Friday, December 28, 2007

I Know It's Not a Virus, but...

... we've just heard of the third friend/acquaintance/colleague to undergo surgery for breast cancer in the last three weeks, plus another, a few weeks ago whose lump turned out to be benign.

When I was first diagnosed, it was not uncommon for people to respond by adding me to their list of friends/acquaintances/colleagues with the disease. Or they might claim that breast cancer was a virus, or imply there was something about my lifestyle - my workplace, the time I spend in front of a computer, the way I worked - that might have caused the cancer. Suzanne, my surgeon, said simply, "we don't know why anyone gets breast cancer". The ABC studios at Toowong in Brisbane have been closed down, but to date, no reason has been found for the extraordinarily high incidence of breast cancer there. It's called a "cluster".

Of course I don't want to see my disease as anything I brought upon myself. Though I am full of determination about keeping on trying to simplify the way I work, to say "no" as often as I can (which still won't be enough), and to try and live more calmly. Will this keep any recurrence of the cancer at bay? No one knows, but I'll feel less at the mercy of forces beyond myself.

I am in the process of moving into my newly painted study, and making all kinds of ridiculous resolutions about keeping it clean and beautiful, as I get ready to pick up the threads of various writing projects in the new year. I do get things done, and I do meet most of my reading and writing deadlines, but I am not at all organised or disciplined about it. I have learned to respect my own work patterns of displacement activity (e.g. I have only written half that sentence but if I just go out and look at the goldfish one more time then when I come back I will bring it to a ringing final cadence), and even the longer-term patterns of the big halt halfway through a book. I wrote ten thousand words of my book on Gwen Harwood then threw them away and started again. I stopped Congenial Souls to have Joel and really struggled to pick up and find a way to finish it. This book on the Garter looks as if it will have suffered a similar hiatus, as a result of the horrible year I was having at work before I got sick; and then getting sick; though I think I am almost ready to pick it up again.

Anyway, at the moment only beautiful and clean things are allowed into my new study. This is not exactly "before and after", as the "before" image represents the rock bottom of the re-structuring. Literally. The old house had not much in the way of foundations apart from the rocks you see here:



And here is a glimpse of the "after", in the same corner.



The fireplace will re-appear, just as soon as we find a little extra money to install it. And for hot days...



I'm so entranced with these beautiful green walls I don't want to put anything in the room that isn't silver or grey or green or white. Luckily the computer qualifies...

I have a single gardenia on my desk and it's filling the room with its sweet white fragrance.

And I'm thinking of my friends and colleagues and acquaintances, and thinking of my life a year ago, and hoping they will be able to come through the next year into a similar place of peace and promise.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas lunch for 15? not a problem. Or is it?




Every Christmas Eve, Paul's family takes it in turns to go to his brother's place by the beach, his sister's in the country, or our place in the city. This year it was our turn. Photos aren't particularly good; posted here for the benefit of non-Australian readers who wonder what Christmas might look like in summer. Actually it was a bit chilly in the morning, but by afternoon warm enough to sit outside. For the first time since Joel, Angus and Sarah were born in the same year, there were only five grandchildren present: Nick, 18, was visiting his girlfriend's family.

We went all out with the food, since it's the first time for months our dining table didn't have my computer on it, and it was fun to put three tables together, bring in the garden chairs, and scrape the drawers for enough forks and spoons. Also, one child has a severe nut allergy, and another is vegetarian, so we had lots of options in addition to the paella and baked ham you see here. I can't believe I don't have a photo of my pudding, but it was glistening with butter and fruit, and the blue flame of the brandy. Note also the festive lights decorating the fishtank.

What an opulent display, though. At the time it felt like a lovely thing to do, to work and cook and clean for the family, but seeing the food in all its lavishness is a bit ghastly now. This family is very restrained with presents, but even so, I can't help feeling some of the best gifts we were given this year were a chicken for a Philippines family and a vegetable garden in Mozambique. Must make sure I shop at Oxfam next year.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas Bonus and a Reading Meme

A surprise Christmas bonus for me this afternoon. I had signed up for what I thought would be a day of "Unsatisfactory Progress" meetings in the Arts Faculty, but only four students turned up for interviews. I sat and went through all the remaining paper files and by 12.00 I was done, so I gladly accepted Sylvia's invitation to so and sing Christmas carols with the Faculty staff. Our pianist was the university organist, so we were well managed, along with a guitar accompaniment and about 25 folk sitting in the lecture theatre (the one with the piano, obviously). Our new Dean was there, too, as was Lauren, Joel's cello teacher, who's been working in the office this year. I was then invited to their lunch (rice paper rolls, sushi, dolmades, little pies, fabulous platters of fruit and cakes). But by the time they were getting to their Kris Kringle, it really was time to leave them to it.

I'm back in my office now. The English office has closed for the year, and I'm under instructions to lock the kitchen when I leave. The heavy rain that's forecast for the day has just begun. I have my car in the carpark, though, after the bicycle puncture on Wednesday morning (just after I had melted the plastic handle of the feather duster on to the iron).

It's been a momentous year for professional staff in the university. For academic staff, certainly, but our office and school are staffed by a wonderful team of folk who have really battled this year to stay calm and cheerful as their working conditions underwent a seismic shift. First they were re-organised from departments into schools, many of them having to re-apply for their own jobs, and then having to quickly adapt as different department cultures and practices were merged. And now the University is re-structuring student services, so there are more dramatic changes ahead. My own office is close to the Department one, and I like this. I don't really try to do any research or writing when I'm on campus, so my time here is usually rather social, and I like the sense in which we're all engaged with students, and with each other, but that will soon change, alas. Actually, yesterday I also happened to be in the office here just as they were having their last morning tea for the year; with staff from several buildings gathering to say farewell to the one leaving, and to give presents to our outgoing Head of School.

I'm going to spend the next hour or so tidying up my office, getting things off the floor so it can be cleaned, and then I'm going to go home and decorate our Christmas tree.

Dame Eleanor Hull, though, has tagged me for a meme: "books I've loved reading in 2007". A little tricky, this one. There have been one or two. Having Middlemarch read to me when I was sick was one of the reading highlights of my life. I ended up finishing it myself, but could hear my friends' and families' voices as I read. Of course I'm partial, but I loved the single chapter Joel read to me early on: Fred and Rosamund and Mrs Vincy at breakfast.

With some friends (our parallel family: two academic parents, one child), we also made an effort to read Romeo and Juliet before pizza on Friday nights. I was the nurse, in my best Sybil Fawlty voice, and I distributed the other parts according to character, as I thought. Joel and Eva (eight months younger) were Juliet and Romeo; both eagerly eschewing the type-casting of gender. But you could see how a boy could easily play a girl. Again, Joel threw himself into the cadences of the lines and the emotions, and I realised how all the hours and days and weeks I read to him when he was younger had paid off. But we only got half-way through Act IV. Once the novelty wore off, and once Mercutio's part was over, it seemed hard to keep everyone's concentration going.

There was also Andrew McGahan's The White Earth, thoroughly recommended to anyone wanting to think about land — possession, knowledge and use — in the Australian imagination.

But mostly - and this is a hard confession to make - it hasn't really been a reading year for me. It's taken most of my energy and concentration just to get through the reading and writing I've had to do for work. By the end of the day, or at the weekend, if I'm not working, I've tended to be sleeping, or feeding the goldfish. In part I think it's an effect of the medication-induced menopause (I will write a proper blog entry about this in the new year, I promise): concentrating on stuff has been a real problem for me this year. I'm hoping for much better in the new year.

So, if anyone wants to pick up the tag, I'm swinging it around: "how have you performed the act of reading this year?" in what company? with what voice? in what context?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Guest post: Katrina's Beowulf review

My first guest post! Katrina wrote this lovely review of Beowulf for our Medieval Round Table listserve, and I'm posting it here with permission.

Dear Roundtablers

The Roundtable Film Club had its first outing, to see Beowulf in 3D at the
big screen Imax. Helen H arranged the tickets, for which we are all
grateful, and we had a lovely time, except in the bits when we almost
threw up.

The film was immensely entertaining, and I’m sure all our ‘normal’ friends
are glad that we found other medievalists to go with, as we critiqued it
at length afterwards.

The rest of this email has spoilers, but you all know the plot anyway, so
what does it matter?

Actually, there are parts of the movie plot that even the closest reading
of Beowulf would not reveal, mainly about who is and is not sleeping with
whom, and I won’t reveal any details. (The same could also be said of the
frequently naked Beowulf, who was strategically prevented from revealing
his details protected by an entertaining array of helmets, other people'
shoulders, trestles, bits of Grendel, light fixtures and vegetables.)

Visually it’s a stunning film, which goes a long way to making up for the
fairly uninspired script and performances. The 3D-ness of it was
overwhelming at times, with spears landing in the middle of one’s
forehead, and the gruesome dribble of Grendel masticating a brave but
foolhardy Geat getting way too close for comfort.

The sets were ‘virtual’ creations and the actors were all digitally
mapped, which makes for some gee-whiz action sequences, but leads to
heavy, wooden acting. Beowulf’s dialogue came out with all the excitement
of a school speech night, and Angelina Jolie looked even more android-like
than usual (read more about what the actors thought of their digitisation here).

I’m pretty impressed that Angelina had a plait so long that it looked like
a tail and could be used as a weapon. She also has built-in high heels,
giving her the appearance, as Stephanie said, of the advertising poster
from ‘The Devil Wears Prada.’ It was fun to see Ray Winstone transformed
from an ageing tubster into a Scandinavian warrior with Brad Pitt’s body.
But movements cannot be divorced from the bodies performing them, so
Beowulf never looked as if he really fitted and controlled the
impressively muscled body bestowed upon him by the digital technology.
The superhero-style action was sometimes at odds with the grubby realism
of the impressive setting, and rather than being scary or affecting was
often just plain silly.

Anthony Hopkins, barely recognisable except for eyes and voice, was King
Hrothgar, and was clad only in a bedsheet/toga to host a feast in his
accursed mead hall, so we saw far more of podgy loins than we really
needed too. I can confidently assert that no proto-Viking king worth his
arm ring would have shown up in anything other than his most impressive
warrior-standard party gear.

The film had, of course, numerous anachronisms and inaccuracies, but
no-one expected it to be a documentary. The setting is given as AD 507,
yet the Danish landscape featured buildings taller than any it would
actually have for about another thousand years. The Danes themselves
don’t come across terribly well, a bunch of wimps with bad teeth and no
backbone, whereas the Geats are tough in all ways except their names.
“I’m a GEEK” Beowulf proudly announced, or so it sounded. He was calling
himself a ‘Geet,’ turning into a nerdish grunt the name which, in a
Scandinavian pronunciation, would have a palatalised /g/ followed by a
rising diphthong which gives it quite an ominous sound guaranteed to chill
the marrow of the nastiest foe. ‘Geek’ or even ‘Geet’ just didn’t quite
have the same punch.

The whole ‘Finn-fighting’ section of the poem is omitted, but we do have a
Frisian in a bear-skin (complete with head) which is perhaps a nod to the
‘berserkr’ tradition. Beowulf, who fights Grendel naked, goes with the
other interpretation that ‘berserkr’ means ‘bare-shirt.” OĆ°inn is
frequently invoked, but so too is the new-fangled Christian god, with
Hrothgar’s Denmark subject to Christian missionary, centuries before the
Danes really underwent evangelisation. The introduction of religious
tension seemed a bit gratuitous. As these people are already stuck with a
flesh-eating monster and his scary mother, a sonless king and a golden
dragon, there is enough scope for conflict in there without adding
Conversion, but is perhaps one way of introducing the Christian
perspective of the Beowulf-poet into this decidely non-Christian milieu.

Credit where it’s due - the Viking ships looked absolutely gorgeous. They
were accurate reconstructions of excavated Viking Age ships, which might
make them anachronistic, but I’m not complaining. They were stunning.
I’d sail away on one of them any day.

Anyway, this is way more than my 2 cents worth. I’m going to resist the
urge to mention the preponderance of precious metals, and the visual and
verbal references to other Heroic Age Germanic poety, and hand over to
someone else who saw the movie and might want to share their views and
insights.

One last thing - If you want to read the Danish perspective on the
pre-viking age, have a look at the 12-13th century History of the Danes by
Saxo Grammaticus
.

Huge thanks to Helen for organising the trip. It would be great if we
could have similar excursions for any medieval-themed films that come out.
I know my friends would be very grateful if they didn’t have to go with me
. . .

Cheers
Katrina

Friday, December 07, 2007

Overheard on the bike path

Riding north along the Upfield bike path this afternoon, as it follows the train line west of Sydney Road (yep, just keep heading north to the Emerald City), I saw a man riding a bike with a girl sitting comfortably behind him. He must have been standing up on the pedals the whole way. As we crossed, I heard him say distinctly, "So at that time you weren't going to be in the circus, but then you were?"

Isn't that great? I spent a while pondering the grammatical ambiguity here; was she now going to be in the circus? or was she now in the circus? or had she been going to be in the circus, but now she wasn't (a counter-factual imperfect?)? Is "were" the principal verb, or does it leave the "going to be" understood? I need a grammatical analysis of the different temporalities and tenses at work here.

Either way, she was having a lovely ride in the sun. And so did I, stopping to load up my panier on the left side, a shopping bag on the right handle bar, both filled with dried fruit that is now soaking in beer, brandy and port ready to make Christmas puddings. OK, a little late, but still a glad contrast to last year when my father had to come to my rescue and help me because I couldn't stir them. Twelve months later, I plan to have the mixture all assembled when my family comes to afternoon tea on Sunday, so we can all have a stir and make a wish.