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. 

 

Panic on the dance floor

It’s time to solicit some crucial advice from the combined wisdom of readers.

The question is – should I go to my 30 year school reunion?

Yes, 30 years! Apparently that’s how long it’s been since I was lying around languidly in an asphalt courtyard at lunchtimes, discussing boys, or INXS, (specifically Michael Hutchence) or teachers, or who was at the nightclub last Saturday night and who’s going this Saturday.

When the time came for the 10 year reunion, I didn’t go – not through any deliberate desire to avoid it, but because I had an exhibition opening the same evening, if you don’t mind. Why yes, those were the days when I was a twenty-something artist.

When the next one (20 years) came around, I didn’t go because, well, I hadn’t been to the 10 year reunion, and by the 20 year mark I’d basically fallen out of contact with every single person I’d been friends with at high school. I’ve written about this before, but it seems that I haven’t tended to retain friends for a lifetime as some people do. Instead it seems that by mutual agreement in some cases, or not in others, I lose contact with people and move on and make new friends so that I end up having a past series of friends who are associated with specific periods of my life. This has worked ok so far, but I do hope I’ll start retaining friends for longer, because I can see that opportunities to make new friends become less as you get older.

Anyway, when the 20-year reunion came along, I was a 30-something, working in the arts. Working in the arts sounds less glamorous than being an artist, but in the end it suits me better to be doing practical tasks that contribute towards the creation of art (theatre) by a company, and for that reason, I feel satisfied. Sure I’m creative, and, oh boy, do I love ideas! – why, I can ramble on about them for hours, as this blog proves! – but it turns out I’m not very good at self promotion, or at staying focussed and motivated when left to drive myself along to develop abstract concepts into physical works of art. I’m easily overwhelmed by broad, undefined goals.  “Continue to develop a body of ideas and work that may end up being exhibited, or may simply be research and development towards your whole oeuvre” was a little too vague to help me decide what to do from day to day as I attempted to produce work in my studio.

But back to the looming 30-year reunion. This is happening in the near future, a time when I’m a 40-something, still working in the arts. (At least there has been some consolidation on the career front then.) I am still not in touch with anyone from school apart from two people that I am now Facebook Friends with. Of those two, I’ve caught up once, in person, with one of those people.

So basically, attending the reunion means attending an event where I don’t know anyone very well, but sort of know everyone just a little bit. In my opinion, for a shy, introverted extrovert (that is a self-diagnosis), this is far worse than attending an event where everyone is a complete stranger. And finally, even worse again, some are people I used to be close friends with, who dropped out of contact about 20 years ago.

Now, if you are not a massive extrovert, it’s actually hard to socialise with people you know just a little bit. An event full of strangers is preferable. If everyone is a stranger, you can wander around on your own, making it obvious that you are alone and don’t know anyone, and hope that some of those strangers will notice your plight, and converse with you out of courtesy, or pity. (As they are strangers, it doesn’t really matter which.) And, if they don’t, you can cut your losses and leave without any real loss of dignity or hurt to your feelings.

At an event where everyone knows who you are, but you are not close chums with anyone, you sidle around the outskirts of chatting groups of people, smiling and hoping someone you’ve met before will take pity on you and make eye contact so that you feel welcome to edge your way into their little group, and pretend to take an immediate and passionate interest in whatever topic they are discussing, even if it’s the renovation they are doing to the ensuite in their holiday house.

And if no-one makes any attempt to give you an opening, then you’ll probably slink away early and – YEAH YOU BET your feelings will be hurt and your dignity will sink to a new low!

(As a self-diagnosed “introverted extrovert,” by the way, I’m not a totally hopeless case socially. My self esteem in general is quite ok – certainly a hundred times healthier than when I was a high school student – and I LIKE socialising with friends – but it’s easily trampled on in a situation like this.)

Ok, it’s pretty obvious that I’m wavering on the side of not going.

But let’s get down to the real issue here. Surely the only question that matters is – will the music be good?

Because I do love dancing, as I think we’ve covered in previous posts.

So much so that, despite fear of not being able to make small-talk, and the possible humiliation of scuttling around the edges of the function room on my own all night, the possibility of dancing could, in itself, be a temptation to go! In the unlikely event that the music was good, if it turned out to be the worst case scenario where I was milling around with no-one to talk to –  I could just join the dance floor!

(That is, of course, only if at least 12 other people were already dancing, as I am too self-conscious to jump up alone, or when there are only two extraverts doing the bumpsy-daisy together out there.) But if there’s enough people dancing for me to blend somewhere into the middle of the crowd, then I can lose that self-consciousness and dance the night away, or at least until Working Class Man* comes on.

But sadly, it seems unlikely that the music would be good. I say this because my generation’s musical taste has forever, and quite erroneously, been labelled as Seventies disco in some kind of timewarp that wasn’t accurate. Although we were indeed alive in days of 1970s disco, we were in nappies, and then pre-school, and then the early years of primary school for most of that decade and were therefore more interested in what was playing on the Looney Tunes cartoon hour on TV than what was playing at Studio 54. I have never even seen Saturday Night Fever. Maybe this explains a lot about me, but to put it bluntly, I have no emotional connection with Seventies disco, which was the music most frequently played at school fundraising events I attended as a parent at my daughter’s school.

At an event where a selection of music is to be played for my personal entertainment, ideally I would request a good dose of music from the 80s, 90s, 2000s, and 2010s (or whatever the current era is known as). Anyone taking notes at home may include music from the Seventies too, by all means, but please make it punk, or folk, or rock, or Motown, just not that over-played Seventies disco.

Despite the stereotyped notion of parents as a particular breed of adults whose musical taste stays rooted in the nostalgic past, I have always enjoyed discovering new music. That includes discovering music from the past that I hadn’t listened to at the time. But official events of any sort usually opt for safe choices with music, on the premise of pleasing the majority, and safe, for my generation, seems to be to play the music that was playing on the dance floors when we were learning our multiplication tables and how to write in cursive.

Of course we all think our own musical taste is superior to everyone else’s, don’t we?**

In the end, I should thank you for your input, dear readers, because as I’ve been writing this post, I’ve come to the only conclusion that seems obvious, and will avoid the need to make small talk AND ensure the music will be good.

I won’t attend my school’s 30-year reunion unless I can DJ.

*

 

*Working Class Man is a song by well known Australian Band Cold Chisel. I’m clearly a bit of a snobby purist when it comes to what music I am willing to dance to, and it’s my personal opinion that this song should never come anywhere near a dance floor, but when I was growing up in the country, the djs were less picky, and it usually did come on at about 3am, signalling to me that it was cattle-call time at the meat market, and a good time to go home.

**(Or is that just me?)

***Update: thanks to those who said I must go and then write about it here. I didn’t see you offering to accompany me and pretend to be someone everyone else had forgotten. If only I’d thought of that earlier. Airline tickets could have been arranged.

Anyway, the reunion happened, I didn’t attend, and I don’t think there was ANY music at all. It was a daytime tour of the school that so many of us were thrilled to leave at the time, and then a luncheon. How alarmingly sedate. And how demanding of small talk!! I think I made the right choice, so I thank you all again.

These Foolish Things Remind Me Of You

My little brother died in 2011, but I think of him every day.

One of the reasons for that is because a strange, and, sometimes, seemingly random range of commonplace items can remind me of him, out of the blue. Here are some of them:

A pair of boots I own – because he was with me when I purchased them. He had stayed at our house overnight, it was a Saturday morning, and I had planned to buy some boots. In his typical easy-going fashion, John accompanied me by bus into town, and to go shoe shopping. He hung around patiently while I deliberated over boots, probably had a cigarette out the front of the shop, and even bought himself a cheap pair of black sneakers (trainers – his signature shoe) for work while he was waiting for me.

We hear that men are not big on shopping, and even less keen on accompanying a woman when she shops for clothing. Surely there are not too many guys who voluntarily go clothes shopping with their sister, but I also have a skirt that was purchased while shopping with John on a separate occasion, so it seems his good-natured personality allowed him to be unfussed about roaming with interest around a shop and then amusing himself as he waited outside and watched the world go by.

An old, dark green couch, that was ours, now given away to my youngest brother. This was a gift from my parents many years ago, and the purchase was organised by John, who held his first job, in a furniture shop, at the time. He was probably about 19 when I visited him at the shop and poured over the fabric samples, before selecting one for our couch.

A receipt, found amongst old papers, for removal truck hire – John drove it for us. From the time he held a licence until he died, I don’t think any member of our family ever moved houses without enlisting his help, usually to drive a truck for them, since he had a licence to do so, and was always so happy to help out.

The storage facility on a main road near our house. John drove our stuff to, and from, this facility, and helped us stack and unstack items into and out of it at the appropriate times. Perhaps because of his early career in a furniture shop, he seemed to be particularly skilled at judging spaces and shapes and knowing exactly how to manouvre a piece of furniture through a door or into a tight space without any mishaps.

My new nephew and niece.* That’s because, of all my siblings, John was the one who spent the most time hanging out with my daughter, his niece. His first job at the furniture shop had come to an end when the owner, an elderly man, had passed away and the business closed, and after that, there was a period where he found it hard to get any long-term employment, so he went from one short-term contract to another, working on jobs ranging from telephone linesman to doing maintenance on railway lines. This might not have seemed like an ideal situation for him then, but in hindsight, there was an upside for us, which was, that in between contracts he often spent time staying with us for a few nights at a time, and hanging out with his god-daughter.

A particular hoodie jacket I have, with holes in the sleeve, because John notoriously wore the same brown hoodie everywhere despite the state that the well-worn sleeves were in.

Other things that make me think of John:

Turning on the air-conditioning in the car – because I remember he had some theory about how to maximise the efficiency by opening the car windows first.

Hedgehog slice (he ate a lot of it)

Pear cake (he was so impressed with my pear cake that he learned how to make it – the sincerest form of flattery)

Satay chicken (his signature dish)

Sonic Youth (his favourite band)

Massive Attack (a band we both liked and should have seen together but fate intervened and I had to give my ticket away.)

Certain men, usually younger than me, both in real life and in films, can at times remind me of him.

and

My other brothers, for obvious reasons.*

 

*

*not commonplace items.

 

With or Without you (Ode to a thumb)

A fully functional thumb is a thing of beauty, said some really mediocre poet.

 

See the liner smudged on my eyes

See the zip undone on my side

I’ll wait for you

 

Slip of hand and twist of waist

on a picnic rug, fell all my weight

Now I wait, without you

 

With or without you

With or without you

 

Through the storm we reach the shore

Washing my hair is not easy any more

And I’m waiting for you

 

With or without you

With or without you

I can’t live, with or without you

 

And you give yourself away

And you got bent the wrong way

And you’re bandaged like a lump of clay

And you shouldn’t really look that way

 

My hand is tied, my thumb is bruised

You left me with a bandaged wrist

and not much I can do

 

And you give yourself away

And you’re kind of the wrong shape

And I don’t know what else to say

And typing this has taken all day

 

 

Summertime

Setting: A suburban back garden, a Summer* evening, Melbourne, Australia

Time: 8pm – approximately the time of sunset at this time of year in Melbourne

Temperature: warm

Wind: none discernible

Set:

  • a back garden, comprising of pot plants on a door step, cobblestones, and greenery around two sides of the perimeter, created by some trees growing too close together, a small hedge, and some climbing roses on the lattice on the back wall. The garden is neat but not abundant. In the centre is an area that used to be a small patch of lawn but is now just a patch of dirt, with a scattering of recently mowed weeds.
  • The back of the house faces onto the back garden, and we can see through the windows into the kitchen, and, as indicated by a flickering light beyond the kitchen, a room with a TV on.

Lighting: 

  • the sky, and the light generally, a sort of twilight: first, pale and almost no colour, then changing slowly to grey as the sky darkens
  • a slight pink flush across the lower part of the horizon, that also fades and disappears into the descending grey
  • warm, yellow, electric light glowing from the windows of the kitchen that faces onto the garden

Special Effects:

  • water arching out from a hose and onto some lush greenery, as our protagonist takes the opportunity to enjoy the warm, balmy evening by taking her gin and tonic outside with her while she waters the garden

Props:

  • a hose is required

Sound:

  • the swishing and trickling of water, as the hose rains water down on plants and the excess runs away on cobblestones
  • the hum of crickets. (Director’s Note: Usually the sound made by crickets is described by default as a chirp but that suggests a staccato sound, with a crisp beginning and end. This sound, the sound that epitomises all the warm summer nights in our protagonist’s memory, just goes on and on, so she thinks of it as a hum.) It’s a soft, low hum, telling us that it’s a warm, balmy night.
  • the distant sounds of football players calling out, their voices carried on the breeze. The setting is about half a kilometre from the local suburban football ground, and we can gather, from the sounds travelling very clearly in the still night air, that the local suburban football team must be doing some pre-season training tonight. If our protagonist hadn’t damaged her hearing by attending bands playing at outrageously loud noise levels, she’d probably be able to hear what they were actually saying, but as it is, her best creative interpretation is a cacophony of voices all calling out over one another, with urgency “come on, come on, come on, come on!”
  • the soft swoosh of traffic on the nearby highway
  • from the house, the sounds of high-pitched voices coming from the TV, indicating melodrama on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!
  • occasionally from the house next door, the pounding of footsteps as a small child runs from one end of the house to the other
  • occasionally from the trees, a rustling of leaves and the weird, high-pitched screech of possums

Smell:

  • the smell of wet, freshly drenched dirt, and of water dripping off greenery

Characters:

  • the main protagonist, a 40-something woman with a gin and tonic in one hand and a hose in the other
  • a cat, whereabouts unknown as Act 1 begins
  • about 1000 worms, in a worm farm under one of the trees
  • a teenager, hidden deep in the depths of a teenage bedroom. She does not emerge during Act 1.
  • a male adult, absent from the house for the duration of Act 1 as his Italian lesson conflicted with the rehearsal schedule.

Synopsis:

Officially, it’s now Autumn in Melbourne (since the beginning of March is officially the designated change of the seasons), but due to the absolutely glorious weather Melbourne has had over the past fortnight, our protagonist has decided to remain in denial about this, and just keep pretending that it’s still Summer. She is determined to try to make the most of every remaining beautiful sunny morning, and every remaining delightfully balmy evening. In her mind, this means making the effort to go outside, where one can more fully appreciate the warmth and light, wherever and whenever possible, and, when not possible, (for example on the days when she is working in her office job) to at least open a window, and take the time to appreciate the sunny morning outside.

Director’s Note: It’s a simple story but simple things can bring a lot of pleasure if you take the time to notice them.

 

Sunset in the suburbs, Summer, Melbourne 2016 (no filter! – I wouldn’t know how!)

© The Antipodean Blatherer 2016

 

Dream baby

Sure, I recall my dreams most mornings, as they are usually quite vivid, and not infrequently amusing, but I usually refrain from sharing them here.  I’m really on a roll this week, though, as I’ve already had two dreams that have made me laugh when I recalled them, and it’s only Tuesday! So I thought I’d share, as I know if there’s anything we all need to hear more of, it’s other people’s dreams.

Excellent. With that in mind, here they are.

The first is short and sharp. In this dream, a few nights ago, the actor Alan Rickman, in character as a kind of evil mixture of the Sheriff of Nottingham and Snape,  but in modern-day (or “Muggle”) garb, rudely confiscated my phone, (I can not recall why) but then with a sneer, from the seat of the sports car he was suddenly driving, tossed it back to me, deliberately missing me by a mile so that it landed on the road in front of me, where he promptly (and deliberately) drove over it!

alan-rickman- mobile phone

Alan Rickman, not a fan of mobile phones. (in my dream).

I believe the message in this dream is clear: the universe is telling me it’s time to upgrade my iPhone 5 because I’m constantly running out of storage, no matter how many photos I delete off my phone. I am not the ideal Apple customer because I refuse to upgrade a phone that is working perfectly, except that I can’t download any new apps because of lack of storage space. Is it possible that Apple have devised technology that somehow infiltrates the dreams of anyone with an Apple device, planting subliminal messages about upgrading their products? It doesn’t seem too implausible to me at this stage.

In the second dream, which was on the weekend just gone by, I sneaked into our neighbour’s house to see if their fence was fixed.

I should explain that in real life, we recently had to get the fence between our property and this neighbour’s property fixed, and I did all the helpful stuff like get the quotes and book the tradies, and pay them for the work, and then afterwards the neighbour complained that their side was left with some issues they would have to follow up with the tradies. I was a bit stressed about this for a day or so, as he was hinting that he wouldn’t cover his half of the cost because of these “issues.” But in a happy ending – for us at least – he did pay his half after all, so there was really nothing left to be stressed about, although it was left a bit unresolved, as I don’t know if he got the issues fixed or not, but it’s out of my hands now – there’s nothing I can do about it. He should have opted to be there on the day the work was being done, if he wanted to closely project manage his side of the fence, I guess. So I’m happy to consider the matter closed.

Anyway, this dream occurred a few nights after the matter was “closed.” In the dream, as I said, I sneaked into his house to check that the fence was fixed properly. The way to check that the fence was fixed properly, apparently, was to tip a can of tuna down his kitchen sink. Clearly this was standard procedure and common knowledge, because I came armed with a can of tuna for this purpose. When I got to his sink, however, I could see he had already performed the tuna-test, because the plug hole of his sink was clogged up with still-warm, cooked tuna. Cooked tuna took things to a whole other level and indicated that my neighbour had gone to a lot of effort to ensure a highly accurate reading on the status of the fence (of course, everyone knows that when it comes to assessing the success of a fence repair job, cooking the tuna before you tip it down the sink will guarantee a more accurate result every time) so there was nothing to be gained from me attempting an inferior reading with my tin of tuna (in oil, mind you, not that stuff in brine!)

So I turned away and prepared to leave, but (of course, I’m sure you could see this coming) just then the neighbour walked in! Or perhaps rattled the door handle, indicating that his entry to the room would be imminent within a micro-second. Some dream-like sequence of events occurred anyway, that led to me hiding on a strange little inexplicable platform, (perhaps it was a broom cupboard built on a mezzanine level?) that suddenly appeared – or suddenly became apparent, as things do in dreams – and seemed like as good a hiding place as any. Apparently I got onto this little balcony with ease, even though it was at head height in the room.

So the neighbour was stepping through the door, and I was trying to make myself invisible, on a small mezzanine level in his kitchen, optimistically hoping not to be seen the way a baby does when they put their hands in front of their face and think you can’t see them. As it turns out, since it was almost opposite the door, at his eye-level, and was totally open, this ‘platform’ really was NOT as good a hiding place as any. My neighbour probably had to go to a great deal of trouble to pretend NOT to see me the second he walked in the door, but eventually he gave in and indicated gruffly that he could see me crouching there in his split-level, open-plan broom cupboard, clutching my can of tuna, and enquired as to what on earth I was doing there.

It feels as if the dream faded out here (or perhaps my alarm went off at that moment), as I can’t recall what happened, but I don’t think it ended badly. My feeling is that, in this parallel universe, it was acceptable that I’d bring my own tuna over and sneak into his house with the intention of checking that his fence was fixed properly, so I don’t think we left on bad terms.

Now I must say, in regards to the meanings of dreams, I’m a little flummoxed at this one. I do think that the delightful mish-mash of weird things in our dreams is our brain trying to put some ideas together. That’s because I once read, of dreams, that our subconscious works to try and solve problems that are bothering us, and dreams are those attempts to solve those problems, but as the dream can’t speak directly to us, it uses the tools at its disposal: imagery and a narrative, to creatively present a ‘solution’ that comes to us like a clue in a cryptic crossword. That’s bad news for me, unfortunately, as I have never yet managed to understand a single clue in a cryptic crossword.

Nevertheless, I find that idea about the subconscious and its processes fairly believable. So occasionally, when it feels as if a dream is so, well, kind of mundane but weird at the same time, I try to think of a phrase that summarises the dream. It didn’t take long with this one – when I thought about the dream the next day, pondering what it could possibly mean, the phrase that instantly came to my mind was “tuna down the drain.”

So if any readers are good at cryptic crosswords, maybe they are able to make some sense out of that phrase, and let me know their interpretation.

Otherwise my take on it is…..the universe telling me that I should get more Omega 3 oils into my diet??

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

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