Saturday, August 30, 2008

Some reflections from the Writers Festival panel on the essay

Pub post: the essay allows exploration and more inquiry, but the form's brevity disciplines. It requires economy and some precision.

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Warm neon lights and smug writers

Walking out after the Writers Festival panel on the essay with Chloe Hooper, Nicolas Rothwell and Gideon Haigh, I was cheered by the lovely lights of the ferris wheel.

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Remix My Lit live

Remix My Lit live, originally uploaded by Mark Lawrence.

Remix My Lit on the big screen at Federation Square

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How to domesticate a pirate [Fed Square remix by Mark Lawrence]

From a Creative Commons licensed original by Danielle Wood, as part of the Remix My Lit project.

Get used to being caressed by hands that make you feel the same as the rough-hardness of deck timber.

Stand in a supermarket queue and pass judgement. You catch yourself despising a woman in beige three-quarter pants because she has filled her trolley with
  • interest rates
  • the car service
  • defined benefit
  • and your fabric softener.
And because, when she talks to her toddler, she refers to herself in the third person.

Who wormed the dog?

Else, else, else. There is nothing but else in your head these days, and else is all the language that is left between you and the man who comes home to you each night now in a suit.

When your husband comes out of the bedroom in the morning and asks you a question, grenades explode.

He only wants to know if you’ve ironed his shirt yet.

Will you push your canoe away from the rocks, over the aqua shallows to the navy depths where you couldn’t hear even if someone were shouting at you to come back to shore?

No, the nappies can’t last until Saturday.

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Live blogging from Remix My Lit at Federation Square

It's the Remix My Lit event at Federation Square, part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, and I've been remixing a story for the last half hour or so. It's a bit of a copy and paste job on chunks of a story that caught my eye, 'How to Domesticate a Pirate', by Danielle Wood.

There's free wifi at Federation Square, which has allowed me to log into the project's website: to access the text of the story – saved me time of typing out the text from the sheets of paper they've handed out at the event.

Text is flashing on the big screen at Fed Square, over 'video art' and remixed audio, including readings of some of the stories. It is creating a great vibe, but I wish they'd turn down the volume - a bit hard to write...

Or it could be the icy wind pushing the people through the 'square'.

There doesn't seem to be very many people here for this event, thought there's the odd person who is clutching the sheets of paper - the printed stories by some really good Australian writers who've agreed to publish their new short stories on Creative Commons licenses.

I've emailed my remix story in, but I'm unsure if it will make it up on the big screen. Although this event finishes in a few minutes, the Remix My Lit initiative is going for a while longer, and all entries will be considered for their anthology.

I am going to post my remix next, but at the moment there is a journo from the ABC Radio National's Book show who wants to know how I found it and what I did for my remix. There appears to be more people here to cover the event (me included) than to participate.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Shame, Fairfax, Shame!

Fairfax staff – journalists, columnists, sub-editors, and printing staff of The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Financial Review, and some other small papers – are on strike this weekend in protest against the publishers' massive job cuts. And rightly so.

Now, Fairfax has sacked SMH columnist Mike Carlton because he refused to write his column for tomorrow's SMH – because he was also on strike. Shame, Fairfax! Shame!

Being an Age reader, I'm not familiar with Carlton's work, but he has brought us such wonderful pieces as this lovely demolition job on sports commentators mangling the English language. If you are not familiar with his work, you can take a look at his tongue-in-cheek, wry, dry and withering pieces online.

It is indeed a shame they sacked him, but not only for the loss of his talent. It is the act of true corporate scumbaggery to sack striking workers – and worse to hire scabs to replace them! The union is now arguing that Carlton's sacking is illegal.

This affair has boiled over pretty quickly. Fairfax announced earlier this week that 550 Fairfax staff would be sacked. Very soon on the back of that news came the shock sacking of The Age editor-in-chief Andrew Jaspan.

SMH journalist Gerard Noonan told ABC News, "the cuts will threaten the media's ability to hold politicians and the powerful to account." Yes, he is right.

Meanwhile, Fairfax is trying to go on as if there is no strike and trying to put its media content out. You may have noticed that The Age Online is still churning out stories and updates as if there is no strike by the journalists – but appearances are misleading. Most of the stories since about midday today, if not earlier, are off the newswires – AFP, AAP and others. It appears as if some online staff may be left to tidy up the newswire reports, but that is uncertain.

In fact, a news item on the tropical storm hitting the Carribean bears the disclamer: "This story is sourced direct from an overseas news agency as an additional service to readers. Spelling follows North American usage, along with foreign currency and measurement units." So apparently there are not enough scabs to tidy up all the newswire items and editors are just plugging them in to their system.

Sloppy. Cheap. And nasty.

You can contact the journo's union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, to show them your support and solidarity for the strikers, remembering that a fair few of them will be relatively low-paid reporters, printers, and quite likely bloggers and online content staff...

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Writers festival supports live poetry publishing via Twitter

As if to chastise me for my previous complaint about the Melbourne Writers Festival's use of archaic online tools to engage with its participants, I was reminded of a rather exciting multi-platform digital initiative the Festival is supporting: short poetry published via Twitter and so to your mobile phone.

RMIT creative writing students and staff are publishing very short poetry via Twitter – very short because Twitter only allows 140 characters (that's characters, not words) under its format. I think the shortness of Twitter updates is a great discipline and some of the poems so far have been quite fun. And very clever:
A guide dog soaked my leg in pee. His seeing eyes grinned up at me. The blind man laughed until he cried. I think they saw the funny side.
Andrew Masters
A number of the poets have gone with the haiku form, and I admire them for trying. I would love to learn to write in that form.
Heavy air rasps across a bruised sky, the spinifex shivers. A swarm of grass seeds dances with sandy red soil. Storm comes.
– by Raphaelle Race
If you're a Twitter user, you can subscribe to the poetry 'tweets' and elect to have them sent to your mobile phone via SMS – thus making it multi-platform. I'm loathe to get any Twitter updates via SMS to my mobile, so I'm preferring the slow method of checking my tweets via the web and various other clients.

Although the grunt and know-how is obviously coming from the RMIT students and staff, MWF should be congratulated for supporting such a novel medium. Would be nice if they gave it a bit more prominence on their website and program in future.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Manga Me

This is Manga Me. It is an image I created the other day using the great site Face Your Manga, where you can create an image of yourself from some template-like faces, features, colours and bits and pieces such as hair, glasses, clothes and eyes. It's a bit like using an Identikit.

I was inspired by a rash of Manga faces and avatars going around the Aussie blog-scene lately, and it's a bit of fun. Sophie Cunningham had a go, and Kirsty at Galaxy had a couple of goes, as it's not as easy as it first seems. Brisbane blogger Matthew Smith uses it for his Twitter profile.

Adelaide's Pavlov's Cat shares her (accidentally) younger and 'mature' manga versions, as well as her previous Simposonized self. A good reminder that this is not a new concept.

I'm using it as my current Twitter avatar.

It's not quite me, but the closest I could get. And, like Manga generally, it is spookily familiar, and yet somewhat idealized, verging on the ridiculous – a bit like the secret imaginary friend I never had.

As Kirsty at Galaxy pointed out to me, these make the perfect avatars for blogging and 'twittering': "It's you, but not so anyone could pick you out of a line-up".

Any other Manga-selves out there?

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Covering the Writers Festival online

Pavlov's Cat's comment on my recent post has prodded me into getting off my proverbial and posting an update on the Writers Festival. I've spent far too long stewing on Nam Le's and Salman Rushdie's session on Sunday night, so I should get cracking and put fingers to keyboard and post on them. Soon. I promise.

Meanwhile, a number of other writers are posting and writing on the Melbourne Writers Festival. Travel blogger Hackpacker posted briefly on last Sunday's session by David Sedaris. It was quite humourous by all accounts.

I'm waiting, hopefully, for Melbourne editor, writer and blogger Sophie Cunningham to post on her Festival experiences soon. I enjoyed her interview with Nam Le on Sunday evening. Meanwhile, you can see the lovely pages Sophie typeset and printed, from which she'll be reading two poems by Anna Akhmatova at the reading at St Paul's Cathedral this Sunday for the Festival.

Meanwhile, Gen at reeling and writhing also lists other bloggers posting on the Festival.

A Melbourne writer and review whom I know, Gillian Essex, is reviewing a number of sessions at the Writers Festival and the reviews are being published on the Melbourne Writers Festival website. Unfortunately, rather than publishing the reviews as web pages, the Festival media people, in all their rather strange wisdom, are publishing the reviews as PDFs for download. Duh.
The best thing about this though is that the reviews are insightful and delightful. The reviews can be downloaded here.

Despite the relatively archaic option of publishing PDFs, it is good that the MWF team has taken steps to embracing the web. However, it doesn't really compare to
such achievements as the Adelaide Festival of Ideas being blogged – with official encouragement – by Adelaide bloggers such as Pavlov's Cat.

Perhaps next year the Melbourne Writers Festival will formally support bloggers to cover the event, or publish its own blog. I'm putting my hand up for that.

If you know of anyone else covering the Festival online, do let me know so I can compile a post on them.

Retailer Readings Books Music
Film, one of the sponsors and official bookseller of the Writers Festival, also has a festival blog on their website. It looks like their blogger is the editor of their newsletter. [Updated Thursday 28 August 12:25 pm]

[Image by Andrew_1000 (cc)]

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Some brief Writers Festival session thoughts

I'm glad Rushdie read good chunks from his new book. I'm inspired to read it. Will post more on him later.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Melbourne Writers Festival this week

I'm going to some of the sessions of the Melbourne Writers Festival, which opened yesterday. I missed out on the opening address – Germaine Greer's keynote sold out pretty early, I gather, but it would probably be enough to read the extended essay and follow the broo-ha-ha in the media.

I'm unable to go to as many sessions as I'd like, but I'm fitting in what I can manage under the demands of juggling caring for children with my partner, work and school.

Also cost was a factor – prices went up this year, despite earlier promises of a more expense-friendly festival with its move to Federation square. I was pretty annoyed that they did away with the discount for those buying five tickets or more, and replaced it with an early bird discount, which ended on 2 August – twenty days before the festival began! That wasn't much help to those of us who had to wait for paydays and to scrape together the money, or chronic procrastinators, or busy people who don't check out programs or purchase tickets that early – and I fit all those categories...

So what am I paying my hard earned money to attend? I'm going to hear short story writer and literary editor Nam Le (of The Boat fame), and watch Salman Rushdie on the big screen – beamed live from Edinburgh. Both are tomorrow night – and I mean 'night'. The festival is pushing events later and later to squeeze more in, though it could be more to do with international timelines and the satellite connection with the Edinburgh Festival (the session with Nam Le is being shown at the Edinburgh Festival by satellite).

I'm also looking forward to hearing Chloe Hooper, Gideon Haigh and Nicolas Rothwell discuss the essay and compare writing non-fiction books and articles (Saturday 30 August). I love a good essay, and am a fan of the art writing essays. I really enjoyed Hooper's essays on the Aboriginal death in custody on Palm Island, on which her new book Tall Man is based. Haigh is also an established essayist and non-fiction book author, so there will be a lot to hear and think about. I think I've only read a couple of Rothwell's articles in the papers, but I'd like to hear what he has to say.

I'm looking forward to these sessions. I'm also going to try to make it to some of the free Festival events where I can, including the Creative Commons-licensed creative writing re-mixing events (more on that in a later post - promise).

If you're going to be at the Writers Festival at any of the times and sessions I will be, and if you feel like it, drop me a comment and we could meet for a coffee.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Waiting at hospital emergency is an endurance sport

My every intention to post earlier and regularly this week went out the window late on Tuesday night when I had to join my partner in waiting at the Emergency department of the Austin Hospital. We were waiting for the paediatrics emergency doctor to see our younger son, Jamie.

Before you get too concerned, be reassured that he is pretty much fine, and I've taken the day off work to stay home with him. (In fact, he's just gotten into my lap as I type this, demanding to see animals on my laptop!)

But at the time my partner took him (and his big brother) to emergency at the Austin she was very worried. His tongue was swelling up, he had been complaining of pain in his mouth and had trouble eating earlier that day – a big thing for a little boy who loves his food.

She was at the hospital since around 7pm with both boys – shunted from Emergency to the after-hours GP clinic at the hospital, where she had to wait more than two hours to see the doctor. The doctor thought that our little boy's rash, fever, mouth ulcers, being unsettled, clingy and fretful, amongst other symptoms, were probably hand, foot and mouth disease, but there was uncertainty because he'd already had it, or so we thought, a few weeks ago. So he suggested getting a second opinion from the paediatrician at Emergency. So back to Emergency for more waiting.

It was at that point that she called me at home at about 10 pm to come and wait with her. I had been to yoga earlier that evening, so had no idea what was going on until I got out and checked my phone messages on the tram going home. My partner reassured me that it wasn't urgent or life threatening, and that she just needed him to be seen by the doctor, and so I should go home instead of meet her at the clinic. But when it became clear she was going to have to wait for the Emergency doctor, she thought it best I join them.

So it was then that I learned first hand to what extent that the main event at public hospital emergency departments is waiting. You hear and read that this is the case so often, but it's not until you have to experience it yourself that it really hits you. I got there at around 10.45 pm, so I didn't have to wait as long as the others in my family.

Waiting for a doctor at hospital emergency – especially with a sick child – is exhausting, worrying and very stressful, and should qualify as an Olympic endurance sport. And you should get bonus points when you do it with
your other child (or children) who was so far wonderfully patient but steadily getting tired, bored and grumpy.

So to cut a long story short, we ended up seeing the doctor long after midnight, when she confirmed it was probably hand foot and mouth after all, although there is a plethora of viral infections that haven't been identified or even named yet
for which a rash is a symptom. We got out at around 1 am, and I didn't get to sleep until 2 am – exhausted but relieved Jamie was not seriously ill.

Needless to say, my partner and I were wrecks the next morning (yesterday), and I barely made it through a half day at work. Jamie, on the other hand, was a lot chirpier.

My experience of a Victorian public hospital Emergency department was nothing like what you see in TV medical drama. It was eye-opening, but honestly, I don't want to get to know the public hospital and emergency system any better at all. Mind you, I'm not rushing out to buy private insurance. The medical and support staff were lovely, and very good, thank you very much.

Today, Jamie and I drew a picture of his brother.

It's at moments like these that I am thankful that I work for a very family-friendly organisation that lets its staff, including men, take time off to care for sick children without fuss.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Children's book honours kicks off children's book week

The Children's Book Council announced this year's winners of its annual children's book awards this afternoon. Melbourne author Sonja Hartnett won the award for book of the year for older readers for her latest work, The Ghost's Child (published by Penguin Australia).

This tops off a fantastic year for Hartnett, who earlier won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world's richest award for literature for children and young adults.

I remember reading a press report of the awards ceremony in Sweden in May where Hartnett commented that children's writing, and children's authors, are not take as seriously in Australia as they are in Europe (despite hunting, I couldn't find the story online). I'm uncertain how telling an indicator of this it would be, but it would be interesting to see if The Age's Saturday arts, books and culture supplement, A2, will cover the Australian Children's Book Awards winners in its edition tomorrow. Or how much.

Bookwitch has a story on Hartnett's Swedish prize adventures and her writing.

Here are the other prize winners for this year's Children's Book Awards:
Carole Wilkinson’s Dragon Moon won the prize for Younger Readers, while Aaron Blabey’s Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley won Early Childhood Book of the Year.

Meanwhile, Matt Ottley’s Requiem For A Beast won the Picture Book of the Year, an award Shaun Tan
won last year for The Arrival. The Children's Book Council (and various booksellers) have to keep reminding buyers that the Picture Book of the Year is not necessarily suitable for all age groups – as picture books are not just for young children!

What I found pretty interesting about this year's awards is that the winner of the Eve Pownall Award for Informational Books was a book about books – Parsley Rabbit’s Book About Books, by Frances Watts and illustrator David Legge.

I haven't come across it before, but the ABC Shop’s website describes it this way:
“Celebrate the joy of reading and begin a lifelong love of books with the delightful Parsley Rabbit and his pesky little brother, Basil. Lively and entertaining, it features a remarkably clever and handsome rabbit and is full of fun, flaps to flip and questions to share. Parsley introduces children to books - from the cover, to the imprint page to the title page, formats, style and more - and takes the reader on a hilarious and stimulating journey through the world of books. An absolute treasure of a book for children from 3 – 7 years."
What a wonderful way to introduce children to the art and process of making and enjoying books, and not just reading them (or having them read).

And a wonderful way to kick of this year's Children's Book Week (also a CBCA initiative), which starts tomorrow. It is a week of activities that lots of book stores, schools, libraries and authors and illustrators get into each year to encourage the joy and wonder of books in children and to celebrate books for children and young people. But this is not just something to be left to teachers, librarians,
authors and illustrators.

This year, I'm going to buy a couple of children's books for my two sons and add them to the long lists of books they enjoy reading/having read to them each evening.

What are you going to do for Children's Book Week this year?

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

George Orwell blogs from beyond the grave

Very hot in the morning. In the afternoon sudden thunder-storm & very heavy rain. About 50 yards from the gate the road & pavement flooded a foot deep after only 1 1/2 hours rain.
Blackberries beginning to redden.
And so observes George Orwell of the 12 of August – 70 years ago.

Not exactly 1984, but you get an idea of how he was spending his days or what preoccupied him just before war broke out throughout Europe.

If you don't want your literary giants to end up having feet of clay, you may not want to know too much about their intimate inner lives – or even the mundane details of their daily lives. I mean, how much can knowing whether they had clean underwear that day, or how much rain fell, tell us about what they had written and published?

Unless of course they're dead and you can't grill them in one of those banal email interviews – you know, the ones where various 'celebrities' are asked what they are 'excited about' or reading/eating/watching/listening to.

Perhaps that's why the George Orwell Prize is republishing every entry from George Orwell's diaries from 1938 to 1942 – starting with 9 August 1938 – to mark the 70th anniversary of his diaries. According to the editors:
each diary entry will be published on this blog exactly seventy years after it was written, allowing you to follow Orwell’s recuperation in Morocco, his return to the UK, and his opinions on the descent of Europe into war in real time. The diaries end in 1942, three years into the conflict.
The blog's publishers deserve to be congratulated for bringing Orwell's domestic diaries to a new audience and for breaking out of the mould of (re)publishing another overpriced, thinly illustrated and poorly annotated dead-tree tome in time for the Christmas glut. Publishing each diary entry in blog post format in 'real time' also strikes me as quite a novel move.

But I do wish they had tried to push the boundaries of blogging a little further for something this promising. For instance, instead of using the predictable convention of labelling blog posts with tags that only prosaically describe their content (for instance, 12 August's post was tagged 'blackberries, fruit, weather'), they could have used tags to set the context for the original diary entries, such as where Orwell was when he wrote them, or whether he was suffering ill health or enjoying recovery.

There also appears to be a lot of debate over what the title of the blog should be, with a number of commenters complaining that it the title should be 'The Orwell Diaries' not The Orwell Prize. Perhaps the Prize lost a copyright battle with the copyright holders of Orwell's diaries, but you'd think they could have come up with something far more descriptive of the diaries themselves.

For all the early excitement about these posts, let's remember these are his "domestic diaries", and his curiosity here, as the editors say, was "focused on plants, animals, woodwork, and – above all – how many eggs his chickens have laid", rather than anything so earth shattering as the state of political writing in Britain.

These are early days yet in the diaries, and thus the blog. But this hasn't stop the flurry of activity and commenting on the posts, as readers express their approval, or otherwise, or just their hopes that things spice up a bit as he goes along. But thin as the content may be, you can't keep a good internet wag down. Commenting on the entry from the 12th, one reader said:
Oh what a cliffhanger. Are the blackberries going to ripen before the rain spoils them? Can’t wait to know!

When our literary giants are dead, we seem want to know as much about them as we can – especially if one is writing a thesis, biography or another article about what was going on behind the scenes of their third book/essay/collection.

Or perhaps our preoccupation has something that resonates with our current predilection for the minutiae of other people's daily lives – whether it is in blogs, myspace, facebook, twitter updates, text messages, instant messaging or chat – and, admittedly, as bloggers we are all complicit in this. Perhaps it is not so current, since before blogging and text the larger appetite was for published diaries and collected letters.

I think this is going to get bigger, and more diaries are going to be published online like this. And would you believe it, another mob are doing exactly the same with the diary of Samuel Pepys, beginning almost exactly the same day – nearly three and a half centuries earlier.

Why are we hungering anew for the inner lives of diarists and letter writers, especially literary ones? With the inundation of our senses with reality television, celebrity gossip and in-depth profiles, you'd think we just want to curl up in bed with a good book and not care about the life of the author behind the book. Perhaps, after all, we feel somewhat reassured that even our literary greats are just people like us.

George Orwell, August 10:
"Drizzly. Dense mist in evening. Yellow moon."

[Image of Orwell is from Wikipedia; photo of pig sculpture by me; the Orwell Prize website also has a great gallery of Orwell photos]

Cross-posted as a guest post at Sarsaparilla. (Thanks Sarsaparilla!)

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Writing is Like Shepherding Smoke – Revisited

Emunctory's comment this week about being a 'nerd herder' prompted me to hunt up an old post I'd written nearly four years ago when I first started blogging. Reading back over that old post, I was quite pleased with it and decided to 'repost' it.

For a while now I've been thinking of going over some of my old posts and republishing them. Admitedly, I'm hoping I can get a few more responses and reactions from readers now than I did then
– or just getting people to read it in the first place (I had no readers when I first started blogging back then…). A bit of a retrospective, I guess, though I hope you don't think this premature, or arrogant.

This was inspired by Tim at Sterne dusting off some of his old blog posts and reposting them in the hopes of giving them a new audience. (Thanks, Tim.) Bear in mind that four years since I wrote this post, I've got a second child, moved house, and got a new job, and have been blogging and writing for four years more, so things are different. And yet amazingly still the same. I hope this sparks something.


It's Like Shepherding Smoke

I have an old newspaper cutting that haunts me. It’s an article by American writer Walter Mosley, pinned to the corkboard on the wall next to my computer. He says:

“If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day. The consistency, the monotony, the certainty, all vagaries and passions are covered by this daily reoccurrence.” Bugger. I have enough trouble scraping together the time, energy or determination to sit down and write each week, without the added guilt that I’m not doing it each and every day!! Do I really want the additional burden of feeling I’m more of a failure because I don’t write every day, as so many writers, writing teachers and writing books insist? No thanks.

I think it’s fine for writers who like to get up at 5 am and write before they go to work, but I like my sleep, and its enough of a battle to haul myself out of bed and get coffee in my veins, breakfast down my son’s throat and water down my back each morning.

After a long day trying to stop myself from quitting my job, picking-up enough pieces of my self-dignity, or trying to leave my simmering anger at the front door and not bring it into my home to infect my family (not successfully often enough), the last thing I’m thinking of is writing for my self. I find it difficult to summon the enthusiasm and creativity to face the computer or a piece of paper to give my thoughts, ideas and emotions shapes through words.

I prefer the contemplative act of peeling ginger and cutting up vegetables, as I prepare dinner for the family, to worrying about whether my ideas are worth anything or what words to use. And you can’t eat words.

But the ideas churn away. Sometimes in my forethoughts, other times at the back of my mind, they settle into the friendly rhythm of washing, peeling and cutting vegetables. Cooking is strangely contemplative, like when Buddhist monks click through their rosary beads as they meditate on the wheel of life, or when the older women of the Catholic church bend over their rosaries as their words meld into a droning contemplation of their sorrows and hopes.

However much I resent them, Mosley’s words haunt me because they ring true. He warns writers that the very nature of writing is like shepherding smoke: you get your initial ideas down in words, but when you return to them later they have lost their resonance and life, their taste and sense; you wonder why you were so excited about them when you first wrote them. Mosley insists that writers must return over and over again to bring together those “flimsy vapours” and to “brush them, reshape them, breathe into them and gather more.”

This resonates with me because the dozen or more ideas for this blog have dissipated, and now remain elusive, because I hadn’t written them down straight away, or tended them like the fragile ideas and memories they are. Time passes and each day is another I don’t get my ideas on these pages. If I don’t do this to share with others, then I need to just for me. If only to learn Mosley’s lesson of attending to my ideas each day, because “reality will begin to scatter your notions; given two days, it will drive them off.”

But not ever day. There’s dinner to cook, laundry to fold, a child to read to, scraped knees to tend to, arguments to resolve, there was something on TV to catch …

First published Friday, September 24, 2004

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Friday, August 08, 2008

"The world looks on with mixed emotions"

It is 08.08.08 – the eighth day, on the eighth month, of the eight year of this century. The Beijing Olympic Games open at eight minutes past eight Beijing time (just after 10 pm local/Australian Eastern Standard Time). This came in an email this afternoon from online campaign mob
As the Beijing Olympics begin, the world looks on with mixed emotions. It's a moment which should bring us closer together, and Chinese citizens deserve their excitement - but the Chinese government still hasn't opened meaningful dialogue with the Dalai Lama, or changed its stance on Burma, Darfur and other pressing issues.
That is pretty much how I feel about the impending opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing tonight.

I am torn about whether I
can keep my distance from the hoopla of the Olympics and resist wanting to immerse myself in the muck. Can I watch the proceedings from a distance as a bystander to the spectacle?

Can I avoid get dragged into the slipstream of nationalist zeal, jingoism, medal tallies, crass commercialism and the most grotesque types of hero worship, even if it is a constant jeremiad at how disgusting it is? If not, surely by day two or three of such criticism, everyone will be sick of it.

Can I retain a healthy critical objectivity about the Chinese government's Olympic celebrations without descending to shouting at the TV over China's orchestrated PR monstrosities to whitewash their terrible human rights record? And the Australian media's failure to notice? Is it possible to remain critical without spoiling everyone else's enjoyment of this spectacle?
I have a seven-year-old at home who is innocent to such things but is in awe at the impending celebration of all things sport. "It's the Olympics, Dad!"

Ask me in about a week.

Either way, today is an auspicious day for the Chinese, for whom symbolism and numerology means a lot, and it is worth celebrating.

I am glad that the sense of ambivalence is shared around the world. Following the Dalai Lama's example of extending a handshake towards China and the Chinese authorities, wants us all to support their campaign to send a virtual handshake across the world to show solidarity with the people of Tibet, Dafur, Burma and China, and with all other peoples of the world, as "one last chance to reclaim the spirit of the Olympics, with the message of friendship and dialogue we share with the Dalai Lama."

Shake hands across the world with and send a message to everyone that we haven't forgotten Tibet, Dafur, Burma, or the people of China.

[Image 'Chinese Red Lanterns' (cc) by

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Why did the chicken cross the road?

This morning I dragged my sorry ass out of bed at 4.10 am so that I could catch a train at 5.06 in the pitch dark. It was freezing.

It was so early, there were only seven of us on the platform catching the train into the city – only the second service of the day. I was off to join
ABC 774 FM's Breakfast celebrations at Federation Square of the impending opening of the Beijing Olympics.

I won the opportunity to enjoy a Yum Cha breakfast as part of the Breakfast Show (with presenter Red Symonds and three dozen or so other listeners and such) by calling the radio station and offering to eat chickens feet (Yum Cha style) live on air during the feast and talk about it. I was pretty excited when they said yes. Having to be there at 5.30 am did put a bit of a dent in it though.

I normally enjoy eating chicken feet – it is quite the delicacy – but I knew that it would get the attention of queasy white-Australians, who still hold many aspects of Asian peoples' food in total horror, and get me a free lunch. Or breakfast.

For all their our pretenses to epicurean cosmopolitanism,
Melbournians still prefer many aspects of Asian food, or for that matter many other cuisines, be sanitised for Anglo palletes. And white Australians still make fun of Chinese, (and Vietnamese) food, with not so veiled jokes about dogs, snakes, bulls 'pizzles' in Vietnamese noodle soup, and chicken feet.

And you know what? I milked it and got a free meal. Not unexpectedly, there were no chicken's feet on the menu for yum cha this morning, nor any sliced tripe with honey and ginger, or any sticky rice in lotus leaf parcels
(I do draw the line at shark's fin, though). These are the kinds of things that Chinese families, and those assorted others who have had their culinary horizons opened beyond Melbourne's pretentions, usually enjoy about Cantonese style yum cha. Pity. Still, I enjoyed myself a lot, and the food was good. And I got to see, and meet, the people behind the voices I hear on air nearly every morning.

I wonder if 774 will offer witchetty grubs at a bush tucker feast next. Would you believe, I ate mangrove worms just the other day?

[Image (cc) by alasam]

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Luna Park, photography and a travel guide

I've just heard that my photograph of the famous smiling entrance to Luna Park in St Kilda, Melbourne, has been included in the latest edition of Schmap's online travel guide to Melbourne. The photograph is published on my creative commons license on flickr, which is where Schmap found it.

You can find the photo accompanying their entry on Luna Park and St Kilda generally, along with quite a few others.


This is not the first time one of my photos has been published (under my Creative Commons license), though the first time it has been published somewhere so prominent. And this is one of the rare occasions that the publisher has asked my permission to use my photograph, for which I've very grateful. Thanks, Schmap!

You know, the funny thing is, I took this photo nearly three years ago – before I did that photography course earlier this year, or started taking my photography a bit more seriously. And I have been less confident about publishing my photos on flickr or this blog since that course. It has a lot to do with having taken most of the photos for that course on film, but probably also more to do with feeling that I had to take 'good' photographs, and getting all angsty about what 'good' is.

Funny that.

I think I'm going to take more photos, and scan in some of my prints from last semester, and upload them to flickr. And perhaps go back to doing Wordless Wednesdays.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

For peace remember Hiroshima Day

Today is Hiroshima Day. 63 years ago today, the crew of the United States bomber the Enola Gray dropped a bomb, Little Boy, onto the city of Hiroshima on the west of Japan's Honshu Island. The bomb blast directly killed an estimated 80,000 people. Injury and radiation poisoning killed another 90,000-140,000 by the end of the year.

I don't have figures for starvation and homelessness killing people, but wouldn't you say that these contributed a lot to the deaths by injury? After all, 69 per cent of the buildings destroyed, and another 6.6 per cent seriously damaged, and you can imagine what happened to the food stocks – either incinerated or irradiated. You can find out more
on the bombing of Hiroshima, and of Nagasaki three days later, from Wikipedia.

Despite the debate over whether US President Harry Truman really had a 'choice' over whether to bomb Hiroshima or risk thousands of American (and Japanese) lives in an invasion of Japan to end the Pacific theatre of World War Two, Hiroshima remains an abiding reminder of the utter horror, and futility, of nuclear weapons and the way they have no way of discerning between civilian and military targets.

The true horror of Hiroshima – and Nagasaki – galvanised the world's peace movement and became the rallying point in the anti-nuclear weapons and anti-uranium industry movement and the peace movement. In many ways, it is as the survivors of Hiroshima want it. The Hiroshima Memorial remains a potent symbol of the devastation – and of remembrance – but perhaps not as much as the mushroom cloud.

If you are so inclined, and are in Melbourne, of course, there will be an anti-uranium, anti-nuclear and pro-peace rally in the city on Saturday the 9th at 1 pm at the State Library. There will also be a Peace Concert held by Melbourne-based Japanese peace activists at the Town Hall at 3 pm on Saturday, also marking Nagasaki Day.

But, instead of waiting for some 'official' Peace-come-anti-nuclear Rally or Peace festival on the weekend, I suggest that you can conduct your own Hiroshima Day activities. This can be a moment of silence to remember the first victims of the atomic bomb, or playing a peace song, or reading a poem, or lighting a candle or lantern, or folding origami paper cranes.

Folding origami paper cranes used to be a favourite and common peace activity to commemorate Hiroshima Day. It was something that thousands of school children in various parts of the world would do to mark the day and to call for peace. I'm uncertain how much it still gets done these days.

Here are some paper crane-folding instructions to follow, and here is an instructional video online (warning, I've been told the crane is a pretty tricky one to start origami with, so try this with someone who has done it before. I know I'll be doing just that tonight over the dinner table once the dishes are cleared.)

One of the other things I try to do each Hiroshima Day is to write a blog post on it as part of my rememberance, and as a renewal of my disavowal of all things nuclear.

These are easy activities, especially to do with kids in your family, or
on your own on a busy mid-week. They are also easy enough to encourage other family members or housemates to do with you. The idea is to perform simple, accessible activities that bring to mind the victims of Hiroshima, of nuclear horror, and to resolve that nuclear weapons should never be used again and that all of us have a role in bringing peace.

[Image of Hiroshima memorial dome by bebouchard (cc)]

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Sunday, August 03, 2008

The boy from Katherine

Despite high hopes that he had more than a very good chance, Cadel Evans (centre in the photo above) did not win the Tour de France, and had to settle for second place for a second year in a row. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who wanted the whole thing to go away after that.

However, Cadel's recent announcement that he will not make the Beijing Olympics has rekindled the kind of media flurry only sports and entertainment celebrities (notice I didn't use 'actors' or 'sports-people' – deliberately) can elicit. A lot of the media attention has been on whether Cadel 'has what it takes' to win the Tour or win at Beijing (notice how 'choker' got trotted out a bit?).

Beaten by the Spaniard Carlos Sastre, Cadel seemed to struggle to keep his position after winning the yellow jersey a couple of times. So much was riding on him beating Sastre in the time trial last Saturday, Cadel's strong point, but he could not pull it off and it was Sastre who rode down the
Champs-Élysées in triumph.

David Tiley of Barista has written a profoundly insightful post on the Tour de France and Cadel Evans's failure to win. David's film maker's eye for camera work and the French TV coverage of the Tour opened up some new insights into the Tour for me, and into television sports coverage generally.

One of my favourite phrases from David's post is where he describes the helicopter filming the cyclists progress up the Alps and through the French countryside as "
like an airship rowed through the sky by elves”. I returned to the phrase over and over, almost wishing Miyazaki would take it and run with it.

But the clincher is David's analysis of Cadel’s weakness in riding the Tour, which made me flinch.
Cadel was never a competitor, never stamped his power and ego over the Tour. He was a capsule of averages, a moving wave of statistics who consistently did okay at the front of the peleton, always sustained by the fact that he is better at the time trial than the others whose performance is more uneven. While we hoped for the best, he was vulnerable to a mountain climber who learnt the mental discipline of riding like a steam train on the flat, off in some mathematical space which is really a meditation on rhythm.

Watching Carlos Sastre hurtle up the 13.8 km of the Alpe d’Huez, the toughest climb on the Tour de France, alone and peerless, as his CSC teammates dicked around with the peleton and Cadel just bobbed around in the flotsam, it was pretty obvious that the boy from Katherine is a one trick pony.

I so wanted to believe Cadel could win that it seemed disloyal to digest what David said. But in the end I had to agree – especially as I too noticed that while I watched Cadel (and then only a little) on TV, I couldn’t shake the nagging ‘back of the mind’ thought that he didn’t look like he could really do it, that he looked like he struggled up the mountains in a miasma of pain, rather than seem to almost float up as the leaders, and Tour winner Carlos Sastre obviously, did.

For all the fact that I find David's analysis so convincing, I find it odd how writers, and sports journalists especially, like to speculate on whether or not a sportsperson has 'what it takes' to win an event or perform at their best (and whether their best is good enough), as if the journalist has some great insight into the sportsperson's state of mind. But how different is David's insights into Cadel Evan's Tour campaign from the kind of media speculation that I mentioned at the start of this post?

I think sports psychology has a lot to answer for as thousands of armchair sports commentators and enthusiasts – and here I dob myself in for the dubious honour – pontificate on the worthiness and fitness of people to perform physical feats that we would be hard pressed to even start, let alone finish. And we are in for a feast of this type of commentary with the Olympics opening in less than a week: the hybrid of armchair psychology and couch potato sports-mania. Is this a case of 'those who can, do; those who can't, pontificate'?

Perhaps it has everything to do with heroes, and that thing we like to call the Achilles heel. We want our heroes to be great and to achieve things that we can only dream of. We want our heroes to
astound us and lift us up from our mundane lives of plodding domesticity and mind-crushing labour. And when they don't live up to the bargain we make with them – and it is a bargain: believe in me, because I believe in myself – we want answers. Explanations. Insights. And redemption – a reason to believe in them again, or in the next hero to come along.

Cadel Evans will always be to me the guy from Katherine who raced 'le Tour', crashed – more badly than they admitted, I reckon – but picked himself up to keep riding and finish that stage, and then woke up the next morning to ride again and win the yellow jersey. And won it again the next day. And I could never amount to a puff of breeze in his wake in the cycling stakes.

Perhaps Cadel will have another chance to show us that he is actually a strong bicycle racer with the heart of a lion, as speculation mounts that after withdrawing from the Games, he has another chance after all.

[Images courtesy of The Age's free Tour de France photos]

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