Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The God of Small Things

The title of this week's blog is apt to mislead. It is not about Arundhati Roy's Booker Prize winning novel - or indeed about anything so worthy and refined. Indeed, if you are a small child (or even a large one), I'd recommend you stop reading now and get together with your friends and do something useful - like give another English word an alternate meaning that will be sure to confuse adults. (I was told this week by my students that "hectic" now means "good." I still don't believe them.) So...go run along.

Enough delays - let us begin.

When I was younger, a girl (a "young woman"?) asked me to her year 10 formal. No girl had ever even asked for so much as a potato chip from me, so I said yes. The day arrived, I showered, dressed, stuck on my cummerbund, and applied generous amounts of Brut 33. Before we were to depart she said she needed to "use the bathroom." D. disappeared behind the bathroom door while I chatted awkwardly to her parents, most likely about the rain and school and where I was going to find a park. Then without warning, a noise came from behind the door reminiscent of the one that a tennis player makes while serving - an "effort noise" if you will. I'm not sure if I grimaced,  but her parents continued on as if everything was just the same as it had been only moments before. It wasn't. I'm ashamed to admit that I no longer wanted to go to the formal with her any more. I'm not proud of my reaction; I'm not even sure I quite understand it. My son can go to the toilet and carry on a full conversation about Batman through the whole process, with his voice wavering at various stages of the process. (OK - I warned you. There's still time to stop.) 

But things were different in 1986. D. even looked different coming out of that bathroom - and I don't just mean lighter. I didn't "fancy" her, and yet she was a different woman emerging from that bathroom to the one that entered it. Did I want something more radical perhaps? A friend's mother once managed to somehow sustain a fart all the while walking through a large-sized room: a textbook rasberry, the blast began before she entered the room and was still hissing and flapping wildly at us as she left; what's more, she even managed to chastise G. about his room on the way through, just for good measure. An original multitasker. If anything, G. and I were shocked and awed - and perhaps even had more respect for her after this display of virtuosity and chutzpah. But with respect to D. I wanted to go home.

What is it about certain small things in certain places that destroy everything for us? I recall once arguing with a school friend about religion while he had a piece of beetroot stuck to his cheek. The small piece of vegetable matter somehow managed to destroy his credibility for me in ways that, even now, I find difficult to account for. Part of this is surely just a matter of attention. I couldn't put the little purple sliver out of my mind; and yet it was more than simply a matter of being distracted. Something that reframed his whole personality - sort of like a negation at the end of a sentence that inverts the whole meaning of what preceded it - like "I think that of all the people I know you have to be the greatest [long pause] at stupidity." Beetroot isn't a phoneme and faces aren't, strictly speaking, syntactic - but the analogy at least reassures me that there's some meaning to my prejudice, even if I can't quite articulate it myself.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Is That the Truth, Or...

I am a sick man. I am a deranged man. There is something wrong with my newspaper.

Today, walking through campus, I was spruiked at virgorously by a bottle-blonde Englishgirl  - or someone putting on an accent for the express purpose of improving their spruiking (no one spruiks like the English). She offered me a free subscription to The Daily Telegraph. Free. Pay nothing. Ever. Really?

"But I am a staff member - not a student."
"It doesn't matter. It's for everyone." 
"But the form asks me when I graduate." 
"Write anything."
"Write anything."
"Anything. Fill out the form to the best of your ability."

I filled out my form (to the best of my ability) and was, for my efforts, given a small plastic card which I'm entitled to flash at the newsagent on campus who then responds by giving me my paper. It works - but it has created another dilemma. 

How do I actually get the paper from the newsagent back to my office? What if someone else in my department actually saw me with a copy of The Tele in my hand? It would be like being caught walking through campus with a copy of The New Testament or Dianetics. How could I explain it to them? 

"Dr Flemo, what are you doing with that? You read The Telegraph?"
"It was free."
"Free? I wouldn't read it if they paid me."
"Actually, they paid me."
"Even so..."

Perhaps the colleague would even be wearing one of those shirts that say "Is that the truth - or did you read it in The Telegraph?" Fortunately, however, it is Wednesday and I buy The Australian on the first Wednesday of every month to get a copy of The Australian Review of Books. I figured that I could fold up hide my copy of The Tele inside my copy of The Australian. Perhaps that was Murdoch's plan all along - targeting academics from the Humanities and Social Sciences with free subscriptions to The Tele in order that they then have to fork out the cash for his other publications to cover up their supposedly "free" paper. Cunning. But then how do I cover up my purchase of The Australian?

One solution I've contemplated is to bring a marker pen to the newsagent and - before leaving the shop - draw one big quotation mark on the first page of the paper and then another large quotation mark on the last page, to signal that I'm reading it ironically. Not reading, but "reading." 

That's it. I'll give that a go.