Saturday, March 31, 2012

Fake cockatoos

My daughter bolted upstairs from the kitchen this morning, sickened by the smell of cat food. I buy the tinned variety and every morning the three cats get a serve of wet food, as opposed to their evening's serve of dry.

My daughter has been sleeping downstairs these last few days because she is unwell, a virus of some sort presumably, but each day the diagnosis changes.

She has not been able to eat and the smell of cat food was the last straw. I tried to feed the cats in the hallway away from the kitchen but it was not easy. The cats are creatures of habit. They were confused about this new position for their breakfast and I needed to keep the kitchen door open to entice them back inside the hallway.

The smell wafted through to my daughter despite my best efforts to protect her from further nausea.

It is hard dealing with competing interests. My head is filled with them at the moment, beyond family and work demands, competing projects: a paper here, a book chapter there and finally this idea of turning my thesis into an accessible book.

Every so often another possible project rears its head and I want to take it on too, but I have to discipline myself to stay with the tasks at hand. Otherwise I become like Mother Goose'sold woman in the shoe, the one who had so many children she didn’t know what to do…

Speaking of old women in shoes, my mother has declared she will now live till she turns one hundred, at least she would like to do so assuming she continues to feel as good as she does now.

I shudder at the thought. That is another eight ears. Eight years of travelling down the freeway for half an hour each way every weekend to visit my mother in her retirement village home. It is a repetitive journey and time spent with my mother is even more repetitive.

Her memory is fading, her short term memory that is, so unless we get onto a topic from her childhood we are stuck in a Ground Hog day type scenario where we keep going over the same old ground.

I try to be tolerant. I try not to groan outwardly as I grown inwardly when my mother asks me for the fifth time what my youngest daughter is up to these days and how many grandchildren does she have.

‘Nine,’ I tell her. ‘Nine grandchildren, the same number as your children.’ That should help her to remember, but she has a mind only for the past, the future is a matter of clocking up years so that she can boast about reaching one hundred.

This is a harsh reading of my mother’s motives but a familiar one. In years gone by my mother measured her success by the number of her children and then later by the number of their children and now by her grandchildren’s children. A whole dynasty behind her and beyond.

Why should she not crow? Her life has been her family. She was obliged to leave school as a fifteen year old to take care of her mother’s family of seven before she married seven years later and began her own tribe.

So many women of my mother’s generation were forced to stay at home to care for children, to give up all aspirations of a career, not even to entertain one in the first place.

The cockatoos are out in force again this morning. Whole sheets of white cockatoos with their yellow tufts aloft swoop down onto our oak tree in the back yard. They hack at the acorns and leave them in smashed piles on the bricks. They eat only a fraction of the acorn and discard the rest.

They’re out there now cluttering the sky with their clatter. Last week I saw a red berry tree on our street that was white with their wings. They are like locusts and a novel sight here in the suburbs. Usually we see them only in the country.

‘They’re not really cockies,’ my daughter says. ‘They used to come to my school. They’re fake cockies. I hate them. Make them go away.’

‘I love them,’ my husband says. ‘Signs of nature.’

Perhaps my daughter is right. They are some bastardised strain of cockie that proliferates like rodents. Underneath their flapping wings the feathers are yellow, the softest of yellows, lemon yellow. It makes up for the dull white of their feathers.

Close up, now that my daughter says as much, I can see they have none of the beauty of the country cockies with their pink or yellow tufts. These cockies have no tufts, other than a stubby white shock of feathers, like a lump on their skulls and they are noisy. They travel in flocks that must consist of hundreds of birds but they don’t scare me, not like the birds in Daphne du Maurier’s story The Birds.

These birds make me want to laugh. Messy buggars. Their shrill cries and the plop of acorns on the roof and gutters, their broken shells underfoot, could be the stuff of life. Busy mothers with too many children to feed. What else can they do?

Friday, March 30, 2012

a moon, worn as if it had been a shell

a moon, worn as if it had been a shell

The horror of eugenics. It's an outrage that seeps into my soul, for aren't we all flawed, and the crazy fantasy that it is good to reach perfection by eliminating anything that is not perfect is one way of annihilating us all, if not in fact then in spirit.

This is an accidental post as it turns out and one I had planned to remove until a few folks offered there comments on it. Then I decided to leave it as it stands but to emphasise the point that the title of this post belongs to the wonderful Elizabeth Aquino, whose blog by the same name is well worth visiting.

This post was intended as a comment on Elizabeth's post which she had left untitled. Something weird happened in cyberspace.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Fact checker: eggs boiled or fried

The recent debate, floating here to Australia from America over the need for truth in non-fiction, has me riled all over again.

It is as if there is a desperate wish to turn non fiction into absolute truth, as in reportage, when even reportage has its own bias and slant,however many so-called facts are presented. While fiction, however much invented or imagined, can also be based on fact.

For me the one ray of sanity comes from Anders Monson who argues against this tendency towards binaries, and supports the notion that when we read anything, including journalism and especially non-fiction, as when we read fiction, we need to suspend disbelief.

The very fact of writing - whether non fiction or fiction and all shades in between - distorts the so-called facts.

To me it’s a tedious debate and yet it stirs up such passions.

From now on, I tell myself, I will refer to my writing as ‘autobiographical fiction’ and that way I cannot be accused of making things up, of telling lies or of deceiving my reader.

For those who do not know, a non-fiction writer and academic, John D’Agata has written a book, The lifespan of a fact, as a dialogue between a non-fiction writer, in the guise of John the author himself, and his fact checker - to me his alter ego - Jim Fingal.

Both men battle it out, and to some extent both look ridiculous. John, in his cavalier disregard for the truth, and Jim, in his obsessive compulsive tendency to insist on 'all the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth'.

I find myself remembering a time as a child when I went with my younger sister and oldest brother to stay at an aunt’s house in Rosanna. For some reason we stayed overnight.

My aunt remonstrated with my sister because she had refused to eat her egg at dinner. I knew my sister hated eggs. All her short life my sister had hated eggs. No one ever forced my sister to eat eggs. In fact, we sometimes fought over who might get to eat her egg in her place.

We only ate eggs once a week on Sundays as a treat. I refused to boil or fry mine. I preferred to separate the yolk from the white, and then whip up the white with a fork for what seemed like hours. Gradually, I added sugar and ate the whole concoction once it had stiffened into mountainous peaks.

My brothers usually managed to get my sister’s egg, but I liked to imagine how good it would be were I to enjoy the whites of two eggs whipped up to meringue type consistency, and not just one.

That night at my aunty’s house after my sister pushed her egg away, my aunty forced it into her.
‘A big girl like you not eating your egg’.

In the shower this morning as I refected on this memory, the fact checker popped into my mind. ‘Describe the egg,’ my internal fact checker said. Was it boiled – soft or hard – or was it fried?

Oh dear, my memory lets me down. I cannot remember. To take up either position, egg boiled or fried, is to invent.

Fortunately, it is an inconsequential memory, though Jim Fingal, the fact checker in D’Agata’s book would most likely want to ring my sister for verification. And my sister in all likelihood would not remember this event.

In my memory we have never discussed this incident since that time. It has lain in my mind as a slightly tragic moment, one of those difficult events from childhood when I watched the betrayal of my younger sister and did not manage to help her escape the wrath of my aunt.

A young me, looking for evidence?

That same night we slept on camp beds, which my aunt had made up in her lounge room. My sister and I lay in these beds side by side. My brother must have gone elsewhere because he was not there in my memory when I woke in the night to the cold damp realisation that I had wet the bed.

I told no one. I hid the evidence under the blankets, dragged up over the sodden sheets in the morning, and that’s where the evidence remained, hidden from view.

Presumably, my aunt or someone else found the bed wet when they stripped it, but not a word was said, as far as I know.

How can we know the truth of this experience? I trust my memory but there are so many gaps.

If I were to write this passage into a story, my imagination would kick in. My memory might then borrow from other events and times in my life to help me to furnish this house, and also to account for the absence of my aunt’s several other children.

In my memory, only my sister and I sat at the dinner table. In my memory, my brother ate later with the grown ups.

But this aunt had six children, all of them slightly younger than me. Where were they? They must have been there but I cannot picture them, only my sister and her force fed egg and the camp bed with its yellow stain and the sour smell of fresh urine that by morning had turned stale. They are all that remain. Unless I turn the anecdote into a story and to do so I must embellish.

But from now on I shall call it 'autobiographical fiction' to avoid the wrath of the thought police.

My thanks to Dinty W Moore from Brevity's Non-fiction Blog for alerting me to this. Let her have the final say. Scroll back to read about this saga. It's fascinating, however much it might cause me at times to boil over.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The best laid plans...

The new packet of biros on my desk includes three bullet point observations on the back, including:
• Writes for over a kilometre
The whole idea seems odd to me. Who would want to write for a kilometre? Then again the purpose of a biro is to produce ink when pressed down hard against the page, whereas the purpose of writing is to produce images and ideas that communicate. To tell stories.

Whenever I sit down to write the thoughts that pop into my mind first are based on my most recent experience, as if my mind is dominated by the here and now.

For instance, this morning my thoughts steer back to late last night when I stayed up in order to collect my daughter from a party. We had agreed I would collect her at one am. I designed my evening around this event.

I set my alarm for half past twelve. I tried to sleep from eleven but it was not easy. I cannot sleep on demand any more than I can write on demand. Even so I drifted into sleep and woke at midnight before the alarm woke me. I made myself a cup of tea in a bid to shake off my drowsiness.

My daughter rang half an hour later just as I was about to leave. She had decided I need not collect her after all. She would stay at her older sister’s house nearby instead. If I could please collect her in the morning.

I protested. She protested. She knows by now how much I hate these sudden changes in plans. I know by now how much she is prone to making them.

It is in the nature of youth, I observe: The best laid plans are cast aside at the last minute and new plans made with gay abandon. People like me, people who prefer a level of certainty in the day to day running of their lives are left reeling.

I sat in my chair gasping after the first phone call, furious with this latest change of plan, after all, had not I organised my night around it? And now I needed to rearrange my thinking and try to sleep on demand all the while worrying about my daughter and what it was that should cause this latest change of plan.

In ten minutes my daughter had changed back to the original plan and I collected her after all.

Last night as I sat with my irritation, I told myself not to write about this. It is too close to the present and too close to those near and dear to me.

As I waited for the alarm I re-read an article about the way in which the Internet never forgets. I’ve written about this before. The way that everything that is marked down in cyberspace will be forever recorded for posterity. It’s one of the reasons why writers write, Margaret Atwood argues: to stave off death by providing a record of events that can go on forever.

But this article on the way the Internet never forgets - Jefrey Rosen's The web Means the end of forgetting - paints a much more sinister picture, one that suggests other people will hold against you forever what you have written or shown about yourself in pictorial form.

When you are older and looking for that plum job, the powers that be, the folks who decide on whether or not you get the job, will be able to trawl through the Internet archives and drag up all sorts of stuff taken out of context that will invariably reflect badly on the person you once were.

They will conclude from this archival footage that the information gathered informs them of the person you are today and they will not therefore give you the job. Or let you into the country, as in the case of the sixty-six-year old psychotherapist from Canada who could not get into America because there was Internet evidence that thirty years earlier he had experimented with LSD and had written papers for his students to that effect.

An image of me in my ill-begotten youth when I'm half ashamed to say I used to smoke cigarettes.

Never fear, there’s this outfit called ‘Reputation Defender’ who will clean up your image on the Internet if need be and for a fee, recast you in a better light.

All this talk about the dreadful things that can happen to a person via the Internet when another person decides to use the things the first person has written about to bring them to account years later. It gags free speech.

And is it true or are we bloggers living in a fool’s world in which it might seem not to matter too much while we record our most intimate thoughts only to then have them held against us in years to come when the thought police get out with their stainless steel knives insisting we wash our mouths out with soap for the things we have said?

Please pardon all the mixed metaphors here. I’m on a roll and fearful of stopping in case I dare never write a word again.

I must keep my slate clean. Leave no tell take signs exist of a life not necessarily as well lived as it might have been.

My biro is nearing the end of its mile.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

I sit on both sides of the fence

The council by laws officer knocked at our door again yesterday morning to complain that the roses on our fence line are getting out of hand. A sweet young woman, she asked me out to the footpath to show me how much the branches overhang the street.

She was right. Almost over night they had spread their tentacles and I could see signs of where some presumably irritated passer by had broken off a branch. The broken branch was white, like a wound bled of blood.
‘Can you let me know when it is fixed,' the bylaws woman said.
‘I’ll do it now,’ I told her.

It was a Saturday morning and it was easy to get out the secateurs and hack away, satisfying even. In the back of my mind I imagined my complainant standing somewhere nearby and observing his/her success. He/she had forced me to take notice. The thorns now pricked my fingers.

I tell myself I’d prefer such people approach me directly. But it’s probably better to hear the news from a council person. The council folk are pleasant in their dealings, at least so far they have been.

I get the feeling they’re on my side. I get the feeling they know how hard it is to keep the roses in check, especially at certain times of the year when their branches are more likely to reach for the sky. The more you prune, the more desperately those branches reach out.

Roses inside the fence.

It’s still warm here, the tail end of summer, moving into a fruitful autumn. We’ve also had a lot of rain and so the garden thrives, especially the roses.

I sit on both sides of the fence as regards the rights and wrongs of this: I can imagine myself as the irritated passer by, annoyed that her walk along the footpath has been invaded by a thorny rose branch, and at the same time, I am the person from whose house the offending rose branch points its thorns. It happens so fast I scarcely notice it. I should of course be more vigilant.

I have found the best way to deal with complaints - assuming I agree with them - is to go along with them, to apologise, and to try to rectify the fault as graciously as possible. Underneath though, there is another me who would like to rant and rave at the extraordinary nature of a person who would go about making it their business to ring the council to protest about other people’s gardens. They must be seriously offended or vexatious to go to so much trouble.

As I get older I tend towards less graciousness. I complain more myself and I let it be known more and more often when I am unhappy about something. Such as when people telephone our house uninvited in order to beg for money for some charity, or to ask a series of questions for some research they are conducting.

I resent the effort required to answer the telephone, and the fleeting expectation of someone pleasant at the other end, someone with whom I might enjoy a chat, only to find a stranger who asks before I can speak, 'How are you today?'
‘I’m not interested,’ I say without listening further and hang up.

And then there are those folks who occasionally leave a comment about my blog. 'We love your blog, especially such and such a post. We'd like to promote it.' And it is clear from the way they write, they have not even read my blog, and this assumes they are a person and not some computer generated piece of spam.

When I go to their blog to check out who should write such sweet nothings, I find they exist only as a blank profile, if at all.

After I had finished cutting back the roses I tried to ring the bylaws officer to report my good work, but the after-hours receptionist at the council told me I could not leave a message on the weekend. So I sent the bylaws officer an email:

Re: Rose pruning
Dear Eileen

I've pruned back the rose branches on our front fence, hopefully to the satisfaction of the person/persons who complain. The roses have been on the fence for the past twenty years but only in the past six months have we had complaints. Yours is the second.

We try to keep the roses in check but at certain times of the year they go berserk, as you can imagine. In any case, I've trimmed them back as far as I can. Hopefully, they'll stay settled until the gardeners return in a couple of weeks and can give them another prune. In the meantime, I'll keep my eye out for any stray vigorous and unruly branches.

best wishes

Let's hope that keeps my complainants satisfied.

Roses outside the fence.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Idiotic times

Last weekend we had another family reunion, though this time only six of us managed to meet in the Quality Inn Motel on High Street in Echuca.

Of the four who stayed away – three brothers had elected not to come from the onset – two offered excuses, one said nothing and the fourth, one of my three sisters, was forced to stay away by the floods. She could have managed the trip to Echuca, she emailed, but she might not have managed to get out again.

It rained all the way from Melbourne to Echuca and we stopped for lunch at Heathcote in a place called the Gaggling Geese. It seemed an apt description, for indeed late at night as the six of us gathered together in one of our motel rooms with at least three extra spouses, we gaggled like geese, though there was less of the hostility of our last reunion to which every sibling came.

This time the angriest folk had stayed away, and yet my oldest brother and I debated the ‘facts’ of history and whether or not we had any right to speculate on what might have happened to our grandparents in prison all those years ago, on the grounds that we still did not know the ‘truth’.

We did not possess a transcript of court details and so far none of us, my brother included, have managed to secure the records.

Earlier when I told my supervisor at the university about the facts Barbara van Balen had unearthed in Haarlem, that both my grandparents had been imprisoned in 1941 for a period of time, my grandmother for embezzlement, and my grandfather on charges of ontucht, she said,
‘Sounds like they could have been running a brothel.’

I had not put the two events together in my mind. Embezzlement, I understand is theft of some sort that involves deception, while ontucht, which can be defined as vice, prostitution, lewdness suggests maybe even more than incest. But I have no evidence.

How could I find out? I spoke to my mother. ‘Were Dad’s parents running a brothel?’ I asked.
‘No. No. I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘Other people would have known about it. He was in the government. He had a good job. I think maybe he got coupons. They could have played with that, got coupons under false pretences, to get more food.’ She sounded impatient.

‘It was idiotic times, not normal at all. It was not like it used to be in Holland at that time. The Germans were there, not the Dutch government. All the good judges had retired. The whole country stopped. Professors at universities stopped. Schools stopped. My own father did not have a job. Colleges were closed.

‘No. No. It could not have been that. It probably had to do with coupons. There were people willing to do work. The NSBs, we called them, Nationalist Socialists. They were with the German government, Dutch people sympathetic to the Nazis. They did the jobs, they were a small group but they were powerful and they spied on us.

‘I remember sitting next to a woman on the tram,’ my mother continued. ‘It must have been the second year of the war. We still had trams. The woman said to me,
“Be careful of what you say. There’s an NSB agent sitting on the tram."

'In that first year of the war things weren’t so bad. We still had coupons. But by the third year of the war we had nothing.

'It must have been coupons, because they had more food than others. That’s what you noticed.

'Where I lived on the second floor above a printing shop, I noticed the woman who lived below. Her husband was a seaman but I never saw him during the war. Later I understood they were NSB, because she got food too.

'In those last years the Germans had special kitchens and those people who helped them got food. After the war, the woman downstairs, her husband was put in gaol.
You had to be so careful in those years.’ My mother paused.

I told her then about my trip in 2006 through Haarlem on a bicycle with my new German friend, Heidi.
‘I didn’t know you had a German friend.’
‘I met her at the conference,’ I explained. She lives in Amsterdam and we took the train together from Frankfurt to Amsterdam.'

‘When you’re older you think more about the past,' my mother said. 'We called the prison the Parapluie. Of those things I don’t think. I don’t dwell on them but on what was nice. Otherwise you get sad and morbid, if you live alone. So I think only over the happy times. I think about my Haarlem cousins, what happened to them, how they married.

‘With your dad’s family I tried to be good to them and meet them before we married. But they were strange. We let them know when your first brother was born. We didn’t get an answer. They didn’t come to see us. They were very strange and after that I thought if that’s how they feel, I’m not interested.

'So then I stopped trying to visit. Before then I always said to your father, they are your parents, we have to try. But then I realised they are not much chop.

'After what they did with our wedding. [August 1942] His father would have performed our wedding, but he didn’t even come. We waited an hour and they just let us sit. We didn’t care about the legal part because that was not what we considered our wedding. But we couldn’t get our coupons till after the legal wedding, then we could get blankets and stuff. So after the legal wedding we could buy the things we needed and then six weeks later we were properly married. That was in 1942.

'I was lucky to get material for my wedding dress because I knew a man who managed a VD, a big store nearly as big as Myer. I asked him could he get some white silk or satin or whatever,
“Can you get me six metres?” and he got me six metres and more of an orangey taffeta which I didn’t like. I’d have preferred peach, a paler colour but it was all we could get. The manager gave it to me and said, “This is the last, nothing comes any more”.

Then later when she got married, my cousin asked to borrow my wedding dress and the bridesmaids’ dresses. And I gave them to her.

‘It was a very hard time. On the other hand everyone suffered. We still gave parties and insisted that everyone dress up. Fellows wore their ... we call them smoking, their dinner suits, because you couldn’t go out after eight o’clock till next morning at six. So we had to make the most of it. For three years we had nothing, you had to make it yourself.’

Years later at this our most recent family reunion my brother made a point: ‘Ontucht’ he said, ‘could also mean adultery.’

I did not have the presence of mind to suggest to him that they do not put you into prison for adultery, at least not as far as I know, not in the western world.

My brother also suggested that my grandfather, as the person in charge of births, deaths and marriages in Haarlem held a significant role. He could have helped people to establish their identity, and thereby rule out the possibility of Jewish ancestry, even if they had paid for it, as I imagine some might have done in order to stay safe from the Nazis.

Such a role made my grandfather powerful and it is a power he may have abused.

But this, too, is speculation, much as my mother speculated when I asked her about my grandparents’ imprisonment.