Sunday, May 30, 2010

You rang? Last night I went to a "Book Week Parade" themed costume party dressed as Burglar Betty from the children's book Burglar Bill, by Janet and Alan Ahlberg. I felt rather crestfallen as this book was a major part of my childhood and I thought everyone was familiar with it, but hardly anyone I talk to has heard of it. This was also unhelpful because nobody could remind me of how Burglar Betty was meant to look, because I just could not find a picture of her online anywhere and I can't find my copy of the book.

Anyway, my Burglar Betty outfit consisted of me sewing a white lace edging to my black-and-white long-sleeved top, which I wore with my black puffy petticoat and black pleated skirt. I also made a black burglar mask out of cardboard and some hat elastic I found on my desk, and I wore black gloves. Betty might have worn a jaunty scarf and a little hat (the book looked as if it was set in the '40s or '50s), but I just couldn't remember.

And I dyed my hair red.

This is the fourth time I've dyed my hair red. I've always seen red hair as glamorous and exotic, and when I was a kid I longed for it. My genetic lottery was so unfair: my mother had strawberry blonde hair as a kid that darkened to auburn hair when she was my age; my dad's brother looked like Henry VIII; and my brother Lina was a genuine carrot-top. Whereas I was cursed with stupid blonde hair.

The first time I dyed it was in year 8, with Clairol Glints and Napro LiveColour. The result was a curious gradient effect: a deep cherry red at the roots down to a strawberry blonde at the tips. Does anyone else remember Glints? It's no longer on the market. The packet featured a white background with a model pic so ultra-contrasty that all you could see were the hair and the Mulligrubs-like eyes and mouth. I seem to recall they were about $3.50 a packet.

The second time I went red was in 1996. I was in first-year uni and wanted to be glamorous and sophisticated. As you can see, I was neither.

Oh god, check me out, all whey-faced in my favourite blue corduroy blazer, brandishing my vodka and orange! I still remember the day I dyed my hair; it was the day I went to see Independence Day at the Jam Factory.

My friend Roland took that photo and later put it on Facebook, but I have no digital evidence of the second time I went red, which was in 1999. This time, I went for a deep mahogany red, almost brown, with pinkish highlights. I remember it as an annoying colour that clashed with most of my clothes and meant I wore a lot of grey and black, which was not especially cheerful considering that I spent 1999 in a fog of depression. In my graduation photo, taken that year, I am wearing a black top and jacket with a grey stretch knit skirt.

My redhead phase ended when I got sick of it and applied a platinum blonde dye to it. Uncannily, the result was my natural hair colour; the regrowth was indistinguishable. Since then I've flirted with pale blonde highlights but have never done anything more radical… until now.

I used two different shades of LiveColour (which is now owned by Schwarzkopf): my teenage favourite "Aztec Copper" and a new variety, "Red Embers". Aztec Copper is a dark orange, whereas Red Embers is a cherry red. I would have bought only Aztec Copper but they must be trying to discontinue it; I looked in several shops and could only find one packet.

I mixed the two colours on a plastic takeaway lid, combed the resulting goo through my hair, making sure to put lots on the ends, and on the roots at the nape of my neck. However, the result was that I got Red Embers on my fringe and crown, and Aztec Copper on the rest of my hair.

According to Twitter advice from another bottle-redhead, I mixed a teaspoon of bicarb with my regular shampoo and applied it to my dry fringe and crown. It gave off an odd chemical whiff that made me anxious, so I washed it out then shampooed the rest of my hair vigorously under hot water.

The sad result is that I now have magenta hair with pink tips. When I showed my sorry head at North today, the nice lady said, "No, don't dye it again – I like it pink!"

The reason I went for semi-permanent hair colour in the first place was because I wanted this to be a temporary thing for the party, but now I am resigned to another extended phase of being a bottle redhead. With this in mind, I am going to try and find another packet of Aztec Copper (there was none in my local supermarket, but plenty of the dreadful Red Embers), because the colour I want is a light auburn with orange tones rather than pink ones.

I'm not a fan of the deliberately fake-looking red colours at the cherry end of the spectrum. I want to look as if this were plausibly my real hair. Ideally I'd like the same colour as Christina Hendricks, who isn't a natural redhead but has dyed her hair since she was a teenager. Her pale, pink-toned skin makes the colour look plausible on her.

My other redhead role models are Clare Bowditch and Bryce Dallas Howard.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Essay. Yesterday I was reading the paper and came across a bowdlerised version of this article (Age subs had cut out all the personal anecdotes to make it seem more like a news story). It was about the legendary difficulty of the entrance exam process for fellowship of All Souls, the elite and extremely wealthy graduate college at Oxford.

However, the round of six exams over three days is a little easier now, because the college has scrapped the most legendary exam, known as "Essay". You turn over your exam paper and on it is a single word. You then spend three hours writing about that word. (I wonder if this, or exams like it, may have been the origin of the urban myth about the exam on "courage".)

Previous words have included Bias, Style, Chaos, Mercy, Innocence, Novelty, Miracles, Integrity, Morality, Possessions and Water.

I got tremendously excited when I read this. I would love to do this exam. What an intellectual challenge it would be: combining an original and lateral interpretation of the word with rhetorical skills, organisation of ideas and a broad command of examples.

Since I'm always keen to a) overthink things; b) put things on the internet, I also thought of a blog where I could do the Essay and post my efforts. It could also be a group blog, in which case it would be interesting to see different ways of tackling the topics.

But what if my Essays were lame and poorly argued? And, really, who would be bothered reading long, esoteric essays? Is it arrogant and self-indulgent to want to write them? Perhaps All Souls were right to scrap Essay.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Insight into the terror of Crazy Cat Ladyness. Today I was in the shower, lustily singing my shampoo-inspired song 'Cocamide Mea, Cocamide Dea', which usually I sing to the tune of ABBA's 'Knowing Me, Knowing You'. But this time I decided to sing it to the tune of 'Mamma Mia'.

I am telling you this not only to contextualise what follows, but also to show that my predilection for making up stupid songs pre-dates my ownership of a cat. Indeed, just last night I was at my parents' place reminiscing about my grandparents, and I remembered that when I was maybe three, my grandfather and I had made up a song called 'The Church And The Whiskers'. I think it consisted of me squeaking those words while he bounced me on his knee.

So anyway, I had the song 'Mamma Mia' in my head and my thoughts were drifting away, as they do, and I began to sing the song using only the word 'miaow', as if I were a cat. So basically it sounded like, "Miaow-ma miowa, miaow my mow a miaw/Miaow miaow! Miaow-miaow-mi-miaow-miaoww-miaoww…"

Then I had a satisfying fantasy of a bunch of cats 'performing' the song in the same way they splice together barking dogs and miaowing cats to sing 'Jingle Bells' and 'White Christmas' and such. Like this.

Also, here is another satisfying song made with a cat's miaow. The animation never fails to make me laugh. I can't watch it right now, though, as it alarms Graham a great deal and I've been told it consterns other cats as well.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

On prolificacy. This morning I was reading an article in The Walkley magazine which was extracted from a blog post by Rob Curley, who is the editor of the new media division of the Las Vegas Sun. It was an interesting read for me as we currently want to redesign The Enthusiast to maximise the amount of content that a first-time reader would realise we have, and also to prevent people from calling the site a "blog", an error that angers me.

But anyway. The thing I found most striking about Curley's explanation of's homepage design evolution is his revelation that at first, they designed each day's homepage uniquely, much as you'd design a hard-copy front page, because it "had a fairly low daily story count (think around 10 stories a day)". Ten frickin' stories. Wow.

For me it's a rule of thumb that things are done on a much more massive scale in the States than in Australia: cars; supermarkets; movies; and, of course, the media. I sometimes feel overwhelmed when I compare The Enthusiast's output with the American pop-culture websites I admire; I know we can produce great content, but they just seem to be able to produce much more of it, and with much greater resources.

Even Australian independent sites such as Mumbrella and Crikey have mountains of content every day. I constantly beat myself up about how far we lag behind, and I feel I'm on a terrible treadmill of trying to generate enough content to keep readers coming to our site every day – and that's not even my full-time job. I am also trying to generate enough freelance stories to keep electricity coming to my house every day.

But Curley's article has given me pause. Here's a publication that, in his words, is "similar to a very well done, regional version of Slate" – which was also an inspiration for The Enthusiast – and yet they weren't worried about being prolific.

I think I have to acknowledge that I am actually intellectually prolific, and I do get a lot done every day. The thing is that I spread it across a wide terrain.

Emailing: I have four active email accounts and I spend a huge amount of each day tending to them. Some of it is for The Enthusiast: arranging meetings, chasing review material, corresponding with contributors, dealing with admin. Some of it is freelancin': emailing editors, researching stories, sending invoices. My most time-consuming emailing is to do with my review work at the Thousands: planning upcoming film coverage with the five state editors, RSVPing to screenings, chasing giveaways.

Blogging: I blog here, I blog at Footpath Zeitgeist, and I've just ventured back to The Dawn Chorus after being chased off with pink pitchforks following last year's post How Can Feminist Mums Avoid Being Humourless Childhood-Ruiners? (After that episode I transferred my feminist writing to Crikey, New Matilda and The Enthusiast.)

Online sociality: Because I work from home, I get my workplace sociality by interacting with people on Facebook and my four Twitter accounts, and from personal email exchanges. Some people might call this activity trivial, but it helps me feel I'm not alone. Importantly, online sociality is also a major source of story ideas, and of professional collegiality and guidance from my intellectual peers.

The Enthusiast: Writing and researching stories for the site; updating its Facebook and Twitter. A couple of weeks ago we instituted a "New News" regime which was meant to ensure that it was easier to produce more content each day, but I've found myself unable to stop investigating stories further.

Reading: I feel constantly guilty about it, but it's the fuel for my work. I also read for pleasure, and even my idea of lazy days off involves reading the weekend papers. If I'm in a cafe on a Monday I diligently leaf through The Australian's media section; I follow any Facebook and Twitter links that look interesting; I maintain Twitter 'lists' in The Enthusiast's eight topic categories so that I can seek out more information; I still use Bloglines for RSS, but the other day I cut my feeds down to 150 – mainly by eliminating old, abandoned blogs.

So there you go. For once, rather than feeling anxious and depressed about how little I seem to achieve, perhaps I should give myself a thumbs-up.

And on a total tangent, I wonder if Roger Ebert ever ponders the irony that, years ago, he invented the "thumbs-up, thumbs-down" review system that is now incredibly helpful considering that he can't talk any more but can still make thumb-related gestures. Is that even ironic? Post-Alanis Morissette, I'm never certain.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Freelancin' is basically patronage. I think the "Catherine Deveny Affair" has shown us that we are profoundly confused about the workplace status and rights of freelancers. Are they employees, with rights to the transparency and due process that employees should receive when disputes arise? I argue that they're not.

On her own website – oddly enough, these comments have vanished since I read them earlier this morning – Deveny talked about the industrial factors she felt were at play in her sacking. She talked about how she felt editor Paul Ramadge had her pegged as a 'difficult' employee; she detailed how various columns for The Age had been rejected and spiked with little explanation; she recounted how she'd agitated to be paid in line with other Age contributors, and she suspected that sexism was at play in all these events.

I know I'm not imagining I read this stuff earlier, but it's undeniably gone now. It's weird that Deveny would delete comments from her website when on today's op-ed on ABC's The Drum, she proudly wrote, "Miranda Devine has deleted her comments. I have not. I stand by my explanation."

But anyway, I didn't even want to get into the whole Deveny thing at length. I've watched it unfold, and I've read the extensive commentary about it and agreed with a bit of everything. I neither support nor condemn her. I simply think that she's wrong to have considered her position at The Age an employee-like position, when it was actually a position of patronage.

A while ago the ABC screened an enjoyably florid series about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood called Desperate Romantics. What struck me most about it – and I realise it took dramatic licence – was the depiction of the manoeuvrings these painters had to pull off in order to fund their art, and how much they reminded me of the apparatus of freelance journalism.

They had to beg for money in letters – is that the equivalent of sending pleading emails to Accounts Payable about unpaid invoices? They had to be bold when approaching potential patrons such as John Ruskin – is that like pitching ideas to editors? The people who got ahead were the shameless, self-promoting, charismatic people who believed steadfastly in their own talent.

(Although I'm not sure I know any journos who'd bury the only copy of their book manuscript with their dead wife, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti did, and then feverishly exhume it later, after becoming convinced that a tame sparrow was in fact their wife's spirit giving them the thumbs-up for publication.)

But most of all, patronage is a capricious and precarious system, dependent on the whims of individual patrons. Although I always believe in sharing opportunities around (because work has often come to me that way) and I try to look out for my friends if they need to find new work, freelancin' is basically about luck, personal rapport, and seizing chances as they arise.

And because of this, I try to cop it sweet these days when I get knocked back for something (case in point: my now-notorious "story idea: massage robots" pitch email). Even though I might feel annoyed or humiliated, I always try again, because I do believe I'm a good writer and, y'know, I have to pay my rent, feed my cat, and ensure the continuity of my utilities, two reminder notices for which came in the mail today.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Want to hear about my boring literary dream? Well too bad if you don't – this is the charm of blogging.

In my dream I was walking through a park with Tim and Amanda, talking about literature. I remember that there were lots of fallen branches in the park that council staff had arranged into tidy piles ("Oh, there's the gum-tree-branch pile!" I remember joking).

At one point Amanda said something and Tim and I replied at the same time, "Have you read Crash by JG Ballard?" I was pleased that he and I we would both be 'on the same page', literarily speaking. I then remember discoursing at length on the themes of the book Crash while the others listened respectfully, which just shows that my dreams reflect my real-life fears of boring my companions with my long-winded conversational tangents.

Our walk went through an avenue of elm trees and turned a corner, and I realised we were at a posh café in the Carlton Gardens. Even though there is no such café it turns out that we were all familiar with it, and our conversation turned to how the coffee was actually quite good there, and the food was not as expensive as you'd have thought.

I spotted an author whom I recognised in the dream as John Marsden (even though he did not at all resemble the real John Marsden), which reminded me to tell the others about an episode in my precocious past, in which a children's author had invited me, then actually a child, to collaborate on a book. But this revolutionary literary experiment had ended badly when the famous author slapped me. (This is an absurd combination of some wish-fulfilment fantasy – I idolised various children's authors – and the plot of The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.)

The three of us got into a car that, in the dream, belonged to Tim. At first I was driving with the other two in the back seat, but then Tim said, "I'll drive," but instead of him getting into the drivers' seat, he just started driving from right where he was sitting and I realised the car itself had turned backwards – I was now in the back seat, with Tim and Amanda in the front. The car was now a left-hand drive car, which made me muse, "Hmmm, don't they drive on the right in Japan?"

And amazingly, we were now driving in Japan. We drove through picturesque country until we started to drive past blocks and blocks of depressing Commish-style flats and I realised we were in the Tokyo suburbs. (I saw two Western hippie-punks graffiti-ing one of the apartment blocks.)

Then I realised that there were queues of people lining the road, and very few cars. With a jolt of the-rangas-in-MIA's-'Born Free'-video fear I realised all the people were gaijin – not a single Japanese person except for the uniformed police marshalling the queues and shouting in stereotypically bad English, "YOUR PAPERS PREASE!" – and I feared what was happening.

But a policewoman simply handed us a stiff sheet of paper and waved us forward. I felt very pleased not to be queueing with all the suckers. I looked at the paper and it was a sticker, similar to a registration sticker, designed to be attached to the vehicle. It said something to the effect of, "This foreigner has a three-day tourist visa in Tokyo and is entitled to park anywhere for those three days."

By this stage the others had disappeared (had I dropped them off somewhere?) and I was driving the car. I steered it between some buildings and parked it in an obscure car park, being careful as it wasn't my car and I didn't want to damage it. Then I faced the dilemma of where on the car to paste the sticker. I tried several places but changed my mind and had to peel the sticker off, but it ripped like a price sticker and eventually disintegrated altogether.

I was panicking – I was in Tokyo without a tourist visa, without any idea where I was, anywhere to stay or any way to contact my fellow tourists. I wandered through an anonymous city district (including an American-themed diner where the waitresses dressed a lot like the staff of Merlotte's) trying not to panic.

Then in the foyer of a plush hotel I ran into some people I knew. They greeted me heartily ("Are you in town for the ____ conference?" they asked) and reassured me that if I'd parked the car in an out-of-the-way spot it would be fine for the three days. They said, "Have you heard of a writer called Tim Howard?" and I said, "Of course, he writes for me at The Enthusiast," and they said, "Oh really? Haven't you heard? He was shortlisted for the ____ Literary Award but nobody knows who he is."

At this news I thought, "Wow, what a dark horse!" and also "Yay, we'll be getting great pageviews!" Presumably Tim also didn't know about his shortlisting, since he was also lost in Japan somewhere. I wandered on and on, and eventually ran into Sophie, who was staffing a flower stall. She assured me she could book me a cheap hotel room, but it turns out the place she had in mind was fully booked.

I woke up from the dream with an anxious, disorganised feeling. Which, really, is the way I feel most of the time.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Death and poetry. These days if you asked me, "Mel, do you like poetry?" my answer would be a derisive noise whose rudeness and loudness would vary depending on how many drinks I'd had at the time.

However, when I was quite young my mother gave me a poetry anthology that made a tremendous impression on me. It was called I Like This Poem and it had been compiled as a fundraiser for the International Year Of The Child in 1979. The poems had been selected by kids aged 6-15, and each one was followed by a blurb from the kid who'd picked it.

The book was arranged in the age order of the children, so it began with very simple poems and ended with quite complex ones. The poems are by a wonderful cross-section of the best-known authors, and quite frankly they form the bedrock of my knowledge of poetry. I learned great chunks of the book by heart, and they've stayed with me all these years later.

Some of my favourites were the ones I loved to read aloud, the great stories that rolled off the tongue: The Puddock, by John M Caie; Tarantella by Hilaire Belloc (I loved the melancholy tone and the exotic rhythm of it); Macavity The Mystery Cat by TS Eliot; My Name Is… by Pauline Clarke (I found the line "My name is Bite-My-Knee" richly funny); The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes; and of course, Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll.

Others I remember more for the feeling of unease they inspired. These included Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe 'Ramrod' Shelley; Overheard On A Saltmarsh by Harold Monro; A Welsh Testament by RS Thomas and Anthem For Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen.

But I think the most disturbing poem in the book is On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man by John Betjeman. I found its brusque, angry evocation of death and decay really confronting, considering that I would've been maybe seven years old at the time.

Phrases from this poem have popped into my mind over the last couple of weeks, as I've been reading a fascinating history of London and its dead called Necropolis, written by Catharine Arnold. It is slotting nicely into a gap in my library, somewhere between The Victorian Underworld and Falling Angels. But when Arnold mentions Highgate cemetery, I can't help but be reminded of Betjeman's grim lines:

But least of all he liked that place
Which hangs on Highgate Hill
Of soaked Carrara-covered earth
For Londoners to fill.

It's a vision of Highgate cemetery utterly unlike the sentimental Victorian 'garden of the dead' or bourgeois stronghold. It makes the place seem cold, miserable and desolate. The poem is about his father's death, and about the inability to believe in God that eventually broke up his marriage.

While looking the poem up just now, I read that Betjeman's teddy bear, Archibald Ormsby-Gore, also provided the inspiration for Aloysius, the teddy bear from Brideshead Revisited – Betjeman was known for having brought him to Magdalen College, Oxford, in the 1920s, along with a stuffed elephant named Jumbo.

Apparently, both Archie and Jumbo were in Betjeman's arms when he died in 1984, aged 77. I get the feeling that his childhood profoundly influenced Betjeman. I certainly feel that my own childhood continues to steer me.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

What time did you eat dinner as a child? This blog is rapidly devolving to become a chronicle of my terrible eating habits, but as my joy when some anonymous wit responded "Yuck!" to my brilliant recipe for breakfast rice balls has shown me, I get a kind of perverse thrill out of being a shit cook and eating poorly. I am pleased as punch to be at the helm of a stupid unintentional parody of a food blog.

Today, for instance, all I've had to eat has been two crumpets with butter and honey. I realise the crumpet-makers probably have their reasons for packing them two back-to-back, two face-to-face, but I wish that they wouldn't, because it means that when you put the pack in the freezer, the two crumpets facing each other freeze together and because of the bubbly surface it is nigh-on impossible to separate them. This, in turn, means you have to saw them apart, which never seems to happen straight across. So then you get one concave crumpet and one convex crumpet. It's a bit crap when you're eating the unnaturally slender concave crumpet, but then AW YEAH you get the extra-crumpety convex crumpet.

So I'm making my next meal (I've given up referring to them as 'breakfast', 'lunch' and 'dinner' because unless I am meeting friends for a meal, I eat at completely arbitrary times of the day) and I am thinking that 5pm is kind of early for a dinner, but then when I was a kid one of my primary school classmates would eat his dinner as early as 4:30pm.

At the time I thought that was absurdly, excessively early. The general consensus was that 6pm was the best time to eat dinner, and it turned out that when I dined at my friends' houses, that's usually when it would happen.

In my own household we ate at around 7pm (our official 'bedtime' being 8:30pm), which I swiftly realised was extremely late and slothful, and not something to boast about. Indeed, my parents would struggle to get dinner on the table that early. And things have only gone downhill from there. These days when I go over to my parents' place for a meal, they've got strategies in place to distract from how long the actual meal is taking to materialise. For instance, I'll be offered a glass of wine, some dips or cheese on crackers to tide me over.

I went to my parents' house for dinner on Monday night and ate dinner in front of Four Corners, feeling slightly guilty about chowing down to a story about little chocolate slave kids from Burkina Faso labouring in the Ivory Coast and Ghanaian cacao plantations. It was a really delicious, comforting dinner, though: baked tuna pasta. Then for dessert I had stewed apples and pears with yoghurt.

Anyway, time is of the essence! I had better go and make my homemade tinned spaghetti. The fact that it is fast becoming my favourite home-cooked meal says something simultaneously dismal and hilarious about my cooking.

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