Hands

monk-555391_1920

 

I’ve always liked the fact that the French word for hands is mains. I don’t know what the origin of the word is, but, translated back into English, it seems appropriate. Our hands, after all, are what we mainly use to get things done: writing, eating, labouring (and, yes, wiping our arses, which in some cultures is confined to a specific hand for reasons of hygiene). The sports that don’t require the use of hands are an anomaly (although football, in which only one player on each team, the goalkeeper, can use his hands, is the most popular game in the world. At the same time, I’ve never understood why Australian Rules Football has that name when the players use their hands far more than their feet). It is a traditional punishment in some Muslim countries for thieves to have their hands cut off – striking at the part of the body engaged in the theft, yes, but also at perhaps its most utilitarian part. The fingertips, I seem to recall, have more nerve endings in them than most of the rest of the body, making them a frequent target of the torturer’s art (I had an unpleasant taste of this the other day when I was cleaning hardened noodles from a colander and one slid under the nail of the third finger on my right hand. The pain was excruciating, and I can still see the bruise). We shake hands, and our hands shake. We high-five and fist-bump. We slap and we hold. We display our engagements and marriages there, and anxiously bite away the nails when life is not all we would want it to be (in primary school I once bit a thumbnail so far down it bled. I don’t bite my nails anymore, that particular nervous habit having been replaced by the gentle grinding of the soft outer layer of skin on the insides of my cheeks. There are white lines there but nobody can see them). Palms are read but not, to my knowledge, the soles of feet. When I look at my hands I see: two different ‘lifelines’, one (on my left) broken about halfway along, the other (on my right) complete. I don’t know if this means I’m going to die young or not. I see a silver signet ring, which I was recently asked about by a customer in the bookshop where I work. He told me he liked silver (and gold too, but that was more expensive) and remarked that my ring was badly scuffed, had lost its patina, wondering if something that had been engraved there had been worn away. I told him it hadn’t. I also see the thumb on my right hand, the top of which was sheared away by a door on Guy Fawkes night when I must have been one or perhaps two years old. I don’t remember it, but the story goes the top – which was hanging by a thread of skin – was hastily stuck back on sans stitches, to eventually reattach itself, leaving a faint scar on one side and a ridge-like indentation on the other. I see a mole, which makes me think (not for the first time this summer) that I am overdue a check-up of my skin.

Advertisements

Sand

sand-2005066_1920

 

I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been dipping into Ann and Jeff VanderMeers’ anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories but today sand seems strange to me. On another day – a sunny one perhaps, for it’s oppressively overcast outside – this would not be so. I love the beach, and as I write it is summer. Normally, I suspect, thinking of sand would be to recall childhood trips to the beach with my father, Paul Simon’s greatest hits spinning over and over on the car’s cassette player, a barbecue awaiting us when we got home. But I am not thinking of these things today. It is not sunny. And I am sad. And I have the Weird on the brain.

 

What I am thinking of is those sand dunes that are said to sing. Sandstorms, cutting and blinding. Time, in the form of an hourglass, visibly, unrecoverably draining away. Sand, the internet tells me, is a ‘non-renewable resource over human timescales’. Beaches, with their trillions of grains of sand, are ready metaphors for magnitude. And yet we associate it with ephemerality – running through our fingers, washed away in the form of sandcastles. Anyone who’s been to the beach knows how it gets everywhere, and stays there.

 

In Jewish mythology, golems are (often malevolent) creatures composed of inanimate matter, usually clay or mud. It’s not hard to imagine one made from sand, though, and I think I’m right in saying that sand spirits are present in Arabic legends, and also that the distinctive red sand of Australia features prominently in several Dreamtime stories (certainly it is integral to the sand art of Indigenous Australians).

 

On some level, thinking of these things produces the same shock as those urban beach volleyball courts that sometimes pop up, or those beach-themed city bars that entail the trucking in of tons of sand, or even those miniature Zen gardens you sometimes see in offices or reception rooms. By a process of decontextualistion, they make sand seem strange again, uncanny almost in a way it can’t when you’re on a beach and you can hear the stuff grinding down between your teeth as you speak.

 

In 2015 I interviewed the Indonesian-German performance artist Melati Suryodarmo about her work 24,901 Miles. I wrote: ‘Over a roomful of red sand 15 centimetres deep, Melati Suryodarmo transports a large, white mattress. She carries it on her head in the familiar burden-bearing posture of the Global South, and arches it over her prostrate body as though sheltering from the elements. The other object in the space is an old spade with which Suryodarmo moves, Sisyphus-like, shovelfuls of sand from one part to another without discernable purpose. At other times, it is clear she is attempting to erect a trench or ridge, but the arising of such utilitarian actions seems always accompanied by a sense of defeat – at any moment her sculpting of the landscape may be abandoned, Suryodarmo’s task unfinished as she resumes dragging the spade unproductively around the space, or wearily retreats to the sanctuary of the mattress.’

 

Lungs

lung-fish-282422_1920

 

1.

 

These are the organs you can live without: stomach, spleen, colon, gallbladder, testes/ovaries, appendix, and kidneys. You cannot live without lungs.

 

2.

 

I think about the relationship between lungs and the human voice. I think about opera singers, and wonder if it is the size of their lungs – sitting either side of the heart – that makes them traditionally fat. I cannot hold a note in either sense. When I try to sing I am usually out of tune (how I used to thrill to hear my ex-girlfriend tell me I had inadvertently managed to harmonise with a vocal line in a song on the radio!), and tend to run out of breath at the wrong moment. I suppose my lung capacity is small.

 

3.

 

Sometimes I smoke. Sometimes I remember those TV advertisements in which a black sponge representing a smoker’s lung was squeezed out, thick, dark tar running graphically out into a beaker. I wonder how effective those ads were. They seem almost quaint now, with our plain packaging and their sick babies and amputated limbs and gangrene and that cadaverous man who apparently wasn’t ill from smoking but actually had AIDS.

 

4.

 

It’s the heart that is associated with love but I wonder if it should be the lungs. We use them to breathe after all and it is love that takes our breath away. We use them to sing too and we sing, almost always, of love. Love is in the air. You cannot live without lungs and you cannot live without a heart (although we have just one of these).

 

5.

 

There is a fish called a lungfish. Wikipedia tells me: ‘Most extant lungfish species have two lungs, with the exception of the Australian lungfish, which only has one.’

 

6.

 

There is a song by XTC called No Language in Our Lungs. Some of the lyrics are: ‘There is no language in our lungs/To tell the world what’s in our hearts/No, no, no, no, no, we’re leaving nothing behind/Just chiselled stones/No chance to speak before we’re bones.’

 

7.

 

Up until the middle of the 20th century, a person was considered dead if any one of the body’s vital functions – heartbeat, brain activity, or respiration – stopped. If any one of these failed, it was thought, the rest would follow suit. But then someone came up with something called brain death. This happened because of the invention of a machine called the mechanical ventilator, which pushes air into and out of the lungs.

 

8.

 

The word ‘lunge’ has its origins in a French word meaning ‘lengthen’. The word ‘lung’ does not share the same root, coming from an Indo-European root word related to ‘light’. Lungs are lights. Without them, darkness.

 

 

Sandwich

appetite-1239259_1920

Over a lifetime, sandwiches, like people, grow in complexity. At first they are plain, white, sugary things, smeared on one interior side with, say, vegemite, and on the other a layer of butter or, more likely, less flavoursome margarine. (When I was in primary school, my mother always rebuffed my occasional request for a jam sandwich, thinking it too sweet than was good for me – and yet how much sugar must that fluffy, whiter-than-white, eerily long-lasting bread must have contained!) As often as not, these vegemite sandwiches were filled out with a piece of cheese, and I can remember vividly the effect of a hot day on them. The cheese would sweat and wilt (much like us on our recess and lunch breaks, when we were allowed to go outside) and grow faintly translucent. Sometimes these sandwiches became inedible and sometimes, catastrophically, were forgotten about, and left to ferment at the bottom of schoolbags, only to give themselves away days later by their stench.

 

A friend’s mother gave me the first ‘proper’ sandwich I encountered – the first with any real pretensions to complexity – at around this time. The bread was – gasp! – brown, and – gasp! – inserted between was what seemed to me then an entire supermarket shelf’s worth of salad. I was horrified. Was I supposed to eat this? My friend’s parents were preternaturally thin as I recall, almost gaunt, and now at least I knew why. They were poisoning themselves. I did not finish more than a mouthful or two of the sandwich and, when nobody was looking, tossed the remnants into a kitchen bowl under the sink. This was never mentioned by my friend or his parents – I can only imagine what they thought when they found my half-eaten sandwich, and hope it was found quickly, sparing them the same fate that awaited me (or my mother, or one of my brothers) upon discovering one of those disremembered sandwiches in my schoolbag. Nobody should have to experience that (or, come to think of it, be subjected to such a rude rejection of hospitality).

 

I don’t know when all this changed, when a sandwich that contained something green was rendered edible by my shifting tastes. Oftentimes, I think these things are a matter of will rather than physiological maturation. I came round to wine at about the age of 16 or 17, for example, because I had acquired a taste for spirits by then, and figured that, while at home, I may as well avail myself of some of my parents’ supply of red wine. I may not have liked the taste at first, but it was the sensation – near enough to the buzz brought on by, usually then, vodka – that got me there. Maybe I managed to convince myself that brown bread was worth eating for its health benefits, or maybe I simply felt more grown up doing it. Equally plausibly, mum just started buying it – there must have been some kind of shift in the zeitgeist to end up where we are now, with nobody batting an eyelid at mixed seed sourdough, chia omega-3 wholemeal and all the rest – and I had to adjust. We’re having to adjust again, in a way. Books and articles scream at us to stop eating bread altogether, tell us it’s bloating us and giving us cramps and mood problems, that all those carbohydrates are weighing us down (and making us weigh more).

 

A loaf of white bread – and I mean white, Napisan white – made its way into our house recently. It was bought so that my partner could make a sandwich her mother – who was running a stall at a local market – could happily eat for her lunch. Next to the dark ryes we favour these days, the white bread looked alien, almost luminescent. I made toast from it, and one or two sandwiches, trying to will myself back twenty years so that I might enjoy it. The loaf lasted for weeks.

 

 

 

 

 

Jewel

amethyst-1394397_1920

I know you don’t want to hear about my dreams but I had a strange one the other night I’m going to tell you about anyway. In the dream I was engaged in an argument with somebody about what a homophone is (I was right, and they were wrong). I don’t remember the examples we used to face off with, but theirs was definitely erroneous. The reason I thought of this dream while writing this post is that I kept churning the word ‘jewel’ over in my head and the more I did this the more it took on the sound and shape of the word ‘duel’. Maybe it’s not an exact homophone, but maybe it doesn’t have to be. Both words are nouns. One, I suppose, has pleasant connotations, the other (duel) unpleasant. Duel makes me think of the Steven Spielberg film with that name, one of his earliest and, in my view, one of his best. It’s like Jaws but with a truck. For my money it’s by far the better film.

 

Jewel makes me think of a conversation I had a few months ago while working on a piece of theatre. My dramaturg asked me what my favourite example of a MacGuffin was (a MacGuffin being a word coined by Hitchcock to denote the mythical or semi-mythical object or objective in a film that has no real function except to drive the events of the plot). My answer was the Maltese Falcon, the black statuette around which the entertaining but largely nonsensical action of the film of the same name coalesces. I love The Maltese Falcon (the film, that is, not the MacGuffin). When I’m not wanting to be Bogart I’m almost always laughing at the way he delivers those hard-bitten jibes, flung out of the corner of his mouth like a cigarette he can’t be bothered finishing (now that I come to think of it, it’s the jibes that make me want to be Bogart). There’s one in The Maltese Falcon that’s one of my favourites: ‘The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.’ I don’t know if that’s from the Dashiell Hammett book the film is based on, but there’s a kind of poetry to it.

 

I’m not sure why the word jewel should have prompted these reflections. Perhaps because it’s easy to imagine a film in which the MacGuffin is a jewel, some unspeakably precious stone – a ruby or diamond say – perhaps set in a dazzling watch or brooch or sword hilt. I suppose there must be a jewel in The Jewel of the Nile, which I watched dozens of times as a child, but I can’t remember. (Google, of course, remembers all. According to Sami Al-Taher’s plot summary on IMDB: This is the sequel to “Romancing the Stone” where Jack and Joan have their yacht and easy life, but are gradually getting bored with each other and this way of life. Joan accepts an invitation to go to some middle eastern country as a guest of the sheik, but there she is abducted and finds her- self involved with the “jewel”. Jack decides to rescue her with his new partner Ralph. They all go from one adventure to another… What is the story of this “jewel”?)

Sponge

accessory-1869239_1920

I was having a conversation today with a friend about people who are miserly, that is who rarely, if ever, pay their fair share at the end of meals, for shared taxi rides and so on. Perhaps every social group has one. Such people, I suppose, are a sort of archetype, the kind who Douglas Adams defined in the Meaning of Liff as those who would argue a meal bill be split evenly, then add two packets of cigarettes to it. In another word, a sponge – someone who takes advantage of others. The people my friend and I described sounded similar, as did the scenarios. They involved food, of course, the ability of which to bring people together – breaking bread etc. – is much discussed; less so its ability to divide, which generally comes down to a question of who’s paying.

 

I’m still faintly traumatised by a family meal at a Thai restaurant some years ago. The occasion was my youngest brother’s birthday. I had only recently broken up with my girlfriend, had temporarily moved back in with my parents and was, frankly, a mess. I arrived ahead of most of the others, and proceeded to order and down two scotch and waters in quick succession. When it came time to split the bill, my medicinal aperitifs became just one of many bones of contention – I’m fairly sure I offered to pay for them but maybe I too was sponging, broken-walleted as well as broken-hearted – as the whole thing descended into something resembling the International Criminal Court. We don’t often eat out as a family, and I’m not sure if this is due to anticipation of such episodes or if it’s that such episodes are inevitable when we do because we lack the practice.

 

Tightness does bother me, either because it’s calculatedly ungenerous – I know people who I suspect can only afford the houses they live in because they’re inveterate skinflints – or because a certain kind of dishonesty underlies it: if you can’t afford something I’d prefer you just said, rather than go along with something in the hope your indigence won’t be found (or pointed) out. I have a fairly good idea – as much as a middle-class white male in an affluent country can have – of what it’s like to have no money. Unlike most of my friends I never had a casual high school job. I never wanted one, but nor could I much sponge off my parents, who, having four children, didn’t have much money either. (It still vaguely smarts to remember an outing with my high school friends to some markets, where in one of those ye olde English sweet shops one of them found a particularly unpleasant-looking variety of hard gum called ‘Poor Bens’. Everybody laughed except me, and the worst part was that nobody had needed to explain what the joke was.)

 

Maybe, anyway, I am a sponge too. Perhaps my antipathy for tightwads contains a grain of self-recognition (not to mention self-loathing). I’m a writer, after all, and the privileges that flow from having a partner with a ‘proper’ job are not invisible to me. I suppose, if I were to propose a rule, it would be something like: be generous with what you can, and honest about what you can’t. One can be generous with time or love, or by listening, or by making space.

Fluff

cloud-405919_1920

 

I can remember being fascinated by an image, probably in a Guinness Book of World Records, of a jar containing what I suppose must have been a world-beating quantity of someone’s bellybutton fluff. It was blue, which surprised me because most of the fluff I produced seemed to be white. Why should this image have interested me? Maybe because it seemed disgusting and kind of taboo (an irresistible combination for a child). Maybe because it made visible something usually hidden, and vaguely shameful. Or perhaps I found something satisfying in the quantifying aspect of it. There in the photograph of the jar, as in a stumbled upon infographic, was a visualisation of data I never knew I needed, probably how much bellybutton fluff one person could produce in a year. Fluff, when used to refer to speech or art, indicates a kind of void, a lack of substance, and yet here was a jar full of the stuff. I could see it (if I were the producer of the fluff in the photograph, or the photographer, I could even touch it if I were so inclined).

 

Fluff is everywhere. It’s in the rise of political spin, the relentless churn of the 24-hour news cycle, our social media feeds. It may be, in a sense, without content, and yet it is also ubiquitous, and fills up our lives. We sometimes seek it out – as in when we really just want to watch a bad film or trashy TV series – but mostly it comes to us unbidden, accumulating in the spaces between where we make meaning for ourselves. It is somehow dispensable and indispensible at the same time. Wilde said that we should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality. We would not be able to get through our lives without fluff, I suspect, without the ephemera it would be useless to fight anyway. In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, the teacher Hector makes his pupils learn songs like ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ as a sort of inoculation against the seriousness of life.

 

Speaking of The History Boys, which is about a group of English grammar school boys preparing for the exams they hope will get them into Oxbridge, fluff also means to do badly at something (‘the actor fluffed his lines’). This would seem to have generally serious connotations, the result being one kind of failure or another. Perhaps these senses of the word are linked – to fluff something is to have failed to have taken it seriously enough to get it right, to have treated an important thing like something that could simply be brushed away, or stored uselessly in a jar.

Chandelier

chandelier-2309250_1920

What a strange, almost unresonant word chandelier is. My friend Kate sends me the words I respond to on this blog by text. Today, when she sent chandelier (in all caps, which is unusual) I was convinced she’d spelt it wrong, and spent a long time looking at it to be sure. It was no good. I couldn’t be sure either way, so Googled it (she hadn’t spelt it wrong). The first result was the official video for the Sia song Chandelier (1,723,552,767 views!). I watched it, unsure if I knew the song or not (contemporary pop is not my strong suit) but the ‘one, two, three, one, two, three, drink’ refrain seemed familiar. I think I’m right in saying the video features a girl who looks a bit like Sia but isn’t. She’s clearly a dancer or gymnast – a trained physical performer of some kind anyway – and moves around a grim, almost dystopian set of interiors that seem, at first, to be at odds with the celebratory nature of the song. Her choreographic vocabulary is expansive, sometimes freewheeling and triumphant, sometimes edgy, unnervingly contorting – reminiscent almost of the creepily sped-up ‘spider-walk’ scenes in horror films. I wondered if I liked the song or not (I’m 33 now, around the age at which, I’ve heard it said, people tend to stop taking an interest in new music). It’s overproduced, certainly, and the auto-tune is cloying. But there’s something marvellously effervescent about the chorus, about the way Sia’s voice – suddenly shorn of auto-tune – soars on those final, elongated syllables:

 

I’m gonna swing from the chandeli-heer, from the chandeli-heer
I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist

Like it doesn’t exiiist

 

It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It’s also about as good a musical evocation I’ve heard of the vertiginousness of being drunk, that inexorable upwards trajectory towards euphoria you get on after three or six drinks. The image of the chandelier feels right: a glittering, almost phantasmagorical object that, once you’ve got a hold of it, you can only let go by means of a long fall. Sia, and her songwriting partner Jesse Shatkin, know this because it’s there in the lyrics too:

 

And I’m holding on for dear life, won’t look down won’t open my eyes
Keep my glass full until morning light, ‘cause I’m just holding on for tonight

 

The song is essentially hedonistic, but it acknowledges hedonism’s cost – the inevitable comedown, the crash and burn. There is a ‘mess’ the morning after, and then the ‘shame’ comes. It all gets ‘pushed down’.

 

 

 

Horn

ibex-2462568_1920

  1. Rhinoceros horn, of course. A ‘commodity’ that has driven, I think, at least one variety of the animal to extinction.
  2. In the liner notes to ENZSO, a collection of Split Enz songs performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Eddie Rayner talks about being berated for calling the brass section the ‘horns’.
  3. The penis is sometimes called a horn, though only, I think, in its erect state. I saw a lot of phalluses during this year’s OzAsia Festival in Adelaide. In Macho Dancer, a female dancer performed a version of the titular dance – usually performed by Filipino men to mixed audiences in Manila nightclubs – with a large phallus tucked down the front of her hot pants. In Specific Places Need Specific Dances, two male dancers donned koteka, elaborately decorated penis sheaths of Papuan origin. In Hotel, a play in two parts depicting the history of Singapore as seen through the eyes of the inhabitants of a Raffles-like hotel, a drug hallucination sequence peaked when two human-sized penises began to dance.
  4. There’s a Ray Bradbury story in which an old man finally manages to get a horn. I can’t remember anything else about it. I suspect it’s not one of Bradbury’s better stories but there would be more truth in fiction if authors depicted erectile dysfunction more often. According to Jon Ronson’s new podcast, The Butterfly Effect, impotence is, well, on the rise. It seems free porn has something to do with this. In Japan, I keep hearing, young people are barely having sex at all.
  5. Haydn wrote frequently for the horn, and there is a famous horn solo in Tchaikovsky’s 5th
  6. One of my favourite musicians is Chet Baker, the white American trumpeter, singer, and addict who died by falling out of a hotel window in Amsterdam in 1988. Baker looked like a movie star before he looked like a washed-up junkie, and, like Elvis (with whom he shared military experience) ended up in a lot of terrible films. In Italy, where Baker was worshipped like a god, he was known as the Man with the Golden Horn.
  7. There is a hunting horn at my parents’ house. I think my dad inherited it from his dad, and I can remember discovering, and being fascinated by it, as a teenager. I was on the school debating team and remember taking the horn along to a debate one night. Maybe it was relevant to the debate’s theme (unlike in parliament, I don’t remember a prohibition on props) but more likely I thought it would be useful for some hell-raising. We were very conscious of being public school boys in a debating league dominated by private schools, and liked to take every opportunity to make a nuisance of ourselves. We found it especially enjoyable to wake up the borders, particularly if we had just won a debate and were in a celebratory mood. I suppose we could have done this with the hunting horn. We definitely did it with a brass bell we found at one of Adelaide’s more exclusive private colleges, an incident our debating teacher is still surprisingly good-natured about.

Potato

 

potatoes-179471_1920

 

Potatoes are amazing. This seems an uncontroversial, even incontrovertible thing to say. Everyone will have their own stories that illustrate the point, most likely going all the way back to childhood.

 

My mind immediately goes to two things: the potato chips my mother used to make at home to accompany fish (or sometimes, in that very British way, just eggs) and the pictures my classmates and I would make in early primary school using potatoes that had been cut in half and daubed in oil paint.

 

Potatoes seem, when you think about, ridiculously useful. I can’t think of another vegetable you can do so many things with (to?) to such advantageous effect: boil, mash, bake, fry. You can make alcohol from them and, as we’ve seen, children’s paintings of a satisfyingly tactile and messy kind.

 

And yet this starchy, tuberous crop – introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century – is not often given its dues. Think of the contempt coiled in that phrase ‘meat and potatoes’. It’s a food often associated with poverty. And perhaps, in at least as far as the whiter varieties are concerned, there’s something about their dirtiness that sets them apart from other vegetables too. (Except for organics, I can’t think of another vegetable in the supermarket that’s possible to buy that is as grimy as those unwashed potatoes you can get. Kipflers are probably my favourite variety, and tend to require a good scrub before cooking. The website Specialty Produce describes kipflers, enticingly and almost lyrically, in this way: The Kipfler potato has a narrow, elongated, finger-like shape. Their thin, waxy skin is tan to dusty yellow in colour, often spotted with a few shallow eyes. Its internal flesh is smooth with a golden yellow hue. When cooked, Kipfler potatoes offer a nutty and buttery taste with a creamy texture.)

 

Something I have learned: never peel potatoes before cooking them. Everything, even mash, is better – and better for you, as I’ve heard nutrients tend to inhere in the darker parts of fruits and vegetables, which usually means the skin – with the skin left on.

 

One more childhood memory. The year is 1997, and I suppose I must be 12 or 13. The so-called McLibel case, in which McDonald’s sued two English activists for distributing a pamphlet criticising the fast food company, is all over the news. Seeing this David and Goliath struggle awakened – I’m fairly sure for the first time – my sense of injustice. I was angry, and set about a boycott before I even knew what a boycott was. Then came a day when, as a special treat, my class was allowed McDonalds for lunch. I refused to buy anything and when offered some fries by my best friend slid a single one out of that familiar red and yellow carton and crushed it in my hand in front of her. ‘I got more pleasure from doing that than I would have from eating it,’ I told my friend. I feel ashamed when I think of this, but maybe I’m being too harsh on my younger self. Maybe I just didn’t know what to do with the information that the world was unjust other than be self-righteous and obnoxious about it. Still – the lack of graciousness smarts even now, 20 years later. And I still don’t know what to do about the fact that the world isn’t fair.

 

Be kind, yes.

 

And eat more potatoes. ­