Saturday, August 11, 2012

How to fall over. I am still in shock, I think. I just fell over in the most ungainly and spectacular way, on a perfectly flat footpath.

Thank god I am still young enough to call it 'falling over' rather than 'having a fall'. And thank god there were no passers-by, because the very worst thing about falling over is the indignity of witnesses: the people who say, "Are you okay?"

Here's how it happened. I was hurrying to catch a particular tram in order to make a carefully pre-planned three-stage trip to Brunswick (east-west transport is really tricky in the inner north). I wasn't running, but I was taking quick, long strides with lots of forward momentum.

I was also wearing what I, laughably, refer to as my 'glamour heels'. These are a pair of Grosby Mary-Janes with a stubby 2cm heel that I purchased to wear to Lorelei's birthday party, for which I dressed up as Phryne Fisher. I am so bad at wearing heels that even though a granny would consider these comfort shoes, I still require silicon gel insoles at both the ball and heel, and even then my feet still hurt when wearing these shoes all day. That is how incapable of wearing heels I am.

So I was walking down Rathdowne Street and, rather than putting my weight squarely on my right heel, I managed to step on the edge of my heel and it slipped right out from under me. This has happened to me before (usually while wearing shoes or boots with a solid heel) and I can usually compensate for the missed step with a couple of quick counterbalancing steps.

But this time, the steps were not correcting my forward momentum. They were actually making it worse. I had the horrible realisation that I was running at the ground and was actually accelerating towards an inevitable fall. The inevitability of it was a terrible feeling.

So I decided to give in to the fall before I slammed into the ground on my face. After one last futile step, I let go and collapsed on my right side. My glasses flew off and clattered to the footpath a metre away. My hair came undone. To an onlooker, it must have looked as if I'd done a jaunty little Wizard of Oz dance, then been pushed over from behind.

As soon as I'd established there were no onlookers, I checked myself for injuries. Astoundingly I am almost unharmed and my clothes are not dirty or torn. I have a slight gravel rash on my palms and maybe on my right knee (my tights are okay but the knee is sore). My right elbow hurts a little when I extend it, but my winter overcoat protected me from anything worse.

I feel so pleased with my stunt. If you are going to fall over, it pays to do it in winter while well padded and wearing 80 denier tights.

I am live-blogging this from the front bar of the Retreat. This whole rigmarole was to get to Andrew McDonald's birthday drinks which are being held at some hipster speakeasy upstairs that I dimly recall being written up in ThreeThousand recently. It is so exclusive that it is at capacity and after all this, they won't even let me in.

I'll tell you, after waiting in the cold to get into the MIFF opening night after-party last week while the bouncers let random people in because they were apparently more important than me, hanging around outside a venue whose capacity is too small for the number of invited guests is not an attractive prospect. If I still can't get in after I finish this pint, me and my stupid shoes are going home.

Monday, August 06, 2012

The weariness of cultural consumption. Well, MIFF is in full swing at the moment. I'm following the hashtag #miff2012 on Twitter, and have noticed that after only three full days of the festival, some people have already seen 16 or 17 films.

I have 31 films booked in over the course of the festival, and so far I've seen a modest six: The Sapphires; Killer Joe; Harold and Maude; Room 237; Girl Model and V/H/S.

MIFF bingeing to me seems like only one symptom of a tendency to stuff ourselves with culture like foie gras geese. I am constantly observing people on Facebook and Twitter talking about the films, TV shows and plays they've seen, the books and magazine articles they've read, the albums they're listening to, the concerts and exhibitions they've gone to, the current affairs issues and internet memes they're across, and so on.

How do these people find the time? It's my job to consume culture, and I feel weary, not euphoric, at the thought of trying to cram all this into my life. As it is, I only managed to unwrap the weekend papers this afternoon. (Still haven't read them yet.) If it weren't for book club, I wouldn't have read a book in months.

Sometimes I feel reassured by things like this NPR story "You Can't Possibly Read It All, So Stop Trying". And I'm reminded of a passage in The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst, the last full book I read (I've started several more over recent months but couldn't get into them and petered out):
She felt something similar, but worse in a way, about hundreds and hundreds of books she'd read, novels, biographies, occasional books about music and art – she could remember nothing about them at all, so that it seemed rather pointless even to say that she had read them; such claims were a thing people set great store by but she hardly supposed they recalled any more than she did. Sometimes a book persisted as a coloured shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle: looked at directly it vanished altogether.
The Stranger's Child is a book about the chimerical qualities of memory, and I suppose I've been dwelling on this of late. Also, I tend to require time to ponder the things I consume, and I like to seek out secondary texts such as reviews, interviews and analysis. I take a whole day to express all this stuff in a 200-word film review that nobody even reads.

No wonder my book is proceeding at a glacial pace as I try to draw together disparate cultural sources and make them make sense. I just have no idea how I am going to produce a first draft by the end of August. It is going to be one sorry document, that's for sure.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Back when I was gifted. I'm currently filling out a Q&A for the Wheeler Centre website, and my answers are, predictably, making my thoughts drift to my childhood. You know, I can't remember learning to read.

I feel as if I couldn't write before I went to school, because I remember spending large chunks of prep drawing the alphabet with thick blue pencils. But maybe I was a quick learner, because I'm also pretty sure I started volume one of my first masterwork, The Adventures of the Three Robot Princesses, in maybe grade 1 or 2. Certainly I wrote my first 'published' story, Two Warriors, in grade one. Did I dictate it to my teacher, Mrs Leith? I don't think so, because I seem to recall a manuscript with red corrections all over it.

That story embarrasses me now from a feminist perspective. It began with the image of a unit of both male and female soldiers marching down a country road. "Handsome soldiers," I wrote, "Beautiful soldierettes." Look, what can I say? Gender norms get instilled early.

The warriors of the title were named Joringel (a name I cribbed from a Grimm fairytale) and, hilariously, Cindy. I don't recall much more of the plot except that Joringel was the cocky, impulsive one and Cindy the smart, careful one, and she had to save Joringel from either being eaten by a giant bird or turning into one.

I mention this not only to wallow pleasantly in nostalgia, but because this was the first time in my life that I was given to understand I was gifted. The reason Mrs Leith got me to write Two Warriors was that I would finish my schoolwork ahead of the rest of the class and sit there being bored, so she decided to give me an extra project.

She made a cubicle in the corner of the classroom with a cheesecloth curtain, and I would sit in there and work on Two Warriors. When the manuscript was ready, Mrs Leith got the ladies in the school office to type it up, a sentence to a page, and then she stapled the pages together like a real book. I illustrated it lavishly, and also illustrated a cover, which Mrs Leith laminated.

The book sat in our classroom's library corner along with actual picture books, and at the end of the year I got to take it home. I kept it for years, but I'm not sure what became of it. Perhaps my parents still have it, but more likely it moulders in a box somewhere in the roof loft.

What I was pondering today was that, at this time, I didn't feel gifted. I just understood that I could read longer and more difficult books than many of my classmates, and my spelling and drawing were better, and I enjoyed writing stories and poems and songs, and inventing games and other imaginative pursuits.

Yet when I look back on my intellectual past, it seems to me that some other person lived my life. I did well enough on the ACER scholarship exam to get a full scholarship to a school that basically hothoused smart kids. I remember finding the exam relatively easy; when a friend who'd also done it asked how I'd solved a geometry question, I told her that I'd visualised the different shapes and rotated them in my mind's eye until they fitted together. She looked at me as if I were insane.

In year 7, I was streamed into a Program for Exceptionally Gifted Students. I think back on this now with utter amazement. Really, my decline began when the entire year level was streamed for maths. I was in Band 1, which sounds good until you learn that above that was Extension, and above that was Acceleration. Everyone in my class except me was in either Extension or Acceleration.

Perhaps I could blame the school, which instilled the value of competition and the celebration of winning in almost every activity. I participated in the Tournament of Minds, the Maths Talent Quest, the Westpac Maths Competition, the Science Talent Search, Schools debating, the Alliance Française poetry competition, the Shakespeare Festival, various inter-house competitions, and internal competitions for public speaking, lip syncing, songwriting and more.

It's also hard to ignore a pattern of regular slumps in my ability to think clearly, and angry, antagonistic work, that could perhaps indicate a long-term history of depression. I remember how my schoolwork really fell off in year 9; I just couldn't make myself finish an RE project that ended up terms and terms late. It was to write a 'Diary of a Muslim Girl' – they wanted pap like, "Dear diary, it really sucks to have to wear this headscarf. I feel really repressed."

That same year, we had to do a Geography project in the form of a tourist brochure for a country of our choice. I chose "Come to Friendly Yugoslavia", a sarcastic brochure full of black jokes about the civil war. One gag was that a traditional lace-making method was to hold up white fabric on a stick and have it shot full of bullet holes. I think there was a land mine gag, too.

Third year uni, during which I spent a large amount of time crying on the fire escape, also represented a slump from second year, which I aced, and at the end of the year was among a select group of students chosen to submit work to the D&AD Student Awards. Third year was the year I presented, as my final Client-Based Project, an anti-smoking concept with the tagline: "Quit being a dickhead".

It was also the year of Morty the Muscle, a deliberately cheesy and awful brand ambassador I invented in a Copywriting assignment for Aussie Bodies protein powder. Morty was a ragged hunk of disembodied muscle fibre with a face and spindly arms and legs. He spouted corny platitudes. For some reason, this really pleased our tough lecturer, who rarely awarded marks higher than 6/10. Morty earned me 8/10.

For my page in the graduation yearbook, I mocked up a page of B&T reporting that my Morty campaign had won gold at Cannes. An adjacent story, cut off at the top of the page, was a comic reference to an incident earlier in the year in which some anonymous graffiti in the third-year common room had alleged that a lecturer in our course "suck[ed] dog's dicks".

The lecturer had unsuccessfully spent the year trying to find the culprit, and thought I was obliquely claiming responsibility. He threatened to sue me for defamation. My page was ripped out of all the yearbooks and my letter of apology, drafted during an official university mediation session, was circulated to all staff, second- and third-year students.

I really don't think of myself as very exceptional now. Basically, I'm crippled with self-doubt, and obsessively compare my achievements to those of my peers and find myself wanting. I rarely win prizes, competitions, grants or awards. The easy flow of ideas and imaginative visions that my younger self didn't even consider difficult now feels like a dripping tap. I have to work much harder to process ideas and make mental connections. I've come to think of myself as mediocre.

When I raise my worries to my mother, she says my binge drinking has left me with brain damage.

Early in my secondary schooling, we read Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. This acclaimed SF short story is the journal of Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 68 who's selected for an experimental surgery that rapidly increases his intelligence threefold. But the treatment turns out not to be permanent, and Charlie suffers the agony of knowingly regressing to his former dull wits, knowing that his mouse friend Algernon, the first subject of the treatment, has already died prematurely.

I think that's when my terror of dementia began.

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