Writing, writing, writing

Writing looms large in my life now. I’m getting better at it than I was. I like short form [140 characters] but adore longer form, like blogs. And I recently completed some professional writing that’s rekindled my sense of having a voice in the anthropological world again.

It starts with an idea, then a conference abstract, then you give the paper, then they want an article for a special edition of a journal. Might not be an A+++ journal, but it’s not the local gazette either. I was challenged by the word length, not that it was too long, but that it was surprisingly TOO SHORT. Alarm bells should probably be ringing here… And it included the abstract and references. In the end the article was less than four pages. I don’t get out of bed in the morning for less than five.

So I dusted off my professional voice and found my writing and revision texts (thank you Wendy Belcher!) and discovered the pleasures of writing for a specific audience, for one that I wanted to convince of something that I knew had been ‘wrong’ and therefore something that was amenable to being written about. It wasn’t a research project, it was an ‘opinion piece’ was how the journal defined my submission.
I’ve passed first muster now as its been anonymously peer-reviewed by two international reviewers, the gold standard of academic journals, but it still has to be collated with the other papers and have an editorial attached to it. And then it’s still got to go through the online manuscript submission to the journal and reviewed again through the journal processes and then we’ll wait and see.
But its almost life affirming to see the words in print, “May be published as written”. I like that.

And just so you don’t think I’m gloating, remember that for every yang, there is a yin. My shadow paper is the manuscript sitting in the manila folder somewhere on the bottom of the pile in my ‘Inbox’ with the shameful email attached outlining the two reviewers suggestions for the extensive rewrite of my submission that went to the journal, what, nearly three years ago now. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that anonymous reviewers have read your work and that without any other context have critiqued it savagely, but with the proviso that with all these great changes, it too is publishable. It is so dispiriting.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do the work of the rewrite at the time that it came back to me. And unfortunately now that I’m a better version of myself, now that I’m my writerly self, it’s really too late to be dragging my fieldwork note out again now. It’s been too long ago. With the focus of reporting now having the urgency of the recent present attached to it, it’s hard to believe that even Clifford Geertz wrote about the Balinese cockfight almost 10 years after the event.

That anthropologists write in the eternal present brings ethnographies to life, makes life seem as if it was always so in this or that place and that is part of the strength of the anthropological tradition. This writing technique makes you feel like you’re there alongside them, looking over their shoulders and seeing what they see, hearing what they hear and so on. We are partly the voyeur, the participant-observer, the ‘etic’ trying to see and experience the ‘emic’ perspective, constantly a part of and separate to the people’s lives whom we study. Fieldwork really is an experience of immersion and trying to ‘write up’ the account afterwards will always be a pale imitation, a partial truth associated with the fieldwork experiences through which one lived.

But fieldwork has a use by date too. And that’s the problem with writing about it, or attempting to, too long afterwards. There is plenty of advice about this, but clearly this wasn’t relevant for Clifford Geertz in his day. For me however, my thesis and my copious fieldnotes will hit the dustbins of history, consigned to a dusty bookshelf in an obscure library where no one will read them. They weren’t that well written anyway, but they were a record of the work that I undertook, based on the idea, the thesis that I developed and this made my work unique.

How many people fail to publish? What happens to their work? Some self – publish, not wanting the angst of having to go through a publishing house. Others rewrite their thesis and produce a book. You are supposed to do this, but even better write and present your work as a series of journal articles so that other researchers can find your work, read it and make reference to it. And write a book too.

Well, there’s not enough jobs in academia to support ongoing research for all, so if you’re not on that trajectory, what do you do with your work? Let me know when you find out please…

Aside from the above, none of this can detract from the pleasures of writing. And this includes writing in various forms. I now take perverse pleasure in writing for my day job, enjoy adding in the flourishes with words that separate the wordsmiths from the technicians. Recipients of my writing will always be surprised by the lack of bureaucratic-speak, the openness and frankness of my writing when they receive it. They remark that a polished report was unexpected, or that a brochure was very highly regarded. But this only serves to remind me of how boring and mundane writing associated with bureaucracy really is.

More than anything it highlights what happens when you force yourself to do more of the thing that you want to do in life. In a past job I was heavily criticised for not having put pen to paper, for not writing about a project that I was involved in. I wasn’t sure what happened, but the climate in academia is not always a friendly one, and I think my voice got stuck somewhere. I look at photos of myself during that period and realise that I was 15kg heavier than I am now. And I never smiled. And I certainly didn’t write.

It’s not just a matter of typing away, there is an explosion of writing happening and we bloggers, we Tweeters, we essayists and academic writers are all joining the conversations, contributing our own thoughts in various forums for consumption by avid readers – yes you have to be an avid reader if you want to write, but that’s for another post. And writers don’t know how their product, how their ideas, how their creations will be consumed, or where, or when, or in how much depth. They don’t know if their materials will be referred to elsewhere, whether their ideas will stimulate more thinking on topics, whether they will offer clarification or lead to new vistas of thinking about how we live in the world. This is unknown, but exciting and I love that I too have made contributions to this world of thought and inspiration.

Go on, write something…

Photo credit: http://wholeselftherapy.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/journal-writing-me.jpg

Identity on the Internet


Identity it seems, is fluid and changeable and depends on a lot of things. How do you see yourself? How do you WANT to see yourself? Where is your family of origin?  What sort of groups do you belong to? And what about the family you’ve created for yourself? Who do you hang out with? What sort of work do you do? What are you studying? What are you learning to become? Or even, what hand has fate dealt you, if that’s what you believe? And the most important question, and one that no one really asks outright, but clearly this forms the basis of what we really want to know about each other these days – how do you choose to present yourself?

If the Rachel Dolezal saga has taught us anything, it is certainly that her identity dilemma is not a symptom of the present age, but has been radically transformed by it. The immediate dissemination of the knowledge shared by her parents about her original(?) identity created the kind of transference of knowledge that anthropologists used to call diffusion, very characteristic of knowledge exchange in the era of the internet where everyone, everywhere finds out at once. It seemed that the whole world was shocked, horrified, and in disbelief that someone who was white would seek to represent themselves as black.  Alternatively, there was also support for this position.

Aside from the inherent racism that these sentiments contain, Rachel Dolezal’s choice of identity and how she chose to present herself in her daily life highlights the fluidity of identity through time, space and culture. Is black still black and white still white? Or has this case pointed to the social and cultural categorisation that identity represents?  What about the essential reality asociated with identity (if there is such a thing) and can this be transformed by culture, by an adoption or appropriation of culture?  Is Rachel Dolezal the first person to adopt another identity in the way that she did? I don’t think that, as we all transform and change ourselves throughout our lives. Clearly the issue at stake here related to the tensions inherent in the power relations between black and white in America and indeed point to the same tensions globally.

I am not a scholar of whiteness studies and cannot offer more of a comment than this, but I am intrigued about the ability of Rachel Dolezal to ‘choose’ blackness, much as we choose a partner, a city to live in, a career, a job and a set of values represented through our social, political and economic choices.

Dolezal herself raises the issue of identity construction as reported here: ‘She admits that the controversy, especially the timing of it, caught her off guard. But her hope is that some good comes out of it, if it changes how some people think about identity. “The discussion is really about what it is to be human,” Dolezal said. “And I hope that that really can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.”’ http://edition.cnn.com/2015/06/16/us/washington-rachel-dolezal-naacp/

All of this debate is intriguing especially when held alongside contemporary social movements, such as the training associated with modern leadership that make claims about authenticity.  Authenticity stands as the leadership sine que non, at least at the moment, to which all knowledge about how to be a good leader is subsumed. To be authentic, to be real, even to be flawed carries with it the badge of the honest, real, leader. To be found out somehow as false within this, is to fail. So if authenticity is at stake as a value, how do we deal with the dilemma of authenticity that Rachel Dolezal represents? Did she not also have a leadership role in her work as a tutor/lecturer at university?  Do we believe what she claims about her identification with black culture and feeling that she too is black as evidence of authenticity? Or is this far too much of a stretch and a betrayal to the lived experience of blacks in America?  Alternatively, understanding the fluid nature of groups, identity and belonging, do we accept her claim of sharedness?

This is a dilemma that I cannot resolve. However it points me to issues of representation that people experience within their everyday lives, and about how identity can be adopted, modified, reworked, even invented and then presented. If the complaint of the modern era is disengagement, is this not partly due to the compartmentalisation of one’s identity? Is a work persona different to the authentic self that you live in your home and everyday life? Can an identity be authentic and be hidden?

We all carry truths about ourselves that may be shared or disclosed but only within certain sets of circumstances, or with certain groups of people with whom we make claims of having a shared history, a set of shared experiences, a shared sense of belonging and hence a shared identity. The ability to keep aspects of one’s self private in this way does not necessarily point to a problem with one’s identity or an inauthenticity, but may instead be part of a lifeplan to care for oneself. I think here of twelve step programs and Alchoholics Anonymous, or other programs where full names and full identities are not necessary for belonging. A shared culture of dependence, of shame, of falling, hitting rock bottom and redemption through a program of shared stories leads to the development of these strength-based communities who rely on the private identity of dependence and the shared journey of recovery for membership.

But what about our identity on the internet? The recent murder in Melbourne of a high profile AFL football coach allegedly by his son highlighted how identities are created, or rather manufactured from fractured pieces of information available electronically. Journalists attempting to create a picture of the alleged murderer highlighted parts of his prolific online diarising, online videos, his world travels and search for an authentic identity, and it seems most importantly details could be gleaned from his now publicised Amazon wish list,

“His Amazon reading wish list fluctuates from titles like Man’s Search for Meaning, to Building Wealth One Step at a Time, and Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help you Find – and Keep – Love”
http://www.smh.com.au/national/walshs-nomad-son-spoke-of-fathers-iron-will-20150703-gi4q9b.html

… when we think about how wish lists are constructed, by hitting the ‘add to wish list’ button available on many online bookstores, can we really suggest that the titles contained there tell us anything very much, anything meaningful at all about the identity of the person who clicked the ‘add’ button? What would any of us look like if our identity were attached to our wish lists? I’m pretty sure that mine would look very expensive, as my wish lists contain only the outrageously priced books that I will never be able to afford to own, but will anyone really pick up on that?

The internet also offers the construction of new identities for authors in much the same way that ‘Anonymous’ or pseudonyms used to function in the print era to protect the identity of both the famous and infamous, or even the sex of the writer. In the same vein, we can now present ourselves as ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’, The [insert adjective] [insert noun]’ or a cute reduced handle on Twitter, or as an anonymised group or page on Facebook, or Tumblr, or with a pseudonym to protect our identity on Instagram and many other forms of social media, not even counting the ones where people try to hook up.

If I could rebaptise myself, would I call myself ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’? Probably not, but would you even find my work if I didn’t tell you something about who I was, what I was trying to write about and what existential state motivates me if I were to simply use my own name?

In academia you trade on your name, people search your work by your name, they quote you by name, attach theories to your name, copy practices ascribed to you and your name, hold discussions and tutorial groups to discuss your work undertaken in your name, and so it seems counter intuitive in many ways to adopt a pseudonym when representing oneself on the internet if you belong to, or aim to belong to and be read by an academic audience. Not everyone does this and there are plenty of websites and blogs set up by people who have become the personification of their product: geography, history, politics, anthropology, writing, all the isms… However, some people do trade on their own name, and I would suggest that this is because they are probably secure enough in their positions, in their disciplines and in their writing to do so. I’m sure that plenty of examples to the contrary exist though as well, which points to the irony of the internet: that both can and do exist at the same time.

So, what does this all come back to? Where can you represent yourself as whole, as complete, as the sum of all your parts? Where can you present yourself, your ideas, thoughts and writings to an audience who will accept the disparate parts that make up your identity? Is personhood a salvo of competing selves? How can we be complete, whole and real in the age of the internet? Or is it silly to imagine that this is what’s required at all, when really, if I’m reading your thesis on gender relations, do I really care about your personal history of alcoholism? Or would this knowledge of your personal history add a depth to your writing and hence my understanding of your perspectives were this public? This is true of so many ‘selves’ that we probably all hold within us.

How to reconcile all of this still remains a mystery to me. Comments welcome please.

Photo credit: http://img.wonderhowto.com/img/14/96/63458281265816/0/remove-your-online-identity-ultimate-guide-anonymity-and-security-internet.1280×600.jpg

Community spaces

We arrived in the next suburb just after the appointed time after parking the car in the main street and walking through a children’s playground, past a mother who was clearly desperate to be out of the house and taking advantage of the last light to let her young children run free on the play equipment before the chill of the early winter evening took hold. We walked along the path towards a gate which had been left ajar with a big cheery handmade sign reading, ‘Music Concert’. Beyond the gate we could see the old bowling green, a great expanse of green space up against an encroaching and overhanging suburbia, where the new developments that overlooked the children’s playground that backed on to the Bowling Green could be seen. Housing, both old and new, like the population of people that dwelled within could be seen nestled up against each other pointing to the density of the area with its mix of double-fronted Federation housing, stylish period semi-detached dwellings, newer houses in the style of a questionable desired modernity and the now more common low rise that was slightly more affordable for this inner circle part of the city, still less than ten kilometres from the GPO as people used to say.

We walked along the path abutted on one side by the old Bowling Green and on the other by the low building that had hosted a thousand darts games, singles winners in the bowling events as well as doubles for both darts and bowls and all that went with the comradery of playing in these friendly events. Inside we found that the timber champions boards and darts cabinet still carried the names of that year’s winners, emblazoned in gold lettering, at least for the years 1969 – 1975. Seems like no one was interested in the darts and bowls winners after that.

As we walked along the side of the building we came to a small set of steps that took us inside. At the top of the stairs a young girl smiled and gave us a program for the afternoon’s event, listing all the names of the performers for the afternoon. We thanked her and walked in, musing that she was a friend or family member of the young music teacher who’s students were performing for us this afternoon to give them experience and exposure to the vagaries and loyalties of audiences, most of whom consisted of their devoted parents and siblings.

The performers disappeared to the little room that could be accessed from the side of the stage, a backroom for the musicians yet still clearly visible to the audience. Here the performers for the afternoon could practice and ready themselves in ‘their space’, even though the intimacy of this space was broken by its visual proximity to the audience outside. This didn’t matter at all. We could hear and see them as they took out their instruments and checked their  sound, offering up a beautiful, warm, audible richness in contrast to the visually stark surroundings of the bowlo.

The bowlo is what this place is affectionately called. Like many other bowlo’s it has a lot in common with the spaces in which people congregate within their local community. It shares characteristics with the pub because it serves alcohol and sells cigarettes; it shares a commonality with the large RSL up the road because it has rules and membership and offers gambling products and the highs and lows of gambling experiences; it shares something with the old community or town hall, mostly evident in smaller townships, not suburban Sydney as the city gobbles up these spaces demanded by communities for hosting and enjoying shared experiences. Many kinds of meetings and community events were held in these spaces and the event today shared a history with this too. It even shared a history with the music teacher and her home, because past concerts were hosted in her front room, with seating in rows, tables outside laden with ‘bring a plate’ offerings and groups of people brought together for a common purpose to create and share in a community event.

We went to take our seats, noticing that the front two rows were vacant, mistakenly believing that this was evidence of the reticence that folk have to taking up seats too close to the front of an event, much like the empty space around the lecturer at the front of an auditorium. “You can’t sit there, they’ve been reserved for the performers” said a woman sitting in the third row. I recognised her as one of the mothers from the local school. After the concert we had a long talk about music, practice, performance and its importance, the calls upon women’s time at home on Saturday’s and how she wanted to return to work, but wasn’t confident about taking up her former occupation in high finance and was thinking now that she might as well be paid for what she does do now for free, which is working as a teacher’s aide. Her children are the opposite sex to my children, so as is the way of these things, we don’t get to get together very much at all. I always get a sense of yearning though, something that rises from within me and that I sense from mums like her that it would be good to have more opportunities to socialise, to talk, to drink, to share stories and perhaps intertwine our lives a little bit more.

We walked around the front and down the side and took up seats behind a couple we recognised from primary school. Our children had clamped eyes on each other in kindergarten and decided that they were going to be firm friends and could hardly be separated the whole year. Of course it only lasted a year and then the differences set in, and then it all fell apart. Still, we knew about maintaining our social graces and said “hello” and sat behind them. We moved along a few seats though so that our family could sit together and commenced the ritual that all modern people swear allegiance to in the ‘in between times’ and all pulled out devices: two phones and an IPod touch and consumed ourselves and our time with the apps on the devices as we ‘checked things’ waiting for the performance to start.

As I looked around I marvelled at how things used to be, at how architects and builders used to know exactly what people needed when they wanted to gather together in a space. I mentally decided that I had to find out what it cost to rent or hire this space, as with life in any city, spaces are hard to come by. “It’s a bit daggy” commented my partner, “and a bit sad”. But while I acknowledge this, I was surprised that someone with historical sensibilities would run a place like this down when it was clear that it had served communities in many ways over the years and continued to do so. These exact places are threatened in modernity, threatened by developers, by public authorities who seek to claim and exploit them and not necessarily for the benefit of the community in which they exist. Spaces like these are rezoned by councils, who promise that the community needs will still be met but that development offers the promise of something more, something less tangible and less ordinary than the taken-for-granted services and spaces offered by the old bowlo.

The timber walls are a pale blue colour, contrasting with the lovely timber champion boards and their gold inked names. The ceiling paint is peeling and the fluorescent lights, while bright and glaring, eventually disappear from consciousness as you become more aware of what is highlighted by them rather than the lights themselves. The room has multipurpose tables along two sides, where one side serves as a repository for the instrument cases and associated paraphernalia that accompany musicianship. Along the opposite wall all the ‘bring a plate’ offerings sit under their shiny alfoil or reflective cling wrap coverings. People are generous, offering chocolate slices with coconut or brightly coloured hundreds and thousands toppings, water crackers and hard cheddars, fruit cheeses or soft camembert, fruit platters with contrasting mandarin segments, strawberries and green seedless grapes, rolls stuffed with chicken, fish and salad that force people to queue again because they’re so moreish, any number of dips and crudités, mini frittatas, an array of juices and water but no one touches the pate sitting out there for too long probably to be safe to eat anymore. Some people just open up a tin of dolmades, but they are appreciated and disappear too, and those donating provided two tins.

As I look around I see the stage on which the children will perform, its small raised and enclosed. Above there are remnants of someone else’s party as brightly coloured streamers, made of crepe paper adorn the top, framing the picture in a medley of mad, slightly torn colour. On the stage itself are music stands purchased from ALDI, instantly recognisable to anyone trying to save a dollar who also purchased them the week they were on sale there. There is a piano, an old brown upright sitting on the left of the stage, but its lonely tonight as there is no accompaniment, no one to set the tone with the smooth sound that piano’s offer. On the wall at the back is the obligatory print, framed and taking centre stage depicting a scene of an Australian outback town, mythic in its representation of both the bush, the town, its isolation and symbolism of the human imprint on the landscape that cities provide at the same time. The hues of brown and ochre are in stark contrast to the shades of blue in the room in which we sit waiting.

We sit musing for a bit longer before the music teacher comes to the front and stands on the floor in front of the stage. By this stage the musicians have taken their seats unbeknownst to all of us with our heads in our laps who will never notice these movements. The children sit, chat with each other as they remake their acquaintances and squirm with their big instruments primed and at the ready for performance. Our hostess, the lovely music teacher with the high regard for our children, warm in her manner, gentle in her teachings, presides over the room and forsakes formalities, ignoring the mandatory welcome about why we’re all here and what we’re looking forward to, instead launching straight into introductions of performer number one who, as the performer to start is one of the youngest in age and experience.

The concert proceeds as children take their spot in the limelight and the instruments play their mournful, rich, mellow sound tortured in part by the learning abilities of those who play the keys. There are surprisingly only a couple of off notes, and only once where parents keen to show their appreciation launched into applause far too soon, actually before the song was completed, accompanied by a rousing “whoop” to boot. We all squirmed in the audience as the concert sounded like a music practice, but with the good grace and expansive love of parents and family applauded at the end like there was no tomorrow to encourage our young and the young of others in their musical endeavours.

The music improves as the young performers extend themselves, both in age and musicianship offering more complex music, more mellow sounds that carry the audience away to another place and time. For a few moments we transcend our dumpy environment as the music carries us away in our minds. The sounds bounce off the fixtures and bodies in the room we inhabit, and as we listen we too as the audience are participants in the creation of the musical experience.

The other people in the club are listening too. It’s unavoidable as the place is so small. It so small that you would use the word ‘intimate’ ironically. Afterwards our hostess thanks us all. She thanks the students for extending themselves, the parents for giving of themselves and presents the students with a gift and certificate to show that she can give back in a memorable way recognising the efforts of her students outside the confines of the monetary and payment regimes that determine relationships between tutors and students. This too is a cultural performance, drawing upon the diversity of cultures represented and the actions of everyone participating in giving of themselves, their talent, their food and offerings, their time and their appreciation.

And this all happens within the confines of the community bowlo. As we consume the food and soft drinks and reacquaint ourselves with parents and families that we haven’t seen for months, I notice that some mothers prefer to lubricate their sociality with a white wine. That would have been my preference too, except for the narrow confines of the stupid diet that I’m strictly adhering to at the moment. If I’d thought for a moment that I could imbibe in a wine, I would have accounted for that though…. And this is something that the space of the bowlo offers too, though not in the same way as the pub or the club up the road; we didn’t really come here to drink.

I try to imagine where this meeting, the afternoon’s concert might have taken place on a cold winter afternoon in lieu of where we were meeting. These halls offer up a space that is significant: it has walls, it has facilities (toilets, a stage), it has tables and chairs and a bar. There is a stage and a backroom, so there is room to stage a performance. It’s small enough to be intimate so that it counts as our space for the afternoon, our event, even if we’re not members here. It’s multipurpose allowing you to imagine creating and/or participating in other community events. It’s cheap to hire, and that is significant. And even though there were no people in the audience unrelated to those performing on stage, I bet that the organisers could have advertised it in the main street and drawn a small crowd in too. We created and were part of a community event. A community event is supported by communities. And that’s who we were.

Photo credit: https://mirrorsydney.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/h-p.jpg

The Enjo Demo: a ritual transformation from a history of filth

I recently went to an Enjo demonstration (party?). I can’t say that I’m a convert, but you have to wonder since over 250 years have passed since the Industrial Revolution, something had to be done about improvements in home cleaning. The demo went fine; we all listened, we all put on a glove and we all had a go at cleaning our friends not-so-dirty stove top, hand railings, benchtops, bathroom screens, did a bit of mopping and so on. But what was really interesting was how we interacted and how the filthiness of everyday life became sanitised through our participation in the demo and our subsequent confessions of bad housekeeping. We were now a community of dirty confessors and had become united as filth fighters.

Housekeeping has a long tradition and a history populated mostly by women who have worked hard and tirelessly in recreating the everyday rhythms of hygiene that mark their (our) cyclic contributions to household labour, to creating and maintaining household wellbeing. It is not a choice but an essential task for the survival of the household, even though it’s not sold as such. There is no room to make reference to the literature on housekeeping and its importance in the construction of identity for women within some cultures. Housekeeping is drudgery to some, enlightenment (yes) to others and a business means of survival to yet others. Or a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), but that’s not for today’s post.

For me, housekeeping is hell on an endless loop accosting me every day as I swear that I’d already picked up/tidied/washed/vacuumed/scrubbed/emptied/wiped down that thing. I could never envisage hiring a house cleaner though, because after all, how would I find all those missing items that always turn up when I’m doing what I call ‘parallel searching’ (ie cleaning)?

At the demonstration the hostess was asked how she cleans? What sort of a question is that? I had a moment of panic when I thought that I too might be asked about my housecleaning habits and was relieved when the hostess answered, bringing to the fore some of those unspoken and taken-for-granted bits of knowledge that we all share but never talk about when it comes to the reality of how we live our lives. She said, “I work full time and I hate Saturdays because I just can’t get on top of the housework”. I was mesmerised. Was a cleaning glove going to solve this problem for our hostess? Yes, it seemed, the glove and its associated paraphernalia were coming to the rescue.

She went on to detail a history of dirty windows, of dusty piano tops, of bannisters impregnated with dirt. We heard about floor spills, greasy exhaust fans, marked sofas and no time to get these surfaces clean. The Enjo demonstrator tirelessly worked through her explanations of all the different zones and how we could all save time and money (not possible is it really?) if we just bypassed the cleaning aisle at the local supermarket and spent over A$400.00 on the ‘Essentials Pack’. Honestly? The place didn’t look too bad to me at all.

We heard about other demos/parties, about the kind of people they were and about the kind of products they purchased. This was the instructive part where the hostess was letting us know what was typical behaviour for these demos/parties. We actively listened and learned while appearing to reach for the home made biscuits to consume with our coffee. Unfortunately one of the hostesses described did indeed probably qualify for OCD, so I immediately mentally discounted that story and that purchase history.

The hostess looked like she’d really aired her dirty laundry though. I think that she was ashamed. Just a bit. We women who had come along weren’t really friends, we were marks really, no – acquaintances. Under normal social circumstances, we were the sort of people that you definitely DO NOT want to detail your worst cleaning nightmares to, no matter how much you want a solution to them. Or how much you want the fake dollars that come with hosting a party so that you can put it towards the wonder mop, or whatever it’s called.

And then there it was, “And how about you, AA? Tell us about your place?” Oh God. I had to ‘fess up now that I’d been asked. I admitted to being a kitchen Nazi on Saturdays, spending most of my day in there cleaning out the fridge, wiping down benchtops, cupboard doors, stove tops and the oven and grill. I detailed the slime on the bottom of the vegie drawer, the slop on the stovetop, the splatter pattern on the splashback that looked like it was ready for analysis by Dexter. It doesn’t sound like much when I put it in print, but it’s interspersed with essential cooking for the week ahead, so I end up spending practically all day in there and thwarting the entry for anyone who simply wants to come into the kitchen for a quick bite. I always yell at the kids to get their rooms clean and finish with the floors.

And I have my Saturday Husband in there with me, who I’ve talked about before. He’s the guy on public radio who spends Saturday morning the way YOU want to spend Saturday morning: talking about food, repairing and renovating the home (not the house), talking to people about markets and fairs and gardens and supplying a What’s On for the weekend that makes you want to pack your bag and go right away. Makes the cleaning pass fast as you imagine picking apples instead of rubbing your fingers raw with the steel wool as you attempt the oven shelves. There’s probably a glove for that too.

We were taken to the hostess’s bathroom (the nice new one downstairs, not the really grubby one that the family used upstairs) to have a go at her shower screen with the bathroom glove. I really wanted to go upstairs, but how does that look if your acquaintance really wants a gander at your soap scum? Too much reality perhaps, so I let it slide. But I wasn’t convinced about the downstairs shower, “no way!” not with the barely there sprinkles of soap that the glove worked its magic on. I secretly yearned to see the glove work its way through the bacteria that held my own shower screen together.

When we got to the toilet it was too much for me. And clearly for others too as Enjo offer up a product with a company they’re aligned with because it’s just too much reality (they call it yucky) to clean the dunny and then chuck it in the wash with the rest of your stuff. Me? I’m hooked on bleach which will probably give me cancer of the nostrils and eyeballs, but there you have it.

What got to me was the fact that if you point out that the surfaces aren’t really clean or sparkling, or query whether the microfibers can provide a sterile surface you get shouted down. It’s like groupthink: everyone there really wants to believe that the products work. We have all invested our time to come around, the hostess has brewed coffee and made cakes (and yes, she vacuumed before we got there because I’m sure she couldn’t stand not to) and the demonstrator has come with the intention of showing us her product range and we should pay attention and buy something. So we’ve all made an investment before we’ve bought anything, and like any relations in capitalism we don’t like our investments to turn sour.

As an anthropologist I’m less interested in the facts of whether the products work than I am in people’s desire to believe in a thing. It’s very much like witches and witchcraft.

So I was gently shouted down when I voiced my scepticism (only gently though), and sidelined from further questioning with comments like, “It’s only a demonstration; you wouldn’t really do it like this if you were cleaning your own home” Or, “Of course you’d rinse in between surfaces, I’m just showing you for the purposes of proving that you could go from one surface to another without rinsing” So I got the message: clearly we all want to believe it’s the Messiah!

Then it was on to the next woman: what secrets was she going to divulge about her messes? I think she gave a bit of a whitewashed account of her cleaning history, but hey, who am I to judge a fellow dirty/clean junkie? The parallels with therapeutic 12 step programs were evident, although not entirely parallel. Perhaps I should have started with, “My name’s AA and I’m a cleaning junkie and it’s been 6 ½ days since I last pulled out the Spray and Wipe” Nevertheless, the parallels with the confessional were evident. We had bonded in dirt and cleaning stories and were being offered redemption through shiny brochures, an array of fuzzy, multi-coloured cloths, a few products and the promise of ongoing participation in this new community by simply agreeing to host a demo/party ourselves.

Still, there wasn’t enough grime for my liking. No one once mentioned the word ‘shit’. There was no discussion of cockroach poo, and what about the mess associated with babies, young children, hobbies and old pets with weak bladders? I was going to need a wardrobe full of gloves to thwart the dirt and filth in my life. And the personal gloves for face and body cleansing? Now there’s some real work to be done.

But the beauty of the Enjo demo/party was in the magic being spun by the demonstrator. She was experienced, accomplished, very likeable and good at what she was doing. She presented an authentic self who desired money, to benefit the planet and her household. We were easily convinced, in part because we wanted to be convinced. We wanted an easier alternative to what we doing, something that was kind to the pocket, kind to the planet and definitely not yucky! We listened to her frame the problem. We listened as she described our cleaning and product dilemmas. We paid attention when she offered us an alternative to the ineffective, expensive, dangerous and toxic things that we were doing right now. It’s all in the story, it’s all in the spin. We love being marketed to and this is so personal, after all it’s about the scum on the toilet seat, the ring in the bath and the wine splatters on the floor, so of course it’s personal.

The demo/party is a good system: you share your filthy history and then you get to go through the ritual of purification as you clean the house you’re in with the products you’re provided with that are being directly marketed to you. And there are shamans (the demonstrator), powerful magic substances (Enjo cloths and products) and ritual participants (us women with dirty houses). We took it in turn to perform at the altar (kitchen, bath and living rooms) in order to move into the liminal space demanded of transformation as in turn we experienced, enacted and in turn were convinced (feel the resistance and then feel it glide) of the efficacy of that in which we were participants in creating: a cleaner self and a brighter future.

We all leave feeling clean and hopeful and after all, isn’t that what all therapeutic groups are aimed at? As I walked down the driveway and got into my car I thought about the experience that I’d just been involved in and mentally made a note of my new sisters-in-dirt to whom I would forever now be able to share my filthy tales of housecleaning with. I’ll never be able to look them straight in the eye again though, not now that they’ve shared their toilet secrets with me and I know that they too live like me.

Photo credit: http://i.huffpost.com/gen/1381134/images/o-CLEAN-HOME-facebook.jpg

On not renovating

Are we happy with our habitats? It seems like every time I turn on the TV, read a newspaper or even get the mail out of the letter box I’m accosted by beautiful images of luxurious interiors, perfectly lit exteriors or before and after shots of living spaces that hold the promise of a better life for me too, if only I’d embrace the dream. Someone looked at the fireplace at my last house and said, “Gee that would come up really well if you replaced/re tiled/refurbished/updated/polished it” I looked at my fireplace, with its carpet covered concrete at the front, loose tiles and wobbly shelf and thought to myself, “If I touch a brick, surely the whole thing will collapse?” Clearly I’m not a renovator. But what are we seeking with the promise of life in a better, a more beautiful, a more up to date house? And is there an end to it?

Visitors come to my home and see the threadbare carpet, the cracked walls and the holes in the deck outside. We have a lovely overgrown vegetable garden too, overgrown with every species of local weed that can be imagined. Many of the visitors have renovated their own homes already. If you have a lot of money (like many things in life) you can throw cash at the house and fix it pretty quickly, in the same way that throwing cash at anything fixes it. Or if you don’t you can take your time, spend your free days working on it yourself and co-opt the help of friends and family to get the job done. People who do this are very dedicated to the completion of the task and have a long view of the effort and costs required to complete the job. Or, like one family I know, you can put together your plans, submit them to your local council, get them approved and then proceed to sell your house because suddenly you found a better one already renovated just the way you like and save yourself a lot of heart ache.

This all raises the question, not so much of how one should live – although this is very much a part of it – but how much one should live with yesterday’s architecture, yesterday’s styling, less fashionable, perhaps outdated and worn houses and their contents. Are we all subject to keeping up with the Jones’s? What if we’re happy enough how we are? What if we see better uses for our money (if we have it) than to spend it updating our abodes?

Renovating costs a lot of money. And if you live in a city with skyrocketing real estate then it’s going to cost you even more money. There is the cost of architects, draughts people, council and state fees for applications, the cost of labour and the cost of building materials. The prices for these are subject to change as typically renovations always seem to run into problems, often associated with the weather…

What can’t be costed in however, is the desire for change to which humans are subject. If change and variability are the basic stuff our lives, then our desire to reshape our houses, refashion our dwellings and remodel our homes comes as no surprise. Change is hard wired into our selves, and even further, it is our diverse response to change and novelty that marks us as human.

Our relation to the things in our lives is moderated by our desire to interact with those things and experience our lives as improved, different and closer to an ideal because of this, and so too is this reflected in our relation to our environs. We need change in our lives as change refreshes us, refreshes our perspective and our relations to things and to each other. We are literally reinvented by novelty. It is not enough to clean the house (which is after all, a form of refashioning), but much better to both clean and re arrange, re shape, re model and thrust ourselves into a changed environment in order to experience ourselves anew.

Gardens, which were once places to run around in, grab some sun and performed a functional as well as recreational aspect have also been made anew.  They are now exemplars of sumptuous landscaping, textures, materials and vistas often reflecting cultural borrowing that create an environment of luxury, of holidays, or of whichever state of mind you care to name: jungle, kids playground, retreat, garden nook, native garden, formal garden, kitchen garden, formal or informal entertainment area, office/library/meditation room with or without decks, parkland, botanical garden, tropical garden or simply backyard. And this too is dependent upon your cultural background.

In Australia we decry those neighbours who want to cut down all the trees in their backtyards, leaving the cityscape as one bereft of greenery. We look on in horror as gardens are removed and tiles put down to mimic the courtyards of back home, the landscapes that are reflected in the garden areas of homes from the Middle East, from Europe, from the UK. Gardens for some are what you put in a big pot outside. For others, its fruit trees in miniature while for others it’s nothing less than roses climbing the front of the house and lavender adorning the drive. We all do this: I remember sitting under Eucalypts in Europe, munching on leaves and thinking of home.

But the garden is one aspect, it’s not really renovation as anyone can meander into a garden and start work on it with a garden tool. But home renovation has a sense of permanence about it that is not seen in spadework in the vege patch. It usually requires concrete, that of the metaphoric and the real kind. Changes are wrought for permanence, to match the temperament, mood and budget of the person seeking to remodel themselves. Aren’t our environments a reflection of ourselves? If a handbag says something about my bodily maintenance then what does my house and garden tell you about me?

People in the street in which I live have recently begun renovations. We’ve witnessed the thinking, planning and submitting. We’ve marvelled at the quickness of demolition, at the slowness to start of the building phase. We’ve had conversations about the progress but declined to inspect the premises that are half what they used to be. And I kind of like the sunshine and sky that come into my kitchen window right now, now that the back of their place has been knocked down.

And much like the renovation shows that entertain me so well on TV, I expect that this renovation will be complete in 60 minutes and that we can all move on to the next phase of our relations.  I can’t really fathom why people want to talk about renovations at length and for so long. After all, it’s just a house. We’re not changing the world. But as humans interacting with and upon our everyday environments, we are changing the world, aren’t we?

“You can’t be too thin or too smart”

This is a personal post, not the usual kind and it’s about diets: Israeli Army, High Fibre/Low Fat, Atkins Revolution, Total Wellbeing and more recently the 5:2. It’s also a post about thighs, waists, double chins, fadoubadahs (the fleshy bits under your arms), sagging breasts, side views and scales. It’s about those red dots. And the discomfort of the bits of skin that sit under pendulous breasts and get itchy when you sweat. It’s a post based on watching my mother tie herself up in a corset to go out most days and the fear and loathing associated with buying clothes that I’ve had for most of my life – especially clothes that fit. And it’s not about fashion (weeping). This post is also about car cultures, no time for exercise, a 38 hour work week and an unhealthy and developing appreciation of wine every night coupled with late night snacks. And the promise of medicines, the promise of antihypertensives, multivitamins, fish oil and aspirin. And the statins that are yet to come, but have been promised. I love science.

As I grow in years, I find that I’m shrinking in size. I’m not as tall as I was. But my shoes are a size or two larger than when I was a teenager. Does long term exposure to gravity flatten you out? Along with shrinking and having to look up to teens and pre-teens, the hair all over my body that I’ve spent a lifetime and a small fortune shaving, waxing, tweezing, SilkyMitting, Epiladying and more recently at great expense having lasered is now diminishing. I’m flat out finding a hairy bit to laser. And the young beautician says, “We’ll just get these ones, shall we?” as she moves to attack my pubis to increase the view of the ‘bikini line’. “You know why she said that, don’t you, why she wants to do them now?” says my workmate. “It’s because laser doesn’t work on grey hairs”. That’s TMI from a workmate! I’ve been hating my lush outgrowths of hairy bodily protection for years and attacking them with gusto and now I have trouble finding them.

Conversely I’ve discovered the pleasures of nail colour. Did I wake up one day as a young women and discard all prettiness as artifice when I decided to trade in lace for sensible underwear? I still remember that decision, that fateful day. Now I have daughters and they look at me and wonder about the implications of being female. Certainly there are mixed messages: be yourself (but not too fat) (and not too hairy). You don’t need all that stuff, you’re naturally beautiful (but eye-shadow, lipstick, lip liner, mascara, blemish coverup and perfume are OK). And there’s more of course. But that’s it for me. You get to an age and natural just doesn’t swing it anymore. I’ve appreciated the large row of crow’s feet under my eyes as a feature of my personality. My children, when they were younger just adored them, counting the rows as evidence of my smiling and laughing a lot. They call them my crinkly eyes. I hope my husband sees them that way too.

As a teenager I watched my younger sister control the family through what she refused to put in her mouth at the dinner table. I watched her discretely leave the table and head for the bathroom right in the middle of meals. One day I followed her in, caught her throwing up in the toilet bowl and said, “If I ever catch you doing that again I’m going to tell everyone”. I guess she had body issues too. And that was code for coping. But I have daughters, and daughters are like mirrors reflecting back not only your mirror image but your memory of everything that mirrors have ever reflected back at you. You catch a fleeting image of how you once were, at how you used to take a particular aspect of your image for granted – your hair, that flick, that sideways glance, the set of your shoulders, your smiling face looking out at the world, the way your tummy used to look, the ease of your body as it moved through life, how your jeans sat on your hip bones.

Sometimes you might be lucky enough to catch a video of yourself at a much, much younger age – a rarity for someone middle aged, you young folks do forget – and you catch the way you walked, the way you held yourself and the way you looked. This leads you to remembering how you thought back then, to what was normal and taken for granted in your thinking, your being, your relationships with people and the hope and promise that the world held for you. At a young enough age, early movies showed your natural, unadorned self before the western women’s universal worries set in about all your flesh being in the right proportion and in the right place. I’ve had whole relationships with other women that relied on our body shapes, size and what went into our mouths. It’s only when you get older that you start to focus on what comes out. I’ve wasted so much time worrying.

As a child, I was quiet, I had no voice and I was a great observer. I was seen but not heard. I used to sit and watch as much as listen to adults animatedly conversing at tables. I got used to the perception of the angle of their faces when they were excited in conversation, or angry. I watched their mannerisms and movements and learned what angry looked like, or upset, or deliriously happy and laughing so much that cake crumbs fell out of their mouths and they spat while they spoke. I had the artist’s eye as I saw their profiles and faces change as emotion lit their faces. It was an emotional state accompanied by a bodily state. They never seemed to carry on about their weight though, these women who were related or brought together by friendship. These women who boarded boats to come to this country on trips that lasted for months. These family and friends who suffered during the privations and hardships of war in Europe. If they spoke about their weight, it was a health concern more than a vanity. But that too was a bit of ruse as I later found out.

Obsessions with weight, diet, looks and how much space we take up in the world are a modern issue. Around the table over coffee and cake at someone’s home these women brought the village and all its concerns into the home. It was all about propriety. The intentions, appearance, behaviour and fall out of someone’s predicament was the issue, but it struck me even when I was young that it was something ‘out there’, somewhere in the social realm that this existed. As I grew up I realised that the predominant concerns of a generation were increasingly becoming internalised, with less that ‘could be done’ about them. What could be done involved self-loathing, denial, imbibing substances, expending energy on exercise or succumbing to surgery? Or perhaps it was just a matter of timing: what I was witnessing were the concerns of an older generation, not the predicaments of young girls growing into womanhood.

The attitudes of a generation are hard to shift. My mother had concerns about her body too, but dealt with them in her own way. She used to obsess about things, much in the way that I too obsessed. And sometimes about the very same issues. And when I was pregnant, I was eternally lectured about “not getting too fat”. My mother went on and on about this, even over the phone, telling me that it would lead to problems in childbirth if I got too big. It was not a concern about health, but a concern about appearance. She was of the generation that still believed that smoking cigarettes was good for your health because it stopped you eating. The health policy of dealing directly with your bodily issues clearly didn’t resonate here.

Scales are a great metaphor, as they provide never ending information of whether we’re under or over, or in reality, how much over we are compared to a norm that we’ve set ourselves. If you weigh yourself daily – and many of us do – it sets the stage for a whole set of internal rationalisations that go unsaid out loud. But we know what we mean. But we’re not machines and weight and body shape are not merely a matter of a formulaic energy in – energy out = current weight. I think the poets have a much better handle on expressing the truths of life, truths that we still attempt to shape and report on through measurements with scales when we should be using tropes, metaphors and similes to express ourselves. Wouldn’t talk around the water cooler be so much improved if we didn’t start with, “I put on 2kgs last week. I feel like shit now”, but instead resorted to the poetic world of expression instead: “As fruit ripens so too did my body fill with the sum total effects of the meals enjoyed this week with my beloved. As our favourite wine bar beckoned, we succumbed to the effects of burgundy, the scent of our late night intermingling love still on our fingers as we savoured the lusty chunks of golden dairy from the cheese platter”

And my obsession is now about what comes out of my body. This is the counterpoint that I missed in my youth. The other part of the formula.

But it’s not what you think, it’s not just the Metamucil, but that helps lots of things. It’s about my voice, my view, my opinion and my perspective. It’s about honouring and sharing the knowledge and expertise that I’ve developed through life, work, experience, study and research. Outputs matter. And while I sit writing on this blog, I’m not writing for the academy. And this will be my undoing. Outputs are all about exposure to the right kinds of audience and the audience participating and creating too in the making of you. And you need to be acknowledged in the right way for your efforts, because that’s part of our social contract.

I caught myself dieting once. I was a great dieter. I was in the car and I had the seatbelt on. I realised that I had a flat tummy and that I could grasp my hip bones. Not much of a revelation to anyone else but I didn’t feel all overly fleshy with the association of out of control that fleshiness in all its loveliness always brings. I worked with a woman once. She lost 30 kilograms and went down to a size 8. Then she took her time and put it all back on again. I can understand that because everyone focuses on how great you feel and how great you look when you lose weight. But no one tells you how much you miss it when it’s gone. That’s why she put it all back on. Because it was a part of her and she missed it, missed herself.

I’ve moved into a new period of bodily self-loathing now. It’s a generational illness I’m sure. I hope my kids don’t comment on my ‘fast days’ when I sneak in wine (and count the calories). Or on my total lack of exercise for lack of time. My obsession revolves around not looking aged in the workplace, because that brings with it a new set of discriminations and I’m not ready for that yet. I’m not the respected elder stateswoman and I fear that my ‘out there’ attitude may eventually work against me as I increasingly become a caricature of all the things I feared. “You can’t be too thin or too rich” was the cry of an earlier generation, but for me it may well be, “You can’t be too thin or too smart”.

A real mismatch at work

I do not fit my paid job [but I really fit my unpaid job, doing this (blogging, social media and volunteering) and I love it to boot]. My paid job is DRIVING ME MAD.  I spent the WHOLE DAY attending to forms.  I mean eight hours.  I had a template and I had to run off about a dozen individual FORMS.  Work calls them PROFORMAS.  Why ask me?  Brain the size of a planet and I’m doing PROFORMAS?  I have a PhD  [I’m not trying to be a jerk, just saying]  They know it’s only a matter of time before I throw down the gauntlet and ANNOUNCE that this job is no longer fit for me.  I’m MENTALLY DYING HERE.  Can’t they see the pool of incredible thought blood on the floor in my office?  It’s running from my mind, down my back and onto the ground between the desk and the door.  That’s MY CREATIVITY dying right there.  Leaking out without  stopper.  It’s trying to get out the door.  Maybe I should too…

Maybe I have to be BRAVE and just chuck in the towel and say ‘goodbye’ to the day job and just go.  Who DOES that?  Chucks in the waitressing, the clerical work, the bar job to pursue their dream?  I did it once before, before when I was younger and childless and doing my PhD.  I was going to become an ANTHROPOLOGIST (I DID THAT)!  But do you know how many jobs there are for anthropologists in any medium sized city?  Probably about a dozen.  All in universities, prestigious or otherwise.  If you’re over 40 and doing a mid-career change you don’t stand a chance (someone actually whispered that in my ear once).

The day job has its perks: it pays me.  And having worked on the fringes of academia as a casual for four years, believe me, a regular pay check is unbelievable.  And they pay you over Christmas, and for public holidays.  It just gets better.  This is really SIGNIFICANT.  If you don’t have any work at all, you will really, really appreciate this.

Working at something you love and getting so little reward (financially) because you only work as a casual (ie six months of the year) is SOUL DESTROYING. You can’t pay off a mortgage, buy food and live like an adult.  Maybe I should WANT different things, but I don’t because I too am a product of my environment and seek these things: security, sustenance, pleasure and challenges in my life.  If you continue with insecure work, you’re condemned to living like a teenager.  I HAD to get a REAL JOB.

So what’s a little tedium with the proformas and forms?  I can put up with that.  But it’s a bit like being CINDERELLA, no one really appreciates your cleaning and they just don’t see that inner beauty.  It’s all wasted really.  And that’s not to mention the managers/ugly sisters…

Last year I worked at the same place, but a bit less.  I could ‘value add’ to my work and it was so pleasing.  A little extra to make us think about why we did what we did [and we did good].  A little look at the bourgeoning literature.  A few people talking about their passion and discussing this with each other.  A few extra social functions.  Now, with workplace restructures, industrial amalgamations and following mass resignations and ‘redundancies’ I’m overwhelmed and drowning.  Modern management practices leave me cold.

This might seem like middle class whingeing, after all, what am I complaining about?  I actually HAVE a mortgage, where not a lot of people can do this in my city the way prices are right now.  And I have a GOOD JOB and health care and car insurance blah blah blah.  You kind of do get those things (along with the conservatism that goes into protecting your ownership and things) once you hit middle age.  And I’m so there [but].

I was a teenage rebel, but that’s another post.  Now I’m this.  This is what the road to redemption looks like, but now I don’t care about being redeemed by those whose opinions used to really matter to me once.

I love to fantasise: give up the DAY JOB.  Watch the kids wonder about why they can’t go overseas on school excursions (did you do that when you were at school?  I mean, come on!).  Try to live off what I earn writing, teaching even.  It’s only a germ of an idea, but one I yearn to fulfill.  I’m so weak… BUT one can only continue in a mismatched job for a while.  After a time it becomes so OBVIOUS.  There’s no room to LIE ANYMORE.  The truth always OUTS ITSELF.  And telling the TRUTH is so freeing.  Let’s play a bit:

“I’m off to work in a soup kitchen”

“I’m going to volunteer for an NGO”

“I’m going set up a branch of the CWA ”

“That book is just pouring out of me”

“I’m going to set my house up as cat rescue centre”

“I’m volunteering in the offices of Medicins sans Frontieres

“I’m fostering a young person”

“I’m painting the house black”

“I borrowed that book, you know the one, ‘Teach Yourself Watercolours in a Week‘.  Then I’m going to exhibit”

“I’ve enrolled in a MOOC”

“You’re speaking to the new Neighbourhood Watch Coordinator”

“I’m going to start a blog – wait, I’ve done that”

It’s Friday.  I’ve done my PROFORMAS.  Over the weekend I have more paper meddling to complete.  I think that my mismatch goes deeper: perhaps the managers and bureaucrats were right: you really DO need to have a good fit with your organisation’s VISION STATEMENT or some such thing.  My CAPABILITIES (I mean really, do they know what people are really capable of?) need to fit in with their aims.  Maybe it’s just time to move on…

[This photo was titled ‘Vomitting Diamonds’.  You just have to love that…]