Monday, November 23, 2009

Shock revelation! Single man has sex! Sack him!

Okay, it’s not quite that simple, but it’s not far off either. South Australian Premier Mike Rann, before he was engaged to his current wife – and many years after his divorce from his first wife – had, it seems, a racy affair with a foxy blonde Parliament House waitress. Michelle Chantelois was married at the time.

About six weeks ago, her estranged husband hit Mike Rann in the head with a rolled-up magazine at an ALP fundraiser in Adelaide. Since then, gossip has been rife as to his motives. And today, an interview with Chantelois was published in New Idea, following an interview on Channel Seven’s Today Tonight last night. In the interviews, she goes into great detail about where and when they had sex, how many times, what he did and said to her. I won’t repeat it here because I wish I’d never read it. I just don’t need to know – and neither does anyone else.

Rann seems to have gone into Clintonesque lawyer mode. He has admitted a ‘friendship’ with Chantelois, yet has not said what that means. Interestingly, he has not outright denied a sexual relationship with her, though he has said that the television program contained false allegations. (Presumably, not the basic fact of the relationship.)

Richard Phillips, the cuckolded husband, is calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the matter. He said: ‘Based upon what's been said, it is my opinion that Mr Rann has taken advantage of my wife's youthful naivety and vulnerability during a very difficult time for our marriage and our family and has shown that he lacks the personal qualities and character to remain in the office of the Premier.’

I hope – and suspect – that we have learned from the American experience. Bill Clinton’s ‘bimbo eruptions’, most notably the one involving a blue dress, DNA testing and Kenneth Starr, didn’t kill his presidency, but wounded it badly. When his anointed successor, Al Gore, ran against a reformed alcoholic and failed businessman with far, far more money than sense, the public humiliation of the Clinton era contributed to his only just failing to win the vote.

Because they were was sick of listening to descriptions of the president’s penis and semen-stained dresses, Americans chose a man now known for mangling the English language, starting the most ill-conceived and ill-starred war since Vietnam, and widening the gap between rich and poor to an extent that triggered the next world depression, over a man who has won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to fight climate change. (Which the man who beat him for the top job doesn’t even believe in, incidentally.)

Mike Rann’s sex life has no bearing whatsoever on his performance as Premier. And at any rate, having sex with a married woman while single himself – while not the best behaviour – is more a reflection on the person betraying their partner than on him.

‘I knew it was wrong but I was attracted to him,’ she has said. ‘I don’t want people to feel sorry for me because I have made my bed and I have to lie in it. But Mike Rann used me to stroke his own ego and pride and unlike me he has suffered no consequences … ‘I don’t think he should be premier, it’s time he took responsibility for his actions.’

Generally I would agree that it’s unfair that the woman has to bear the brunt of the misbehaviour of two people. But in this case, she has suffered the consequences because she’s the one who was married and thus had more to lose. That’s the way it goes, surely. She says she lost her administration job at an Adelaide high school over the incident. The SA Education Department says that had nothing to do with it – her contract wasn’t renewed, as many contract workers’ jobs aren’t. In a time of economic crisis – a crisis that has been particularly pronounced in SA – this sounds plausible.

And I find it interesting that a woman who has detailed her sex life in excruciating detail in exchange for a great deal of money from the media can talk about using someone to stroke their ego. It sounds like revenge for a relationship gone wrong to me.

Both the public and Rann himself can learn from Bill Clinton. The public should judge their politicians on their politics. And Rann should take note of the fact that Bill Clinton’s real trouble was his dissembling – the tricky definitions of what ‘sexual relations’ meant, for instance. If Rann admits the truth and moves on, hopefully the public will, too.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Moving up in the world

Overheard on the Swanston Street tram, passing the corner of Queensberry Street on the way to Melbourne Uni: “I’ve had enough of this winter. We’ve been wearing ski jackets inside to stay warm. Ski jackets!” He was a student type, in his very early twenties, sporting fashionably skinny jeans, artfully scruffy haircut and Converse sneakers, drawling his woes into his mobile phone with a complete lack of self-consciousness. “We’ve been wearing scarves around the house. That’s not right.” Pause. “But I guess that’s what you pay for character. Character! Huh.” A wry, defeated laugh. “I fucking hate character. When you move down here, let’s get a two bedroom place. I mean, I like share houses and all, but ... it’s time to move up in the world.”

I generally hate it when people broadcast their lives to train- or tram-loads of trapped fellow passengers, but when they’re as entertaining as this guy was, I kind of like it. I was on a Saturday morning run to work, having briefly stopped at the State Library cafe for a rushed meeting first. I was armed with a laptop backpack, a shoulder bag stuffed with books I should be reading, and the Saturday newspapers. At the end of a long work week, I was snatching a few hours while my son was being dressed by his stepfather, then dropped at a birthday party, to flee to the office and finish a job.

Glancing surreptitiously at ski-jacket-guy as he talked, images of his student life flashed through my brain – a crumbling Victorian two-storey terrace in North Carlton with couches on the balcony and rust in the bathtub. Literally surrounded by the baggage of my thirty-something life, I looked at him and was hit by two conflicting waves: envy and relief.


Almost exactly ten years ago, I lived in a two-storey share house on Elgin Street, Carlton. There was no rust in the bathtub, though the taps didn’t work. And while there was no couch on the balcony, there was a tapestry-covered armchair on the roof.

I had recently moved from Adelaide and shared with a houseful of backpackers who’d followed me from the hostel that had been my home for my first two weeks in Melbourne. Two English boys shared a bedroom, sleeping on mattresses on the floor and living out of their enormous rucksacks. Another English boy, who had a one-year job contract and was sharing the lease with me, had somehow snaffled the double bedroom with a balcony overlooking the Housing Commission flats. Oh, and there was a fourth, interchangeable English-backpacker-boy who slept on the sofa bed downstairs. Every time one moved on, a new one from the hostel would replace him. I had a boxy room with chipboard walls that barely contained my double bed, wardrobe and Apple Mac (which sat on a kitchen chair at the foot of my bed).

There was one really cool thing about my bedroom, though. If you lost your keys and had to break in (which I often did), the only way of letting yourself into the house was to scale the corrugated iron fence into our courtyard from the back alley, heave yourself up onto the water heater, make the calculated jump-and-wriggle onto the roof, and climb through my bedroom window. This was how I discovered the armchair on the roof, and occasionally I’d climb out of my window to sit in it and smoke a cigarette, looking over the rooftops of Carlton towards the city towers in the near distance.

I had a melodramatic crush on one of my flatmates, who’d had a fleeting crush on me until we slept together (back in the hostel, days after we met), but he'd then explained to me that he couldn’t have a girlfriend because he was “on holidays, you know”. Then he fell for a girl from the Housing Commission flats, who we met during Happy Hour at the Tankerville. But she was seduced by the charms of one of our other flatmates – the one who shared his bedroom. Then, after I fell into a relationship, my flatmate started speaking of me in wistful tones when I wasn’t around (bless those chipboard walls – I could hear them talking in the kitchen when I was in bed) and offering to paint my nails while we watched television.

Brunswick Street was a block away in one direction; Lygon Street was a block away in the other. I would walk to work in North Melbourne past Readings and once a week, on the way home, I would allow myself to buy a book from my paltry junior-publishing-person salary and thrill to any titbits of conversation with the bookseller who handed me my paper bag. It was the mid-90s. Grunge literature was impossibly hip, and living in my own grungy share house within walking distance of the Punter’s Club, wearing black and buying The Virgin Suicides at Readings, was my version of a storybook life. (Hey, I’d come from Adelaide.)

Then the backpacker boys moved off, one by one, and I ended up with the one who shared my lease; the one I liked least, to tell the truth. We advertised in the Readings window for a replacement when we no longer knew anyone at the hostel, and the crop-haired girl who answered the ad sat in the courtyard with us for half an hour, making conversation and drinking beer. She seemed nice enough. While I was in Adelaide for a week, she took my one good piece of furniture (my bookshelf) from the lounge room and moved it into her bedroom, moving my books onto hers instead. She also replaced the light bulb in our front room with a red one, meaning that from the Elgin Street footpath, our house resembled a brothel, and from the couch, it was impossible to read through the angry red haze. She once explained to me with the solemnity of a Nobel candidate that it’s really, really hard to get a job at Dangerfield because “it takes a lot of skill to assemble those outfits”.

Soon, it was time to move up in the world. I moved out with my boyfriend, into a two-bedroom flat. (It took a month and multiple threats to get my fridge back from Dangerfield Girl.) A year later, I had a child.

And now, I’m living a pretty sensible life nowhere near Carlton. I would love to walk down the road to Readings and Brunswick Street; to have nothing to do on a Saturday than plan my night at the pub. These days, catch-ups with friends are planned in a series of emails or texts, days (sometimes weeks) in advance. Back then, they were as inevitable and regular – and necessary – as brushing your teeth, and required as little thought or planning.

But ... I also have work that I find absorbing, a long-term relationship that requires no melodrama (and no games!) and a child who amuses and delights (and yes, often annoys) me every day. I am very attached to all the baggage symbolised by my busy Saturday and litter of bags and books – and I’ve worked hard to amass it.

So. Envy and relief.

I wish ski-jacket-guy the best of luck with his move up in the world. Although I feel nostalgic for the mess and excitement of my early twenties, when the simplest things were new and special, I wouldn’t give up what I have for it. And the mere thought of doing it all again is exhausting.


I’m typing this on my verandah, at my laptop, my bare feet and presence on the wrong side of my study window testament to the first burst of summer. Children from the school a few doors down from me straggle past as I type; daisy chains of fluorescent blue and navy uniforms, sunhats on heads. Eventually, the small boy glimpsed through the screen of trees and bushes is my own.

“Hello!” I call and watch as he spins wildly, looking for me on the footpath.
“I’m here! On the verandah!”
“Oh!” He laughs and runs to meet me, backpack trailing at his feet and falling at the front steps as he moves to peer at my laptop screen and hug me hello. “Look at you, outside! Ha! Are you enjoying the weather, Mum?”
“I am. I thought we could go for an ice cream. What do you think?”
“Yes!” he squeals and throws his arms around me again, squeezing me tight this time. He lets go and throws his arms open, embracing the afternoon. “You are the best Mum in the world! Ice cream!”

Simple things. New and special.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wild Thing! I think I love you ... (after all)

I am, my husband tells me, a contrary person. (In fact, his phrase is, 'The most contrary person I've ever met'. Surely untrue.) Maybe it's contrariness that makes me instantly wary of any project - book, film, TV - that is ridiculously hyped. Or, seeing as I'm obsessed with The Wire and love True Blood, perhaps I should say, any project that is ridiculously hyped before I discover it.

So, I was wary of the Spike Jonze/Dave Eggers outing Wild Things, the film of Maurice Sendak's gloriously tempestuous picture book, Where the Wild Things Are. But I've been doing some online reading over the past couple of days, and I have to say I've warmed to it, mostly due to Sendak's warm endorsement of the project and cranky comments on contemporary portrayals of childhood, the enormous attention garnered by Where the Wild Things Are over the decades, and ruminations on what Max would be doing now.

If you'd like a sneak peek at Eggers' novelised version of the book, there's an extract at The New Yorker.

The Newsweek interview with Sendak, Jonze and Eggers is where I first fell for the project - and Sendak. Asked what makes a good book for children, he said:

"How would I know? I just write the books. But I do know that my parents were immigrants and they didn't know that they should clean the stories up for us. So we heard horrible, horrible stories, and we loved them, we absolutely loved them. But the three of us — my sister, my brother, and myself — grew up very depressed people."

I was a lover of fairy tales as a child (what 'children's' genre is darker?) and I'm a great believer in the power and attraction of 'horrible stories'. It depends on how those stories are told, what the outcomes are, and how and why the characters meet their fates, but scary stories for children can be cathartic, not to mention instructional. My brothers and I also loved Where the Wild Things Are. It was a bedtime favourite, along with Bears in the Night (where the small Berenstain Bears sneak out of bed in the middle of the night, tiptoe through the woods and UP SPOOK HILL, where they are frightened by an owl and run home to bed).

We enjoyed being scared, just like kids enjoy gravity-defying rides at the Show. These books take you to the emotional brink and deliver you safely back on the ground, to get on with your life. Catharsis.

In Where the Wild Things Are, Max, dressed in his 'wolf suit', has a naughty temper tantrum, is sent to his room, and retreats deep within his imagination, where he roams and roars and lets all his anger and mischief out, in the company of the primal Wild Things. It was, these interviews remind me, a revolutionary book for its time (1963) in its honest depiction of childhood, as opposed to the whimsical depictions popular at the time. The film could well break similar ground - in fact, Sendak told Jonze: "You have to just make something bold and not pander to children and make something that's as dangerous for its time as the book was in its time."

Talking about the difference between the European and American approaches to making art for children, Sendak says: "We are squeamish. We are Disneyfied. We don't want children to suffer. But what do we do about the fact that they do? The trick is to turn that into art. Not scare children, that's never our intention." Asked if he thinks Disney is bad for kids, he says, "I think it's terrible." And what would he say to parents who say the film is too scary? "I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate."

Jonze told that he was attracted to Sendak's book because it "doesn't talk down to kids". He compared the experience of Where the Wild Things Are to the the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film, starring Gene Wilder. "He's compelling and I want him to like me but I'm also scared of him. I want to be Charlie and I want him to give me the factory but I'm also really scared of him and charmed by him and he's mysterious." An intriguing comparison.

So, I still don't know what I'll think of the film, but I do like the idea of it a lot. And it's already reminded me how much I loved the original book. Which can only be a good thing.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Look over here!

I wanted to be at the Newcastle Young Writers Festival and the Ubud Writers' Festival in Bali, but instead I'm in my lounge room, juggling deadlines and drinking plunger coffee from my trusty Great Gatsby mug.

If you'd rather hear from people who did make it out of their lounge rooms this week, look here at the lovely Estelle Tang, 3000 books blogger, who is interviewing authors and generally soaking up the atmosphere in Newcastle right now. I really like her pithy little Q&As. Recently she started interviewing APA publishing interns about their jobs. Now she's cutting a swathe through the cream of the young writers and editors at Newcastle.

I quite like this exchange with comedian Lawrence Leung:

ET: Hi Lawrence. I hear you're appearing on the NYWF 'Funny Business' panel. So you think you're pretty funny, do you?

LL: You run a blog called 3000 BOOKS. So you think you can read, do you?

She also interviews Ben Law by putting titles of his own articles to him as questions, inspired by an interview he once did with Tori Amos in which he put her song titles as questions. And asks editor Dion Kagan, 'Do you, Dion Kagan, feel irritated, as I do, that the National Young Writers' Festival is not called the National Young Extremely Good-looking Editors' Festival?' (And yes, the photographic evidence proves that Mr Kagan is not unattractive.) I like her sense of cheekiness and fun, and her passionate enthusiasm for books and bookish things.

Of course Angela Meyer, Australia's equivalent of Bookslut, is the name that springs to mind when you think of tireless enthusiasm and passion for books. In her first post from Newcastle, she confirms my suspicion that the girl doesn't sleep (how else can she do everything?) by declaring three hours' sleep the night before. That's one hour less than Kevin Rudd! (Who apparently sleeps four hours a night, in case you can't be bothered doing the maths.) She's also going to Ubud, so watch Literary Minded if you're interested in following that festival.

Me, I'll be at my laptop looking out at the seemingly neverending Melbourne gloom, plugging away at those deadlines. With little detours online ...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Poor little child rapist: the trials and tribulations of Roman Polanski

‘Government ministers, movie directors, writers and intellectuals have expressed shock and outrage after the detention of Oscar winning director Roman Polanski in Switzerland on three-decade-old child sex charges,’ begins an AFP article run by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Herald Sun.

Three-decade-old charges? How dare they! Just because he raped a child doesn’t mean he should be persecuted for it, should he? I mean, it’s yesterday’s news. The victim (or according to some reports, ‘victim’ - note the quotation marks) has moved on with her life, so why shouldn’t we? And he’s an Oscar winning director – isn’t that what’s really important here, not some past misbehaviour back in the hedonistic free love 1970s?

Of course, the official charge is statutory rape – that he unlawfully had sex with a 13-year-old aspiring actress in Jack Nicholson’s Mullholland Canyon mansion. What happened, according to the girl’s 1977 grand jury testimony, is that he took topless photos of her, ostensibly for French Vogue, followed by naked photos in a hot tub. He then stripped off and followed her into the hot tub. ‘That’s when I realised something was wrong,’ she later said. When she got out, inventing an asthma attack and asking to go home, he followed her into the bathroom, where she was wrapped in a towel, lured her into the master bedroom (where she told him she didn’t want to go), performed oral sex on her (while she repeatedly asked him to stop and asked to go home), had vaginal sex with her (while she asked him to stop and asked to go home), then anally raped her (while she – that’s right – asked him to stop and asked to go home). When asked why she followed him into the bedroom, why she went with him, why she didn’t call for help or more forcefully resist, she said ‘Because I was afraid of him’.

He was a 43-year-old world famous film director who was guest editing French Vogue. He’d shot some of the most celebrated films of the 1970s – Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown – and had taken her to the mansion of the star of one of those films. As she pointed out in her testimony, he had the car and was her only way of getting back home. He had plied her with alcohol and Quaaludes. (She was drinking champagne during the photo shoot.) She was 13 years old. The gap in this power relationship was an unbridgeable chasm.

In court, where he was charged with rape, he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of statutory rape in order to save himself jail time. When it seemed that the judge might not honour the deal, he decided not to come home from Europe, thus becoming a fugitive from justice and a citizen of France, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.

French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterand has called Polanski’s arrest “absolutely horrifying” and calls the case “an old story which doesn’t really make any sense”. British writer Robert Harris, who is collaborating with Polanski on a film version of his thriller The Ghost, says “I'm amazed this should happen now, and I cannot begin to fathom what reason lies behind it.”

Well, the answer may partly lie in fresh appeals by Polanski’s lawyers to have his original case overturned, based on evidence from the 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired that the original judge improperly colluded with prosecutors. In May, a Los Angeles judge refused his bid to have the charges dismissed, after he failed to appear in court. Hmmm ... perhaps he might have prompted the renewed focus on his long-outstanding arrest himself?

Reviewing the documentary for in February this year, Bill Wyman made an excellent point: “The issue here isn't Polanski being left alone; he's the one trying to get his case dismissed. The movie tries to drum up sympathy for Polanski by playing up the media firestorm he was at the center of; but that's Polanski's fault, too. (Before they rape children, celebrities should consider how the media attention sure to result will have adverse consequences for their victims, as well as themselves.)”

Which brings us back to the victim and her much-trumpeted wish for Polanski’s case to be dismissed – for the judicial system to forgive him as she has. I understand her wish, which is about her desire to avoid the publicity that has long followed her (and destroyed the dream of being an actress that had led her to the disastrous photo shoot in the first place). In a written statement to the court this January, she said: “Every time this case is brought to the attention of the Court, great focus is made of me, my family, my mother and others. That attention is not pleasant to experience and is not worth maintaining over some irrelevant legal nicety, the continuation of the case.” In other words, her main reason for wanting the case dismissed is so that she can move on with her life – not, as some media reports seem to suggest, because it wasn’t such a big deal, or he didn’t do the wrong thing.

Geimer told CNN’s Larry King in 2003 that ‘I tried to take a girlfriend along because I was feeling uncomfortable. But he kind of at the last minute asked her not to go. So actually when I left, my mom didn't realize I was going alone.’ After the rape, she went straight to the car, and was crying by the time he joined her there. She says, ‘So he asked that, you know, you shouldn't tell your mom. We should keep this secret.’ A week before the King appearance, she authored an LA Times opinion piece in response to all the journalists calling asking her if she thought Polanski should get an Oscar (her answer: judge it on his film, not on what he did to me). She summed up the experience: ‘It was not consensual sex by any means. I said no, repeatedly, but he wouldn't take no for an answer. I was alone and I didn't know what to do. It was scary and, looking back, very creepy.’

Her attorney explained the decision-making process behind his plea-bargaining, allowing Polanski to plead guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful sex with a minor and commute the more serious charge of rape, to Larry King. ‘This was - this courthouse, with cross examination about these sort of delicate events was not the place for a recovering young girl ... My job, I thought, was to try to keep her out of the courtroom, try to keep her to getting back to her life.’

Much has been made of Polanski’s tragic past – his childhood as a Holocaust survivor, the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by Charles Manson. This is juxtaposed with the achievements of his career as a director – Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, his Oscar for The Pianist – to paint a portrait of a tragic, tortured genius. ‘This is somebody who could not be a rapist!’ exclaimed one or his friends and supports in the 2008 documentary. He sure sounds like one. And neither his tragic past nor his artistic achievements excuse his behaviour.

Whether Polanski should be brought to trial when the victim would prefer the case dismissed is a valid – and thorny – issue for debate. Why should she be made to suffer more than she already has? But to suggest he deserves a presidential pardon from Barack Obama, as Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski plans to request, ‘for his services to Polish culture’, is not just ridiculous, but deeply insulting – to the victim, to all victims of rape, and to the basic tenets of our culture. Have we gone so far as to suggest that celebrity and high achievement are more important than the most basic laws of behaviour that govern our society? And let’s not fool ourselves that we’re debating the issue of sex with a minor – it’s plainly obvious from the victim’s testimony that we’re dealing with rape.

In the final analysis, I can’t help but think that the legal process should be followed – that Polanski should return to the US to face trial. It’s very likely that his sentence will be commuted to time served (he was in jail for 45 days for psychiatric assessment back in 1977), or serve an extra term to bring it to 90 days, as was negotiated in his initial plea bargain. (A plea that the judge – who is now dead - had threatened to overturn, causing his flight.) Not that that’s the point.

I think he should be tried as would anyone facing such a charge because a clear message needs to be sent that power and privilege are not a force field that allows those who possess it to behave with impunity. Powerful men need to know that it’s not okay for them to sexually abuse or intimidate women – particularly underage girls, who are even more vulnerable to abuse – because of their positions. Letting Polanski go or ignoring the international warrant for his arrest sends the opposite message – that there’s one rule for ordinary people, and another for the elite. And that’s a dangerous message.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Anxiety and (self) R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

The crickets chirping in the emptiness over here at Jabberwocky has been the flipside of an incredibly busy life lately. Deadlines piling up – and, mortifyingly, sometimes shooting past. New projects taking up too much space in my head, let alone hours in the day. Too many nights sleeping on the couch – because I can’t turn down the volume on my brain enough to allow sleep in bed, but I can trick my body into dozing off if it thinks it should be awake.

I’ve had some wins in the work sphere, which is great. But every win seems to make me more anxious about the next task or goal, the potential for failure more loaded. Which makes it harder to concentrate on that task. Which makes it less likely I’ll complete it well. And I keep taking on too much work because I’m afraid to say no, afraid to miss out. Worse, I’ve been chasing work when I should be planning a rest, because I need to have done it. Because I need the adrenaline rush of a 'yes'. Each commission is another cotton-bud balm on my anxiety.

And the less I sleep, the harder it is to think and work efficiently; thus the more frantically my brain whirs through its to-do list at night. Depriving me of sleep. Making me more anxious.

Yes, perversity rules.

Over-concentration on every detail is obliterating the big picture. The pinpricks of every task and every associated worry dance before my eyes and merge into a gauze of anxiety, blocking my internal access to the machinery of analysis and action. An afternoon is wasted fixating on an imagined slight. An evening passes with a tape of a recent social occasion running in the background of my brain, scanning for slip-ups. I am poised to take offence, my skin dangerously thin, nerves pulsing too close to the surface.

I need to press control-alt-delete. I need to reboot. I can’t.

I reached for a self-help book this morning. We all have our own version of self-help, I guess – the Bible, the Koran, Oprah Winfrey, psychotherapy. Different horses for different courses.

Something about my manic vulnerability today reminded me of an essay in Joan Didion’s Slouching to Bethlehem, ‘On Self Respect’. It provided the right kind of salve for me – a mixture of comfort and admonition, understanding and rebuke. The symptoms she described seemed to fit, so perhaps the definition did, too?

She writes:

To do without self-respect ... is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that deals one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, the Phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commissions and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice, or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.

So, I thought, re-reading it. There’s my symptoms, pretty much. Or some of them. Maybe that’s my problem; maybe I should snap out of it, like Joan Didion would. Do what I can do, accept my failings and my achievements equally as my due, and move on from both. Rely on my own opinion instead of worrying over others’. Let my vision of myself be based on what I know I'm capable of, rather than how I'm performing in the outside world.

People with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things ... In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of mortal nerve; they display what was once called character ... Character, the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.

So I turned off all the internet-based social networking I was mechanically, joylessly surfing, put on a CD, cooked myself breakfast, then sat down to do some serious work. I thought about everything Joan Didion has achieved and how much more I could achieve if I was disciplined and focused and self-contained and able to block out the outside world. I did a very reasonable and thoughtful few hundred words before the anxiety kicked back in. And then I fled back to Didion's words for comfort, followed by writing this, in an effort to purge my anxiety by putting it on paper (or on screen).

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out – since our self-image is untenable – their false notion of us.

... It is the phenomenon sometimes called 'alienation from self'. In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.

I’m going back to work now; internet off. Really. I believe in my ability, if not to immediately move on, at least to lock my neuroses away for an afternoon - and an evening - and get on with life, meeting it and my deadlines head-on.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Snacking on story: Wells Tower at MWF

Wells Tower is a name that sounds like it should belong to an Ivy League educated stockbroker, or perhaps a bored, cocaine-snorting rich kid in a Bret Easton Ellis novel. In fact, as short story aficionados and surfers of the literary zeitgeist know, he’s one of the hottest new names in American literature, with his debut short story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, garnering rave reviews from critics and impressive word-of-mouth among readers. All the people I know who whispered excitedly about Nam Le’s The Boat last year, in the months preceding its publication, have spent this year enthusing about Tower – with good reason.

The first thing that strikes you about the collection is how finely turned its stories are, with prose that sings with every sentence. It is packed with accidental revelations, with flawed characters who give themselves away, allowing the reader to know them better than they knew themselves. Fractured lives navigate fraught territory. A footprint on a car windshield gives away a husband’s infidelity, and sees him banished from his home. A first date comes to an abrupt end when a child is hurt. “I like people who are in trouble,” Tower said. “People who are experiencing some kind of extremes in life.”

Tower has been publishing short stories since 2001, when The Paris Review published ‘Down Through the Valley’, a story about a man whose wife has left him for her meditation instructor, a California hippie named Barry.

But his public success began a year earlier, when he went undercover as a “carny” (or, a ride operator at a carnival) for The Washington Post. He meant to do it for three months, but lasted five days, he told the packed Melbourne Writers’ Festival audience at The Festival Club. “Participatory stories are a lot of fun,” he said. “Doing that story was fun, though I was terrified the whole time I was doing it. There wasn’t a single person working there who hadn’t done prison time.”

He described the process of writing the story – that he’d be composing paragraphs in his head while working and would run out to the toilet and scribble them down when he could, then later piece them together.

Following the publication of the Washington Post story, Tower started to be approached to write more. He got an agent. She didn’t last long. He gave her two short stories. “She said, ‘they suck, I’m not sending them out’,” he recounts. He’d already given them to The Paris Review, who – much to his shock – picked them out of the slush pile and published them. That was the end of the agent. The Paris Review publication was especially heartening because its then-editor, George Plimpton, was a hero of Tower’s. “His participatory journalism inspired me to do the carny story.”

Over the next several years, Tower continued to write and publish his short stories and journalism in publications like Harpers, McSweeneys and The New York Times. After a couple of years of publishing stories, he started to get queries from publishers about putting out a collection, but – unlike most writers in his position would – Tower kept saying no. “I knew the stories sucked,” he said. “There’s no point in sending out stories you don’t think are good. If you don’t think they’re good, no one else will.”

Of course, these stories that “sucked” by Tower’s high standards (but were published by the likes of The Paris Review) are in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned – but, in most cases, in a much altered form. When it came time to revise the stories for the book, he reports being “kind of disgusted” by most of them. One story (in my opinion, one of the best in the book), ‘Retreat’, was entirely rewritten from the point of view of another character. It’s a story about two ultra-competitive, very different brothers who have never quite got along but are the only family each other have, set over a couple of days together at one brother’s rural mountainside retreat, which he plans to commercially develop. The fulcrum of the story is the intense rivalry between the brothers and the strange yet prosaic way it plays out. “I thought it would be more interesting to rewrite it from the point of view of the more morally compromised brother,” Tower reflected.

Moderator extraordinaire Chris Flynn, the Melbourne-based editor of Torpedo magazine, asked at what point Tower would stop revising a story. “I think when it gets to that point where someone says to me, ‘you’re upsetting me, it’s FINE’. I do think it’s important, when revising, to get back to the point of what the emotional thread of it is. It’s about trying to install a bleeding heart into the story and not just a bunch of clever lines.”

While Tower said that his magazine reportage often inspired or informed his stories, he was adamant about avoiding autobiographical storytelling. The story he wrote about a carnival, inspired by his virgin assignment as an undercover reporter, “wasn’t about a young journalist working undercover at a carnival”, he pointed out. What he did take from his experience was the feeling of the carnival, the kinds of characters who worked there and situations that might arise. “I think any time I do write about my own life I try to abstract the things I’ve gone through, to find the cold machinery of it.” Otherwise, he said, there’s the risk that he’d write “treacly self-confession”.

“It’s about getting to a place where your characters are real to you, where you know them and you’re not dressing up a whole bunch of statistics and research to pretend they’re real people.”

Who does Tower read and recommend? Among the names he passionately recalled were Lorrie Moore (a newish favourite of mine), Deborah Eisenberg, Denis Johnson, Flannery O’Connor and Richard Yates – one of my own all-time favourites. “I think he’s about the best short story writer you could find,” he said, describing the novels that followed his revived classic Revolutionary Road as “really depressing”. (A fair assessment.) “But in a short story, he doesn’t have the time to build up to an apocalypse.” He especially recommended the story ‘A Really Good Jazz Piano’.

“I try to snack on a short story every day when I’m writing,” he said.

Asked for advice for aspiring writers, Tower underlined the importance of a revision and a trusted reader, “two really important tools”. He said that it’s taking him longer and longer to write a story. (“I used to be happy with a story after three months.”) On revision, he said: “People think that revision is like cleaning up after the party, but you come to realise that revision is the party. For me, I’ve realised there is no party.”

Tower comes across as charming, ever-curious and possessed of a dry wit, peppering his conversation with wry observations and deprecating one-liners. But more than anything, you come away from hearing him talk with the conviction that he is a serious writer, passionately dedicated to his craft, and to the exhausting, never-ending pursuit of getting it right.

“I’m a believer in literature. I’m not a church-goer or anything, but I have a tremendous belief in literature and its power to transform.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Colour me green

I can't stop thinking about a comment Kalinda Ashton - short story writer, playwright and now novelist - made at during a MWF panel on the weekend.

Talking about the transition from writing plays and short stories to writing novels, she said:

"With short stories, I begin with the most fleeting ideas. I generally write them in an afternoon - or maybe in two sittings, for the longer ones, the ones that are five or six thousand words."

As someone who has been working on one short story on and off for two years and has just submitted another after six months, I was amazed and stupidly jealous. When I read that Nick Cave dashed off his novel in two or three months (and then presumably had an editor clean it up), I'm unimpressed. Fast work is just as often laziness as genius. But Kalinda's stories are fantastically polished. Colour me green.

I identify more with the method (though not the talent, obvs) of virtuosic short fiction talent Wells Tower, who reportedly drafts his stories 30 times. Looking forward to seeing him at the festival this weekend, too ...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Guilt about the Past: Bernhard Schlink at MWF

Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader, spoke to a sold-out opening night crowd at Melbourne’s Town Hall. In person, he is almost precariously tall and thin, walking with a slight stoop, as if apologising for taking up so much space. His voice is soft, low, polite. Heavy with the weight of the subjects he speaks and writes about.

Schlink spoke about the topic of his new (non-fiction) book, Guilt About the Past. Of course, it’s a topic that has informed his novels, too. The Reader was about a 15-year-old boy who had an affair with a much older woman, who he encountered years later in a courtroom, being tried for war crimes. Homecoming explored the experience of a man whose supposedly long-dead father turns out to be alive, living in the US – a Nazi collaborator.

Both novels explore the idea of coming to terms with a younger generation being intimately (often unknowingly) involved with someone implicated in Nazi war crimes and their attempts to come to terms with that.

Schlink spoke about “guilt through solidarity” – guilt suffered by people who didn’t perpetrate war crimes, nor were in a position to offer resistance or opposition, but suffer a kind of guilt through their association with the perpetrators. Some of these people are children or grandchildren of perpetrators; others are simply Germans who identify with the culture and the nation that perpetrated these crimes.

It’s a guilt associated with not renouncing the guilty members of their society or family, even though they know they are guilty. And it’s something that, I presume, affects huge numbers of everyday Germans. (Not to mention the application of that principle here in Australia, to non-indigenous Australians and their relationship to those who dispossessed or oppressed Australia’s indigenous people.)

“To distance oneself from grandparents who were perpetrators is not actually a choice for most children.”

There is a correspondence, Schlink said, between the trauma inherited by the children of victims and the guilt inherited by the children of perpetrators. They are united by the same crime. These groups can’t ask for or give forgiveness, though reconciliation between these two groups is possible.

“While forgiveness lifts the burden of guilt fromt he guilty party, reconciliation makes the burden lighter.”

Referring back to the Australian experience, Schlink concluded that Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations seemed problematic, “because it doesn’t come from the perpetrators themselves”.

Bernard Schlink commanded respect from his audience, but he didn’t necessarily command our attention. What he had to say was extremely worthy and interesting and made good sense, but I came away feeling that I would have got those messages better by reading his book. The general buzz in the Town Hall lobby afterwards, and at the festival over the weekend, agreed with my observations. Still, he sold out the space and I dare say that most of the people there went away pleased to have been in the presence of a great writer and thinker.

What I was left with, I think, was the gravitas with which he carried himself – modest but not falsely so, dignified and understated. There was the sense that he was there to serve his material, to deliver his message. And a sadness, too. A sense of shame at being German, a carefulness about him as a result of all the cultural baggage that carries in the post-Nazi era.

One audience member questioned him about Jewish activities in Palestine, asking what he thought the pathology was connecting Jewish survivors to Palestinians.

"I don’t think it is for a German to judge what Israel is doing in Palestine," he said. "Israelis will listen to what Canadians, Americans and Australians say to them, but the definitely will not listen to what a German would say to them."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

David Sedaris on Daylesford, the Kookaburra song and his family

Our destination that afternoon was a place called Daylesford, which looked, when we arrived, more like a movie set than like an actual working town. The buildings on the main street were two stories tall, and made of wood, like buildings in the Old West, but brightly painted. Here was the shop selling handmade soaps shaped like petit fours. Here was the fudgery, the jammery, your source for moisturizer. If Dodge City had been founded and maintained by homosexuals, this is what it might have looked like.

Read the New Yorker article in its entirety here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sending them out

Every Monday, F has a friend over to play after school. I know to expect them 15 minutes later than necessary. They dawdle home, picking up bits of rubbish from the footpaths – impressively long sticks, interesting shaped fragments of metal – which they hand over distractedly at the door. (‘Look what we found!’)

They shed their schoolbags, shoes, socks and jumpers in a trail between the hallway, the kitchen and F’s room. Every Monday, I call them back to clean up after themselves and they loop back obediently as I unfurl slices of bread at the counter and insert them into the toaster, four at a time. We talk about their day as I slice green apples into eight methodical wedges and pile them on plates with BBQ Shapes, hearing about mean kids and footy triumphs and what they did on the way home. I butter the toast, slice it in halves, serve the plates and – more often than not – retreat to my home office while they amuse themselves.

Two weeks ago, they had lingered at the creek and gone on an imaginary quest there.
They were five minutes later than usual, arriving home at 4.20pm. Their navy school pants were streaked with mud, their nails and palms dark with embedded grit. I made them wash their hands before they ate, wondering whether to tell them off and scold them to come straight home next time. Instead, I told them to make sure they don’t ever linger longer than they did or that I’d punish them.
‘I was just about to come looking for you. You were just in time,’ I said.
‘What would you do?’ asked L, F’s Monday companion. ‘How would you punish us?’
‘There’d be no toast and no BBQ Shapes. Only apple.’
The boys gasped theatrically; half appalled, half playing at being appalled.

Last week, I had a mountain of work to do. I cut up the apple and set out the BBQ Shapes and told them apologetically that they’d need to make their own toast, because I had a deadline. (‘Nahhhh,’ said L. ‘We’ll be okay.’) I don’t let F watch television or play computers during the week, but was so desperate not to be disturbed that I handed over the Foxtel remote on my way to my office and told them to go for it. As I hunched over InDesign, the boys bickered loudly about what to watch, eventually calling me in to referee. Decision forced, I retreated to my study again. Ten minutes later, they crashed through my door. I swallowed a scream.

‘Can we climb the tree out the front?’ asked F breathlessly.
‘Sure,’ I said, and they ran out, slamming the screen door behind them. From my window, I watched them barrel through the picket fence and onto the strip of grass on the other side of the footpath, where they scaled the tree and settled happily in its branches. For the next half hour, I worked to the muted sound of chatter on the other side of the windowpane, glancing up at intervals to check on them. They sat in the tree, chirping strangely polite greetings at surprised passers-by on their way from the train station, followed by cascades of giggles. (‘Good afternoon!’ ‘Hel-lo!’ ‘Have a nice day!’)

And then, the tone altered, relaxing into familiarity.
‘Hello G!’
I looked up to see our next-door neighbour in his fluorescent work vest; his son, F’s best friend, bouncing delightedly at his side. G was frowning into the tree. I knew what was going on immediately.
‘Come up here!’ the boys shouted to Boy Next Door. ‘Come on!’
He flashed towards them. His Dad stopped him with a hand on his arm and low words, too low to hear. They stayed a moment longer, conferring with my son and his friend up the tree, and turned towards home, passing the wall of my study on their way to their front door. I heard Boy Next Door wailing and stamping.

Boy Next Door is, more often than not, my third young visitor on a Monday afternoon.

My boys resumed their greetings, their chatter, their darting up and around the branches. I thought of Boy Next Door, alone in his bedroom. I sighed and left my computer.

‘Hi Mum!’
‘Hey Ariel!’
‘Hi boys. Is BND coming to play?’
‘Um ... yes. Later,’ said F.
‘We don’t know.’
I left the warmth of the doorway and stood under the tree, speaking softly overhead.
‘Is he allowed to come over, but not allowed to play up the tree?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ said F.
‘Or out the front?’
‘Yes. That’s right.’
‘Ah,’ I said, and turned to go inside.
‘It’s okay,’ called F, giving in to guilt. ‘I think we’ll come in now.’ He dropped to the lowest branch. ‘HEY BND!’ he shouted. ‘WE’RE ...’
‘F! Don’t shout, go OVER there,’ I scolded. I lowered my voice. ‘And,’ I added, ‘can you tell G that I was watching you out the window the whole time? Please.’
‘Sure,’ said F, in a way that made me sure he’d forget my request by the time his feet hit the ground, if he’d ever listened to it at all.

Before I’d shut the front door behind me, G and BND were on the footpath.
‘Can he come and play?’ asked G, reverting to our polite Monday ritual.
‘Of course,’ I said, completing it.
He looked at me, wondering how to say it.
‘They’ll be playing inside,’ I said. ‘Or out the back.’
‘Oh, good.’ His whole body sagged in relief. He looked up at L, who was squatting on the lowest branch of the tree, readying to jump. ‘Are you okay, son? Do you want some help getting down, there?’
‘Nah,’ scoffed L. ‘I’m right.’ He sprang clumsily from his perch, landing heavily, jerkily on his feet.
‘Are you okay?’ G repeated. ‘You right there?’
‘Course,’ said L, straightening with shaky aplomb and running past him, through the front door, into the lounge room, where the television still blared from earlier. I was proud of him – L is a renowned sook and would normally explode into false sobs at an adult enquiry after his wellbeing. G followed him to the front door. He peered in at the boys, sitting three across on the couch, bodies slumped, eyes on Spongebob Squarepants. He smiled, waved goodbye to his son, and ambled back home.

Boy Next Door turned nine this Monday. His parents let him walk from his house to ours alone for the first time this year. Last year, I had to escort him home and back again if he went to collect a ball they’d kicked over the fence, or to get his footy cards. ‘It’s a dangerous world out there,’ his parents told me, more than once. ‘It’s not like when we were kids. Someone could just snatch him off the street.’

I strongly believe that this is media-fuelled nonsense. That children are just as safe, if not safer, than they ever were. I also believe that allowing children freedom to play and explore free of adults, and gradually extending that freedom as they grow older, is essential to creating a strong sense of self.

In a fabulous article for The New York Review of Books that had me shouting ‘yes!’ and ‘ex-actly!’, Michael Chabon makes the point better than I ever could:

The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. A very grave, very significant shift in our idea of childhood has occurred since then. The Wilderness of Childhood is gone; the days of adventure are past ... The primary reason for this curtailing of adventure, this closing off of Wilderness, is the increased anxiety we all feel over the abduction of children by strangers; we fear the wolves in the Wilderness. This is not a rational fear; in 1999, for example, according to the Justice Department, the number of abductions by strangers in the United States was 115. Such crimes have always occurred at about the same rate; being a child is exactly no more and no less dangerous than it ever was. What has changed is that the horror is so much better known.

He also offers a cogent, insightful explanation for this shift, going deeper into the issue:

The endangerment of children—that persistent theme of our lives, arts, and literature over the past twenty years—resonates so strongly because, as parents, as members of preceding generations, we look at the poisoned legacy of modern industrial society and its ills, at the world of strife and radioactivity, climatological disaster, overpopulation, and commodification, and feel guilty. As the national feeling of guilt over the extermination of the Indians led to the creation of a kind of cult of the Indian, so our children have become cult objects to us, too precious to be risked. At the same time they have become fetishes, the objects of an unhealthy and diseased fixation. And once something is fetishized, capitalism steps in and finds a way to sell it.

And makes an excellent point about just why this freedom is so important, for reasons beyond the obvious (the pleasure of it, the valuable sense of independence and self-confidence it brings):

What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children's imaginations? This is what I worry about the most. I grew up with a freedom, a liberty that now seems breathtaking and almost impossible ... Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?

Obviously, I'm not advocating flinging open the doors and giving children free rein. (And neither is Chabon.) But letting children gradually off the leash in a responsible, age-appropriate way while keeping a surreptitious eye on them as they ease into each new stage of independence is surely part of the job of parenting.

'If I do send them out,' Chabon wonders plantitively, writing from suburban California, 'will there be anyone to play with?' Luckily, I don't think things are quite that bad here yet.

If I send F out, he just won't be able to play with the boy next door.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Do good blog posts come in small packages?

Today I had a (very civil) altercation with a Gen Y blogger who argued that people won't read blog posts of more than a paragraph, or a few paragraphs at most.
'You can write more than that if you want,' he shrugged. 'If you want to waste your time. But people won't read it.'

I admit that I was pretty passive in this discussion. Most of my comebacks consisted of skeptical looks and a lack of enthusiasm in my agreement to write blog reports of a paragraph or so for him. This was partly because I'm an anonymous blogger and thus couldn't argue using my own experience; partly because this guy does online communication for a living, so I couldn't help wondering if he was right and I was wrong. (And yes, I admit that I have a tendency to go on for too long in my posts, one that nobody calls me on because I am - dangerously - my own editor.)

But still ... I couldn't help thinking about the Meanjin blog, Spike, the ever-prolific Angela Meyer's Literary Minded, James Bradley's fantastic blog, City of Tongues, and Mark Sarvas's The Elegant Variation. All of these blogs combine short posts with longer, in-depth thought pieces or examinations of writers, writing or other topics - and they're all highly successful blogs. And writers like Penni Russon and Rachel Power use their blogs to explore thoughts and issues or to share snippets of their lives, in a very readable and engaging way. I feel lucky and privileged to be able to follow sites like these free of charge, often accessing writing I'd be happy to discover in the print media.

And writer/bloggers Krissy Kneen and Christopher Currie, both from fabulous independent bookshop Avid Reader in Brisbane, have both recently won publishing contracts from Text for books that began life as stories on their blogs.

I don't know if I agree that form necessarily dictates content. It's true that it's nicer and easier to read long pieces in print; but one of the huge benefits of new technology is that it provides a forum for intelligent discussion and exploration of all kinds of topics, without the writer needing funding to create a platform for communication, or to place their story with the right editor at the right time, with the right angle and style for the chosen publication. I think there's a place for snappy news blogs and websites - like Genevieve Tucker's Reeling and Writhing, Jessa Crispin's Bookslut and Canada's Bookninja. But there's also a place for longer writing that takes advantage of the free and easy platform the internet provides.

That's what I wish I'd said to my Gen Y friend today, instead of just looking unhappy.

But I'm really, really curious to hear what other people think. Is shorter better online? For certain kinds of online writing, or certain audiences? Or does it depend on the writer and the topic and the day?


I've just come across this argument for my side from the denizen of litblogging, Jessa Crispin of Bookslut, interviewed by Hackpacker:

"For a while, the only writing about literature you could find online was short, highly opinionated blogs. I remember being told that people don't want to read things of length online, you can never publish quality original content online. I thought, bullshit. I went ahead with publishing 5,000 word interviews with authors, 15-minute videos, etc. I've been proven right, because more lengthy content gets posted online all the time: podcasts, videos, long form essays. Even from the same people who said no one would care."

Still, please do tell me if you have another opinion. I'm genuinely curious to see what people think on this.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Not getting away with anything

Last night, I called F at his Dad's house to wish him luck for today's Footy Fun Day. He came to the phone sniffling.
'Hey, F.'
'Hi Mum.' Soggily.
'What's up?'
'I didn't get any ice cream.' His voice descended into sobs. 'And I didn't get any last night either. And it's because I had lemonade, but I didn't KNOW lemonade meant I wouldn't have ice cream. And I'm so stupid, I hate myself. And I'm so ANGRY.'
I tried to calm him down, reminding him he always has fruit for dessert at Dad's house anyway and that crying won't change anything.
'Can I come to your house?'
'What? When?'
'Right now?'
"Yes. I've had enough here.'
I told him, gently but firmly, that while he's always very welcome, he can't come to one parent's house when the other is annoying him or has punished him. I promised him that if he felt the same in the morning and it was okay with Dad, he could come back early.
'Anyway,' I said, 'We were calling to wish you luck for tomorrow.'
'Aren't you coming?'
'Um ... no. You don't need me to come. Your Dad's coming. He hasn't seen you play for two weeks.'
'I want you to come too. Please come.'

I know it's selfish, but I'm exhausted after three weeks of mostly having F while his Dad has been overseas and interstate and has had visitors (and while I've had absolute mountains of work to do). Three weeks that have been relatively eventful, as far as football goes. Weeks in which we've had tears and tantrums and bullying and misbehaviour and F throwing himself face down in dirt and rubbing it on his face as self-punishment. In which I've wanted to punch another parent for overstepping boundaries and have been rigid with anger and frustration about miscommunication with his coach. I needed a break from football. And Footy Fun Day, which I would have to attend without The Husband, was scheduled to stretch over most of the Sunday, and would involve me hanging out with F's Dad all day. F's Dad, who rang me on Friday to tell me various things F had said about me. ('You can't get away with anything you know! He tells me everything!') My misdemeanours had included buying him honey-flavoured Weetbix and offering him a packet of M&Ms to get his hair cut at my hairdresser's instead of his Dad's barber's. (His Dad's barber gives him biscuits.)

'Sorry, hon, but I can't come. I'll be at the Footy BBQ next weekend, though.' Momentary silence on the other end of the phone, broken by dark muttering. 'Anyway,' I continued, 'Did you tell your Dad this week that I don't care about head lice?'
'Oh. Yeah.'
'What was that?'
'I dunno.'
'Of course I care. I just didn't notice you had it.'
'Yeah, well, Dad says you're rubbish at noticing things.'
'WHAT? He said WHAT?'
In the background, I heard F's Dad shouting 'I did not! I did NOT say that! You tell your Mum I didn't say that!'
F sighed.
'Yeah, well, actually Dad didn't ACTUALLY say that. But I reckon he thinks you're rubbish at noticing things, cos he said to me, Oh, you're at Mum's for two weeks and she doesn't notice you've got lice and you're with me for two days and I notice.'
'F, I think I have to go. I think I should not say anything to that.'
'Okay Mum. Bye.'

And he hung up, leaving me gaping at the phone and looking meaningfully at The Husband.
'Did you HEAR that?'
'Yeah. Don't worry about it. It's just stupid.'

His Dad's barber cuts his hair to look like his Dad's. His Dad was brought up by a military family and went to an English boarding school and you can still tell when you look at him. His Dad's barber is likely losing his eyesight too: after a haircut, random long strands unexpectedly wisp across his forehead or brush his cheek. The Husband usually fixes Dad's barber's haircuts by evening them out with a razor, giving him a number three buzzcut.

'His hair was too long,' his Dad had told me. 'That's why he had lice.'
'It wasn't long at all! That's not why he had lice.'
'Well, why did he?'
'Because kids get lice.'
'When his hair is longer, it's harder to get the lice out and he was uncomfortable.'
'Okay,' I sighed. 'Fine.' Pause. 'When he's a teenager he'll choose my hairdresser anyway.'
F's Dad snorted.
'What kind of teenager do you expect him to be?!'
'I don't know.'
'I think you're going to try to make him into some scruffy-haired Nirvana look-alike.'
'He can express himself however he chooses,' I replied primly, not admitting that a long-haired Nirvana look-alike would be fine with me.
'Oh, is that right? Any way he chooses? So he can have tattoos and piercings?'
'Well, within reason. Not tattoos and piercings. But if he wants long hair, yes.'
F's Dad snorted and sighed in quick succession.
'You know,' he said, 'You've become quite conservative, really.'

Monday, May 25, 2009

Letter from Sydney (Writers' Festival)

Greetings from Sydney!

I’ve been here to attend the Sydney Writers’ Festival. In between getting horribly lost, catching cabs in the wrong direction, having my hostel room flooded (torrential rain flushing leaves, mud and 2cm of water across my floor) and sweltering in my Melbourne winter clothes ... it’s been fun.

This morning I discovered that former model and crime writer Tara Moss has been blogging the festival for the local ABC (702) and really done a pretty terrific job. The last time I read something of Tara’s at length was an article she wrote in a now-defunct magazine (The Eye, I think) about preparing for a book launch, in which she described picking out the perfect LBD and borrowing diamond jewellery. As a young publishing apparatchik at the time, I snorted and eye-rolled at the ridiculousness of it, and the distance from most authors’ reality, and vowed never to pay attention to anything she did again. (Though later, when I was working at a bookshop, Tara once again gave me cause for amusement when she dropped in for a signing and the male staff and owners all flocked to have their photo taken with her, unsuccessfully trying not to openly drool.)

It’s a good, engaging blog that gives you a good overview of the festival and has some nice short, snappy interviews. Hooray for a novelist who knows how to blog! (And no, she’s not the only one, but many don’t.) For the first time, I am prepared to admit that Tara is not just a pretty face.

My festival highlights were:

Being part of the large crowd for Christos Tsiolkas’s discussion of The Slap. There was a real warmth in the room, a definite sense of community, thanks in no small part to the graciousness of the author, in particular his dignified and admirably modest response to criticism (which, in turn, was quite politely put) and his seeming enthusiasm for engaging with his readers. It was like one big book club. And the extended, vigorous applause at the end was wonderful to hear and see – it felt like a kind of ‘thank you’, and I think Christos felt it as such. His face glowed with pleasure as the clapping rolled on. "I wanted to write a book about the middle-class. What we saw as the middle-class in Australia had changed dramatically over the past 20 years. I wasn't seeing that in the books we were writing or the films I was seeing and that was what fired me to write the book."

Not that I’m measuring my experience by ecstatic applause, but ... Richard Flanagan’s closing address on the dangers to our book industry, and Australian culture as a whole (not to mention jobs during an economic crisis) posed by the proposed changes to the parallel importation rules. He was so eloquent, so passionate, so engaging, so lyrical and breathtakingly logical in his argument. And the packed audience in the Sydney Theatre Company applauded so hard and so long that he left the stage and came back, and people began stamping their feet in approval. Of course, he was playing to a captive audience ... (the publishing industry’s version of ‘true believers’). “There will be a dying back of Australian literature as sad in its way as the dying of the Murray or the Great Barrier Reef.” You can download the speech in full here. (And, while we're on the subject ... YA author and Penni Russon also gives an excellent, logical, passionate argument against the so-called Coalition for Cheaper Books (Dymocks, Big W & Coles) here.)

The charismatic, deeply talented Philipp Meyer talking about his novel American Rust, growing up in Baltimore (and yes, this prompted questions about The Wire from both the interviewer and the audience), being a Wall Street trader and dropping out to write a novel, going to New Orleans to help out following Hurricane Katrina (he has worked as an emergency medical technician) and the writing process. The Australian’s chief literary critic Geordie Williamson officiated beautifully, though he gave away too much of the plot. Note to all chairs: DON’T GIVE AWAY THE PLOT! Of the impetus for American Rust, set in a former steel town in Pennsylvania devastated by the collapse of American manufacturing, he says, “I wanted to show what life was like in those places, good and bad.”

Some fascinating industry sessions with visiting international publishers.

Seeing Bob Ellis wander about the place, pillow in a plastic bag, looking suitably dishevelled, as befits his 'sad clown' persona, and as if he might lay down and take a kip in a corner at any moment. He did seem to slip out rather mournfully from Richard Flanagan's session in which he took a knife to Ellis's mate "Macquarie banker" Bob Carr (who famously told the crowd at last year's SWF that he doesn't read Australian fiction). I dearly wanted to stop him and ask what he thought of Carr's behaviour, but resisted the temptation.

Walking in the descending darkness along Sydney Harbour, between venues, watching the Opera House lights come on and listening to Fleet Foxes on my headphones.

UPDATE: You can read about Meanjin's (aka Sophie Cunningham's) SWF experience here. Includes excellent gossipy anecdote about Good Weekend journalist Mark Dapin (who I think writes always-interesting feature articles) inviting a publicist to punch him and ending up with a black eye.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Stranger danger

"If a parent from school, someone you don't really know, pulled up while you were walking home from the oval and asked if you wanted a lift home, what would you say?" I ask F as we walk to school, feeling confident of his answer.
"I'd say yes please," he says, equally confident that he is right.
"No! No, that's not what you do. You say no thank you."
"Really? Why?"

And I wonder if perhaps the parents up at the school who say 'it's so nice that he's independent, he seems to really enjoy walking home alone' with immovable smiles and disapproving eyes are, after all, right.

"Well, you don't know those people and they might kidnap you," I say, in what I hope are wise tones.
"Why would they do THAT?" He looks up at me with wide eyes, bewildered.

And I remember that I don't want him to be afraid of the world, that I want him to feel confident and to take risks and make friends.

"Well, they probably wouldn't. It's not likely that you'd be kidnapped of course. It's not something that happens very often AT ALL. Hardly ever. But you need to be careful, because you just don't know. You have to be careful when you don't know people."

And I think that he does walk a long way and I would like him to be able to accept a lift if someone is driving into Yarraville village, especially if it's raining.

"You can accept a lift from M or T or S's dad, and THAT'S ALL. Only them."
"What about D's mum?"
I think about it.
"But she wouldn't kidnap me. I've been to her HOUSE."
"I know. Of course she wouldn't. But I don't know her very well."

I am trying to keep it as simple as I can.

"What about A's mum?"
"Yes, that would be fine. But that's ALL."
"And anyone in our family."

We keep walking. He pats the dog. We talk about how much we love the dog. He decides that he and The Husband love the dog up to the moon and back and I only love her to the tree at the end of the road and back. I tell him this sounds about right.

"If you were kicking a footy at the oval with a friend and B came over and said he was playing cricket at the park near our house and asked you to come with him, what would you do?"
"I'd go with him!"
"You'd just go?"
"Straight there?"
"Uh huh." Worry clouds his face. "I'm allowed to go to the park with B, aren't I?"
"Well, yes. But only if I know you're there. If you went with him, if I went looking for you to tell you it's time to come home - which I definitely would - you would be gone and I would be terrified and I'd have no way to find you."
"Oh. I see."
"So, you would come home and ask me if you could go to the park with B, and I would probably say yes."

We are nearly at school now.

"So, what if a kid you know came to the oval and said he's at a house down the road and he has chocolate cake and would you like to come over and get a piece?"
"I go?"
"No. You don't. If you are at the oval, you must stay there and not go anywhere except home."
"Oh. Okay."

I remember that Asperger's kids don't make connections between scenarios as easily as others do, and need the rules for different situations spelled out individually and specifically. I realise I have many, many more conversations like this to come ...


My mum arrives from Adelaide that day. I tell her the story. She gives me another one to try. Foolishly, I am confident.

"F, what if you are walking home or at the park or the oval and someone pulls up in a car and they say, quick, you mum's hurt and she's sent me to get you and take you home?"
"I go with them!"
"No. Only if it is The Husband or family or N or K or M or T. That's it. They are the only people I would ever send to get you. Okay?"


I have a long way to go ...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Unwritten rules: and why they should be written down

Why is it wrong to put your feet up on the train, but perfectly okay to blast the whole train carriage with inane soft rock, throbbing techno, or even - though it's never happened in my experience - really good music?

It might be a sign of ageing, but I am so sick of people (mostly teenagers) sitting on the train and using their mobile phones as if they were ghetto blasters. Recently, F and I had caught a train to the city, and on the way home, between Footscray and Yarraville, a mild-looking thirtysomething passenger filled the carriage with loud, tinny Bollywood music. F and I looked up from our newspaper (me) and Mad magazine (him) to glare at her, and muttered to each other about the interruption to our peaceful reading, previously broken only when F decided to read me lengthy excerpts from Mad.
"I really wanted to take her phone and throw it out the window," I growled once we got off the train and stood waiting at the Anderson Street level crossing.
"Yeah, I reckon," said F.
"I was ready to punch her."
"I mean ... obviously, I would never punch someone. I was just that angry."
"Yeah, of course Mum."
"But I shouldn't have said that."
"No, you shouldn't."
"It was a bad example."
"Yes, it was. A TERRIBLE example." We looked briefly, unexpectedly, into each other's eyes, both caught staring at our reflections in the Chinese takeaway window as we moved down the street towards home.
"Why can't people wear headphones?" I grumbled.
"That's why iPods were invented!" said F, rather cannily, I thought.
"YES! You're so RIGHT! It's why Walkmans were invented before that, anyway. Walkmans, followed by iPods. I'm going to say that next time I see someone doing that. Thanks F."

Back home, I continued my rave, now aimed at The Husband.
"I am going to start taking those free earphones they offer you on the plane," I said, "and I'm going to carry a supply with me, and when I see people doing that again, I will just go up to them and give them a pair of earphones and tell them to use them. That's what I'll do!"
The Husband glanced up from the football on television, bemused. "You would go to all that trouble?"
"Yes. Yes I would."

I am kind of ashamed that the one time I did tell someone off about this it was a 12-year-old kid, who actually had a ghetto blaster (the size of his skinny torso) balanced across his knees. In my (lame) defence of only targetting the harmless, this was only the second time I'd encountered this trend of imposing your music on everyone, the first being the time I was so engrossed in my book that I accidentally caught the train to Altona instead of Williamstown, where a gang of shirtless tattooed boys, and girls in neon halter tops and alarmingly white hair, were playing a hip-hop version of Richard Marx as we rolled past a flame-topped oil refinery in the midst of a sheaf of bare paddocks. I was too freaked out wondering where this undeveloped space had sprung from and worried that the teenagers might beat me up to ask them to turn Richard Marx off.

Anyway ...

Yesterday it was four teenage girls, squealing and 'oh-mi-GOD-ing' about boys and getting pissed, playing 'More Than Words', a hideous bit of 1990s soft-rock (or 'soft metal ballad'), singing it at the top of their lungs and looking insanely smug and satisfied at successfully dominating the carriage. I may well have done the same thing at their age - I do remember singing 'American Pie' on the back of a few buses with my friends (no musical accompaniment) and thinking we were pretty damn special. I sat there and swore under my breath and glared and looked around the carriage, tryng to gauge my support if I shouted across for them to "shut the fuck up". I tried not to think about taking the phone and throwing it, or smashing it underfoot. I grew a little disturbed about just how violently angry I was about this admittedly trivial matter. I said nothing. And when one of the girls met my glare, I looked away. Damn.

And got irrationally, disproportionately angry again when I went up the Flinders Street Station escalators and nobody moved so I could walk up. Just as I am sure there is an unwritten rule that you use headphones on public transport, there is another that on escalators - especially at the train station - the people on the left stand still and on the right they walk. Like a fast and slow lane. It must be a rule, as so many people obey it unthinkingly so much of the time. Right? But because it's unwritten, it's hard to get mad or say anything when people don't obey.

If Connex wasn't so plagued by more serious problems, I would lobby them to write these rules.

Oh - and the other rule that made me mad when it was broken, as I got off the train - that you wait for the passengers on the train to get off before you get on. That's a rule, right?

Bloody unwritten rules.

Next time someone blasts their mobile phone music down the train carriage, I shall sit or stand next to the offender and proceed to read very loudly from my book at them. Yeah right.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter Saturday

I picked up F from the V-Line platforms at Spencer Street Station this morning. He saw me before I saw him.

I had turned to watch another platform, unsure of where his train from Geelong would arrive, when I heard a raucous chorus of my name and “MUM!” There he was in his new striped hoodie, leaning under the weight of his bursting school backpack, flanked by his cousin J and my mother-in-law’s partner E, all of them smiling and waving – the boys beaming, E looking weary.

F had been staying with them at Aireys Inlet for the past few days. The night before, when my mother-in-law rang me to make arrangements for today’s pick-up, I’d heard the boys in the background. They were telling horror stories in the dark, she told me, with neon glow-sticks instead of a campfire. They had planned a rock disco.

E and J caught the train back to Geelong, fortified by fried rice and sushi from the station food court. We caught a tram down Collins Street to the CAE Library, to take back the DVDs we’d had borrowed the week before.

F has recently developed a passionate love of a fast food outlet in a Collins Street food court called Wrapz. When I took him and the boy next door to CAE library last week, I’d popped in there on a desperate impulse on our way home, when I realised it was 3pm and F hadn’t had lunch. F had a beef supreme wrap – basically, a tortilla wrap with bacon, beef, lettuce, tomato and barbecue sauce. Boy next door and I munched through hot chips with chicken salt as F rhapsodised about his wrap and the boys watched the football on a television screen playing silently overhead.

Today, F was ecstatic when I took him back to the food court for another hit. They were giving out mini Easter eggs at the counter, which he gleefully pounced on. He was just as eager about filling out a form to join the Wrapz Club. He asked for a pen and I watched as he carefully filled in his birthday and email address in biro. (“I’m not giving them my phone number though!” he said, a little scornfully, with a teenager’s cynicism.) The woman behind the counter gave a little start when he handed over his form in exchange for his meal.
“Would you like an Easter egg?” she said.
“I’ve already had one,” he admitted, a little sadly.
“You can have more if you like.”
He delicately picked another shiny foil egg from the plastic tub, thanking her immaculately, his face glowing with awe.
“I don’t think they get many people joining their Wrapz club,” he whispered as we sat down at one of the white plastic squares beneath the television. I think he was right.

“Can we go to Haighs?” he asked as we ascended the escalators back to the street. Last week, I’d taken him and Boy Next Door to Haighs and bought them each a small white chocolate Easter Duck. As we strolled back through the arcade towards Collins Street, each of us nibbling on our chocolate, Boy Next Door had ruminated, “When I grow up, I want to be a chocolate taster.”
“I know someone who’s a chocolate reviewer,” I said.
Wowwwww,” they breathed in unison. “Cooooool.”
“You know, my mum worked at Haighs in Adelaide when she was a girl. And so did her mum, my nana. They got to eat as much chocolate as they wanted while they were in the shop.”
This was even more impressive.

I’d actually been planning to take him back to Haighs, to get him a small something as an Easter present, as he went to his dad’s house tonight.
“Mum, you go look around,” he said. “I’ll look at the bars, I think.”
He lined up behind the considerable queue at the counter, with its glass display case of finger-sized bars and delicate dollops of filled chocolates, while I mooched around the edges deciding what I would buy myself for Easter. (The Husband doesn’t eat chocolate, and doesn’t do Easter presents, but it’s a great excuse for eating chocolate guilt-free and I refuse to miss out.)
“Mum, do you mind if I do this alone?” F asked firmly but politely as I crept up on him in the line. A two dollar coin shone in his open palm.
“Of course. I’ll go to the back of the line.” I figured he was spending his pocket money and wanted to do it independently.
“I’ll have a dark chocolate peppermint frog,” I heard him say. He doesn’t eat dark chocolate. I realised that he had a plan, and what it was. The small paper bag passed seamlessly from his hand to me, leaning past the people between us in the line. “Happy Easter Mum,” he said solemnly. “I know it’s your favourite.”
“Thank you so much darling.” I hugged him tight, and he let me. “I am so surprised. Hey, you’ve got a dollar left.”
“I do too!”
“Will you get yourself something? You could buy yourself a frog.”
“Oh! I can too!”
And he bought himself a milk chocolate peppermint frog. Outside in the arcade, I showed him the egg and the palm-sized bilby I’d bought as his Easter present.
“For later.”
We unwrapped our chocolate frogs and ate them walking back down Collins Street.
“This is pretty good, Mum. You’re right.”
“I know.” And I thanked him again, enthusing carefully (and genuinely) over how wonderful my frog was and how it’s my absolute favourite.
“I wanted to get you something,” he said. “Because you won’t be with your family over Easter.” I was so pleased that I took a detour by tram to Carlton to pick up a special order book that had come in for him. (A book which he had announced he planned to take out from the school library and keep until it was marked lost, so he could read it whenever he wanted. I ordered it instead, telling him this was a better way to keep the book.)

When we got home, some hours later, he trotted down the hallway to deposit his things and stopped dead in the doorway of his bedroom, gaping at his bare mattress, the bedclothes piled on the floor, and the stale whiff of urine.
“Are you wondering what’s going on with your room?” I asked.
“Yes. I am.” He had spent a whole morning cleaning it up before he last left it.
“Um ... I’m really sorry but ... J wet your bed and we couldn’t get rid of the smell.”
There had been an overlap where my mother-in-law, J and E had stayed at our house while we stayed at theirs in Aireys Inlet, then we’d all met up there before The Husband and I came home, leaving F behind. During their stay, the accident had happened.
“It was an accident,” said The Husband, appearing behind us.
“He didn’t mean it,” I echoed.
F sighed. “I know,” he said. “He has a problem with that.” He seemed to accept it. The Husband and I looked at each other, relieved.
“We’re buying you a new mattress before you come back next week,” I assured him.
“Yeah, when I was there he had an accident,” F continued.
“Oh yeah?”
“Yeah, he pooed in the bath.”
“What?” J’s problems, as far as we know, only happen at night. He’s school age.
“While you were in there?” asked The Husband.
“Yeah. I just looked and there was this big brown thing floating in the bath.”
“Oh. Did M and E know?”
“Yeah. They weren’t impressed.”
“It was pretty big.”
“That was a bit naughty.”
“I know.” And he sat down on the couch to watch the football. The Husband clutched my arm as I moved to follow him into the lounge.
“You know, I did that when I was his age,” he whispered, giggling.
“Don’t tell him that.”
“Of course not.”

It’s household legend that on F’s fifth birthday, The Husband (then The Boyfriend) told him a story about how he had pooed in the backyard when he was four years old. We were out to dinner at the time and I was not amused. Later on, when he got home, The Husband came back from a visit to the outside toilet, doubled over with laughter, to find an example of the saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. (I was still not amused. Then again, I have told F some pretty stupid stories about my own childhood, and was just lucky enough not to be flattered with imitation.)


During the brief period at Aireys Inlet when we were all there together, a motley jumble of family in a two-bedroom house, I reversed tradition by taking the boys to play football in the park while The Husband read on the couch inside. I'd been reading with him when I'd got the call to help get the football out of the tree.
"She'll never get it," I heard F say as I followed J down the hall and out the back door. "It's hopeless."
Of course, this made me determined to get it down. I had to climb halfway up the tree while one boy passed me the tallest household object they could find (a mop) and the other shouted directions at me from the middle of the lawn. Eventually, the ball spilled down the branches in jerky stages, to much cheering, and the boys began to kick again while I extracted myself and jumped down. At the laundry door, after I put the mop away, I looked back.
"Come play with us!" said J.
"Maybe later. I'm reading, you see."
"Come ON, Mum!"
"See you guys. Later." I watched the ball soar across the yard and just escape the clutches of the tree. I winced.
"Okay," I relented, figuring I'd be back climbing the tree again soon anyway. "Why don't I take you to the park for a kick?"
"Put something warm on first."

"Really? YOU'RE taking them for a kick?" said my mother-in-law as I explained the plan and the boys yelled and yanked jumpers over their heads.
"Wow," said The Husband.
"Have fun!" said E, a smile playing at the corners of her lips.

I held the ball as we ambled down the dirt road, past the playground and along the inlet, past the beach. The boys directed the game.
"Markers up! Markers up!" they shouted. It's a game The Husband invented, I think, where one player kicks the ball into the middle of two others, who fight to mark it and kick it back. Once a player marks the ball without dropping it, they become the kicker. I started off as the kicker, and then each of the boys roundly beat me, each in their own way. F and I tackled fiercely - he's one of those kids who doesn't feel a thing when he's in the thick of a game, and loves to plunge himself into it. (Though I yelled to him "Be careful of my kidney! You know I'm not SUPPOSED to tackle!" - I have one kidney and was in fact told by my doctor aged five that I'm not allowed to play football. This made me very happy in years to come.) J, who is tiny for his age, surprised me by simply outrunning me, ducking and weaving with an admirable nimbleness. And each of them conspired to kick to each other rather than me when it was their turn to be kicker.

I surprised myself by having fun - though I was the first to quit, pleading exhaustion. We'd played doggedly through a gauze of grey rain, oddly shimmering in the sunlight that bled from the clouds. After the pinprick haze faded, a great rainbow stretched overhead, seeming to rise out of the sea to arch over the tiny J on his carpet of green and the murky inlet with its leggy white birds and driftwood.
"Look!" I said, and we all stopped to marvel at it before playing on.
Then I hunched into my damp hoodie while the boys ran up and down the skate ramp, squeaking and sliding on the metal in their wet sneakers. They shouted and took turns at being Wrestlemania heroes until the cold took over and I rounded them up for home. We took turns at telling horror stories on the way back to the house, and got so engrossed in them that instead of going inside for baths and showers as planned, we crouched in a corner of the garden in a circle and kept going. My mother-in-law leisurely circled the clothesline, taking down the washing, as I reached into the depths of my memory to retrieve the threads of a gruesome story I'd once told F that he'd asked me to tell over breakfast a few days earlier. I'd sleepily refused, telling him I was too tired to remember it. Now, F graciously steered me back the many times I veered off track. Next it was J's turn to tell another story.
"You tell good stories," he breathed, his blue eyes shining Disney-big in the descending darkness. "You tell another one."
"I think we all tell good stories," I said. "But maybe we should finish them inside."

My mother-in-law followed at our backs, the last of the washing in her basket. Inside, the small house was wreathed in the aroma of E's roast chicken. That night, the three of us football players and storytellers sat at the dinner table in our flanelette pyjamas, while a fire crackled and spit in the corner of the room (courtesy of The Husband) and the floor rocked gently below us with the sea winds.