Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas highlight: redemption by family

Our three day family Christmas marathon is over, and we are back to our funny little holiday routines of sleeping in, working, painting the back fence, and in my case, watching the father-son holiday project — painting a complicated historical time line covering 2,500 years of human history all down the corridor — taking shape. Pictures will follow soon.

My holiday highlight was the kris kringle exchange of gifts at my sister-in-law's place on Christmas Eve. I'd drawn my other brother-in-law, who is an art curator, so he was easy. But who had drawn me? As luck would have it, mine was almost the last present to be given. We did one at a time, and everyone made a little speech. My sixteen-year-old nephew, who had a terrible year, really, having left school, and left home and been in all kinds of trouble (we weren't even sure he'd come), got up, went to the tree, picked up the present, and said, "I've never given a present before and don't know if this is right, but Merry Christmas", came over and kissed me (I see him once or twice a year, no more), and gave me a bag with a card, a ribbon bow, and inside a fridge magnet and computer cleaning cloth from the Mornington Peninsula art gallery, and a fine red cooking apron. I think everyone was just holding their breath. Perhaps just a temporary moment of redemption by family, but a powerful one, all the same.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Happiness again

Here beginneth the 2011 annual blog post about Christmas puddings. Each year, I make them later and later: we have just taken them out of the bain-maries this morning, but they are ready to go. I toyed with experimenting with a new recipe, but decided not to mess with perfection (thanks, Vogue Entertaining Guide of the mid 1980s whose cover has now been ripped away after so much use: maybe this year I'll make the sweet potato souffle once more), and the only little variation was to bring out the flavour of the grated orange peel by using Cointreau instead of the last dash of brandy, and we'll take the bottle to flame them with on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We have also just bought a two million year old Wollemi pine (complete with its own certificate) in a pot to decorate.

This time last year I asked people to spare a special thought or wish for my friend Hypatia. I visited her briefly in Cambridge in April. She looked fragile, but was taking small steps forward. She's now back teaching and writing, and while there's still a way to go, she is still facing in the right direction, as far as I can see. 

In previous years I blogged about the ritual of making the puddings, and the year my father came and helped me skin the almonds and mix up the puddings when I was too weak to do it on my own. This year, I got Joel to help me, and we happily squeezed the gleaming pearly white nuts out of their warm wet skins, shooting them around the inside of the bowl.

Later we all sat around drinking tea. We are still celebrating Joel's VCE Year 12 piano result (nothing wrong with an A+, in any language, especially when it was really not expected); we had Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" playing, and the cats were madly chasing each other around the house to that long, initial build-up in "Tusk"; and this time it was Joel who had one of those little rushes of happiness, so clearly associated with home, with security, with family tradition.

Hard to write this kind of thing without sounding complacent and self-congratulatory. What I'm aiming to do is to treasure those moments when they come, not take them for granted.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Come on in, ya mongrels!

So, last night Joel's vocal group from school was supporting the Bigmouth community choir in Northcote. I thought we'd just go for their opening number, then we'd come home. After all, it's less than a week since he had all his wisdom teeth out, and he's been pretty low with the effects of the general anaesthetic. He also can't yet eat cereal (quite a big problem for a teenage boy), and I didn't think he'd be able to sing at all.

Anyway, we got there nice and early at 7.30 for them to rehearse, and I hung around in the foyer for a while, not sure I'd even stay, since Joel could get a lift home with someone else. Then I saw Meg's mother and sister, so I bought a ticket, anyway. Everyone else obviously knew something as they were all lining up with cushions and chairs. We could hear the big choir rehearsing right up till 8.30, and then finally the doors swung open and a man in a hat came through and said, "Come on in, ya mongrels." This was not calculated to impress people who'd been standing outside for half an hour but we all trooped in anyway. I got a chair near the door, planning to leave early, but in the end I stayed for the whole thing, and not just because Joel's group sang near the end of the evening. The man in the hat turned out to be Stephen Taberner, whose Spooky Men's Chorale has featured elsewhere on this blog, and who led this 80-strong choir through a wonderful hour of carefully staged and sung music in the gorgeous 30s public elegance of the Northcote Town Hall:


The evening also featured a couple of other musicians, including a wonderful countertenor accompanying himself on double bass: astonishing.

Joel's group sang a song, "Rachel", I've heard them sing many times, but they really nailed it last night. Only eight of them, with young 16 and 17 year old voices, but they stood in a circle in the middle of the hall and filled it with precision and passion. Here's a clip of them singing this song on another occasion earlier this year:



I had far too much to do (emails, budgets, bills, Christmas puddings, writing), but stayed anyway. I kind of toyed with the idea of finding out about how to join the choir, but kept thinking about how much I had to do (emails, budgets, bills, etc.).

It turns out Joel's group has bought a little studio time with money they won in a competition in Mt Gambier earlier this year, and will be recording a few tracks next week. But they need a new name. The "vocal group" or "senior choir" doesn't really cut it, I don't think.

The school is celebrating, too. The Victorian College of the Arts takes only 50 students into its new contemporary music program: six of them, next year, will be coming from this nonselective state school. It is just such a Good Thing to have music in my life.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Here I am again

Apologies, folks, for the break in transmission. It's been an incredibly busy couple of months. Though as I always maintain, blogging really isn't about having the time, or not. It's something more to do with mental and social energies, which have been pushed and strained somewhat over the last year. I have now finally given my last talk for the year, though, and am starting to think about winding up at work. I'm taking a couple of weeks' leave from Monday week, so that's a week in which to attend a symposium, finish marking some late-submitted work, catch up with my graduate students, and finalise some budget stuff for the Centre.

I've moved in to my new office, which was then painted and re-carpeted around me. I've started looking at furniture catalogues for some comfy chairs, and will look forward to making it a beautiful place. Photos will follow next year when I've got stuff up on the walls, and all. The office is lovely: light, bright and big. It has fans, air-conditioning, and windows that open, as well as lots of cupboards and shelves.  Our first post-doc has arrived and has started work, and our second arrives in January, so the Melbourne hub of our Centre is feeling real, and populated, with two wonderful new appointments to help with (a) the administration and (b) the education and outreach aspects.

The last talk was at the International Medievalism and Popular Culture symposium in Perth, the last event of our four-year grant on Medievalism in Australian Cultural Memory. And what a way to finish! One of those lovely events where no one is a keynote, and everyone is a plenary. About 45 folk listening to fifteen papers, none of which went over time. I'll write more about my own joint paper another time, perhaps. John Ganim, Nick Haydock and Eileen Joy braved the horrors of the half-world trip (and the spectacular Perth thunderstorms that messed up everyone's trip home), and Andrew Lynch held it all together with a light touch that put everyone at ease.

Even so, I am already planning a new year's resolution, which is to stop taking on too many things. Even though I cancelled two talks in September when I was just too sick to write them, let alone give them, I do still feel I took on too many things this year, with the result that I don't feel I did them all justice.

We are now being invited to submit the details of our publications to the dreaded research database. This is a pain in many ways. First, the system is incredibly unwieldy and time-consuming. Second, so many things follow from it: automatic calculations of one's teaching load, study-leave entitlements, etc.  Third, my two articles scheduled for this year haven't appeared yet. It is ridiculous for this to matter (they'll both appear in January, I think). One of them, at least, will have a 2011 publication date. But again, it's ridiculous that this is going to matter. Anyhoo, I have turned down a couple of things this year, and I have to keep doing that till I am back on top of things, and to make sure I leave enough time to do things well, not just meet the deadlines.

When we started all this bean-counting, and evaluation of journals, etc., a few years ago, I always swore I wouldn't let it get to me. But little by little, it has crept up on me, so that I do count the number of publications and "points" accruing to my CV.

Still, today was lovely. I made beetroot and raspberry borsht; and artichoke frittata for a birthday lunch; did a huge pile of ironing, straightening out the world; and had a sleep on the couch. Tomorrow I do the final check of the index of the book (proofs are already on the way to Philadelphia) and get to work on the next chapter of the next book.

So, hello again, blog: it's nice to be back.