Thursday, January 29, 2009

Aaaaahhhhh, the summer...

Yes indeed, the Summer! Sometimes it was freezing and nasty like this, and other times it was blissfully perfect. Here are some images from my week away.
The amazing random penguin!?! Can you believe there were three of these little guys frolicking under the Rosebud pier for days? They had plenty of little fish to keep their pudgy bodies in perfectly rotund shape. Fascinating how the little critters can swim. Just as fast as fish, which makes sense if they're to have any hope of catching any.
Is this gorgeous, or what? Just about everywhere I turned to look was a vision of heaven. Photo opportunities were too many to take advantage of. And every magic vision was accompanied by that dread feeling of, it's-all-coming-to-an-end-far-too-soon-and-I'll-be-back-in-the-rat-race-before-I-know-it. Still, I tried not to focus on the finishing line in favour of letting my thirsty soul drink of the magnificence.
I jumped off this pier! Yes I did. For days, my kids had been doing it, and one day I thought I'd be brave enough to try it. Middle child urged me on, and so we walked right down to the end where it's deep so I could give it a go. I have to admit I chickened out at first and did a tame little jump off the lower platform. That got my courage going a bit, and a few other jumps followed. It's been literally decades since I did anything of the sort, and it was surprising how quickly I got back into the routine of taking a breath and expelling it as I hit the water. The taste of salt in my nostrils took me back to my childhood.

With my pride intact after a few jumps from the lower deck, I climbed to the top level once more. It still looked way too high, but then I told myself to stop thinking and just do it. And so I did. What I didn't know, was that my husband and remaining kids were watching from the beach. My oldest told me later that husband was doing a running commentary, a la Olympic diving event. I can't say I enjoyed the high dive terribly, except that actually going through with it held a certain spark of achievement.

The day of jumping off the pier was the very last day of our holiday. The water was as clear as glass, a tropical light blue close to shore, graduating out in increasingly dark ribbons. In the shallows, it was as tepid as bath water. We swam for the greater part of the day, and stayed on the beach for a pizza dinner. After that we swam again, soaking in the last sensations of another beautiful holiday reluctantly drawing to a close.

And now we're home. Yes indeed. The summer highs have sure hit with a ferocious vengeance here in Melbourne. For weeks, all my skimpy summer clothes stayed hung in the cupboard, until I wondered if I would get a chance to wear them at all this summer. Cardigans and polar fleeces had too good a workout all through spring right up until a few days ago. Now I can take out the halter-neck dresses and floaty fabrics, since our previously 'cool' summer has died in a fiery, mid-season climax.

The current heatwave of above 40 degree temperatures is out of the ordinary, and has tested all my previous contingency measures. I'm one who tends to boast about the coolness of my house. 'It doesn't get hot until the third above 30 day,' I tell anyone who'll care to listen. 'We only use our air conditioner once each summer, and only for about 20 minutes.' Boy oh boy! Yesterday (our first full day back from holidays) we only lasted until lunchtime, and today the air-con has been on for 20 min, off for 20 min because I'm trying not to use it too extravagantly. The television is on pretty much permanently due to the tennis, and Channel 7 is constantly driving fear into me by reporting on all the power outages throughout the city. Images of people throwing out the entire contents of their freezer are enough to make me want to brave the heatwave cold turkey... or rather, hot turkey.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Occasional Literary Gem #5

Now we come to characterisation.

Pat Conroy's incisive descriptions go beyond regular perception. When I first read this passage, I marvelled at how Conroy is able to convey an impression with his sharply intuitive turn of phrase. The way he describes Winthrop Ogletree and his funeral parlour, utterly captures the essence and mood of the character and the setting. I no longer have to imagine. I'm right there in the room alongside Ogletree, as though my senses belonged to the POV character, Tom Wingo.

'The undertaker, Winthrop Ogletree, was waiting in the foyer of the large, rambling Victorian house at the end of the Street of Tides where he practiced his trade. He was dressed in a dark suit and his hands were folded against his stomach in an attitude of enforced piety. He was tall and thin and had a complexion like goat cheese left on the table too long. The funeral parlor smelled like dead flowers and unanswered prayers. When he wished us a good day, his voice was reptilian and unctuous and you knew he was only truly comfortable in the presence of the dead. He looked as if he had died two or three times himself in order to appreciate better the subtleties of his vocation. Winthrop Ogletree had the face of an unlucky vampire who never received an adequate portion of blood.'

Occasional Literary Gem #4

Though I've had a busy weekend, returning from a stay-over at Indi's gorgeous beach retreat to the usual round of commitments, I'm still making my way pleasurably through Pat Conroy's amazing 'Prince Of Tides'.

The following passage is one of Tom Wingo's reminiscences, and at this stage of the novel, appears to serve no direct purpose other than to enrich the already kaleidoscopic setting. I don't imagine there will be a need to revisit Mr Fruit, however the brief appearance of this eccentric character adds another dimension to the already multi-textured setting of the novel.

'We came to the intersection of Baitery Road and the Street of Tides and to one of Colleton's two traffic lights. Out in the harbor, sailboats canted into the wind, their sails papery and overwhelmed with sunlight. A fifty-foot yacht made the turn in the river and signaled the bridge tender with four throaty barks of the horn. Mr. Fruit, sporting a baseball cap and white gloves, was directing traffic at the intersection. We waited for him to grant us permission to cross the street. It did not matter to Mr. Fruit if the light was red or green. Mr. Fruit relied on intuition and his own internal sense of balance and symmetry to get the traffic through his corner of the world.

Fantastic, bizarre, and vigilant, he was a tall, lanky black man of indeterminate age who seemed to consider the town of Colleton his personal responsibility. I don't know to this day if Mr. Fruit was retarded or deluded or some harmless sweet-faced lunatic given free rein to drift about his native town spreading the joy of an inarticulate gospel to his neighbors. I don't know his real name or who his family was or where he spent the night. I know he was indigenous and that no one questioned his right to direct the traffic on the Street of Tides.

There was a time when a new deputy tried to teach Mr. Fruit about the difference between a red and a green light, but Mr. Fruit had resisted all efforts to reorder what he had been doing perfectly well for many years. He not only monitored the comings and goings of the town, his presence softened the ingrained evil that flourished along the invisible margins of the town's consciousness. Any community can be judged in its humanity or corruption by how it manages to accommodate the Mr. Fruits of the world. Colleton simply adjusted itself to Mr. Fruit's harmonies and ordinations. He did whatever he felt was needed and he did it with style. "That's the southern way," my grandmother said. "That's the nice way."

"Hey, babe," he cried out when he saw us, and "Hey, babe," we cried back. He wore a silver whistle around his neck and a beatific, inerasable smile on his face. He tooted his whistle and waved his long arms in graceful exaggerated swoops. He pivoted and danced toward the lone approaching car, his left hand at a right angle to his bony wrist. The car stopped and Mr. Fruit motioned for us to cross the street, blowing on his whistle in perfect synchronization with my grandmother's footsteps. Mr. Fruit was born to direct traffic. He also led all parades in Colleton, no matter how solemn or festive the occasion. Those were his two functions in the life of the town and he performed them very well. My grandfather would always tell us that Mr. Fruit had done as well with what he had as any man my grandfather had ever met.'

Friday, January 16, 2009


Here it is, my new toaster. My old toaster is now in a plastic bag at the bottom of the pantry - just in case this new one goes bung and we need the old, trusty, still-in-good-working-order toaster to come to the rescue.

Why buy a new toaster when the old one still works? Aesthetics, pure and simple. The old one was twenty years old... yes, a wedding gift, and amazingly the only toaster we were given. It performed valiantly through all these years, never missing a beat and producing a mean slice of toast or crumpet every time. It was a daggy white one with not a stylish line in its uninspiring design.

Over the years its enamel had scratched, and one of the plastic sides had broken when dropped once. Still, it kept on working. Even when it used to be plugged inside the pantry (so I could conceal its ugliness) and one of the kids accidentally let a party balloon fall into it from a higher shelf while we were toasting. Ooohhh, the smell of burning rubber! Nevertheless, it shrugged off that indignity and carried on undaunted.

But the days when we had enough room inside the pantry to house a working toaster are long gone. There was a time when I would use the toaster on the kitchen bench, then store it in the pantry afterwards. It was a squish, but at least it was out of sight. Eventually, even that small space disappeared, and the task of clearing a new space to hide the toaster always seemed to be mine for the taking. Inevitably, the ugly toaster took up its permanent position on the kitchen bench, rightfully next to the ugly white plastic kettle. When that kettle thankfully died and I replaced it with a beautiful, shiny stainless steel model, I began to dream of an equally beautiful toaster to partner it. One that would be a visual asset to the kitchen, that would hold its place on the bench without causing shame. An object of beauty as well as flawless function.

So I guess this post is an ode to that old toaster, for I do feel a tad guilty in having shoved it aside. We lead such a consumerist way of life in our rich country, and my action today was the kind of thing I regularly shake my head at. Buying a new toaster when the old one still works was a wasteful act. How superficial, what a waste of resources, to want a toaster for its looks, not performance. My parents would never have done such a thing. Every appliance in their house is allowed to die a natural death before they replace it, and that's the way it should be.

And worse, I must confess that I didn't even check where the new toaster was made before making my purchase. For all I know, it's imported, and there were probably Australian-made ones on the shelf that I overlooked. Though if that was the case, they weren't nearly pretty enough.

Now for a few apologies: Sorry, old, still-working toaster. Sorry, world environment. Sorry, Australian economy. Sorry, Mum & Dad (who taught me not to waste).

Can't wait for tomorrow morning so I can try out the gorgeous new toaster.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Occasional Literary Gem #3

And another gem. This is the letter Tom Wingo, the narrator of the novel, keeps in his wallet. It was written to him years ago by his sister, the famous poet Savannah Wingo, after she watched him coach a game of football. In this scene, he is prompted to take the letter out and read it again. The letter is a well-used device, a beautiful illustration of the unshakeable love that binds these two characters together. I found it inspirational, and I guess it would perhaps be more so to anyone who had sons.

"Dear Coach,

I was thinking about what you can teach your boys, Tom. What language you can use for the love of boys driven by your voice across the grass you mowed yourself. When I saw you and your team win the first game, all the magic of sport came to me silver voiced, like whistles. There are no words to describe how beautiful you looked delivering urgent messages to quarterbacks, signalling for time-outs, pacing the green, unnaturally lit sidelines, loved by your sister for your unimaginable love of play, for the soft gauzy immensity of your love for all the boys and all the games of the world.

But there are some things only sisters can teach the coaches in their lives. Teach them this, Tom, and teach them very well: Teach them the quiet verbs of kindness, to live beyond themselves. Urge them toward excellence, drive them toward gentleness, pull them deep into yourself, pull them upward toward manhood, but softly like an angel arranging clouds, Let your spirit move through them softly, as your spirit moves through me.

I cried last night when I heard your voice above the crowd. I heard you cheering for the clumsy tackle, the slow-footed back, music of your sweet praise. But Tom, my brother, the lion, all golden and hurt: Teach them what you know the best. There is no poem and no letter that can pass your one ineffable gift to boys. I want them to take from you the knowledge of how to be the gentlest, the most perfect brother.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Occasional Literary Gem #2

I'm enjoying 'The Prince Of Tides' immensely. As I remarked earlier, what strikes me the most about Pat Conroy's writing is the beautiful way he puts words together. It's a difficult thing to achieve once or twice in a novel, but he seems to do it incredibly regularly. I have been impressed by this regularity several times already, and I haven't read the first 100 pages yet.

Here is gem #2:

"In mental hospitals, no matter how humanistic or enlightened, keys are the manifest credentials of power, the steel asterisks of freedom and mobility. The march of orderlies and nurses is accompanied by the alienating cacophony of singing keys striking against thighs, annotating the passage of the free. When you find yourself listening to their keys and owning none, you will come close to understanding the white terror of the soul that comes with being banished from all commerce with mankind."

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Twilight - The Movie

If you haven't already seen Twilight - the Movie, here's the official trailer. Go on, you know you want to watch it. I certainly do.


Well, I did it. I read 'Twilight' by Stephenie Meyer.

For months, I've watched my teenage daughter be so obsessed with all the books in this series that it was something akin to a satanic possession - or should I say vampiric possession (is there such a word?). Every moment of her day - waking or sleeping - was immersed in the events and characters of these books. She read the first and was hooked immediately. The second, she purchased while holidaying on the Mornington Peninsula. As well as taking part in the usual activities with the rest of us - going for walks or to the beach - she finished the novel the same day. Which means she virtually devoured the thing.

As the date for release of the fourth book approached, she and a friend pre-ordered copies at a local bookshop. After much anticipation, the blessed day finally arrived. The two girls caught the bus to the bookshop as soon as school finished. It's an easy walk, but the bus would deliver them there faster so they could start reading all the sooner. They'd organised to have a sleepover that night so their reading wouldn't be interrupted. They read from the time they arrived home right through to dinner time, and then afterwards until the early hours of the morning.

The sleepover had turned into a read-a-thon. They gushed about the fourth book, more satisfied than ever with the product of Stephenie Meyer's inventive mind.

Then came the movie... The waiting, the obsessing, the ordering of special preview tickets. The gushing yet again afterwards about how GOOD it was, how they couldn't believe what a good job the film-makers had done, how true to the story, how amazing the special effects, how beautiful Bella, how handsome Edward... on and on and on and on. I won't give you all the details or this could turn into the fifth instalment of the Twilight series. Let's just say that 2008 was a very 'Twilight' sort of year.

And so I felt I had to read it.

In the beginning, I have to say that Edward left me - literally - cold. He is a vampire, after all. And though he's the nicest possible vampire you could meet, with impeccable manners, he still is a vampire. When he touches Bella, he feels cold. He doesn't breathe. His skin looks white. His heart doesn't beat. Not exactly the red-blooded tender Alpha male I go for. Not a Mr Darcy or Hugh Grant in sight.

By the middle of the book I was starting to feel a bit more sympathetic towards him - this is where his sad history is revealed, and by the end of the book I have to admit that I did love him.

What I found most interesting, however, was Stephenie Meyer's clever plotting. Textbook 'Jennifer-Crusie-4-Act-Structure', if you ask me. And it worked beautifully.

FIRST TURNING POINT : Bella realises Edward is a vampire and that she's in love with him (I'm not giving anything away here by quoting from this part of the book, since it was the promotional snippet used on the back cover). 'About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him - and I didn't know how dominant that part might be - that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.'

SECOND TURNING POINT - THE POINT OF NO RETURN: This is where everything changes for Bella and for Edward. He tells her everything about himself and his family, potentially threatening their well-guarded secret. Fully informed, Bella makes a conscious decision to accept Edward and continue the journey.

THIRD TURNING POINT - THE BLACK MOMENT: I won't reveal too much here, but it really is the blackest of moments. This part of the book was breathtaking, fast-paced, suspenseful, if a little predictable. For a teenage read, it would certainly have been exhilarating. I can now understand the frenzy the books have generated.

Now I'm being pestered to read the next books in the series, or to read Meyer's other book 'The Host'. I keep telling my teenager that I don't do fantasy, and that getting 'into' Bella and Edward's world was quite enough for me. I don't really fancy starting again with a different set of monsters.

I think something rather more everyday. A novel about dysfunctional families, suicide, broken marriages and child abuse is on the list. Enter 'The Prince Of Tides', waiting for me on the coffee table.

Occasional Literary Gem #1

Sometimes you can read a whole book and remain completely underwhelmed. Sometimes, the words on the page are so powerful that it's difficult not to be overcome.

I picked up an old copy of 'The Prince Of Tides' by Pat Conroy at my children's school fete for 50c recently. Being a Barbra Streisand fan, I couldn't pass it up. I haven't read the novel yet, though today, I skimmed the first page and was struck by the beautiful way Conroy puts words together. I read the following passage out loud to one of my daughters and it was difficult to keep the emotion out of my voice. By the expression on her face, I could tell she felt much the same way.

It is the second paragraph of the novel, narrated by the main character, Tom Wingo, the son of a South Carolina sea island shrimper.

"When I was ten I killed a bald eagle for pleasure, for the singularity of the act, despite the divine, exhilarating beauty of its solitary flight over schools of whiting. It was the only thing I had ever killed that I had never seen before. After my father beat me for breaking the law and for killing the last eagle in Colleton County, he made me build a fire, dress the bird, and eat its flesh as tears rolled down my face. Then he turned me in to Sheriff Benson, who locked me in a cell for over an hour. My father took the feathers and made a crude Indian headdress for me to wear to school. He believed in the expiation of sin. I wore the headdress for weeks, until it began to disintegrate feather by feather. Those feathers trailed me in the hallways of the school as though I were a molting, discredited angel.

'Never kill anything that's rare,' my father had said.

'I'm lucky I didn't kill an elephant,' I replied.

'You'd have had a mighty square meal if you had,' he answered.

My father did not permit crimes against the land. Though I have hunted
again, all eagles are safe from me."

Friday, January 9, 2009

Something So Simple

Yesterday, I did something very simple. I drove ten minutes to an Officeworks store, and I bought myself a lamp just like the one in the picture above. It cost $10. Seems unremarkable, doesn't it?

But in reality, this was an amazing thing for me, since I haven't had a lamp next to my bed for 20 years. 20 YEARS, that's right. I can hardly believe I did it, and now that I have light on my side of the bed I don't know why I didn't spend $10 and ten minutes of my time 20 years ago.

Visitors to this blog might be shaking their heads, wondering what would possess someone not to have a bedside light, but the reason is probably a common one: Procrastination.

You see, after we moved to our first house, I was planning to get a light once we got bedside tables, but there was always something else to buy instead, and the bedside tables - not necessities - always seemed to get pushed to the end of the list. After 10 years in the first house, we moved to a smaller house, and though there was room for bedside tables, it would have made for a more cramped space. So the arrangement we had was this: husband had a lamp on the floor that he would flick up to reflect against the white wardrobe doors when we were (or I was) reading. This worked fairly well, providing me with enough light to read, however it was annoying if he stopped reading first - or just wanted to sleep. Sometimes he would be unconsciously 'waiting' to turn off the light for me. Other times I would feel bad about waking him, and so I would walk around to his side of the bed to turn off the light before feeling my way back to my side.

If this was an okay arrangement, what was it in the end that made me change things, go out and do the outrageous thing of actually buying a lamp for myself? In the end, my body made the decision for me. My eyesight is fantastic, and I can read easily without glasses, but my eyes aren't what they used to be. I sometimes have to 'adjust' the distance between my eyes and the text by holding what I'm reading further away. I also struggle in poor light.

In the end, that was what did it. Reflected light from a white wardrobe just wasn't enough. Now I have my own light, and I'm in heaven.

As for the bedside tables...

An odd kind of synchronicity

Just a bit of trivia, but interesting nonetheless. Though my posting has been terribly slow the last few months, I noticed today that I clocked up exactly the same number of posts for the last two years. Amazing, since I wasn't keeping tabs on it. What does this mean???

Perhaps 34 posts a year is my natural output level (when I'm not pushing myself). If I stick to my intended target of posting at least once a week this year, I should increase my total by more than 50%!

There. Now I've bored everyone to tears, I'll have to come up with something more exciting for the next post... but don't count on it. If I'm to post more often, the posts might get more humdrum - or on the other hand, a la Seinfeld, they could yield some subtle revelations into my character.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Roll on 2009!

Happy New Year!!!

I know it's a cliche, but hasn't the year flown? So much has been achieved, but at what cost? 2008 for me was a year that had few quiet places. I read a wonderful book called 'The Dance of Anger', written by Harriet Lerner that I truly believed was written for me! It's a book that focuses on why women often feel angry. I only had to read the opening paragraph to understand something of the conflict my busy life thrusts upon me - or I thrust upon myself.

Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of our self - our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions - is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably do or give. (Lerner, 1985 p.1)

I took two important things from this book:

  • When seeking solutions, you can't change others. You can only change yourself.
  • The theory of 'underperforming' and 'overperforming'.

It seems that some of my frustration with other people in my family could be alleviated if I just allowed myself to 'underperform' a bit. This seems simple, and quite frankly, I don't know why I didn't think of it earlier, but when children are little and you have to do everything for them, it's easy to fall into the trap of continuing that behaviour well past the time when they're old enough to do things for themselves. Years pass quickly when you're busy, and often you're well into the next phase before you've realised it. Looking over my shoulder, I can now see I've let my big kids get into bad habits. Often, they do far too little, and I'm doing them a disservice by underestimating their maturity.

In today's child-indulgent times, we desperately want our children to always be happy, but we've forgotten that in order for that to happen (and always happy is neither desirable nor realistic for any normal person), children need to grow into adults who are independent and able. They must be able to appropriately relate to others in the workplace and in social circumstances. This requires co-operation, kindness, and self-reliance. A dash of humility certainly never goes astray.

By 'overperforming', I am robbing my children of the experiences they need to become functional adults. They need practice at this stuff now in order to save a lot of unnecessary angst as they negotiate the adult world in the future.

And so I am trying hard to 'underperform', though I have to say that 'letting go' isn't easy. The hardest part is accepting that things (household chores, cooking etc.) will get done, but not necessarily to my standards. I have to accept that everyone does things differently.

Last night I woke at 3am - a common thing while on holidays and the days don't tire me out the way they usually do during the working year - and I started thinking. I thought until first light, and by morning I had a few New Year's Resolutions that I thought I would have a crack at this year. Not that I think they're all possible, but I do believe it's important to write them down so at least the process is formalised. If I don't manage to achieve these goals, then I should probably do a bit more soul searching. That done, I can change my tactics and have another go the following year.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  • More time for reading
  • More time for writing, and this includes...
  • Blogging more regularly
  • More time to catch up with friends (I see a theme emerging, here)
  • Making a decision about the direction my work should take
  • Getting my 'paperwork' under control - I feel cluttered in my head otherwise
  • Relaxing, letting go, being kinder to myself and to my children
  • Remembering we're here for only a short time - how to make it count...!
  • Chasing my dreams
  • Trying something new
  • Being honest with myself - and letting others know of those choices

I know some of this sounds cryptic, but it's difficult to explain it without getting too personal. I'm sure if I read someone else's list I would interpret according to my own experience. The gift I will try to give myself this year is TIME.