Tuesday, September 22, 2015

On being a scaredyCATI. I worked as a market research phone interviewer for nearly six years, and most of the time I hated it. I've always dealt poorly with rejection, and it just did not get any easier to call people up and ask them to do surveys.

I liked the people I worked with – who came from an interesting range of backgrounds, from students and retirees to underpaid creative professionals – and I liked the small company, which never felt too much like a grim battery. Even when we were at our busiest – we did a statewide local government performance benchmarking survey that required full shifts – there were never more than about forty people at work.

But I dreaded the cold-calling. I used to make endless cups to tea to procrastinate from having to sit back down in my cubicle. I used to get in trouble for dawdling on my breaks and for talking too much with my co-workers – my 'dial rates' were always too low.

And you won't find a more literal version of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon than the call centre supervisor system. I got along quite well with most of the supervisors – by the end, I'd worked there long enough that some of them had once been regular interviewers like me – but I hated the feeling of constantly being monitored. I never felt at ease. I always felt like I was maybe already doing something wrong, and was just waiting to be caught and reprimanded.

That's what people don't understand when they say things like, "Surveillance is benign if you're a diligent worker and good citizen. It's only for catching bad people. If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear." This ignores the structural purpose of surveillance systems: they are designed to make everyone feel like potential wrongdoers. They're animated by blanket fear. At least part of the reason why I prefer to work as a freelancer, alone at home, is that I can minimise workplace surveillance.

Yet despite feeling so terrible about this work, I sometimes agreed to do more specialised jobs such as mystery shopping. I had to pretend to sign up for insurance, to test the companies' phone customer service. Fuck, it was stressful, having enough information to fool them into thinking I was from a completely different location, and whether the details of my fictitious home and car passed their test. Every fucking phone call was like infiltrating enemy lines in a stolen enemy uniform, hoping I didn't give myself away with some shibboleth. I had to do this job from home, on my own phone, using a special code to hide the caller ID. Oh god, the sick feeling of each call.

I thought I'd done well to last in the industry for as long as I did, but thinking back, I wonder if this job is the reason why I now loathe doing phone interviews or making business calls.

It's quite a disadvantage in my chosen profession. I now turn down offers to interview people because I'm overwhelmed by anxiety – will I fuck up the questions, will they be mean to me, will my recording device fail? There are so many people I can anger and disappoint with a bad interview. And I feel such shame about it – because a good journalist is meant to enjoy interviewing people, and eagerly seek out interviews.

Having to interview people for Out of Shape was nightmarish. I knew I couldn't get around it. I tried to do it in person or online if I could, but I had to interview one person over the phone, who was home sick from work at the time, and all the way through I could feel myself slipping back into that slick but ingratiating voice I used to use in my market research days, jollying the interviewee along.

Anyway, I was just thinking about this because I have to call up my old high school and deal with the woman in the development office who's meant to be sending out the invitations to our forthcoming reunion, because she hasn't replied to my emails and my fellow alumna are freaking the fuck out about it. Personally I couldn't give a fuck whether there is a reunion or not; I only decided to help organise it because that way I get the kind of reunion I would want to attend.

Maybe I'll make a cup of tea and then call.

Monday, July 20, 2015

On soft classical music. I'm currently working on a proof-reading job at the kitchen table. Behind me I have my computer set up to play music quietly in the background.

It's cycling randomly through my playlist 'Not Christmas', which as its name implies, it everything in my iTunes except my vast collection of Christmas music. (I have so much Christmas music that it ruins any shuffle through my entire collection.) This means that I get a lot of classical music, especially as I have a lot of collected works by particular composers.

Currently it's playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, as performed by Daniel Barenboim, who chooses to play it very delicately, so softly that I didn't recognise the famous melody at first over the hum of the heater.

Classical music has a very powerful effect on me when it's played softly in a quiet room. If I feel stressed, or panicky, or otherwise overwrought, it empties my head. It calms me.

It seems so long ago now that I used to see a psychologist. I stopped going because I could not longer afford it, and also because I felt as if I wasn't 'making any progress' but rather was just whingeing self-indulgently about my poor social skills and time management abilities. I sometimes wonder if my psychologist has ever come across any of my published work and attributed my 'success' to her ministrations. Probably she was just happy to accept my money and never thinks of me at all now she no longer has to listen to my petty problems.

Anyway, her rooms were in a converted terrace house in Carlton, and the waiting room was in what might otherwise have been a downstairs living area. It was a small room lined with chairs, and in the corner was a small radio that was always tuned to ABC Classic FM at a very low volume. It was deliberately intended to be soothing; but it had the desired effect on me. I found it incredibly soothing to sit in that room. I would often have that dry, wrung-out feeling that comes from having cried insanely for a long period.

I also like classical music radio because of that unnecessarily long pause that always happens at the end of a piece of music, followed by a loud inhalation as the announcer says in cultured tones, "…aaaand that was Daniel Barenboim, performing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata…" The announcers on classical radio stations always have very husheseem to sit too close to the mic, so that every pop and hiss of saliva and breath is captured and broadcast. But it would ruin the pleasure of it if they sat back properly.

The other time I like to listen to soft classical music is in my car or through headphones when I'm on public transport. It really cuts through the stress of having to get somewhere on time, or the annoyance of other cars and passengers. Somehow my iChoonz seems to intuit these moments and it often selects one of my favourite pieces of music for this purpose, Arabesque No. 1 by Debussy. I have two versions of this: an orchestral arrangement and a piano arrangement.

I think I like the orchestral one better because of the creamy woodwinds fluttering about above a bed of strings, with horns warm in the background like sunset glowing through clouds. Indeed, once I was driving west in the late afternoon and this piece of music came on the old iChoonz as I was gazing at the peachy-tinted sunset clouds, and I was almost overcome by the beauty of it in the middle of ordinary suburbia. Saying so feels so naff now that stupid plastic bag in American Beauty has ruined the notion of quotidian beauty.

Anyway, it's so soothing to do this methodical kind of work, which requires a certain quiet concentration, with classical music playing softly in the background. The only thing ruining my happy workday is Graham, who insists on doing irritating things like sitting on my computer, or sitting on my manuscript, or sitting on the table staring at a cake on a plate that he is not allowed to eat. I had to fight him for every bite of my lunch. Why can't he just sit quietly and listen to the music?

Monday, May 18, 2015

Bin nightmare. Tonight I emptied the bin, which was ridiculously full because several times it filled up but I'd push the contents down to make more room, so it was this horrible compressed lasagne of rotting garbage. I was kind of hoping my housemate Dan would empty it, but maybe he was playing the same game of chicken with me.

Anyway, I decided to just give up and empty it. But when I upended it over the outside bin, the bag was so full it almost got stuck in the inside bin and I had to shake and shake and shake it and bin juice drizzled out like some diabolical jus being plated in a nightmarish parallel MasterChef, and I was retching and moaning, "Oh goddddd" on my front verandah.

And then I rinsed out the bin with bleach in the shower recess (we have an extra washing machine blocking access to our laundry tub) and now the bathroom has this horrible institutional smell, like a school corridor where someone threw up and then it was cleaned up with bleach.

Dan will get home and assume I threw up in the bathroom, when ironically I was heroic in emptying that rancid bin and not throwing up.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Romantic friendship. Last night I was at a book launch and conversation turned to Writer A who had a crush on Writer B, even though Writer A (and perhaps Writer B as well) was in a relationship. Writer A's infatuation with Writer B was longstanding and known to them both; Writer A's work had even featured a fictionalised Writer B.

It's interesting that the idea of 'romance' arises from French chivalric verse narratives (orginally meaning 'in the Roman style'), and from the 15th to the 18th century, extended works of fictional prose were often called 'romances'. The French word for 'novel' is 'roman'. Sociologist Anthony Giddens argues that romance is about introducing a narrative into your life: telling a story.

But anyway, what I found interesting about this situation was that it was ongoing, and there was no shame in it. It gestured towards a different kind of relationship: one that allows feelings of romantic love without either a sexual relationship or taboo connotations of infidelity. In such a relationship you could desire and cherish, and feel cherished and desired, without feeling exploited or exploitative.

We're used to thinking of a crush as a desire for sexual contact with the crush object, or a desire to begin a romantic relationship with them. It's seen as an initial and temporary emotional phase, during which we hope and yearn to be with our crush, vividly imagine their reciprocation, dread the possibility of rejection, feel cripplingly shy in the crush's presence, and feel shame at all these compulsive, irrational feelings ("I'm a fool for you", "crazy in love", etc).

Psychologist Dorothy Tennov, who coined the term 'limerence', describes it as a temporary state that subsides in one of three ways: the crush is reciprocated and consummated; the crush is ignored and dwindles away; or the romantic feelings are transferred from one person to another.

Meanwhile, Robert Sternberg's triangular theory of love sketches seven different types of relationships based on varying combinations of intimacy, passion and commitment.

But what if your crush wasn't either consummated or ignored, and remained constant rather than fading away or being transferred? What if you could actually tell someone you had a crush on them and it wouldn't necessarily mean you or they wanted to 'take it to the next level'? What if they knew about your crush but respected it, rather than bathing in the attention without offering any reciprocal hope or tenderness? What if such a romantic friendship didn't have to threaten any pre-existing sexual relationships?

I don't think this counts as polyamory. I think it's closer to friendship. It really annoys me that ideas of romantic friendship get retconned as same-sex relationships. I've written about this before, in relation to the film Pacific Rim, and it's a kind of relationship I would aspire to.

By now I've basically come to terms with the likelihood that I will never have a 'love life' the way most people do. The men I tend to crush on are already taken, or I suspect they would find me unattractive, so I keep the crush secret. I have a pattern of close male friendships that I tend to break off once I sense that I'm more emotionally invested than the man; it humiliates me that he sees me as easy, uncomplicated female company.

I am trying to carve out some possibility for a relationship in which the sexual aspect – the part I've always been so incompetent at – is mercifully excised, yet it might still be possible for me to receive the emotional benefits of love – a feeling of being valued, and cared for, and yearned for, and missed.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What have I been doing? Lately, whenever people I haven't seen in a while ask me what I've been up to, I really struggle to think of anything. My mind sort of riffles through the past few days and weeks and months for any activities of any significance, and comes up short.

On Saturday I vacuumed the living room rug. Not even the living room, or the house – although I basically ran the vacuum cleaner over those bits of the house I could reach without having to unplug and replug it again. 

Vacuuming the rug is such an awful task I put it off for months if I can. It's like trying to vacuum a piece of Velcro. First I do one pass with the vacuum to get rid of any surface debris such as the sticks and leaves that Graham brings in on his fur. But Graham's fur adheres to it and won't come off with just air. 

Then I have to scrape the fur loose using the brush setting on the vacuum cleaner (any other brush or broom has bristles too long or soft to lift up the fur). This requires bending over for at least an hour, painstakingly scraping the fur in small patches, and then picking it out of the bristles when they get clogged.

By the end I am sweating and my back and legs are aching as if I have been exercising. My hamstrings were still hurting this morning.

Hmm… what else have I been doing? Well, I go and see movies for work. That's the main reason I leave the house. Anthony has seized the reins of our jointly written novel project and is making sure we are currently meeting once a week – at my house, or in a food court in the city – and trying to write 2,500 words at a time. Anthony's goal is to have a full draft by the end of the financial year. So far we've written a bit over 35,000 words.

I have so many other book ideas in various stages. The thought of which one to write, and when, is dizzying and shaming. I feel like I should be much more motivated to write. I feel paralysed.

At other times I toil in the online think piece mines for $100, $150 a pop. It is dispiriting how much I invest in this work and how little I get back. I don't think anyone even reads these articles I craft so painstakingly. I don't think I'm very efficient at my work, but on Friday Penny told me that she's impressed by the amount of work I get done and wishes she could get as much done. This is absurd, because I often think guiltily of all the work Penny juggles and wish I could get as much done.

I spend a lot of time idling in cafes and restaurants between the hours of 2pm–5pm and 8pm–10pm. This is my biggest vice. During this time I read books, or articles I've saved to Pocket, or mindlessly cycle between email, Twitter and Facebook.

I visit my parents at least once a week and watch TV or movies with my brother. The weekend before last I stayed over there the whole weekend. I used their industrial-size laundry equipment to do a giant load of laundry that included 55 pairs of underpants and all my bras. I couldn't find any laundry powder so I used wool wash instead. I don't think this washed my laundry very efficiently. I'm worried that it isn't properly clean.

My stupid cat has been catching up on his vaccinations, at considerable expense to me. Like, I have been to the vet four times in the last couple of months. The vet fat-shamed him by saying he was too fat to groom himself. He weighed nearly 7kg.

This means I have been trying to find ways to make him lose weight. I have cut down his portions of dry food – I actually measure them out individually into old dip containers rather than free-pouring blearily at 5am, as I used to. Most recently, and farcically, I bought a treat ball from the vet – it cost fifteen fucking dollars! – hoping that Graham's abject greed would mean he'd get incidental exercise batting the food out of the ball.

But no. Of course not. Graham has watched me fill the ball with the dry food he loves, and then he just looks at it dully. I bat it around so a few cat biscuits come out, and he still stares stupidly. I point to the biscuits with a finger, and only then does he eat them. I even wiggle the ball around temptingly like a mouse (it has a fluffy red tail, which I also thought he would be into), and he just isn't interested. He eats the few biscuits that fall out, and then he goes and sits expectantly in front of his empty food bowl.

Aphids and caterpillars have almost completely destroyed the mint I have painstakingly propagated from some sprigs I took home from Elanor's aunt's house. I thought I did all the right things. I constantly surveill the mint on my kitchen windowsill for signs of renewal. I spray it with a 'pest oil' that I now fret was the wrong sort to buy. I think the window box of mint that the caterpillars chewed through is completely dead.

What a boring, boring life I lead.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A letter from the park. On Saturday afternoons I sometimes like to sit in the park. Here is the view I'm looking at right now.

It's not hot; it's not sunny; but the humidity is oppressive. A foetid smell – some kind of excrement; an unpicked-up dog turd, or possum shit, perhaps – wafts occasionally past me, and every time it does I think, "I should leave. I should leave."

But I don't leave. I feel heavy, listless, unable to make decisions. A small child is squatting on the path behind me, wailing. I can't stand the sound of children crying. But I'm still worried about this child. Where are his parents? Is he lost?

I tell myself that when I come to the park, I'm going to do some writing. I've brought my notebook, it's resting on my knee, but I can't seem to figure out what to write in it. Somehow I thought that getting away from my desk, with all its distractions, would make it easier to write. It would make my head clearer. But I'm feeling more listless here than I would at home sitting in front of my computer. At least there it feels like I'm doing work.

I have so many different projects I want to write. Should I write my romcom novel,  or my historical paranormal romance novel, on my Australian rural horror novel, or something else altogether? Shamefully, what I want to write most at the moment is the terrible cat-themed pr0n ebook that I made up as a joke with Anthony on Wednesday.

Speaking of cats, it's almost 7 o'clock and I should probably go home and feed poor old Graham; he has been sitting inside my house all day. I can't help thinking I've wasted this afternoon doing nothing. My entire life seems to be made up of wasted time spent doing nothing.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Australia Day is a good time to think about Indigenous Australians. Not just in the abstract, as victims of dispossession, massacres and other barely recognised atrocities, nor as Magical Negroes with cool mythologies and ceremonies and traditions and 'affinity with the land', and not even just the survivors of today.

I try to learn specific things. I want to think of my familiar places as having been someone else's familiar places long before, and of the words and names I know as having ambivalent historical meanings.

For instance, did you know that Wurundjeri, the name for the traditional custodians of the land including Melbourne, comes from the manna gum ('wurun') and a grub that lives in it ('djeri')? When an elder does a "welcome to country" ceremony and waves around a spray of leaves, they are from that tree.

And next time you're drinking your Yering Station wine, perhaps consider the events of the Battle of Yering in January 1840, in which white settler Major Charles Newman brutally forced the Wurundjeri off their land at what's now Warrandyte over a dispute surrounding the cultivation of potatoes. When 50 clan members protested, their leader Jaga-Jaga (also spelled Jakka-Jakka or Jika-Jika) was captured, but his fellow warriors created a counter-attack as a diversion to lure the whitefellas away so Jaga-Jaga could be freed. The rescue mission was successful! No whitefellas were killed or injured; it's uncertain whether any Wurundjeri were.

Jaga-Jaga sounds badass! Someone should make a movie about this guy!

There were three brothers who were known by this name. At least one Jaga-Jaga was one of the signatories to John Batman's 1835 treaty, which historians suggest was signed at a bend of the Merri Creek near the present Rushall station. Today, the brothers are namesakes of the Federal electoral division Jagajaga that spans their traditional land in the north-eastern suburbs.

The Jaga-Jaga of Yering was the nephew of Billibellary, the brilliant politician and ngurugaeta (leader) of the Wurundjeri-willam, whose subtle negotiations with white settlers helped ensure his people endured far less violence at settler hands than did other clans.

Assistant Protector of Aborigines, William Thomas, had a close friendship with Billibellary. After the latter's death, Thomas wrote: "It may be said of this Chief and his tribe what can scarce be said of any tribe of located parts of the colony that they never shed white man's blood nor have white men shed their blood. I have lost in this man a valuable councillor in Aboriginal affairs."

His son Simon Wonga succeeded him as ngurugaeta, followed by Beruk 'William' Barak, son of Billibellary's brother Bebejan. In a photo taken in his mid-thirties, Barak looks strikingly like Ned Kelly, and is certainly as handsome. He was a master diplomat, forging many cross-cultural friendships and promoting his culture to whitefellas. He's also known for his artworks, which are very collectable. He died, aged 80, in 1903, having witnessed the signing of the treaty at age 12 and lived long enough to see a whitefella nation founded on his people's land.

Barak was the last traditional ngurugaeta. His three children didn't survive into adulthood; but the leadership role does. Barak's sister's son Robert Wandoon had a son, Jarlo Wandoon, who enlisted in WWI under his whitefella name, James Wandin. Jarlo's son Juby succeeded Robert as ngurugaeta; Juby's sister Joy Murphy Wandin has also played an important role as ambassador for her people and culture. Since 2006 the ngurugaeta has been Barak's descendant Murrundindi (Gary Hunter).

The tragedy of the Wurundjeri is that their friendliness and goodwill were never repaid in kind by the whitefellas. They welcomed John Batman to their country under the understanding that the 'treaty' constituted a kind of temporary visa. Batman, however, saw it as a land purchase contract.

Batman was a horrible person. After I read Rohan Wilson's excellent novel The Roving Party I did some research on Batman, and he was every bit as cruel as Wilson depicts him. The artist John Glover, his neighbour in Tasmania, called him: "a rogue, thief, cheat and liar, a murderer of blacks and the vilest man I have ever known." When he first landed in Victoria, he heard a local dog howling and got his dogs to find and play with it. Then he drove the native dog into the water and shot it.

The Wurundjeri must also have heard terrible tales of whitefellas from neighbouring clans. Escaped convict William Buckley had lived with the neighbouring Wathaurong, whose lands are near Geelong, and told them much about England. And the coastal Bunurong people, who lived along Port Phillip and Western Port, had been killed, and their women abducted and enslaved, by white sealers and settlers.

Nonetheless, the Wurundjeri had a good working relationship with the Protectorate of Aborigines, and hospitably warned white settlers about attacks from hostile neighbouring clans. Surely it was pretty reasonable for them to be granted land to live on?

In 1863 they were granted a reserve, Coranderrk, at Healesville, years after first asking for a place to live, and being moved on from their first choice at Bulleen because it was 'too close' to white settlement. They basically squatted at Coranderrk until the government gave it to them. Still, it was a traditional camping ground; and despite not being granted the freehold on the land, and being squeezed from an initially proposed 4850 acres (1962 hectares) to 0.2 of a hectare, Coranderrk became a beacon for members of the Kulin Nation. They were happily self-sufficient and won agricultural prizes for the wheat and hops they produced there.

Of course, they farmed the land so well that their neighbours complained that clearly it must be the best land ever and hence too valuable for mere Aborigines. All sorts of indignities followed, including 'half-castes' aged under 35 being forcibly kicked off the reserve, which decreased the labour force to the point where they could barely tend their crops any more. At one point William Barak led a protest march to Melbourne, as Simon Wonga had done before him. Finally the government just decided to close Coranderrk down in 1924 and shift everyone to Lake Tyers in Gippsland near Lakes Entrance.

This was a super remote holding place for displaced Indigenous people from all over Victoria, where they were basically cut off from the rest of the state. Some older people refused to move there, and stayed at Coranderrk until they died. Eventually, around 1950, Coranderrk was carved up and used for the Soldier Settlement Scheme, although of course not for Indigenous soldiers whose requests were turned down. A tiny parcel of the land was returned to the Wurundjeri in March 1998.

Anyway, I am never sure of the etiquette of telling these stories – they're not mine, just as the places I live are not truly 'mine'. But I've always preferred a view of history that folds together the places and people of the past and present: one that helps us empathise with these long-dead Australians, to see them as individuals who were like me in wanting to be heard and recognised, and to be free to live the lives they wanted.

We should all know the histories of the geographical terrain we move across. We should know these people's names and biographies as one of those taken-for-granted parts of culture. We might have no direct stake in the names and biographies of American presidents or kings of England, but we know them anyway because we live with their cultures. Well, I am no more Indigenous than I am American or English, but Indigenous cultures have helped create my culture, and have left their traces on it.

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