Sunday, 30 March 2008

The Sound of Silence March 30

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live the life of a nun and take a vow of silence. For a chatty girl like myself with a penchant for very non nun activities, I’ve often looked over that grassy knoll and wondered if it is in fact greener in the nun’s world.
Then I found myself in Venice experiencing it for myself. Sister Wendyl arrived full of glee and excitement at the prospect of spending two weeks on her own, finishing that difficult first novel and within one hour realised that for the next 336 hours I would have no one to talk to, no one to drink with, no one would hug me and on top of it all I was determined to stay on my self imposed dietary restrictions which limited the intake of pasta, buffalo mozzarella and proscuitto, which some may argue is the only reason to go to Italy.
“Oh God, what have I done?” I muttered to myself as I gazed out of the window at the San Trovaso bell tower. “How will I ever get through two weeks of this?” I challenged myself as I peered miserably at the gently lapping canal which was enjoying an unusually high tide. “That’s it, I’m going home, this was all a huge mistake, I am obviously a complete nutter,” I thought to myself, having realised that there was no point in talking out loud anymore as I could hear myself perfectly clearly in my head.
My problem is that I have never been on my own. The single life, just me, hanging out and enjoying my own company. From the age of 18 I have been in serious relationships with the longest time in between men being a massive three weeks which was spent in such a haze of alcohol and “good times” I have only a very dim memory of it, which is probably a blessing. And from the age of 24 I have always had children around, who are great providers of hugs and silly conversations when the man of the house is away, distracted or getting the silent treatment.
My husband pointed out that this lack of single time may turn out to present a few problems in Venice. He has always thrown his single time out there as some of the best years of his life. I’ve never been sure what part of working two jobs, doing the ironing on Sunday nights, going to the gym and learning to cook casseroles out of recipe books amounted to the best fun a man can have. When I met him he used to put a list of the meals he was going to cook every night of the week up on the fridge, every Sunday after the ironing. I told him that my lack of single time has never presented itself as a problem before and I doubted that wearing crisp white shirts or making lists and putting them on fridges was a skill that a person really needed to survive on their own. But I did accept that I was rather unusual, and my relationship addiction is something I will deal with one day when I have to. Maybe when he’s dead, if not before.
So when I entered my Venice nunnery I had none of the skills necessary to survive. As the power of speech left me completely and I simply conversed with myself through my brain, I hit on it. Routine. It works for small babies, it works for troubled children, and surely it would work for Sister Wendyl.
And there I was sticking a list on the fridge which gave me regular times to write, times to go for walks, and times to have meals.
I felt much better and then totally ignored it. I started smoking. Then I drank whisky, which was neatly slotted into the 2pm to 6pm writing book slot, and I conveniently lost my appetite. It seems that Sister Wendyl only likes cooking for and eating with, other people.
And then one day, when my mouth’s only exercise for 14 days had been inhaling smoke and swilling Johnny Walker, I finished the book.
“Well done you,” were the first words I spoke in weeks, feeling that they deserved to be formed and spoken out loud, rather than reduced to a thought process.
Finishing the book was great, but what I really meant was “well done you” for learning to be on my own.

Illustration by Anthony Ellison

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Bitch March 23

Being called a bitch has never worried me. Which must be really frustrating for the person hurling the insult. Ramping it up one level to the “c” word might be overdoing it, so instead they laterally think all the way over to “mentally ill.” I don’t mind being called mentally ill either, some of my favourite people are certifiable.
When my book Bitch and Famous was published the first question journalists asked was: “Why would you willingly refer to yourself as a bitch?”And the answer is simple. Because I am one and I’m proud of it. I was quite shocked to hear that people in 2008 still regard bitch as a bad word. Surely we have reached a point in our emancipation where we can claim it and own the power of it without feeling it brands us as an undesirable.
Over in the States there’s a magazine for people like me. BITCH magazine says:
“When it's being used as an insult, "bitch" is an epithet hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don't shy away from expressing them, and who don't sit by and smile uncomfortably if they're bothered or offended. If being an outspoken woman means being a bitch, we'll take that as a compliment, thanks.”
My favourite T shirt at the moment is one bought for me by a friend in a vintage shop which is bright purple and says: “WARNING: I go from zero to bitch in 4.3 seconds.”
Most women who own the bitch inside them found her one day while they were trying to get noticed. In my case it was the shoulder padded, briefcase clad 80s and 90s where women learned very quickly that if you acted like a man, strutted like a man and swore like one, people took you seriously. Whole careers were carved by women f-ing and blinding, yelling and barking, strutting and posturing. But as Bette Davis said: "When a man gives his opinion, he's a man; when a woman gives her opinion, she's a bitch."
Today my bitch has been tamed somewhat, and is only let out on special occasions for protection or simply to impress someone. She’s a great one trick pony my bitch. But she has left me with the social handicap that men will never hit on me. I must be the only 45-year-old pick-up line virgin. Not for me the “Quick call heaven, I heard they’d lost an angel and I’ve just found her” or even the more simplistic “Wanna root?” Instead men tend to hang around me for so long that in the end I simply say: “Did you want something?” And it turns out they did.
Men also regard you with all the warmth and enthusiasm of a postie with a wild dog gnashing at him over the fence. They stand poised and ready for you to bite their heads off at any moment. They’re nearly right, I tend to bite further down.
Men will also react in horror when you use the word “no” frequently. They don’t like women saying “no” that’s why we have rape crisis centres and women’s refuges.
The true bitch comes from a place of strength and often humour. But lately I’ve had to clarify what kind of bitch I’m being called because there’s another kind emerging who I’ll have nothing to do with. That snarling insecure woman whose self esteem is so low she can only look at other women with envy. This is the schoolyard bitch, the bully, the threatened one. There’s one in every workplace, in every social grouping.
Where was she when we were knocking our bitch into shape climbing the ladder, smashing a glass ceiling or two and storming in and out of meetings? Making the tea and draining the clothing boutiques of anything floral and the cosmetic stores of pink lipstick. Sticking around long enough for the dust to settle then offering herself at a reduced rate and an eighth of the attitude after all the hard work had been done. I don’t think this bitch has earned her stripes, or ever will. She’s a faux bitch and if you call me one of those bitches I’ll bite really hard.
The amazing thing about this bitch is that she is so subtle you sometimes miss her. And when you find one you can’t quite believe that the woman with no style, who wouldn’t send a ripple of interest across the pond of life and has a seeming inability to do anything of note, could find the wherewithal to be that hurtful. What a bitch.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

SPQR meets Te Puke March 16

It was one of those days you wished to dear God you had stopped long enough to at least drag a brush through your hair and maybe put on some shoes. But hey, it was Te Puke on a rainy Friday afternoon, who was I going to see?
“You look like something the cat dragged in,” murmured Judy at the camping ground shop as I checked out.
“You’d look like this too if you’d just dismantled an entire awning on your own in gale force winds and driving rain,” I mumbled miserably. I always enter the first stage of depression when I leave my caravan.
She gave me a look which said “you could at least have washed your face” and tallied up my ground fees.
“There’s a forest in your hair,” she added as she swiped my card in the machine.
“I know but no one cares down here, everyone’s so laid back, that’s what I love about this place,” I proffered trying to avoid my reflection in the window.
Judy gave me another look which I would have preferred not to decipher because it went something like “yeah and that’s why my hair is perfect and I’m wearing make-up and something on my feet.”
I then realised that I had dirt smeared all over my legs from when I fell down the bank thankfully still hanging on to the awning. And I’d forgotten that I went fishing in my denim skirt the day before and it still had a few fish scales on it.
“Go on you, get back to the city and get yourself cleaned up,” she laughed before giving me a kiss goodbye.
Oh well, I reasoned only a few hours and I’d be back in Auckland and my big bath.
But first there was a stop to be made at the Te Puke Op Shop which last time I looked had a rather special cake mixer for only $5. In I went with my forest, dirt and fish scales and within moments I heard his voice.
There’s only one place I hear it and that’s SPQR, my favourite restaurant, a place I never set foot in without make-up, brushed hair and occasionally even heels.
I hastily hid behind the “larger sizes” clothes rack and peered cautiously through a pair of size 24 elastic waist black polyester trousers to determine that yes, Auckland had caught up with me.
There examining an indeterminate appliance was my favourite waiter we’ll call Mike (not his real name) in his trademark hat and discussing the merits of the appliance with his girlfriend.
The guy who makes sure I try beautiful wines and pours them for me in the “special” glasses he gets from out the back. Who bothers to stop and have a chat with me, even if I am being lame and not at all funny.
I like him. I like him a lot. But until I found myself cowering behind the humongous pair of pants trying to avoid getting too near the crotch I had no idea I cared what he thought. Was I so shallow that the thought of a Ponsonby waiter seeing me looking less than groomed in Te Puke really mattered? Was it really so bad being outed by an Aucklander for looking a fright?
I had to admit that yes, I was indeed shallow and what’s more I had to get out of the shop and away from the pants which were now emitting a rather disturbing odour.
What to do? Tough it out by waltzing up and saying some pathetic line like: “Ha no Astrolabe chardonnay for me today eh!”
Bad approach on two counts. For a start I’m talking about work and he’s obviously on holiday, though why in Te Puke I have no idea. And secondly he’ll probably mistake me for the local homeless woman who wanders the streets begging for leftovers and cigarettes.
So I just got out of there fast. The dog looked a little surprised to see me back quite so soon, and then we were gone.
“God are you alright?” asked my husband on greeting me at our front door. “You didn’t have an accident did you?”
“You’d look like this too if you’d just dismantled an entire awning on your own in gale force winds and driving rain,” I repeated forcefully. “And been spotted by my SPQR waiter!”“I’ll get you a drink and you can tell me all about it,” he soothed before adding,
“What’s that fish smell?”

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Library Love March 9

I can’t quite believe that we get to read books for free. It’s one of the great joys of my life that I can walk up the road to my local library and pick up a book to read, the equivalent of several days entertainment, for nothing. It’s the only thing of real value we get free in this country which doesn’t involve extra fees or admission payments.
I spend a lot of time at my local library which conveniently presents itself as a gothic looking building giving me the immediate persona of a budding Jane Austen as I eagerly enter its doors. I’m always surprised that it’s not packed out, like the local shopping mall with people eager to take advantage of a good book for free. But perhaps reading still has a way to go in the “exciting ways to spend your weekend” stakes. The only problem with my library is that being a community gathering place I run into my husband’s former wife quite a lot. It’s always nice to see her so that’s not the problem. It’s the books I get out that are.
My library gets books “in” for me from other libraries for a small fee of one dollar. The librarian has to get them from behind the counter. And that’s the problem
Once, I was researching a piece I was writing about keeping the love alive in marriage. Honestly. I write an advice column. Truly. I had gathered a few interesting looking books off the shelves and went over to check them out and pick up the marriage book I had ordered earlier which proved elusive. While the librarian hunted I chatted to the former wife about this and that until we were interrupted with:
“Ah here it is. Under “L” instead of “N” for Nissen. Resurrecting Sex: Solving Sexual Problems and Revolutionizing Your Relationship’ – is that the one?”
“It’s for research!” I shouted a little too quickly and rather loudly. “Something I’m writing,” I attempted as I avoided looking at her face for fear of seeing either a commiserating look that often passes between women who have or had the same husband or a stunned: “what the hell?”By the time I had produced my card and checked the offending title out she had wandered off into the kids section, so I’ll never know which look she gave me.
The second time was a recent visit where the two of us met again, quite by chance, and were chatting amiably at the counter while once again I waited for the librarian to retrieve the book I ordered which once again seemed not to have been filed under “N” for Nissen.
We were discussing her recent trip to Europe and my upcoming one to Venice where I was vigorously defending my right to travel alone to work on my book to someone I knew would see it my way.
“Ah here it is. Venice for Lovers - is that the one?” shouted the librarian.This time I didn’t even attempt the research line.
“Yes that’s right, it’s a book for lovers of Venice you know. Not the other way around, ha, ha” I said weakly.
The librarian smiled. I knew she believed me. She is my favourite librarian.
I don’t know her name because I’ve never asked but she always makes me laugh and on this occasion rescued me from deep shame and humiliation in front of the ex by presenting yet another book she knows I’ll love. The last one was about how to ice cup cakes so that they look like body parts. This one was titled “I Like You, Hospitality Under the Influence,” by Amy Sedaris. I’m not sure how my favourite librarian got to know me so well, but I appreciate the fact that she takes the time to keep books aside that will amuse me.
As an author I’m supposed to dislike the library system because the 17 copies of my own book currently doing the rounds in the Auckland catalogue stop people going out and paying good money for it. I can see that’s a problem for publishers but I’m pathetically grateful people are reading it and have to resist the urge to bribe my favourite librarian to access the computer system and allow me to email a personal letter of appreciation to every lender. Knowing that they’re being entertained for free is one of the great joys of my life.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Alone March 2

Despite believing that a woman can do what she likes and be who she wants it has become obvious to me that there is one thing a woman should never be. Alone.
I’m about to disappear for a few weeks to Venice, Italy. Alone. It’s the best news I’ve had in years that I’ll be free to wander the canals of Venice and tap away on my laptop for hours pausing only to cater to my needs, not anyone else’s.
But as news of my trip has spread the reaction has been overwhelmingly negative. One person close to me inquired if they had ashrams in Venice, dropping a huge dollop of suggestion that I might be having a mid-life crisis. Another person, also closely related, wondered why I would even consider travelling anywhere on my own when I had a nice husband to go with me, and suggested Hawaii would make more sense. I’m not sure why Hawaii, perhaps a woman is better alone wearing a coconut bra?
Someone else, on hearing my reasons for wanting some time out as translated by a friend: “she never gets a moment to herself,” managed to make me feel so much better by highlighting how awful, indeed, my life really is.
“I could never live your life,” she said with the dread more commonly used for conversations discussing cancer diagnosis.
A colleague, live on the radio, stated that he was worried about my family. The inference surely being that when the woman of the house was away the children starved, the power was cut off and the Ebola virus moved in.
And then there was the expense. “I thought you were paying off the mortgage,” smirked a very brave person. Necessitating a long explanation about my previous book proving a little controversial which meant I ended up with a bit of an unexpected windfall, most of which went on the mortgage actually and some of which I was putting into the next book. Beat that.
And then there were just the looks. From various people searching my face for signs of a marriage break-up, a terminal illness prompting me to get out my list of 100 things to do before I die, or an assignation with a lover of indeterminate nationality, but most probably Italian.
“No seriously, I just want some time alone to write my novel which is set in Venice,” I repeated until I was blue in the face.
Which then prompted a thought bubble above their heads which said: “She’s taking herself a bit seriously isn’t she?”
I will never be one of those pale women who waft across the stage at the Montana Book Awards looking like they need an intravenous drip for basic nutrients and a sense of humour. But I’ll be damned if I’ll let my novel be set in mystifying Karangahape Rd when I have Venice at my disposal. I’m a popular fiction writer with the sole aim that one day someone might curl up with my romantic thriller on a rainy winter’s afternoon and have a pleasant read.
But as the time draws near I am outraged that I have had so much damn explaining to do because I am stepping out of the antiquated expectation hat a woman’s place is in the home. We have obviously not progressed since the 60s when the only reasonable excuse for a mother to leave her family was to go into hospital for a hysterectomy or to attend the funeral of a distant aunt down country.
Hours were spent preparing freezer meals labelled: “Beef stew, Monday night, defrost then heat slowly on in the pot on medium” or “Macaroni cheese, Tuesday night, defrost then heat slowly in the oven on 150 degrees.” And brave souls left notes suggesting fish and chips on Friday. Other women in the neighbourhood rallied around and invited hubbie and the kids over for a meal to save them “fending for themselves.”
Men however, have always been allowed to travel alone. Far and wide they go conquering deals and takeovers. My travel writer husband does a fair bit of it with no such reaction from anyone about being alone or being any more odd than usual.
The only people who are quite happy for me to disappear are my five children. The very people I am escaping from with their love of interruption, need for nurture and givers of conversations I never regret finding time for. And that’s why I love them.

Illustration by Anthony Ellison