please. Aha, but madam, you must be able to draw the desired item, you can’t just ask for “a cure” in a general way. Oh alright then, here, I’m drawing a glass of Cointreau on ice, thank you. It’s got a slice of orange in it, right?

A pencil drawing of cointreau on ice, with a slice of orange

© blathering 2017

Next? Ok, well, if you read my last post (or maybe it was the one before that) you’ll guess that the next picture I’d scribble would be a car, before my current car totally conks out. Then….I’d draw another room, to add on to our tiny house, so that visitors had somewhere to stay. You’d like to come and stay in the new magical room, wouldn’t you?

(This leads me to wonder though, how do the logistics of this whole magical pencil thing work? Do I need to draw a floor plan as well, in order to arrange where the new room will be placed? Or will it just appear from the sky and plonk itself in the middle of the back yard? If so, can I please have a moment to make sure the cat is not sitting in that spot first?)

What would I draw after that?…well, I’m sitting upstairs writing this and the kitchen is downstairs, and I’m too worn out from all this drawing to walk downstairs, but I’d love a nice warm cup of tea….

 

A pencil drawing of a wonky cup of tea

© blathering 2017

Of course, a pencil like this could never exist, because if it did, we’d grab the nearest piece of tracing paper and the nearest $100 note, and trace 100 of them with the magic pencil, wouldn’t we? (tracing a $500 note would be more expedient, but after writing that half a sentence, I did some fact checking, and there is no $500 note in Australian currency! I checked because I couldn’t recall ever seeing one, but that didn’t prove that they don’t exist. It might just have meant that ATMs don’t dispense $500 notes. But I’ve checked and it’s a fact; they don’t exist. I must have been thinking of Monopoly money.)

Given the difficulties that we, as adults, encounter playing Pictionary™, I wonder how successful we’d actually be with a magic pencil in real life. We know from agonising over that board game, that there are many things we can’t draw, that we might often privately wish for – more confidence, courage, assertiveness, generosity, patience, selflessness, for example. The pencil will be no use at all in trying to improve oneself, I’m afraid.

Forget trying to depict abstract ideas; even our ability to command into being the physical objects we are hoping for is dicey at best. It comes down to the rules of the magic. How much accuracy and detail does your drawing need to have for the magic to work? Does it need to be a detailed hyper-realistic rendering giving an illusion of 3-dimensional perspective, or can it be stick figures, squiggles for clouds, and square houses with triangle rooftops?

If the rules of the magic dictate that you get exactly what you draw, there will be a lot of people hobbling around in lopsided shoes that look like dinner plates, and walking around with a life-size, wooden cut-out cartoon car strapped to their front like a sandwich board, instead of driving the cars they hoped for.

Unless of course you can cheat, and draw a large box tied up with ribbon, and say “I’d like a large box tied up with ribbon and inside that, a pair of Prada sandals just like the ones I saw on the cover of Vogue!”

A coloured pencil drawing of a box with Prada shoes inside it.

© blathering 2017

How to read an instruction book – for Dummies

Hi there dummies!

Now, firstly, before you take offence, please be aware that the dummiest dummy of them all when it comes to instruction books is me. So we are all dummies here, right? No-one reading this blog is any dumber than anyone else reading this blog. You’re all people of higher than average intelligence, as evidenced by the fact that you’re reading this blog. You’re probably creative types. That’s why you have trouble coping with the bland, dry, impersonal and humorless writing contained in an instruction manual.

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, let’s move on. It’s a good thing we did, because we have very quickly come to the first tricky part of the instructions on how to read an instruction manual. That’s because, for this exercise, we need an instruction manual. For those of you afflicted with the condition known as “unable to muster up the slightest interest in reading an instruction book,” this may present a level of difficulty right at the outset, because

a. you probably hate instruction books and burn them,

OR

b. you probably subconsciously thwart your own chances of ever finding an instruction book again by storing all your instruction books somewhere obscure so that you can’t recall where you’ve put them and therefore are unable to utilise them,

OR

c. you conscientiously stored all your instruction books in a large shoe-box in the bottom of the linen cupboard which happens to be about two feet away from where you are sitting, but there is no way you are motivated to open the shoe-box and rummage through a pile of boring instruction manuals by the end goal of reading an instruction manual. It seems far more preferable, and reasonable, to try and work out how to use the item without resorting to such measures.

Here we deviate into the scrutiny of a fictional case study.

In this case, our fictional subject – we’ll call her Popsicle – needs to check the oil on her car. The need is very strong, as the mechanic warned her about 5000kms ago, that the car seems to be using up oil too quickly and that the oil must be checked on more frequently than the standard 10,000km service done by the mechanic. (*the fictional car in this case is a 2008 Ford Focus, which our fictional character does not recommend anyone buy.)

Now, for the record, Popsicle has competently checked the oil on all the other cars she has previously owned ( a Valiant, a Mitsubishi, a Toyota and a Holden) without needing to resort to an instruction manual, but unfortunately on this *#$%%*!* car, merely opening the bonnet is a feat that requires a qualification in safe-cracking, and this is where the need for the instruction manual comes in, bringing us neatly back to –

Step 1: locate the instruction manual.

In this case, Popsicle thought the instruction manual would be in the neat little indentation in the door of the car, made specifically to store such documents as the car manual and a large, olden day map like the Melways in. (remember, this fictional car is from 2008). However, the manual is not to be found in the pocket, and thus the hunt is deemed too hard, and temporarily disbanded, and the car driven about another 200km, before Popsicle has another free morning and decides that checking the oil on the car, whilst a painfully tedious thing to have to put ones mind, and time, towards, is now a Very.High.Priority. The search is resumed.

Fortunately, without too much kerfuffle, a mere three and a half minutes later, the car manual is located in the next most likely place, i.e, the glove-box of the car.

Step 2: open the instruction manual. 

This step is easy for most people. Popsicle achieved this step with only the aid of a strong coffee.

Step 3: locate the topic you need help with.

This step can be a challenge for those who suffer from a low boredom threshold.

You could throw a quick glance at the index, as Popsicle did, but you’d almost certainly discount it immediately, as too uninteresting to persevere with, which is what she did. You could then try flicking through the pages randomly, which is what Popsicle tried next. Perhaps during your flicking, you’ll spot an illustration of someone opening the bonnet of the car. That’s what Popsicle hoped, anyway. A few flicks through the book revealed no such illustration, however, nor an illustration of an oil can, nor of an oil rig, nor of someone beating their own head with their fist in frustration, nor any other image that clearly signposted a section on how to check or refill the oil.

A lovely, and useful, hand-drawn illustration of a can of oil, not from my car manual.

Pic: © Blathering

Step 4: Resort to actually reading the index.

Run your eyes down the headings in the index. Nothing sounds relevant. This was obviously why you didn’t bother to read the index in the first place, it’s a complete waste of time. Who would have thought that things could come to this – here we are in 2017, and neither oil, nor opening the bonnet, are topics worthy of listing in the index of a car manual! Or maybe it’s just the Ford Focus that has no need to dilly-dally with such trivialities. They probably decided that as the owner of the Focus, you would mostly need to head straight to electrical faults, with no distractions, but that’s a topic for another post.

Step 5: turn to the back of the  book, hoping for a section with topics ordered alphabetically. Fortunately, there is such a section, and oil is considered worthy of being listed in the alphabetical index.

Step 6: turn to the listed page to find out how to check the oil

Helpfully, this section begins, open the bonnet. It then goes on to explain how to achieve this mysterious feat. To open the bonnet on a Ford Focus, one must wiggle the Ford badge out of the way, then insert the key into the locking mechanism, turn anti-clockwise, but only a little bit, get your fingers underneath the bonnet and lift the bonnet slightly, then turn the key the whole way clockwise, hop on one foot, turn around three times while chanting Flea Fly Flo, and then lift the bonnet the whole way.

Step 7: Follow these instructions

This step came undone for Popsicle. She wiggled the Ford badge out of the way, stuck the key in and attempted to turn it slightly, anti-clockwise. But it didn’t feel as if the key was turning at all, and forcing the key to turn in the lock doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do. Just for laughs, she checks whether she can turn it clockwise but that also has no traction. She tries skipping to the hopping on one foot and chanting part of the instructions but that only causes the neighbour over the road to pick his toddler up from the verandah and hurry indoors.

Step 8: phone your mechanic

Hopefully you have a nice mechanic, like the mechanic that Popsicle goes to, because some mechanics would probably make you feel like a right twit if you phoned to ask if they would kindly check the oil on your car. In this case the Very Nice Mechanic said yes, no worries, drop it in anytime, just don’t come at lunchtime. Fair enough.

Step 9: Drop you car at the mechanics, and watch him open the bonnet without any trouble.

Well that’s what he did an apprenticeship for!

Step 10: Be told that the oil is totally empty and requires 3 litres to top it up.

Poor old Popsicle! The mechanic’s advice was that she should probably get rid of the 2nd-hand car she’s had for two years, because there is something wrong with the motor if it’s using oil that quickly. Popsicle remarked that there is also something wrong with the electronics in that case, as the oil light on the dashboard was not coming on to indicate that the oil was dangerously low. In any case, she was very thankful that she had decided to prioritise a boring task like checking the oil on the car, instead of doing something much more fun like writing a post on her blog.

 

 

The amazing benefits to be gained from having a plan! (*amazing benefits may be relative)

Warning: following is a post about a would-be writer’s attempts at writing and getting an article published. For more interesting reading, that doesn’t travel ground you’ve probably encountered before, you may prefer to read that letter from the Tax Department that you have not yet opened. 

*

When there is a longer gap than usual on this blog, it often means I’ve had a burst of motivation about writing, and have therefore spent my time trying to focus on writing something for an outlet other than my own personal blog.

As it turns out, I don’t have enough spare time to manage to write two things within one week. Or rather, more accurately, what is lacking is not spare time, which I’m great at wasting, but determination, organisational skills, focus, and decisiveness. Indecisiveness is just as debilitating for a would-be writer as it is for an air traffic controller, although with less disastrous consequences. In my case, I waver indecisively, uncertain whether to write about subject x, or y, or z, or whether in fact I should stop writing and do some research – and if so, whether I should read about subject a, b, or c).

Thus, last week, in the time slot where I usually sit and write a post for this blog, instead I tried to attack my lack of organisation. I wrote out a plan that I thought was realistic, of what I aimed to try and achieve, writing-wise, in the next 3 months, and then, what the first steps would be towards achieving each of those goals.

(As a side note, it was an empowering exercise because I felt like I’d achieved something by creating a plan and defining some clear steps to take. Setting out what writing projects I should focus on also assists with overcoming my indecisiveness about what to focus on doing next, so by planning, I hope to kill two birds with one stone.)

It was important to try and keep this 3 month plan achievable so it’s modest: 3 projects. The first is to get published, a piece I’ve already written. The second is to write a creative non-fiction piece for a local literary journal, based on the theme they have set for their next issue. There was also a project number 3; but honestly, in the time it’s taken me to get from the start of this paragraph to this point, I’ve changed my mind and decided that it may not be realistic to also achieve that goal in the same timeframe. I am now feeling less confident, so I’m not going to make that one public. Maybe it will slip onto the next 3 month plan. I’ll stick to two goals this first time, because if I manage those two, I’ll be very happy.

Anyway, the day I wrote these goals, the adrenalin had kicked in. After writing up the plan, I moved swiftly onto phase two, which was the first steps required for project numbers 1 and 2. Yes, I started on both in the same day! For project #2, this required brainstorming ideas, and from those ideas, trying to come up with a reading list that I could start on, by way of research. This in itself was exciting, because it is a totally new approach for me. The most “research” I ever do for a piece of creative writing (i.e., the writing done on this blog) is to Google a few things to make sure I get dates or facts right, as I write about them. I hope that this new approach – starting with research before I have fully shaped an idea of what I’m going to write about – might shake things up a bit. At the very least, I hope that taking this project seriously and working at it, will result in a good piece writing even if I don’t achieve the goal of submitting it to the journal in question.

The task for project #1 was to approach a publication about publishing a piece of writing that I have ready to go. What is that piece of writing?, you may well ask. I see you are still assidiously avoiding that letter from the Tax Department.

Well, as it happens, there’s a letter from the Tax Department sitting unopened on my benchtop too, so I’m happy to tell you about that piece of writing and how it came about.

Every little while, I’m motivated to try and create a piece of writing that requires more than just my imagination and 60 minutes of my time. When this motivation hit last year, I did a short course on writing profiles, on the online training site, Skillshare. I then did some preparation for writing a profile of a friend of mine. I interviewed her and transcribed the interview, which took me about two months, because I let weeks go by in between doing any transcribing. We talked for about two hours, so I had two hours of recording to transcribe. It must have taken me about 20 hours of listening and typing and rewinding and listening again and typing some more! Anyway, once I got it all transcribed and was ready to start filtering and structuring and writing, I promptly lost interest in it and let it stagnate for months.

But the next time I got motivated to take writing seriously, a few months later, I had to come back to the profile project rather than waste all that work. So I started filtering, structuring and writing. That part wasn’t hard actually. I don’t know why I put it off for so long. But again, I took ages to do it. This was partly because it was so long.  I knew it was much longer than I, an almost-never-published writer, could expect to get published anywhere. Surprisingly enough, The Age Good Weekend does not publish unsolicited, 2500 word profiles from people whose publishing credits so far are a few unpaid pieces in arts/education publications and one 800 word paid article in a parenting magazine about 10 years ago. (Let it be noted that I’m also acutely aware that my writing is not up to the standard of a profile piece in the Good Weekend, lest that previous sentence should suggest otherwise.)

Despite knowing all this, I wrote a long piece anyway, because I’m stubborn about doing things my own way. Because I lacked the confidence to do it the other way around, ie, pitch the idea first and then when it was taken up by an editor, sit down and pump out a brilliant piece of writing, my seemingly weird approach was my way of making sure I got all the information I found interesting into the piece, and could then pitch the idea, with the (perhaps misguided) plan to chop it down to fit whatever word length a specific publication required.

But as all you writers out there will be aware, you need to know what you are writing so you can pitch it accordingly. I was aware, even as I wrote, that the piece that was forming was not so much a profile of my friend, as a description some of the interesting aspects of a project she is doing. This is an important distinction to consider when hoping for publication.

The reason that I focussed more on the project is because to interest an editor in a profile piece, you really need either a well-known person as the subject, or a well-published writer as the author. I knew that getting an editor interested in a profile of someone unknown, written by someone with no track record, was going to be a hard sell from the start.

The project my friend is working on, however, has a few “hooks” that could generate interest from media – she’s producing, with a team of artists, a pictorial map of Melbourne. So potential readers are: people who are interested in Melbourne, people who are interested in illustrated maps, or people who are interested more broadly in illustration. There was potential for good photos – of Melbourne, or of illustrated maps. That this angle could have interest for Melbourne-focussed publications is, as they say, is a no-brainer.

So I wrote my article with that in mind, but unfortunately as I slogged along slowly, letting it sit for weeks at a time without going near it, my friend, working hard to promote her project, managed to get some media outlets interested, and they published her media release, or wrote their own short articles on her project. (No resentment from me, since she needed the PR, and by this time I’d taken about 4 months to produce nothing she could use. There had been no understanding between us that she’d wait for my piece to be written – I didn’t have the confidence in my abilities to undertake that kind of commitment! So I’m really happy that her project got all the publicity it has had to date!)

In terms of publication possibilities, this essentially meant those outlets had already covered it and so were no longer options for publication by the time I had a piece of writing that I felt ready to approach editors with.

So when it was ready, I selected some publications who had not yet covered the story, and pitched a short version of my article, focussing on the project. So far I’ve pitched to two of those, with one publication not responding at all, and the other giving me a polite refusal immediately. (they explained that all their articles must be about projects that are funded by their local council).

That was weeks ago now, but since my highly motivated session last week, I followed the steps in my own 3 month plan, and did more research on other publication possibilities. Accordingly, I pitched it again, last week, to a national publication, this time suggesting it as a profile piece. Since then I’ve been eagerly checking my inbox, but have so far only received a polite, standard response, saying they are inundated with emails about submissions, and may take a few weeks to respond.

Since that’s not an outright rejection, I’m choosing to feel positive about this opportunity so far.

So stay tuned. I’m off now, to do more research for my creative non-fiction piece. That is, after I go out and buy groceries, make lunch, and clean the shower and toilet, because like all unpaid hobbies that you do for enjoyment rather than for income, writing has to fit in around life.

*

PS, in case you’re wondering, a reason why I kept my discussion here about my friend and her project pretty general is because if I can’t get the piece published anywhere else, you will get to read the whole thing on this blog. So it won’t be entirely wasted!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All the Grays

via Daily Prompt: Gray

Grey. It’s a simple word, that describes the color of the sky on an overcast day.

But wait! Grey is not the WordPress Daily Prompt I’m responding to here. The prompt is Gray – a fact that is quite telling, because gray is a word which does not have meaning in the English language, outside of the United States of America. Which is where I live. Outside of the United States of America, that is – ie, in that place known as the rest of the world.

Before I go too far, let’s just double check that I’m not making things up here. Maybe there are, universally, differing opinions on whether the word is grey or gray?

According to the site grammarly.com:

By the twentieth century, “grey” had become the accepted spelling everywhere except in the United States.

Here’s what Dictionary.com says about the two spellings:

….gray is the more popular spelling in the US, while grey reigns supreme in the UK. For centuries, the one letter difference between gray and grey has left people wondering if the two have different meanings.

They don’t. It’s the same word, spelled differently. As Grammarly goes on to say:

Here’s a tip: Gray is more common in the United States, and grey is more common in the rest of the English-speaking world.

Okay then. Or maybe that should be okey, depending on where you live.

So this is an interesting prompt. Given that a one word prompt is supplied with no context, what is someone who is not from the U.S.A to make of this word? That it’s grey, spelled wrongly? What’s the best way to respond to this if it’s not actually your language?

Of course, the strange thing about my reaction to this “misspelling” is that there are lots of English words that are spelled differently between English speaking countries – usually, between the U.S. and other English-speaking countries. Take colour, for example, which is spelled color in the U.S. I accept that these are just variations of the same word. If WordPress had put color up as a prompt, it would not have occurred to me to comment on the spelling at all.

So what is it about grey v gray that got me seeing red?

I think it’s because it’s only four letters long, so the variation in the spelling seems more significant. As noted above, Dictionary.com says the one letter difference between gray and grey has left people wondering if the two have different meanings. 

I think that’s quite reasonable. After all, one letter can make a big difference: try mixing up pray and prey.

So no, grey and gray don’t have different meanings. I understand that in principle, but I’m attached to grey being the correct spelling of the colour that’s half way between black and white. I don’t like replacing it with gray, because that just feels like bad spelling. But the prompt was gray. So I will write about gray.

Here in Australia, gray can be a name, and I do know of a few Grays.

*

Gray was the name of the family Doctor I used to visit when I was sick as a child.

Imagination and memory crash together as one gets older, so I am not sure now if it’s because of his name that I picture this gentleman with a neat grey beard. Perhaps his beard was actually dark brown, or black. In any case, I’m 99% sure that he did, at least, have a beard, whereas I’m also 99% sure that he didn’t wear the black top hat that, for some reason, insists on popping itself on his head in my mental image of him. Apparently in my mental image of this doctor from my childhood, a frock-coat and a hansom cab would not be out of place. It seems that I picture Dr Gray looking as if he had stepped out of a Dickens novel.

Is this all conjured up in my faulty memory because his name was Gray? Who can say?

What I can tell you is that the doctor’s offices were in a little double-fronted Victorian cottage, and that he kept dingoes as pets. When the breeze blew the right way, we could hear them howling in the evenings. The doctor’s surgery was only a block or so from our house, which was convenient for my mother, since she couldn’t drive, and whenever one of her six children was sick, this unfortunate news would most often be uncovered around 8am when they woke up, and Dad, the only person in the family who could drive, would have left for work at 6am.

Therefore, no matter how sick we were, if we were certain that we were too sick for school, we’d have to get up and walk to the doctor’s surgery.

No wonder I never take sick days.

I can also tell you that in Dr Gray’s waiting room was the most interesting thing I’d ever seen in a house up to that point. It was a huge aquarium, at least 3 feet long and about the same in height, that hummed and bubbled, pumping air for fishes of various sizes and colours that flurried around in the water. I was too young to have any interest in the women’s magazines on offer, but my time in the waiting room was amply filled in by simply staring at the fish.

When you have a bunch of brothers, as I do, there are always other stories on the peripheries of your memory, stories you were told second or third hand, sometimes years later, tales of the things that your brothers got up to, that you never saw and so have only ever pictured in your imagination. I feel as if there is a funny story that involved my brothers and Dr. Gray’s car, or his sons, or his dingoes, or his surgery, or a combination of all the above, but I can’t recall any more than that.

*

The other Gray I know of is an Australian Artist from the post-war period, Gray Smith. The only reason I recall the existence of Gray Smith is not because of his art, however, but because he was married to Joy Hester, an Australian modernist artist who is reasonably well-known within Australia.*

In an unusual gender reversal, which probably serves as an indication of their relative status as artists, there is not even a Wikipedia page for Gray Smith, while there is a brief entry for Joy Hester.  Hester’s body of work is unusual in that she worked mostly in brush and ink on paper, a medium that was not valued as highly as oils, and may be one reason why her work was not as well known as that of some of her male contemporaries such as Albert Tucker (her previous husband).

Many of the images she depicted were of women, or were about relationships between men and women, another reason why her work could have been viewed by some, particular given the period, as merely the frivolous doodlings of a lady artist.

Joy Hester, Lovers [II] 1956

Image: National Gallery of Australia

As for Gray Smith, I can’t tell you anything more about him, except that he fathered some children with Hester. Unusually, Smith suffers the fate that so many women throughout history were subjected to – to be remembered by the history books mostly because he was married to someone more famous.

*

So that’s it I guess. All the Grays I know of.

 Gray

The Notebook

A while back, I wrote a post about the pile of books next to my bed, and where they sat on the continuum of not having been opened/being partly read/being almost completely read/will probably never be read. But did I mention the notebooks that were also in that pile of books? There’s about 5 of them. (Honestly, the pile of books next to my bed is the saddest pile of books anywhere, in as much as it’s an indication of a wanna-be writer who never does anything more than write a post on her blog.)

Anyway, after looking through one of them, today’s post is this:

All the Ideas listed in one Yellow Spirax Notebook. (2007 – 2011)

I first used this very ordinary, spiral bound notebook to take notes in when I started a new job back in 2007. It opens, therefore, with some uninteresting notes: which printer prints in color, procedures for locking up, file paths to certain files – information I no doubt quickly came to know by heart, as I spent the next seven years working in that same organisation.

A few pages later, it’s become a writer’s notebook. Perhaps there was nothing more I needed to write in a notebook in the course of my day-to-day job. In any case, the diversion to a writer’s notebook is intentional, because I’ve used it for an exercise from The Memoir Book, (Patti Miller, 2007, Allen and Unwin) called Brainstorm Circles. The instructions in this exercise are to start by drawing a circle in the middle of a page, and writing in it a topic you want to write about. Then, creating a visual kind of “flow-chart”, you write the first word that comes to mind from that one, and then, the first word that comes to mind from the second word, etc. Importantly, the author notes, you are free-associating each time from the previous word, NOT from the original word. When you reach the edge of the page, or run out of ideas, go back to the middle and start again. Spend about 20 minutes – this will give you an idea of how rich your idea is.

Writing exercise from The Memoir Book, by Patti Miller (Allen & Unwin, 2007)

(I like this exercise and employ it every now and then. As it happens, from this very first exercise, I developed a piece of writing that I liked and have sent to a few literary magazines in the past ten years, but so far no-one else has liked it enough to publish it.)

The next few pages contain my ambitious ideas for books (never started) and more versions of the same writing exercise, using different topics. Book ideas under consideration were: a book about an organisation I was volunteering for at the time, a book on people from regional areas now living in the city, or a book about careers in the arts. Next are pages of research for an article I was writing about the value of arts education in schools. (That article was published, at least!)

Abruptly, this train of research is interrupted with a note scribbled down when I received a phone call from ANZ bank in 2008. Some of my siblings were travelling overseas, and the bank called me out of the blue to say that my brother’s credit card had been the subject of fraud and had been stopped. I’ve scribbled instructions about calling the bank using a reverse charge number, and below that, credit card cancelled.

That innocuous little memo signifies drama for others, although that mostly played out in Berlin. My part was done with after I passed on the message.

Underneath this, there are notes to myself on possible chapter ideas for a non-fiction book on arts education (never written). Then some research on funding opportunities for the organisation I was volunteering with.

Turn another page, and there’s another sudden shift in the function of the notebook. We were moving houses, (dating this to late 2008) and my use of the notebook has become purely pragmatic. Instead of writing, or even thinking about writing, my spare time, as well as the notebook, were used to keep track of what needed to be done. The evidence: an extensive, hand-written, checklist of all the companies (phone, electricity, etc) I’d need to inform of our change of address when we moved. Judging by a few boxes left unchecked at the end of the list from seven years ago, it appears that the local library and Dinosaur Designs may still have my old address. Woops!

In the chaos of packing and moving house it must have been the only paper we had at hand. That’s the conclusion I come to when I turn the next few pages, which contain lists of words written by my daughter, who was about 8 years old at the time – apparently spelling tests, corrected by me.

Seems pretty good for a grade 3 speller!

Next: a scribbled quote from Budget Truck Hire, on the cost of hiring a truck with a hydraulic lift. The truck was to be driven by my younger brother John. Back then, John was the go-to every time one of his siblings moved houses, as he had a licence to drive trucks and was always only too willing to give up his time and help out. It would have been his instruction to make sure the truck had a hydraulic lift, as I would barely know the difference between a hydraulic lift and a hydroponic tomato. Following on this theme, next comes a list of items to be put into storage.

Perhaps the notebook went into storage too, because on the next page, it’s apparent that at least a year has gone by. It’s now a writer’s notebook again, and I’m drafting ideas for a blog post about Beckett. This signals that it’s now late 2009. We were settled in our new house by then, I started this blog around October that year, and one of my first posts was about Beckett. Following this are more notes, on a book called The Lost Art of Sleep, by Michael McGirr (2009, Picador, Pan McMillen Australia), perhaps thinking I may refer to them in a blog post, or maybe just because I had a strong personal interest in the topic, as I was still, at that time, a constant insomniac. It’s a memoir of sorts, and passages I copied down include this lovely paragraph:

We fall into bed. We fall asleep. We rise in the morning. That’s what we do. Over and over. Falling and rising. Rising and falling. We fall in love. We rise in it too. The rising takes longer. (p248)

After this, the notebook must have been misplaced or left aside again for 2 years, as the next turn of the page reveals a list of scribbled descriptions of photos of my brother John. I guess that, once again, I grabbed the first bit of paper that was at hand, and this particular notebook seems to have been in the right place at the right time whenever that was required. On this page I’ve written headings, indicating different photo albums, and under each, a description of each photo of John taken out of the album. This means it’s September 2011, because I took those photos out of those albums to compile them for my brother’s funeral when he died suddenly on 11th of that month.

At the time, I scribbled that list with the intention of putting the photos back in each album after his funeral, but then after his funeral, it didn’t really seem important to bother putting them back. I think those photos of him remain together in a folder with other papers related to his life.

Following that is a scrawled first draft of the eulogy I wrote with my sister and youngest brother.

Incredibly, straight after the eulogy – surely the most significant and heartbreaking thing I’ve ever had to write – the remaining pages full of mundane notes are a testament that the small details of life relentlessly carry on even after someone dies, and require attention.

These final, trivial notes include log-in details for a student portal, reminding me that I was actually studying part time at RMIT when my brother died. Then, prices of various options for holiday accommodation follow, because I had a strong desire to go away over the New Year break that would fall only a few months after my brother’s death and would also overlap with his birthday.

The rest of the notebook – only a few more pages – is taken up with similarly utilitarian notes: a confirmation number from a bill paid, a quote from a telephone company.

In my pile of notebooks, I’ve got writerly-looking notebooks, with luxurious, leather-bound covers, or floral designs and beautiful soft writing paper inside them. This one is the notebook you get out of your office stationery cupboard. It’s cheap and functional and not made to look like a writer’s notebook. It begins and ends with practical, trivial, and mundane memorandum – but it’s inadvertently also a missive that demonstrates how, in between the mundane, and in the course of four years, lives were irrevocably changed.

 

Don’t judge a book by its cover

 

 

Lay lady lay

I realise that some will see this as a sacrilegious thing to say on Good Friday, but I have admitted it on this blog before, so I’ll say it again regardless of the day: I’m not a huge Dylan fan.

Yes, I’m afraid it’s true. For this sin, I expect to have a few less followers by tomorrow afternoon (when the Northern Hemisphere catches up). The reason it will only be a few is because most followers don’t actually read the blog, as far as I can gather.

But back to Dylan.

Why is it that I never really took a liking for his music? Maybe his particular brand of folk-country-rock music is a taste I still have to acquire. I do like some folk music, and a lot of rock music, but truth be told, I’m not much for country, unless it’s a little bit alt. Then again, maybe it’s the nasal quality of the younger Dylan’s singing voice that I’ve never really liked, although that has now developed into a gravelly deep voice that I have no objection to.

But maybe, and most likely, it’s because I have traced the annoying, recurring misuse of the word lay in everyday conversation back to his 1969 song Lay Lady Lay. It seems clear that Dylan is to blame for the constant and blatant misuse of the word lay that I encounter in my day-to-day life.

The situation is getting so out of hand that I have started to wonder if I’m the only person left in the English-speaking world who still believes that there is a sentence structure where the word lie is correct and where lay sounds wrong – and also ignorant, or silly.

It does make me fear for the future of the human race. From giving up on lay and lie, it’s a slippery downward slope. The next thing you know, no-one is bothering to use an indicator when they change lanes, and it’s all because they just don’t care any more. They don’t care about good grammar, and they don’t care about the risk of causing an accident, writing off their car and/or yours, and causing injury to themselves and others. From there, it’s a small step to organised crime or party politics.

Now, I realise that the English language is a constantly evolving thing, and I applaud that. As it has become so ubiquitous, I can’t say when, in the evolution of the language, the change from lie to lay took place. Was there a memo about it that I missed? Not according to the Cambridge dictionary online, which says that lay means

to put something in a flat or horizontal position, usually carefully or for a particular purpose

to prepare a plan or method of doing something

and goes on to say that the verb lay must have an object.

Thus: Lay your work out on the desk; try to lay the baby down in the cot as quietly as you can; I am laying out the clothes I plan to wear tomorrow but I can’t find any clean socks because no-one in this house has put away any laundry for about 3 weeks.*

(While researching this topic, you may be interested to know that my research team came up with a quote from another blog – but promptly forgot what blog they found it on! – suggesting that, if used correctly, in a sentence that’s in the present tense, you should be able to replace the word lay with the word put. (Use the phrases above to try it at home for free!) According to this theory, if put doesn’t work then you should use lie.

Let’s try that test now.

Put lady put,

put across my big brass bed

Hmmm. It’s actually worse than lay, isn’t it. Definitely wrong. Which tells us that lie would be grammatically correct, although I can accept that it would not have sounded quite as catchy, and would have presented some difficult obstacles for the songwriter to get over.

Lie doesn’t rhyme with stay, for a start, a word that is tripping over itself in its eagerness to be utilised in the next verse. What word could Dylan have used in verse two, if he’d used lie in verse 1? Sky? Pie? Die? You can see that there is much more at stake in writing a song, than merely grammar. Had he stuck with correct grammar in verse one, the lady in the song may well have had to be killed off in verse 2, possibly by eating a poisoned pie, leaving the protagonist singing mournfully to the empty sky.

Bob Dylan (in a harlequin costume) tries correct grammar in the early stages of writing Lay Lady Lay.

 

The other thing Dylan achieves by using lay, is to very efficiently create an image using only two words.

Instead of speedily conjuring a scene of a woman draped languidly across a bed, opening the song with the words “lie lady lie”might cause the listener to initially suppose the song was about a woman who had deceived the singer, a misconstrued notion which would take until line 2 to be cleared up. Song lyrics need to be economical, you can’t waste a whole line having the listener set out down a conceptually wrong path, just for the sake of getting the grammar right. (Although in this case, if he had used lie, as previously covered, he would now have to rhyme lie with pie and die, so I suppose he could have solved this dilemma by turning the song into a ballad about his lying female associate who ends up getting what was coming to her via a few drops of arsenic in a beef and mushroom pie.)

So of course I’m not seriously criticising Dylan for using incorrect grammar in a song. I’m a firm believer in poetic licence in song writing (and poetry!), where other things are more important than grammar. We can wonder all afternoon about how the song would have unfolded if he’d used lie instead of lay, but the point is, poetic licence does not apply in every day speech, where one’s primary aim is to communicate clearly, not to set a rhythm, create a rhyme, or evoke an image using only 2 words.

So far, we’ve talked about how lay and lie are two separate verbs with different usage, but, just to prove how confusing English can be, even to native speakers, get this: lay is also the past tense of lie! Therefore, if speaking in the past tense, you can use lay without an object. Eg, I lay back on the daybed and imagined I was holidaying in the French Riviera.

But the reason I am frothing at the mouth, and have finally succumbed to ranting about it here, is because I don’t recall ever learning these lessons in grammar – indeed, I am quite sure I never learned any rules of grammar at school beyond nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, and perhaps tenses. I don’t know what it means to conjugate a verb, as some good grammar-focussed blogs do when explaining the different uses for lie and lay. But despite the lack of formal training, I must have developed an ear for what is correct and what is not, and I am forever cringing at hearing lay used in the present tense, to replace the word lie. For example

I’ll get you all to start by laying on your mats (a yoga teacher)

She’s not feeling well so I told her to lay down (a colleague at work)

All I want to do is have a day off and lay around reading a book (overheard in a bookshop) (I find it hard to believe this person can actually read.)

I’m disheartened every time I hear this kind of misuse of the word lay, but I don’t correct people. To counteract the frustration I feel when I hear these misplaced phrases, I cheer myself up by quipping a witty response like Should we lay an egg on our yoga mat? Or should we lay some bricks? Of course, I don’t say this out loud, but only in my own head. And after I’ve chuckled, and congratulated myself on my wit, I make my own small protest, by lying on my yoga mat instead.

*

*a true story

**Fans of Dylan probably stopped reading after the second line of this post, but fans of yoga mats keen to read more about the yoga mat that starred in this post, should click on the tag, yoga mat, (below) to be taken to more scintillating yoga mat-related stories. 

 

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