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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