Slippers that quiver in lonely terror at the expanse before them

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

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

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

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

Vogue, May 1917

Vogue, May 1917

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gloaming

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Street 2012

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darkness: gloominess, dimness; night

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

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

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

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

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darkness: unhappiness or gloom

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

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

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darkness:  murkiness, shadowiness, twilight, gloaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Full Moon in cloudy sky 2012 (over Melbourne Airport)

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

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

Banquo: How goes the night boy?

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

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

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

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

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darkness: lack of intellectual enlightenment; ignorance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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darkness: secrecy or mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

There’s a gap in between

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Foggy morning from train 16.06.02-3

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Building in fog

 

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

 

This is not my beautiful house

Now, I have to say that I’m disappointed. All my life, I believed I had a special talent for:

a. dreaming, and

b. recalling the details of those dreams

Some may think it’s a rather pathetic thing to be proud of remembering your dreams, but please remember, we all have our own unique talents and not everyone is interested in sport.

Why, I’ve often amused myself for whole minutes at a time, recalling the details of what I was dreaming the night before. I’ve also entertained others (who were no doubt enthralled, as everyone is to hear someone else’s dream), especially if and when the dream involved halariously illogical, disjointed story lines, unrelated snippets of events, and people or animals who morph into other people or animals, or into something else, perhaps a mousetrap, an orange, or a rhino with boiled eggs for eyes.

Once, the whole process worked backwards. I woke myself up by laughing in my sleep, but then didn’t remember what I’d been dreaming. Maybe that’s not backwards, maybe it’s inside out. Anyway.

Lately, there have been two continually recurring themes popping up in my nightly (metaphorical) wanderings, which are so dull they are not worth mentioning to anyone. For this reason I thought I’d write a post about them. One of these themes in fact is so dull, it goes right off the Richter scale for dullest dream theme possible. It’s….paperwork. Pdfs, to be exact. Most nights I remember nothing else about these dull things. I just wake up feeling like I’ve been dealing with pdfs.

This is the cause of my disappointment. You’d have to admit, this Paperwork phase seems a real backwards step. When I compare it with previous dreams, suddenly even Rhino with boiled egg eyes begins to seem as rich and complex as Ulysses.

Why, just last night I woke up out a deep sleep, at 3am, with the red and white Adobe pdf icon looming in my mind. What, suddenly, my subconscious has nothing more interesting to apply itself to in the dead of night than compiling separate pdfs into a multipage document?

Adobe pdf icon

Not normally the stuff that dreams are made of.

In another dream recently, I’d promised a friend I would fill in some mysterious forms, but I’d left it too late, and was anxiously worrying about how I would tell her that I hadn’t filled them out.

At least the addition of guilty emotion into what I like to call The Paperwork Series provides a skerrick of fodder for a psychoanalyst – well, a bit more than a mundane dream about creating pdfs from word documents offers, anyway. Nevertheless, I am disappointed at the sad lack of boiled eggs, rhinos, handbags, my cat rotating around on a plate I’ve just eaten off,* or any other satisfyingly unrelated objects, or illogical plot developments that one would hope for in a dream.

If one must dream about pdfs, surely the very least that could happen in the dream is that the documents grow to gigantic proportions, tower over my work place, and start issuing commands to the tiny humans running around below them, in voices that sound like (old-style) Daleks. These current dreams, however, are so pedestrian that if there is any development to the series at all, it will probably be that I create a table of contents and put page numbers into the footer on the right hand side! Woo!

The other recurring theme that keeps popping up at the moment is houses. It’s slightly more interesting than the pdf dream, but only slightly. Every now and then, I dream that we have just moved into a new house, and I look around, and then realise with a sinking feeling, that the new house is actually a bit crummy on close inspection, and that the house we’ve left (always this house, the one I live in) was much better. It’s the old “sinking feeling” dream, over and over, about the same thing.

dilapidated house

 

On the plus side, at least the crummy house we move into looks different in every dream. (I seem to have an extensive catalogue of imaginary crummy, run-down houses. I guess I’ve lived in a few.)

 

Houses in dreams are rich containers of symbolism (more so than pdfs in dreams are, anyway). I’ve read enough Jungian psychology, or, truth be told, enough third parties quoting a dumbed-down version of Jungian psychology for people like me to dip into, to know that in dreams, the house functions as a symbol for the self. When I was younger, my recurring house dream was of being in a house that was both familiar and yet mysterious at the same time. It was always my grandmother’s house, but I would always come across rooms that had never existed in her real house. In real life, my grandmother’s house was always quite dark.

I’d be stretching the truth to say I can remember much about how those dream-rooms felt now, but they were at least true to the real house in that they were dark. That and the disconcerting element of them popping up in an otherwise familiar house imparted a sense of foreboding to my younger, dreaming, self.

Pic: Blathering

Pic: Blathering

According to Jungian theory, finding hidden rooms can mean that there are parts to yourself that are hidden in your subconscious. I have no doubt that was true when I was younger and still working out who I was. Perhaps I should be grateful that recurring dream has moved on.

But, armed with the knowledge that the house is a symbol for the self, it’s a little bit alarming that I’m regularly dreaming about leaving a house that I’m happy with, and moving into a house that looked ok at first, but on closer inspection, seems a bit dilapidated!

Maybe it’s the anxious dream of middle age,* signifying worry about beginning a slow decline, and the cracks beginning to show. (I wasn’t conscious of that being a major concern just yet – apart from at those disconcerting moments where I find that I have absent-mindedly put the red wine away in the fridge, and then wonder whether I’m losing my mental facilities.)

As for pdfs, try as I might, I couldn’t find any guide to what Jung thought about those. I suspect it simply means I’m spending way too much time on put headers and footers into them in my waking hours at work at the moment.

Either way, this latest, recurring house-related dream has been popping up intermittently for quite some time now. The dream has developed a little in that time, because now it has a meta-layer, i.e, in the dream, I have a sense of deja vu, and think to myself despondently, this has happened before in my dreams, but this time it’s real.

Perhaps because of this, when I wake up from this dream, that too is a cliched dreaming experience: I always feel a sense of relief, and think to myself, just as if I was a character at the end of a creative essay written in 30 minutes by some hapless student during a year-12 English exam, despite their English teacher’s warnings never to finish an essay this way,

“Phew – it was all just a dream!”

 

*

Pic of house: The Quietus

*cat rotating on a plate was from last night’s dream. She was shimmying her bottom back and forth, like a record being spun by a DJ.

**or a bit past “middle age” depending on your interpretation of what that means.

Onomatopoeia! Thud-Whallop-Crash!

Experts around the world agree almost universally on this point: cows go moo.

There is also fairly general consensus that cats go meow, birds go tweet, and dogs go woof.

If, for any reason, I’d previously harboured doubts about the sounds made by those animals, my queries would have been put to rest when my daughter was little. One of the really enjoyable aspects of being a parent of a baby, toddler, and then pre-schooler, was the books I got to read. It was hard to stay grumpy with sleep deprivation, while reading, out loud, nonsense rhymes, poems and stories, and pulling the appropriately silly faces, and making the appropriately silly noises, to go along with the words.

The best were, of course, the books written by authors who are masters in the use of words, and of manoeuvring rhyme and rhythm* to suit the story, while exhibiting an irreverent sense of humour at the same time. Of those, Dr Suess, Rohald Dahl, and Spike Milligan, were some of my favourites.

If you must read to a small child, see if you can locate these two books first!

If you need to read to a small child, see if you can locate these two books first!

Spike Milligan was one of the most fun to read, and, I think we can cautiously venture, reveals himself to be somewhat of an expert in animals and the sounds they make, as illustrated by the article below.

On the Ning Nang Nong

Well ok, Milligan was obviously brought up in the city, since cows don’t go bong, they go moo, as we’ve previously covered. And trees don’t go ping, he must have been thinking of all those pesky microwave ovens that are always pinging away noisily everywhere you go in the city.

Nevertheless, when I received another request (?!) this week, to write a post on a specific topic, this time on onomatopoeia, my first thought was, who better to introduce the concept than Spike Milligan?

Who indeed. I got hours of enjoyment from his book of silly verse, delightfully titled Unspun Socks From A Chicken’s Laundry, a well-worn paperback that we found second hand in an Op (Thrift) shop. It’s yellowed with age and pages are falling out, but I had a lot of fun reading out loud to my daughter and possibly even sometimes to myself, just for laughs. The book design conveys what a hive of creativity the author was – some pages have traditionally printed text on them, while others reproduce handwritten poems and scribbled drawings done by the author.

Milligan’s poems have no morals or logic, and are simply downright silly. It’s precisely for that reason that it’s so refreshing to read them. I should probably mention that in keeping with the period (the poems were written through the 1970s – the book was first published 1981), there are some warnings: political incorrectness (eg Chinkey Chinkey Chinaman), inclusion of topics nowadays deemed unsuitable for children (I locked all the drink in the cellar/so nothing could get at the gin) a combination of the two (A Scotsman drowning in a whiskey vat) and no messing around with euphemisms. And always with such silliness that all offensiveness is surely dissipated.

Witness The ‘Veggy’ Lion:

I’m a vegetarian Lion

I’ve given up all meat,

I’ve given up all roaring

All I do is go tweet-tweet

….

I used to be ferocious,

I even tried to kill!

But the sight of all that blood

made me feel quite ill.

 

A tip for any parents feeling a mixture of curiosity and trepidation: the good thing is, when reading to small children, you can just leave whole poems out and they won’t know! For example, looking back at the book tonight, I dare say that in the interests of not creating a phobia about going to the dentist, we probably didn’t read our daughter the poem called By Gum:

Death to the Dentist!/Death to his drill!/Death to his ‘open wides’/Kill! Kill! Kill!

However, it softens the otherwise rather sinister tone to know that poem was inspired by his five-year-old son saying that he wanted to kill the dentist! Notes throughout the book indicate where and when poems were written, (eg Sydney, 1980) and some poems have extra notes to indicate when they were devised with his kids, or when something they said inspired Milligan’s imagination. For example, under the limerick about a girl called Nelly who has a nylon belly, which turns out (not entirely surprisingly) to be full of custard and jelly, is a note written by Jane and dad on the way back from the Natural History Museum, 15 October 1977.

Anyway, since you are probably wondering by now, the reason I thought of Milligan is because he has a poem called (this is how it is spelled in the book) Onamatapia. It goes as follows:

 

Onamatapia!

Thud – Wallop – CRASH!

Onamatapia!

Snip – Snap – GNASH!

Onamatapia!

Whack – thud – BASH!

Onamatapia!

Bong – Ting – SPLASH!

 

Onomatopoeia (pronounced, at least if you’re Australian, On-om-atta-pee-ya) is the formation of a word to make (as closely as possible) the sound it describes – eg cuckoo, meow, bam, whack, slap, bong, snip, splat.

The Miriam Webster dictionary says that onomatopoeia is:

the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (as in buzz, hiss)

Onomatopoeia helps the reader to hear the sounds in the world created by the writer. The interesting thing is that so many onomatopoeiac (?not sure what the adjective is) words are really fun to say and hear.

It’s clear that Milligan has an ear for such words and loves to use them. Unspun Socks…. fairly clangs, pops and thuds with the noisy fun of silly words bursting out of it. In the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, he says that the poems were inspired by listening to the way his children used words, and noting down mispronounced, misunderstood, and self-invented words. “Knowing children’s love of vocal exclamation, i.e. Boom! Bang! etc. – I’ve included a few bits of onomatopoeia,….”

He certainly has. Consider these lines from various poems in Unspun Socks:

Chip chop/chip chop/down comes a tree, Chip/chop/wallop/plop/Help, it’s fallen on me!

…They practise every night at nine/Plankety plank bumm-bumm!!

….He tied them back/with bits of string/But they shot out again/with a noisy – PING!

….Wallop! Wallop Thud! I go/until the bell goes ding!

….Gurgle gurgle gurgle!/that’s urgle with a G!!/The sound that people make I hear/when drowning in the sea!

They are also full of the self-invented and mistaken words that he loves, particularly imaginary creatures, like The Squirdle:

I thought I saw a Squirdle

I think I thought I saw

I think I thunk I thought

I saw a Squirdle by my door…..

There are creatures such as the Hipporhinostricow, the Leetle, the Multikertwigo (who says Sniddle, Iddle Ickle Thwack/Nicki-Nacki-Noo) and something inside his Granny’s boot that goes Binkle-Bonk Ickle-tickle-toot!*

I’m getting off the topic of onomatopaeia here but trying to illustrate that Milligan’s silly verses are just bursting with playfulness, and his use of onomatopaeia is one part of that. If these poems have an agenda, it is to impart a sense that words are a lot of fun!

I feel I should also apologise, or explain, because the request to write a post about onomatopoeia was prompted by my last post, where I said that the word bioluminescence almost seemed to have an element of onomoatopaeia to it, with the soft hiss of the “scence” encapsulating the sound that, in my imagination, is made by the light that softly emits from bioluminescent creatures under the sea. It’s not really onomatopoeia – as I think it’s safe to assume that it’s only in my imagination that bioluminescent light makes a soft hiss.

After all, it’s usually under water.

Spike Milligan poem - Onamatapia

Spike Milligan poem – Onamatapia

 

 

*rhythm – that was my second attempt at spelling it correctly

*the boot is now in the zoo

 

World of Wordcraft

Today, dear readers, you are in for a treat, because I rarely write posts by request.

Of course, that’s mostly because I never receive requests for my posts. In fact, I’ve never received a request for a piece of my writing in any format, actually, apart from when I was a kid and mum was always asking me to write a letter to my grandma.

And there was that time the New Yorker phoned to say that some famous author had pulled out of a contractual arrangement at short notice, and they were desperate for a piece on the theme of rhinos and boiled eggs. Coincidentally, I happened to have such a piece lying around, just dripping with the diligent background research, months of interviews, and intelligent, well-informed interpretation of the content that their highbrow readership could appreciate. Personally, I thought it was quite a moving piece.

(Sadly, that piece was never published – for some reason, at the last minute New Yorker Magazine changed the theme for that week’s “Idiot’s Ramble” and didn’t go with my piece. I’ve followed them up, but the last time I phoned that editor, she’d had her number changed and quit the magazine, and no-one knew where she had gone.)

Anyway. Recently a reader, not even an imaginary one as far as I can tell, casually commented in a comment (where better to comment?) that I should write a post about words that have annoying spelling – silent letters, for example. This was because I mentioned that I can never spell rhythmn rhythm correctly first go. In an odd twist, that’s not because of its silent letter “h,” which could legitimately trip someone up, but because I suffer from a little-known, but quite debilitating, neurological condition, causing me to see a phantom letter “n” where no letter “n” really exists. Fortunately, the only circumstance in which I ever see that letter “n” is at the end of the word rhythm, so I’m able to live an almost normal life, and few people have ever guessed at the hardship I suffer in private.

Now, some people would not see that as a request, but based on the fact that FM radio stations can get away with pretending they’ve received “requests” for songs that no-one ever wants to hear, I think I can legitimately claim that comment was a “request” for me to write such a post, so here it is. An attempt to write a post about words, some of which may be annoyingly spelled.

If that endeavour fails, then at the very least, I’ll be using words to write the post, and some of them may be annoying.

Before we get on to words, though, I must point out that amongst the blogging community, not surprisingly, there are at least a few people with more than a passing interest in words. Even amongst those blogs I regularly read – I say “even” because I mostly read blogs that are personal, non-academic, and usually don’t follow a particular theme – there are plenty of bloggers who have a keen amateur interest in etymology, or linguistics, or maybe just know the rules of grammar and have a passion for seeing them implemented.

The reason I mention this is because, as usual, I am an expert in none of those things. Jack of all trades, master of none. Sure, I like words as well as the next guy, but not so much that I study up on their history. If I’ve written a post about a word – such as my post about cool – my focus has been about the concept the word embodies, rather than the word itself. I’m not so much into focussing on particular words. I like them best when they are in a group, as you can gather from the length of my posts.

Because words have meanings, I find them most interesting when juxtaposed against other words with seemingly no connection – for example, the random selection of words that ends up in the “Tag Cloud” on my blog simply because they are words I’ve written about and tagged more than any others.

A random selection of words I must like.

A selection of words I must like.

The enjoyment I get out of that random grouping is that my mind tries to make meanings from two unrelated words placed next to one another. In fact, I’m lying – it doesn’t even try, it just enjoys their meaningless juxtaposition. Maybe when I read those words, in a milli-second, faster than I can concsiously register, my mind tries to combine the words, and finds the outcome amusing. Being too slow to catch the speed of that transaction at a conscious level, all I register is that the juxtaposition makes me chuckle. Perhaps I will do a series based on the Tag Cloud, and see what I can manage to write about Christmas cockroaches, existentialism eyeballs, Radiohead rhinos, and Simon and Garfunkle spam stars.

Outside of chuckling at random pairings of otherwise unconnected words, I like words best when they are strung together to form a sentence that communicates an idea. Now there’s an idea for my epitaph:

She liked words, but only when they were strung together to form a sentence like this. 

(Whether I run with that one or not, it’s almost certain that my epitaph will be the shortest piece of writing I will ever be associated with. But if it happens that, by the time of my demise, advances in technology have developed an inexpensive way to engrave a 1500 word essay about some ridiculous topic onto a headstone, I will instruct the executors of my estate to take that option.)

But back to the topic at hand. Words. Yes, really, the further I dig myself into this post, the more I think that I’m the wrong person to write a post about interesting words, annoying words, or words of any sort, because I don’t really collect and analyse words as some people do – probably as any aspiring writer-type should do.

It’s a huge failing on my part, that probably highlights what a lazy would-be writer I am.

Why, just a few months ago, I read a post about favourite words, and, much as I would have liked to contribute my own favourite words in the comments, I discovered that I was unable to think of a single favourite word! I let the idea sit in the back of my mind for weeks, and still couldn’t come up with one. It was only some time later, when I came across this word again, that I recalled with almost a sense of relief, that I have previously identified a word I like, all on its own:

bioluminescence

That’s a great word. What does bioluminescence mean? Well, as I’ve previously covered here, it’s the production and emission of light by a living organism – think of fireflies, or some types of jellyfish and other deep-sea creatures. That’s pretty cool isn’t it? Like, on the list of superpowers that would be handy to attain, it should be right below invisibility.

But, seriously, I think the reason I like the word bioluminescence is not because it’s a cool concept, but because so many of the creatures who are bioluminescent are other-worldly. Generally they live in an environment that I will never see and can barely imagine – the darkest depths of the ocean, down at the ocean floor. It’s only a few miles to the bottom of the ocean, but down there it’s like another universe. Can you imagine that darkness, miles below the surface, where the light from the sun doesn’t reach? Can you imagine how it sounds down there under all that water? How it would feel, all that water weighing down on you and all around you.

 

oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/biolum.html

                                     oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/biolum.html

In some ways those bioluminescent creatures are the closest things we have to aliens life-forms, right here on earth, scuttling around in watery darkness, emitting their own light, where their ancestors scuttled around a million years earlier.

The sound of a favourite word also plays a big part in why you like it. At first, up above, I wrote bioluminescent. Then I thought about it and realised that bioluminescence is a better word. I think that is because of the sound it makes: the softness of ending on the “s” of e-scence instead of on the “t” of e-scent. There is almost an element of onomatopoeia, at least in my imagination: as if the soft hiss of scence at the end of the word somehow matches the image of something gently emitting a soft glow.

So for me, the word bioluminescence, is like shorthand for other-worldly creatures, life forms that have existed with little change since before humans were on earth. Mysteries. Chills up my spine.

Words. They can be annoying. But they capture concepts so well when they get together and form handy phrases! This has been so successful that I may write more posts about words. Or possibly I’ll just utilise more words and write another post. Only time will tell. Just don’t ask me to spell rhythm.*

*

(*I typed the n and then deleted it)

 

 

 

 

Reach out and touch somebody

It’s nearly 200 years since Darwin first came up with his theory of evolution and yet, even now, evolutionary scientists can not fully explain how new species arise.

In the 1980s in Australia, there were reported sightings of a previously unknown animal. These reports increased throughout the decade, probably because the creature was easily identifiable due to a unique combination of traits, particularly the sound it made.

By the late 1980s, anywhere you went in Australia, whether hiking in the bush, mucking around at Bondi Beach, or trekking by camel across the remote sandy desert, sooner or later you would stop, and turn your head towards the breeze, on which you could faintly hear, wafting, the melodic strains of this distinctive creature, floating through the air.

Sometimes a new category of species is created through breeding processes, and although it was still 20 years before we would all go crazy, mating our labradors with the neighbor’s poodles to make a batch of warm, fluffy labradoodles, it seems that some sinister laboratory cross-breeding experiment went horribly wrong and resulted in a new species that was a cross between UK band Simple Minds and Aussie band INXS.

The newly-emerged creature was a specific category of male homosapien, about 6 feet tall, with dark hair, that was always curly – if not genetically, then through chemical means – usually worn in a long mullet. The creature’s normal garb was black leather trousers and a black leather jacket, and his natural habitat was on a stage in front of a drummer, a bass, lead and rhythm guitar, and – since it was, after all, the 1980s – the optional but highly likely additions of a synthesiser and a saxophone.

These creatures seemed to be capable of multiplying at an astronomical rate, and during this period, a plethora of Aussie bands flooded the airwaves with the Simple Minds-X-INXS sound – much as, 20 years later, dog-rescue centres would be flooded with an oversupply of labradoodles, cavoodles, schnoodles and schmoodles.

Anyone who has studied the history of this animal (the mullet-headed band leader, not the poodle-cross) knows that the most significant practitioners of this sound were two particular Aussie bands, Noiseworks and Boom Crash Opera. (Another trait these bands had in common, apparently, was to ensure that loud noise was synonymous with their very identity.)

Below follows a taste test, so that you can make your own decision about the similarities. First, the originals:

  1. INXS – Melting in the Sun (1984)

 

2. Alive and Kicking – Simple Minds (1985)

 

And next, their progeny:

Boom Crash Opera – Great Wall (1987)

 

Noiseworks – Touch (1988)

 

Anyone interested enough to check out a portion of each, will find evidence that definite cross-breeding occurred.

Inevitably, just like a labradoodle, Boom Crash Opera and Noiseworks never quite managed (in my humble opinion) to reach the same level of success that their forebears had. Back in those days, I loved INXS (did I tell you about the time I met Michael Hutchence?) and I guess I liked Simple Minds well enough. Whereas to me, the most interesting thing about Boom Crash Opera was that one afternoon in 1988, guitarist Richard Pleasance called hello to me and a friend from the window of an upstairs apartment in St Kilda. Despite the thrill my 19-year old self felt at that event, the relationship between myself and Pleasance never progressed any further, and nor did the relationship between myself and the music of Boom Crash Opera. As for Noiseworks, I was never interested in their sound. It was not that I had developed more sophisticated taste by then (I hadn’t) but just that in 1988 I preferred the gentler melodies of The Pet Shop Boys and Aussie/New Zealand band Crowded House.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that they only ever seemed like a weak imitation of a better band, and even the fact that a few days after starting this post I thought of at least 2 far better songs with the lyrics “reach out” in them, it was the Noiseworks song above that I thought of when I received an emailed response to some negative feedback I’d given about a food product I’d ordered.

Aha! You thought this was a post about 80’s bands, but it’s really about corporate catch-phrases. Gotcha!

So anyway, three days after I sent my feedback, I’d received three emails from this company. The first was an automated reply to say my feedback had been received and that they’d be in touch with me shortly. The next email, about 48 hours later, was to say that they’d received a high amount of contact this week and there would be a further delay in responding to my feedback. The third was an actual response, written by a human being, that opened with the line, “Hello. Thank you for reaching out to us.”

The scariest thing on reading this was, that this was the second time in one week, I’d been thanked for ‘reaching out’. The other instance was equally as ridiculous. At work we use Dropbox for all our electronic files, and I knew our Dropbox Business Account was due to be renewed, I wanted to confirm what the charge would be, so I checked our account online, where I could see our 15 Dropbox accounts – and the total cost that we paid last year. I thought there might be an increase in the cost for the next financial year, so I filled out the online form to ask what the cost would be this year. In response, I received an email from a staff member at Dropbox, that began, “Thank you for reaching out. I understand you would like to know how much your annual charge will be” – and then pointed me to the link I’d already checked, to our account, showing me what the current charges are.

From these two emails I gather that suddenly we are not able to simply “ask how much our bill will be” or “give some negative feedback”, and heaven forbid we should be perceived to be “making a complaint.” No, all of these interactions and more can now be summarised under the touchy-feely, feel-good umbrella of “reaching out.”

This is where we come to another, more insidious sort of cross-breeding, that of terms and concepts from psychology and psychotherapy, bred most unfortunately with terms and concepts from New Age theories, for the purpose of creating a brand new Marketing and Communications Strategy.

The result is watered-down terms that have lost their original meaning. To describe someone as “reaching out” traditionally implies that they are asking for help in really dire circumstances. If you Google “reach out” in Australia, the first page of links are all for a youth organisation called Reach Out. That makes sense to me, because community organisations encourage people to reach out for help or support in a time of need.

It’s now common in Australia, that after any story on TV, radio or in print media that touches on topics like depression or anxiety, suicide, mental illness, or any other issue that could cause distress, phone numbers for organisations like LifeLine are listed, along with a message that says “if anything on tonight’s program has caused concern please phone the numbers below.” That’s because we try to encourage people to reach out, and let someone else know that they need some help. It’s a phrase that relates to circumstances a million times removed from checking on an annual bill, or complaining that a meal was not edible.

So I really find it repulsive that corporate-type companies have begun to take over the term “reaching out” and use it, apparently, for any and all customer contact. On both occasions, my reasons for contacting the companies in question were mundane, and it is a manipulative use of language to describe those interactions as me “reaching out,” as if I reached out needing help in a time of distress, or perhaps just needing some friendly contact to stave off loneliness, and, lo and behold, these corporate-type companies came to my rescue.

I’m glad to report that I’ve unsubscribed to the first company. I can’t unsubscribe my workplace from Dropbox but I’ll avoid “reaching out” to them again if possible.

If I do feel the need to reach out to somebody, I’ll probably start with my family, my friends, or even write a post here, as writing a post feels far more personal than emailing a supplier to ask how much my bill will be.

Or maybe I’ll just put on some bad music from the 80’s and imagine I’m reaching out to touch somebody.

*

“Reach out, reach out, reach out and touch somebody.” – Noiseworks, from The Noiseworks Marketing and Communications Strategy, 1988.

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