Between love and love

I wrote a piece for the ABC’s The Drum yesterday on modern marriage, and one of the comments made me feel momentarily exasperated.

“The pro gay marriage lobby shows its stripes with this fluff piece arguing for redefining of marriage,” said Nathan, of Nowhere.

Sadly, I didn’t mention gay marriage in the piece at all.

I wrote that, given high domestic violence and divorce rates, and continuing house labour issues, could there be “a fundamentally different way to see marriage, not as a pledge between a husband and a wife to subliminally fulfill whatever the dominant gender ideas of the age are – to provide, to obey – but as a commitment between two people to respect each other.

Maybe there is something to be said for the idea that de facto couples seem to be more capable of negotiating areas of freedom because they haven’t bowed down to the institutional gendering of weddings, and the expectations they raise. Maybe the true measure of a modern marriage lies in the careful putting aside of gender binaries, of replacing ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ with ‘partner’ and ‘friend.’”

Obviously, if I’d been calling for the continuation of marriage as a pledge between unequal enemy aliens to come together and disrespect each other for all the days of their lives, the gay marriage lobby would have instantly slammed me for continuing to support status quo heterosexual marriage.  Those pesky gays and their demands that we all rethink what it means to marry.

Anyway, a while ago my friend described marriage as something that should happen “between love and love.”

And I thought: that’s something I can believe in.

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Some totally unrelated observations on pleasure and pain

I’ve got a cold.  I’m not a very good invalid.  Sickness — the sort that can’t be cured by whiskey — I normally give twenty four hours, before I assume myself cured.  This cold has bedded me for three enraged and cough-cough mildly feverish days.

I went out into the world for the first time in 72 hours today.  Went to Barkly Square/Sparkly Bear, bought fruit juice, and had my head rubbed at the Chinese massage place, one of those matter of fact, plastic chair, strange tinkle bang Mandarin music, five dollar places.

Just after I sat down, an old Italian woman came in and inserted herself into a chair next to me, and loudly instructed her skinny masseuse that she liked it “HARD, VERY HARD, VERY PAINFUL.”

As soon as he touched her she began to moan, orgasmically, to let out these sobbing, yelping cries, interspersed with pleas of “MORE, PLEASE… MORE, HARDER, PAINFUL, I LIKE PAINFUL… MORE HARDER, MORE HARDER, YES…”

The room quickly cleared as other patrons made a run for it, and my masseuse and I just sat there and watched as this woman shook and cried and pleaded while her mortified masseuse beat her up.  Afterwards, flinging her head back, she said quietly: “Thank you.  Was beautiful.”  And left.

I’m obsessed with Divinyls at the moment.  I finished reading Chrissy Amphlett’s autobiography the other day, Pleasure and Pain: My Life.  It was as you’d expect it to be: knee deep in coke, drenched in booze, and a bit hazy on details.  Over dinner with my father last week he told me that I’d been to a Divinyls concert when I was younger.  I don’t remember, I said.  Oh, he said, you were in your mother’s stomach.  But you could hear, I know.  It was loud.

I have to go back to bed now.

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The Pennycandystore Beyond the El

The pennycandystore beyond the El
is where i first
fell in love
with unreality
Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom
of that september afternoon
A cat upon the counter moved among
the licorice sticks
and tootsie rolls
and Oh Boy Gum

Outside the leaves were falling as they died

A wind had blown away the sun

A girl ran in
Her hair was rainy
Her breasts were breathless in the little room

Outside the leaves were falling
and they cried
Too soon! too soon!

-Lawrence Ferlinghetti


I realise that the last two posts I’ve written have been other people’s poems.  At the moment, with life so full of my own words, damn my own words, I feel like this is where I want to be.  Knee deep in other people, and other peoples’ words.  My brother, perhaps knowingly, left this poem on my desk in our studio this morning.  A friend and I came back from lunch together and there it was.

The poem was written by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who started City Lights bookstore in San Francisco.  He first published Ginsberg’s Howl, the opening of which has always given me shivers.  Whenever I go to San Fran, I always visit City Lights, feeling a bit overawed, and step over the plaque to Ferlinghetti outside, where his words are inlaid in the pavement for all heels to tread: “Poetry is the shadow cast by our streetlight imaginations.”

I love unreality, my friend said, sighing, lying her head on the wood.


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Jesse J vs. Kanye

I was going to write about these videos, as they’ve been following me for about two weeks now.  But instead, I’m just going to post them.

See what you think.


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Holler and scream

I recently saw my step-father Ken Harper perform his Punch and Judy show to a crowd of rapacious children in the Castlemaine Art Gallery.

My parents are crazy, but they know something that other people seem to forget.  Children aren’t nice.  I mean, sure, they’re wonderful, and fun, and smart, but they’re not nice.  And they haven’t learnt, yet, that part of life is pretending that you are, and trying to be.  Nice.

I always feel like crying, about halfway through, when the children start calling for the death of the characters of their own accord.  Kill him, kill him, they bawl.  It’s the same every time I see the show, the same bellows from a hundred different angelic little mouths.

The parents of the child who starts the call stiffen, shocked, raise their hands to their throats, glance from side to side to see if any of the other parents have noticed it was their delightful progeny’s murderous tongue which started the screams, which is taken up by the rest in a breath.

There’s something wonderful, something cathartic, in screaming awful things.  I like to sit up the back and watch the children holler and roll, awful little fiends, slathering at the mouth.

Slather, scream, kill him Punch, kill him.

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Plasticity and Festivity

I watched this last week on youtube, hiding in the studio as Melbourne went troppo on the city centre streets below, clawing at itself to get closer to sweltering cuts of Christmas ham.

Every now and then, floating up through the open windows, came the primal scream of an enraged shopper denied the very last Star Wars Scrabble set in the state.

I did what I tend to do on Christmas Eve: I ran for the hills and got drunk.  Or at least, a friend’s backyard and got drunk, and then my own, and got drunker.  I get excited early on holidays.

But the clip made me think.

Words make things real.  When I first saw the video, I wrote to a friend about my amazement, how I laughed, and then felt worried, and how at one minute thirty was depressed, and that by the end I was tired, and awed, by what words and ideas do to us, at the thousands, millions of times I’ve probably invoked the word ‘christmas’ over the course of my life, the kaleidoscope of contexts it’s been said in, the infinite, varying intonations.

I’ve wondered about how ingrained things become in our plastic minds, just through their repetition.  And if something as confined as Christmas, this one time of the year, has been said so many times… what about ‘Australia’?  What about ‘mother’, ‘father’?  ‘Coke’?  What about ‘need’?

Or ‘love’?  Whatever that one means at the end, the many ways you can mean it, and all the ways you can tip it up and polish it and ignore it and justify it and press against it, hold it up to the light at different angles, fill it with hope, drench it in alcohol, sleep with it under the pillow, lock it in the house when you leave for the day so it can bash its head out against the closed front door like a rabid, needy puppy, tongue out, waiting for you to get home and close yourself in again so it can cover you with its spit.

And now, New Years.  An invisible line between one year and the next.

A time for shedding.

Oh, cigarettes, my dear, needy puppies, here you go again.

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Jakarta burns

BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images May 27 2008

A student holding an Indonesian flag jumps over a fire they set during a demonstration in Jakarta on May 27, 2008 in protest against the government’s recent increase of fuel prices. Workers and student groups have attacked the government over the 28.7-percent average rise in the price of subsidised fuel which came into effect on May 24 despite widespread protests.

I came across this photo trawling for images of the May 1998 riots in Jakarta, during which students were shot at the Semanggi cloverleaf intersection and over 1000 rioters burned to death as malls collapsed in flame around them.  A breaking moment in Jakarta’s history, and one I’m trying to write about at the moment for my novel, Running Dogs.

The photo wasn’t taken in 1998, though.  It was taken in 2008.  And it seemed topical after this article in The Age this morning, from Tim Colebatch.  He argues that what Indonesia really needs is to cut energy subsidies.  It’s true.  It seems so, so easy to outside observers… why on earth haven’t the Indonesians thought of that?  Lucky we’re round to point it out to them.  It’s also a DIY topple-your-own-regime sort of political move on the part of any government willing to be so blunt.

I remember one day wanting to leave the office to go and see the KPK protests late last year.  My colleague, S, sat at her computer with her tongue between her teeth laying out our latest newsletter and every now and then flexing her tiny wrists.

Don’t forget to take toothpaste with you, she said as I paced and peered out the window, trying to decide if I should go despite my Inbox full of UNDSS warnings.


Toothpaste.  Don’t forget to take your toothpaste.


For the tear gas.  Under the eyes.

I didn’t go.  I went back to my computer, because I was a naive buleh who didn’t know about the toothpaste under the eyes.  My colleague had been inside Trisakti when the four students were shot out the front of the university in the protest which heralded the real beginning of the end for Suharto’s New Order.

Everyone in Jakarta has a story about the 1998 riots, and they were so recent, and yet today, walking the city, they’ve sunk below the surface.  Just enough.  Not forgotten, just waiting under a layer of smoke and noise.

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I went from having a full afternoon of appointments today to nothing.  Flooding in the north and the south. After an hour and a half in a cab I pulled out of ever getting to Menteng to see my friend J, sent her a text saying that Jakarta had beaten me.  She wrote back: I hope you realise that you are waaaay too young to beat old Jakarta.

Bugger that, I thought.  I left an hour early for dinner to try and get one over the city, thinking myself wily, only to find after a soaked motorbike ride over pavements sucking at exhaust pipes that my friends are stuck south after their part of town has gone under too.  It’ll be at least a few hours until I can find a taxi or an ojek back to the kost.  So here we are.  You, me, and an over-priced corona.

It’s the little things that get you, over and over, every time you dare to assume that things might work out like you’ve planned.


For the last few days, I’ve been hanging about with an American I met on the plane on the way over from Bali, hiking him around Semanggi and Thamrin with me, on and off the buses and over stinking canals.  He’s thinking about moving here.

See?  See?  I say to him, when the city stalls, as we wade over corners, as the light defracts through miles of pollution.  Are you sure?  Are you sure this is what you want?

He shrugs, and lopes along, shielding his head against low-hanging signs.

In the Jaya Pub last night, the roof gave up under the pressure of the roaring rain, a deluge in the middle of the room, the bar-staff running round with buckets and cups as the music was lost in the thunder and boom.

Waterfall!  Shrieked the hostesses happily.

See?  I said.  The whole thing is probably going to collapse in ten minutes.

My American friend smiled, and got out his camera.

It’s not a competition, this thing between Jakarta and I.  It’s more than that.  Jakarta requires that you commit to a relationship with it.  It’s a constant process of negotiation, of hoping, and you put yourself through counselling too, talking to it softly under your breath as your driver jumps kerbs and shrieks at traffic paks.

My instincts tell me I should have left it long ago, packed my mental baggage and trooped out, flinging the first draft of my novel behind me on the way, leaving a note on the pillow.  The age difference alone should be enough to give me pause.

But I can’t.  Sometimes, love isn’t rational.  And every night, when the call to prayer goes up across the broken buildings and the glittering high-rises, I feel like the city is singing to us all.


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Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2010

I could write a lot on the last week.

But from the inside, I’ve written about it for the Overland Literary Journal blog, as it felt like the right place.

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Back in Bali

This afternoon, I heard the buzzing rumour of wi-fi on the other side of the island, jumped on a beaten up motorbike, and rode over the mountain in my underpants.  Which taught me a valuable lesson on the importance of wearing appropriate underwear when off-roading.  (And made me feel for the rest of the island, as I looked positively prudish compared to some of the other people I passed.)

Being back in Bali has brought back a host of conflicting feelings in me, all clamouring for my attention.  The paradox of privilege, that thing we hate to talk about.  (Although at present, all I have is trepidation: the sun is starting to hit the edge of the ocean, and I still have a forty minute ride through the dark to get back to my homestay on a bike that’s definitely seen better days.)

I’ve been on Lembongan for the last few days, hanging off the edges of boats and whistling at fish, which I’ve been assured is best way to catch them.  The local fish approach my jiggy-jiggy, sneer, and wander away into the clear waters.  Either they think my rendition of ‘If you liked it, then you shoulda put a hook on it’ is rubbish, or they realize there’s a vegetarian on the other end of the line and they can’t bear the angst actual catching one is going to cause me.

At night, I lie under the rattling fan and wait for the rolling powercuts, which bring silence and heat.  And I think about the only fish who liked my tune, who never had a name I knew, who I carried until it died and who was then cooked by Ketut and eaten with my fingers, right down to the eyeballs.

I’m remembering that paradise is a currency; you swap it for US dollars.  And you smile at the quaint little girls who have been rolled out especially from their shacks to sell you shells on the side of the road.

The light has gone.

If I make it back over the mountain, and then over the seas, on Wednesday I’ll be back on the main island, at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival, at these, and at this.

If you’re in Paradise, you should be there too.

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