Sunday, November 23, 2014

Foreign germs

I enjoy a bit of mould in my food, in cheese, and yoghurt and other foodstuffs where it’s intended, but this morning’s yoghurt is on the turn and I debate whether to surge ahead and eat it or whether to chuck it in and start on a fresh tub. 

I have a cavalier attitude to mould and germs and the like.  If there’s not too much of it, fine, you can eat it.  Same with germs. 

When I was growing up my mother told us that it was fine for brothers and sisters to share the same cups and plates and knives and forks because we carry the same germs.  With a crowd like this, what could you expect?  

I took my mother at her word and passed on the same knowledge to my children who these days refuse to go along with my mother’s simple logic. 

Just because we share the same genetic material as in shared parents does not mean we carry the same germs. 

We can infect one another with all manner of illness if we’re not careful. 

The mould in my yoghurt sits on the lid and has not yet infected the entire tub. I should be safe. The yoghurt is not past its use by date.  The words on the outside of the tub tell me so. 

Therefore, if I stick to my principles and continue to eat, I should not get sick, food poisoning, gut ache, salmonella or any other such contamination.

How easy it is to feel contaminated. 

Especially with those childhood ailments, the tapeworms, the lice and the school sores. 

I’ve all but finished the tub of yoghurt I started earlier this morning and my stomach is roiling. 

Have I taken in too many foreign germs to keep me settled?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Sausages, a man with a barrow and the Berlin Wall

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall and my thoughts go back to the days when I first began to use a computer for word-processing.

What an expression, word processing.  No longer the business of writing but the business of processing words, as if words were like sausages on a conveyer belt in need of packaging. 

I can see it in my mind’s eye. 

My husband makes sausages.  He takes a lump of pork and minces it till it turns into a lumpy pink sludge then adds herbs and spices. 

Next he forces some part of the mixture into the top of his sausage maker, brand name DICK, and screws down the lever that forces the mince into thin stockings of sausage casing made out of cow gut lining. 

He squeezes a quantity of mixture into a gigantic sausage and finally cuts it off in over size lengths that he then sections into sausage length strips tied with a butcher’s string. 

My husband lets the sausages sit in the fridge for a day, then Cryovacs a small quantity, usually in batches of three or four sausages, and finally freezes them until use.  Most of the sausages he gives away to friends and family, and some we take out and defrost for barbeques. 

My husband’s sausages taste better than the ones we buy from the shops. We know what goes into them.

Word processing on the other hand requires other ingredients like the mind behind the machine to turn them into something of value.

Twenty-five years ago I looked at computers in the same way as I had looked at cars another ten years earlier when I was still young and believed I would never need to drive one. 

My husband would be in charge of all things car related.  I could simply be a passenger. 

Whether this attitude held me back I do not know, though it took me several years in my early twenties to get my driver’s licence. 

I was phobic about driving, one of my driving instructors told me.  He took me out for lessons in his turquoise coloured Datsun 180y and every time I stepped inside his car I needed to change my shoes. 

These were the days of platform heels, shoes that gave an extra three or four inches in height. 

Those were the days when a driving instructor put up a yellow learner’s plate on his car and he could charge a fee to help someone like me learn to drive. 

It took me three attempts to get my licence. 

The first time I failed to stop for a man who had walked across the driveway with a wheelbarrow. 

I can see him still this man hunched over his red barrow intent on heaving his load from one side of the road to the next. 

I could not bring myself to stop.  There was too much to synchronise: the getting out through the driveway in a non-automatic car with clutch and gears, which I needed to coordinate in order to start and to stop. 

I had just managed to get the car out of the parking lot but needed to stop too soon.  I managed to slow back to first gear and hoped the man would get past soon enough for me to go on driving but my instructor slammed on his secondary brakes to spare us all the horror of my car running into the man with the wheelbarrow. 

The examiner failed me on the spot.

The second time I went for my licence I managed to get out of the driving zone and onto the road.  I was then able to negotiate my way through several streets under the examiner’s instructions, but by the time it came to parallel parking my nerves were frayed to the point I could not manage to synchronise the required number of full turns of the wheel to get the car into place. 

Once again I failed. 

On my third attempt I managed to drive through the streets of Oakleigh without any mishaps, but once again on the hill that runs up to the Chadstone shopping centre after I had managed a handbrake start and brought us back to the flat I could not negotiate my way into a parallel park through the two marker flags the instructor had set in place. 

Too much reversing and I could not get my mind into position, but this time the examiner took pity on me and granted me my licence after all.
‘You’d better practice your parking’, he said some thirty years ago.
Yet to this day I cannot parallel park.  I can reverse into spaces from an angle.  I can reverse out of driveways.  I can reverse into a parking space that is parallel if there are no obstacles in front or behind, but I cannot squeeze my car into a narrow space between two cars on the side of the road, despite my instructor’s urge that I practise.

My husband and now my daughters have volunteered to teach me, but something inside leaves parallel parking a gap in my experience that I do not want to rectify. 

Another wall that has yet to fall. 

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Where is she now?

This morning on my way home from dropping my daughter off at her work, I travelled back through local streets.  In front of a block of housing commission flats at the end of Munroe Street I saw a temporary sign pitched on the nature strip like a billboard, ‘Humanist Society of Victoria’, with its bold blue logo. 

It gave me a jolt.  Such an unlikely place for such a sign. 

Somewhere inside one of the flats I imagined a small group of mostly older people sitting around with cups of tea or coffee in a cluttered lounge room discussing all matters humanist. 

And this, against the backdrop of a radio program to which I listened in the car, where a woman described her husband’s struggle with lung cancer.  This woman coped by sending out weekly emails to friends and family to keep them in the loop in all things ‘Russell’. 

The emails helped Russell’s wife to sort through her own thinking. 

I arrived home before the program ended and so I’m left with snatches of thought.  The woman’s emails, the few I heard were lyrical and well written.  She put in details that many other emails might lack. 

She described the hospital smells and the way her husband grunted at her when she reminded him to take his salt/sugar preparation in order to keep his electrolytes in balance between chemo episodes. 

After he had snapped at her one time to many, she asked, ‘Do you talk to the nurses this way?’
And he said, ‘No. I don’t love the nurses.’

 A poignant reminder of how the people we love can at times treat us like shit because they love us and know we love them in return. 

In one of her other emails, Russell’s wife tells the story of an elderly homeless woman who sits on street corners with a fluffy white dog in a trolley and asks for money.  If you tell this woman you have no money to give she rails against you, as if you are selfish and rotten. 

One day the woman of the white fluffy dog set upon the woman of the emails with such a tirade that the woman of the emails said to her,
‘My husband has cancer.’
And the woman of the fluffy dog responded,
‘I don’t even have a husband, you bitch.’

It puts me in mind of another story I’ve been following on Jennifer Wilson’s blog where she writes about a love affair gone wrong. 

I had noticed that Jennifer had posted less of late.  Her ex-husband had died and I figured maybe she was finding the grief too much.  But it turns out there was more to Jennifer’s absence, including the beginning of an affair that had sent her spiralling. 

It ended badly - as affairs so often do - when the wife of the man with whom Jennifer was having the affair, found out. 

The secret was no more and the man elected to drop Jennifer for his wife.

A common enough story.

Stories, stories everywhere and my head reels. 

I changed the screen image on my computer last night and for a minute considered putting up a picture of my mother some months before she died. 

There on my computer screen I saw my mother’s eyes and they glared at me.  It felt like a reprimand. 

How dare you, she seemed to say, how dare you go on living while I am no more? 

How dare you still have blood flowing through your veins, a heart beat that keeps the blood pumping and breath in you lungs, while I am dead?

I wanted to apologise to her for this, and for the way I might use my fantasy of my mother in my writing. 

While she was alive, I did not feel that my mother was a mother I could rail against, a mother I could treat badly, which is not to say there weren’t times when I did treat her badly.

My mother of the fragile and low disposition that required she believe in goodness in everyone and shunned all that she considered wrong.

I wish now my mother had approached her life with a greater awareness of its complexity, that we could have talked about all things humanist, like the people at the end of Monroe Street, rather than avoid conflict and discussion.  

My mother instead fell back on her religion and her belief in God and the wall came up and she shut me out, and shut out her doubts. 

And where is she now?
Looking down on me from heaven, and saying I told you so?  I’m up here with him and having a ball. 

Or is she no more in all but her spirit and my memory of her, this woman who feared to go into the unknown and into doubt.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

I'd rather not

I nearly didn’t tell you.  I’ve had the strange pleasure of winning a literary award last week.  And ever since I’ve had this impulse to play it down, while at the same time I want to shout it to the world.
I won.

At last someone recognises something in my writing that’s worth, not only a trophy and a certificate, but also a $2000.00 cheque.  On top of which the organisers of the first ever Lane Cove literary awards flew me to Sydney and provided accommodation over night at the Stamford hotel near the airport so I could make an early get away the next morning. 

There were four other awards, besides mine for memoir, two for local writers, one for short story and another for poetry. 

It is the first time I have arrived at an airport alone to be greeted, not by family or friends, but by a man holding up a cardboard sign with my name on it. 

The man who held up the sign was one of the librarians who had been given the task of collecting me from the airport because the other librarians were busy organising the event.  We travelled through busy Sydney streets to the Lane Cove library and all the way I wondered whether it was really happening. 

Was this me?  A prize winner or a fraud? 

They must have it wrong. 

All the while as the two judges read out the names of the short listed, first in the short story category and then in memoir, I wondered whether they might end up calling out another name, not mine.

The evening flutters by, drowned out of my memory by my tiredness the next day.  I needed to wake at 4.30 am in order to be ready for my 6 o’clock flight back to Melbourne. 

I discovered then something I had not realised before on the plane to Sydney in a book about compulsions and eating disorders.  

I discovered that one of the reasons that people might choose to starve themselves to death is, not only to do with trying to get some control over their lives and suppress their desires, but also to do with competition, and with their refusal to compete.

The idea is that the person who tries to take control over her life by getting control of her eating, does so by working hard to convince herself that she has no such desire for food, or nourishment, or even for love. 

It gets tangled up in sexuality as well.  The two great life forces, food and sex, bound together as we know biologically, determinants for personal survival but also survival of our species.  They’re also bound up in pleasure.

Adam Phillips re-tells the story of a man named Bartleby, Bartleby a scrivener in Wall Street in the 1800s, who for some unfathomable reason when his boss asks him to undertake the work for which he is employed, says
‘I would prefer not to.’

Herman Melville wrote the story in 1853 and for years people have struggled to understand what it’s about. 

Bartleby takes up the position of one who goes on strike.  

I refuse to participate.  
I will not be drawn in to whatever it is you have arranged for me. 
I will assert myself by my refusal, even if it kills me. 

These ideas stay with me.  I’m trying them out, rolling them around inside my mouth as if savouring a new flavour, a new texture, a new sensation and it pleases me to see things from this angle. 

There is a reason behind starving oneself to death.  
There is a reason behind someone’s refusal to participate and compete.  
There is a reason behind what on the surface seems like the maddest of behaviours. 

And I am getting one step closer to understanding it. 

How then can I link the competition of awards night with my own competitive impulses and my contradictory desires to water them down? 

So many times I have gone to say about this award:
It’s no big deal. 

How many times have I told myself it’s not one of the big awards?  It’s more a beginner’s award. 
How many times do I compete with my own success as if I cannot bear to allow it? 

Is this what women do, and more so than men?

I’ve a sneaking feeling that’s true. 

Women are used to hiding in the curtains. 

To be on centre stage for more than a few minutes can be overwhelming. 

It’s easier to be like Bartleby and rejoice in resistance.
I’d rather not.