Sketch of a Man

Last year I wrote a piece about the few ‘memories’ I have of my dad, who we lost many years ago; this year for his anniversary I entered the piece in the Hunter Writers Centre Grieve writing competition. It was difficult to write and harder to share, but that’s what this writing lark is all about, right? So here it is:

Tellingly, there are few photos including both Dad and me. My baptism. A group shot at the beach where I’m a rudie-nudie sitting on the sand and Dad’s in budgie smugglers — not our finest hour. The picnic where we both rock our best seventies hair. A couple form a series: Baby Drinks Dad’s Beer.

He exists in outline. In photos. In objects, symbols of a life — his architectural plans, pencils, his books, his drawings, ties, dressing gown. In stories told to keep his memory — or my memories of him — alive. My scant memories, which may only stem from other people’s: half-remembered dream fragments. From this distance it’s hard to discern their truth.

I remember Mum taking me upstairs to the den to say goodnight. Dad lifted me to touch the ceiling — that giddy feeling of being raised by big hands while my little ones reach high. Sometimes he spun me around on his stool at his drafting table, or maybe drew pictures on my hand. There is the faint wisp of smoke, rough whiskers as he nuzzles my cheek or blows raspberries on my belly.

I remember sitting at the dining table, most siblings present, air heavy with tension. Someone wouldn’t eat their dinner or was naughty and got in trouble off Dad, and it was scary. But there are special baked dinner memories, and birthdays with cake that had a ballerina on top. Picnics at Cordeaux dam, going to Dad’s work Christmas parties, long car rides to family gatherings, running around parks. Pretending to be a princess and living in a castle with my family, happily ever after.

Our last shared photos are at my eldest sister’s wedding, group shots of our big family — the happy couple, my sisters a row of real-life princesses in Laura Ashley lace. Mum smiling, Dad gaunt but proud, his suit too big. A few people look down at me, the grumpy four-year-old flower girl chewing her fingernails.

In my mind the house quickly got quieter. Dad was in bed a lot and sometimes we were allowed to see him. Standing in the doorway to Mum and Dad’s bedroom, not sure what to do; you have to be quiet. Visitors came and I was shy.

Then I have a glimpse of me at home, sitting on the brown carpet in our dining room, my white-stockinged legs tucked under me, and I smooth my good black and white checked dress over my knees. I’m in a patch of warm sun; light streams through the window and catches on dust motes floating through the air. Sitting primly, basking in the feeling of a nice dress and polished shoes, being a big girl . . . though kind of uncomfortable. There’s a buzz of activity around me and I’m trying not to be in the way, not to be noticed by these strangers. I sit there waiting for my family to come home from church. I’m told it was overflowing with people wanting to say goodbye.

This piece was published in the Hunter Writers Centre 2016 Grieve anthology, which was launched in August as part of Grief Awareness Month — visit the Hunter Writers Centre website for more details.

 

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Cloudhead: four-hour drawing marathon

Pastel on card.
Pastel on card.

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of looking up. One day recently I walked past a wall on which someone had graffitied ‘Look up!’ so I did. I’ve thought about it and done it pretty regularly since then. Where I live, you’re likely to see the underbelly of a plane, almost too close for comfort, and near my work there’s a lot of construction going on and fun stuff like a building shaped like a paper bag. I see a lot of people standing around looking up at that. Inside my work, in a museum (my new dream job!), I see more underbellies of planes, old ones this time, spaceships, helicopters. Out the window there are cranes towering over rubble, working on new apartment blocks in the heart of the city. Interesting times.

Ink on mat board.
Ink on mat board.

But mostly when I’m looking up I’m watching clouds. Clouds are amaaazing. Actually clouds in themselves can be hell boring but the sunlight on them can make magic. I’ve been drawing, painting and photographing clouds for a number of years, now that I think about it. I have a bank of cloud images, a backlog I’m slowly trying to turn into artworks. Over sea and dam, city and suburbia and dairy country, Australian clouds, Thai clouds, Cambodian clouds, clouds from planes . . . especially looking forward to doing something with those babies.

Pastel on card.
Pastel on card.

My faves are sunrise/sunset and crazy-arsed storm clouds. That’s why I love Turner and Clarice Beckett – they were out there in the elements, strapping themselves to masts or getting pneumonia from exposure in order to record the beauty of bad weather. Though as romantic as that sounds, I’ll probably stop short of risking my life for my art.

Recently I set myself a four-hour drawing marathon challenge, to help me through my cloud backlog and because my drawing muscles needed a workout. The task was from Robert Kaupelis’ Experimental Drawing, a great art book from 1980 that’s now considered a classic. The task is ‘50 Non-stop Drawings in Four Hours’, which pretty much explains the whole concept.

Pencil and pastel on paper.
Pencil and pastel on paper.

So I set aside an afternoon, got a bunch of different-sized papers together – some were card, some cartridge, watercolour paper, some with ripped edges, some toned with ink or wash beforehand – and a wide array of mediums. Then I went for it, using a handful of photos for reference and basically trying to come to grips with that age-old question: ‘What the hell even is a cloud?’

I managed about 25, and a lot of them are small, gestural and super rough. It was a great exercise, though not many actually look that great or are anywhere near finished drawings. They can’t be, if you’re spending less than five minutes on each. But one I’ve already sent as a postcard, and a few I might work up into a proper drawing, or use as a study for a painting.

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Watercolour and pencil on Arches paper.

Thanks for the idea, Bob (who has moved on to the great drawing school in the sky). Think I’ll try another marathon again sometime soon.

Summer (lions) reading: Amy Poehler’s ‘Yes Please’ and Nick Offerman’s ‘Paddle Your Own Canoe’

I’ve been getting my comedy reading on. A few months ago, I got hooked on Parks and Recreation. If you haven’t seen this show (now in its final season) because you live under a rock like me, it’s great; in the vein of the UK series The Office, it was initially meant to be a spinoff of the US version.

Set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, it centres on super-positive public servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), dedicated to kicking arse in the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Parks and Recreation office – slowed right down by her deadpan boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). They’re ably supported by a talented ensemble cast and the writing is brilliant – that great mix of crazy-funny and heartbreakingly poignant.

'"Yes please" sounds powerful and concise. It's a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman.'
‘”Yes please” sounds powerful and concise. It’s a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman.’

Anyhoo: reading. I’d heard great things about Amy Poehler’s recently released book, Yes Please, and managed to get my hands on a copy before Christmas (bless you, Alex). I hesitate to call it a memoir, though it largely is. It’s also a bit of an advice column by the funniest agony aunt around, and part photo album/part scrapbook, which is lovely and adds a personal, candid touch.

The main narrative tracks Amy’s start in the world of improvisation through to performing in Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade and various other groups; she also covers her time on Saturday Night Live and Parks and Rec. This thread is intercut with chapters about other aspects of her life, such as childbirth (‘Is it too late to flood the hospital room? Or turn it into a really fun foam party?’), being a parent, and her experience of the entertainment industry (‘Hollywood is a crazy biz and I know the biz cuz the biz iz in my blood’). There are special-guest chapters written by others, such as her mum who writes about the day she gave birth to Amy; Amy then urges readers to seek out their own birth stories from their mothers (and even provides lined pages where these stories can be written – too cute).

Yes Please really appealed to me, for a number of reasons. Amy Poehler’s kiiind of my contemporary, though a bit older; she covers a lot about growing up that I can identify with (eg. Judy Blume, sleepovers, terrible 80s fashion). I really appreciate and am trying to apply her creative advice (about writing but could be applied to any art form): ‘You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.’ (That’s a shame because I’m a goddamn expert in the latter.)

I love Amy’s straight-talking style – she sticks up for aging, and takes well-aimed shots at plastic surgery (in haiku form, of course): ‘Hey, shooting poison/in your face does not keep you/from turning fifty’. (Now that I think about it, poetry is a wonderfully employed device throughout; the development of her friendship and comedy partnership with Tina Fey, her ‘comedy wife’, reaches its climax with an acrostic poem no less.) In a very classy move, she outright refuses to speak directly about her clearly painful divorce from Will Arnett, instead focusing on the lighter side by pitching a bunch of self-help divorce books, such as ‘The holidays are ruined! This book is one page long and just contains that one sentence’.

She writes warmly about how she came to be Leslie Knope in Parks and Rec AND THEN I CAN’T READ ANYMORE BECAUSE I’M ONLY UP TO SEASON 4 SO SPOILERS GAH. But she does have a list at the end of the chapter where she praises each cast member in turn and, like the rest of the book, it’s written in a down-to-earth, heartfelt, grateful way that’s just really lovely. The gushing is tempered with gems like: ‘Nick Offerman is someone I would run to when zombies attack because he can build a boat and is great company.’

'I am your average meat, potatoes and corn-fed human male, with a propensity for smart-assery, who has managed to make a rewarding vocation out of, essentially, making funny faces and falling down.'
‘I am your average meat, potatoes and corn-fed human male, with a propensity for smart-assery, who has managed to make a rewarding vocation out of, essentially, making funny faces and falling down.’

Speaking of whom, Nick Offerman brought out his own book in 2013 and I was lucky enough to receive a copy for Christmas from my partner, who searched all of Sydney’s bookshops during Hell’s shopping period. (Bless you, Shane.) Paddle Your Own Canoe: One man’s fundamentals for delicious living is a great companion read for Yes Please, for obvious reasons but also because both Nick and Amy place emphasis on their acting/comedy careers as art. They take themselves and their work as artists seriously. Not in a pretentious way or at the cost of having fun, but they work very hard at it and have a healthy respect for themselves and their peers. These books are also two parts of the larger story about the little show that could – Parks and Recreation was often on the chopping block but managed to survive and thrive, which is great news for anyone who needs laughter in their lives (ie. ALL OF US).

Along with drinking your fill of manly-man advice from the guy who plays arguably TV’s manliest moustachioed man, Ron Swanson, readers gain insight into Nick’s life from his birth in the middle of a cornfield in Illinois; growing up, working hard but also finding time to get up to no good; moving out to Chicago in a used Subaru to pursue acting; eking out a living building theatre sets during lean times; and working his way up oh-so-gradually from bit parts, to appearing full-frontally in HBO’s incredible series Deadwood, then *cough* Miss Congeniality 2 and roles in Sundance contenders, to eventually becoming the Ron Swanson you know and love.

While you’re being amused by Nick’s humorous anecdotes, you also reap the rewards of his varied life experience. He places emphasis on finding a hobby – nay, a discipline – and working away at it, whether it’s your dream to act or fashion a canoe you can paddle off in. (He runs the Offerman Woodshop alongside his acting career.) As a bonus, there is rich advice for wooing the ladies, and he pays tribute throughout to his talented actress wife, Megan Mullally – perhaps sometimes too eloquently (do I need to know exactly what they get up to in the woods?), but on the whole it’s adorable.

The main themes underlying Nick’s uniquely deadpan and wickedly humorous book are living life while holding true to good old-fashioned values, minding your manners and, like Amy, having gratitude for all that life has given you. ‘Paddle your own canoe’ is his variation on beat your own drum, and, if you have the opportunity, do literally make and play your own drum as well (or canoe – anything, really: ‘Cook, play music, sew, carve. Shit, BeDazzle. Maybe not BeDazzle’).

Both books are refreshing, positive, often laugh-out-loud antidotes to a lot of the . . . well, crap of modern life, celebrity, and traditional and social media at the moment (with the exception of Parks and Rec castmate Aziz Ansari getting all up in Rupert Murdoch’s racist grill on Twitter this past week – taking the Parks and Rec on-set ‘No Assholes’ policy and applying it like a blueprint for the world: beautiful stuff).

They are in some ways like a soothing balm. The message is to trust yourself. Create what you want to create. And, like Amy Poehler says, be whoever you are.

The triffids are coming!!!

day-of-the-triffids

‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’

I recently read John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids for the third time. What happened was I casually picked up the book, opened it to the first page and read that first line.

Big mistake. Huge.

It was the end of October and I’d been thinking I would do National Novel Writing Month again this year (my second time) and how I want to write speculative fiction. So I’d started brainstorming and making a little reading list. Then I picked up TDotT and that was it for me. (I’d therefore like to personally blame John Wyndham for my lack of effort in NaNoWriMo this year.)

I don’t reread many books – seriously, who has the time? Plus working in publishing tends to make reading for pleasure a slightly less pleasurable experience (‘I found a typo!’ ‘Why the hell did they pick this font?’ ‘Hmm, I think the author used that adjective 100 pages ago’, etc.) But there are some books that once in a blue moon when I pick them up, I have to reread.

day-of-the-triffids-original-signed-script
Exhibit A: why this book can be difficult to adapt to the screen.

The Day of the Triffids is Wyndham’s ‘famous story of a world dominated by monstrous, stinging plants’. Okay, it doesn’t sound that scary (last time I read this book, I backed it up with The Road and yes, this book is nowhere near scary. Thanks for the nightmares, Cormac McCarthy). And the triffids would have remained a safe though ungainly feature of London gardens and parks, had some pretty lights not appeared in the sky one night and triggered a sequence of events that brings civilisation to its knees.

What is it about TDotT that I love? As mentioned above, right from the beginning it’s terrific. You can see how the opening’s influenced modern-day sci-fi/speculative fiction – 28 Days Later and Walking Dead are two examples that spring instantly to mind, where the main character wakes up in hospital and ‘while they were sleeping’ shit had got real. The waking up, not knowing where people are, the disorientation and realisation that everything has changed. For the worse. Oh my god for the worse.

Fun Christmas present for the Lego fan you love!
Fun Christmas present for the Lego fan you love. Run for your life, cowboy!

Bill Masen’s situation is intensified by the fact he’s recovering from an eye operation after a triffid-related incident. (This will become relevant later.) Sadly he therefore missed out on the spectacular comets that lit up the sky the previous night and everyone wouldn’t shut up about. Poor Bill.

He waits impatiently for someone to come and remove his bandages and reveal whether or not he can see but . . . nobody comes. (Go Wyndham, tapping into that deep-seated fear – what if the world ended and you were one of the survivors but with a disability that hugely increased the odds against you?)

Bill eventually carefully removes the bandages and ventures out to find desperate scenes – everyone seems to have gone blind overnight. A number have already given up hope, taking to the bottle or stepping out a high window (if they can actually find one).

Sometimes it is all about the triffids.
Sometimes it is all about the triffids.

It’s not all about the triffids. In fact, like a lot of speculative fiction, this book isn’t so much about the threat – the triffids, in this case – but about how people deal with the tragedy. And there are other threats here too: despair, hunger and that old favourite, man’s inhumanity to man.

This book is not fast-paced, wall-to-wall action, but is incredibly tense in other ways. And I love the quieter moments where the characters have a chance to reflect on the big picture of what’s happened and what it means. The moment where they have to face their dystopian future head on:

‘Quite consciously I began saying goodbye to it all. The sun was low. Towers, spires, facades of Portland stone were white or pink against the dimming sky. More fires had broken out here and there . . . Quite likely, I told myself, I would never in my life see any of these familiar buildings after tomorrow.’

This novel is a perfect example of the genre known as ‘cosy catastrophe’, which I didn’t know was a thing. Bill and his new friend Josella spend a fair amount of time in an enviable position – firstly, they are two of the few people who can see, and secondly, they can see where luxury pads and gourmet small goods are. It ain’t all bad. Their last night in London is spent holed up in a sweet suite, dressed to the nines (well, Josella is – women, eh) and pigging out. Oh okay, it’s not all a walk in the triffid-filled park:

‘Night magnified the quiet of the city, making the sounds which broke it the more desolate. From time to time voices rose from the street, edgy and brittle with hysteria. Once there came a freezing scream which seemed to revel horribly in its release from sanity. Somewhere not far away a sobbing went on endlessly, hopelessly.’

Triffid bench in London. Would you sit on it? Oh hell no.
Triffid bench in London. Would you sit on it? Oh hell no.

Way to spoil the mood. Other passion killers for Bill and Josella include the time they’re starting over with a bunch of survivors and cluey Josella susses out how exactly they’re going to have to repopulate the earth. (Hint: Bill’s going to be a busy man.)

Bill Masen’s a competent protagonist – he’s a man of the times, a bit of an everyman who, luckily, has a lot of experience working with triffids and just doesn’t trust the damn plants. He’s not really an action man, but that’s alright; he gets things done. He also happens to have anti-triffid guns. He’s a guy you want to stick with when things go south in a triffid-related manner.

Josella is a woman of the 1950s but although a bit annoying at times she’s a pretty good heroine. She’s quick thinking, a tad feisty and she knows how to look good in ski pants. Bill indulges in a bit of quaint misogyny by describing her (she ‘prattles on’ etc), but it’ll be a few decades until Lt Ellen Ripley et al hit the sci-fi scene, so let’s take what we can get.

I happened to pick up half a dozen or so second-hand Wyndhams in the past year or so; looks like it’s time to get busy!Image1599

 

Aside from The Day of the Triffids, off the top of my head a few others I reread are: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I’m curious to know what books other people return to time and again.

Working the Dream

I’ve been lucky to work in three of my dream jobs and the second of these was in my late twenties.

photo
A bookshop you could fall in love with.

The dream job in question was at least fifteen years out of date. It was: bookseller. Like any book nerd, I’d read, thought and fantasised a whole lot about bookshops; been lost in, got high on, felt horribly lonely in, been intimidated by bookshops. I’d even fallen in love inside them – with books, of course. And Joe from The Magic Faraway Tree, Jim from Trixie Belden (amiright, girls?), probably some lame-o guy from Sweet Valley High, Rochester, Darcy – and, more importantly, with heroines like Jo March, Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet, and so on.

Then recently I’d read this quote (yup, in a book):

. . . I liked the idea of living in a big city – any city, especially a strange one – liked the thought of traffic and crowds, of working in a bookstore, waiting tables in a coffee shop, who knew what kind of odd, solitary life I might slip into? Meals alone, walking the dogs in the evenings, and nobody knowing who I was.

What a romantic idea. I wanted to move to the big smoke and become a painter and work in a bookshop. LIVING THE DREAM. What a newb I was, both at cities and at working in bookshops.

But I made the big move to the Outer-Inner West of Sydney and I painted – if, by painting, I mean set up a little studio at our new urban flat and then procrastinated and, instead of painting, spent great swathes of time watching Six Feet Under (I had a lot to catch up on and it was very important that I did) and getting slightly (understandably) depressed. I didn’t have a job at first. For only, like, a few weeks, but at the time it was long enough to feel like I was chronically unemployed and unemployable, only boasting skills such as daydreaming and dabbling, and mostly only good for plonking down for a few hours in front of HBO’s most favourite funeral parlour family ever to grace our TVs.

But in reality I landed my dream bookshop job pretty quickly. The interview consisted of me, wide-eyed, sitting with the very poised bookshop manager in the food court that butted up against the shop, answering a handful of very easy questions about my employment experience – me thinking Wow, this is amaazing!, her thinking Wow, this overqualified person would be great as basically a second manager who I only have to pay as a retail assistant!

And then, suddenly, I  had my dream job. Well, my new dream job. Discounted books! Witty repartee with colleagues and customers! Reading and reading and yet more reading. Reading at work. Amazing author events. Meeting some of my heroes. Those are things that mostly didn’t happen.

photo (2)
An absolutely beautiful bookshop. At which I did not work.

This is what mostly happened:

  • I learnt how to use retail software, a book database, Eftpos and a pricing gun. Look out, world!
  • I vacuumed. (An unwelcome surprise, as I’d recently been an ‘accommodation assistant’ in an Irish hotel; when I left that job I’d thought if I ever saw another vacuum cleaner again I’d set it on fire and kick it out into the street.)
  • Balancing the books at the end of the day. (Me, doing accounts. How did that happen and how did anyone trust me with maths and, in turn, their business?)
  • Asking a hundred times a day, ‘Is that on credit?’
  • Telling many, many customers that we didn’t have that book they wanted but we could order it in. (Or they could go to nearby Kmart and get it 20% cheaper, is something I didn’t say. Unless my boss had annoyed me.) Like we were basically a hole in the wall where you could order books online. ‘Cos we kinda were.
  • Telling teenage girls that sorry, we’d run out of Twilight again but were ordering more copies in asap. ASAP. ASAP I promise, god!
  • Hearing ‘What do you feel like, what do you feel like, feel like a king, Donut Kiiiiing?!!’ piped into the shopping centre over and over to the point where hell yeah, I decided I was the Donut King.
  • ‘I’m looking for a book. Oh, what was it called? I don’t know who it was by. All I know is it was on Oprah.’
  • Watching events of Shakespearean proportions unfold in the foodcourt.
  • Starting to feel like I was going dyslexic or mad from poisons pumped through the terrible air con. Fearing Legionnaires’ disease like it was 1989.
photo (1)
Sadly, we did not have a handsome book cat.
  • Unpacking endless boxes of books until I started hallucinating about diving into the styrofoam packaging and swimming through it to Narnia.
  • Being a captive audience for local colourful characters who had interesting ideas about the lack of sex in the Harry Potter books (!), or who ran laps of the bookshop while coming down off their drug of choice, or who hid from their wife behind the shelves as she roamed the food court, calling his name.
  • Staring down would-be shoplifters (yep, that’s a bit rich for me).
  • Needing to go to the toilet the minute my manager left for the day. And then having to look after the shop another two hours. On my own.
  • Having two four-year-old girls feel sorry for me and come and help me pack up the sales tables at the end of the day. (Okay, that was pretty cute.)

You might be thinking, so what you’re saying is dream jobs are a total waste of time and impossible to achieve and why bother? Okay, it turned out it wasn’t quite a dream but I don’t regret it at all. I’d say to you that if you want to pursue a dream job, you should do it as soon as possible. Only months after I left the bookshop, the GFC hit – the shop was sold and last I saw had become a bargain basement clothing shop of the worst kind. That whole suburb is now lacking a bookshop. There are currently around 200 less ‘bricks and mortar’ bookshops in Australia than when I was recommending The Time Traveller’s Wife to every second person to tread our worn but beautifully vacuumed carpet. If I hadn’t had that dream job then, I might never have at all.

I read the most books in those eighteen months that I think I’ve ever read (though sadly not at work). In amongst all the banal chitchat about Oprah books and undeserved bestsellers and . . . Twilight . . . there were numerous book recommendations made and received, and much appreciated. I met several local authors who were customers, I got to help out at author events; hell, I had my photo taken with the Cat in the Hat. And, in the end, that job led me semi-directly into a career in book publishing.

Also, I could visit the Donut King whenever I wanted. For my inner fifteen-year-old, it really was a dream job come true.