Saturday, May 31, 2008

Perspectives and perceptions

Today I presented a paper at a conference. It was a really short paper - only 10 minutes - so it wasn't a big deal but it was really interesting to get feedback later.

When I stood up to make my way to the podium I inhaled and ended up with a coughing fit. Great way to impress the audience from the beginning. It took a few minutes to recover, then I started. The technology wasn't with me. Every time I moved, the powerpoint skipped a few slides and I had to stop and backtrack. I'm used to technology failing me so I just rabbited on for a while about nothing in particular so there wasn't an uncomfortable silence, then continued with my presentation. I lost my place with my notes, got sidetracked with a remark about how much I enjoyed reading a particular article when I was preparing the presentation and finally finished about 20 seconds over time. I mentioned most of the salient points but I don't recall any eye-to-eye contact with the audience and I got tongue-tied a few times when particular words just failed me and I had to reword the sentence for it to make sense. To me it was terrible - not quite a disaster, but definitely not a polished professional performance.

During lunch and after the conference finished I had a number of people come up to me and congratulate me on a professional presentation. They thought it was informative, interesting and well-paced. They loved that I was relaxed enough to add a personal comment and that I didn't get at all fazed by the technology glitch.

Isn't it amazing how different people see the same thing in different ways? I would have loved for the proceedings to have been recorded so I could review it myself - see what the audience saw. I think that would be a good thing for a lot of things we do in our lives. Obviously our own perception of ourselves and our actions is often very different to the way others see us. If we could see the other perspective as well, we might develop a more balanced view of ourselves.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

What is art?

I've just been catching up on the recent news articles. I'm not very motivated to keep up with the news - it's always depressing and negative. But once a week or so I read the headlines and read further into those that grab my attention.

The articles I've been reading today are about Bill Henson's most recent art exhibition. This situation disturbs me on so many levels I'm not sure what to feel. I am a great believer in fence-sitting - letting other people live their lives and make no personal judgements on them. That doesn't mean I don't feel strongly about some things. I cringe at the thought of censorship, particularly of art and literature. Freedom of expression is important.

But there is one thing I feel even more strongly about - the right of children to be innocent. Every time someone even suggests a child might have been mistreated or their innocence abused in some way, I feel the hackles rise on the back of my neck. My blood races through my body, readying me for a fight.

I go to art galleries regularly and over the years I've seen a lot of lovely photos of children, even naked children, that show various aspects of childhood and growth and society while still maintaining the beautiful innocence that childhood should be. The photographs in question apparently depict "a child under the age of 16 years of age in a sexual context." It worries me - and that's a typical British-style understatement made when you're so upset you can't think of an appropriate thing to say.

Yet the fact remains that I haven't seen the photographs, so can't judge for myself if they're art or pornography. I'm left with no option but to trust in the authorities to do their job properly and not persecute someone with little reason.

That worries me too.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Old friends

Wendy and I met when we were seven. I took one look at the new kid and knew she'd be my best friend. Eventually. She was short and round and had the straightest, whitest teeth I'd ever seen. Her smile made me want to smile. Still does.

The early years weren't all smooth sailing. We didn't become bosom-buddies immediately and stay that way. There were fights and arguments and long periods when we simply didn't talk to each other. But by the time we started high school, we were inseparable. I thought we'd be like that forever.

Then Wendy left town.

I remember writing long letters to her and waiting anxiously for a reply. I understood she had things happening in her life that meant she wouldn't write immediately but a letter always arrived and it brightened my days. She meant the world to me.

She came back home for a visit once and I remember spotting her down the end of our street. Both of us just squeeled and took off running - towards each other - and ended up collapsing in a heap of laughter in the middle of the street. It's always like that when I see her. The sheer joy of being alive and with her.

We've known each other 40 years now. We've had our children and lived our very separate lives. Sometimes we've lived in the same town, sometimes not. Once we didn't contact each other for 18 months. I think I lost her address and she thought I was angry about something. I don't remember. I just know when we found each other again everything was the same. Something in my life clicked into place and became whole again.

We have absolutely nothing in common. She like cutesy poetry, chain emails and country-western music. I like antique furniture and symphonies. She looks at me as though she thinks I was abandoned by aliens. She calls me a snob (in the nicest possible way). I look at her and think surely only abduction by aliens could sort her head out. I call her mad (in the nicest possible way). But none of it matters. Underneath all the teasing and the differences we hold the same values close to our hearts. I admire her and respect her more than I do most people I've known, even if I don't agree with all of the decisions she's made. I know she feels the same about me.

I think you only have so much time in your life for friends so the number of friends you have are necessarily limited. Wendy and I don't need each other in our daily lives, we just need to know we're there, each for the other. And if I ever run out of time for friends, she'll be the last to be crossed off the list.

The eyes have it

I always remember peoples' eyes. Their mouths and hands too, but the eyes have it. That doesn't mean I know what colour their eyes are but I always remember what emotions they portrayed.

My father had eyes of the palest blue, like the sky directly above on a hot summer day. Bleached blue. They always smiled when he saw one of us (me and my sisters) like he couldn't imagine a better thing to look at. They often looked sad when he didn't think we were looking. Sometimes overwhelmed - I guess raising four girls in the 60s and 70s pretty much on his own can do that to a man. Once, only once they looked both scared and angry.

I was 16 and two hours late coming home from the movies with my boyfriend. We'd driven to a town an hour away on the open highway and on the way home the fan belt broke. We had to keep stopping at farm houses to fill the radiator with water. Not once did it occur to me to ask one of the farmers if I could ring Dad and let him know what had happened. It was in the days before mobile phones, even before car phones.

When I walked in the front door he came towards me and the look in his eyes terrified me. He crowded me until I backed into a wall and wagged his finger less than an inch away from my face. It was the most violent I'd ever seen him. He was so out of control he was shaking. I can't remember most of what he said to me. I know he waited until I told him what happened but everything between "Where were you?" and "Don't ever scare me like that again" is lost. But I remembered his eyes and made sure I never made them look like that again.

My daughter Lauren's eyes glitter with a zest for life that encourages me to join in. I've spent a lot of years studying her eyes and know that most of the time they're brown but sometimes they're bright green. I think it has something to do with her health and what vitamins or minerals her body is lacking. I could look at her eyes for hours and never be bored. Every interest or joy or sadness is reflected there and, by just looking at her, I can share it.

I have no idea what colour David's eyes are. I've been going out with him for 7 years, living with him for two but can't remember the colour of his eyes. I know they're soft and gentle and make me want to sink into his arms and stay there. Over the years I've seen them change from tense to relaxed and content. They smile a lot now. They reflect his personality too - generous and caring.

Most eyes are like that - not generous and caring, but reflect the personality of the person.

I met one person years ago whose eyes didn't do that. It was a student I taught, a girl who was very nice and polite and worked hard. Her eyes were silver. Not grey - silver. It was a hard, solid silver, immovable, not molten or changeable. They reflected the light so strongly it was like looking into a mirror all the time, or a flourescent light. I found it very disconcerting. Even when she laughed or cried, her eyes didn't change. The tears made them look shinier but that's all. The colour was so strong that I could see it clearly from across the room, not like other people's eyes where you have to be up close to see exactly what colour they are. It was always a shock to turn from the board and look at the faces of the students in the room - all the other students were faces, their eyes just part of the shape, but with her I saw her eyes first. I remember being thankful that she was a student and I didn't have to try to get to know her or like her because I found her eyes very difficult to deal with. I also remember hoping her classmates didn't have my difficulty. It would have been awful if her friends had judged her because of her eye colour - something she didn't have any control over.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Getting old

Do you remember how, when you were young, anyone over 20 seemed ancient? I remember looking at my father's friends and thinking they must be nearing retirement age and hoping they had a home (facility for the aged) picked out. And they were only in their late 30s at the time. Oddly enough I never viewed my father as old - not until just before his death when he started looking a little fragile.

All my teachers seemed old too. I was shocked when two of my female teachers got pregnant one after the other. Surely they were too old to have children. Didn't all your bits rot after the teen years?

By the time I was 15 being 20 was cool. My first boyfriend was 20 - he had deltoids and a six-pack stomach and three hairs on his chest. Impressive stuff. I look at the photos now and, while he was particularly well-built compared to the other 20-year-olds at the time, he was still skinny and weedy. His mid-20s was when he looked like he belonged in his skin. When he was 30 he'd lost the six-pack and other muscle definition but was still slim. I saw him again a few years ago when he was in his late 40s and he looked soft and rounded, passed his prime. I look around me and a lot of men follow a similar pattern. They look best in their bodies in their mid to late 20s.

But even with the body, they don't appeal to me. My tastes have changed. The skinny six-pack just looks like a kid who needs to get dressed and go back to school. Now I think hairy chests, bald heads and defined but not muscle-bound bodies look best - especially if the chest hair is salt-and-pepper.

I'm not even sure my tastes have changed because I've aged and become a little more realistic, or if I just like men closer to my own age. Maybe it's just that I couldn't stand for the man next to me to look better than I do. Can you seriously imagine a 40-something who avoids exercise and eats too much chocolate could possibly compare favourably (physically) to a 20-something who works out regularly? I suppose it would depend on who's looking.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Achievement

My daughter finished the last assessment for her diploma today. She'll graduate in July. I'm so incredibly proud of her I can't hold the smiles in.

It hasn't been easy for her. The journey has been seven and a half years long. During her first year (she was 18) her best friend was kidnapped and murdered. During the 14 months that followed we lost nine close friends and family. She tried to keep going through it all but within six months dropped out of college. I'm surprised she lasted that long - and she was still achieving good grades.

Last year she went back and re-enrolled, knowing she'd be going to all the places she and her friend used to be, knowing she'd be studying the same course in the same rooms. It wasn't an easy decision to make. Add to that her uncertainty that she could finish it at all and it was incredibly brave. And today she finished the last assessment of the last subject and knows she passed.

She rang me at work, but I don't carry my phone there. She messaged me, and rang me after work. I could hear her jumping around as she spoke to me. The smile on her face was a tangible thing even though I couldn't see her. She dropped into my place when I told her I was coming home for a few minutes before I went to uni, just so she could smile at me and give me a hug - oh, and eat the pumpkin soup and cake she found in the fridge (she'd forgotten to have lunch). When she left she took a pile of books with her - she hasn't been able to read much while she's been studying.

We're going out to dinner tomorrow night to celebrate. I can't wait. I want another glimpse of the joy in her face.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Knowing people

My daughter is 25 today and as many of the family as could make it gathered at my place for lunch. I brought the extra table up from downstairs, put out the good china and chilled the champagne (sorry, sparkling white wine - it wasn't French). That was the limit of the formalities.

My daughter arrived and proudly showed me that she'd taken out her earrings in preparation for presents. She loves the emerald earrings I gave her - has been anticipating them since I took her pendant from her last October so I could match the stones. My mother gave her a bottle of Frangelico. It looked a lot like a $50 note to me, but my daughter swears that Nanna must have known the last bottle was finished last week and replaced it for her.

My sisters amaze me. They're so aware of other people it's humbling. I know they've known my daughter all her life but they haven't seen her regularly for a few years, and yet they still chose the perfect gifts for her. My oldest sister gave my daughter a pink leather picnic wine carrier, complete with a bottle of my daughter's favourite wine, an opener and a stopper. Perfect for my daughter and her partner to take to the byo restaurant they were going to for dinner tonight. My younger sister quilts so she handmade a kitchen set for my daughter. There was an apron, a trivet for hot dishes and two circular oven mits. The fabric was printed with psychodelic cats. The colours and the cats were absolutely perfect, as was the theme. My daughter works two jobs, studies and manages her house (with boarders) but still loves to cook whenever she can find the time.

It's not just my daughter that my sisters know well. It's everyone they meet. I don't know how they do it. I can't. I remember peoples' philosophy or attitudes towards others but I don't remember their personal tastes. People I've lived or worked with for years and know really well still draw a blank in my gift-giving mind. I can tell you how kind someone is, how intelligent, how generous, what they think about various political decisions. I can tell you how their eyes sparkle when they discuss something they're passionate about but probably couldn't tell you what sparked the passion. I can look at them from across the room and tell if they've had a good day or bad day and be willing to either listen or distract them out of it, but couldn't tell you five minutes later what the problem was. Sometimes I can tell you their hobbies, but there is no way I could discuss their current project or what they might need to further that project. Not even if I spend an hour discussing it with them. I don't remember the details. The minutae escape me. Constantly.

I don't often think about it. I don't like the picture of myself it paints. It's one of the things in my life I avoid rather than confront (exercise is another). It makes me look self-absorbed and uninterested - someone I'd rather not know. Knowing a person that well means I have to involve myself with them, offer part of myself to the relationship. I'm happy to talk about just about any topic and to share experiences but none of that, for me, requires an emotional involvement. Knowing someone well enough to know what would really please them requires an emotional commitment. I don't do that very well. I don't have a need to feel that close to a lot of people. I don't want a lot of people close in my life, so I avoid getting to know people on too personal a level, although my willingness to discuss almost anything might make that seem a little odd. That doesn't mean I don't care about people but the level of deep knowledge, sharing and trust needed to allow me to decide on the perfect gift isn't achieved with very many people.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Galway Oyster Festival and why I love reading

I've been reading "A Celtic Book of Days" by Sarah Costley and Charles Kightly. I read that at the beginning of September the Galway Oyster festival is always held. There is even an account from 1802 in the book. It particularly mentions the art of opening oysters.

I used to work with a fellow who was from Galway so I at least know where it is. Naturally, I wondered if there was still an oyster festival held at Galway. So of course, I went to Google and found the festival. According to this site, the festival began in 1953 - somewhat later than the account in the book I've been reading. I've assumed it had fallen away and the townsfolk decided to resurrect the festival in 1953. It's now at the end of September, not the beginning as indicated in my book. It would be really interesting to see if they still have a connection to the Celtic origins of the festival and how that manifests in the current day.

There's an oyster opening competition with the competition winners listed from 1968 with nearly half the winners since then being Irish. I wonder if they're local as well. Australia provided 1982's winner. (They seem to have a problem with their code on that page, and one Irish fellow is flying a Norwegian flag - I might email them and let them know.)

This account illustrates very clearly exactly why I love reading (one of the reasons, anyway). I often read about things and wonder if it's still happening, or if that country is exactly as described. Then I begin the research. I've spent weeks on some projects, just finding out the answers to all the questions a book has raised in my head. Nova Scotia has been on my list of places to visit if everything in my life evolved that direction simply because I read a book that described the wind and waves and islands of that area. It's stayed in my head. I want to go. Now Galway has grabbed my attention. I think I'd need a little more than an oyster opening competition to get me to put Galway on my list of places to see, but it's certainly worth knowing about.

And that leads me to writing. A lot of the things I learn while I'm reading and researching will trigger the 'what if' question for me. I'll jot a few notes down, draw a couple of pictures and before I know what's happening I've got a new world or a new story unfolding in front of me. Tonight my writing brain is swirling with images of oysters, porridge, mermaids and uses for urine.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mothers' Day

Today is Mothers' Day and traditionally a time for as much of the family to gather as is possible. Most of us managed it today, having brunch at my sister's.


It was different today. There were quizzes. Now most people might wonder why that's so special but most people haven't seen members of my family with a quiz in front of them. We don't stop until we work it out.


The first one was famous lovers with one part (usually the second part of the couple or the least well known) given and you have to come up with the rest. It's very Australian-oriented. One couple you had to have been watching Australian television in the 80s or British television in the 90s. There are also a few royalist ones and some from the bible (I borrowed my niece's bible to get those ones). A couple of them had two possible responses. For example, for Lancelot, do they want his wife, Elaine, or Arthur's wife Guinnevere? There were a couple in there that were wrong. Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia and Donny and Maree were brother and sister, not lovers. It's like 'some of these things are not like the others'. I've taken them off my list.

(I did try to put the list on another page but haven't figured out how to do it. How difficult can it be to link to a file? I'm obviously putting in the wrong path or something.)


Of course there were discussions and arguments - that's how we work. Each of us likes to be right and each of us needs to be convinced that someone else's answer is right before we back down. It makes us present logical and convincing arguments and it makes us learn how to accept defeat, although no one expects it to be graceful.


The other quiz gave cryptic clues and we had to come up with the name of a town or suburb in Queensland that was the answer. For example, Chinchilla was the 'frozen beard'. My mother finally came up with the answer to that one. It took us quite a while and we all felt a bit silly afterwards considering we've all lived in that town or at least spent significant time visiting.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Paragliding

Today I went paragliding. Well, when I say 'I went paragliding', I mean I drove over an hour up a mountain, sat and watched others take off, swirl around in the air currents and then land. My daughter, her boyfriend and best friend went up there for my daughter's birthday present. I was designated driver, caterer and support personnel. I had a ball.

We stopped at a narrow strip of green grass that disappeared over the edge of the mountain. People would lay out long narrow sails, straighten ropes, click themselves into harnesses and onto the sail, fluff the sail to fill it with air and then simply walk off the edge. It was exhilarating, and I was just watching.

The process took some time. There was one tandem flight before our group. They managed to catch a few really good thermal currents and stayed aloft for quite a while. Then we had to wait for the air to be right again. It was changeable all day, sometimes brisk, sometimes flat. My daughter was first off from our group as it's her birthday next week and this was the present from her boyfriend.

I love watching my daughter experience something new. The mix of apprehension, sometimes fright, anticipation and excitement on her face is wonderful. Her eyes were shining and she couldn't stop smiling.

The wind dropped suddenly just as they left the ground and they dropped quickly over the edge, never gaining the height some of the other flights had achieved. I've added a short film of their take-off. They even made walking off the edge of a mountain look natural and peaceful. I don't know how long they managed to stay aloft, perhaps 50 minutes, but most of it was out of view. I wandered over to a separate section of the lookout every now and then just to make sure they were still in the air (I'm a mother, I'm allowed to worry). In the end they couldn't find the right currents to bring them back up the hill and had to land at the bottom.
We drove for 40 minutes down a winding road to collect my daughter and her flight controller and then brought them back up to the top. Even losing sight of them for a time and having no response on the two-way radio for a while, I was still much calmer than I was when my daughter tried rock climbing. I don't know why. Floating around like a bird just looked like a more natural, less violent or intrusive activity that clinging to sheer rock faces.

The verdict from my daughter was that the adrenaline rush is higher with skydiving (her birthday present two years ago) but the length of enjoyment with paragliding is much better.


video

Monday, May 5, 2008

Emeralds and birthdays

Emeralds are the birthstone for May. According to some legends they're also the symbol of truth and honesty. My daughter didn't like emeralds for a long time but I think that's mainly because the only ones she'd seen were the created emeralds in the less expensive jewellery shops. Since I gave her an emerald pendant for her 21st birthday she's been in love with them.

My daughter's 25th birthday is in a few weeks. Apart from the fact that I can't believe it's been 25 years, it's a significant time. Deserving of a special present. In October I went to see my former employer and asked him to source some emeralds for earrings. That's when the problems began. Emeralds aren't easy to match at the best of times but trying to get two exactly the same size to match in colour and quality to the pendant was almost impossible. Everything was either too light or too heavily included. Emeralds usually have a lot of inclusions. If you see a cloudy emerald, it's because of the inclusions. The one in the pendant has only one inclusion that is almost completely hidden by the setting. That made matching the stone even more difficult.
I was working in a jewellery shop at the time and the owner sourced the most gorgeous Columbian emerald for me. Emeralds are often set in yellow gold because the yellow warms the green of the stone. I was amazed at the clear green that came through when set in white gold (it's actually a little deeper green than shows in the photo).

We finally had some success last week. I'm not sure if he managed to source them from Columbia (my preference as they're the best colour) or from somewhere else but the colour is the closest we've been able to get with the clarity. It looks paler than the pendant now, but once it's set it'll be very close to the same. Yes I know it's a slightly different tone of green - emeralds are so hard to match you just can't be that fussy.

Because we've had such trouble my former boss got in a larger stone as well as the two I wanted for earrings. It makes sense to buy the one for a ring now (for my daughter's 30th birthday) while I can get it, even if it didn't come anywhere near the budget! So that's what I've done. The earrings are currently being made up but I have the stone for the ring. Unusually there's a slight band of lighter colour across it - that doesn't happen often with emeralds - but I like it. It's yet another aspect that proves it's a natural stone.

I love looking at gems and designing jewellery. I have five years now to design a ring for my daughter. The last one I had made for her was designed because of the shape of the stone. Very few variations presented themselves to me - at least ones that would suit her and that she would wear. This one is oval so there are many more possibilities. I just have to make it complement the simple setting of the pendant and earrings. I'm sure she'll forgive me if I add a couple of diamonds though.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Kookaburras

There are kookaburras around here. If I wake early enough (around 3 or 4 am) I can hear them laughing around the neighbourhood. If I get up and listen carefully I can track each couple as they mark their territory and warn other mated couples away.

I'm not up that early very often.

Yesterday the local couple were in my back yard. It was 6 am so too late for the territorial laughter. There was simply the gargling warble that usually precedes the full-throated laugh of the bird and then silence. They were hunting.

I looked out my kitchen window and there they were, one perched on the edge of the trampoline, the other on top of a lattice frame. Grey-winged kookaburras, of course. The blue-wings can't laugh at all - they cough. The bird on the trampoline gargled a few times, each time thrusting its long beak forward and arching its neck to make the sound. It's a magnificent thing to watch. At once graceful and instinctive, uncontrolled. They sat there in silence then for nearly an hour. A couple of times one of them would fly the short distance to the ground and return to their temporary perch with a worm or lizard in its beak.

It doesn't matter what they catch, it always gets thrashed against the perch, even the poor worms that couldn't possibly have needed much tenderising. I've seen a kookaburra do that to a mouse. Swing its head violently to the side, slamming the mouse against the branch of a tree. Even from across the road I heard the bones crunch. Swing, thwack, swing, thwack. Again and again until the kookaburra was finally satisfied and tossed the limp bundle down its throat.

I think kookaburras might be my favourite bird. They're loyal and protective, joyful and patient. They're large enough for me to see in a tree without having to search for ages with the binoculars. The colouring in their feathers is magnificent. Every shade of grey and brown and cream, and the blue-wings have the most magnificent electric blue streaks in the primary feathers. Their laugh is infectious. It makes the cool pre-dawn darkness a thing of joy; the day ahead something to be anticipated.