We Float

Float

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

peters-drumsticks-maybe-from-60s

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

Pic: Pinterest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

platypus-underwater-animal-profile-web620

Pic: Zoos Victoria 

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

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

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

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

*

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

via Daily Prompt: Float

Some kind of resolution

Renewal

We are now in the twilight zone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_1138-at-somers-beach

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

via Daily Prompt: Renewal

Wordsworth v Chandler (reposted)

It rained on my Chrysler all day long

as I sat high up in the Hollywood Hills,

peering through my binoculars

past a soggy clump of daffodils;

beside the lake, beneath the trees,

till I was hit and fell on my knees.

 

Things went black for a little while

and when I woke I smelled of gin,

– not casually as though I’d sipped,

but reeking, as if I’d had a swim –

Framed, I realised at a glance,

a hasty departure my only chance.

 

A dame beside me, fairly dead,

and on the floor my bloodied gun;

a pounding in my aching head,

once again I’m on the run.

To clear my name my only hope

And catch that Stinky McFlintoff, the dope.

 

And oft, when on my couch I lie

and tell this story to my shrink,

I wonder why I didn’t try

the window high above the sink;

instead of making for the door

and ending up here in the clink.

Noir detective with daffodils

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

 

With apologies to William Wordsworth and Raymond Chandler.

*

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

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

Bad Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can go your own way

Last week, I found myself walking up the street behind an elderly couple. One might have described them as slightly eccentric on first appearances, if one was willing to lay down such a judgement purely on the basis of their dress and manner. In both dress and manner they exhibited an adamant indifference to the rest of the street, and – one couldn’t help but imagine – world, around them, and this was enough to make them stand out. I wished I could take a photo of them.

If a suburb is to be judged by the price of its real estate, then they, and I, were walking in an expensive suburb of Melbourne, but like many expensive suburbs in Melbourne, Government Housing exists side by side with houses that sell for seven digit figures. It’s also a touristy suburb, being on the beach, but we were walking along a shopping strip away from the tourist area, and more likely to be populated by locals. These two characters looked neither wealthy, nor obviously poor, nor like tourists. I assume they were locals, but they could have been eccentric millionaires, or eccentric residents of Government housing, or anything in between.

The old man was slightly bent, and wearing a pair of those glasses that has an extra flap of dark glass that can be flipped up or down, so that they function as ordinary glasses or, with the extra flap down, as sunglasses. He had flipped the darker shades up, so he was walking along the street with those stuck out on a 90 degree angle. This struck me as amusing while I’m sure that from his point of view, it was completely practical. He wore a cap on his head, a shirt and a long, baggy, probably home-knitted cardigan, and trousers that hung loosely from a belt around his waist.

Here was a man who reminded me of my own father – because he clearly chose his attire due to the necessity to wear something for decency’s sake, and not because he had any interest in the colour or style, or overall effect of his ensemble. Walking closely beside him, his wife (I assume) also wore a large knitted cardigan, but hers was very colourful. Like him, she displayed indifference to any dictates of fashion, however unlike him I imagine she had, at some stage, chosen the clothes she was wearing today because she liked something about them. Probably the colours.

(*The couple in the pic above are more stylish than my elderly couple, but they exude the same sense of independence.)

In inner-city Melbourne, one would be more likely to see a colourful knitted cardigan on a young hipster woman, but this woman had been wearing them, and probably knitting them, for decades before Hipsters ever thought it a quaint idea to bring them back into fashion.

This couple were probably around the age of my parents, who are in their late seventies, and they were almost definitely  younger than my partner’s parents, who, now in their late 80s, have various health problems, and are easily exhausted. They don’t go out anymore unless they are chaperoned by someone who can help them navigate their way slowly and carefully in and out of cars, restaurants and public toilets.

But I don’t think it was this contrast that caused me to be struck at how independent and autonomous this couple seemed as they went about their trip to the shops together, walking at their own pace, talking loudly to one another, and ignoring the other people striding along the street briskly and purposefully, causing them to dodge around them as they approached from the front, or overtook them from behind.

It was because they were going their own way.

Perpetuum Mobile

I am not one of those people who rush to level crossings just to watch trains go by. Nor would I describe myself as a train nerd, no, I can’t claim that level of love for trains – but I have to admit that most mornings when the V-line (country) train pulls loudly into my station, a tiny thrill goes through me.

Let’s face it, diesel trains aim to thrill. They love a dramatic entrance; their very presence, as they stand humming in front of you, is tinged with drama. In this sense they are superior to their rather insipid cousins, the metro trains that utilise electricity and are, by comparison, relatively discreet about their arrival at your platform. Stopping at a station is not exciting for those guys; they stop every 3-4 minutes on average and probably up to 30 times on some Melbourne lines.

The arrival of a Diesel train, by comparison, is an Event. Not only do diesel trains announce their arrival at the platform with sound levels that require all conversation on that platform to temporarily stop, they stand and hum while passengers board, as though they are awfully impatient to take off again and only being held up from doing so by the annoyance of having to let people get on. Motion is everything, they seem to say, and if you are not on board in 60 seconds that will be your loss. Hurry up!

Once on board, the service protocols on country trains make the trip more of an experience than travelling in a city train is, and I’m often reminded of being a tourist travelling by train across foreign countries. Trains are not trains, they are a service. “Welcome aboard the 6.58 service to Geelong.” There are on-board announcements at each stop, advising travellers to ….look around and make sure you take all your personal items with you. Please make sure there is a platform below you before you step off the train. Lara our next stop.

For a moment, I feel like I’m travelling through Italy or France.

The sense that I’m travelling somewhere, on holiday, is sometimes exaggerated by the fluctuations in the weather that occur on a 55 minute train trip between Melbourne and Geelong. It’s possible to leave my destination in bright sunshine, travel through low lying mist as we pass the You Yangs mountain range, and arrive in pelting rain. Or vice-versa.

I enjoy train travel, because it’s a chance to ponder the clash between the permanence of the land, and the transience of human presence within it. Travelling on a fast-moving train, I whizz through landscapes that have existed, in some form, for a few millenia. I see the end products made by humans: our cities, towns, roads, and bridges, and I reflect on the changes that have taken place, even within my own lifetime – which is, of course, only a microscopic speck on the timeline in which that landscape has existed.

 

country-living-sunrise-by-gary-light

 

When I was a child, we rarely ever caught a train, and if we did, it was a major cause for excitement, partly because train travel meant travelling to the city, but mostly it was just the excitement of the train travel itself.

In those days, country trains had separate compartments, like small waiting rooms, each about 3 metres wide, with a bench seat running down each side of the little room. You walked down a little corridor, peering through the windows into each compartment, trying to find a compartment with as few people as possible in it, and when you found one, or gave up on that objective, you opened the door, entered, put your bags up on the rack and took a spot on one of the bench seats. Once the doors of the compartment closed, you were all cosily tucked into a small space the size of a walk-in wardrobe for the duration of the trip, and  you would sit for the two hour journey, facing someone else on the opposite bench, and trying not to meet one another’s gaze for more than the brief moment that was socially acceptable.

As a teenager, it was the end goal of the train trip that provided my sense of anticipation, because train travel meant escaping my small town for the thrill of the city.

Still, even then, I would stare out the window at the endless paddocks flying past, and feel a sense of affinity with the land outside the train. It was as if I knew it well, as if those paddocks and gum trees were the land I had come from. It is, and yet it isn’t: I didn’t grow up right out in the countryside, but I did, and do, live in this country. My father lived on a farm as a boy, and in the hazy memories of my own childhood, it seems to me that we spent many weekends walking through acres of bush, or through paddocks of dry yellow grass and fallen-down trunks of old grey gum trees. We drove past land that looked like this every week, visiting my cousins on their farm, which also looked like this. On longer drives to see my grandmother in Melbourne, the dry, brown paddocks between our home and the city seemed to stretch on endlessly. So, yes, those landscapes were familiar.

In Australia, and outside urban hubs, you can’t travel from point A to point B without passing through wide expanses of land where all you can see is paddocks on either side of you. In some parts of the country, paddocks become desert. Australia’s landscape is far from exotic – although on second thought, I guess what’s exotic depends what you are used to. The First English painters who tried to depict the Australian landscape grappled with the difference in the light, and the unfamiliar shapes and colors of the native trees, and somehow made the Australian landscape look softer and more lush than it really is.

view_of_geelong_1856_painting

View of Geelong, Eugene Von Guerard, 1856 (public domain) 

When I look out the window of the train now, at the yellow paddocks that stretch on as far as the the horizon, scattered with the dark green specks of eucalyptus trees, and underlined by the blue of distant mountains, I still often think about the age of the countryside that I’m travelling through. I try to imagine how the same patch of land looked 100 years ago, or 200 years ago. Was it covered in thick, dense forest back then? Would I have seen an Indigenous tribe settled near that dam? Maybe a river ran where there is now a dried up creek bed. Perhaps, as in the painting above, I might have spotted settlers, travelling through in a covered wagon, looking for a place to put down their roots.

One thing I’ve come to understand more clearly in the last few years, is that the physical world is not as stable as we like to think, and that in fact everything – including the natural landscape as well as man made structures – is in a constant state of flux. We notice the roadwork and the construction altering our city landscapes, but many other changes to our physical environment are minute, and so gradual, that they are not noticeable. The physical world, or even the landscape in which I’m travelling, is not the same as it was five years ago, or one year ago or even yesterday. This state of constant change will continue throughout my life and long after I’m gone from this earth.

All of this goes through my mind, sometimes, when I look out the window of the train in the morning, on my trip to work. I’m miles away from the inner suburbs of Melbourne where I live, and it’s a commute that not many Melbourne dwellers would voluntarily choose to do – travel out of the major urban centre to  Geelong for work – but sometimes, that travel actually feels less like an annoyance, and more like an opportunity. It gives me a different perspective on the city where I live, reminding me that it’s not the whole world, that just outside of Melbourne are all these boundless plains.

 

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*when I’m able to think of one, I like to use a title or lyric of a song for the name of a post. In this case, Perpetuum Mobile is a piece of music by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, which does very aptly capture a sense of forward, ongoing motion.

Photo above: Country Living Sunrise, by Gary Light, licensed under a Creative Commons licence.

Kool Thing

via Discover Challenge: Song

I’m slow off the mark at times. It must be nearly two weeks ago now that I saw a prompt on the Daily Post,  just one word, song. I was already 3/4 of the way through a different post, however, and I chose to finish that and let the other idea sit in the back of my mind, where I knew there were at least 100 different posts I could write with the word song as a starting point. After I’d published that other post and sat down to write something on song, it seemed the idea that had made its way slowly to the top of the pot was to write about this song, or more specifically, why I can’t listen to it any more.

When I hear Kool Thing, by Sonic Youth, I feel a sort of cold chill run through me. It’s not a chill of excitement. It’s the chill of a complex mixture of negative emotions I can’t quite pin down. Let’s say that in that mix there is embarrassment, mortification, and anger, too, probably.

Those feelings, embarrassment, mortification and anger, are directed at myself. They are directly squarely at an image of myself, five years ago, on the night of Sunday September 11, 2011, standing at the sink, peeling potatoes, and listening to the Sonic Youth album, Goo.

Taking a step back, about 2 hours earlier on that same day, I had learned that my younger brother John had died suddenly, in his sleep, some time that weekend. Conversations had been had, phone calls to other family members had been made, and now I was left, alone. My partner had gone out, to drive across town and pick up my youngest brother; it was he who lived with John, and it was he who had phoned us with the news. My daughter was only 11; instinctively she kept herself busy in her room.

If my daughter had come out of her room she would have seen me in the kitchen, and to her everything would have looked normal – I was moving and functioning – but in fact I was not completely present; there was an invisible bubble around me, keeping me at arms length from reality. I had stopped somewhere, but I had a dim awareness that time was still moving on around me, and this told me that dinner needed to be made, so that we could eat something when the guys got back from across town. In this state of reality/unreality, I put on Goo, to listen to as I cooked.

I chose that album because John had always been a huge Sonic Youth fan, and I thought maybe that was what you do when you’ve just found out that your brother has died.

Or did I? I look back now and wonder what on earth I thought. Did I think that the most appropriate thing to do was to put on music that the deceased person had liked? Did I think that it was no different to fondly thinking about someone who was merely absent? Did I think I lived in a fucking movie?

Because if I had been an actor in a movie, an appropriate soundtrack would have swelled up in that scene of me peeling potatoes at the sink; music representing my brother, music that he had liked, lyrics that encapsulated something about him. And the music would be accompanied by a montage of snapshots, images of him throughout his life, existing in the head of the character I was playing, but visible for all the viewers at home, the way that TV and film can do.

But if I’d been an actor in a movie, it would all have been acting; my “brother” would be played by another actor, neither the actor or my brother would really be dead; there would have been no reason to totally switch off my emotions.

So, mistaking real life for a movie at that moment – maybe because everything suddenly felt so unreal – I put on Goo, as if for all the world I was putting on the album because my brother was on his way over for a meal. I did what it seemed that someone in a movie would do in this situation: put on the album, let it be the soundtrack of that night, let it honor him, while I cooked.

Of course, inevitably, I have never been able to listen to that album again. But it’s not because the tracks off that album evoke such sadness in me. It’s embarrassment, mortification and anger at myself for what seems now like a display of insincerity, that have become attached to the songs from Goo after that night.

I picture that moment at the sink and actually blush, from a deep sense of shame, at what a stupid thing it was to have done. Looking back now it seems disingenuous, as if I was playing out the role of a grieving person, learned from TV soap operas. Here in the present, I’ve felt mortified to be the person that did that. It seems as if I thought some kind of celebratory move was required, when it was way to soon for that. And I’m annoyed that I spoiled that album for myself, because it was an album that John loved.

Of course when I look back now, my action in putting on one of his favourite albums to play while I made soup highlights how the news of his death had only broken through the surface of some very outer barrier of my mind at that stage, it had not yet really penetrated my understanding, and shock was already playing its part in making me feel like a robot going through the motions: make a nourishing meal. Ring your sister.

Rationally, I know that it is not worth feeling humiliated, mortified or embarrassed about. I realise that one doesn’t know what the done thing is, when someone dies suddenly. But these irrational emotions are surprisingly effective at blocking out others. When I’m filled with the heat of embarrassment, I’m not also able to feel sad at the same time. I cry at all sorts of things nowadays, and certainly at plenty of songs, but not at songs by Sonic Youth.

 

 

 

 

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Note: this prompt encouraged the writer to post links or multimedia; but in keeping with the topic, I don’t want to.

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