Sunday, April 28, 2013

Crash, bang and bingle.

Most times when I set off in my car I contemplate the possibility of an accident.  It’s standard for me, a typical thought - today might be the day on which I crash. 

In the thirty years plus that I have been driving I have endured a number of bingles.  And yesterday’s was no exception, a bingle and worst of all it was my fault. 

I took a short cut through a few narrow streets around the corner from my house as I routinely do, my thoughts ahead of myself.  I did not notice the car on my right as I turned left. 

The damage to both cars was minimal but enough to make an insurance claim, on my policy of course.  It was my fault.  The fellow into whose car I had collided established that fast.  No sooner was he out of his car than he asked a woman standing nearby to be his witness. 

My hands shook as I filled out the details on a sheet of paper he provided.  He was unshaken it seemed to me and when I asked if he had insurance he said yes, but did not know with whom. 
‘The wife takes care of that stuff.’ 

Perhaps that’s why he was unshaken.  The wife might be the one to get annoyed about the damage to the car.  The wife might be annoyed that some stupid woman wasn’t looking where she was going and the wife might then have to deal with the inconvenience of getting the car fixed.  

At least she won’t have to pay.  Small consolation. 

Am I trying to shift the blame here by noticing this? 

I’ve been in both positions, bingles that have been my fault and bingles that were not.  In any case the worst of it, besides paying the excess and watching my annual premiums go up, is the inconvenience of having to get the car off for repairs and doing without a car for however many days it takes.  

The worst of it for me is the sheer humiliation.  The sense of being a dunderhead, an uncoordinated klutz. 
‘No self recriminations,’ my husband said to me, kindly I thought. He who rarely has such accidents.  ‘There’s no point in going over it.  That’s why you have insurance’.  And as the insurance person said when I phoned to make a claim, ‘At least no one was hurt.’ 

All this rationalisation helps of course but it does not take away from my sense of humiliation, and the ripple of anxiety that still runs through me after the event.  The memory of that loud crash, still ringing in my head. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

My chopped-off penis

At the back of the East Camberwell railway station there is a track that runs through a concrete grey underpass out onto the edge of a cliff that overlooks the railway tracks.  This path begins its journey at Canterbury Road, cuts through the slope of the park, down past the electricity output station and then onto a narrower path that runs all the way to the Camberwell shopping centre and Burke Road. 

I have not been on this track since I was a child but I reckon it’s still there and I have it in my mind that I must re-walk this track soon. 

I was with my sister and two of my brothers on our way to the shops when the thought occurred to me, the thought more of a question: what must it be like to have a penis? 

And no sooner had this question troubled me than I imagined my imaginary penis being cut off.  Just like that.  Blood everywhere in great spurts and no one to clean it up except me in my imagination.  What a relief it was then to be a girl with no excess bits to cut off. 

I had not yet encountered Freud or his notions of penis envy but when I did read about this concept I wondered if my childhood fantasy could indeed point to my own penis envy or was it something else?

In those days I cannot remember even knowing the name for penis, or for vagina or for anything else down there.  We did not talk of such things in my family.  So I write about this memory now looking back with the authority of an adult.  Back then notions of body and body parts both terrified and enthralled me.

One of my daughters has recently pointed out this thing called ‘crip’ theory.  I had not heard of it before.  The notion that we are all disabled in one way or another by virtue of being human and that it is necessary therefore to acknowledge this in some way. 

In the past the pressure has always been on us, especially those who write essays at school, at university and the like, to seek the perfect and complete product. 

Crip theory argues in favour of uncertainly and incompleteness.  It argues for the messy realities of our lives, for the fact that we can only know things in incomplete ways and a realisation that it’s okay to include our uncertainties in our writing without feeling the pressure to be conclusive in our work. 

Needless to say I enjoy this notion.  It gives me permission to continue on my messy way, throwing up ideas that come to me seemingly from nowhere like my fantasy of my soon to be chopped off penis and I do not need to fit it into any category beyond the memory that it once was.  

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Living in the seventies

Eric Whitacre.  Have you heard of him?  I hadn’t until last night when I went to see him in concert at the Robert Blackwood Hall at Monash University. He's a composer and conductor currently settled in London but originally from the U S of A. 

Eric Whitacre is a man of extraordinary talents but to my mind almost too good to be true.  It’s not his talents per se but the whole package.  Between conducting his songs and music he talked briefly and wittily about his life, his wife, his passion for music and poetry.  The audience loved him, encore after encore.  

My daughter was singing in the choir and glorious singing, too, but Whitacre stole the night.  His wife, he told us, was for once able to be there and she added to the overall allure.  Here was a man in love with his wife, after a fifteen year marriage.  In love too with his seven and half year old son who came along to the concert as well.  His wife, Hila Plitmann, is a famed soprano with her own extensive following of admirers.  

See how often I write the words 'also' and 'as well' here.  These attributes pile up, one on top of the other.  

Before the performance began the son scrambled past me with his beautiful mother as I flattened myself back into my seat to make room.  I had noticed this young boy as he approached from one side of the theatre.  I could not but notice him.   As he slid past each person already seated he pointed to their programme on the front of which an image of his father took pride of place. 

‘That’s my dad,’ he said.  ‘That’s my dad,’ and he squeezed past me while his mother half apologised, half laughed at the antics of her proud and equally beautiful son. 

All three were blond, the son, the darkest in hair colour.  All three beautiful in that movie star way.  Whitacre's hair reminded me of this advertisement: men using women's shampoo.  Hilarious and almost surreal.   

Ash, the son – Whitacre told us his name during the performance but I may have spelled it incorrectly –  wore a grey suit not unlike the suit his father wore on stage.  Ash featured in many of his father’s stories about how Whitacre came to compose this or that particular piece of music.

I'm not usually taken in by so much beauty but as I say it was the entire package.  Not only the man’s ability as a composer but also his ability to present himself to the public, his warmth and generosity.  It took me by storm.  

A voice inside kept saying this cannot be.  It cannot be so picture perfect.  But why spoil it with my doubts?  Am I envious?  Why want to tone it down with a few hard edges?  Even the overall effect for me became a hard edge, but why can I not trust to the appearances and enjoy the ride?  Why so cynical?

I stood around afterwards for at least half an hour chatting to my daughter and her friends and when I left there was still a queue of people waiting to ask Whitacre to sign copies of his CD.  The queue stretched the width of the Blackwood hall and I felt for this man who after the fifth round of applause had raised his hands to his mouth in a gesture of drinking.  He then looked upwards as if to say to the audience, enough adulation no, let’s all go upstairs for a drink. 

No drink for him I imagine till well after midnight, but I suppose it’s all part of the deal, the price of fame, and it sells CDs. 

I gave a talk myself on Friday afternoon to a small group of psychology students at Swinburne.  I’m not an accomplished speaker but I tried hard to present material in such a way that they might be interested. 

From the onset, as I spoke, I noticed a man directly in front of me about five rows up who sat beside another man.  Both were older men, older relative to many of the students, and they chatted openly to one another during the prepared part of my talk. 

I had the impulse to stop speaking and to ask them if they had wanted to leave.  For the first time in my limited lecturing experience I knew what it felt to be a teacher with unruly students.

At one point the instigator of the chats, at least as far as I could see, stopped chatting and turned  to face the side of the small lecture theatre away from the other man.  He sat that way for at least half of my talk.  I kept waiting for him to leave.  I wanted him to leave, however much it might have seemed like a public thumbs down from him. 

This man gave me no sense of confidence in what I was saying but I ploughed on.  I knew in time I would play some you tube versions of therapy and that we could discuss them altogether and that the event might become more alive, more alive than having me simply drone on.  

Not that I droned on but I had worried that students these days do not value being lectured to.  They prefer interaction. And indeed things came more alive after I had explained where I was coming from and launched into a discussion of other people’s performances as therapists as portrayed online. 

To my surprise when it was all over the disruptive man came down to me at the podium and expressed his gratitude for my talk.  He introduced himself and offered to show me his written feedback, which he must have written during my talk.  

It was the strangest of feedback wherein he described the first part of my talk as like ‘Skyhooks - Living in the seventies', because I had described in some detail my origins in the field, and then he told me that the discussion part where I explained my position had completely changed his view on ‘this caper’, as he called it, this caper by which I presume he meant psychology. 

He was fifty years old he told me and new to the field.  How strange.  I could not get him out of my mind for some time. I still do not know whether he was critical or pleased.  He seemed to hear my words despite his chatter but what he has made of them I suppose I will never know.

The person organising the course made a fuss of distributing the feedback sheets before the talk and her intern collected them after the event.  Somehow to me the collection of feedback sheets so close on the heels of my talk felt a little like people throwing money at me as if I had become a busker.  The more money paid the more successful I would be.  The better the feedback the more I deserved to be paid.  Another strange feeling. 

I do not intend to make a habit of these talks and so I tell myself the feedback is not of such huge consequence  but of course I dread the thought I may have bored them silly. 

I am no Eric Whitacre, such a talented man, but I thought I had something worthwhile to say.  My only hope now is that I could be heard.  Isn’t that why any of us do these things?  To be heard?  

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Watch out for the undertow

This morning someone used the towel which hangs in the bathroom, the one I claim for myself.  I’m not so much critical of the fact that someone else used my towel – these things happen – but more the fact that when I went to dry myself, the cold wet of an already damp towel jarred and left me in ill spirits on an otherwise perfectly fine morning. 

Or is it a perfectly fine morning? 

Today I have promised one of daughters that I will help her with an essay on the topic of fear and anxiety.  

We all know fear : that cliff you’re about to drive over, that near miss on the road, that accidental slip of the knife.  Fear, actual and intense that sets off your adrenaline big time and leaves your underarms prickling with sweat and a racing heart. 

But anxiety is worse.  Anxiety is insidious.  Something out there, sometimes you know not what, sets your heart racing, your pulse soaring and all you know is that you feel a deep sense of dread.  The old fight/flight response to fear kicks in but it doesn't budge.  It hangs around.  

When I feel anxious there’s nothing clear cut to fight.  There’s nothing obvious to flee and so I'm stuck, bathed in these hormones with a vague sense of what might be troubling me but an inability to shift it because it is not what might be called real. 

Even now I can feel it.  I try to attach it to something: that talk I’m to give to a group of post grad students at the end of the week, rehearsal anxiety, free-floating fear of the unknown, but is that enough? 

I’ve prepared for the talk.  It should be okay.  Is that enough? 

For me sometimes even thinking about anxiety can make me anxious.  And anxiety is contagious.  I pick it up from other people, quick smart, especially from those who are near and dear to me. 

It’s also the stuff of terrorism, the ways in which certain people play on our fears to divide and conquer. 

In Thomas Keneally’s novel, Flying Hero Class, the narrator anticipates the hijacking of a plane and makes a plea for solidarity among the passengers.

What they will do these hijackers, he says, is to select a few of us for special treatment – cruel treatment.  Those selected will be chosen for some fault of their history, culture or some such thing.  They will be isolated and punished.  Basically they will be punished in order to split up the rest of the group. 

It’s an old technique.  Those not selected will gradually find themselves withdrawing from these victims.  Gradually those not selected will feel a sense of blame towards these others, a sense of their badness.  And all of this will emerge out of a sense of not having been chosen. 

We must avoid the process at all cost, the narrator argues.  Solidarity will help us.  Black and white, Jew and gentile must come together to avoid the divisiveness of the hijackers. 

‘I’ve seen hesitant people bludgeoned by an appeal to solidarity,’ she writes.  ‘Solidarity can be used to mock genuine doubt, to blur a fatal skid in reasoning.  Run the flag up the pole and see who salutes.  Whenever I feel in myself the warm emotional rush of righteousness of belonging, that accompanies the word solidarity, I try to remember to stop and wait till the rush subsides so I can have a harder look at what has provoked it.’

I too can feel the clash of anxiety, alongside my wish to belong when I press the send button to make a comment on that controversial blog, No Place for Sheep, where people can be very generous and thoughtful and yet a other times they might brawl on line about important topics and some actually abuse one another. 

But I am drawn to this anxiety, too, like a toddler to an open socket.  I’m drawn to the excitement of it, the kick-in of hormones that can leave me feeling more alive.  

Without anxiety life might become too drab and ordinary.   But watch out for the underto, or the 'under toad' as the young Walt, a character in John Irving's novel, The world According to Garp, calls it.  

Anxiety needs to be optimal to inspire and fire you up.  But too much anxiety and you wind up paralysed.