Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Farewell to Falling (Poem)

This is an erasure poem that I put together from today's front page of The Guardian Australia - a newsverse, if you like. I took phrases randomly from across the page to make the poem, and added the odd linking phrase or expository word here and there.

this day:

super heat
a crime scene of unspeakable horror
a girl dies (again).

the death of neoliberalism
minimum wage is a
war on business
distress signal confirmed

the search goes on

a boy left in a forest
nude elderly women
giant alligator panics

the world spins, stranger, sharper:

allegories about xenophobia fill the darknet
demagogues under investigation
what is the measure of a man

ecstasy in the desperate hunt
it's an international scandal
we need more time

we have no more time:

vanished without trace
invisible women
dreamtime and dust
reduced to tagged animals

dance. dance.
then die.

- Kathy, 31/05/16

Thursday, May 26, 2016

On being a one-car family again

Three years ago now, I wrote a blog post on the occasion of the arrival of our Kia Carnival, called Becoming a Two-Car Family. In that post, I detailed our reasons for deciding to keep, rather than trade, our early-2000s Commodore station wagon - mostly to do with convenience, prompted by the extraordinary unreliability of public transport at the time. My husband was then using a bus service to get to work that was excruciatingly unpredictable, causing us endless angst as a family. Ditching the bus was a sweet relief, and one we all benefited from.

This three-year heyday came to an abrupt end last Friday, when my husband called me while on his way home from a work day in Ballarat.

"Car's broken down," he said, stress evident in his voice. "In the middle of traffic, but I got it to the side of the road ... It won't start, I don't know what's wrong with it."

After several calls, we arranged to get the car towed from Hopetoun, where it stopped, back to our local mechanics. I collected my husband from there and we went home to spend an anxious night wondering what news we'd get the next day.

By midday on the Saturday, we knew three things:

1. The car's engine was irretrievably busted.
2. Putting a reconditioned one in was going to cost $2500 - $3000, which was about as much as the very old and weatherbeaten Commodore was worth overall.
3. We had a decision to make that was potentially going to change the way our family life operated.

It wasn't an easy decision.

It came about as the culmination of what has been a truly heinous three months in terms of expenses, with items like fencing, roofing repairs, an out-of-pocket surgical procedure, dentistry, business equipment purchases, all insurances, and unexpected additional education costs, all coming one after the other without relief. The idea of spending perhaps as much as $3000 on the car, without knowing why the engine had suddenly failed with no warning (and running the risk that it might do so again in three months), was disheartening in the extreme.

We considered too, after thinking it through for a bit, the fact that our circumstances are materially different (and more amenable to one-car living) now as compared with 2013.

Firstly, I am no longer in a salaried job - I'm working freelance and usually do three days a week exclusively from home. My husband, too, has a day at home, as he works 4 days a week. This makes true car-sharing a realistic prospect, with me concentrating my client site visits onto Tuesdays and Wednesdays as far as possible.

Secondly, my husband's fitness level has increased radically in the past two years, to the point where the once-intimidating walk to our nearest station is now easily and quickly achievable for him. Our nearest station is a premium station, which means all trains stop there and in fact we have two lines to choose from. My own PT options for my biggest current work client are also excellent, which means on the days I visit them, I can also manage without the car. (Two other clients are essentially car-only access, but I only visit each of them once a fortnight or so).

Thirdly, our eldest daughter is at high school and independent in her commute now, and our second girl will be joining her next year. This leaves only Child the Youngest at the local primary school - a much more manageable ask if we needed to beg wet-weather lifts from friends and neighbours.

Fourthly, like many middle-income mortgaged households with kids going into their teens, we are feeling the squeeze with increasing costs of living (even in the context of the reasonably good year of freelance business I've had). We did the maths - it will cost us about 1/3 as much per year in increased PT as it cost to keep the Commodore insured, registered and provided with petrol. And that's before you factor in servicing or repairs - a hard sell for people who are trying to be frugal.

So we decided to let the Commodore ("Soxy", named for its first numberplates which included SOX) go the way of all metal. Between the refund of the unused registration and insurance, plus what we got from wreckers, we have come out marginally in front even given paying for the tow and the mechanic's assessment. (I'm talking "the price of a lunch out" in front here, not "holiday in the Caribbean" in front, but ANY in front is a lot better than $3000 behind!)

We'll see how it goes. So far, so good - but it is only week one, so that assessment is clearly premature. If it gets really burdensome, we will look at buying an inexpensive runaround car next year. I'm hoping, though, that we can make it work again, being a one-car family.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Review: Miss Julie (August Strindberg), MTC production 2016

Today we went to see the second of our seven-play season subscription plays for the MTC's 2016 program - August Strindberg's 1888 naturalistic masterpiece, Miss Julie.

Seven-play seasons was a thing we used to do for the four or five years before the birth of our first daughter in 2003. Indeed, we saw the final such play, a production of Ovid's Metamorphoses from memory, when I was massively pregnant with her (there was some concern over whether a middle-of-aisle seat would hold my wide-berthed self, as I recollect).

Since the coming of the young 'uns, though, regular theatre-going has been both financially and logistically impractical, and although we have seen a couple of movies each year at the cinema, a few music concerts (Dead Can Dance, Fleet Foxes, Neil & Tim Finn, Mumford & Sons, kd lang) and I have been to a few writers' talks, over the past 13 years, we have not actually been to the theatre to see a play.

This year, we decided to break the drought by giving each other MTC season passes for Christmas. I won't lie, it's not cheap, although we did save some money by opting for Wednesday matinee performances (which suit us better anyway, as we don't need to organise babysitting). But, so far, it's been a great decision.

The first play we saw was Duncan Macmillan's Lungs, which we enjoyed, but I felt the ending was weak and the content didn't stay with me to any great extent. Today, however, we saw Strindberg's Miss Julie, and we were both blown away by it.

Strindberg's play picks up his own ideas of naturalism in a compelling, disturbing plot built around a somewhat inchoate meta-theme of social Darwinism. It revolves around only three characters: the unstable, high-handed, tragic and reckless daughter of a Count, Miss Julie; the thrusting, resentful, intelligent and often brutal valet, Jean; and the character who represents virtue, balance and ethical action, the much-put-upon kitchen servant, Kristine.

In keeping with the principles of naturalism, the plot deals with real, complicated human issues, in a simple setting (the action never really leaves the kitchen), and contains virtually no subplots or distractions - the play focuses with whip-crack sharpness on the developing relationship and dialogue between Miss Julie and Jean, and the underlying debate about class, gender and the future than drives it.

The MTC production sticks admirably to this simplicity, choosing a clean-lined set and minimal costume changes, and adhering to turn of the century aesthetics - a wise choice for this play, I feel, as playing around with visual modernisation would have been a distraction from the appreciation of the powerful contemporary resonances of Strindberg's ideas and dialogue. The film device, whereby the actors were screened live on a large overhead screen at the same time as they were performing the action in various stages, worked well, adding a touch of disorientation and hyperactivity to the mood of certain key scenes. (I did find that, for me, I had to focus on either the screen or the actors to avoid vertigo, but as I have wonky vision, I think this is unlikely to affect others the same way).

On the other hand, the script of the play has been considerably altered to make the language more contemporary (and not just with the liberal application of "fucks") and I think this works in a very potent way. Some of Strindberg's dialogue is very much of its time and place; the MTC script picks up the same concepts and presents them in plausible modern parlance, and I think this is why the play resonated so much with a 2016 audience.

Although Strindberg said himself that the play was primarily about the Darwinian struggle for dominance between the old, fading landed elites and the new, upcoming entrepeneurial classes, both my partner and I saw many other themes and resonances in it. (This, also, was probably intentional - one aspect of Strindberg's naturalism was his refusal to give characters simplistic, monotonal motivations, because human beings are complex and their actions are motivated by many, sometimes contradictory, experiences, drives, and desires).

Miss Julie, for example, is, particularly at the beginning of the play, clearly an arrogant, feckless, careless, wealthy woman who lacks any understanding of the lives and motivations of her servants, or any concern at all for their wellbeing. Robin McLeavy plays her with a hectic, fidgeting verve that suits the instability of the character perfectly.

Her commanding of Kristine to give up the Midsummer Night celebrations in order that Kristine can make a disgusting-smelling abortofacient for Miss Julie's dog is a good example of this; it does not occur to Miss Julie that her demand is unreasonable or unkind, or that, as Jean points out with some heat, she treats her dog more softly and gently than fellow human beings. Kristine's dignity is highlighted (not just at this point, but throughout) in sharp contrast to Miss Julie's flyaway folly and callousness.

Miss Julie's entire interaction with Jean across that long, hot night is an exercise in not just folly, but utter disregard for Jean's safety - the consequences for him of their eventual liaison are likely to be severe and permanent. Many times, while purporting to be honest, she slips into calling her servants and their ilk "scum" - a term she later tries to generalise to all people, without any real success. Her lack of understanding of the lives of the people that serve her persists, although she shows preliminary glimmerings of trying to comprehend. Even these first steps, though, are patronising; hearing Jean describe his childhood and life, she exclaims, "It must be so terrible to be poor!" Jean snaps back, "Not terrible, just hard". Moving from indifference to infantilising pity is not, as Jean sees immediately, a huge leap in thinking.

However, Miss Julie isn't as simple, or as simply detestable, as that, either. Strindberg's true modernity shows in his masterful display of intersectionality, long before such a concept was explicated. Miss Julie has class and wealth privilege in spades, but she is also at the mercy of some extremely toxic ideas about women and female behaviour, Jean tells her, with utter contempt, that her servants despise her for her flirtatious and familiar behaviour; they believe her to be a combination of a tease and a whore, and don't hesitate to say so, in blistering terms, once alcohol loosens their tongues.

Miss Julie's own impassioned rejection of her role as marital cattle, and the harrowing backstory of her free-thinking mother's subjugation, draws on this paradox, which is brought to its ultimate conclusion when Jean is busily constructing an elaborate fantasy about how the two of them can open a first-class hotel in Switzerland. "With what money?" Miss Julie asks. Jean replies that as he will bring his skills and expertise, she can provide the payroll. Miss Julie laughs, a bitter, incredulous sound, and tells him, "But don't you understand that I own nothing? Not this house, not the horses, not my own clothes, not the money ... It's all in my father's name. I'm as poor as you." It's at this moment that it's really brought to bear that Miss Julie's position is entirely dependent on, and mediated by, her father and his continuing goodwill. Cast out from his graces, she will indeed have no more than Jean - arguably, in fact, much less, as she has no resilience and no practical skills.

Jean is also a complex character, and played with brilliantly contained passion by Mark Leonard Winter. Like Miss Julie, he's neither entire villain nor entire hero, but speaks a lot of (class-based) truth to power while also engaging in a lot of (gender-based) obnoxiousness to both Miss Julie and Kristine. My husband said that Jean reminded him in a lot of ways of Thomas Barrow from Downton Abbey - there's the same thrusting sense of deal-making, the same desire to be free of the yoke of the master combined with the same grudging, almost reflexive, respect for the old order. Like Thomas, Jean isn't really likeable, although his revelation of some of his wounds does mitigate this somewhat. It's my opinion that in the struggle between him and Miss Julie, he emerges ascendant not because he is the better or even the stronger person, but because he is ultimately more ruthless than she.

One of the biggest changes that the MTC production makes to Miss Julie is the ending, which gives Kristine an entirely new speech, alters (at least implicitly) the outcome, and underlines a point that the play has been making from the very first scene of cooking in the kitchen: that, in a very real sense, Kristine is the only hero of the piece. Kristine, unlike either Jean or Miss Julie, both knows who she is, and what she will accept from others.

Kristine is the character most altered from Strindberg's original work, in which she was little but a fairly limited, conventional, moralising servant. In the MTC's production, Kristine is the voice of ethical reason, calling continually to both Jean and Miss Julie to turn back from self- and other-destructive action and towards a mindset of respect. At the end of the day, she is the only one who need not ask forgiveness for the events of that hot, fretful night. Played with dignity and depth by Zahra Newman, Kristine emerges as the only character who knows the reasons for her decisions, and stands behind them without shame.

Overall, we found this a powerful, contemporary and flawlessly executed version of one of the great pieces of modernist naturalistic theatre. We're still talking about it, and I would not be surprised if Miss Julie visits my dreaming for many nights to come.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

On being who I am

I grew up in a family that was functionally and socially lower middle class, although sometimes financially hovering below that due to circumstances. My parents, who were small businesspeople in a professional business (my father was a vet in a single-vet practice) prioritised education, faith, and family in our upbringing. My brothers and I were well fed, adequately clothed and provided with items of play, diligently cared for (in the case of my severely disabled brother), supported to learn musical instruments, and for the two of us to whom this applied, extremely well educated at good schools. We were raised in a loving, stable environment, one riven with sadness when my middle brother died aged 8 (I was 10) but never anything less than mutually affectionate.

What we did not have, of course, was the level of luxury in daily life, or the monetary parental booster rocket to start our independent lives, that some of our better-heeled peers had. We never went overseas or bought designer clothes. We didn't eat at fancy restaurants or have a swimming pool in the yard. We bought our first cars, and many years later our first homes, under our own steam, my little brother and I.

I was reflecting on this recently in the context of thinking about what legacies my childhood has left me. Losing a sibling young has granted me both empathy and anxiety. Being raised in a religious household has given me both a deep residual religiosity of my own and a complicated resentment that I sometimes struggle to unpick. Growing up in the heart of a small business gave me an understanding of risk, a penchant for lone-wolfing professionally and a preference for being my own boss, which probably explains why I have gravitated towards freelancing and feel settled in that life.

One thing I have rarely enunciated clearly, though, is how profoundly my childhood-born deep unease around very luxurious environments and very rich people has shaped my choices in life. I would say that we also are located in the middle class, my household and I, but the reality of living costs, as well as the phenomenal expense of housing today, means that although we objectively earn more than my parents did, our standard of living with our three girls is very similar to what I grew up with. My girls also are safe, well-fed, clothed, able to explore hobbies and interests, and well-schooled. We probably go on more holidays than I did as a kid, but they are similarly modest and local compared with childhood vacations. Like my parents, we have tight months when a lot of bills come due, we budget for non-essential items, and we are vulnerable to financial catastrophe. Like my parents, we are paying off a comfortable but not luxurious home, have no investments, and less super than we "should".

The thing is, although a part of me would cry with relief if a magical fairy granted me a competence sufficient to cushion life's slings and arrows, I know absolutely that I was not born to, nor am I fitted to, a life of ease and luxury. I feel uncomfortable in the presence of excess. There's a vague rage, a stiffness, and above all, a deep and complex shame. On the one hand, I feel lesser, not good enough, when around the very wealthy and the trappings of their wealth. I become awkward and inarticulate, clumsy and stupid. On the other hand, I feel existential shame that such wealth even exists when the world is so full of want. There is no rationality to this; it just is.

So if I could be a wealthy person ... I wouldn't be. I would not know how to be myself in a setting of glitter and gold; I would not see myself undistorted in the high gloss of that mirror. Not having too much, and occasionally not even having enough, is intrinsic to my understanding of myself. I am not good enough to be rich. I am too good to be rich. It doesn't have to make sense to be true.