Archive for January, 2011

Warning: spoilers and ranting ahead.

Yesterday, Toby and I braved the half-hour bus trip in to Dundee to see Tangled, being as how the little cinema in St Andrews doesn’t do 3D. It was, undeniably, a very pretty film, and I enjoyed it while it was on. I laughed or felt moved at various points, I appreciated the visual aesthetic – but when it was over, all I could think of was how many aspects of it had been wrong, annoying or outright troublesome, such that now, it retrospect, it mostly makes me angry.

For starters, there’s the songs. Now, not only was I brought up to love vaudeville, musicals and musical comedy, but I also own the Disney Singstar game. I have watched the Buffy musical upwards of fifteen times, and I can sing the entire score to Cats. I am not biased against singing in cinema! But in Tangled, not only are the lyrics deeply mediocre, but the songs themselves come at weird moments in the film; moments where the the music tells us nothing that we can’t already see on screen, or where the lyrics are little more than fluffy dialogue. Watching the opening scene, where Rapunzel sings about the tedium of her daily life while simultaneously enacting the lyrics, I was struck by the sense that I was watching Disney meddle in a Pixar montage. Think of those early moments in The Incredibles where Bob struggles to fit in his cubicle and the ongoing battle he has with his shonky car door; think of Wall-E’s repetitive cube-folding and treasure-salvaging. That balance of silence, poignancy and humour is a Pixar trademark, and so I can’t help thinking that if, instead of listening to a cheerful, whimsical musical number, we had just seen Rapunzel going about the same daily routine in silence – sometimes to a physically comical effect, but mostly not – we would have learned more about her character, and come to love her more deeply, than the song itself permitted.

Even without this suspicion, later songs, such as the two variants on ‘Mother Knows Best’, remain deeply unoriginal, no matter how prettily sung. There is no wordplay, no musical complexity – nothing to make them the kind of song you’d sing at a karaoke night or hum to yourself on the bus – and if you think about golden age Disney films like Pocahontas and¬†The Lion King, both of which won Academy Awards and Golden Globes on the strength of their music, there’s no good reason why this should be so, except that very little effort was put into making them. Even ‘I See the Light’, the big romantic duet – which, in fairness, has been nominated for both those awards – is so utterly reminiscent of Aladdin’s ‘A Whole New World’ that I keep getting them mixed up in my head, the chorus of one bleeding into the memory of the other. Compare the lyrics – particularly the use of ‘crystal clear’ as a key rhyme ¬†– and you’ll see what I mean. (Also, they sing the song while in a boat, at night, on a lake, and have their first kiss prevented by external villainy. Copying¬†The Little Mermaid, much?)

But what irritated me most about the singing? Is the way it was used to rob Rapunzel of competence.

Midway through Tangled, there’s a point where Flynn, sick of babysitting a girl with zero experience of the outside world, tries to scare her into going back home. His does this by taking her to the roughest, toughest bar he knows and telling Rapunzel before they go in that it’s a quiet, normal place, and that if she can’t handle it, she’s not going to be able to deal with going any further. Inside, the bar is full of stereotypical, scar-faced, hulking goon-warriors, most of them dressed like Vikings in leather and horns, weapons akimbo. The plan to get in and out goes awry, however, when the ruffians realise that Flynn is a wanted man and potentially worth a lot of money to them. Everyone starts grabbing him; Rapunzel is forgotten – until she starts yelling at them all to let Flynn go, because he’s taking her to the one place she’s always wanted to see, and don’t any of them have a dream? And because this is a Disney film, the answer to that question is yes, they do: every single meathead in the place wants to be a concert pianist, a mime, an interior decorator or a lover, they all start singing along with Rapunzel,¬†and by the end of ‘I’ve Got a Dream’, everyone is so moved that when the authorities come to arrest Flynn, the ruffians show the pair of them a secret tunnel under the bar, thus allowing them to escape.

It’s a funny scene. I get that. The song was arguably the best in the film. But afterwards, when Flynn changes his attitude and starts to respect Rapunzel as someone worthwhile, it’s not because she’s done something that can actually be called smart or impressive, even though we’re meant to think it is. After all, didn’t she save the day? Yes, she didbut not by being competent. What she did was bring the reality-warping magic of a Disney princess to bear on a situation that, in any other instance, would have resulted in a far worse outcome. Even by the standards of a children’s fantasy world, Rapunzel does something stupid: despite being brought up to believe in the existence of criminals who would hurt her given half a chance, her first and only tactic is to appeal to their better natures with a single, pleading sentence. She does not trick them, thereby proving her smarts. She does not purposefully seek to manipulate their emotions, which would have been a subtler and better way to reach the same outcome, and which she later does to win Maximus to their cause. She does not cause a distraction, thereby allowing Flynn to gain the upper hand. She does not cause the men to underestimate her. Instead, her princessness causes a song to be sung which, despite all available logic, gets them out of trouble.¬†And this means that, even though she then goes on to do something genuinely clever and brave – using her hair to swing them both out of danger – we are still left with a sequence of events where Flynn accepts her as competent, not because of the actual competent thing she did, but because of a ridiculous, stupid and lucky thing over which she had no control.

Early Disney princesses are predominantly passive characters. That changes as time goes by: the girls get stronger, more self-sufficient, and even though all the princess stories still use the same narrative arc – a naive girl yearning to explore the wider world is guided through an adventure by a handsome man, who she marries at the end – you can still see the marks of progress. It might be significant, therefore, that Disney has been wanting to do a Rapunzel movie since the forties. But even though the director of Tangled, Nathan Greno,¬†says that Disney “wanted to make Rapunzel a very smart, strong girl,” what they’ve actually done is created the most passive princess in decades.

Ignoring Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora – who appeared between 1937, 1950 and 1959 respectively, and whose passivity can therefore be blamed on the social mores of past eras – all other Disney princesses have agency. Tiana (The Princess and the Frog, 2009) is a hard-working career woman; Jasmine (Aladdin, 1992) escapes a palace under her own steam and refuses to marry where she does not love; Belle (Beauty and the Beast, 1991) rides out solo to rescue her father, then makes a deal with a monster to see him set free; Ariel (The Little Mermaid, 1989) disobeys her family and gives up everything to learn about a different world.

But Rapunzel is too terrified to leave her tower without Flynn’s help. She prances around like a ninny, alternately revelling in her freedom and then sobbing about what her mother will think without ever demonstrating any notable intelligence. When the wicked Mother Gothel tells her stolen daughter that she’s naive, dreamy and unfocussed, we’re meant to think it spiteful and false, but in reality, Rapunzel’s behaviour doesn’t contradict these labels. There are exactly two points in the story at which she does something useful – rescuing them both with her hair, then talking Maximus into an alliance – but these are not what define Flynn’s belief in her competence, and at neither time does she display any self-awareness beyond her usual wide-eyed cheer. And when, finally, we come to the big finale, it is Flynn’s actions which undo Mother Gothel, denying Rapunzel the catharsis of defeating a woman who was only ever her demon to defeat – ¬†not his. The fact that Flynn’s character is an underdeveloped would-be Aladdin for most of the film only makes it more offensive that he and the horse Maximus dominate the advertising: even the title was changed from Rapunzel’s name to the more ambiguous Tangled in the hopes of attracting male audiences. Which is where I start to blame Pixar, rather than Disney – because Disney, at least, have a track record of creating decent female characters, while Pixar, despite all its success and accolades, not does not.

Uncomfortably, my verdict is that Tangled is representative of the worst failings of both companies. Left to their own devices, Disney can write about women (sort of), adapt fairy-tales and score fun, light-hearted, memorable songs. Left to its own devices, Pixar can create strong original stories, write witty banter and construct emotional scenes that work on different levels for both children and adults. We’ve seen them work successfully together writing stories aimed primarily at boys, whose protagonists are overwhelmingly male and non-human –¬†Cars, Wall-E, Up,¬†Toy Story 3but Tangled, which was meant to be their debut effort at writing for and about women, fails. Rapunzel is almost entirely absent from the trailers promoting her own movie because she gets no witty lines, no banter, no moments of strength or humour that can be used to sell a film – and what’s worse, if the differences between so many of the trailer clips and the scenes which actually made it into the movie are anything to go by, this has resulted as much from a process of nervous, fearful erosion of the character as much as from forward planning.

The closing joke of Tangled is like a metaphor for these failings. As Flynn narrates the happily ever after, he finally reaches the question of marriage – did he and Rapunzel ever end up hitched? “Well,” he says, “it took a long time and many, many refusals, but eventually, I said yes.” Which is character-appropriate and funny and a great way to end – right up until Rapunzel chimes in to reassure us that actually, he asked her. And even though I understand that this line is meant to be an added joke on Flynn, catching him out in a lie about his feelings, what it ends up affirming is the idea that of course Flynn proposed to Rapunzel, because he’s the man and she’s the woman¬†and that’s how these stories go, and given how passive she’s been throughout, why should that change at the finale? Just letting the joke sit there without comment, or having Rapunzel’s comeback be that she only had to ask Flynn once, is apparently too radical a notion.

Throughout this review, I’ve barely touched on the character of Mother Gothel, the woman who stole the infant Rapunzel and raised her in isolation so that she, and she alone, could use the magic of her hair to stay young forever. And that is because, quite simply, she barely exists. Unlike virtually every other Disney or Pixar villain, we never see her in isolation, plotting her schemes or learning her motivation; we see her alone once, but the point of that scene is only to show us that she knows Rapunzel is gone, and not as a means of developing her character. She is a shell, constantly sniping at her daughter about her ugly looks (what!?) and stupidity in a chirpy, passive-aggressive way, and despite all the possible richness of making her a complex villain, a woman who loves the child she raised but is still unable to let her go, this never eventuates, turning her into yet another example of the film’s failure to either write about or understand women.

And now, looking ahead at what will be their next joint offering – Brave, a film that was meant to be the first instance of a Pixar film with a female director, but which now isn’t – I wonder: will it be more of the same? Or can the studios take a lesson from Tangled, and realise that female characters can be just as interesting, witty, complex and compelling as their male counterparts? If they actually take a risk in this department, rather than fearfully pulling their punches, it will work; if they don’t, they’ll break their own magic forever. Disney managed to write strong women with Atlantis, Mulan and Pocahontas. Now it’s Pixar’s turn.

So, OK. As those of you who’ve known me for any length of time can attest – and as I have once or twice admitted in the writing of this blog – I am a zeusdamn stubborn, conservative person. It is actually very irksome! Because stubbornness and conservatism are not behaviours I consciously cultivate; are in fact the very antithesis of the behaviours I like, let alone try to cultivate; and yet they are apparently innate enough that I am constantly forced to suspect myself of them, to press the ever-present bruise of my own laziness in order to determine whether I am being honest and discerning as opposed to reactionary and biased at any given time. As I am simultaneously the kind of person who goes around recommending books and films (for instance) to all and sundry with the expectation that they start to adopt my tastes, this makes me very close to belonging to two categories of person with whom I am otherwise deeply uncomfortable: hypocrites and preachers.

My only saving grace is the fact that I recognise this at least some of the time, and am actively struggling to change. But for most of my life, that hasn’t been true, with the end result that now, slightly less than a month out from my 25th birthday, I’m starting to wonder exactly how many awesome things I’ve been missing out on for no greater reason than my own intransigence. Which is, itself, a conceit, because I mean, come on: twenty-freaking-five. It’s not like I’m Citizen Kane crying out for Rosebud on my deathbed, here. Despite the fact that I’ve been married for three and a bit years, and in serious relationships for five-odd years before that, and in the midst of becoming a published author for about two years, and have finished a Bachelors degree, and have moved first states and now countries, and held down a frankly surprising variety of the sort of jobs I never really knew existed until I started applying for them, and all the sort of gunk that seems to fill up your late teens and early twenties if you’re lucky enough to live in a first world nation where you speak the national language and have been relatively well-off your whole life and have never had to contend with poverty or civil war or persecution or any major trauma; despite all that, I am, by the standards of both my own culture and the scientific community, barely out of adolescence. I am young.

But I am also much less young than I was even a year ago, or the year before that, or the year before that; and even though as a teenager it would never have occurred to me that I could sit here and be almost 25 and¬†so very different now to how I was then, I can still – just – stretch to remembering my teenage self, her views and preoccupations and ignorances, without universally cringing at how utterly infantile and stupid they were, so that any sense I used to have that I was already grown up must only ever have been wrong. I feel torn: can I deny that I’ve grown since then, and that those changes have been increasingly positive? No, I can’t: but does that automatically mean that whatever I used to be is therefore rendered incorrect, reprehensible? Psychologists say that one of the key stages of childhood development is the tendency to first disdain and then throw away those trappings of whatever age we have just outgrown, like a fledgeling tweenager tossing out her toys. I must still be a child, then, because more and more, I feel like every step I take to change myself is simultaneously a battle to refrain from mocking, not plastic horses and skipping games, but previous ideologies.

Once, as a first year university student, I wrote an angry letter to a Sydney newspaper about its inflammatory coverage of a series of car crashes involving adolescent drivers. It was terrible, yes, and those people had been stupid, but their reactionary condemnation of all youthful drivers – the suggestion that driving curfews be implemented, limitations imposed on the ability of teens to carry passengers – was out of line. No matter how much they raised the age limit for acquiring a driving license, I argued, and even taking into account whatever risk-taking predispositions we could all agree were more likely in the young, a significant part of the problem would still be inexperience behind the wheel. Some things you simply cannot learn through shortcuts, or any way but the hard way: sooner or later, we all make mistakes, because suffering their consequences is how humans learn, and even if nobody was ever allowed in a car before the age of 27, new drivers would still account for their fair share of accidents. Not because of their age: because they were new. And in the mean time, given that adult drivers would continue to account for the other eighty-something percent of accidents, what would happen if we broke the statistics down into age brackets? Would we find that the most elderly drivers were the least accident-prone, or that the probability of accidents would regularly decrease with age? Does getting older always make you better?

Turning five did not make me morally superior to my two-year-old self; just older and physically different. Turning fifteen did not make me morally superior to my twelve-year-old self;¬†just older and physically different. The same will be true again when I turn twenty-five, and thirty-five, and every age after that. In so many of these blogs, I’ve written about the frustrations I felt as a teenager, how it was hard to get adults to take me seriously and how they all appeared to have gone through a brainwashing machine at some point or emerged fully formed from alien pod-plants. Even though I could understand things at fourteen that were incomprehensible to my four-year-old self, that greater proximity to the adult world made it seem as though adulthood was a static realm towards which I was both inexorably travelling and closer to reaching than ever, so that any suggestion of considering how much I’d already changed as a way of anticipating how much farther I had yet to go would have seemed futile, insulting; as though, on the cusp of adulthood, I still deserved to be reminded of – judged by – those things I’d outgrown;¬†as though I hadn’t really grown up at all.

Which, of course, I hadn’t, because the whole idea was a lie. Nobody ever grows up. We just grow. But our language, which betrays so much of culture, suggests otherwise: hierarchies are linear, top to bottom: growing up means growing better. Nobody grows down. And yet up connotes even more than that. It makes us think of a fixed destination when there is none; it makes us want to not only cast off who we were, but disparage it as unnecessary, as though the very notion of ever being someone else is embarrassing, taboo; as though that prior person were utterly unrelated to every single subsequent incarnation.

Tonight, I have been reading Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E Butler, a single novel made from the collection of a trilogy of novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. Having only just reached the start of the second of these, I came across a particularly beautiful quote. It is the reason I stopped to write this post; to consider why I had never read Butler before now, despite having heard of her, and to wonder if perhaps the reason I find her so moving, so compelling, is because I am reading her now. Would any of my earlier selves have understood?

Butler asks:

“Trade means change. Bodies change. Ways of living must change. Did you think your children would only look different?”

And I answer:

Not any more.

Since our arrival in Scotland, we’ve been introduced to a whole new suite of advertising, particularly through the miracle of digital TV. Three such ads, all of which are shown with hateful regularity, have been driving me absolutely nuts. They are:

Covonia Nose and Throat Morning

Reason For Suckage: Shows a black woman sick in bed, her hair in a natural afro state. After taking the medicine, however – surprise! Her hair has been straightened and coiffed to denote that she is now both healthy and professional. Oh, and she also meets western standards of physical attractiveness, as denoted by her white, male neighbour blowing her a kiss from his bath. Verdict: Racefail.

Kingsmill 50/50 Bread

Reason For Suckage: Dad comes downstairs for breakfast, where mum, already perfectly made up, is doing the ironing in the kitchen while the kids eat, because we have apparently been transported to the 1950s. Alas! Dad’s shirt is creased and he’s in a hurry, so mum offers to iron it – but because Kingsmill bread is so delicious, dad decides he’s got enough time to sit down to eat the toast his wife had made for herself. Both daughters giggle, and mum, smirking, takes her revenge by ironing a huge burn into the back of her husband’s white shirt, which he, oblivious, wears to work. Yes. Because passive-aggressive housewife rage at the selfishness of her breadwinner (HAH!) spouse is OH SO FUNNY. Verdict: erafail, and also feminismfail.

Feminax Express

Reason For Suckage: Boyfriend and girlfriend are watching TV on the couch. Boyfriend laughs at the show; cut to girlfriend scowling. Boyfriend inspects his fingernails; girlfriend’s scowl deepens. Then, because enjoying the show and staring at his hands apparently constitute a hanging offence – or, you know, ANY KIND OF PROVOCATION AT ALL – girlfriend pulls a lever on the lounge that catapults the screaming boyfriend out the window and into the wild blue yonder. As girlfriend stretches out, smiling, across the whole length of the lounge, the female voice over chortles: “If only getting rid of all pains could be as fast as Feminax Express!” Who says that PMS turns women into irrational bitches? Answer: advertising! And what’s more, girls, we should all be able to laugh about our crazy together! Verdict: feminismfail.

GAH. I mean, SERIOUSLY. Who are the braindead ad execs who greenlight this bullshit, and where do I queue for the privilege of kicking them in the face?

Ever since Worldcon, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to questions of race, not just in general terms, but with regard to the SF/F community and my place within it, as both a fan and a writer. I am white: depending on how expansive a mood I’m in and the context of the conversation, I have also been known to describe myself, cheerfully and with humorous intent, as a mongrel, being as how my immediate ancestry (parents, grandparents and great-grandparents) contains a mix of British, Scottish, Irish, German, Nordic and Mediterranean heritage. By birth, I am Australian, but I’d never consider that to be a race, because – well, it’s not, and I detest those movements which seek to define Australian nationalism and identity on the basis of a “shared” anglocentric background.

I grew up reading tales of history, myths and magic from around the world, which in turn fuelled my passion for fantasy – but though the mythology I read came from Asia, the Pacific, the Middle East, South America and Africa as frequently as from Europe, the Mediterranean, Britain or the Nordic countries, that difference in culture never quite translated to a difference in the range of fantasy on offer. Or at least, in nowhere near the same quantities. For every epic fantasy featuring POC characters and a non-medieval setting, there were twenty that didn’t. But because I was white; because we are all, more or less, egocentric creatures, and especially so when we’re young; because it never occurred to me that this was, in fact, a problem, I didn’t notice. I had blonde hair, pale skin and green eyes – why was it weird that the main characters in the books I read all shared a similar colouring? I won’t try and plead ignorance on the grounds that I lived in an entirely white neighbourhood or went to an entirely white school, because neither of those things are even remotely true. That’s not to say that I lived in a vibrant cacophony of cultural diversity, either. It just means that most of the people I knew were white, my family and their extended circle of friends were white, and I didn’t make any attempt to view these facts in the context of a wider culture, or literature, or anything.

I still had thoughts about race, of course. I was – am – opposed to racism, and whenever any sort of racial/cultural argument broke out among my friends, family or classmates, I was firmly situated on the side of diversity. But that’s as far as it went. Beyond asserting that racism was bad, acknowledging that a terrible history of white domination had caused this to be so and arguing that further instances of same should not be allowed to happen, I did nothing, because nothing in my daily life suggested it was necessary. I had never personally seen anyone being discriminated against on the basis of race or ethnicity, and unless you count the offhand tactlessness of teenagers mimicking the views of talkback radio or apeing¬†Family Guy jokes for comic effect, I had never been exposed to actual racist views in my social circle. What was there left for me to do? Everyone knew racism was a Bad Thing; the idea that it might still be going on was therefore incompatible with reality. ¬†Sexism, though – that, I could get really mad about, because despite the advent of feminism, I still knew what it felt like to be picked on by boys who didn’t like that I could beat them at cricket. Comparing these two views and noting the discrepancies therein didn’t even register as a concept.

Here is a truth of human existence: we do not see the bias in our favour unless we look for it, and we certainly don’t question our own privilege unless told to do so, because most of the time, we don’t even notice it’s there. The danger of being white and brought up to disdain racism is that you start to believe that not being a racist is simply achieved by asserting your lack of racism. You do not inquire further into the matter: why would you, when the bulk of that narrative makes you the historical villain simply by virtue of your skin colour? Isn’t that what racism is meant to avoid? Shouldn’t racial equality apply equally to you, too?¬†Isn’t it enough that you can walk down the street, being white and not feeling superior about it?

No.

No.

No.

I am not a perfect human being. I can acknowledge now – as I used not to be able to – that I sometimes have racist thoughts. They are lightning flashes, there and gone: the fear-whispers of the radio man, stored in memory like song lyrics and brought forth by triggers in the surrounding world. They are subconscious assumptions that I have to force myself to notice. They are subtle, and varied, and every time I catch myself in the act, I wince and think, Where did that come from? Why is it there, and how can I stamp it out? It makes me feel like a terrible person, but by acknowledging them, I force myself to realise that not being racist is more than just thinking, I am not racist, therefore I cannot possibly have racist thoughts, which is the most dangerous default of all.

A personal tipping point was ¬†M. Night Shyamalan’s¬†Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the racefail controversy which surrounded it. Not having seen the animated series, and being one of the minority who tends to like Shyamalan’s work, I reviewed the film in a fashion which was, overall, positive. But in doing so, I had to think about race more closely than I ever had before. What it boiled down to was this: I enjoyed watching the film, and did not like the idea that the reason I’d done so was an innate lack of racial sensitivity. Undeniably, the racefail issue was there, and a fascinating one to discuss – I’d known about it long before heading into the cinema. So what did it say about me, that I could still like something I knew was an act of whitewashing? I wrestled with that question for months after I wrote my review. I tried to find a way to reconcile my enjoyment with the film’s failings in a way that didn’t make me feel like a despicable person, and couldn’t. At the same time, I started watching the animated series, which – apart from being a million times better – showed me how the characters were meant to look. And that’s when it hit me: the real reason I hadn’t been outraged by the film was the expectation – the assumption – that characters in stories would¬†look like me. Without having seen the series, I had no expectations for the actors, and was therefore content to fall back on a default social setting. But ever since I finished watching the series, I look at stills from the film and think, wrong.

Since then, I’ve come to realise – or to remember, rather – that it’s perfectly possible to like some aspects of a story, but not all, and to argue vehemently against what distresses us for the sake of making the good things¬†even better by the future absence of suck. Just yesterday, I finished reading The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, and though I love his easy writing style and the imaginative storytelling, every piece of era-centric sexist, racist commentary made me want to hurl the book at the wall. Tonight, by contrast, I’ve been reading the blog of the wonderful N. K. Jemisin, whose brilliant novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I devoured late last week. Specifically, I’ve been reading this post on racism, and this post on comforting dystopias, and they are, in tandem, the reason I sat down to blog my own piece tonight. Because what I’m coming to realise is that being white and well-off ¬†is like living in a bubble, and that racism – and sexism, and homophobia, and all those other terrible creeds and isms – are like a raging river on which you float, unaffected. And if none of the river’s attendant perils threaten you personally – if you are not really interested in what goes on beneath your feet – then you will never notice the un-bubbled masses dashed against the rocks; or see the snares which threaten so many others; or worry about a shifting sandbank changing the course of the river; or spare a thought for those who drown, unable to fight the current. And even if you inflate your bubble with a spirit of kinship, love and charity, without that further awareness, you will be a lesser person than might otherwise be the case.

I had so much more I wanted to say, but it’s late now, and doing all those extra thoughts justice would take more energy than I currently possess. Instead, I’ll say this: think about the stories you encounter. Think about the things you don’t question. Ask if believing a thing is the same as embracing it actively. It’s hard to change yourself, true – but less difficult than admitting that you need to change at all.

Or, more specifically, St Andrews!

We have now been living here for nine days, in which time the following things have occurred:

  • Frolicking through the snow;
  • Jetlag recovery as aided by copious amounts of Top Gear;
  • The purchase of twelve novels from various bookshops;
  • Friendly drinks at several pubs;
  • Eating pheasant;
  • My catching a week-long cold;
  • Toby wearing plastic bags over his socks because his shoes leaked;
  • Befriending an astrophysicist;
  • Several successful dinner experiments;
  • Completely forgetting how the coin-operated washer/dryer system works, twice;
  • Yelling at the stove because the dials turn the wrong way, so that I keep setting them on low instead of high;
  • My old laptop catching a virus and dying in the arse;
  • The purchase of a shiny new laptop, on which I am now writing this blog post;
  • The inexplicable loss of my favourite smooshy purple knitted hat;
  • The discovery of a cafe that serves hot chocolate with marshmallows, whipped cream AND ¬†a chocolate flake;
  • One aborted trip to the movies, being as how it was too cold and we were knackered;
  • One sighting of a genuine Scottish gentleman wearing a genuine Scottish kilt;
  • The discovery that there is, lurking about somewhere, a town cat called Hamish; and
  • The acquisition of a very strange bird-puppet, which I have named Archie the Arche Mascot.

So, as you can see, it’s been a pretty packed program – even so, I apologise for the lengthy radio silence. Doubtless I’ll have more to say (and the strength/will to say it more coherently) at some later date, but in the mean time, here is a photo of Archie, who was given to me by a nice lady at one of the town’s ten charity shops.

Cheerful little fellow, isn’t he?

Prior to getting rid of my desktop computer this afternoon, I had to transfer a bunch of old files to my laptop. Mostly they were random photos, ancient word documents I wasn’t sure I’d archived anywhere else – and a folder of video diary entries I made throughout my second year as a college student, way back in 2005.

As memory serves, I first started making them as the end result of a thought process that went something like this:

1. What does my head really look like from the side? Whenever I see photos of me from that angle, I always look like a giant nose with a face attached. It’s sort of unflattering. I hope I don’t look like that all the time.

2. Can I see my sidelong profile in the mirror, ever?

*several failed attempts later*

3. No. Because my eyes are on the FRONT of my head. Because I am a PREDATORY MAMMAL, not a PARROT, despite my APPARENTLY GIANT NOSE. Also, I am an IDIOT.

4. But wait! I have a shiny new digital camera! I can take PHOTOS of my sidelong profile by holding the camera at arm’s length from the side of my head while looking in a different direction! Problem solved!

*several failed attempts later*

5. I AM STILL AN IDIOT.

*bing!*

6. Hey, I know! Why don’t I put the camera on top of my bookshelf and make a video of me moving around?

7. And if I’m going to go to all that effort, why don’t I talk about my life, too?

And thus, the video diary idea was born.

There are 33 entries, all taken between the 24th of April and the 28th of October 2005 – I saved each file according to time and date. The digital camera I used wasn’t particularly good, and I could only talk for about six minutes before the recording cut out, but despite all this, the results are fascinating. To me, anyway. I never posted them anywhere; they were only ever for my own enjoyment. It was a novel thing, being able to watch myself on film. My parents never owned a video camera when I was growing up, and until that point, I’d only ever seen stills of myself; or, if I were very lucky, a three-second cameo in some other family’s tape of a school event. When I rewatched each entry after making it, I remember being more interested in how I looked than what I was actually saying: not just on the level of a nineteen-year-old girl attempting to gauge her attractiveness, but how I moved, the way my eyes flicked sideways or down, how my mouth twisted or my hands moved. Even my voice, which always sounds deeper to me on tape than it ever does while speaking, was a source of interest. Trying to learn all the tricks of my own face – all the things that my friends and family must have known by heart, which in some ways defined me as much as my words or actions, but which were foreign to me – was both strange and compelling.

Now, almost six years later, my reactions to the entries have changed. I look at the girl I was then, and think:

I was so beautiful! What on Earth possessed me to think otherwise? Why did I constantly disparage myself?

I was so young! I look at teenagers now and there’s this freshness to them I sort of assumed was generational, but in those videos, I have it, too! Why do none of us realise it at the time?

I was so earnest! And awkward! But that self-conscious humour and weird, dreamy introspection, it’s all the seed of who I am now – I was still learning to be me. I just didn’t know it yet.

Did I really care about all those things that are so unimportant now, but which were so important then? How much of what’s important to me now will be just as unimportant in another five years? Or is it all important, always?

Did I have any inkling how significant that year would end up being? If I look hard enough, can I see it there? Could I ever have guessed?

This last is the thing that sticks with me most, which moved me to write this post. Because 2005 was, in many respects, the year that turned me into who I am now. I recorded the final entry the night I acquired my then-kitten, Quill, who crawls across my shoulders as I talk. I say that I’ve made the decision to defer my studies for 2006 in favour of finishing my novel, what I now refer to as the Great Unpublished Epic. Several times in earlier entries, I talk about Toby, the man who is now my husband, but who was then a friend and ex-roomate of my college boyfriend, Sean. I only watched a few entries tonight, but what struck me from that random selection was the number of times I mentioned doing something without Sean – usually karate lessons, which he’d started me on, but often seemed to ditch, at least by this subjective record – compared to the number of times I talked about doing things with Toby, like playing music or hanging out. A month later, beyond the scope of the video entries, Sean and I had parted ways.¬† By Christmas, Toby and I were living together. The next year, we saved our money and moved to Melbourne, where I finished my novel and, eventually, started the story that grew into Solace & Grief. The year after that, we were married.

I made a few more entries much later on, using the camera function on my laptopeleven in 2007, four in 2008 – but they weren’t the same. Lacking regularity or purpose, made in response to boredom and without the camera’s ability to cut me off if I waffled, they devolved into indulgent ramblings about whatever it was I thought interesting and profound at the time – topics which, in retrospect, usually weren’t. Given another few years, there’s every chance I’ll find them as interesting as the original 33, but right now, they’re just that little bit too recent for proper retrospect: the only lesson I can take from them now is that I’m not always as fascinating as I might think.

As I type this, I’m lying on a borrowed bed. The computer clock has just ticked on past 12AM: technically, it’s Wednesday already, which means that tomorrow night – Thursday night – we’ll board the plane for Scotland. Not a new life, because that implies escape, or erasure somehow, as though I were trying to forget Melbourne and what living here has meant to us. But a new start? Definitely. And with everything that entails – with the ghost of my teenage self still flickering in my vision – I think that, like 2005 before it, 2011 will be a year worth documenting, too. It just so happens that I received another new digital camera for Christmas: a belated replacement for the earlier model, which died some time ago. The new video function cuts out after eight minutes, not six. But then, I’m older now. Perhaps I’ll have that little bit more to say.

Something old. Something new. Something borrowed.

Something true.

This time last year, Toby and I were still in England. On New Year’s Day, we walked through the snow in Leatherhead, Surrey and talked about what we wanted most for 2010. Among the usual small hopes were two important ones: a successful debut for Solace & Grief, and a chance to come back to the UK. It’s taken a lot of hard work, but we’ve achieved both those things. The Key to Starveldt is due for release this year, and in just five days, we’re moving to Scotland for a minimum of eighteen months. It is thrilling, terrifying, wonderful. We worked hard for this, and the reward of actually getting it is monumental. And now we’ve crossed the threshold of another new year, and we get to do it all over again: more work, more plans, more effort and hope and sheer hard yakka, because both of us have the kind of dreams that are easy neither to achieve nor dismiss.

I want to be a professional writer. Toby wants to be a professional academic. In bald terms, we already are these things, but there are no laurels to rest on for being able to claim that much, and even if there were, I doubt we’d be content to do so. Stories are the blood in me, just as my husband breathes philosophy. We understand and love that about one another, the degree to which who we are cannot be readily separated from our aspirations. This year, we have a real chance to make something of ourselves in the ways that matter most to each of us. We have come this far, but the aim is to go much further. And I think – I hope – we can do it.

Beyond all that, I still want the same small things for 2011 that I want every year: to eat healthily and exercise regularly, to pay off our debts and live within our means, to try new things while reconnecting with old passions. It might seem repetetive and futile make the same resolutions each year – or at least, it would do, if any of them were finite achievements. The point of such things isn’t to find some magic, perfect level of successful compliance and declare yourself done, but to constantly look for improvement. This past year, my domestic skills have started to be worthy of the name, not because I suddenly woke up one morning with a desire to be tidy, but because I spent months telling myself that I needed to be. Because in a lot of ways, the biggest change of 2010 – and the one I’m most keen to uphold in 2011 – was the realisation that I could set goals for myself and reach them, even if they were difficult.

Maybe I’ve just grown up. But I hope not. I like having room for development.

Happy 2011, everyone!