I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I used it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria, especially in the first part of the year. I plan to write a book provisionally titled Bluestone: An Emotional History, about human uses of and feelings for bluestone. But I am also working on quite a few other projects and a big grant application, especially now I am on research leave. I'm working mostly from home, then, for six months, and will need online sociability for company!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Six Years Down

It is six years, almost to the day, since I went under the knife. I have just had my annual mammogram, ultrasound and review with my wonderful surgeon. I wrote about Suzanne a lot in the first months (here, here and here, especially) : she was a revelation to me, about how a brilliant technician could also be a calm, intelligent leader in the workplace. From my various encounters this morning, it's clear her staff adore her as much as I do.

What's the upshot, then, six years down the track?

  • No sign of recurrence
  • No swelling in arm (lymphoedema)
  • No desire for reconstructive surgery (Suzanne asks each year, but I'm not at all ashamed of my scar and the deep indentation along one side of one breast)
  • Some residual pain (from radiotherapy: it will be lifelong, but I'm now under instruction not to  use the really heavy weights at the gym)
  • Bone density normal
  • Menopause ...
  • No medications (nothing; currently not taking anything of any kind; no vitamins; nothing)
  • Weight under control (obesity is an indicator for breast cancer)
  • Reduced alcohol consumption (alcohol is a BIG indicator for breast cancer)
  • Some residual feeling that powers of concentration aren't what they were, but a gradual realisation that this might be picking up now I am no longer taking tamoxifen
  • Reminder of sense that I am glad I did not have to go through chemotherapy or mastectomy (both of which have very long recovery times and difficult after-effects)
So all in all, I reckon that's about as good as it gets. I am very conscious that compared to many women I have got off relatively lightly, and also received (and been able to pay for) consistently superlative and compassionate health care. 

Last night I was talking with a friend who'd had a much rarer, more difficult blood cancer. We agreed that everytime you go in for these tests you kind of hold your breath for the day before. I guess eventually it gets easier. For me the five year mark last year was really important as it meant the end of the daily tablets and the monthly injections. This one seems to mark the beginning of a new phase, as every year out I am absorbed back into the general population with only an average risk of breast cancer.

So good am I feeling about this, and so much am I enjoying blogging again, I am even going to change my profile text in the next day or so.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Teaching the History of Emotions

This year the Faculty of Arts introduced its controversial new coursework program. Until this year, the PhD in Arts at Melbourne was taught entirely by research thesis, externally assessed by examiners who had no contact with the student. Over the first year of their enrolment, our new students now must enrol in one of seven 2-hour fortnightly workshops, for which they write a 5000 word essay; and two intensive units, for which they write essays of 2500 words each. This program has not met with universal acclaim. It's taking students and staff a while to get used to coursework that seems like an extra imposition that is assessed, and yet doesn't really "count" in the final assessment for the PhD.

Nevertheless, on we go. I have co-taught both a workshop ("Researching Texts") which will finish this Friday after two semesters; and an elective, "The History of Emotions." The latter finished today. We taught it in four three-hour sessions ("we" being me and Stephanie and Sarah, the two post-doctoral fellows in the Centre for the History of Emotions). Penelope, our new Education and Outreach officer, also audited the subject: her experience with psychology and art was invaluable at several strategic points in discussion.

Both subjects have been, for me, a delight to teach. I've not done that much collaborative teaching, really (not having medieval colleagues makes it tricky, for one thing), and I really enjoyed sharing ideas and responsibility for organisation and for leading discussion.

The students for both subjects ranged extremely widely. Most of the students in Researching Texts were from literature (not just English) and creative writing and cultural studies and performance. The students in the History of Emotions were even more diverse. None from literature; quite a few from history; but also archaeology, philosophy, cinema studies, linguistics, etc. Another student audited. Someone working on C15 Italian texts; another on C17 witchcraft pamphlets; another on C17 Italian art; but mostly modern topics: Heidegger; the films of Sofia Coppola and rococco style; the social phenomena of languages as they die out; the politics and representation of Somalian piracy; a history of the animal rights movement in Australia, etc. So, about as diverse a bunch as you could find. Some were candid about choosing the intensive sheerly for timetable reasons. Some had very little understanding of what the field of the history of emotions involved. But through sheer intellectual curiosity, and academic courtesy, and the impending sense of having to write an essay within a month, by the time of our last session this morning, when we asked them all to bring along an object, a text, an image, an idea for their essay, all but one (who is preoccupied with other deadlines at the moment)  had been able to think their way quite quickly into this very diverse and complex field. They spoke eloquently and passionately. It was clear that wherever they had begun, many of them had found some really interesting places to go with this material. I'm really looking forward to reading their essays.

We didn't want to overburden them with reading, as you'll see from the course outline below. That's one of the limitations of an intensive subject. Anyone wanting to familiarise themself with the field could do worse than start with Susan Matt and with Jan Plamper's interview, rightly becoming a canonical standard in the field.

Of all the things we read, my favorite was the Monique Scheer essay. Scheer uses Bourdieu and practice theory to build a model of "emotional practice" (based on the habitus) that is attentive to somatic as well as cognitive practices, and to social context without being overly restrictive or programmatic. There's more work for me to do on this, but I think this has the potential, as Scheer says, to bypass the quarrel between emotion and affect. The essay was a little divisive, though. The Heideggerian, the archaeologist and the cinema studies student liked it as much as I did; others less familiar with Bourdieu found it harder work.

I'm currently thinking about two episodes in Chaucer and Malory where grown men (Absolon and Lancelot) are described as weeping like a child who has been beaten. The concept of emotional practice will, I think, help me think about the relation between these very different narrative contexts and the relative similarity of body language (both are kneeling, and both cannot speak after they weep) and the quasi-proverbial nature of the simile. So that's good.

Tomorrow I teach Book IV of Troilus and Criseyde; on Friday we have our "graduation" from Researching Texts, complete with a workshop from an actor who'll help them with presentation skills (relaxation, breathing, speaking). Next week, two lectures on John Forbes and Book V of the Troilus. That is the class that has been bringing astonishing baked goods for morning tea all semester. Wonder what they'll produce for our picnic lunch after class?

History of Emotions PhD Elective, 2012

An elective convened by Stephanie Downes, Sarah Randles and Stephanie Trigg, meeting in four 3-hour sessions between October 8 and 16.

Assessment: One 2500 word essay on a topic of your choice, due Monday 5th November.

Readings  will be posted on the LMS site from Wednesday, 3rd October. A longer bibliography will be made available at the first session.

Session One: Monday, October 8, 11.00 – 2.00.
Room 210 (Old Arts)

Bring your lunch, and we’ll supply tea/coffee.

Part One: Orientation to the History of Emotions: From Heart to Head

Questions for discussion:
·      What are our sources for the ‘history of emotions’?
·      What do emotions ‘do’?
·      How do we write the history of emotions?


Matt, Susan. ‘Current Emotion Research in History: Or, Doing History from the Inside Out,’ Emotion Review 3 (2011): 117-124.

Plamper, Jan. ‘The History of Emotions: An Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns,’ History and Theory 49 (May 2010): 237-65.

Part Two: The History of Tears

Questions for discussion:
·      What is the relation between emotion and tears?
·      Do tears have a history?
·      Is this history gendered?


Thomas Dixon, ‘The Tears of Mr Justice Willes,’ Journal of Victorian Culture (2011): 1-23.

Lyn A. Blanchfield, ‘Prologomenon: Considerations of Weeping and Sincerity in the Middle Ages,’ Crying in the Middle Ages: Tears of History, ed. Elina Gertsman (New York: Routledge, 2012), xxi-xxx.

* * * * * * * *

Session Two: Tuesday, October 9, 1.15 – 4.15
Room 209 (Old Arts)

We’ll supply tea/coffee and cake.

Part One: Private Grief


Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, Vol. 14, 237-258. http://www.barondecharlus.com/uploads/2/7/8/8/2788245/freud_-_mourning_and_melancholia.pdf

Shakespeare, Hamlet (any edition).

Melancholia, dir. Lars von Trier (2012). Check out this YouTube trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzD0U841LRM; and we’ll try and screen selected scenes.

Gail Kern Paster, ‘The pith and marrow of our attribute: dialogue of skin and skull in Hamlet and Holbein’s The Ambassadors,’ Textual Practice 23.2 (2009): 247-265.

Part Two: Public Shame


Sara Ahmed, ‘Shame Before Others,’ in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004).

* * * * * * * *

Session Three: Monday, October 15, 11.00 – 2.00
 Potter Gallery
(luncheon arrangements to be determined)

Part One: Emotions and Images

Heather Gaunt of the Potter Gallery will lead discussions of selected works in the Potter collection

Part Two: Emotions and Objects

Guy Fletcher, ‘Sentimental Value,’ The Journal of Value Inquiry 43 (2009): 55-65.

Roberta Gilchrist, ‘Magic for the Dead? The Archaeology of Magic in Late Medieval Burials,’ Medieval Archaology 52 (2008): 119-159.

* * * * * * *

Session Four: Tuesday, October 16th, 9.00 – 12.00

Part One: Where to from here?

Bring a text, an object, an idea, a source, a problem, and be prepared to introduce it for a few minutes.

Part Two: Research directions

Theorising happiness, and other emotions…

Monique Scheer, ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and is that what makes them have a history)?’ History and Theory 51 (2012): 193-220.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Solo Improvisation - 30.9.12

This is Joel playing to a tiny video recorder when the house was otherwise empty this afternoon. This is how he is getting through the rigours of his VCE year. He sometimes struggles to balance the need to practise and play so he can do good auditions for music degrees at the end of the year, with the need to study and revise for his upcoming final exams.

My mother and I watched this together tonight — my parents came up and drove me to a church in North Balwyn where I talked about the history of emotions project to their Sunday evening group — and Mum asked him if he was happy when he played. "Oh yes," he said in a heartfelt manner. Apart from the performer's anxieties and frustrations with wanting to do better. Still, I do think that fifteen minutes of utterly improvised and passionate music is no small feat at age 17.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Evolutionary Music

Sometimes, and especially after dinner in the evenings, Joel will mooch towards the piano and start to play. At this end of the day it will usually be free improvisation. He will simply start to play, sometimes after a moment's thought; sometimes immediately.

Tonight, as the kettle boiled for tea, he produced three minutes of accelerating, deepening, bubbling, rippling sounds, ending abruptly with a "click" as the water boiled.

But then, having made the tea, as his parents stretched out on the couch and a comfy chair, a new magic began.

Over a complex rhythmic bass pattern, the variations in the right hand began, overlapping and layering with the richest sounds. The lid was open and the sound filled the room. Waves and waves of echoing, woody piano patterns emerged, lit up by occasional moments of dissonance against the resonance and harmonic patterning. The rhythms were sharp and powerful; the melodies sweet and lyrical.

We are watching David Attenborough's Life on Earth (two weeks ago he'd improvised around the theme music), and had just watched the episode in which the Australian marsupials starred: all those tiny blind creatures crawling toward the pouch. I could not help but contrast the complex life-form before me: full of teenage anxiety, conflict and doubt (someone he knows, of his age, has recently died after enduring depression), yet producing this confident, emotional music. I'd look over and see his head bent down, Keith Jarrett style, as he rocked and swayed into the music. I'd catch his father's eye, and we'd raise our eyebrows together in mutual wonder.

When he'd finished (my tea was almost cold before I drank it), he spoke about the music, how he was experimenting in the right hand with melodies oriented around a semitone higher than the dominant key in the bass; how he was thinking about Attenborough's world: the earth as planet and as eco-system, with all its life forms.

I have a hundred mundane tasks to complete, but don't know where to begin with any of them.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Little updates

Wow, I could hardly remember how to sign in: it's been so long.

What's been happening? Here's a YouTube version of my book launch:


And here's a link to my fundraising page for my Very First Ever Fun Run this Sunday. I am going to run 10 kilometres around the Botanical Gardens and back and forth along the river, and am fund-raising for Amnesty. Donations have ranged between $2 and $500, and I am hoping to make it to $2000:


So I have been training.

I have been battling a thousand cumbersome university administration matters. Nothing is straightforward; there is usually no one who will do it for you; and it is never done right the first time. It gets bounced around from office to office then sits on someone's desk for three weeks. Sigh. Groan.

I am also writing. I am late sending my paper to the discussion group I'll be part of at the Chaucer conference in two weeks. Will get back to it in a second.

I have also committed myself to so many talks I lose track of them.

I've also discovered there is something like a 100% mark-up on the Australian distributor's price of my book.

I am also the mother of a 17 year old VCE student. I'm not going to say any more about that...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

End of the story

It started as just a chapter in a proposed book on medievalism and gender, but Simon encouraged me to ditch the other chapters and just work on this chapter on the Order of the Garter. Even back then I knew I wanted to focus on the myth, whether true or no, of the Garter's origin in a embarrassing incident involving a piece of underwear dropping off in public. And I knew I didn't want to write a 'straight' historical narrative. Anyway, like most books it took rather longer than I thought to fall into place. I had more material than I could really use, and left out lots of things, but to no great regret so far.

No reviews yet, and I await them with predictable apprehension.

In the meantime, there is much pleasure to be had from finishing this big book. For a start, its gorgeous cover: the wicked leering glance of the Prince Regent awaking the Spirit of Brighton, wearing nothing but pretty shoes, pretty wings and his Garter regalia. After all, it must be worn at all times: you're naked without it.

There is pleasure from celebrating its launching. I don't know why I didn't have a launch for the Chaucer book, but I made up for that by having two for this one. One in Sydney, and one in Melbourne. Both were enjoyable, though I was somewhat nervous before the Melbourne one and then hardly slept at all the night after. So much adrenaline racing around.

But I was buoyed by the warmth of family and friends. What a luxury to be surrounded by people who understand what it means to write a book like this. My mother phoned a few days ago to say
how much she was enjoying reading it. So that's good.

I am having trouble sorting these pictures from the Melbourne launch into sequence, and they may appear a little odd in the final formatting, but this is me and Deirdre Coleman, my dear friend and colleague, who was the MC. And the book in Melbourne was launched by Brien Hallett. Brien and I were undergraduates together, and as you can see, he is now the Usher of the Black Rod in the Senate. Black Rod's a Garter official dating from the fourteenth century, so there were some lovely circles and loops being tied that night. 

I have also done a little publicity for the book. Penn started a "vulgar board about the Order of the Garter" on Pinterest; I wrote a piece for the Daily Beast; and did a little QandA for The Age. Readers of Humanities Researcher provided support, community, distraction and inspiration. You read chapters, you provided images and ideas, and I came here often as refuge. Thank you. 

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Gloria mundi

Yes, yes, I knew all about it. Little black planet looping around the sun. See it now — or eight years ago — and never see it again. Though the 'seeing' would be so heavily mediated you may as well watch it on TV or a computer animation.

Still, once invited to a Transit of Venus party/fundraiser with readings and music, I started to take a bit more interest, not least because Joel would be on the performers' list.

I worked at home this morning, one eye on the sunny sky out the window; the other on the ipad streaming a shimmering image from the ABC science website. The camera angle adjusted occasionally, so it felt quite real, or at least, happening in real time, as the white numbers flickered and turned over. The sun appeared surprisingly solid, and the planet surprisingly determined as it made its way across.

At lunchtime I ran along the river, thinking about the insignificance of the little email worries and all the messy tangled business of our lives as the planets and stars wheeled above and around us. It clouded over as I went upstairs to change, and I listened to the radio. Someone said what I had heard a hundred times before, that the planet would not pass this way again in our lifetime, and I couldn't help give out a little sob. Suddenly, the whole momentousness of the occasion got the better of me.

I arrived at the party in the middle of a talk about the transit, but because it was sunny I was directed over the road to the little park opposite where there were a couple of big telescopes, binoculars and sun-watching glasses, all set up for safe transit-watching. I looked through them all, and could see the small black dot moving, this time against a chill white background. What colour is the sun, really? Molten lava or white hot?

Back in the house, I settled down in the front room for a sequence of readings: the Age columnist reading about the way that cats have changed her sense of self in the world; the poet performing and singing poems of love in honour of Venus; the singer singing of bodies, private and public; the music teacher and composer playing beautiful compositions, built around an urban, and then a coastal landscape. Then Joel introduced and played his version of Talking Heads' 'Once in A Lifetime,' moving in and around its familiar chant refrain with his own rhythms and flights. Last night he'd played this and Miles Davis' 'Solar', and the beginning of his own Transit composition for us at home, but today he just played this one piece. He is full of plans for the future, this year. What form will his jazz studies take next? For him, the future stretches out brightly. He may not see the transit of Venus again, but there will be no shortage of other transits and transitions.

As I sat and listened to everyone, the sun was streaming into the front room of the house, an old corner shop. Normally the blinds are down, as people walk along both sides of the house, but the room had that open, raw, clean feel when you take down the blinds and curtains that normally filter light. From my cosy chair I could look across the park to see people still huddled in coats peering into telescopes, and passers-by lining up to ask for a look, too, and putting in money to the jar for the Greens local government campaign, the International Women's Development Agency and Solaraid (solar panels for Africa). The wind lifted people's hair and the sun threw white light around the falling leaves and the yellowing winter grasses.

But inside, in the safety and warmth of the front room, the little glasshouse on the corner, when the clouds moved on, the black dot of Venus had no power to stop the flood of warmth and light into the room. Facing west in the afternoon sun, as Venus slipped off the sun and back into daylight invisibility, it was easy to close our eyes and basked in the beauty of words and music, friendship and community. Sic transit...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Breath. Les voix d'enfants, chantant dans la coupole

My sister and two friends and I have children who sing. Not just singing in big choirs, or singing around the house, but singing in serious, career-forming ways. For example, a soprano doing post-post-graduate training in London; a twelve-year-old boy singing solos with the Melbourne Symphony, and appearing in the Magic Flute with the Australian Opera; another young soprano doing her A-level music; another singer/actor/guitarist hoping to build a career in rock music; and my own boy, juggling his love of piano and singing with the rigors of his final year at school. I haven't spoken with my sister about this, but I bet she feels the same as my friends and I do (I've had two conversations about this in the last two days). Without wanting to come over all schmaltzy and essentialist about it, there is something both terrible and wonderful about hearing the child of your body sing. Sure, it's a similar anxiety when they do an exam, or have to speak in public, or play an instrument in public, or do an exam. Your heart is in your mouth, and you want to hold them up and stand by them as they talk, or perform, whatever it is. And I bet all parents, not just birth mothers, feel this. But when they sing, there is something ... not visceral, but perhaps aspirant, about it. Pneumatic sounds too mechanical. There is something about the vulnerability of a young person singing, drawing in their breath with all the mysterious movements of bodily organs, muscles and bones, all still growing, and moving all the tiny muscles in the face to make sounds and channel the air into music, that simply takes the breath away. There is something, perhaps, about the exchange of breath, all those years ago. That moment when the newly born body begins to breathe on its own, when the mother, if she were able, would hold her breath to wait to see if it could, if she had grown lungs and heart strong enough to hold breath on their own. IN this clip, taken last weekend at the Mt Gambier jazz festival, there is nothing particularly spiritual or soulful about their singing. But there *is* something astonishing about seeing my boy crooning away here, playing out this role, holding those notes out to the end. Mind you, I also love these five girls, and all I hear about them. And Suzie, in the green dress at the end, makes me want to weep whenever I see her sweet face singing. So perhaps I am just a big ole mess of schmaltz, no matter what I say. I wish I had been there to see them.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Writing, but not blogging

Want to see what I've been writing lately? It's not too late to help out with suggestions... http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2012/04/fire.html

Monday, March 19, 2012

Gleeful: Never My Love

Joel's vocal group doesn't have a proper name yet. They don't wear a uniform: "performance black and grey" is the dress code, which can mean anything from a white shirt, a black miniskirt, a grey cardigan, a pretty brown dress with a hint of white petticoat. They have only just learned to bow properly, together, and have almost stopped messing with their hair between songs. Some are tall; and some are short.

For all that, their sound is warm and close: perfect for a capella traditions and competitions.

Last week they competed in the Get Vocal competition for school groups as part of a six day festival of concerts, workshops and competitions. They won their small division on Wednesday and last night were invited to perform at one of the closing night conferences.

First up was the group (from a school in the Yarra Valley: a most beautiful place) that placed first in the larger contest, and second in the division that our lot won. A bigger group, possibly slightly older, and looking for all the world as if, with the lighting and sound production of Glee, they would be contenders for television. Their act was choreographed and dramatic, and featured a Glee style mash-up, arranged by one of the boys, of "Crazy" and "Rolling in the Deep." The boys wore black suits, the girls wore black cocktail dresses, high heels, make-up, and white ribbons in their pretty spiffy hairstyles. Gorgeous to see. They did that Glee-style walking around, singing to each other business. They closed in a triangle formation and one of them courteously thanked their teacher and families, the concert and festival organisers. They sang about five songs. Some of their solos were very good indeed, and they rightly received rapturous applause.

The MC also raved about them, and expressed some surprise that they were beaten in one of the divisions. In spite of his disbelief, he nevertheless introduced the Princes Hill group.

They walk on. They are smaller, less formally dressed, less polished behind their mikes. But they open their mouths, and when they get to their first long sustained harmonic chord, you can hear the warmth and closeness of their sound, something that wasn't as evident in the other group.

They sing only two songs. I spent several hours last night trying to move a 7 minute video from my iphone to my computer, on outdated software. I'm only posting the first song, as the second they are working up for another competition in Mt Gambier in a few weeks. But here they are, with apologies for sound quality, and with shaky camera action stilled by YouTube. It's just a phone. Click through to full screen to see all seven of them.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Utterly incomprehensible interwebz joke

I *will* finish this chapter and this review this weekend. In the meantime, by way of a warm-up to fabulous writing, check out Still Life with Cat's utterly fabulous utterly incomprehensible interwebz joke:


Thursday, March 08, 2012

Stéphanie la deuxième

One of the great joys of the Centre of Excellence has been the appointment of nine fabulous post-doctoral fellows in various hubs of the Centre around the country. We have two at Melbourne: Sarah and Stephanie. Both are fabulous young women who are throwing themselves into the work of the Centre with such enthusiasm it is quite inspiring. They have their own projects to work on; they are establishing networks with other post-docs; they are going to conferences; they are helping us organise conferences; they will be doing a little graduate teaching; they are setting up reading groups; they are exchanging work for commentary and discussion; they are making our little suite of rooms feel like a very active and buzzing little hub.

Today was the first meeting of the Old French reading group Stephanie had organised, with the assistance of Véronique in the French department. There were a dozen people in the room, reading Marie de France's Laüstic, learning not to do eighteenth-century "r"s, counting octosyllabic lines, and looking at photocopies of the sole Harley ms., which also features the music and lyrics of "Sumer is i-cumen in."

Staff, post-docs, doctoral students, honours students, retired folk, all just concentrating together. A very happy hour, reminding me of the best things a university can be.

Monday, March 05, 2012

In which I go national

With thanks to the good people at the National Library, Humanities Researcher is now regularly being archived by Pandora. I'm quite chuffed at this. For a start, it means I don't have to worry quite so much about backing up or losing past entries in a blog meltdown. When I have a bit more time, I'm going to explore their site more thoroughly and see what other blogs they are archiving like this.

But in the meantime: what ho for national posterity!

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Day Surge

A minor operation. A procedure I've had before, in the same hospital, with the same gynaecologist. The worst thing beforehand was fasting after an early breakfast, and missing my 11.00 coffee. I picked Paul up from the airport after two weeks away, we ran a few errands, and then he dropped me at the hospital at 1.30. The Women's hospital is a new building, and I'm in the private ward, Frances Perry House. Everything is clean and calm; and there are no televisions. The nurses introduce themselves by name. I put on my robe and climb into bed under my white cotton blanket. The pale teal curtains are drawn around me. After a while there's a bit of a bustle, a trolley is wheeled in, and it's clear there's a new baby. I don't catch its name but it's named after its maternal grandfather, I hear the father say. I don't hear the mother speaking, but the baby is learning to feed, just practising, the nurses say.

After a while it's quiet again — they have gone back to the ward, I suppose — and Olivia comes to tell me there's a bit of a delay. I'm re-reading Nice Work for a new PhD class starting this week, but after a while I put it aside and sleep. The lights are bright, but it's been easy to slip into the passive role of good patient. I can't email, or hold meetings; I can't write. So I curl up and sleep, for close to an hour, I think — there's no clock — and wake to a gentle touch on my arm. It's Deborah, wearing her scrubs and surgical cap, telling me we'll be going in soonish: there was an emergency caesarean ahead of us. She's the most recent in a long line of wonderful medical practitioners I've met in the last six years: dry and warm (speaking humorally, I see). She is kneeling at my bedside as she wakes me. What a simple thing to do: how little she loses in status by doing so; how much she gains my trust.

I love the feeling of being looked after by this team of competent calm professionals: male receptionist; female nurses; male orderly; female gynaecologist; male anaesthetist.

Graeme comes to take me into surgery, with a new white cotton blanket, which he has warmed up. I meet Andrew the anaesthetist and he and Deborah and I chat about the Melbourne model and the loss of the old Arts/Medicine degree. Another nurse deftly plants sensors on my chest, and before I know it, they have attached me to the drips. I have had almost no experience with hallucinogens in my modest life, and so am curious about the moments before unconsciousness. I keep my eyes open, looking at the white pipes across the ceiling, the lights above me, and hearing Andrew's voice. I think briefly about Michael Jackson. Then, I guess, my eyes roll back, and I'm gone.

I wake. Someone — is it Deborah? — is telling me everything went very well. I think I am back in the ward, but I hear someone telling me they are about to move me back into "day surge". I don't remember the journey, and it takes me a long time to wake up and sip some water. Later on, a cup of tea, some salty biscuits (bliss!) and a sandwich.

Another baby arrives, just with its father: the mother is still in surgery, I think. This baby is called Philip. The father is teacher at a boys' school and tried hard to find a name not shared by any of his students. The baby has a funny little cry, like a chicken... It's not at all disturbing to my calm, to hear the sounds of happy parents. The baby's big sister, five years old, has no idea, apparently, that a baby is arriving today.

I'm home by 7.30 and even manage to sit up for pizza night. Two days later, my legs still feel a bit wobbly, but it's much better than the last time I had a general anaesthetic, when I felt teary and miserable for nearly a week.

This was a diagnostic procedure, just to make 100% sure the observable and measurable after-effect of Tamoxifen on the endometrium isn't malignant. I'm expecting nothing but good news.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Flying, mortality, perspective

A lightning fast trip to Sydney I did *not* have time for, given the terrible juggling of writing and reading deadlines I am trying to wrangle at the moment.

The plane flew in low over the suburbs, not along the coast as I'm more used to: all the little houses lined up, shuddering each time the planes fly over. Taxi to hotel, walk to dinner with colleagues (where I disgraced myself, I suspect, hogging 90% of the gorgonzola pannacotta on our shared tasting plate), walk back, sleep soundly, walk to campus, walk into the beautiful old quadrangle building

for an all day meeting, discussing the government cuts to the organisation's fundings, and cutbacks and suspensions of many of its most useful programs. A 30 minute lunch break — no time for a walk in the sun as I usually insist on in all-day meetings — then back into the air-conditioned, very claustrophobic room. The air-conditioning made a continuous low reverberation, like a car running, that made my brain seem to vibrate, all day. Then at 4, we jumped into cabs then back to the airport. No time, obviously, to catch up with Sydney friends, I'm sorry.

During our dinner I heard about a colleague who'd lost a child in traumatic circumstances several years ago, and the devastation that was still spreading rings around everything. It sat with me all through the meeting yesterday. And yesterday evening as we flew into Melbourne around 7.00pm the flight took us low over a little cemetery. Very small, but the little tombstones so distinctively small and grey in a landscape of houses like the Sydney ones. Cemeteries usually appear as grey blurs from the air, and on google maps, but we were very low, so you could see the miniature streetscapes. I think you fly over another cemetery as you fly into Adelaide. This one seemed particularly small: a little village of the dead under the bustle of folk itching to get out their mobile phones and reconnect with the world.

I drove straight to the school, for a meeting led by its extraordinary principal about a trip he leads to PNG every three years or so. They stay in villages (boys in the men's hut; girls in the women's), and work with communities, and also attempt an overnight 5 hour hike up Mt Wilhelm, comparable to the Kokoda trail (one guide per three students). This trip is not about tourism, or buying souvenirs, nor is it about testing yourself against the elements, it's about building a relationship between the school and this village, and with the students and staff who go.

If Joel goes, he will perhaps be seeing dawn on Mt Wilhelm the day his VCE results come out. Now there's a perspective.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Jury service

Write, write, have a little holiday, write, pause to process a thousand emails, write, write, have big ambitious thoughts, have a possibly serious and threatening brush with post-Tamoxifen side-effects, then write some more.

And then, today: jury duty. I've never been called, not once, so was curious, though very scared of getting empanelled in a long trial. In the end, you actually have very little say over what happens. I was in the County Court, a rather nice modern building opposite the old Supreme Court, with 200 others, all under the care of an astonishing jury pool supervisor, who kept us informed, described procedures in crystalline clarity, made us laugh, and took all the uncertainty out of the process. So lovely to see someone loving their job and being great at it.

I chatted to her at one point (my occupation was first listed as teacher of English to non native speakers, and she then changed my "professor of medieval literature" to "university professor) and she had done teaching and librarianship at Melbourne, and had travelled a fair bit too. She told me when she took her husband on his first overseas trip, it was Hadrian's Wall and Stonehenge that really blew him away. There you go, with that medieval stone thing again.

Anyway, the people who had to return from yesterday were being empanelled for a TWELVE WEEK trial. The longest one for us was about three weeks. Were any of us wanting to be excused? As we were waiting, I'd phoned my gynaecologist, and confirmed some minor diagnostic surgery* in three weeks' time, so I felt I could legitimately say I couldn't guarantee to keep that time free.

Then I was called for a shorter, civil trial. Thirty of us lined up to be called for a jury of six. This was after a great deal of elaborate, but also efficient calling and registering of numbers and a lovely old wooden box from which they drew the numbers.

We all lined up and were taken into court. Judge, wearing wig and purple robe; two bewigged male barristers, two unwigged male ones, and two elegantly dressed female associates. The judge explained the case (an OHS one) and read the list of witnesses. We were then asked to excuse ourselves, and a few people did. I bit the bullet and said I was "present." But then one of the self-excusers said she had a holiday booked the same day as my surgery, and she was excused, even though the judge said it was unlikely the case would still be going. But then I changed my "present" to "excuse". I don't want to put off the procedure any longer. We then watched as 12 names were drawn, and the two sides had the change to remove three names (they'd all turned to look at us as their names and occupations were read out), then six were chosen and sworn in, and the rest of us went downstairs.

By then it was lunchtime and so I went out and bought a pair of shoes (I don't normally shop in the city, but it was FABULOUS! so many shops! so many sales! Spanish fabric wedge pumps reduced from $315 to $75!!!). We all turned up again at 2.00, hung around for half an hour and were then let go. I could tell Pauline didn't want to let us go. She was like a great tour guide, or a lecturer, actually. She told me she loves it best when she is managing big groups. She would have been looking forward to tomorrow, when she will have about 400...

Well, I'm glad, now, I don't have to do it, because there is a fair amount of writing to be done. There are three facebook friends all waiting for me to get on with it, so I'm back on to it now.

*seriously, just minor. So far, I have dodged the big bullet that seemed to be heading my way.

Friday, January 20, 2012

That horrible moment when...

You know the drill. You've submitted your thesis to the examiners, or your essay or book has gone through final proof stage when ... you discover a book published ten years ago on exactly your topic that for some reason you never came across and have taken no account of.

Resigned to the worst, I trudge over to the library to find the offending, newly discovered volume, and turned with foreboding to the index. Sure enough, lots of ominous entries for "Garter, Order of the." I turn resignedly to the most substantial looking, but wait: Caroline Shenton can't possibly have written TWO articles on Edward III's collection of leopards in the Tower of London? Hooray, it's a book (Heraldry, Pageantry and Social Display in Medieval England, ed. Peter Coss and Maurice Keen), which I read in St Louis in 2005. And yes, it's in my bibliography.

This is not to say I won't yet discover something I should have read. It's inevitable, really. But today, this Friday afternoon, I feel I have definitely dodged a bullet.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Audio, video, Wagner: face, dream, Melancholia [SPOILER ALERT]

Last week, three immersion experiences: painting, experimental video-audio art, and cinema.

I am sitting for (I learn that "to" is also acceptable, though somewhat precious) a painter friend who is returning to portraiture after a few years painting in other genres. I sat for Kristin many years ago, and am once more enjoying the afternoons in her studio. We used to be neighbours and regular walking companions though we have fallen out of the habit somewhat in recent years. But we still are comfortable chatting away. I sit with my back to the garden.  Kristin alternates sitting and standing before her easel on the first day, which produces three drawings which I really like. The next day she starts with the oils, and things don't go so well. The third day is more promising, though I haven't yet looked to the other side of the easel to observe progress. I went back yesterday, and she thinks she will be done with one more sitting. Here are a few links to websites featuring her work: here and here. And at this site you can see what Kristin sees when she looks past me into her garden. It's a difficult, difficult art, moving and layering the paint so it produces ... not just a face, but my face. In previous years, when doing portraits, Kristin has used photographs, and indeed much of her recent work has been directly from or about photographs. But this time there is nothing mediating between her eye and the paint. It's never boring. I feel a bit like a cat, sitting still and watching someone working. It's actually rather lovely to sit still (or chat, or listen to the blackbirds in the garden — the Beresfords, they are called). And when there is nothing to say, there is always that still point behind Kristin's ear to look at, and to try and imagine what my face looks like, when I'm holding it still, without a mirror.

On Thursday, I went to another friend's collaborative video-audio installation/performance. A series of meditative video- and soundscapes: Alternate. A small group met in the foyer of the old Commonwealth Bank in Bourke St. Built in 1941, its stern marble was forbidding. Jessie came down to meet us, wearing her blue flannel dressing gown and carrying a little candle/lamp. Quietly she led us into the lift and up six floors, and then down four flights of stairs. We sensed the moving up and down, but also the ritual form of the journey, the stilling of the mind, even while our bodies were still moving. We removed shoes and bags, and then spent an hour in various rooms in the large studio, lying, or sitting, and watching, dreaming and meditating about the space and the sound of a dream. Or the idea of a dream represented in sound. We collected fragments of text from other people's dreams on tiny cards, and wove them into our own silent dreamings, as we puzzled over Alice's extraordinary vocal performances coming from the next room. In one room we watched a slowly-moving face, its features re-organised so the mouth sat above the eyes, which just ... was. Not speaking, just breathing slowly, rather like me being painted by Kristin, I suspect.

Then on Monday, Kristin and I went to see . Warned to sit at the back, in case of motion sickness produced by lots of handheld camera action, we didn't suffer, or feel too bad, or have to leave, as I have heard many have to. The first sequence is, as everyone agrees, mesmeric. One of the most astonishing cinematic sequences imaginable. Probably this is pirated but there is a clip on YouTube: (
[don't watch if you are going to see the movie: it would be so much better on big screen and with big speakers].

Kristin pointed out immediately the two sets of shadows in the formal garden shot, early in the film: the sun and the newly discovered planet Melancholia, seemingly on collision course with the earth, casting opposite shadows. It was strange sitting next to her, when I remembered she had painted a series of paintings of brides in formal gardens: white tulle and satin against rich dark green trees. Melancholia had the same strong visual quality. But as a two-part narrative, it also juxtaposed the stories of the two sisters, held together around the themes of depression, melancholia, ritual, and the proper way of doing things. There were also family narratives.

I loved the movie. The wedding gone wrong; the frustrations of a difficult family member; the relations of sisters; the portrait of depression and the character unable to simply snap out of it; the desire for appropriate ritual practice, whether for a wedding or the end of the world. The visual imagery is superb: the crush of a wedding gown in the car; the candlelit balloons floating up into the night sky; the small boy peering through a handmade loop of metal to measure the approach of the blue planet. Traumatic glimpses of family life: the disenchanted mother; the helplessly libidinous father; the resentful, wealthy husband. The tantalising absence of "the world", with only brief allusions to the village, the internet. The music. Wagner's Tristan overture is probably a cliche; but it is so fitting here I cannot imagine any other orchestral score could suffice.

And of course, the big blue planet, Melancholia. Luminous, lustrous, inexorable. From a distance, burning red. As it comes closer, it's moonlike: compelling, and mostly seen in full. It's not revolving around us, but heading towards us. Its light is soft and blue. Why would you not want to lie naked in its light?

The blue planet haunts most people who see this movie. Its devastating final moments are telling, in terms of the narrative development of the main characters. And then, stillness. No more Wagner. No more art. No more.

Broader, deeper meanings? Some will be frustrated by the film's blithe disregard of the usual disaster movie psychodramas; and of course, by its disregard of realist conventions. Some by its refusal to talk about what it is doing. But it is, all the same, bristling with communications. The endless filling up of a day, a life, with ... stuff: rituals, eating, drinking, bathing, and ceremony of various kinds. In such a world, a blue planet both gives meaning, and takes meaning away.

Is it a medievalist film? Clare and Louise on facebook are suggesting that, perhaps. There is the medievalism of Wagner, the apocalypticism, the Breughel painting; perhaps the medievalism of the great house's architecture. For me, though, the film is little concerned with time, or historicity or periodisation, or the kind of dialogism I associate with medievalism. It is more about the frailty of almost all human projections.