Monday, December 29, 2008

Kissing spots on the face, and what they mean to me. I have considered the import of social kisses in the past, most notably in my extremely vital sociological research project. But now I would like to talk about the locations on my face that people aim for, and what I think of them. I have used a picture of Scarlett Johansson to illustrate the various spots.

1. Forehead
It always irritates me when people kiss me on the forehead. It comes across as very paternalistic, as if I were a small child being rewarded for being adorable. It also makes me feel physically small, because the people who do this are usually taller than me. Something else of this ilk is when someone grabs me by the chin. I understand that some people might regard this as a tender, intimate gesture, but apart from feeling absolutely fucking mortified when someone touches my chin, I can't help but remember how Mrs Allan, the mean Grade 3 teacher at my primary school, used to squish naughty children's chins in a fierce grip. (That shit would never fly in these paedophile-paranoid, anti-tactile times.)

2. Temple
I usually get the temple kiss when someone is coming to kiss me from behind and I have to turn my head to meet the kiss, making the temple the first point of contact. Sometimes the temple kiss is also part of a hug, either when the person is on their way to hug me, or when they're releasing me from the hug.

3. Cheek
This is the basic place for social kisses, and I've already written enough about it in previous blog posts. However I really think I might try proffering my left cheek rather than my right, to see how people respond.

4. Cheeko-Moutho
This tantalising spot is, as the name implies, too low to be the cheek yet is not quite on the mouth either. The best cheeko-moutho kisses graze the corner of the mouth. They are shy, ambiguous and elliptical. They are possibly my favourite kind of kisses.

5. Mouth
Apparently in the Olden Days a mouth-kiss between men was like a handshake is today, but I am still not used to being kissed on the mouth in a social situation. Its sexual connotation is inescapable, which is why I feel uncomfortable when someone who is not sexually available to me kisses me in this way. Also, remember that episode of Seinfeld where they debated the significance of the Open Lip Kiss?

6. Neck
I have been kissed on the neck a few times and I always felt that it was inadvertent; that the kisser was aiming for somewhere else and missed. But I do like the neck kiss. Even though it ought to be even more sexually overt than the mouth kiss, for some reason it isn't, perhaps because the other person's face is averted from mine.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

On piking. Today I was piked on for an event tonight. It's the fourth time in a row that my plus-one has ditched me at the last minute, and I can't help feeling as though this reflects poorly on me.

Piking, let me hasten to explain, is when you explicitly agree to do something, and then renege at the last moment. It's different to refusing an invitation when it's made, or ambivalently saying "maybe" you'll be able to make it.

Fig. 1: Invitation refusal timing, from least to most hurtful to me.

1. Immediately invitation is made.
2. More than 7 days ahead of event.
3. 7-2 days ahead of event.
4. By never being definite about acceptance or a refusal.
5. By not responding to the invitation at all.
6. On the day of the event.
7. After event is over.
8. Via phone or text message while the event is in progress.
9. On the day of the event, in response to a call from the event organiser.

I'm trying to be thoughtful about why people pike. I want to think the best of people, and to accept that these days it's considered socially acceptable to make fluid plans that can change. Note that I am talking about "reasons" people pike, and not "excuses", because I want to think that piking is sincerely and unwillingly done. Still, sometimes I feel as though I'm upholding a social contract that nobody else recognises. Is it that inflexible and unreasonable to expect people to honour their social commitments? And is it over-dramatic to feel that people don't value your company if they pike on you?

I also recognise that I've done my fair share of piking, but the key is that I fundamentally feel that piking is wrong, and I always feel bad and ashamed about it. I only pike when I think my absence won't be noticed, and I always try to make up for my piking with a rescheduled date. What gets me is when people don't seem bothered by having piked on me, or even express puzzlement or annoyance that I'm upset with them. That's when I start wondering of how little importance I must be to them.

Perhaps people see me as some fountain of endless invitations, or perhaps a fast-moving conveyor belt of goodies, and think it's no biggie to skip one thing because I'll surely invite them to another one soon. Perhaps they don't value their own company, and don't believe I might have been looking forward to spending time with them. But they give the opposite impression: that they don't value time with me, and plans with me can be easily broken without much trouble.

I was looking for some online etiquette guides to see if I am being irrational and overreacting, and this one seemed quite sensible:

when apologising, don’t explain the excuse in great detail. This comes across as tantamount to explaining to the nearest cent exactly what the relationship is worth to you (”ok, so I’m less important than the boyfriend’s last minute availability”, “ok, so overtime rates trump my friendship”). More details actually make this impression worse, not better, because they show just how cold-bloodedly you calculate the worth of your friends. (This may seem like nonsense—we’re all upfront hyper-rational geeks here who should be happy to have our friendship valued at market rates—but remember, it’s best for her when you over-commit to a friendship. So showing signs that you’re only rationally committed is hurtful, and not only at the conscious level either.)

I also liked the advice: "be accepting of and don’t call the organiser on any irritation that creeps into her voice", because for me the most infuriating part of dealing with a piker is when the piker tells me I'm "overreacting" and to "relax", or says "It's isn't like that".

Fig. 2: Reasons for piking on previously agreed social plans, in order of acceptability to me.

Serious illness, accident or family crisis. There's no way of arguing with these. It's disappointing, but you'd be a total chump to be mad... except if you later discover this to be a made-up excuse.

They felt too mentally unwell to go to the event. This was the reason XX used for not going to my 21st, where she was meant to give a speech. It also happened to me earlier this year when I had promised to bring a rabbit pie to a party, couldn't find any rabbit in the shops, and felt completely unable to go to the party empty-handed. This year I have also been quite depressed and have had days where all I could do was lie on my bed and cry. But it's difficult to be sympathetic about these things when you're not the one experiencing them - and the caveat about the made-up excuse also applies.

Work they feel unable to refuse. As a freelancer I understand that work can come up at the last minute, and I also understand the pressure to be seen to be committed to your job by working stupid hours. Even if this reason is a total lie, as I suspect it was when XX used it for my Christmas party, I can't begrudge people their living.

No reason given at all. This is what XX did when he piked on that weekend away. We were all, "I wonder where XX is", "Did XX know what time we were meeting...?" and finally we figured out he wasn't coming because a mutual friend told us he had made plans with her for that same weekend. While it reveals utter contempt for me, this is so bold it's almost admirable.

It proved too difficult to get to the event. Many times during my recent 3-hour public transport commute from Collingwood to Heathmont in the pouring rain with a six-pack and bottle of champagne that weren't even opened at the party, I wanted to just turn back. The reason I didn't was that I didn't want to fuck up the Kris Kringle by leaving no present for one person. I sympathise with this excuse only insofar as the invitee makes a concerted attempt to get to the event.

They fell asleep and missed the event. I have done this, which is yet another reason why I scorn napping. It's better to go to something feeling tired and to leave early than to try to fit in a nap beforehand and miss the entire event.

They forgot, and now they've made other plans instead. It happens. But this simply tells me how small and unimportant a place I occupy in the invitee's busy, exciting life.

They are disorganised and have to use your event time to do other, more urgent, things. This is why XX didn't come to an event last week that she was meant to be hosting. Even though I am horribly disorganised myself, I am not especially sympathetic about this reason because I value spending time with my friends ahead of tasks and errands.

It's a school night. Not everyone is a party animal. Some people just have fragile constitutions that can't withstand going out on the night before they have to go to school or work. But they knew the event was on a school night when I invited them! And they said yes then!

Hangover - This is the reason XX gave for piking on me today. I feel strongly that a hangover is the sufferer's own fault through mismanagement of their drinking, and as such is a poor excuse for piking.

Low-level illness - This is the reason XX gave for piking on Sunday brunch with me. Don't people realise how petty it sounds to duck out of plans with limp excuses like: "I don't feel so good", "I'm exhausted" or "I think I've got a cold coming on"? Do this often enough and nobody will invite your hypochondriac arse to anything.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dumb songs I have sung to the cat. I only ever do this when I am sure nobody else is there to hear me, but I like to adapt popular songs to serenade this aloof, uncaring animal that only wants to sleep and get fed.

(to the tune of 'Mandy' by Barry Manilow)
Oh Monty
You came and you sat in the doorway
And I thought that you were from Norway

(to the tune of 'Oh Yoko' by John Lennon)
In the middle of the yard
In the middle of the yard I call your name
Oh Monto
Oh Monto
My food will fill you up

(to the tune of 'I Want Candy' by Bow Wow Wow)
My housemate Dave has got a cat
She thinks she is all of that
She gets mad without a reason
But I like Monty in all seasons
I want Monty
I want Monty

(to the tune of 'Moscow' by Genghis Khan)
Monto, Monto
La la la la la la la
La la la la la la la
Ha ha ha ha ha, hey!

(to the tune of 'Bingo', traditional)
There was a housemate had a cat
And Monto was her name-o
And Monto was her name-o

These songs are so stupid that I hesitate to write them down, but I want to record them somewhere. I am also sad I can't use all the similar stupid songs I made up for Meep, especially the Christmas carol I used to sing to her:

O fluffy cat
Your fur is softly shining
You are the cat that we all call Meep
When you're outside, you get back in by miaowing
And then you scratch at our doors as we sleep
O fluffy cat, your fur is very fluffy
Fluffy cat, you get fluff on my clothes
Sit on my knee!
O hear the Meepy purring!
O cat divine!
O cat whose name is Meep!
O cat divine!
O cat, o cat divine

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dreaming of a bittersweet place. Some songs take you to a happy place, but are also filled with sadness because the happiness is mysterious and ephemeral.

I had a pretty shit week last week, and despite my bravado, I am pretty depressed about the whole Christmas thing, and about my life in general. At one stage this week I was full of such dread that I started getting those fantasies again of leaving my entire life behind - just running away somewhere else and starting up again.

This song is 'Dawn Of The Dead' by Does It Offend You, Yeah? They are a British band named after David Brent's catchcry in The Office, and while they use the usual indie-electro tropes and have played the festival circuit, they've been mostly ignored in Australia. I got their obnoxiously titled album, You Have No Idea What You're Getting Yourself Into ("Barely adequate dance-rock to keep you occupied until the next Klaxons record", was Pitchfork's riposte), from the Unwanted CD Box at jmag.

Despite the name, 'Dawn Of The Dead' is not really a zombie song. It's a confused song about running away, and the video is equally confused. But when it came on my iTunes the other day, at the height of my despair, it took me to that bittersweet place. There is something euphorically '80s-indie about the instrumentation that gives me that feeling of ephemerality: of love and hope simultaneously invoked and lost. I also get it from songs like 'Head Over Heels' by Tears For Fears and 'Alive And Kicking' by Simple Minds.

Daft Punk's song 'Digital Love' does the same thing more coherently, I think. It has been hip to like Daft Punk over the last year or two, but I was thinking about this song back in September 2006, when Daft Punk were a forgotten late-'90s dance act and I was writing an essay on my Headtapes project for Shane's excellent zine Music Review Quarterly.

The song ebbs and flows over the same few repeated chords, and the lyrics are goofy, charming and opaque in their Frenchified English:

Last night I had a dream about you
In this dream I’m dancing right beside you
And it looked like everyone was having fun
the kind of feeling I’ve waited so long

Don’t stop come a little closer
As we jam the rhythm gets stronger
There’s nothing wrong with just a little little fun
We were dancing all night long

The time is right to put my arms around you
You’re feeling right; you wrap your arms around too
But suddenly I feel the shining sun
Before I knew it this dream was all gone

Ooh I don’t know what to do
About this dream and you
I wish this dream comes true

Why don’t you play the game?

I love this song because it captures the sublime precariousness of dancing and love. There’s a tantalising sense of what could have happened and what might still happen. And splendidly, it’s the song’s actual catchiness that communicates all this – as though it was itself the tune to which the dream-lovers danced.

The dream metaphor also works in 'Dreamchild' by Strawpeople (later remade as 'Juice' by Headless Chickens), where the singer struggles to pin down the ephemeral nature of "the feeling I taste in my dreams", and locates it hazily in half-remembered, nostalgic things from childhood.

I would try to collect these songs and make a mixtape of them, but I fret that it would destroy their power to evoke these feelings in me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Longing for the generic. Last night I was walking home from a schmoozefest for which I'd had no plus-one. (Thankfully I ran into Richard and his own delightful plus-one, so I wasn't standing there talking to nobody.)

Anyway. I was crossing Elgin Street and I saw a generic hipster couple crossing in the opposite direction, arm-in-arm with the dude cradling a bottle of wine in his other arm. And I yearned to be that generic girl, to nestle into the knowledge that I was the sort of girl the world smiles on.

What a wonderful thing it would be. I would be thin, have a pretty face with a pointed chin, and long brown hair with a fringe. I would be able to wear anything I wanted, because clothes in shops are all made for generic girls. Maybe I'd wear a T-shirt made from that very thin cotton that looks terrible on anyone who isn't thin and glamorous.

I would have a generic boyfriend who looked nice in skinny jeans and had rumpled hair and did a nice line in scarves. (Oh, by the way, if I was this generic chick I would be able to wear scarves without the wind either blowing them in my face or unwinding them from around my neck.) My generic boyfriend would be called Matt or Nick or Josh and he would be pleasantly, ordinarily good-looking, and funny in a gentle, non-sarcastic way.

We would do generic things like going to the movies and snuggling at home on the couch watching DVDs. We would make ourselves generic breakfasts such as scrambled eggs and vegemite toast. We would have generic jobs that were kind of interesting and challenging but didn't require us sticking our necks out, if you know what I mean. We might have a generic dog or cat with a generic name like Max, Oscar, Coco or Misty.

What an idyllic life I'd lead. I'm not being sarcastic - as I passed this couple on the street I really longed to be one of these girls, to slip into the warm bath of ordinariness and feel validated for simply being what the world wants. After all, it's only people who fail at being what the world wants who have to resort to being 'intelligent', 'creative' or 'original'. These failed people have to find other ways of getting accepted and work much harder at them. Times like this, I think about that line in The Great Gatsby where Daisy bitterly says the best thing a woman can be in this world is "a beautiful fool".

Friday, December 12, 2008

New in David Sedaris News: Christmas is cancelled. Yeah that's right. My mother is so upset about Monday night's events that she has cancelled our family Christmas. You heard me. No damn Christmas! And apparently it's all my fault! I ruined Christmas!

Dad called me up today playing the Ban Ki-moon role of peacemaker. He asked if I would apologise to my brother miT. I firmly refused. There is no way I am grovelling to a common, garden-variety bully like miT when I don't believe I did anything wrong. Also, I really enjoyed throwing that glass of water over him.

I do, however, realise the irony that in refusing to apologise I am aping miT's beloved John Howard. Perhaps we could have a Family Reconciliation Convention and the rest of my family members could turn their backs on me. And then some bourgies could walk across a bridge or something.

Perhaps my mother's threat to cancel Christmas is a bluff. But I am kind of looking forward to having the 25th free and chilling like a big old pimp. I might hang out at home, cook myself a delicious feast (without any of the foul seafood my mother insists on ruining Christmas dinner with), drink some champagne and watch some DVDs.

Monday, December 08, 2008

In search of David Sedaris. It is the mark of a terrible hipster to like David Sedaris (and his sister Amy), but I really can't deny that his writing makes me laugh out loud. Like the works of Larry David, it's the sort of thing that really loses its humour when you try to explain it to someone else; you have to see it play out for yourself. He has such a gift for pinpointing the subtle absurdity of a situation, especially the misunderstandings that can arise in everyday interaction: something that appears normal to him looks very wrong to others, or vice versa.

I also admire his ability to turn what could be very depressing family moments into hilarious anecdotes, which is why I am wishing longingly for a way of describing tonight's events that has the Sedaris touch. Instead you will have to content yourself with my touch - which is what I say to all the dudes I sleep with. That is to say, I don't say this to anyone. Except you. My blog readers.

So I went over to my parents' house tonight to decorate the Christmas tree. My parents bought it on Saturday from a farmhouse somewhere in the Otway hinterland, although 'bought' is not strictly true. They stole it.

They had intended to pay, but when they ventured past the "Xmas Trees $10" sign there was nobody there to take their money. You have to imagine them, like a sixtysomething Hansel and Gretel, tapping gingerly on the doors and windows of this deserted farmhouse, my mother calling "Helloooo?" in that dipthong-filled voice she answers the phone with. They had no envelopes or anything to wrap the $10 in, and didn't want to leave cash lying around anyway, so in the end they just picked out a tree and told themselves they would return later to pay for it.

Now our family's Christmas tree aesthetics have shifted a lot over the years. We used to have a live one in a pot, which lived outside during the year and was dragged inside over the festive season. When it got too big for this to be practical, my brother miT insisted my parents get a fake one. So for some years we had a fake (but real-looking) tree.

Then, apparently, miT insisted that they get a real one instead. (In an odd piece of inconsistency, at the same time he insisted on buying some fake pine garlands, which he puts up on nails he hammered into my parents' walls without asking.) He has always had some internal aesthetic sense that is never explained to anyone else but simply insisted on. For instance, the amount of wood panelling in my parents' house has always distressed miT. He is a nightmare gift recipient because he values the brand of the gift and how much it cost more than the thought behind it or the effort gone to acquire it.

Anyway, it seems miT had insisted that the real tree be "really big, like in Home Alone". I always thought the trees were only big because that's just how big the farmers let them grow, until yesterday when I heard my mother tell this story to one of her friends. This year's tree is not only tall enough to touch the ceiling (and my parents' living room has a barn-like ceiling which, with all the wood panelling, gives it a similar air to a German beer hall), but also as wide as a three-seater couch.

So we were sitting at dinner ahead of the Christmas tree decorating. miT was over at my parents' house - not for the tree decorating, but to wash his car. He lives on the other side of town so I'm unclear why he was there, except perhaps that he didn't want to violate water restrictions in his own neighbourhood. The TV was on in the background, tuned to the ABC (my parents rarely watch any other channel), where Bill Leak was talking about having painted Charles Perkins's posthumous portrait.

miT didn't know who Charles Perkins was, and was more impressed by his early sporting achievements than his later civil rights ones. Malcolm Fraser appeared on the show talking about how Perkins had run his Aboriginal Affairs department, and my mother remarked about how Fraser had mellowed since his prime ministership. I remarked that perhaps he was always a genuine liberal, in the sense of being a libertarian.

My dad said, "He did have one bad habit, though."
I asked what it was, and Dad revealed that at parties, Malcolm would surreptitiously slip cocktail onions into people's pockets.
"That's not true!" scoffed my mother.
"It is - I read it somewhere," said Dad.

My Google research just now has turned up nothing of the sort.

But here was the point at which things got nasty. I said something to the tune of, "Still, that's hardly a bad habit at all compared to the habits of subsequent prime ministers."
"Like what?" said miT with a dangerous tone in his voice.
"Oh, I don't know," I replied, "like fucking up the country."
"Oh really, how?"

At this point I remember grandstanding about how the Howard government had reduced being Australian to a defensive, anti-intellectual, retrogressive and mean-spirited xenophobia. This degenerated into a tedious verbal brawl in which miT alleged that I, with my Labor-voting ways, was "ignorant" and "biased" about the actual, factual prosperity of Australia under the Howard government, and I said that he, in turn, was biased and was only calling my perspective "ignorant" because he didn't agree with it, and anyway, he didn't even know who Charles Perkins was.

Other points made in the fight (summarised due to tedious repetition in bourgeois discourse):

Dad: The Howard government introduced citizenship tests that made people memorise Don Bradman's batting average. This has nothing to do with contemporary Australia.

miT: If people want to live in this country they should know about our culture.

Me: The Howard government created offshore immigration detention zones where Australian law and basic human rights didn't apply, and after wrongfully detaining people for years it forced them to pay for their own detention.

miT: They deserved it. If you want to come to Australia you should do it the proper way.

Me: The government needed to punish the people smugglers, not desperate people fleeing what they believed was torture and death.

miT: And they punished the people smugglers too. This means they got things done.

The argument had long since deteriorated into the usual dirty personal attacks: miT saying that I am fat, that my fancy academic education has got me nowhere in life and that he earns much more than me, and me saying that at least I have a job, seeing as miT got laid off in the financial crisis. But it had now reached the absurd point where miT was claiming he had hard evidence that New Zealand was worse than Australia - because he knew some New Zealanders. "How many New Zealanders do you know?" he shouted.

I was so angry that the proverbial red mist was descending and I was finding it difficult to think straight. My mother was miserably repeating, "Can't you get along and be nice to each other?", which seemed like a most inept assessment of the situation. miT got up from the table to carve himself some more roast chicken, continuing to fight with me about how many Kiwis were in our respective acquaintances.

I, also, got up, mainly because I was so enraged I couldn't sit still any more. The thing that was mainly enraging me was that I could clearly defeat miT if we were having a debate, in which each person allows the other to speak, makes persuasive arguments and rebuts their opponents'. Whereas miT was winning the fight merely because he was shouting over the top of everything I said and not allowing me to finish any of my sentences.

At this point I realised that I was still holding my nearly full water glass in one hand, and I did something I'd never done before and had always wanted to do: I dashed it over miT. This was such a great moment. It was a direct hit, really splashy. I was still so enraged I considered underlining the gesture by smashing the empty glass to the ground, but thankfully decided against it.

Even more enraged, miT swung around from the kitchen bench with the carving knife in one hand and charged towards me. I was seriously afraid he was going to stab me, and a terrible scenario unspooled rapidly in my mind:

I would be hospitalised with stab wounds and would press charges against miT out of sheer vindictiveness. The media would get hold of the story and print some lurid yarn about how a bourgie family argument about the Howard government had spiralled out of control on the evening of the final episode of The Howard Years. Oh, I could see how they'd frame it, too: "Timothy, 26, a property valuer" vs "Melissa, 31, a freelance journalist"! I could see the headlines: "Crime of recession", "Hack stabbed", "Night of the long knives", "Journo saw Rudd over Howard".

I could see us outside court, me looking lumpy and disreputable ("'Fat bitch!' stab brother shouted") and him in his suit and designer sunglasses looking like Jason Moran or something ("The accused voted Liberal in the last election").

Fortunately none of this eventuated because our parents stepped in between us and physically restrained us both. miT contented himself with bellowing, "YOU OBESE FUCKING SLUT!" and spitting in my face. I was secretly impressed by the way he managed to make a nice even spray of it, rather than a single gob as I would have done in his position. More likely I wouldn't have got up the necessary propulsion and the gob of spit would have sat resplendent upon my own chin.

Feeling it was important not to acknowledge the spitting, I continued fighting with him for a while before stalking off to the bathroom to rinse my glasses. He eventually drove off in his newly clean car - but not before saying to me, "It's a shame you have to act so childishly."

I shot back, "You're the one who was acting childishly," to which he made no reply, leaving me with the satisfaction of the last word, even though what I had just said translated roughly to, "I know you are, you said you are, so what am I?"

Then there was a secondary fight between me and my mother in which she said the entire thing was my fault because I provoked miT. I said that everyone always lets miT bully them, which is why he went off when I challenged his stupid views. She wished she could have a proper family who didn't fight. I said she could always take us back to the shop and get another family if she wanted.

Then my parents and I watched the final episode of The Howard Years in stony silence, the giant Christmas tree looming over the unhappy scene. It remains undecorated.

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